The Spartans were unique among Greeks because the political system they developed never quite made it to a democracy. Elsewhere kings were overthrown by an aristocratic class, which became the governing body of the Polis, and later extended democratic rights to the common people. In Sparta, however, the kings came to some kind of accommodation with the wealthy where they would give up some power in return for the continuation of their authority. This sharing of power created the stability Sparta needed to survive for six centuries.
Sparta had two kings -- hereditary kings, one from each of two families. The kings were the sole military commanders and religious leaders but nothing more. When it came to governance, they could only act as advisors to the oligarchy. Sparta had a governing council called the Gerusia consisting of twenty-eight men plus the two kings. This body advised the assembly, could veto legislation if it disapproved, and also presided over trials for capital offences. Members had to be sixty years of age and served for life. The assembly consisted of all adult Spartiates over twenty years of age – a number on the order of 5000. The assembly had limited power but was allowed to debate the merits of legislation to try and influence its passage.
There is one other component of the Spartan political system we have not mentioned – the Ephors. The creation of Ephoric office was said to have been part of the mid-seventh century reforms of Lycurgus. Five were elected by the assembly each year, and their powers were varied and extensive. They had disciplinary control over other magistrates, conducted foreign policy, and presided over the assembly and council. Their powers even included some controls over the king. For example, they could summon the kings to a meeting, fine them for bad behavior, or even recommend the king be impeached. Perhaps the Ephors most powerful role was in foreign policy, because they were to ones who met with foreign dignitaries and negotiated treaties.
What is it about the Spartans that made them carry on a model of hereditary kings and go down a path different from all of Greece? Somehow they developed a unique character: secretive, organized, and religious -- closed to the outside. We will look at them again in coming posts to see what they have to teach us.