The most cohesive story of that time was contained in Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, which attributes the Spartan government to that great lawgiver. Many of his facts have been questioned and much may have come from Plato – a biased source writing centuries later – but still it’s a place to start.
Prior to the advent of its militaristic model Sparta, like many of the other Greek Poleis, was managed by an aristocratic faction. We talked previously about splinter experiments in new government, like the Basileus as a military leader, which failed to catch on. But at some point, possibly the mid-eight century B.C, the Spartan political system began to evolve in a unique direction. Was Lycurgus the prime mover? Maybe, but there were certainly forces at work moving the Spartans toward equality whether or not they were driven by a single individual.
The foundational step was the creation of the Council of Elders, which as Plato stated had the effect of “cooling the high fever or royalty” and since the Elders had equal vote with the kings, they could bring “caution and sobriety to their deliberations”. The Gerousia and was made up of thirty members including the two kings.
The second body of government was the Ecclesia or Assembly, made up of all members of the Spartan army (hoplites). These members were referred to as Homoioi. Remarkably, the Assembly was mandated by the Rhetra (pronouncement of the Oracle) of Lycurgus near the end of the 8th century B.C, making it the first citizen legislative body in history.
Plutarch tells us what happened next. “Even though these changes had the effect of mixing the several powers of the state, successor generations, seeing that the powers of the oligarchy were unimpaired, and that it was, as Plato calls it, full of life and vigor, placed as a curb to it the power of the Ephors. The first Ephors, of whom Elatus was one, were elected during the reign of Theopompus” circa 675 B.C. The five Ephors were administrators elected for one year who were granted power greater than the kings with regards to the management of Spartan society, although in military matters, the kings were supreme. Speculation is that the Ephors were originally part of the king’s staff, but spun off as a separate governmental unit to reduce royal authority.
So we can see a balanced Republican government of three bodies: Gerousia, Assembly, and Ephors, remarkably similar to the Roman Republic which would come along two hundred years later. Seeing a similar structure in Greece and Rome, separated by time and space, one can’t help thinking that the Republic was a natural development of human society – the bridge system between autocrats and democracy.
Moving along in the evolution of the Spartan government, we again turn to Plutarch. “The second and the boldest of political reforms of Sparta was the redistribution of the land. Great inequalities existed, many poor and needy people had become a burden to the state, while wealth had got into a very few hands.”
According to our sources, thirty thousand lots were granted to the Perioeci (neighboring villages) and nine thousand (later twelve thousand) to Spartiates.
One wonders about the land distribution and it impetus. What factor would have caused the rich to share their land? While the formation of a Council of Elders and Assembly are logical, even inevitable, the redistribution of land is not. There answer of course is that the rich did not give up their land. The land distribution was public land similar to the Roman agar publicus. There was still private land held onto by the rich. Embedded in the land distribution somewhere is the relationship between Sparta and Messenia, the territory of fertile lands west of the Taygetos Mountains. See map below.
Its people fought the Spartans twice. The first time, circa 730 B.C, led to the subjugation of the Messenian people as helots. Perhaps only half the Messenian land was taken. Then, circa 675 B.C, the Messenians revolted and had to be brought under control again. The latter event most likely sealed the “Devil’s bargain” between Sparta and Messenia. The Spartans needed an army to keep the Messenians subjugated and the need to train that army meant that Spartans had no time for activities separate from war, so the helots were engaged to serve them – growing the crops, providing services, etc. Helots were not slaves in the traditional sense – they weren’t chattels. They were assigned to Spartans as their workers, married to the land that a Spartan owed but eligible to keep half its produce.
The military mindset of Sparta manifested itself in other more eccentric ways. The mess was an institutionalized meal ritual among Homoioi designed to create camaraderie between them . Each Spartiate ate his meals with the same men he fought beside in war and each man was required to contribute food to the mess on a monthly basis. It has been written that Lycurgus got the idea for the mess from a visit to Crete where he saw it in action, but Crete is not the only example of this ritual in antiquity.
The Agoge (military training) was developed to build the Spartan army and there is nothing that can be compared to it in history. Starting at age seven, boys received an “traditional education” along with physical training. Twenty-three years later at 30, the training ended and they became Spartiates. The Agoge was extreme – including periods of surviving in the wilderness, learning to steal to survive, and even killing Helots for practice, if writers from the time are to be believed.
And there were additional modifications to the Spartan system including the banning of gold and silver money, expulsion of worker in useless trades, and promoting of physical fitness among girls. Almost all of these were attributed to Lycurgus although some may be fantasy.
So we see an evolved Spartan Republic, perhaps by 650 B.C, consisting of a balanced political system built to support a militaristic ideal.
So much of it was eccentric: the anachronistic twin royal houses that lived on past their time, the Ephors, commoners elected by the shouts of the populace, and the odd relationship between Sparta, the Perioikoi, and the Messenians. But still the power of Sparta survived for centuries until the its army became weak in battle. The end came in 371 B.C. when a Spartan army of only 800 Homoioi was utterly defeated at Leuctra.
Victory on the Peloponnesian War had been an illusion. The Spartans could not rule others because their eccentric system did not prepare them for the task. Thirty years later, Spartan power had ended.