If you google “dual monarchy”, you get references to the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted from 1867-1918. This made me laugh because of the insignificance of the Austria example next to that of the Spartans. Was this just another case where antiquity is ignored? Still experimenting, I tried using the words “dual kingship” and Sparta appeared, filling up the first page. Accompanying the Spartans was the Quarlug Confederation, The Khazars, and Havelok the Dane.
For this post, we’ll leave the obscure to their rightful place and focus on the Lacedaemonians, whose dual kingship was one aspect of their unique political system, one that lasted about 900 years longer than any other example. No one knows how the dual kingship started in Sparta. Herodotus gives an explanation but that is more folklore than anything else. He said the kings came from two dynasties: The Agiad and the Eurypontid, named after Agis and Eurypon, the first of each line. There were two kings because a mix-up of twins and the resulting confusion over who was supposed to rule. The genealogies for these two lines that have come down to us today are based on information from no less than eight historians, including the heavy hitters Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, and Livy. Still, much of the information is incomplete or questionable.
Starting around 550 B.C, the names become more familiar and there is some history about most of them. The famous Leonidas was of the Agiad line and, after he was killed at Thermopylae, his brother Cleombrotus served as regent for a year until his own son Pausanias was named the new Agiad king.
The Spartan kings had several major responsibilities, including acting as high priests for Spartan people and leading the army into battle. War was declared by the Assembly and the levy proclaimed by the Ephors, but the kings were the commanders. They also served on the Gerusia (council of elders) where their votes counted for two out of the thirty. Aristotle called the Spartan kingship a hereditary generalship but he was only half right. As hereditary leaders, the kings could wield great power over their peers who had to be elected.
Image via WikipediaAt home the kings had special privileges. They took the first seats at dinner and were served a double portion. They had front row seats for all the games. They choose the Pythii (envoys to the Oracle at Delphi) and give them money for the Oracle. When a king died, the Spartiates mourned for ten days -- women wailing and beating their brows.
What, then, was the significance of the dual kingship as it related to the Spartan political system and the history of governments? For the former, it was a balancing force which helped perpetuate a 1000 year civilization. For the latter, very little. The Spartan way of life succeeded because the helot system allowed the Spartans to train and be the best warriors of all time. Without that one aspect, the Spartan soldiers would have been part timers like everyone else.