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JACT Teachers’ Notes
AH 1.3 Politics and Society of Ancient Sparta
Maria Preztler
1.Introduction ............................................................................................................... 2
1.1. Books and resources ...................................................................................... 2
1.1.1. Annotated list of books cited in the notes .......................................... 2
1.2. Introduction to the sources ............................................................................. 4
1.2.1. Tyrtaeus.............................................................................................. 4
1.2.2. Herodotus ........................................................................................... 5
1.2.3. Thucydides ......................................................................................... 5
1.2.4. Aristophanes ...................................................................................... 6
1.2.5. Xenophon ........................................................................................... 6
1.2.6. Plutarch .............................................................................................. 7
1.2.7. Other sources ..................................................................................... 7
1.3. Background Information ................................................................................ 8
1.3.1. Chronological Overview .................................................................... 8
2. Notes on the Specification Bullet Points............................................................... 11
2.1. The social structure of Sparta: Spartiates, perioikoi and helots .................. 11
2.1.1. Spartiates (Full Citizens).................................................................. 11
2.1.2. Perioikoi ........................................................................................... 14
2.1.3. Helots ............................................................................................... 15
2.2. The political structure of Sparta: kings, gerousia, ephors, assembly ........... 18
2.2.1. Kings ................................................................................................ 19
2.2.2. Ephors .............................................................................................. 20
2.2.3. The Gerousia .................................................................................... 21
2.2.4. The Assembly .................................................................................. 21
2.2.5. The Development of the System; the Great Rhetra......................... 22
2.3. Education and values in Sparta; the roles of men and women .................... 23
2.3.1. The Spartan Education System for Boys (agoge) ............................ 24
2.3.2. Young Men (Hebontes, Eirens) ....................................................... 26
2.3.3. Spartan Women ................................................................................ 27
2.3.4. Family Life....................................................................................... 29
2.3.5. Spartan Values ................................................................................. 29
2.4. Sparta and the Peloponnese, 480–404 BC (Corinth, Tegea, Argos) ............ 31
2.4.1. The Peloponnesian League .............................................................. 31
2.4.2. Corinth ............................................................................................. 34
2.4.3. Tegea ................................................................................................ 36
2.4.4. Argos ................................................................................................ 37
2.5. Views of Sparta from other states (Athens) ................................................. 38
2.6. The Spartan mirage and the myth of Lycurgus ............................................ 41
2.6.1. The Spartan Mirage.......................................................................... 41
2.6.2. Lycurgus .......................................................................................... 44
3. Appendix: Some useful texts ................................................................................. 46
Plato, Alcibiades 1, 122e-123b: Spartan wealth ........................................ 46
Xen. Hell. 3.3.4-7: danger of a conspiracy in Sparta ................................. 47
Aristotle Politics 1269a-1271a: a critical discussion of Sparta ................. 48
JACT Teachers’ Notes
1.1. Books and resources
Spartan studies have changed significantly in recent years, especially since
scholars have become more critical about the use of late sources to reconstruct the
history and society of archaic and Classical Sparta. This means that there is actually a
shortage of up-to-date textbooks, and older works have to be handled with some
caution, especially any discussion of early Sparta.
The most comprehensive overview of Spartan history is P. Cartledge (2002),
Sparta and Lakonia 2nd ed. (Routledge) (first published 1979). P. Cartledge (2003)
The Spartans. An Epic History, 2nd edition (Pan Books/Macmillan) is written for a
non-specialist audience, but it presents Cartledge’s reaction to recent developments.
There are no up-to date book-length treatments of Spartan culture and society.
A. Powell (1988), Athens and Sparta. Constructing Greek Political and Social
History from 478 BC (Routledge) offers a useful summary (ch. 4 and especially ch. 6).
Most important aspects of Spartan life are also covered in M. Whitby (ed.) (2002),
Sparta (Routledge), which is a collection of ‘classic’ articles on various Spartan
themes. Since the discussion about Sparta is ongoing and in constant development,
collections of articles or conference papers can include very useful material. Relevant
additional literature is cited in the text; see the annotated bibliography below.
There is also no source book specifically dedicated to Sparta, but a few works
include relevant passages in translation. The most comprehensive collection can be
found in P.J. Rhodes (2007), The Greek City States. A Source Book, Second Edition
(Cambridge University Press). Chapter 4 (numbers 75-158) deals with Sparta; texts
are grouped by theme. P. Cartledge (2000), Sparta and Lakonia, Appendix 4 (299307) offers a selection of sources for helots and their lives.
The following works include useful quotations of relevant texts:
P. Cartledge (2003), The Spartans. An Epic History, 2nd edition (Pan
T. Buckley (1996), Aspects of Greek History 750-323 BC. A Source-Based Approach
(Routledge), see esp. chs. 4, 9, 12.
S. Pomeroy (2002), Spartan Women (Oxford University Press).
Internet resources:
There is little reliable material available online. – some useful links and texts (J.P.
Adams, California State University Northridge).
Google Earth: useful to investigate the topography of Laconia and Messenia
(note Mt. Taygetos!). – access to most of the set texts; some information on
Sparta; some images of the site (search for Sparta on the main page).
1.1.1. Annotated list of books cited in the notes
Monographs and article collections on Sparta
Cartledge, P. (2001), Spartan Reflections (Duckworth). Collection of articles; most on
aspects of Spartan society: complements Sparta and Lakonia.
Cartledge, P. (2002), Sparta and Lakonia 2nd ed. (Routledge) (first published 1979).
This is still the definitive monograph on Sparta. The work is essentially a history of the
JACT Teachers’ Notes
region. It includes a lot of material on Spartan culture and society, but does not cover
these themes systematically. Note that this was written in 1979: some aspects need a
more recent approach (cf. more recent works, incl. Cartledge’s own contributions).
Cartledge, P. (2003) The Spartans. An Epic History, 2nd edition (Pan
Books/Macmillan). Written for a wider audience; reflects Cartledge’s more recent
perspective. Useful translated passages.
Figueira, T.J. (2004), Spartan Society (Classical Press of Wales). Collection of articles
(conference volume).
Forrest, W.G. (1968), A History of Sparta 950-192 BC (Hutchinson) Historical
overview; some of the narrative offers a useful analysis of sources and events. Note
that parts of this book, especially the earlier chapters on archaic history, are outdated.
Hodkinson, S. & Powell, A. (eds) (1999), Sparta. New Perspectives (Duckworth/
Classical Press of Wales). Collection of articles (conference volume).
Powell, A. (ed.) (1989), Classical Sparta: Techniques Behind her Success
(Routledge). Collection of articles (seminar papers).
Powell, A. & Hodkinson, S. (eds) (1994), The Shadow of Sparta (Routledge/Classical
Press of Wales). Collection of articles (conference volume).
Powell, A. & Hodkinson, S. (eds) (2002), Sparta. Beyond the Mirage (Classical Press
of Wales/Duckworth). Collection of articles (conference volume).
Whitby, M. (ed.) (2002), Sparta (Routledge). Collection of useful articles chosen to cover
a range of crucial aspects of Spartan society, history and politics.
General Historical Context:
Buckley, T. (1996), Aspects of Greek History 750-323 BC. A Source-Based Approach
(Routledge). Fairly traditional treatment of Greek history (compare Hall, Osborne,
Rhodes); useful discussion of ancient sources.
Hall, J.M. (2006) A History of the Archaic Greek World, c. 1200-479 BCE
(Blackwell). Survey of Archaic Greek history.
Osborne, R. (1996), Greece in the Making (Routledge). Survey of Archaic Greek history.
Powell, A. (1988), Athens and Sparta. Constructing Greek Political and Social
History from 478 BC (Routledge). Combines historical narrative with political
analysis and a discussion of cultural contexts. For Sparta see esp. chs. 4 and 6.
Rhodes, P.J. (2006), A History of the Classical Greek World 478-323 BC (Blackwell).
Currently the most up-to date and accessible survey of classical Greek history.
Rhodes, P.J. (2007), The Greek City States. A Source Book, Second Edition
(Cambridge University Press). Collection of ancient sources in translation. See ch.
4 on Sparta.
Monographs and article collections on special topics:
Cartledge, P. & Spawforth, A. (1989), Hellenistic and Roman Sparta. A Tale of Two
Cities (Routledge). The work on the later history of Sparta. Useful to understand
how later developments influenced traditions about Sparta, including some of the
material included in our major sources (Plutarch!). See especially ch. 14.
Kennell, N.M. (1995) The Gymnasium of Virtue. Education and Culture in Ancient
Sparta (University of North Carolina Press). Deals with the Spartan education
system. Crucial discussion of how the traditions in and about Sparta changed
throughout antiquity; demonstrates a critical approach to the sources.
Luraghi, N. (2008), The Ancient Messenians, (Cambridge University Press).
Luraghi, N. & Alcock, S.E. (eds) (2003), Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and
Messenia (Center for Hellenic Studies/Harvard University Press). Collection of
articles on the topic of Helots; fairly systematic coverage of different aspects.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Pomeroy, S. (2002), Spartan Women (Oxford University Press). Detailed treatment of
the topic, but a good deal of the argument is speculative, often to make up for a lack
of actual evidence. Includes many translated passages of relevant ancient sources.
Rawson, E. (1991) The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, second edition
(Oxford University Press), first published 1969. Fascinating study of ideas about
Sparta from antiquity to the twentieth century. Only the early chapters are directly
relevant to the syllabus, but an insight into the history of ideas about Sparta may be
useful to present different and interesting perspectives.
Salmon, J.B. (1984) Wealthy Corinth. A History of the City to 338 BC (Clarendon
Tomlinson, R.A. (1972) Argos and the Argolid (Routledge & K. Paul).
1.2. Introduction to the sources
Source criticism is a crucial aspect of any study of ancient Sparta: it is
important to understand that there is no ancient text that can serve as a ‘main source’,
especially because the most extensive accounts, e.g. Plutarch’s works on Sparta, were
written in the Roman period. Moreover, the information about Sparta’s history and
culture which is recorded in the surviving literary sources was not recorded by
Spartans. Apart from two poets of the seventh century BC, namely Tyrtaeus and
Alcman, we do not have any literary sources that originate from Sparta. In the
classical period, Sparta was not easily accessible to strangers, and therefore many
accounts of this period were probably written without personal knowledge of the
place, and with little access to primary evidence. Xenophon is a noteworthy
exception, but this does not mean that his account is without difficulties (see below,
1.2.5.). Sparta changed considerably after Messenia was liberated (370/69 BC), and
all ancient sources written after the mid-fourth century are either dealing with very
different circumstances, or they were actually describing a historical situation which
was no longer accurate. Many later sources probably represent a mixture of both
combined with Spartan stereotypes (see below, 2.5 and 2.6).
Since Sparta played a central role in Greek history, especially in the Archaic
and Classical period, its foreign policy and military campaigns are prominent in the
historical texts that provide the main narrative for these periods, especially Herodotus,
Thucydides and Xenophon’s Hellenica. The goings-on behind the scenes are more
difficult to reconstruct, usually by combining the few details about events in Sparta
reported by outsiders with our general knowledge of the Spartan constitution and
careful analysis of Sparta’s activities abroad.
The rest of this section offers short introductions to the authors prescribed for
this option (in chronological order), followed by an overview of a few other sources
which are commonly cited as evidence for Sparta.
1.2.1. Tyrtaeus
Lyric poetry; mid-seventh century BC; probably Spartan.
M. L. West (1993), Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford University Press).
Tyrtaeus lived much earlier than the classical period, but he had an influence
not only on later sources but also on Spartan culture. His poetry continued to be
recited in public and private contexts in Sparta, and it illustrates some of the ideals for
which the Spartans were so famous.
Philochorus (C4th/3 BC) says that … they introduced the custom that on
campaigns, after dinner and the hymn of thanksgiving, each in turn sings the
poems of Tyrtaeus. Athenaeus 14.630f.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Today Tyrtaeus’ poetry is considered an invaluable primary source for early Sparta
which gives us some insight into a time when momentous changes such as the earliest
constitutional laws and the conquest of Messene were still a matter of living memory,
and some aspects of Spartan life had not yet reached their ‘final’ form. Tyrtaeus’
poems therefore allow us to question some later ideas about the development of
Spartan society, especially the ‘Lycurgan reforms’.
Later authors (e.g. Plutarch) also realised that Tyrtaeus was a crucial authentic
source for early Sparta, and therefore quoted passages to illustrate arguments about
early Spartan history. Apart from a few lines of Tyrtaeus which were discovered on
papyrus, these quotations ensured the survival of the few poems which are known
today. Plutarch, Lyc. 6.5. offers an excellent example, which can be used to compare
ancient authors’ use of earlier texts with modern approaches.
1.2.2. Herodotus
Historiography, wrote c. 450s-420s BC; from Halicarnassus.
Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. de Selincourt, revised by J. Marincola (Penguin).
Herodotus was from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, and is therefore one of the
few Greek authors of the classical period who were not Athenian. He did, however,
know Athens well and, some of his views are influenced by the growing conflict
between Athens and Sparta in the mid-fifth century. Most of his work is based on
original research and inquiries, and is therefore informed by the views of his own
time. He often refers to (unnamed) informants “The Spartans say”, “The Corinthians
have a different version”, and it is a characteristic feature of his method that he
presents different points of view on many issues. In some instances he also claims to
have based his account on Spartan sources which clearly add a different point of view,
although we have no way of telling how much of this information is indeed authentic.
Herodotus generally admires Sparta’s laws and the virtue and courage they inspired in
individual Spartans. His narrative of the Persian Wars, especially the account of the
battle of Thermopylae, had a lasting influence on ancient as well as modern
perceptions of Sparta. Herodotus does, however, also present a less admirable side of
Sparta: her imperialist tendencies, for example the episode of early attempts to
conquer Tegea (and all of Arcadia), and the activities of Cleomenes I.
1.2.3. Thucydides
Historiography; wrote c.431-400 BC; Athenian.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, (Penguin).
Thucydides’ main theme is the conflict between Sparta and Athens. As an
Athenian, he was aware that readers might question his access to information about
Peloponnesian affairs, and he explains his situation:
I lived through the whole war, being of an age to form judgements, and
followed it with close attention, so as to acquire accurate information.
Moreover, it befell me also to be banished from my own country for twenty
years after my command in Amphipolis (424BC), and being conversant with
affairs on both sides, especially with those of the Peloponnesians by reason
of my banishment, to gain at my leisure a better acquaintance with the course
of events. Thuc. 5.26.5, trans. C.F. Smith (Loeb).
The work does indeed seem to draw on information about the goings-on within the
Peloponnesian League, although it is difficult to tell how much he really knew about
exact details, for example speeches delivered at league assemblies (on this issue, see
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Thuc. 1.22.1). Sparta herself remains a somewhat mysterious place (e.g. Thuc. 5.68.2;
cf. 4.80.3). Thucydides does not present the Spartans in a deliberately negative light:
both sides receive praise and blame for their actions. However, Thucydides’ general
view of Sparta seems to be strongly influenced by an Athenian perspective, not so
much as enemy, but rather as a polar opposite, and some of Thucydides’ general
statements about Sparta can be read as subtle comments on Athens (see 2.5).
1.2.4. Aristophanes
Attic Drama – Comedy; plays dated 427-386 BC (Lysistrata 411 BC); Athenian.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays, trans. A.H. Sommerstein (Penguin).
Aristophanes’ plays were written to entertain an Athenian audience at one
particular festival. They are topical and engage with the political situation of the day,
but, since playwrights were competing for the audience’s favour, they were probably
careful not to present political opinions which would antagonise a large part of the
audience. The Lysistrata is among a number of Aristophanes’ comedies which
advocate peace with Sparta, and although there are references to some points of
contention in the conflict (chosen for double entendre as much as for topicality), the
debate about war and peace is mostly conducted in very general (and of course
comical) terms. Aristophanes offers us a number of comedy Spartans, both male and
female: the play is particularly useful to observe Athenian stereotypes of Sparta in this
1.2.5. Xenophon
Historiography, philosophical writings, biography; wrote c. 380s-350s (Lac. Pol.
perhaps written in the 380’s); Athenian.
Translation and commentary in: J.M. Moore (1975), Aristotle and Xenophon on
Oligarchy and Democracy (Chatto & Windus).
Xenophon was a mercenary in Agesilaus II campaign against the Persians in
Asia Minor. When Agesilaus returned to Greece, Xenophon was among his troops
and at the battle of Coronea (394 BC) he fought against the Boeotians and some of
their Athenian allies. This led to his exile from Athens, and subsequently he may have
spent some time in Sparta. Late ancient biographical sources suggest that Xenophon’s
sons participated in the Spartan education system. The Spartans gave Xenophon an
estate close to Olympia, where he remained until the upheavals following Sparta’s
defeat at Leuctra (371 BC). Xenophon had reason to be grateful to the Spartans, and
he had access to first hand information about Sparta.
The Constituton of the Spartans (Lakedaimonion Politeia) was probably
written in the late 390’s or 380’s BC; chapter 14 is generally considered later and
seems to express some frustration about developments at Sparta (possibly influenced
by an increasingly heavy-handed foreign policy in the late 380’s and 370’s).
Xenophon’s reputation has never been very good among classical scholars, and his
work on Sparta has also found many critics, often on the grounds that it differs from
the more detailed account of Plutarch. Since recent scholarship has begun to pay more
attention to the issue of primary evidence, Xenophon’s account has been assessed
more favourably. The work offers us the only detailed and well informed information
about Sparta before the changes that followed the defeat at Leuctra. Nevertheless,
Xenophon’s description remains vague in many respects: this is not meant to be a
detailed anthropological study, but rather a kind of political pamphlet, defending
Sparta against its critics. The text probably depicts a somewhat idealised Sparta, and
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Xenophon’s view of Lycurgus represents an extreme position: he credits more aspects
of Spartan society to the lawgiver than any other ancient source, and he expresses a
particular admiration. It is impossible to determine how much of this reflects genuine
Spartan views, but we can probably assume that this is the perspective of a well
informed sympathiser (see also below, 2.5).
Xenophon also used his knowledge about Sparta in his other works. The
Hellenica (political history covering 411-362 BC) includes many details on
Peloponnesian history. Xenophon’s biography of Agesilaus develops the image of the
ideal, noble Spartan. Various comments on Sparta can also be found in Xenophon’s
philosophical writings.
1.2.6. Plutarch
Biography, philosophical writings; wrote c. AD 80-120; from Chaeronea (Boeotia).
Plutarch, On Sparta, trans. R.J.A. Talbert (Penguin).
Plutarch was a very prolific writer and diligent researcher: his biographical
works are based on extensive library research. Therefore, he often preserves
information that is otherwise lost. The Life of Lycurgus illustrates this very well:
Plutarch cites dozens of earlier works, and assembles a narrative from divergent
opinions. Much of his material also dates from after Sparta’s decline in the fourth
century, and any information in his text that is not explicitly identified as taken from a
genuinely archaic or classical source should be considered as secondary material. The
Life of Lycurgus is particularly valuable as a survey of ancient traditions about
Lycurgus and Sparta, and it also illustrates attitudes in Plutarch’s own time.
Moreover, while Plutarch is interested in historical detail, his main aim is to draw
characters which can be instructive as moral examples (see Plutarch, Life of Alexander
1). This explains why for Plutarch the vague and contradictory traditions about a
‘historical’ Lycurgus were not an obstacle to writing his biography.
Plutarch produced a number of works which deal with Sparta or individual
Spartans: Lives of Lysander, Agesilaos, Agis and Cleomenes III; as part of the
Moralia: Sayings of Spartans, Sayings of Spartan Women.
1.2.7. Other sources
Modern works on Sparta usually cite a wide range of authors well beyond the
main sources listed above. These include:
Diodorus (universal history, C1st BC, from Sicily) depends heavily on
earlier sources and preserves some genuine information of the classical
period, although it is often difficult to determine exactly where his
information comes from.
Aristotle (philosophy, C4th BC, from Macedonia, based in Athens)
was interested in the different constitutions of Greek states. His school
researched and described 158 constitutions, among them that of Sparta
(only parts of the Constitution of Athens survive). Aristotle’s
Constitution of the Spartans was used extensively by later authors,
including Plutarch. Aristotle also used this research for his theoretical
work in the Politics. He offers valuable criticism of the Spartan system,
informed by Sparta’s decline in the fourth century (see appendix).
Pausanias (description of Greece, C2nd AD, from Asia Minor)
provides a detailed description of Greece in the Roman imperial
period. A whole book (III) deals with Sparta and Laconia. Pausanias
JACT Teachers’ Notes
was particularly interested in ancient monuments, cults and traditions.
The work offers many details, but little of the information provided can
be firmly linked to the classical period. Book IV deals with Messenia
and offers a lengthy history of the Messenian Wars. This account can
still be found as a basis of older scholarly discussions of early Sparta.
However, this whole early Messenian history is now regarded as an
invention of the fourth century BC. Pausanias offers a detailed insight
into perceptions of Sparta and Messenia in the Roman period.
Archaeological sources: material evidence plays a crucial role in
reconstructing early Spartan history and society; a few (usually short)
inscriptions have also been found in Laconia. Field survey data has
been used to understand the rural economy and the lives of the helots.
Compared to Athens, this evidence plays a very small role in
understanding classical Sparta. Cartledge’s work offers a good insight
into the use of this source material.
1.3. Background Information
Sparta was the foremost military power in archaic and classical Greece, and
her success was founded on a unique social system which has fascinated historians
and political thinkers from the fifth century BC to the present day. Spartan society
was probably unusual by common Greek norms, but a study of this society allows us
to consider Greek life outside Athens, and to appreciate the wide range of cultural
expression which characterised the Greek world with its hundreds of poleis.
Given Sparta’s power in the classical period, we actually know very little
about her inner workings, and information has to be pieced together from disparate
sources. Any discussion of Sparta therefore also has to pay particular attention to
outsider’s ideas about a society which was actually accused of being secretive. Older
scholarly works reconstructed Spartan history from the sources without much
consideration for the factors that may have distorted the late evidence. More recent
work (especially since the 1990’s) takes into account the ‘Spartan Mirage’ – the
legend of Sparta which has had such a strong influence on how outsiders thought
about her history and society (see 2.6). The search for ‘Sparta beyond the Mirage’ has
been on ever since, and it is clear that many long-established scholarly traditions
about Sparta are in need of revision. These core problems of modern interpretation are
a recurring theme in the discussion of the specified topics below.
1.3.1. Chronological Overview
Late C8th?
Sparta conquers Messenia
Early C7th?
The earliest constitutional law in Sparta regulates distribution of
power between kings, Gerousia and people.
Tyrtaeus. Ongoing conflicts in Messenia, conflict with Argos.
Battle of Hysiae, Sparta defeated by Argos. Last defeat for Sparta in
open battle before Thermopylae and Leuctra.
First half C6th? Sparta unsuccessfully tries to conquer Tegea.
c. 550
Sparta and Tegea become allies.
c. 545
‘Battle of the Champions’: Sparta defeats Argos.
c. 550-510
Many Peloponnesian states (except Argos and Achaean cities)
become allies of Sparta. Beginnings of the Peloponnesian League.
c. 520-490
Cleomenes I: ambitious policy; Sparta involved in central Greece.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
c. 506
490s (494?)
c. mid-C5th
Late 430s
c. 399
Cleomenes I attempts an attack on Athens; the allies and king
Demaratus refuse to co-operate; some time later (504?) the allies are
consulted on a further attack and reject the plan (beginning of
consultation within the Peloponnesian League?).
Ionian Revolt: Miletus asks Sparta and Athens for support; Sparta
refuses. Spartan stance increasingly anti-Persian.
Cleomenes defeats Argos and kills a large proportion of its army.
Persian attack on Athens. Battle of Marathon. Sparta asked for help,
but troops arrive late.
A large Persian army prepares for an invasion of Greece. Sparta
becomes leader of the ‘League of Corinth’ (Hellenic League) of
states determined to resist Persia.
Battle of Thermopylae.
Battle of Salamis: Themistocles and the Athenian fleet secure a
victory, but Sparta (Eurybiades) has the overall command.
Battle of Plataea. Sparta (Pausanias) has the overall command and
contributes significantly to the victory.
War against Persians continues in the Aegean. Spartan commander
Pausanias discredited; Sparta retreats from the campaign; Athens
becomes the new leader (foundation of the Delian League).
Problems with Peloponnesian allies: Sparta fights two battles against
large alliances of Arcadians supported by Argos.
Major earthquake in Laconia; thousands dead. Helot revolt in
Messenia. It takes years (perhaps until 454) to defeat the rebels.
Athenian support sent home by Sparta. Relations deteriorate.
First Peloponnesian War; conflict about influence in central Greece.
Herodotus writes his Histories (finished in the 420’s)
Athenian activities threaten various Corinthian (and Spartan)
interests. Tension rises.
Peloponnesian War; Thucydides begins to record events.
120 Spartiates captured at Sphacteria. Sparta offers peace.
Peace of Nicias; Sparta and Athens make peace. Sparta’s allies,
especially Corinth, dissatisfied.
Alliance between Athens, Argos, Elis and Mantinea. Various attacks
on Spartan allies follow.
Tegea under threat; Sparta challenges Mantinea and its allies: Battle
of Mantinea. Spartan victory; end of the hostile alliance.
War with Athens resumes: Sparta occupies Deceleia in Attica.
Sparta secures support from Persia to fund a large fleet and gains the
capability to challenge Athens at sea.
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. End of period covered in Thucydides’
work; Xenophon’s Hellenica continues the narrative (411-362).
Sparta defeats Athens. Lysander imposes government of ‘30 tyrants’
in Athens, governments of ten in many other states.
Sparta withdraws support from many of Lysander’s regimes
(including at Athens). Corinth is dissatisfied with the settlement after
the war and leaves the Peloponnesian league.
Agesilaus II becomes king with Lysander’s help (dies 359 BC).
JACT Teachers’ Notes
c. AD 80-120
Corinthian War. Sparta against Athens, Thebes, Corinth (with
Persian financial support). Xenophon exiled from Athens.
King’s Peace: common peace enforced by Sparta with Persian
backing. Sparta gains considerable power.
Sparta uses her influence. E.g. Mantineans forced to destroy their
city and to settle in villages. Widespread dissatisfaction about her
heavy-handed approach. Conflict with Thebes (Boeotia) intensifies.
Battle of Leuctra; Sparta defeated by the Boeotians.
Mantineans rebuild their city; civil war in Tegea ousts pro-Spartan
regime; Arcadians found an Arcadian federal state.
Thebans and Arcadians invade Laconia. Sparta attacked but not
taken; Laconia plundered. Messenia liberated. Foundation of the city
of Messene. Sparta loses a large proportion of its territory.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
2. Notes on the Specification Bullet Points
2.1. The social structure of Sparta: Spartiates, perioikoi and helots
Spartan society was divided into a very small group of full citizens, the
Spartiates (Spartiatai), and a large majority of inhabitants (perioikoi, helots) who did
neither participate in political activities nor in the famous Spartan way of life.
Together these groups made up the Lacedaemonian state. Other Greek cities also had
large populations which were excluded from citizenship (resident aliens, slaves,
women), and states with oligarchic regimes admitted only a part of the citizen
population to the political process, usually on the basis of a property qualification. In
Sparta, however, the group of full citizens was extremely small compared to the rest
of the population: the Spartiates were essentially an exclusive, land-owning ruling
elite. It is crucial to understand this when discussing Spartan society: although there
were wealthy and ‘poor’ Spartiates, all citizens of Sparta essentially belonged to the
same social class, which meant that, unlike in more inclusive societies such as
democratic Athens, the political system did not have to accommodate different needs
and lifestyles.
There is a long tradition of scholarly discussion about the origins of this
system. Ancient Greek tradition speaks of the Dorian conquest of an earlier
population which remained outside the new Doric state organisation, while some were
subjected by force and became helots. Older books (before the 1970’s) may connect
this version of events with a survival of Indo-European traditions (comparison with
the Indian caste system). These views are outdated. The development of Spartan
society is best explained in the context of the consolidation of communities (the
emerging polis) in the ninth to sixth century which went hand in hand with increasing
social stratification. While most Greek societies underwent changes that led to a
gradual widening of political participation (often catalysed through a period of
tyranny), the Spartiates seem to have managed to benefit from aggressive expansion
in the eight and seventh century, which eventually allowed them to consolidate their
position as political, military and economic elite in an unusually large territorial state.
The large size of the Lacedaemonian state meant that even as a very small elite
the Spartiates alone represented one of the largest hoplite forces of early classical
Greece (8000 in 480 BC, compared to 9000 Athenians at Marathon in 490 BC), which
could be multiplied by adding the perioikoi and Peloponnesian allies. Sparta’s
military success allowed a few thousand Spartiates to control a subject population of
at least a hundred thousand for about three centuries (on demographics see Figueira in
Luraghi & Alcock, Helots, ch. 9). At the same time, it can be argued that the pressure
of keeping such a large territory under control defined Spartan society and helps to
explain some of its austere, militaristic features (see below, 2.1.3 Helots).
2.1.1. Spartiates (Full Citizens)
Full citizens of Sparta (adult males) had the right to participate in the political
process, but they were also subject to the laws of Sparta which strictly regulated their
lifestyle. Spartiates had to undergo the state regulated education system (agoge) until
the age of 30, they were subject to strict laws concerning marriage and family life, and
they were obliged to attend the syssitia (phiditia, syskania), regular meals within a
specific group of fellow-citizens. Every citizen had to contribute part of his income to
the syssitia: this was a kind of property qualification, since men who were not able to
JACT Teachers’ Notes
meet these contributions would lose their full citizen rights. Spartan law also regulated
the lives of women and the upbringing of girls (see 2.3.3).
The Spartiates called themselves Homoioi. The Greek term means ‘Equals’ or
‘Similars’ and is perhaps best translated as ‘Peers’, which reflects a sense of equality
within an exclusive elite. This name is programmatic: much of the Spartan way of life
seems designed to disguise differences in terms of wealth or family background.
Typical ways of displaying wealth were prohibited or frowned upon – e.g. elaborate
houses, furniture, clothes and jewellery, or any kind of luxury. In other Greek cities
the elite would hold elaborate banquets, but Spartiates were obliged to attend their
syssitia; funerals and funerary monuments - another important way of displaying
wealth and family pride - were also severely regulated in Sparta. Moreover, Spartiates
were not allowed to own gold or silver, and the iron money used in classical Sparta
was only fit to facilitate fairly small everyday transactions. These restrictions on most
common ways of conspicuous consumption meant that the Spartans appeared austere
to other wealthy Greeks, but in spite of the modern connotations of the term ‘Spartan’
we should regard the Spartan lifestyle as comfortable prosperity masked by a display
of austerity.
In the fourth century Plato (Alcibiades I, 122e-123b, see appendix) went so far
as to voice the suspicion that the Spartans were indeed wealthier than other Greeks: he
points out that their estates were larger than elsewhere and they had more slaves (i.e.
helots) at their disposal. He even suggests that they did, in fact, possess large amounts
of gold and silver. Be that as it may, the Spartan way of life offered all crucial aspects
of a Greek elite lifestyle: landed property, leisure (no need to work for a living); a life
dedicated to leisure pursuits, namely socializing, politics, exercise and hunting; and
active contribution to the city’s defence. The difference is that wealthy Greeks
elsewhere could choose how to display their wealth and how to spend their time,
while in Sparta citizens were not only restricted to these ‘honourable’ pursuits, but
were also following strict guidelines which regulated their activities within those
parameters (Plut. Lyc. 9-10, Xen. Lac. Pol. 7).
Equality among Spartiates was, however, never more than an ideal.
Apparently Tyrtaeus (paraphrased in Aristotle Politics 1306b36) mentioned demands
for a redistribution of land, and late tradition (Plut. Lyc. 8) suggests that the land was
indeed divided into equal parcels (kleroi, or klaroi in the Doric Spartan dialect) for all
Spartiate families. There is, however, no evidence that in reality the land holdings of
different Spartiates were, or ever had been, on a similar scale. In the classical period
land was held as private property which was passed down the generations through
inheritance and dowries, and that alone would have led to constant, if slow, changes in
the distribution of property among individual families. Moreover, Spartiates were not
allowed to engage in any form of trade, which means that there was no way of
supplementing insufficient income from property by other means. Eventually, this
process led to increasing polarization between wealthy and (comparatively) poor:
some Spartan families failed to produce their contributions for the syssitia, and
therefore lost their full citizen rights.
During the classical period, the number of Spartiates declined rapidly, and a
lack of population (oliganthropia) became a serious problem for Sparta (for a
discussion see Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, ch. 14; Forrest, History of Sparta, 1317). The decline is striking: from 8000 in 480 BC (Hdt. 7.234.2) to c. 3500 by 418 BC
(based on Thuc. 5.68), 2500 in 394 BC (based on Xen. Hell. 4.2.16) to about 1500 in
371 BC (Xen. Hell. 6.1.1). There are few incidents with casualty figures that would
JACT Teachers’ Notes
explain such a decline, except the earthquake of 464 BC, which allegedly claimed
twenty thousand lives (Diod. 11.63.1). Casualties in war were comparatively low by
classical Greek standards: our sources report few battles with significant numbers of
fallen Spartiates in the whole period, notably Thermopylae in 480 BC (300) and
Leuctra in 371 BC (400), which were both seen as exceptional. In 425 BC Sparta
offered peace to Athens in order to recover 120 Spartiates captured in Sphacteria
(Thuc. 4.38.5): the loss of a mere 120 men was clearly considered very serious.
Spartan family law seems especially concerned with maintaining citizen numbers,
which would suggest that manpower was already an issue in the Archaic period. Thus,
men who remained unmarried were subjected to various sanctions (Plut. Lyc. 15.1-2)
and the law allowed Spartiate men to swap wives and women to share husbands in
order to produce legitimate children (Plut. Lyc. 15.6-10, Xen. Lac. Pol. 1.6-10) (See
also 2.3).
Since oliganthropia denotes a decline of citizen numbers as opposed to that of
the general population, it probably reflects a social change rather than a demographic
one. The main reason is probably best sought in a combination of economic and social
factors exacerbated by the Spartan system. Ancient authors generally prefer the idea
that the Sparta’s decline was due to a neglect of her ancient customs (e.g. Xen. Lac.
Pol. 14). This argument is typical for ancient historiography, but one might suggest
that actually, Sparta could not halt the decline exactly because she maintained the old
laws for too long and did not react to social changes within her society. For example,
in a society where status depended on property qualification it cannot not have been in
the interest of Spartan families to produce too many children: all sons would inherit
equal shares, and in Sparta even daughters could inherit or would have to receive
dowries, which means that in a family with too many children the next generation
might no longer have enough land to support their citizen status (cf. Aristotle Politics
1270b, see appendix). Ultimately, some families acquired large amounts of land,
which means that there was less to go round for others to achieve the required
property qualification. Aristotle offers such a scenario as an explanation for Sparta’s
decline (see also 2.3.3.):
It has come about that some of the Spartans own too much property and
some extremely little; owing to which the land has fallen into few hands, and
this has also been badly regulated by the laws; for the lawgiver made it
dishonourable to sell a family's existing estate, and did so rightly, but he
granted liberty to alienate land at will by gift or bequest; yet the result that has
happened was bound to follow in the one case as well as in the other. And
also nearly two-fifths of the whole area of the country is owned by women,
because of the number of women who inherit estates and the practice of
giving large dowries. Aristotle Politics 1270a, trans. H. Rackham (Loeb).
Ancient texts also suggest that there were various people in Sparta whose status was
between that of Spartiates, perioikoi and helots. Xenophon (Hell. 3.3.6, see appendix)
mentions people of ‘lesser status’ (hypomeiones), possibly descendants of homoioi
who had lost their status. At the same time some helots were given freedom and
certain rights as neodamodeis, although they did not attain full citizen status. This
measure may have been introduced to slow the decline of Spartiate numbers,
especially in the army. Xenophon’s account of a failed plot against the Spartan state
offers an interesting insight into Sparta in c.399 BC (Xen. Hell. 3.3.4-7, see
appendix). The conspirators are shown as pointing out the small number of Spartiates
in comparison with hypomeiones, neodamodeis, perioikoi and helots: in the agora a
few dozen Spartans against four thousand others, on each country estate one Spartiate
JACT Teachers’ Notes
against large numbers. This image may be exaggerated, but it is crucial to understand
that even in the city of Sparta the Spartiates were probably a small minority, although
we rarely, if ever, hear of the lives and activities of all those other inhabitants.
Xenophon’s conspirator also points out that many of these people of lesser status felt
so aggrieved by this time that ‘whenever among these classes any mention was made
of Spartiates, no one was able to conceal the fact that he would be glad to eat them
raw.’ (Xen. Hell 3.3.6). This must be an exaggeration, since the Spartan state
managed to remain stable until 370/69 BC, and in the end it was a major invasion by
Thebans and Peloponnesians, rather than a revolution, which brought about change.
2.1.2. Perioikoi
We hear very little about this group, although they made up a significant part
of the population in Spartan territory. The perioikoi were the inhabitants of numerous
towns in Laconia and Messenia: their name might be translated as ‘those who live in
the outskirts’, ‘those who live around (us)’. They were personally free, but politically
their communities were subject to Sparta, and the perioikoi did not enjoy any form of
citizen rights in Sparta. They were, however, considered a part of the Lacedaemonian
state, and they were obliged to fight in the Lacedaemonian army. By the time of the
Persian Wars they fought as hoplites alongside the Spartiates, and later, during the
Peloponnesian War, they were incorporated within the Spartiate contingents,
presumably to make up for reduced numbers of full citizens.
Exact details about conditions for the perioikoi remain a matter of discussion.
(useful summary of the debate: Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, ch. 10.ii). It seems
that their lives were similar to those of Greeks elsewhere: ancient authors sometimes
referred to their towns as poleis (e.g. Xen. Lac. Pol. 15.3, Hell. 6.5.21, Thuc. 5.54.1),
and they probably had local governments to deal with their own affairs. Perioikoi also
owned their own land and were free to engage in any economic activity. Xenophon
(Hell. 5.3.9) refers to wealthy perioikoi, and we have to assume that their
communities included all social classes, including slaves. Thus, the main effect of
Sparta’s rule was essentially that the perioikoi did not determine their own foreign
policy and had to follow Sparta’s command in war.
The perioikoi probably handled most of the economic activities that were
prohibited to Spartans, but which clearly must have continued to allow the state to
function. All the important harbours of Laconia, especially Gytheon, which served as
chief naval base, were perioikic communities, and we can assume that perioikoi were
involved in overseas trade and fishery. Laconia had various natural resources which
were presumably exploited by the perioikoi, for example iron and lead deposits as
well as high quality building stone. Even if crafts and arts declined at Sparta after the
mid-sixth century, there were still many goods that were produced locally, for
example pottery and of course armour and weapons. The Spartiates clearly had to rely
on a variety of goods and services provided by the perioikoi, although the mechanism
of exchange between the two groups remains unknown.
There is little we know about the attitude of the perioikoi towards their Spartan
superiors. Cartledge (Sparta and Lakonia 155) suggests that they formed a ‘territorial
reserve against the helots’, essentially loyal to the Spartans and involved in keeping
the helots under control. He also stresses that there is very little evidence for the
involvement of perioikoi in activities against Spartan rule. On the other hand,
Xenophon (Hell. 3.3.6) counts perioikoi among the malcontents who were plotting a
revolt in 399 BC, and he reports (Xen. Hell. 6.5.25) that in 370/69 BC Theban troops
JACT Teachers’ Notes
were met by a delegation of perioikoi who offered support for an invasion. Not all
perioikoi shared this enthusiasm, however, because some participated actively in the
defence of Laconia. The situation in Messenia may have taken on its own dynamics
once there was an emerging regional identity which gave both perioikoi and helots a
common cause. Two perioikic towns supported the Messenian revolt of 464 BC
(Thuc. 1.101.2), and may in fact have played a crucial role in the uprising. Later on,
after the foundation of the new urban centre at Messene, their settlements remained
intact as towns within the Messenian state (see Luraghi, Ancient Messenians, esp.
2.1.3. Helots
 relevant texts collected in Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, appendix 4, p. 299-307
(references here as SL + Cartledge’s number).
The helots were a part of the population of both Laconia and Messenia who
were subjects of the Spartiates with limited personal freedom. A modern
translation/parallel that is frequently used is the term ‘serf’, but similarities with
Medieval/early modern feudal systems are superficial at best. Although Greek texts
do at times employ the word douloi (slaves) for helots, their status was, in fact, subtly
different. Helots were officially owned by the state, which means that no individual
Spartan could sell them or free them. (Ephorus FGrHist 70 F117 = SL C5; Strabo
8.5.4 = SL C11). Perhaps this also explains why Spartans could use each other’s
helots quite freely (Xen. Lac. Pol. 6.3). Most helots worked the land belonging to
individual Spartiates, and on those estates which served as main residence for a
Spartiate family they were probably also employed as household servants. They were
tied to the land, and chances of gaining freedom were rare (in return for military
service). Unlike slaves, helots were able to raise their own families and to expect
stability in their lives. While slaves in most Greek cities were a mix of Greeks and
non-Greeks, recently enslaved people and those born into slavery, the helots were a
relatively homogeneous group which reproduced over generations, and which was not
only undeniably Greek, but also native to the region. The helots were crucial to
maintain the Spartan system: they did most of the agricultural work (in all ancient
Greek states agriculture was the centre of economic activity), which gave the
Spartiates the resources and free time to maintain their unique society.
Note that the term ‘Messenians’ is sometimes used almost synonymously with
‘helots’. This is incorrect in two respects: firstly, there were helots in large numbers in
Laconia as well as in Messenia, and secondly, a significant number of the inhabitants
of Messenia were perioikoi. However, the terms are easily confused because the
Messenian helots were conspicuously involved in revolts against Sparta, or at least in
one particularly memorable uprising in the Classical period (464 BC), and their
successful bid for freedom in 370/69 BC reduced Sparta to a middling power of small
In fact, Messenian history is a complicating factor in any discussion of helots:
ancient tradition offers many details, including one extensive narrative of Sparta’s
conquest (Pausanias 4.1.-29). However, almost everything postclassical texts can tell
us about these matters seems strongly influenced by the Messenians’ efforts to
‘reconstruct’ a history for their region after they gained their freedom in 370/69. All
but a few details we can derive from earlier literary sources and archaeological
evidence should be handled with extreme caution, and this material, especially the
JACT Teachers’ Notes
detailed tradition about the Messenian Wars, is best regarded as a form of elaborate
national myth (see Luraghi in Luraghi & Alcock, Helots, ch.5).
The origins of the helot system should probably be sought in Laconia, and we
have no factual evidence to explain how one section of society there came to gain
control over the land and over a significant part of the population. We might assume,
however, that an early version of this system was already in place in Laconia, and the
Spartans extended it when they gained control over Messenia. It is usually assumed
that there were two Messenian Wars, one early wave of conquest, and a second
conflict following a revolt two generations later. This assumption depends on a poem
by Tyrtaeus:
To our king, friend of the Gods, Theopompus, through whom we took
spacious Messene – Messene so good to plough and so good to plant, for
which they fought for nineteen years, unceasingly and keeping an unfaltering
spirit, the spearmen fathers of our fathers, and in the twentieth year the
enemy left his rich lands and fled from the great mountains of Ithome.
(Tyrtaeus 5).
This passage is the main base from which much of ancient tradition about the
Messenian wars was later ‘reconstructed’ (see some traces of this process in
Pausanias’ account, 4.1-29). Tyrtaeus wrote around the mid-seventh century, and the
conquest would therefore have taken place in the late eighth or perhaps early seventh
century. Since Tyrtaeus’ poetry (cf. Tyrtaeus 10, 11, 12) often speaks of war, ancient
writers assumed that there was another conflict in Messenia in his own lifetime, the
Second Messenian War, for which there is not much actual evidence, although it
seems plausible that it took the Spartans some time and effort to consolidate control in
Messenia. However, we should bear in mind that the conquest of Messenia happened
at a time when communities in Greece were only in the process of consolidation, and
it seems that when Messenia was taken over, it had not yet developed major
settlements, let alone a wider regional co-operation. Later rhetoric about ‘restoring’ a
Messenian state that had once been overwhelmed by Sparta is based on fiction (see
Luraghi, Ancient Messenians, 132-45). The archaeological evidence shows little (if
any) disruption in Messenian settlements which could be connected to a Spartan
conquest: what we see, however, is that from the late eight century, Messenia ‘stays
behind’ other areas in Greece, in a kind of arrested development. It is clear that a
Spartan annexation of a territory settled in small villages would have met with
resistance, too, and prolonged military efforts, as mentioned in Tyrtaeus, are perfectly
plausible. We should, however, not imagine the major battles, sieges and
supraregional alliances which are part of the grand Messenian Wars tradition in the
ancient sources.
Most helots worked for absentee landlords, and they were probably quite
independent in organising their activities, as long as they were able to supply their
master with a ‘rent’ in kind, which the Spartiate would use to maintain his own
household and to meet his contributions to the syssitia (Plut. Lyc. 8.7; Mor. 239DE =
SL F2b). It is possible that helots could have private possessions (de facto, if not de
iure). In Messenia there is also evidence that they had their own local cults: some
sanctuaries date back to the eighth century, possibly before the Spartans took over, but
votive deposits continued, and new sanctuaries were created in the archaic and
classical period. The situation was probably similar in Laconia, but there it is
impossible to distinguish between the traces of the cult activities of Spartiates, helots
and perioikoi, because there was less regional separation.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
The community life of helots has been subject to lively scholarly debates,
especially in the context of the Messenian revolt. This uprising was the reaction to an
earthquake which devastated Sparta in 464 BC, and it saw the rapid development of a
large regional movement at very short notice (Thuc. 1.101-3). How were the helots
organised? Was there any form of regional solidarity among them? The evidence does
not offer a clear picture of helot settlements. Some evidence from Pylos on the west
coast of Messenia seems to suggest that they lived in large villages, while evidence
from Laconia seems to point at communities around a large estate – similar to
plantations in the early modern period. In some areas helots may have lived in
scattered farmsteads. It seems likely, therefore, that not all helots in Laconia and
Messenia were settled in the same way. However, the question has a wider
significance, since communities living in larger villages would need to organise
themselves, which might in turn lead to (quasi-)political activities and a certain degree
of social stratification.
A recent development in the debate about Messenian helots is the question of
ethnogenesis: when and how did the Messenians, helots as well as perioikoi, develop
a regional identity? (For a detailed discussion see Luraghi, Ancient Messenians, 198208). It is clear that such a regional identity would be crucial to overcome the divide
between helots and perioikoi, and it could serve as an incentive to fight for
independence from Sparta. The revolt of 464 BC seems to represent a crucial step
towards a common Messenian identity, not least because Thucydides (1.101.2)
suggests that the uprising used explicitly Messenian rhetoric to justify their actions.
Moreover, the fifth century also saw an increase in cult activity in Bronze Age sites
(e.g. Mycenean tombs) which point at a new focus on the local history, particularly
that of a distant past (e.g. cult of local heroes). At the same time, we see the first
references in the literary sources to ‘ancient Messenians’ who were once free (cf.
Thuc. 1.101.2). It seems that it was in this period that the Messenians began to
develop an interest in their regional past and developed some of the traditions which
were later included in regional histories.
The helot revolt of 464 was clearly a memorable event, and at least from that
moment on the Greeks were aware of the great danger the Spartans may face from an
enemy within. Historians influenced by Marxist ideas (especially G.E.M. de Ste
Croix; see The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (London 1972) 89-94; reprinted in
Whitby, Sparta, ch.10) were especially keen to represent Sparta as a state almost
entirely preoccupied with its need to control the helots, a view that has been very
influential (cf. Cartledge, who takes a similar line, albeit in a more moderate form).
Some ancient texts support this view, e.g. Critias 88B37 = SL D2; Aristotle Pol.
1269b7-12 = SL D6a, see appendix. The Spartiates devised various methods to
emphasise helot status. For example, Plutarch (Lyc. 28) reports that helots were forced
to get drunk or to perform ridiculous dances: a public demonstration of inferiority
which was as much designed to remind Spartiates of their duties and status as to keep
the helots in their place. Plutarch suggests that this was a measure introduced after the
great helot revolt of 464, and it seems likely that this event forced the Spartans to
reconsider their treatment of helots. However, Tyrtaeus (f.6,7, quoted in Paus. 4.14.5)
already demonstrates a clear notion of helot inferiority.
The Spartiates also kept themselves ready to subdue the helots by force. They
never sent their whole army abroad, and there was a constant threat of violence
against the helots (main source: Plutarch Lyc. 28 – based on Aristotle). Plutarch
reports that the Spartans declared war on the helots every year to avoid the ritual
JACT Teachers’ Notes
pollution of murder if they killed a helot. There was also the mysterious krypteia,
apparently groups of the best of the young men who went out with minimal
equipment, hid in the countryside and killed helots indiscriminately (Plut. Lyc. 28,
Aristotle, Lac. Pol. fragment 538 = SL D6c). This institution has been variously
interpreted as an initiation rite or a fully organised secret police, but one should avoid
making too much of the rather slim evidence. Nevertheless, this probably means that
helots could never feel entirely safe from surveillance or random attacks. A
particularly sinister episode is recorded in Thucydides (for a discussion see Paradiso
and Harvey in Figueira, Spartan Society, chs. 8 & 9):
(The Spartans) made a proclamation that the helots should choose from their
number as many as claimed to have done the best service in the war. They
implied that these helots would be freed, but in fact it was a test conducted in
the belief that those who thought themselves best qualified for freedom would
also be the most likely to revolt. About 2000 were selected, who put garlands
on their heads and did the rounds of the sanctuaries as if they had been
freed. But not much later the Spartans did away with them, and no-one knew
how each of them was killed. (Thuc. 4.80.3, trans. Cartledge SL D3b).
Apart from such internal measures, the Spartans were also keen to include a special
‘helot clause’ in some of the state treaties they concluded, especially those with
Peloponnesian neighbours. They usually demanded that the state in question refrain
from harbouring fugitive slaves (i.e. helots), e.g. Thuc. 4.118.7; the Peace of Nikias,
concluded between Athens and Sparta in 421 BC, included a provision that the
Athenians would come to Sparta’s aid if the douleia (slave class) revolted (Thuc.
All these texts seem to corroborate the image of significant tension between
Spartans and helots which led to constant vigilance on the part of the Spartans.
However, there are also many instances where the Spartans seem to have relied on
their helots, for example when they drafted them into their armies as hoplites (Thuc.
4.80, Xen. Hell. 6.5.28-9) or auxiliary personnel (Hdt. 6.80-1, 9.28-9, 9.80.1, 9.85).
At Plataea, there were seven attendants (presumably helots) for every Spartan hoplite
(Hdt. 9.28-9). Helots who had served as hoplites also had a chance of manumission
(Thuc. 5.34, 7.58) and by the end of the Peloponnesian War there must have been
large numbers of these freed helots (neodamodeis), if Agesilaus could take two
thousand of them on his campaign in Asia Minor (Xen. Hell. 3.4.2; 396 BC).
Moreover, we also have to appreciate just how much it took to instigate a revolt in
Messenia. The only two major revolts were both triggered by exceptional emergencies
(earthquake in 464 BC, decisive defeat at Leuctra 371 BC, followed by Theban
invasion in 370/69 BC). There were clearly times when Spartan worries about the
helots were justified, but we should also not over-interpret the relatively few (if
impressive) pieces of evidence to draw a picture of constant fear and repression which
threatened to consume Spartan society.
2.2. The political structure of Sparta: kings, gerousia, ephors,
The Spartan political system was considered exceptional in the classical
period, especially because it retained a hereditary kingship, an aspect of government
which in most other Greek cities was an aspect of the distant, mythical past. At the
same time, the unusual dual kingship was embedded in a system that followed the
JACT Teachers’ Notes
standard Greek pattern, namely a combination of leading magistrates, a council and
the assembly of all fully qualified citizens which distributed power and provided
checks on the activities of all its constituent parts. The Spartans simply called this
system Eunomia, which means ‘good laws’ or ‘good governance’.
How should we define the Spartan constitution? One could think of the
Spartiates as a small wealthy elite with exclusive political rights, which would make
Sparta a narrow oligarchy, and it fits this category reasonably well. An oligarchy
includes a significant number of citizens who do not enjoy the right to participate in
the political process. In Sparta this would be the perioikoi who had the right to own
land, an exclusive right of citizens in most other cities, but were completely excluded
from the political process. The helots are not relevant to this argument because all
Greek states had large disenfranchised populations of slaves which cannot be taken
into account when a constitution is assessed in these terms (note that women were
also universally excluded, therefore such discussions generally concern the free, adult
male population). When ancient commentators analysed the Spartan eunomia,
however, they exclusively looked at the Spartiates as full citizens of the
Lacedaemonian state and their access to the decision making process. The system was
generally seen as a rare example of a ‘mixed constitution’, a system which was
considered as particularly stable because it combined the best aspects of the three
main forms of government, namely monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. The Spartan
constitution was generally praised, especially by the wealthy intellectual elite of
Athens which was dissatisfied with democracy. Aristotle’s discussion of problematic
aspects of the Spartan system in the Politics (esp.1271, see appendix) is therefore a
particularly valuable alternative view.
2.2.1. Kings
Sparta had two kings at any given time, and these positions were hereditary in
two royal families, the Agiads (Agiadai) and the Eurypontids (Eurypontidai). The
succession in the two families was not always straightforward and could cause major
internal crises. Herodotus maintains that sons born when their father was already king
were preferred to older brothers born before his succession (Hdt. 7.3). It is difficult to
tell whether this was indeed the case. Succession crises were common in both royal
houses, and if there was a doubt about the legitimacy of the heir apparent, or if it was
difficult to determine who had the best claim, the matter became a highly political
issue, e.g. Cleomenes (Hdt. 5.41), Demaratus (Hdt. 6.61) or the disputed succession of
Agesilaus II in 399 BC (Xenophon Hell. 3.3.1-3). Herodotus also took it for granted
that the ephors could get involved in royal family matters if a king did not produce an
heir (Hdt. 5.39-40).
The kings had a number of privileges which emphasised their special position
(see Hdt. 6.57, Xen. Lac. Pol. 15). According to Plutarch (Agesilaus 1) the heir to the
throne did not go through the Spartan education system because (as he implies) the
obedience instilled in Spartiate youths was not appropriate for a king who would have
to be a commander. The kings enjoyed the revenue of extensive estates and were
given a share of public sacrifices (meat, or hides – also a form of material income),
and they must have been very wealthy, even if they, too, kept up the appearance of
Spartan austerity. The exalted position of the king was particularly emphasised at a
royal funeral where they were, as Xenophon (Lac. Pol. 15.9.) says, ‘honoured not as
mere men, but as heroes (i.e. superhuman, demigods)’; for details see Herodotus 6.58.
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The most conspicuous function of the Spartan kings was their role as military
commanders (see Xen. Lac. Pol. 13.10). In the archaic period both kings might act as
joint generals, but, after an important campaign failed following a disagreement
between Cleomenes and Demaratus (c.506 BC; cf. below 2.4.1.), it was decided that
any campaign should be led by only one of the kings (Hdt. 5.75-6). In the field a king
had almost unlimited power, and historical accounts suggest that while in the field
they also made fairly far-reaching decisions about foreign policy. They were,
however, not authorised to send embassies to other states (Xen. Lac. Pol. 13.10), and
a campaign was usually accompanied by two of the ephors to advise or control the
king. The king also carried out all important sacrifices, especially those at the crossing
of the Laconian border and sacrifices before battles and important actions, and he was
in charge of taking the omens from such sacrifices. Although we should not be overly
cynical about the possible manipulation of such rituals, we might still assume that
such omens were probably likely to support the king’s intentions (see Parker in
Whitby, Sparta, ch. 8).
In peace time the constitutional powers of the kings were fairly limited. They
had a seat in the Gerousia (council of 30, see below) and therefore took part in its
deliberations, they played a role in family law (adoption, orphaned heiresses) and they
had jurisdiction over the highways (Hdt. 6.57). They also fulfilled a range of sacred
duties, acting as priests and being responsible for the consultation of oracles. There is
no evidence to support Herodotus’ assertion (6.56) that the kings on their own could
declare war. Thucydides (1.79-88) does not directly contradict Herodotus, but he
offers a scene where king Archidamus argues against declaring war but is opposed by
an ephor and a vote of the assembly: it seems clear from this passage that decisions
about war and peace were taken by the assembly and could go against a king’s
explicit wishes.
While the kings could speak in debates in the gerousia as well as in the
assembly, their influence was limited by the powers of the assembly, the gerousia and
particularly the ephors. Kings could be put on trial, for example on charges of treason
following an unsuccessful campaign or controversial foreign policy decisions, and, if
convicted, would be fined or even deposed and sent into exile. Moreover, there were
often disagreements or even long-term rivalries between the two kings which could
further diminish their individual clout. Nevertheless, some kings managed to assert
significant influence on policy decisions: this depended less on actual constitutional
power than on an individual’s personal authority and ability to draw on his personality
and experience to make the most of his position. Successful and inspiring military
commanders had a particular advantage, because their war record would have given
them particular clout in the assembly. The most striking examples are Cleomenes I
(c.520-c.490) and Agesilaus II (c.399-360), who each dominated a whole period of
Spartan foreign policy and also had significant influence on politics at home (see
Cartledge Spartan Reflections ch.5). On the other hand, there were Spartan kings
whose activities left almost no trace in our sources (e.g. Cleomenes II, 370-309 BC):
some were probably content to carry out their duties without seeking to be at the
centre of policy making.
2.2.2. Ephors
The ephors were the five leading magistrates of Sparta, elected annually by the
assembly. It is likely that all Spartiates who were allowed to vote in the assembly
(over 30) were also eligible for this office. Aristotle (1270b, see appendix) suggests
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that comparatively poor citizens were able to become ephor. One of the five was the
eponymous ephor, whose name would be attached to the year in the Spartan calendar.
The ephors held much of the executive power in Sparta and conducted day-today political activities. They had control over the education system and they could
also impose fines on individual citizens (including kings) for not carrying out their
duties, or if they did not satisfy standards of citizen behaviour. The ephors were
involved in the judicial process, especially at trials of a political nature, and they may
have handled appeals against decisions of the gerousia. As chief magistrates they also
summoned the gerousia and the assembly and presided over their meetings. They
were probably also able to propose legislation. The ephors received foreign embassies
in Sparta and decided which ambassadors would be allowed to speak to gerousia or
assembly. Finally, they oversaw the organisation of the army, they selected men for
elite corps and controlled the krypteia (see above, 2.1.3). When a war was declared,
the ephors decided which sections of the citizen body should be called up for military
service. These duties add up to very considerable power with comparatively little
control. Ephors were probably accountable to the gerousia, but we do not know exact
details about any process of scrutiny.
2.2.3. The Gerousia
The gerousia, ‘council of elders’ (older literature also translates this as
‘senate’), consisted of 30 members, namely 28 gerontes (literally old men, elders) and
the two kings. All full citizens over 60 were eligible, and membership was for life.
This means that a very small proportion of all citizens (especially compared to the
numbers required to serve as ephors) could ever reach this position, and it is likely
that many gerontes came from the most distinguished families. New members were
selected by the assembly (Plut. Lyc. 26; cf. Aristotle Politics 1271a, see appendix).
The gerousia discussed proposals for the assembly and prepared motions for assembly
meetings. They also formed the most important court of law in Sparta which dealt
with most serious criminal cases.
The continuity in a body of officials appointed for life and the collective
experience and esteem among the community would have given the gerousia a good
deal of clout in its dealings with the ephors who were in office for merely a year. The
gerousia was therefore at the centre of the political process and had considerable
influence on policies. This body could also serve as a crucial power base for the kings,
since they could probably expect that some close associates or family members would
be selected as gerontes who would then support them in meetings of the gerousia.
2.2.4. The Assembly
The assembly (ekklesia, probably also apella, see Plut. Lyc. 6.2) included all
Spartiates with full political rights, i.e. all men over 30 years of age who had not been
excluded for some reason (serious crime, cowardice, inability to contribute to the
syssitia). Its main responsibility were decisions on foreign policy, particularly about
war and peace. The ekklesia elected gerontes and ephors, appointed generals (if no
king was available to lead a planned campaign), decided disputes over the royal
succession and voted on proposed laws.
Sessions were held in the open, originally in a place ‘between Babyka and
Knakion’ (cf. the ‘Great Rhetra’, Plut. Lyc. 6.2; note 6.4: for Plutarch it was no longer
clear where this location was). Votes, at least in elections, were cast by shouting (Plut.
Lyc. 26, Thuc. 1.87). There was apparently no open debate in the assembly: officials
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presented the motions, but we have no evidence that common members of the
assembly were allowed to voice their views (cf. Plut. Lyc. 6.6). Nevertheless, the
assembly could play an important role, especially if there was a serious disagreement
between kings, gerousia and ephors, and it seems that under such circumstances the
opposing positions were indeed presented at meetings and then put to the vote (see
Diod. 11.50, Thuc. 1.79-88).
The Spartan assembly had little power compared to the sovereign Athenian
ekklesia. Even if one takes into account that all full citizens of Sparta could indeed
vote, the decision making process was carefully controlled and assembly decisions did
not carry as much weight as in a fully democratic polis. Kings, gerousia and ephors
prepared the motions, and in the classical period the ephors chaired meetings: they
decided how to present a case, when to call a vote, and when to end a meeting, which
could all have an influence on the outcome (see Thuc. 1.87). Moreover, Spartans were
brought up to be obedient and to respect their elders: such ideals do not foster a lively
political debate. Plutarch (Lyc. 6.7.) suggests that the leaders of the state (kings, later
ephors?) could also overrule a decision of the assembly, although it is not clear
whether this was actually the case in the classical period. It is also likely that officials
could make fairly important decisions without consulting the people at all. The
Spartan assembly therefore added a democratic element to the constitution, but since
the decision making process was mainly in the hands of a very small body of officials,
the system nevertheless has a strongly oligarchic character.
2.2.5. The Development of the System; the Great Rhetra.
The origins of Sparta’s system have been a matter of much discussion. The
beginnings of the double kingship seem to date to a period well before historical
times, and we can only speculate how this unusual situation arose. One could, for
example, imagine that during the period when the region of Laconia was unified, two
groups and their leaders came to an agreement to share the leadership of a new,
amalgamated community. The traditional Spartan king lists start in mythical times,
essentially with the third generation after Heracles. Since both royal families
continued into the third century BC, these long continuous genealogies offered
ancient scholars a crucial chronological framework for Greek history (Hdt. 7.204,
8.131; for an elaborate late example see Pausanias 3.1.5-6.5). It is difficult to
determine at which point we should take the names in this list as the record of
historical rulers; we seem to have sufficient evidence to identify a few royal names of
the seventh century, but attempts to give any but the most vague dates for Spartan
kings before the mid-sixth century should be regarded with scepticism (Cartledge
Sparta and Lakonia 90, but see also his appendix 3).
In the archaic period the Spartans developed a system to give a larger section
of society a say in important political decisions, a development which occurred in
most other Greek states, too. There was a general trend towards drawing up
constitutional rules and law codes beginning in the eighth century (Osborne, Greece
in the Making, London 1996, 178-80, 185-8). The excerpts of ‘the great Rhetra’ in
Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus (6.2, 6.8.) seem to come from a genuine ancient text
which regulates the relationship between kings, gerousia and the people. The archaic
language seems authentic, and the same agreement is also echoed in Tyrtaeus’ poem
Eunomia (Tyrtaeus 4, as quoted in Plut. Lyc. 6.10, Diod. 7.12.6). Plutarch sees the
curbs on the peoples’ power as a later development, but in fact the whole agreement,
with a very restricted role for the assembly, may well have been a first step towards
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offering all citizens involvement in political decisions. This step is often connected
with the conquest of Messenia in the late C8th or early C7th which is likely to have
caused significant changes in Spartan society and would also have demonstrated the
importance of Sparta’s army, i.e. ordinary citizens (Cartledge Sparta and Lakonia
133-5). The tribes (phylai) and obes (obai) mentioned in the Rhetra are subdivisions
of the Spartan citizen body. Most Greek cities were divided in tribes, membership of
which was traditionally passed down through the generations of individual families.
Most Greek cities traditionally had three or four tribes; Archaic Sparta seems to have
followed the Doric tradition of three (using the traditional Doric names Pamphyloi,
Hylleis and Dymanes, as mentioned in Tyrtaeus f.19). The obes were probably a
regional division – original ‘villages’ which made up the central settlement at Sparta.
Both Tyrtaeus’ Eunomia poem and the Great Rhetra omit any reference to the
ephors, and we have to assume that they were either minor magistrates at that time, or
that the office was introduced later (cf. Plut. Lyc. 7). In any case, by the mid-sixth
century they had gained considerable influence, which may have grown further during
the late archaic and classical period. The Spartans of the classical period, and their
admirers in the centuries that followed, liked the idea of a Spartan constitution that
was founded (preferably by Lycurgus) in one moment of inspiration, but in fact the
sources give us enough evidence that there was a good deal of development at least
during the Archaic period.
There are some signs that in the classical period the Spartan constitution was
perhaps less open to change than circumstances may have demanded. The
Peloponnesian War in particular put a great strain on the Spartan institutions: as more
commanders were needed for multiple campaigns, new talent was allowed to rise
from the ranks, most notably Brasidas and Lysander. The system was not very well
prepared to accommodate this development (Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia, 210-12,
224-5, 229-31). For example, Lysander’s command in the Aegean had to be cut short
after his year in office (407 BC), and once it was clear that no-one could replace him
adequately, a legal loophole had to be found to re-instate him (405BC; Xen. Hell.
2.1.7); in spite of a long tradition of warfare the system was not adequately prepared
for a major lengthy campaign that was not under the command of a king. After the
end of the Peloponnesian War, Lysander’s position was indeed difficult: he had been
instrumental in the victory over Athens, but after the conflict had ended, the Spartan
society of ‘Equals’ was not equipped to accommodate a fellow-citizen with such a
towering reputation and personal influence in a large part of the Greek world (Forrest,
History of Sparta, 119-25). In fact, Lysander was suspected of attempting to replace
the kings with some form of elected office, no doubt to gain a chance to hold such a
position himself, but he remained unsuccessful (Plut. Lysander 24-6). At the same
time, Spartan foreign policy following the Peloponnesian War seems less than
consistent, especially in its attitude to Athens and Persia: Lysander’s ambitious (and at
times self-interested) policies abroad were overturned within a very short period. It
seems likely that the government of Sparta, with its council of elders in a central
position, was not geared towards condoning overly progressive ideas.
2.3. Education and values in Sparta; the roles of men and women
Spartan society was held together by a set of very strong values which were
instilled into every Spartan boy, and possibly the girls as well, during years of an
education controlled by the state. This special Spartan education was a precondition
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for becoming a citizen, and it created a high degree of conformity within Spartan
society, while also separating Spartiates from all others, be they perioikoi, helots or
Greeks from other cities. Xenophon includes Spartan customs, education and family
life in his treatise on the Spartan constitution (politeia): while for us, a constitution is
the set of laws determining how the institutions of government are organised and
controlled, the Greek word politeia means much more: politeia stands for all aspects
of life typical for a particular polis – it includes laws and rules that govern public
institutions as well as customs, religious traditions and general ideas about proper
behaviour in public as well as private contexts. This universal concept of politeia is
particularly clear in Sparta, where state interference in what we would call a ‘private’
sphere was more pronounced than in other Greek poleis. The Spartans had a
particularly comprehensive view of what could be seen as ‘public business’: this
included the raising of new generations of citizens, which in most Greek cities was a
matter of private family life.
2.3.1. The Spartan Education System for Boys (agoge)
The agoge (‘leading’, ‘raising’) was famous in antiquity, and it was a matter of
much discussion. Nevertheless, we have only two fairly comprehensive accounts, one
by Xenophon (Lac. Pol. 2.1-4.6) and one by Plutarch (Lyc. 16-21). Since the Spartan
education system became a matter of philosophical discussion and, over the centuries,
legend, late sources on the issue have to be treated with caution. Many modern
accounts of the agoge draw on Plutarch as a main source and add information from
other sources to create a general picture. However, we cannot deal with the agoge as
if it had been a tradition that remained the same over centuries. As Kenell
(Gymnasium of Virtue, see especially ch. 1) has shown, we are dealing with a complex
process of change over time, and the education system underwent extensive
‘reconstruction’ work in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Later forms of the agoge
probably resembled the original system in essentials, but also included many new
features. This means that for the classical period, we have to rely mainly on
Xenophon who was clearly familiar with the system, but only offers a rough
overview. For a full discussion of the classical system on this basis see Kenell,
Gymnasium of Virtue, ch. 6. Kenell’s approach is meticulous and is seen as overly
sceptical by some, e.g. Cartledge. Cartledge offers a useful overview (and a
comparison with an educations other Greeks may have considered ‘normal’) in
Spartan Reflections, ch. 7.
At the age of seven, Spartan boys entered the agoge. They moved away from
their families to live with the other boys in their age group. They were subjected to
harsh conditions, sleeping on beds made of reeds, going barefoot and wearing just one
garment even in winter. They were kept on short food rations and were expected to
steal additional supplies, which was considered useful training for stealth and strategic
thinking, but they would also be punished harshly if they were caught. The focus of
the agoge was endurance, courage and obedience. Xenophon distinguishes three
stages of a Spartan education: children (paides), youths (paidiskoi) and young men
(hebontes). The age classes, their exact distinction, ages of transition, and names of
specific year groups within these classes have been a matter of lengthy scholarly
discussion (Kenell, Gymnasium of Virtue, 116-20, gives an overview), but it is
probably best not to get bogged down in detail.
At some point during their teenage years (the exact age is disputed), the boys
moved on to the next stage and began to be introduced to Spartan society. While the
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boys’ life is described as almost feral, the teenagers had to learn proper behaviour in
society. One of the young men in their twenties became a kind of mentor who would
advise and admonish the boy, and also take him to common meals (cf. Plut. Lyc. 17).
It is usually assumed that these relationships could be (and perhaps mostly were) of a
homosexual nature, although Xenophon (Lak 2.12-14) does his best to deny this.
Finally, a contest at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia marked the transition from
boyhood to young man. This event became a tourist attraction in the Roman period,
where visitors watched as the Spartan boys were whipped at the altar (Kennell,
Gymnasium of Virtue, 70-82 with appendix 1). At this stage the ritual and the boys’
preparation before the festival had taken on the features of a complex set of initiation
rites. Xenophon, however, describes quite a different ritual, presumably the original
form of the contest, where boys, perhaps working in teams, tried to snatch cheeses
from the altar, while others, armed with whips, tried to prevent them. It is impossible
to determine the exact details of this event, but it seems clear that we are dealing with
some kind of competition. Once the agoge was completed, the young men had to be
admitted to a syssitia group, which was subject to an unanimous vote of approval
among all members. We do not know what happened with young men who did not
find a mess willing to admit them. Membership in such a group was a precondition for
full citizenship, so we have to assume that very few failed to be selected, especially
once the Spartan manpower shortage became a serious problem: it is difficult to
imagine that at this point the Spartan state would have risked to exclude many young
men who had successfully passed the agoge and were technically qualified for full
The details of the Spartan education system have inspired a good deal of
scholarly discussion. Apart from the complex arguments about specific details there
are three major issues: firstly, what, apart from physical endurance, did the boys
actually learn?; secondly, how harsh was the agoge in reality?; and thirdly, what were
the origins of the system? Our sources tell us a lot about the tests of endurance and
physical education that the boys at Sparta had to undergo, but they say little about
basic skills such as literacy which would have been part of primary education
elsewhere. Music, poetry and dance were important aspects of Spartan cultural life,
especially as part of festivals. Spartan youths were expected to perform at such
occasions, and were clearly trained to do so. Moreover, the Spartans were also proud
of their distinctive custom of ‘Laconic’ speech, and the skill to express a thought
concisely and effectively was probably practiced at common meals when the boys
were expected to answer questions accurately and in the appropriate manner. (Plut.
Lyc. 19-21). Cartledge (Spartan Reflections, ch. 7) suggests that reading and writing
was also part of the ‘syllabus’, while Kennell (Gymnasium of Virtue, 125-6) believes
that relatives or his older mentor may have taught a boy how to read and write. We
simply have no evidence to solve this question, but it seems likely that most Spartiates
achieved at least a basic level of literacy (note the need to read military dispatches;
use of inscriptions in Sparta).
To a modern eye the Spartan education system looks extremely harsh, and it is
worth asking whether our sources exaggerate the distinctive features of the agoge
because they were so ‘typically Spartan’. Modern scholars’ views depend on their
general perception of Sparta. Cartledge generally represents Sparta as a tough place
which turned into a warrior society in order to keep the helots under control. His
description of the agoge (Spartan Reflections, ch. 7) therefore emphasises the brutal
aspects of a Spartan upbringing. Kennell (Gymnasium of Virtue, ch. 6, esp.121-4)
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plays with the idea that some of aspects of Spartan boys’ lives described by Xenophon
may have been temporary activities, which would separate the boys from the
community only for particular periods. Ducat (in Hodkinson & Powell, Sparta. New
Perspectives, 43-66) suggests that families may have played a much greater role in the
boys’ lives than the sources suggest. Such interpretations seem to ‘rationalise’ an
aspect of ancient culture which, after the demise of the worst excesses of the Victorian
public school system, seem rather alien to the modern observer. These arguments
demonstrate, however, how little the sources actually tell us: we hear about the
framework of the system, but the texts do not give us an impression of how this
system would have functioned in practice, as part of everyday life in a fairly small and
close-knit community.
The origins of the agoge began to attract particular attention when classical
scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century began to use comparisons
with the customs of contemporary ‘primitive peoples’ to explain aspects of ancient
culture (most notably J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890). This method was soon
discredited, but comparisons between aspects of the agoge and initiation rituals of
various peoples around the globe are still found in fairly recent discussions. It is clear
that some of the rituals and customs, especially those described in the Roman period,
were of some symbolic value, and did indeed fulfil the function of different stages in
an initiation ritual. However, we cannot conclude from this that such traditions must
be particularly ancient, as many older studies suggest (based on the idea that all
cultures go through a ‘primitive’ stage with similar features – a view that is now
thoroughly outdated). As we have seen, some of the most distinctive traditions
described by Plutarch which gave rise to the ideas about ‘primitive rituals’ may in fact
have been developed relatively late. The original development of the agoge should
probably be connected with the process that shaped Spartan society in the archaic
period, perhaps as a response to new circumstances after the conquest of Messene that
went hand in hand with other measures which undermined family ties and fostered
loyalty to the community as a whole (for a useful discussion of these issues see Ducat,
in Hodkison & Powell, Sparta. New Perspectives).
2.3.2. Young Men (Hebontes, Eirens)
In most Greek cities young men became full adult citizens once they reached
military age, usually around the age of twenty. Spartans, however, entered a stage
between the agoge and full adulthood, probably between 20 and c.30 years of age,
which Xenophon (Lac. Pol. 4.1-6) saw as a unique feature of Spartiate life (for an
overview see Kennell, Gymnasium of Virtue 129-32). The young men (hebontes in
Xenophon, eirens in Plutarch) participated in the syssitia and were liable to military
service together with the older Spartiates, but they were not yet allowed to vote in the
assembly or to marry and to set up their own household. The hebontes were involved
in musical performances (choruses, dance) at festivals, and they also participated in
competitions, which means that training in musical as well as physical disciplines
probably remained a regular part of their lives.
We know that the hebontes played a role in the education of the younger boys,
some in an official capacity as group leaders and supervisors, and presumably many
more by forming personal relationships with particular boys. In Xenophon’s Spartan
Constitution the life of the hebontes is characterised by intense competition. He
reports that the best were selected for a position in the elite corps of 300 hippeis
(literally ‘horsemen’, but these did, in fact, fight with the infantry). All others
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remained in competition with each other and especially with those who had been
singled out: they watched each other’s behaviour and Xenophon says that the rivalry
was so intense that ‘they fought wherever they met’. Clearly, such behaviour must
have been carefully controlled, but we have to assume that under these circumstances
the young men were constantly preoccupied with upholding the ideals of Spartan
society, in competition with each other as well as in their interaction with the younger
boys. This period therefore meant further training in all aspects of an ideal Spartiate’s
life, and it allowed or even encouraged the young men to jostle for positions within
Spartan society before they became full citizens.
2.3.3. Spartan Women
While Spartan men led a uniquely regulated life, their women were famous
(and notorious) for being unusually independent and more ready to appear in public
than women elsewhere. Spartan women were also praised for their beauty: an
association with the most famous Spartan woman, namely Helen ‘of Troy’, probably
came to mind easily (Cartledge, The Spartans. An Epic History, 46-53). For a concise
overview of the crucial issues see Cartledge, Spartan Reflections, ch.9; S. Pomeroy,
Spartan Women offers a detailed treatment of the subject).
Unlike other Greek poleis, the Spartan state took an interest in girls’
education. While elsewhere girls usually stayed at home and learned typically
‘feminine’ tasks such as spinning and weaving, their Spartan counterparts participated
in physical exercise and also took part in competitions (Plut. Lyc. 14.3, Xen. Lac. Pol.
1.4). What was particularly shocking for foreign visitors was that such activities were
carried out in public, in full view of men, and girls as well as young women wore
clothes that would be seen as extremely immodest elsewhere, e.g. just a short chiton
(tunic), and on some occasions they even appeared naked (cf. Plut. Lyc. 14.4-7). It
seems likely that Spartan women were generally less shy to show themselves outside
the house or to appear in public without a veil than upper class women elsewhere
(note Aristophanes Lys. 79-245, esp.79-84).
Spartan girls and young women also participated in choruses at festivals,
which means that they also needed some training in singing and performing poetry,
and group rehearsals in preparation for specific occasions. Seventh century Sparta did
not only produce the war poems of Tyrtaeus which seem such a perfect fit for the
Spartan stereotype, but also the choral songs of Alcman, written for performances of
girls or young women.
And so I sing of the brightness of Agido: I see her like the sun, which Agido
summons to shine on us as our witness; but our illustrious choir-leader by no
means allows me either to praise or to fault her; for she herself seems preeminent, just as if one were to put a horse among grazing herds, a sturdy,
thunderous-hoofed prize winner, one of those seen in rock-sheltered dreams.
Why, don’t you see? The racehorse is Venetic, but the hair of my cousin
Hagesichora has the bloom of undefiled gold, and her silver face – why do I
tell you openly? This is Hagesichora here; and the second in beauty after
Agido will run like a Colaxean horse against an Ibenian, for the Pleiads …
rise and … fight against us (possibly a reference to a rival chorus).
For abundance of purple is not sufficient for protection, nor intricate snake of
solid gold, no, nor Lydian headband, pride of dark-eyed girls, nor the hair of
Nanno, nor again godlike Areta, nor Thylacis and Cleësithera. …. No,
Hagesichora guards me: for is not fair-ankled Hagesichora present here?
Does she not remain (near) Agido and commend our festival? Come, you
JACT Teachers’ Notes
gods, accept their (prayers): to the gods belong fulfilment and
accomplishment. … Alcman fragment 1, 39-84; trans. D.A. Campbell (Loeb).
The song may be composed for an actual contest between rival choruses, but in any
case it shows a good deal of competition between the girls mentioned here, comparing
their looks, but perhaps also assessing their skill in the performance. It seems that
some Spartan women were also literate, and they were able to express themselves in
public: many quotations of Spartan women circulated in antiquity, and they, too,
seemed to cultivate the famous ‘Laconic’ style (Plato Protagoras 342d; cf. Plutarch,
Sayings of Spartan Women; Moralia 240C-242D).
The main aim of girls’ education was apparently to produce healthy mothers
for healthy Spartan children; although a public education probably also ensured that
the women fully subscribed to the community’s values. Spartan mothers reminding
their sons of their duty to fight valiantly or die are a commonplace in ancient tradition,
and they clearly played an important part in upholding the society’s ideals (Pomeroy
Spartan Women 57-62; with many examples; note especially Plutarch, Sayings of
Spartan Women). Spartan women were probably married later than most girls
elsewhere in Greece (late teens, rather than early/mid teens), and the unusual customs
surrounding marriage at Sparta may mean that they remained in their parents’ house
for some time even after they were married. Since Spartiates were obliged to spend
much time with the other men, especially for dinners with their mess, and were also
often involved in warfare, the women probably enjoyed comparative freedom in
running their household, and they needed a certain independence and the ability to
control an estate (note that the two wives of king Anaxandridas apparently remained
in separate households: Hdt. 5.40).
Aristotle’s criticism of Sparta focuses especially on the behaviour and status of
women (Politics 1269b-1270a, see appendix): he disapproves of their independence,
and he goes so far as to suggest that women were at least partly responsible for
Sparta’s loss of power in the fourth century. One crucial factor in this process,
according to Aristotle, was the fact that women could own property, and that in his
own time (mid/second half C4th BC) they did indeed control two fifths of all the land,
with the result that there was less land to go round for the men who needed property
to maintain their citizen status (see also above, 2.1.1; S. Hodkinson, in Figueira,
Spartan Society, 103-36, offers a useful overview). Again, it was highly unusual in
ancient Greece (but not unique to Sparta) that women could own property in their own
name: in most places any property that a woman received as inheritance or dowry
would be held by her kyrios or legal guardian (usually the husband or nearest male
relative), but we have no evidence that this was also the case in Sparta. Property could
not be bought and sold in Sparta, but it changed hand through inheritance, dowries
and gifts. Daughters would only inherit if they did not have brothers at the time of
their fathers’ death, but Aristotle (Politics 1270a23-5) suggests that there were many
such heiresses, and that the Spartans were also used to give large dowries. In the
classical period Spartan women were probably subject to the general restrictions on
conspicuous consumption of wealth, e.g. strict rules on dress, jewellery or luxury
items. Exceptional women, mostly members of the royal families, engaged in
exclusive activities such as the breeding of race horses, most famously Cynisca, the
wife of Agesilaus II, whose horses won her a victories at Olympia in 396 and 392 BC
(Cartledge, The Spartans. An Epic History, 196-202; Hodkinson, in Figueira, Spartan
Society, 111-13).
JACT Teachers’ Notes
It is difficult to tell how far we should follow our ancient sources in their
observations about Spartan women’s status and behaviour. The licentiousness of
Spartan women was a cliché which scandalised outside observers, and no doubt the
idea of girls exercising publicly and in the nude excited fantasies, too – something that
Aristophanes (Lys. 79-84) clearly found a useful source for laughs when he introduces
his Spartan woman on stage. Moreover, outsiders’ perceptions of Spartan women
were probably shaped by exceptional women, especially members of the royal
families. Nevertheless, even if we have to be careful not to overestimate or generalise
information about their situation, it seems clear that Spartan women’s status within
society was indeed different from that in most other Greek states.
2.3.4. Family Life
The regulations of the Spartan state intruded into aspects of life that other
Greeks would have considered private family matters. The main aim was apparently
to ensure that there was a maximum number of healthy children, a policy which, as far
as we can tell from the falling numbers of Spartiates in the Classical period and
beyond, was not a success, or, if we follow Aristotle (Politics 1270b, see appendix),
may even have been counterproductive.
While Spartiates were not allowed to get married as long as they had not
reached full citizen status, they were then strongly encouraged (perhaps even obliged
by law) to marry, and bachelors were subjected to public humiliation (Plut. Lyc. 15.2).
Xenophon (Lac. Pol. 1.6) maintains that late marriage was designed to produce
healthy children, as was the custom for young husbands not to be seen with their
wives, so that they were not free to have unlimited sexual intercourse (Xen. Lac. Pol.
1.5). Plutarch (Lyc. 15.4-9) describes very unusual marriage rites which may reflect a
similar tradition, possibly with later additions. Once Spartiates were married they
could still enter into agreements of ‘wife swapping’ or ‘husband sharing’, especially if
they found it difficult to produce healthy children (Xen. Lac. Pol. 1.7-9).
Once a child was born, it had to be presented to officials (the ‘eldest of the
tribe’) to be inspected (Plut. Lyc. 16.1-2). This certainly applied to boys, and perhaps
to girls as well. Any newborns who did not pass muster were exposed. Again, the
Spartan state intrudes into an aspect of life that elsewhere was a family matter: usually
it was the prerogative of the father to decide whether to raise a child or to reject it. As
we have already seen, this finds a logical continuation in the public education system
which deliberately weakened ties between young boys and their families. At the same
time, Spartiates made it their business to participate in the education of all children in
the community, and everyone was allowed to give orders to any children or to
discipline those who had committed some transgression in his presence (Xen. Lac.
Pol. 2.10).
Nevertheless, we should not assume that family ties did not matter in Sparta.
There is evidence for close relationships between children and their parents (Pomeroy,
Spartan Women, 56-62), particularly between mothers and their sons. The leading
families clearly engaged in the same dynastic politics which are characteristic for
aristocrats everywhere, and family background probably also mattered when a Spartan
tried to achieve high office, especially a seat in the gerousia.
2.3.5. Spartan Values
Spartan society was held together by a very clearly defined set of values which
were especially highly praised, and which were also the focus of the agoge (see also
JACT Teachers’ Notes
above, 2.1.1.). In a way, a Spartiate probably found it easier than most people to know
exactly what was expected of him, and he was also trained to aspire to the common
Warfare was clearly a central concern of the Spartan state and dominated the
communal activities of its citizens. Spartiates continued to engage in training for
military pursuits, and their preferred leisure activities (exercise, hunting) could be
considered as further preparation for war. Consequently, the Spartan army was a welloiled machine which functioned exceptionally well, especially compared to the
infantry of other cities which consisted of men who usually had little time or
opportunity for military training (Xen, Lac. Pol. 11-12; cf. Thuc. 5.66-73). As a result,
the Spartans were not only very good at warfare, they also had a fearsome reputation
which further enhanced their success rate (see below, 2.5).
The crucial Spartan virtues were also mainly those of warriors: courage,
endurance and obedience were particularly valued. As early as in the seventh century
Tyrtaeus’ poetry did not only stress the importance of courage, he also represented it
as an essential factor for community cohesion:
It is a common good for the city and all her people when a man stands firm in
the foremost rank without ceasing, and, making his heart and soul steadfast,
forgets all about shameful flight and encourages the man next to him.
(Tyrtaeus 12.15-19).
It is also particularly striking that in some poems he stresses the co-operation between
different age groups and the important role of young men’s courage (10.15-30).
Spartiates who did not exhibit the desired qualities could be publicly
humiliated, formally punished or, in extreme cases, offenders were shunned by the
community, as well as losing their civic rights. This was particularly the fate of the socalled ‘tremblers’ (tresantes), who had shown themselves as cowards in battle.
Herodotus (7.239-32) illustrates the strict adherence to this rule when he discusses the
three Spartans who had good reason to miss the battle of Thermopylae: one asked his
helot attendant to lead him into battle in spite of a serious eye condition and fell with
the others; another, suffering from the same illness, returned home and later redeemed
himself with a heroic, if foolhardy, death at the battle of Plataea; and the third, who
had missed the battle because he had been sent on an errant, could not bear the shame
and committed suicide.
Courage was apparently so crucial that it might be regarded as more important
than obedience, at least this is the implication of a remarkable episode in Herodotus’
report of the battle of Plataea (Hdt 9.53-7). During the night before the battle was
finally joined the Greeks attempted to retreat to a safer position, but the Spartans were
held up by a certain Amompharetus, commander of a division of the army, who
maintained that it would be un-Spartan to retreat, involving Pausanias, the regent and
general, in lengthy negotiations; in the end, the Spartans decided to move off without
Amompharetus’ contingent, which finally convinced him that he should follow. This
act of serious disobedience caused a long delay which represented a very serious risk
not only for the Spartans but also for their allies. Herodotus does not report whether
Amompharetus suffered any repercussions for his behaviour (note Thuc. 5.72.1 where
disobedient officers are exiled for cowardice). This episode suggests that there was a
downside to the rigid education system and strict adherence to a very simple set of
strong values, namely a certain inflexibility when straightforward solutions were not
an option.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Spartans also had the reputation of being particularly pious, not least because
outsiders could see that religious considerations affected their military activities and
foreign policy. For example, there are several instances when they refused to call out
their army, even in very serious situations, before a festival was over (e.g. Hdt. 6.106,
6.120; 7.206). Some campaigns were interrupted or delayed when sacrifices did not
turn out well. Moreover, Sparta seems to have taken its consultation of oracles
particularly seriously. As Parker (in Whitby, Sparta, 165-71) shows, sanctuaries and
religious activities at Sparta fit the norms of Greek religion: Sparta’s gods and cults
were Greek, but, as in every distinct community, they also had a specifically local
flavour. As in every Greek city, religion was part of life, and therefore we should not
be surprised that all aspects of Spartan society were closely connected with sacred
activities. This is especially clear for the sacred rites which were an integral part of
the education of both boys and girls. Important rituals marked the crucial steps from
one stage of the agoge to the next, and Artemis Orthia as well as the Dioscuri played a
particularly significant role in the lives of adolescent Spartans. More in general, the
boys and girls were given starring roles in religious festivals, which contributed to
their gradual integration within Spartan society (see Kennell, Gymnasium of Virtue,
126-8, 135-42).
These Spartan values, together with austerity and equality (see above, 2.1.1.)
were conspicuous and soon became part of a ‘Spartan myth’, stereotypical perceptions
which the Spartans themselves were probably happy to cultivate when they had
contact with outsiders (see below, 2.6). What we see in our sources, particularly in
anecdotes designed to illustrate typically Spartan behaviour, therefore reflects
outsiders’ perceptions and an idealised image of Spartan society. Moreover, the
cardinal Spartan virtues were generally appreciated in the Greek world. Nevertheless,
Sparta was indeed different, particularly because her society focused on a very
selective set of values which determined their upbringing and daily lives.
2.4. Sparta and the Peloponnese, 480–404 BC (Corinth, Tegea,
(For Messenia see above, 2.1.3).
From the eighth century onwards Sparta was one of the great powers in
Peloponnese. The conquest of Messenia created one of the largest polis territories in
the Greek world. More important, however, were Sparta’s efforts to bring almost all
Peloponnesian states into an alliance under her leadership, which made her the most
powerful state in Greece during the late Archaic period (Hdt. 1.68), and one of two
‘superpowers’ on the Greek mainland during the fifth and early fourth century.
Relations within the Peloponnese were never without conflict, but the longevity of the
Peloponnesian league and its effective use on many occasions should be considered a
2.4.1. The Peloponnesian League
In the sixth century the Spartans turned from attempts to subjugate their
neighbours to a new strategy: they began to form alliances with Peloponnesian states.
Traditionally, Sparta’s agreement with Tegea, probably in the 550’s BC, is seen as the
first of many such agreements of alliance which became the Peloponnesian league of
the classical period. In fact, it seems that even earlier Sparta was already very active
in forging links with many cities. In the Peloponnese, the Spartans could offer support
JACT Teachers’ Notes
against the other potentially large power, Argos, and they also acquired a reputation
for helping cities to remove tyrants. In any case, by the late sixth century many states
on the peninsula were allies of Sparta, namely all Arcadians, the Eleans in the west
and a number of states in the north-east (in the vicinity of Argos), especially Corinth,
which was to play a crucial role in the alliance. Herodotus saw the beginning of
Sparta’s system of alliances as a turning point which made her the largest power in
Greece at the time (Hdt. 1.65-8). The most detailed description of the size of the
league can be found in Thucydides 2.9.2 (431 BC), and the League reached its
greatest extent at some stage during the Peloponnesian War, when all of Achaea on
the coast of the Corinthian Gulf was added. Argos always remained outside the
alliance. After the end of the Peloponnesian War Sparta began to lose allies; most
importantly Corinth, which was dissatisfied with the outcome of the war. The league
was finally dissolved in the aftermath of the battle of Leuctra (371 BC), when the
Arcadians in particular decided to found their own regional state.
It is not clear when Sparta’s set of alliances came to be seen as one entity, the
organisation we call the Peloponnesian league, while the official term in ancient texts
is ‘the Lacedaemonians and their allies’, often ‘the Peloponnesians’ for short. It seems
that from the beginning the allies were obliged to contribute troops to Spartan
campaigns, initially probably without having a say in decisions about campaigns. In c.
506 BC king Cleomenes I planned to march on Athens to abolish the newly created
democratic government and to re-instate the last tyrant. The allies were called up and
marched across the Isthmus towards Athens, apparently without being told about the
aims of the campaign. At the borders of Attica the plan became clear and the
Corinthians refused to continue. When king Demaratus also expressed his disapproval
of Cleomenes’ plan, the other allies also decided to go home and the whole campaign
collapsed (Hdt. 5.74-6). Soon afterwards the Spartans began to consult their allies
before they set out on campaign (Hdt. 5.91). This process was then formalised at some
stage (the exact chronology is not clear), and by the beginning of the Peloponnesian
JACT Teachers’ Notes
War we see formal league councils at Sparta where the allies could vote on Sparta’s
proposals for specific campaigns (Thuc. 1.67, 1.119).
In spite of the introduction of league councils the League was formally never
more than a set of alliances between Sparta and individual Peloponnesian states. One
possible league treaty, probably of the fifth century, has been discovered on the
acropolis of Sparta:
[Treat]y with the Aitoloi E[rxadieis].
(1) To h[ave friendshi]p and peace, [for ever] without dish]onesty, and
(2) an alli[ance against anyone exc]ept the Man[tineans (?),
(3) follow]ing the Sp[artan]s wherever they may lead, b[y land a]nd by sea,
having th[e same] friend and [enemy] as [the Spar]tans. They shall not e[nd
(a war)] without the permission of the Sp[artans,] send[ing envoys] to the
same (states) [as the Spar]tans. (4)[They shall not rece]ive exil[es] who have
partici[pated in illegali]ties.
(5)If anyone should [lead an expedition] with warlike intent [against the] land
of the Erxadieis, [the Spart]ans shall he[lp] with all their streng[th according to
their ability.] (6)If anyone should le[ad an expedition with warlike in]tent
against th[e] land of [the Spart]ans the E[rxadieis shall help with all their
strength according to their ability]…
This text is very fragmentary, and the exact meaning of some phrases remains unclear,
but it offers some authentic insight into the workings of Sparta’s alliances. The
Aitoloi Erxadieis are not known from any other source: they were presumably a very
small community (not a city), probably somewhere in the north-western Peloponnese.
Clauses (5) and (6) are the usual mutual pledges of a defensive alliance, but the real
nature of the agreement becomes clear in (3), where the Aitoloi Erxadieis agree to
follow Sparta wherever she leads (a phrase also echoed in the literary sources) and
more or less sign away their freedom in determining their own foreign policy. Clause
(2) is very fragmentary and the reconstruction here is in doubt, but if this reading is
correct, it may offer the Erxadieis a chance to honour existing relations with other
states (Mantinea in this case) by opting out of league campaigns against long-standing
friends. Since we are dealing with a very small state, it is difficult to tell whether this
part of the treaty was representative: did large poleis such as Corinth or Tegea agree
to the same restrictive conditions concerning relations with other states? It seems
clear, however, that all Peloponnesian allies did agree to follow ‘wherever Sparta led’,
although, as we have seen, they were eventually allowed to have a say in such
decisions. Clause (4) is also significant: ‘exiles who have participated in illegalities’
may refer to fugitive helots. In any case, it is generally thought that one crucial aim of
Sparta’s alliances was to ensure that all neighbouring states would support her against
any rebellious activities of the helots, especially those in Messenia. Note that there is
no reference to Sparta’s other allies in this treaty. In fact, members of the league did
not have to have mutual agreements, and some went to war against each other. In such
cases Sparta’s promise to defend allies against an attack, as in (5), gave her the right
to intervene, but she did not always get involved, presumably leaving her allies a free
hand as long as a conflict did not pose a threat to her own interests.
It may not come as a surprise that Sparta’s relations with her allies were not
always entirely amicable. In fact, there were repeated attempts of various states to
gain more independence or to found alternative alliances which might be able to stand
up to Sparta. As early as in the Persian Wars we get a hint that not all was well in the
Peloponnese: both Mantinea and Elis failed to participate in the battle of Plataea and
JACT Teachers’ Notes
arrived on the battlefield late (Hdt. 9.77). These two states remained particularly
troublesome allies for much of the history of the league, and it seems that in this case
they were hedging their bets. We have very little information about internal
Peloponnesian affairs in the period between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian
War. The most extensive (!) information comes in this short passage:
The five victories were these: one, the first, at Plataea (479 BC), next that
which was won at Tegea over the Tegeans and Argives; after that, over all
the Arcadians save the Mantineans at Dipaea; next over the Messenians at
Ithome, lastly the victory at Tanagra over the Athenians and Argives (457
BC). Hdt. 9.35; trans. A.D. Godley (Loeb).
What we can see in this text is that apart from the traumatic helot revolt of 464, there
was significant upheaval in the Peloponnese during the 470’s and 460’s BC, and, if
we assume that this list is in chronological order, it seems that the Peloponnesians did
not wait for the destructive earthquake in Sparta to assert their desire for
independence. We are probably seeing an early attempt of the Arcadians to co-operate
against Sparta which clearly took some time to bring under control. In the latter half
of the fifth century, Mantinea began to expand its sphere of influence within central
Arcadia, and Elis also sought to expand its territory towards the south. These activities
eventually led to serious friction, especially because they affected a main route from
Laconia to Messenia as well as the northern borders of Messenia, both very sensitive
areas for the Spartans. During the Peloponnesian War, in 420 BC, Elis and Mantinea
entered an alliance with Sparta’s enemies Argos and Athens and they soon proceeded
to launch attacks on various Peloponnesian cities. Sparta finally put a stop to these
activities in the largest field battle of the whole Peloponnesian War (Mantinea, 418
BC). Problems with Elis and Mantinea continued after Sparta’s victory in the
Peloponnesian war and resulted in drastic sanctions, namely a war against Elis in 4021 BC, and the destruction of Mantinea in 385 BC.
In spite of such ongoing conflicts, one should not forget, however, that Sparta
also inspired loyalty in her allies. Many of the member states were very small (see the
Aitoloi Erxadieis, but a number of small member states is also known from the
literary evidence) and would not have been able to withstand attacks by any larger
enemy: they could hardly resist Sparta’s advances and, once the alliance was
concluded, would presumably have found potential protection against aggressive
neighbours a bonus. Sparta tried to keep larger states on side by helping to keep proSpartan oligarchic regimes in place. On the whole, political circumstances within
Sparta’s sphere of influence remained relatively stable compared to other parts of
Greece, and since Sparta had a good record of success in war, the allies also had a
chance to share in the benefits of the league’s victories. In the end, the Peloponnesian
League survived for c. 180 years, which is an extremely long period for any multistate alliance, and a particular achievement in the instable context of Greek interstate
2.4.2. Corinth
Corinth was the largest and most influential state among Sparta’s
Peloponnesian allies. There is some evidence for the co-operation between the two
states at least since 525 BC (Hdt. 3.46-56), while Herodotus (probably
anachronistically) suggests that ‘the whole Peloponnese was already subjected to the
Spartans’ in c. 550 BC, when king Croesus of Lydia set out to identify the most
powerful Greek state (Hdt. 1.56; 1.68). In any case, co-operation between the two
JACT Teachers’ Notes
states may have begun even before the mid-sixth century. Archaic Corinth was a
formidable state, proverbially wealthy, strategically situated at the Isthmus and in
possession of a virtually invulnerable acropolis (the Acrocorinthus). Its two harbours
opened to the Saronic Gulf and the Aegean in the East and to the Corinthian Gulf and
the Adriatic in the East, and the city also controlled the important land route from
central Greece to the Peloponnese (Thuc. 1.13.2-5). For the Corinthian perspective see
J.B. Salmon, Wealthy Corinth.
Although Sparta’s territory was much larger than that of Corinth, an alliance
between these two states in the sixth century could hardly be seen as an agreement
between unequal partners. Corinth could offer its strategic position and a large fleet to
complement the large combined Peloponnesian military power. In return, Corinth
probably appreciated Sparta’s support against its powerful neighbour Argos. Once
Corinth had joined forces with Sparta, it continued to assert its considerable influence
among the allies. As we have already seen, the Corinthians’ decision to withdraw their
troops (albeit at a point where one of the kings agreed with their stance) could
terminate an allied campaign (Hdt 5.74-6). Later on, the Corinthians are shown as
leading discussions with the Spartans about further plans (Hdt. 5.91). In 431 BC the
Corinthians were instrumental in convincing Sparta and the other allies to declare war
against Athens: Thucydides (1.119) shows them lobbying the other allies before the
decisive league meeting, and one gets the impressions that they had generally learned
how to play the system to have their opinions heard.
Sparta needed Corinth and therefore could not avoid taking its interests
seriously. This state of affairs arguably triggered some of the major conflicts of the
fifth century. With Athens’ power growing and the friction between Athens and
Sparta increasing after the 460’s BC, Corinth increasingly found itself on the front
line of a conflict between the two ‘superpowers’ of Greece. One of the main issues of
contention in the First Peloponnesian War of the 450’s was Megara, Corinth’s
neighbour, and the general balance of power among the four states around the Saronic
Gulf (Corinth, Megara, Athens, Aegina). The situation in the same region again
caused friction in the 430’s, when Athens’ treatment of Megara and Aegina was
among the grievances that triggered the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 1.67). Thucydides
(1.24-66) presents two main incidents as the major ‘pretexts’ for the war, and
characteristically both involve Corinthian colonies who found themselves in an
untenable position between the fronts, namely Corcyra (modern Corfu) and Poteidaia
(a city on the Chalcidice). Corinth’s far flung network of colonies therefore meant that
Sparta had to get involved in overseas affairs, an area where she was far more likely
to come to blows with the supreme naval power, namely Athens, than in her
traditional sphere of influence.
During the Peloponnesian War Corinth made great contributions to the
Peloponnesian war effort, especially by providing a major part of the allied fleet. No
doubt this also meant considerable expenses, and the Corinthians were particularly
dissatisfied when, in 421 BC, Sparta made peace with Athens without (from a
Corinthian point of view) negotiating satisfying concessions. At this stage Corinth
flirted with the idea of initiating a new set of alliances in opposition to Sparta, but did
not carry out its plans. In the end, it was yet again Athenian interest in a Corinthian
colony, this time the ‘Sicilian Expedition’ against Syracuse (415-13 BC), which
eventually triggered a renewal of hostilities in Mainland Greece. The final breach
between Corinth and Sparta was a consequence of the settlement after Sparta’s victory
over Athens. Xenophon (Hell. 2.2.20) reports that Corinth and Thebes demanded that
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Athens be destroyed completely, but Sparta initially imposed a pro-Spartan oligarchic
government and less than a year later condoned a restoration of a democratic
constitution. By 403 Corinth refused to respond to a Spartan call for allied troops, and
less than a decade later the two states were again involved in a war, this time on
opposing sides (Corinthian War, 395-86 BC). The league survived for over thirty
years after Corinth had left it, but there is no doubt that Sparta’s position had become
more difficult, especially when she wished to intervene in central or northern Greece.
2.4.3. Tegea
Tegea was Sparta’s northern neighbour and proved to be one of her most
faithful allies. With a force of at least 1500 hoplites (Hdt. 9.28) the city was among
the most significant members of the Peloponnesian League, and one of the two
leading cities of Arcadia, the other being its northern neighbour Mantinea. Tegea’s
location automatically made it a prime target for Spartan aggression, and it seems that
there was a series of conflicts between the two communities during the sixth century
(Hdt. 1.66-8). Herodotus reports that in the end the Spartans received an oracle
advising them to fetch the bones of Orestes from Tegea, which would allow them to
subdue their neighbours. This unusual story is not entirely unique: the appropriation
of an important hero’s relics had a strong symbolic value, and in this case it seems
that the Spartans were trying to bridge the gap between themselves as Dorians and
non-Doric peoples such as the Arcadians and Achaeans by emphasising a connection
with one of the mythical rulers of the whole peninsula before the Dorians arrived. We
do not know whether this measure did indeed have any direct success: the tomb of
Orestes in Sparta survived into Roman times, but we have no evidence that this
particular mythical connection was of much use later on. Rather than subjugating the
Tegeans, the Spartans finally decided to conclude a treaty. The reasons for this
momentous step are not clear, but the long Tegean resistance and the position of the
city on the main route to Argos and the Isthmus beyond may have played a role, as
well as the recognition that controlling a subject territory in the same way as Messenia
meant a considerable strain of material resources as well as manpower.
In the Persian Wars the Tegeans appear as faithful allies of Sparta, especially
at the battle of Plataea, where the Spartans, Tegeans and Athenians were the only
Greek contingents not to leave the field before the battle and therefore did most of the
fighting (Hdt. 9.60-1). Herodotus also stages a dispute between Athenians and
Tegeans for the honourable position on the left wing of the Greek phalanx, and the
Tegeans maintain that this was their usual position when the Peloponnesians lined up
for battle (Hdt. 9.26-8). As we have seen (above, 2.4.1), Tegea turned against Sparta
for two or three decades after the Persian Wars, but was again firmly loyal during the
Peloponnesian War and in the early fourth century, when the city had a staunchly proLaconian, presumably oligarchic government. Sparta was, however, acutely aware
that Tegea was a crucial ally who needed to be kept on side: when in 418 the antiSpartan activities of the Mantineans and Eleans threatened to trigger a civil war at
Tegea, Sparta acted immediately to put a halt to such a dangerous development: the
result was the battle of Mantinea which brought Elis and Mantinea back into the fold.
A situation where Mantinea and Tegea, united with Argos and Elis, might have turned
against Sparta would have constituted a serious threat to Sparta’s position: it is very
likely that other Arcadian cities would have seceded as well, which means that
Tegea’s loyalty at this moment was in fact crucial for the survival of the whole
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Ultimately, it was a similar scenario, albeit under very different circumstances,
that brought about the end of the Peloponnesian League. After the Spartans’ defeat at
Leuctra in 371 BC the Mantineans decided to rebuild their dismantled city (destroyed
by the Spartans in 385 BC), and they floated the idea of closer Arcadian co-operation.
This time a civil war did break out at Tegea, and the Spartans were unable to prevent
the foundation of an Arcadian federal state (370BC) which spent the next years
pursuing an aggressively anti-Spartan policy, including a joint campaign with the
Boeotians in 370/69 which invaded Laconia and liberated Messenia.
2.4.4. Argos
From the archaic period onwards, Argos was Sparta’s rival in the Peloponnese,
and relations between the two states ranged between open hostilities and uneasy coexistence. A detailed account can be found in Tomlinson, Argos and the Argolid, esp.
ch. 8-11. Ancient tradition suggests that the conflict between Argos and Sparta started
at the latest in the seventh century: both states had interests in the region along the
east coast of the peninsula (Thyreatis). Moreover, it seems that both competed for
wider influence in the Peloponnese. By the mid-sixth century the Spartans began to
gain the upper hand, a development that was probably closely connected with their
efforts to gather numerous Peloponnesian allies around them. Support against Argos
was probably one of Sparta’s selling points at this stage, although it is difficult to say
what exactly made her offers more attractive than those of her opponent. Herodotus
(1.82) reports a decisive Spartan victory around 545 BC (‘battle of the Champions’;
the details of his account are suspect, but the victory itself is generally considered
plausible). In the 490’s (494 BC?) Cleomenes I attacked Argos, and Herodotus (6.7683; 7.148-9) reports that a large proportion of the Argive infantry (6000 men) was
killed in the conflict, although the city itself was not taken. This reduced a worthy
opponent for Sparta to a middling power which would not be a danger for some time:
the loss of citizens meant a long period of internal instability, and it seems that Argos
temporarily lost control over part of its territory.
The Argives slowly recovered during the first half of the fifth century. They
remained firmly outside the Peloponnesian League and represented a willing
collaborator for any league member who planned to oppose Sparta. For example,
Argos is mentioned among the opponents of Sparta in one of the ‘five contests’ listed
by Herodotus (9.35, see above 2.4.1) for the 470’s and 460’s. As Athens became
increasingly powerful and developed into Sparta’s great rival (especially after 464
BC) the Argives also sought to co-operate with Athens, and became involved in the
first Peloponnesian War. It was probably this conflict which led to negotiations
between Sparta and Argos: in 351 BC they agreed on a peace for 30 years. Argos did
indeed remain neutral for this period and therefore avoided an involvement in the first
part of the Peloponnesian War. As it happened, the treaty expired around the time
when Sparta concluded peace with Athens (421 BC), and again the Argives found
themselves in a position where they could offer help to dissatisfied Spartan allies
(alliance of Athens, Argos, Mantinea and Elis: 420-418 BC; Thuc. 5.47-78). After this
alliance was defeated, Sparta imposed a pro-Spartan oligarchic government which did
not last, and Argos soon returned to being Sparta’s enemy. Corinth’s decision to leave
the Peloponnesian league offered new opportunities, and the two states set aside a
long tradition of hostility in favour of a close co-operation, not least in an effort to
oppose Spartan influence.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
After their devastating defeat in the early fifth century the Argives were never
again able to challenge their enemy’s leading position, but they ensured that Sparta’s
claim to the whole peninsula could never realised. Moreover, on several occasions
Argos was able to offer support to dissenters within the Peloponnesian League, and its
collaboration made such anti-Spartan activities much more dangerous for Sparta and
her alliance.
2.5. Views of Sparta from other states (Athens)
Few Greek cities can boast a better literary record for the archaic period, let
alone the seventh century BC, than Sparta with its two poets Alcman and Tyrtaeus
and a fragment of a very early constitutional law. After this, however, we rely
exclusively on outsiders’ views, and Sparta’s image is particularly strongly influenced
by Athens. The reputation of Sparta in antiquity was shaped by a complex dialectic
process: the Spartans carefully cultivated their image (see also below, 2.6.), outsiders
combined observation and stereotypes into a comprehensive set of ideas about Sparta,
and Spartans in turn reacted to this tradition, especially later, in the Hellenistic and
Roman period, when many of their customs had to be re-invented or revised. The
main trends in the perception of Sparta were, however, set in the fifth century BC.
Ancient tradition essentially reflects two distinct impressions of Sparta which
could, to an extent, overlap. On one hand, the Spartan way of life was widely
admired, while on the other, commentators liked to stress the alien aspects of Spartan
culture, the many ways in which their ways differed from the Greek, especially
Athenian, norm. Both images of Sparta had a particularly strong influence on modern
perceptions. Admiration of Sparta was strong in the nineteenth and early twentieth
century, and culminated in the admiration expressed by many fascist regimes of the
1930’s and 1940’s, especially by the Nazis in Germany. The reaction to this continues
to this day, and more recent literature is dominated by the idea of Sparta as alien, a
Greek state in opposition to many values of western civilisation, and comparisons
(often implicit rather than explicit) with totalitarian regimes are relatively common in
modern scholarly works. For a detailed discussion of the changing perception of
Sparta since antiquity see Rawson, The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, esp.
chs. 2-5, which deal with the Classical period.
Since modern perceptions of Sparta favour the idea of its essential ‘otherness’,
we have to be particularly careful not to overemphasise differences between Spartans
and other Greeks. Every Greek polis had its own culture, usually a set of variations on
a common Greek theme. Greeks were therefore used to recognise such differences,
and one might even say that they appreciated the variety of cultural expression as a
vital aspect of polis life which, by the fifth century at least, was seen as an essential
hallmark of Greekness. Aristophanes’ Spartans are essentially ridiculed just like any
other foreigners with funny accents and somewhat different customs: Boeotians, for
example, do not fare much better, although Spartan peculiarities were perhaps
particularly characteristic and therefore easy to parody. Nevertheless, the Spartans fit
within the parameters of variation within Greek culture: they were different, yet not
entirely strange. Members of the elite everywhere in the Greek world particularly
recognised many aspects of the Spartan way of life as familiar: they subscribed to
similar values, albeit, perhaps, with different priorities. Herodotus, a relatively
detached observer, offers some early examples of such ideas (Hdt. 3.64, 4.77, 7.104):
he seems to appreciate Spartan wisdom, and he makes reference to the typical
Laconian style of concise speech. He was, of course, also full of admiration for
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Spartan military achievements, but this sentiment was universal: there was no
doubting Spartan valour in battle; disagreements about her merits concerned Spartan
ideals, values and her unique politeia.
Some Greek thinkers saw Sparta in a particularly positive light, namely as a
place where venerable old traditions were still alive and where a whole society had
managed develop a set of laws which allowed it to free itself from most mundane
worries and to dedicate their lives to public service and leisure pursuits. Such
observations are of course focusing on the lives of the adult male citizen: the fact that
the Spartans controlled a large subject population whose labour allowed them to
pursue such a lifestyle was, in fact, be seen as a bonus by many: for example, the
different versions of an ideal state developed in Plato’s Republic and Laws are clearly
influenced by the Spartan system, especially when he advocates a strict division
between the political class and those who farm the land (Rawson, Spartan Tradition,
Plato was, in fact, just one of a number of authors who were strongly
influenced by a kind of backlash against democracy which dominated the thinking of
many men of good Athenian families who lived through the difficult later years of the
Peloponnesian War (see Rawson, Spartan Tradition, 27-32). Aristophanes (Wasps
475; Birds 1281-3) refers to laconomania (‘Sparta-mania’) among some Athenians,
which manifested itself in some men’s choice of hairstyle (long hair and beard) and
clothing. The young intellectuals of this period looked to Sparta for an alternative to
the extreme democracy that they had come to despise, an alternative which seemed to
allow the ‘better sort’ to keep to themselves and take part in public life without having
to pander to the lower classes. Most of the best known proponents of such views were,
like Plato, closely connected with Socrates. One pupil, Critias, became a leading light
among the Thirty Tyrants imposed on Athens by Sparta in 404 and wrote two
appreciative works on the Spartan constitution; Alcibiades was famous for adopting
the Spartan lifestyle while he was in exile there. Xenophon also belonged to this
circle, and his work has to be seen within this context.
Xenophon not only admired Sparta from afar, he also had a chance to get to
know it well: he had friends and acquaintances there, which included king Agesilaus
II. In fact, Xenophon’s biography (or rather hagiography) of Agesilaus had a great
impact on general and lasting ideas about the generic ‘noble Spartan’. His
Constitution of the Spartans sees the Spartan way of life as the secret of Sparta’s
success. However, the work also reflects a certain disillusionment. This sentiment is
typical for the period: as a victorious Sparta asserted her power over Greece, she
committed many acts which even the most enthusiastic ‘laconomaniac’ could not
condone. Fourth century discourse about Sparta therefore also included ideas about
the corruption of her virtues through wealth and imperial power, especially after
Sparta’s momentous defeat at Leuctra (note Aristotle’s criticisms in the Politics – see
appendix). Nevertheless, the positive image of Sparta espoused in the late fifth
century had a lasting impact on perceptions of Spartan society.
To consider the second major trend in the classical perception of Sparta, we
have to bear in mind the great rivalry between Spartans and Athenians which
dominated a significant part of the classical period, at least from the 460’s to the 380’s
BC, and particularly during the Peloponnesian War. This conflict affected the Greek
world at large, and since for us the Athenian view defines the discourse, much of what
we hear about Sparta in this period is distorted by an Athenian perspective. Herodotus
was from Asia Minor and probably wrote much of his work before the Peloponnesian
JACT Teachers’ Notes
War broke out, but his image of Greece already hints at the idea of the two essentially
different superpowers (e.g. Hdt. 5.91, 5.97), and he emphasises Sparta’s ‘strangeness’
by tracing the ancestry of the Dorians to Persians and Egyptians, and by suggesting
that some of her customs resemble those of Persia and Egypt (Hdt. 6.53-60). Even if
his story shows Athens and Sparta co-operating against Persia, Herodotus’ work
engages with a tradition that was now used by both sides to bolster rival claims (for
Persian War arguments see Thuc. 1.73.2-74.4, cf. Hdt. 7.139).
By the mid-fifth century, interstate politics in Mainland Greece and beyond
were in fact increasingly dominated by a largely bipolar system which could be seen
in terms of opposites: Athens versus Sparta, Ionian against Dorian, democracy against
oligarchy, a maritime empire pitted against a land-based power, progressive audacity
opposed by conservative caution, artful rhetoric met with Laconic brevity, a
flourishing of the arts compared to military austerity, to mention just a few examples.
In fact, Sparta could be presented as a kid of anti-Athens, its opposite in (almost)
every respect. This dichotomy probably became a staple of rhetorical argument
employed in the context of political discourse at Athens, and it is likely that it also
influenced the conduct of interstate relations. Both powers themselves probably
subscribed to these stereotypes, and reinforced them if it could help their cause. In any
case, Thucydides offers the most striking examples of such ideas in some of the
speeches he includes in his work (see Rawson, Spartan tradition, 21-4).
… for [the Athenians] are given to innovation and quick to form plans and to
put their decisions into execution, whereas you [the Spartans] are disposed
merely to keep what you have, to devise nothing new, and, when you do take
action, not to carry to completion even what is indispensable. Again, they are
bold beyond their strength, venturesome beyond their better judgment, and
sanguine in the face of dangers; while your way is to do less than your
strength warrants, to distrust even what your judgment is sure of, and, when
dangers come, to despair of deliverance. Moreover, they are prompt in
decision, while you are dilatory; they stir abroad, while you are perfect stayat-homes; for they expect to gain something by being away from home, while
you are afraid that, if you go out after something, you may imperil even what
you have. Thuc. 1.70.3-4 (Corinthians speaking); trans. adapted from C.F.
Smith (Loeb).
In Pericles’ funerary oration Thucydides (2.35-44) offers an Athenian perspective on
the contrast between the two great cities: Pericles’ praise of his city keeps Sparta in
mind, and describes Athens and all its qualities as a superior opposite to Spartan
control and austerity. He stresses the advantages of democracy which allows all to
participate on the basis of merit rather than wealth (2.37.1), and which depends on
wide participation and debate (2.40.1-2). Athens is the school of Hellas (2.41.1),
where beauty and wisdom are appreciated by all and culture flourishes (2.38.1,
2.40.1). Thucydides (Pericles) also hints at the strict peer pressure which ensured
conformity at Sparta; Athens, again, is different:
And not only in our public life are we liberal, but also as regards our freedom
from suspicion of one another in the pursuits of every-day life; for we do not
feel resentment at our neighbour if he does as he likes, nor yet do we put on
sour looks which, though harmless, are painful to behold. Thuc. 2.37.2, trans.
C.F. Smith (Loeb).
Finally, even the famous Spartan education system is under attack, and Athenian
openness is favourably contrasted with Spartan secrecy and general suspicion of
JACT Teachers’ Notes
We are also superior to our opponents in our system of training for warfare,
and this is in the following respects. In the first place, we throw our city open
to all the world and we never practice the expulsion of foreigners to prevent
anyone from learning or seeing anything which an enemy might profit by
observing if it were kept from his sight; for depend not so much on
prearranged devices to deceive, as on the courage which springs from our
own souls when we are called to action. And again, in the matter of education
(paideia), whereas they from early childhood by a laborious discipline make
pursuit of manly courage, we with our unrestricted mode of life are
nonetheless ready to meet any equality of hazard. Thuc. 2.39.1-2; trans.
adapted from C.F. Smith (Loeb).
Thucydides (Pericles) even undermines Sparta’s towering reputation, an asset that was
no doubt carefully cultivated by the Spartans themselves, and he suggests that Athens
was the only city where reality was superior to what was generally said about her
(Thuc. 2.40.3). The contrast, Thucydides suggests, was so pronounced that it was
likely to survive the cities themselves and would eventually, in a distant future, still be
visible in their ruins.
For if the city of the Lacedaemonians should be deserted, and nothing should
be left of it but its temples and the foundations of its other buildings, posterity
would, I think, after a log lapse of time, be very loath to believe that their
powers were as great as their renown. And yet they occupy two fifths of the
Peloponnese and have the hegemony of the whole, as well as their many
allies outside; but still, as Sparta is not compactly built as a city and has not
provided itself with costly temples and other edifices, but is inhabited villagefashion in the old Greek style, its power would appear less than it is.
Whereas, if Athens should suffer the same fate, its power would, I think, from
what appeared of the city’s ruins, be conjectured double what it is. Thuc.
1.10.2, trans. C.F. Smith (Loeb).
A visit to both sites today would suggest that Thucydides’ prediction was correct.
However, his insight is more profound: by the late fifth century the contrast between
Athens and Sparta had come to characterise both cities, but it particularly shaped
outsiders’ views of Sparta. Later ancient authors, influenced by the seminal texts of
the classical period, perpetuated this perspective: some aspects of Sparta’s image will
always be defined not by her own standards, but by the way in which her culture
differed from that of her greatest enemy.
2.6. The Spartan mirage and the myth of Lycurgus
2.6.1. The Spartan Mirage
The concept of a Spartan ‘mirage’ was first suggested by François Ollier (Le
Mirage spartiate, Lyon & Paris 1933). He highlighted the ongoing idealisation and
distortion of traditions about Spartan society recorded in ancient literature. As
Rawson (Spartan Tradition) has shown, the interpretation and re-invention of Sparta
did not end in late antiquity, and the process of re-inventing Sparta for new times and
contexts is still continuing: see recent interpretations of Sparta and its history in the
popular media, e.g. the new interpretation of the battle of Thermopylae in Frank
Miller’s graphic novel 300 and the recent film version; various historical novels, e.g.
S. Pressfield, Gates of Fire.
In spite of Ollier’s work, scholars who studied Sparta were slow in taking his
warning on board, and a real change in the general outlook of Spartan studies did not
arrive before the 1990’s. An extreme position would suggest that all evidence for
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Sparta is so distorted that it is impossible to study Sparta herself, and we are reduced
to tracing outsiders’ perceptions and late ‘reconstructions’ of Spartan customs which
never actually existed in the classical period. This is an overly pessimistic stance, but
caution is advisable and can actually bring new insights. Kennell (Gymnasium of
Virtue) shows that a careful assessment of the sources will sometimes force us to
change ideas about Spartan life which have themselves become part of a cherished
tradition. But such an approach does not only discard details, it also adds new
perspectives. For example, Sparta no longer appears as a static society, and it has
become possible to distinguish many layers of tradition and change throughout
antiquity. Today, interest in Sparta reaches well beyond the Archaic and Classical
period, and it has become clear that in order to interpret later authors’ reports of
Sparta, we also have to understand the life of the Hellenistic and Roman city (note
Cartledge & Spawforth, Hellenistic and Roman Sparta).
The ‘Spartan Mirage’ is a sum of stereotypes that came to dominate the
Spartan image. Cartledge (Spartan Reflections 170) lists three crucial components of
the myth as we find it in our ancient texts: firstly, the idea that Sparta had been free of
civil strife since time (almost) immemorial; second, this was due to the fact that all
Spartans dutifully followed the laws of Lycurgus; and third, these laws affected every
aspect of Spartan life, and were in some respect very different from those of other
Greek states. We are therefore presented with a single-minded community of proud
warriors who submit to self-imposed discipline, austerity and obedience. The tradition
describes a society where individuals gave up private interests and collectively agreed
on a set of values and goals; as a consequence they achieved power and glory, and,
individually as well as collectively, demonstrated that they were capable of great
heroism. Outsiders’ views of Sparta cannot avoid these stereotypes: favourable
comments as well as criticism (e.g. modern comparisons with totalitarian states) are
based on the same familiar elements of the legend. Because of the prevalence of these
ideas about Sparta it is probably impossible for us to find out ‘what life was really
like’ in classical Sparta. Were the rules really ever as rigid as the sources suggest?
How far was conformity enforced, and was there room for a range of talents and
personalities? Many of our sources, especially Xenophon (Lac. Pol.) describe an
ancient system, but also suggest that the ideal Spartan lifestyle was a thing of the past.
If this could be said as early as in the early fourth century, perhaps the Spartans never
really fully complied with the strict standards we hear about, but nevertheless
maintained a set of ideals and considered them as an ‘original’ system as it had been
in ‘the good old days’ (that never were).
Why was the ‘myth of Sparta’ such an attractive image? Sparta dominated
interstate politics in mainland Greece throughout the Archaic and Classical period,
and she continued to be influential long afterwards. As Herodotus (1.65-6, 7.104)
shows, the question about Sparta’s secret of success was already a matter of
discussion in the fifth century, and her laws and society were seen as a crucial factor.
Moreover, the Spartan way of life seemed impervious to change and conspicuously
old-fashioned: all those who hankered for the good old times and feared decadence
could look to Sparta for a different model which seemed to avoid many political and
social problems that troubled so many Greek poleis (see also above, 2.5). Spartan
austerity and simplicity, and her stubborn emphasis of simple traditional values
looked like a perfect (though elsewhere unattainable) recipe for avoiding political
turmoil, corruption and civil strife. The relative difficulty to visit Sparta and to get to
know the Spartans themselves at first hand would have contributed to their mystique.
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Many traditions about Spartans were simply good stories to pass on, for example the
many examples of exceptional heroism, especially during the Persian Wars: the battle
of Thermopylae in particular had a lasting impact on the Spartan image. In addition,
there were many examples of poignant (and sometimes humorous) Spartan comments:
Laconic brevity made for attractive quotations, and by the Roman period, Plutarch
could assemble a whole collection of the best examples, and he also inserts quotations
into his Spartan biographies. We cannot know whether any of these are authentic, but
together they can serve as a perfect illustration of the main themes of the Spartan
The Spartans themselves clearly understood that their reputation abroad was
an asset, and as far as we can tell, they were keen to cultivate their image and to be on
best ‘Spartan behaviour’ when they interacted with outsiders. In fact, they played a
crucial role in creating and maintaining the Spartan mirage (on Spartan propaganda
see Hooker in Powell, Classical Sparta, ch. 5). For example, the battle of
Thermopylae had a significant impact on their reputation with other Greeks: a
crushing defeat soon became the most famous example of Spartan valour. By the time
Herodotus composed his report, a few decades after the event, the battle had already
become a celebrated example of Greek (especially Spartan) heroism which became
one of the most memorable passages in his work and, arguably, all of Greek
historiography. Herodotus’ account comes with striking Laconic statements (‘come
and get them’; ‘we shall fight in the shade’) and impressive details about the Spartans’
behaviour in the face of adversity. At the same time, other Greek forces get very little
attention: few ever remember that 700 men from Thespiai and 400 Thebans also
stayed to the bitter end (Hdt. 7.202, 7.222), and the Spartans were probably
accompanied by periokoi and helots who also lost their lives. Nevertheless, the event
is generally known as the struggle of the 300 Spartans. We have good evidence that
the Spartans actively invested in the memory of this battle: they commissioned the
leading poet of the day, Simonides of Keos, to write the epigrams for the memorials
on the battlefield (Hdt 7.228). Moreover, as a recently published papyrus fragment
shows, Simonides also composed a more substantial work about the Persian wars,
which, as far we can tell from the fragments, focused on the Spartans and echoed the
Homeric epics to cast the events in a heroic light.
now summon thee, illustrious Muse, to support,
if thou hast any thought for men who pray:
fit out, as is thy wont this grateful song-array
of mine, so that remembrance is preserved
of those who held the line for Sparta and for Greece,
that none should see the day of slavery.
They kept their courage and their fame rose heaven-high;
Their glory in the world will never die.
From the Eurotas and from Sparta’s town they marched…
The ‘New Simonides’ 20-29; P.Oxy. 3965; trans. D. Boedecker, D. Sider
(eds.), The New Simonides. Contexts of Praise and Desire, Oxford 2001.
Again, we have to assume that this work was commissioned by the Spartans, perhaps
for a commemorative ceremony at Thermopylae very soon after the Persian Wars
ended: the myth-making began almost immediately after the event.
A fearsome reputation of military prowess also contributed to the Spartans’
success in war. The Spartan phalanx was undoubtedly a well oiled machine, better
JACT Teachers’ Notes
trained than any other Greek city’s army (Xen Lac. Pol. 11-13, Thuc 5.66.2-4), and
Spartiate hoplites could still make a difference in battle when their numbers had
begun to dwindle. It seems clear that the Spartans themselves cultivated their warrior
image, not least because it must have been a useful tool of psychological warfare. For
example, the Spartans apparently tried to conceal their numbers, those of combatants
as well as of the fallen (Thuc. 5.68, Paus. 9.13.11-12, see below). Their comparatively
uniform equipment (shields, red cloaks) must have made a strong impression, too, and
a Doric paian (battle hymn) as sung by the Spartans and their allies could strike
irrational fear in Athenians, even if the Dorians in questions were, for once, their own
allies (Thuc. 7.44.6). The Spartans also liked to boast about the fact that they did not
need a city wall: they did not expect to see enemies anywhere close to their own city
(Plut. Lyc. 19, cf. Aristot. Pol. 1330b). By the classical period, no-one could
remember a time when the Spartans had lost a battle, with the exception of
Thermopylae: their last defeat was the battle of Hysiae in 669 BC, an event attested
only in late sources (Paus. 2.24.7). As Pausanias puts it:
Before the battle of Leuctra the Lacedaemonians had suffered no disaster, so
that they even refused to admit that they had yet been worsted in a land
battle. For Leonidas, they said, had won the victory, but his followers were
insufficient for the entire destruction of the Persians; the achievement of
Demosthenes and the Athenians on the island of Sphacteria was no victory,
but only a trick in war. Paus. 1.13.5, trans. W.H.S. Jones (Loeb).
This idea of Sparta as an invincible military power explains why their defeat at
Leuctra (371 BC) was such a shock not only to the Spartans, but also to the other
Greeks and even, arguably, to the victorious Thebans. Epaminondas, the Theban
general, made sure that the extent of the Spartan defeat would become public
Epaminondas, knowing that the Lacedaemonians were always inclined to
cover up their disasters, said that he permitted their allies first to take up their
dead, and only when these had done so did he approve of the
Lacedaemonians' burying their own dead. Some of the allies took up no dead
at all, as not a man of them had fallen; others had but slight loss to report. So
when the Lacedaemonians proceeded to bury their own, it was at once
proved that the fallen were Spartans. … of the Lacedaemonians themselves
there fell more than a thousand men. Paus. 9.13.11-12, trans. W.H.S. Jones
This report comes from a late source, but even if this detail is not literally true, it
illustrates an important detail about the battle of Leuctra: the defeat was painful, and
the loss of 400 Spartiates among the thousand Lacedaemonian dead was a catastrophe
– but, most importantly, Sparta’s reputation as invincible never recovered from this
event, and just a year later Laconia itself was under attack.
2.6.2. Lycurgus
Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said that is not
disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his
death, and, above all, of his work as lawgiver and statesman; and there is
least agreement among historians as to the times in which the man lived.
Plutarch, Lyc. 1.1. trans. B. Perrin (Loeb).
This is the beginning of Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, and such a word of caution is
indeed needed. In fact, the whole first chapter of the biography should be required
reading for anyone who approaches the question of Lycurgus or uses Plutarch’s
JACT Teachers’ Notes
Lycurgus as a source. Plutarch, whose main interest was moral philosophy rather than
historiography, expressed his doubts, but nevertheless proceeded to write a whole
detailed biography. Scholars today, however, have to aspire to higher standards of
historicity. Lycurgus is at the centre of the ‘Spartan mirage’, and it is best to consider
him a mythical figure: as the Spartan legend developed, most aspects of Spartan
culture which made their society so unique were attached to one person: the legendary
lawgiver Lycurgus. If there ever was a historical figure Lycurgus who had some hand
in the development of early Spartan laws, we have no means of disentangling the
legends that grew around him to get an idea of one man’s achievements. However, the
figure might be entirely mythical: as Cartledge (The Spartans. An Epic History, 57-9)
has pointed out, the name Lycurgus, ‘Wolf-worker’, comes close to some epithets of
Apollo, and according to the legend this god and his oracle at Delphi are also closely
connected with the origin story of the Spartan state. Earlier scholarly works on Sparta
attempted to ‘reconstruct’ a historical Lycurgus by establishing a date and by creating
a more or less plausible narrative of his achievements. This approach is outdated: the
development of the Spartan constitution should be seen as a lengthy process, and in
more recent studies the interest in Lycurgus as a ‘historical’ figure has shifted to the
formation of the legend in parallel with perceptions of Spartan society, both in Sparta
and beyond.
In fact, we can detect significant changes of the story in our literary sources: it
seems that ideas about Lycurgus were still developing in the late archaic and classical
period. Tyrtaeus, at any rate, does not mention Lycurgus at all. Since we only have a
few short fragments of his poetry, an argument from silence may seem of little value,
but firstly, we have a fragment of his take on the early Spartan laws, and secondly,
later authors, particularly Plutarch, were aware of the value of Tyrtaeus as an early
authentic source, and therefore the passages they selected for quotation or paraphrase
probably favour the historically most informative passages of his poetry. Be this as it
may, Tyrtaeus (f.4) seems to suggest that the Spartans received their constitution from
Delphi. Even this early version looks like an attempt to legitimise the outcomes of a
political process by presenting the constitution as divinely inspired. We do not know
when Lycurgus entered the scene. Herodotus’ account (1.65) is the earliest ancient
reference to the Spartan lawgiver. This version also shows the involvement of Delphi;
the oracle’s doubts about Lycurgus’ identity (a hero? a god?) probably reflect
contradictions in the tradition about him. Moreover, Herodotus knew that some
credited the oracle with the whole Spartan constitution, but he also offers a Spartan
version of the origin story which centres on Lycurgus’ initiative and efforts to create
the laws. The legend was to become much more detailed later on, but Herodotus’
version includes the essentials, namely that the Spartan political system and way of
life was the result of one man’s legislative efforts at some point in the past.
Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans represents a further step in the
creation of the myth: the tradition becomes more detailed, and we also hear more
about the motivation behind specific regulations. Lycurgus has now become a wise
and prescient figure who had an ingenious solution for almost any problem that might
arise in Greek polis society. These ideas no doubt were influenced by the interests of
political philosophy (see Plato’s Laws or Republic), which experimented with the idea
of law codes that would create an ideal society. Lycurgus would have seemed an ideal
‘historical’ example, but such discussions would also invite the instructive and
explanatory embellishment of the story that we see in Xenophon’s work. By the time
Plutarch compiled his biography, there was a whole body of scholarly writings on the
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subject: Plutarch cites over fifty works, and his attention to earlier traditions illustrates
the range of ideas and interpretations that had become attached to the fabled figure of
While there is little mileage in any discussion of a ‘historical Lycurgus’, the
ancient tradition offers us a good opportunity to discuss the development of the
legend, and its reception in different contexts in antiquity. It seems clear that the core
tradition about Lycurgus originated in Sparta, presumably at some stage between the
mid-seventh and the mid-fifth century BC. Lycurgus came to be a symbol for all
things Spartan, both in Sparta and abroad. The legend of the lawgiver particularly
emphasised the idea of a traditional Sparta, which had, after one moment of
innovation in the distant past, strictly stood by its laws without any further changes.
As we have seen (above, esp. 2.2.5), the Spartan system did evolve, and still
underwent some changes in the classical period. The legend of Lycurgus, however,
emphasised a notion of traditional, unchangeable values and stability in Spartan
society, allowing the Spartans to think of their own way of life as constant and
ancestral, while discouraging any calls for radical reform or change. This notion of a
stable ancestral law code also inspired awe among other Greeks, for whom
constitutional reform or upheaval was a fairly common occurrence.
Such a process of myth-making should not be dismissed as cynical ‘spin’,
even if the legend was no doubt of some use in political contexts (see Flower in
Powell & Hodkinson, Sparta Beyond the Mirage, ch. 7, on the ‘invention of tradition’
in Sparta). The legend of Lycurgus developed over centuries, responding to the needs
of Spartans and their outside observers at different times: we are dealing with a
dynamic set of stories that developed and grew in the telling, for example in response
to questions about the origins of particular customs. Individual features of the Spartan
constitution would also inspire stories about the lawgiver’s motivation for particular
measures, and more tales would be added to the legend. This process continued when,
after the upheavals of the late classical and Hellenistic period, the Spartans tried to
restore (or re-invent) their ancestral constitution. As Kennell (Gymnasium of Virtue)
and Cartledge & Spawforth (Hellenistic and Roman Sparta, 197-211) have shown,
such efforts meant that many new ideas were presented as ancient, and Lycurgus
would yet again be called upon to help integrating them with the ancestral
constitution. In this way many details that defined the changing Spartan way of life
over the centuries were ‘traced back’ to Lycurgus, until he could indeed be seen as the
originator of most features of Spartan culture, or, more accurately, a universal
unifying symbol of the ‘Spartan cultures’ of different periods.
3. Appendix: Some useful texts
Plato, Alcibiades 1, 122e-123b: Spartan wealth
Trans.: W.R.M. Lamb, Plato in 12 Volumes, vol.8 (Harvard University Press 1955).
For in this respect you have only to look at the wealth of the Spartans, and you
will perceive that our riches here are far inferior to theirs. Think of all the land that
they have both in their own and in the Messenian country: not one of our estates could
compete with theirs in extent and excellence, nor again in ownership of slaves, and
especially of those of the helot class, nor yet of horses, [122e] nor of all the flocks and
herds that graze in Messene. However, I pass over all these things: but there is more
gold and silver privately held in Lacedaemon than in the whole of Greece; for during
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many generations treasure has been passing in to them from every part of Greece, and
often from the barbarians also, but not passing out to anyone; and just as in the fable
of Aesop, [123a] where the fox remarked to the lion on the direction of the footmarks,
the traces of the money going into Lacedaemon are clear enough, but nowhere are any
to be seen of it coming out; so that one can be pretty sure that those people are the
richest of the Greeks in gold and silver, and that among themselves the richest is the
king; for the largest and most numerous receipts of the kind are those of the kings,
[123b] and besides there is the levy of the royal tribute in no slight amount, which the
Spartans pay to their kings.
Xen. Hell. 3.3.4-7: danger of a conspiracy in Sparta
Translation: C.L. Bronson (Loeb).
When Agesilaus had been not yet a year in the kingly office, once while he
was offering one of the appointed sacrifices in behalf of the state, the seer said that the
gods revealed a conspiracy of the most terrible sort. And when he sacrificed again, the
seer said that the signs appeared still more terrible. And upon his sacrificing for the
third time, he said: “Agesilaus, just such a sign is given me as would be given if we
were in the very midst of the enemy.” There-upon they made offerings to the gods
who avert evil and to those who grant safety, and having with difficulty obtained
favourable omens, ceased sacrificing. And within five days after the sacrifice was
ended a man reported to the ephors a conspiracy, and Cinadon as the head of the
affair. [5] This Cinadon was a young man, sturdy of body and stout of heart, but not
one of the peers. And when the ephors asked how he had said that the plan would be
carried out, the informer replied that Cinadon had taken him to the edge of the
market-place and directed him to count how many Spartiates there were in the marketplace. “And I,” he said, “after counting king and ephors and senators and about forty
others, asked `Why, Cinadon, did you bid me count these men?' And he replied:
`Believe,' said he, `that these men are your enemies, and that all the others who are in
the market-place, more than four thousand in number, are your allies.'” In the streets
also, the informer said, Cinadon pointed out as enemies here one and there two who
met them, and all the rest as allies; and of all who chanced to be on the country estates
belonging to Spartiates, while there would be one whom he would point out as an
enemy, namely the master, yet there would be many on each estate named as allies.
[6] When the ephors asked how many Cinadon said there really were who were in the
secret of this affair, the informer replied that he said in regard to this point that those
who were in the secret with himself and the other leaders were by no means many,
though trustworthy; the leaders, however, put it this way, that it was they who knew
the secret of all the others--Helots, freedmen (neodamodeis) lesser Spartiatae
(hypomeiones), and perioikoi; for whenever among these classes any mention was
made of Spartiates, no one was able to conceal the fact that he would be glad to eat
them raw. [7] When the ephors asked again: “And where did they say they would get
weapons?” the informer replied that Cinadon said: “Of course those of us who are in
the army have weapons of our own, and as for the masses”--he led him, he said, to the
iron market, and showed him great quantities of knives, swords, spits, axes, hatchets,
and sickles. And he said, the informer continued, that all those tools with which men
work the land and timber and stone were likewise weapons, and that most of the other
industries also had in their implements adequate weapons, especially against unarmed
men. When he was asked again at what time this thing was to be done, he said that
orders had been given him to stay in the city.
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Aristotle Politics 1269a-1271a: a critical discussion of Sparta
Translation: H. Rackham (Loeb)
[1269a] On the subject of the constitution of Sparta and that of Crete, and
virtually in regard to the other forms of constitution also, the questions that arise for
consideration are two, one whether their legal structure has any feature that is
admirable or the reverse in comparison with the best system, another whether it
contains any provision that is really opposed to the fundamental principle and
character of the constitution that the founders had in view.
Now it is a thing admitted that a state that is to be well governed must be
provided with leisure from menial occupations; but how this is to be provided it is not
easy to ascertain. The serf class in Thessaly repeatedly rose against its masters, and so
did the Helots at Sparta, where they are like an enemy constantly sitting in wait for the
disasters of the Spartiates. Nothing of the kind has hitherto occurred in Crete, the
reason perhaps being that the neighbouring cities, [1269b] even when at war with one
another, in no instance ally themselves with the rebels, because as they themselves
also possess a serf class this would not be for their interest; whereas the Laconians
were entirely surrounded by hostile neighbours, Argives, Messenians and Arcadians.
For with the Thessalians too the serf risings originally began because they were still at
war with their neighbours, the Achaeans, Perrhaebians and Magnesians. Also, apart
from other drawbacks, the mere necessity of policing a serf class is an irksome
burden—the problem of how intercourse with them is to be carried on: if allowed
freedom they grow insolent and claim equal rights with their masters, and if made to
live a hard life they plot against them and hate them. It is clear therefore that those
whose helot-system works out in this way do not discover the best mode of treating
the problem.
Women have too much control
Again, the freedom in regard to women is detrimental both in regard to the
purpose of the constitution and in regard to the happiness of the state. For just as man
and wife are part of a household, it is clear that the state also is divided nearly in half
into its male and female population, so that in all constitutions in which the position
of the women is badly regulated one half of the state must be deemed to have been
neglected in framing the law. And this has taken place in the state under
consideration, for the lawgiver wishing the whole city to be of strong character
displays his intention clearly in relation to the men, but in the case of the women has
entirely neglected the matter; for they live dissolutely in respect of every sort of
dissoluteness, and luxuriously. So that the inevitable result is that in a state thus
constituted wealth is held in honour, especially if it is the case that the people are
under the sway of their women, as most of the military and warlike races are, except
the Celts and such other races as have openly held in honour passionate friendship
between males. For it appears that the original teller of the legend had good reason for
uniting Ares with Aphrodite, for all men of martial spirit appear to be attracted to the
companionship either of male associates or of women. Hence this characteristic
existed among the Spartans, and in the time of their empire many things were
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controlled by the women; yet what difference does it make whether the women rule or
the rulers are ruled by the women? The result is the same.
And although bravery is of service for none of the regular duties of life, but if
at all, in war, even in this respect the Spartans' women were most harmful; and they
showed this at the time of the Theban invasion, for they rendered no useful service, as
the women do in other states, while they caused more confusion than the enemy. It is
true therefore that at the outset the freedom allowed to women at Sparta seems to have
come about with good reason, for the Spartans used to be away in exile abroad for
long periods on account of their military expeditions, both when fighting the war
against the Argives and again during the war against the Arcadians and Messenians;
but when they had turned to peaceful pursuits, although they handed over themselves
to the lawgiver already prepared for obedience by military life (for this has many
elements of virtue), as for the women it is said that Lycurgus did attempt to bring
them under the laws, but since they resisted he gave it up. So the Spartan women are,
it is true, responsible for what took place, and therefore manifestly for this mistake
among the rest; although for our own part we are not considering the question who
deserves excuse or does not, but what is the right or wrong mode of action. But, as
was also said before, errors as regards the status of women seem not only to cause a
certain unseemliness in the actual conduct of the state but to contribute in some
degree to undue love of money.
Unequal distribution of wealth; women as property owners
For next to the things just spoken of one might censure the Spartan institutions
with respect to the unequal distribution of wealth. It has come about that some of the
Spartans own too much property and some extremely little; owing to which the land
has fallen into few hands, and this has also been badly regulated by the laws; for the
lawgiver made it dishonourable to sell a family's existing estate, and did so rightly,
but he granted liberty to alienate land at will by gift or bequest; yet the result that has
happened was bound to follow in the one case as well as in the other. And also nearly
two-fifths of the whole area of the country is owned by women, because of the
number of women who inherit estates and the practice of giving large dowries; yet it
would have been better if dowries had been prohibited by law or limited to a small or
moderate amount . . . But as it is he is allowed to give an heiress in marriage to
whomever he likes; and if he dies without having made directions as to this by will,
whoever he leaves as his executor bestows her upon whom he chooses. As a result of
this although the country is capable of supporting fifteen hundred cavalry and thirty
thousand heavy-armed troopers, they numbered not even a thousand.
And the defective nature of their system of land-tenure has been proved by the
actual facts of history: the state did not succeed in enduring a single blow, but
perished owing to the smallness of its population. They have a tradition that in the
earlier reigns they used to admit foreigners to their citizenship, with the result that
dearth of population did not occur in those days, although they were at war for a long
period; and it is stated that at one time the Spartiates numbered as many as ten
thousand. However, whether this is true or not, it is better for a state's male population
to be kept up by measures to equalize property. The law in relation to parentage is
also somewhat adverse to the correction of this evil. [1270b] For the lawgiver desiring
to make the Spartiates as numerous as possible holds out inducements to the citizens
to have as many children as possible: for they have a law releasing the man who has
been father of three sons from military service, and exempting the father of four from
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all taxes. Yet it is clear that if a number of sons are born and the land is
correspondingly divided there will inevitably come to be many poor men.
Moreover the regulations for the ephorate are also bad. For this office has
absolute control over their most important affairs, but the ephors are appointed from
the entire people, so that quite poor men often happen to get into the office, who
owing to their poverty used to be easily bought. This was often manifested in earlier
times, and also lately in the affair at Andros; for certain ephors were corrupted with
money and so far as lay in their power ruined the whole state. And because the office
was too powerful, and equal to a tyranny, the kings also were compelled to cultivate
popular favour, so that in this way too the constitution was jointly injured, for out of
an aristocracy came to be evolved a democracy. Thus this office does, it is true, hold
together the constitution—for the common people keep quiet because they have a
share in the highest office of state, so that whether this is due to the lawgiver or has
come about by chance, the ephorate is advantageous for the conduct of affairs; for if a
constitution is to be preserved, all the sections of the state must wish it to exist and to
continue on the same lines; so the kings are in this frame of mind owing to their own
honourable rank, the nobility owing to the office of the Elders (gerontes), which is a
prize of virtue, and the common people because of the ephorate, which is appointed
from the whole population—but yet the ephorate, though rightly open to all the
citizens, ought not to be elected as it is now, for the method is too childish.
And further the ephors have jurisdiction in lawsuits of high importance,
although they are any chance people, so that it would be better if they did not decide
cases on their own judgement but by written rules and according to the laws. Also the
mode of life of the ephors is not in conformity with the aim of the state, for it is itself
too luxurious, whereas in the case of the other citizens the prescribed life goes too far
in the direction of harshness, so that they are unable to endure it, and secretly desert
the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.
Also their regulations for the office of the Elders are not good; it is true that if
these were persons of a high class who had been adequately trained in manly valour,
one might perhaps say that the institution was advantageous to the state, although
their life-tenure of the judgeship in important trials is indeed a questionable feature
(for there is old age of mind as well as of body); [1271a] but as their education has
been on such lines that even the lawgiver himself cannot trust in them as men of
virtue, it is a dangerous institution. And it is known that those who have been
admitted to this office take bribes and betray many of the public interests by
favouritism; so that it would be better if they were not exempt from having to render
an account of their office, but at present they are.
And it might be held that the magistracy of the ephors serves to hold all the
offices to account; but this gives altogether too much to the ephorate, and it is not the
way in which, as we maintain, officials ought to be called to account. Again, the
procedure in the election of the Elders as a mode of selection is not only childish, but
it is wrong that one who is to be the holder of this honourable office should canvass
for it, for the man worthy of the office ought to hold it whether he wants to or not. But
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as it is the lawgiver clearly does the same here as in the rest of the constitution: he
makes the citizens ambitious and has used this for the election of the Elders, for
nobody would ask for office if he were not ambitious; yet surely ambition and love of
money are the motives that bring about almost the greatest part of the voluntary
wrongdoing that takes place among mankind.
The Kings
As to monarchy, the question whether it is not or is an advantageous
institution for states to possess may be left to another discussion; but at all events it
would be advantageous that kings should not be appointed as they are now, but
chosen in each case with regard to their own life and conduct. But it is clear that even
the lawgiver himself does not suppose that he can make the kings men of high
character: at all events he distrusts them as not being persons of sufficient worth
owing to which the Spartans used to send kings who were enemies as colleagues on
embassies, and thought that the safety of the state depended on division between the
The Common Meals (Phiditia)
Also the regulations for the public mess-tables called Phiditia have been badly
laid down by their originator. The revenue for these ought to come rather from public
funds, as in Crete; but among the Spartans everybody has to contribute, although
some of them are very poor and unable to find money for this charge, so that the result
is the opposite of what the lawgiver purposed. For he intends the organization of the
common tables to be democratic, but when regulated by the law in this manner it
works out as by no means democratic; for it is not easy for the very poor to
participate, yet their ancestral regulation of the citizenship is that it is not to belong to
one who is unable to pay this tax.