One recalls the early scene from 300 when Leonidas travels to see the Ephors and they tell him he cannot take the army north to fight the Persians because he must “Honor the Carneia.” In actuality, the kings didn’t have to visit the Ephors on a mountain top, because they were Spartan citizens living in the city. Their term of office was one year so individual Ephors could never establish their own power base. In fact, on many occasions, private citizens were elected to the Ephorate so one did not need wealth or experience to be elected. Still by the time of Thermopylae, the Ephors could block a king’s attempt to wage war.
As Toynbee points out, the relationship between kings and Ephors is not critical to Spartan history, yet it is instructive to examine the expanding authority of the Ephorate as an example of an evolving political system.
The Ephors began as a branch of the Spartan government during the period of the Lycurgian reforms (circa 650 B.C.), after previously acting as private advisors to the kings. The office lasted until 227 B.C. when King Kleomenes III abolished it.
The Ephors main political adversary was the kings, since they appear to have acquired power from the Assembly and Gerousia early on without much difficulty. But the kings fought against their growing political power and the strongest ones succeeded in containing them.
Kings had absolute power when on a campaign and the Ephors had no jurisdiction outside of Sparta, although a pair of them usually accompanied the king on his campaigns. They had no authority to interfere with the campaign or any political activities connected to it, but were known to gather information that could be used to prosecute the king when the conflict was over.
But the military sphere is not where the Ephors began their encroachment against the kings. Let us look at a few examples of what they were up to.
In Plutarch’s Kleomenes, it is stated that Asteropus was the first Ephor to infringe on the power of the kings, sometime prior to the mid-sixth century B.C. We don’t know exactly what he did; only that his influence was considerable. Here is the quote from Plutarch:
“He said that Lycurgus had blended the powers of senate and kings, and that for a long time the state was administered in this way and had no need of other officials. But later, when the Messenian war proved to be long, the kings, since their campaigns abroad left them no time to administer justice themselves, chose out some of their friends and left them behind to serve the citizens in their stead. These were called Ephors, or guardians, and as a matter of fact they continued at first to be assistants of the kings, but then gradually diverted the power into their own hands, and so, ere men were aware, established a magistracy of their own. As proof of this, Cleomenes cited the fact that down to that day, when the Ephors summoned a king to appear before them, he refused to go at the first summons, and at the second, but at the third rose up and went with them; and he said that the one who first added weight to this office, and extended its powers, Asteropus, was Ephor many generations later.”
In the second and most quirky example, the Ephors began traveling to the Oracular shrine at Ino-Pasiphae every eight years for the purpose of stargazing. This practice could only have begun after the eight year calendar cycle was introduced to Greece at the end of the sixth century B.C. If, while stargazing, the Ephors noticed a shooting star, they had a right to put the king on trial. The king could avoid prosecution only if the Ephors received notice of his innocence from the Oracle at Olympia or Delphi. This mysterious ritual represented a gross infringement on the religious authority of the monarchs, because it linked the Ephors to the will of the gods.
In the third case, an Ephor named Khilon was known to have been in office circa 550 B.C. His reign was so notable it was marked by a shrine which was still in existence four hundred years after his death.
In growing their power over time, the Ephors took advantage of the dual monarchy by striking when the kings were at odds with each other. Famous for keeping themselves unified, the Ephors could make accusations against one of the kings without fear of a reprisal coming from the other. There are four documented cases in the fifth century B.C. where kings were put on trial for one reason or another, and by the time of the Persian Wars, the Ephors were managing Spartan foreign policy. Envoys from Athens, coming to Sparta to ask for its participation against the Persians at Plataea, met with the Ephors. In another example, the peace treaty ending the Archidamian War in 421 B.C. was signed by the Ephors.
What does this all mean? One can certainly see a similarity with the Roman Republic. There, the Etruscan Kings were overthrown and consuls substituted. These consuls were elected officials entrusted with the administration of the government. In the Ephors case, they drained power from the kings and became the administrators of Sparta. The result was a Polis with three branches of government: Damos (assembly or House of Representatives), Gerousia (elders or Senate), and the Ephors (consuls, presidents). Sparta had created a model political system for the future – balanced and representative of the competing interests of its people.