Friday, December 31, 2010

Sparta -- The Strains Caused by Lycurgan Reforms

The adoption of the Lycurgan reforms served two purposes for the Spartan ruling class. It diffused the problem of class warfare by raising the status of the lower classes and it created a homeland army to protect the kingdom from another Messenian revolt. At the same time, in a big picture sense, the Spartans had created a stable political model which would be adopted by future Poleis. In the midst of building it, the Spartans were able to avoid the despotic political trend that swept across the region during the period of its adoption.

This Lycurgan regime survived for 400 years before being completely abandoned. Four hundred years is certainly a long period of success, but the inevitable occurred when Sparta could no longer survive in isolation and new political realities had pushed them into a more compatible model. Sparta had to catch up because political innovation had been sacrificed when they chose to build a closed, structured, political system.

We can lay this outcome at the feet of the Sparta’s purposeful peculiarity, because the agoge-based system was an outlier compared to other contemporary political systems. Toynbee believed that the Spartan leaders were aware of their peculiarity and took purposeful steps to shield their people from the outside world.

For example, they made it illegal for Spartans to travel abroad without the government’s permission. Outsiders could visit Sparta, but they were subject to expulsion at any time if their behavior ran counter to the government’s interests. Foreign merchandizing was discouraged by the peculiar Spartan currency which made trade extremely difficult. Previously, all of Greece used iron coins and the Spartans were compatible, but when the others moved on to precious metals, the Spartans chose to stay with their “spit” iron, which was bulky, heavy, and non-convertible. The government even treated the money with chemicals to destroy any commodity value in the iron.

As discussed before, the Lycurgan reforms took time to infiltrate the Spartan culture. One excellent barometer measuring this process was the artistic output of the Spartan people. Before Lycurgus, Spartan accomplishments in the arts were first-rate and comparable to her neighbors to the north. For example, we know that as of 600 B.C. Spartan pottery was still being exported around the Mediterranean. As the reforms took hold, however, aesthetic output began to decline and by 550 B.C. were almost non-existent. In a hundred years time, the Spartan society had been wholly converted to a structured military society, even ending their participation in the Olympic Games, where they had previous set the Greek standard for performance.

It’s interesting to note that Tarentum, the Spartan colony in Italy settled before the reforms, developed its own political system separate and uninfluenced by the mother country. Perhaps a study of the history of that port city would show us what Sparta would have become without the reforms.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Leveling Society and its Effects

Toynbee, in his chapter titled Social Effects of the Lycurgan Reforms, wrote the following:

“A tug-o’-war between public and private interests at Sparta gradually produced the peculiar Spartan spirit in which the way of life was reflected. The pressures that, at Sparta, were stamping human nature with this peculiar imprint became more and more severe as Sparta’s situation, within her own dominions and abroad, became more and more difficult. But even the utmost turn of the screw could not change human nature. All that it could do was to repress nature; and, if and when the pressure was removed or was even just relaxed, the rebound of human nature was correspondingly violent.”

This quote, as it relates to the Spartans, will be discussed in the next post, but I will use it here to reference the political situation in the United States today. As my readers know, one of the themes of this blog is “relating ancient history to today”. This is one of those comparison points -- the situation where the American Progressive movement is hard at its attempt to implement neo-socialism in America. Neo-socialism, in my use, refers to government control of industry rather than the more classic definition of government ownership. We see government now controlling health care, wanting to control our relationship to the environment, these initiatives to be funded by a re-distribution of wealth through taxation. My first inclination is to suggest that these programs are too idealistic for human nature and will, in the end, be ineffective, but we’ll have to analyze this further.

I wrote about Marx in a post called Karl Marx Redux on September 3, 2009. In that article I discussed Marx’s lack of knowledge of antiquity, and stated that if he would have known the history, he would have realized his own theory was suspect. By theory I mean his notion that people can somehow be made socio-economically equal in a society -- that we can create a system where all people have an equal standing and the rich and poor are eliminated as constituencies. According to Marx, a revolution is supposed to occur by the force of human will when the lower classes become galvanized to overcome repression at the hands of the wealthy and their evil corporations. We all know how the story ends. Communism turned out to be the antithesis of equally when it was implemented via an autocratic bureaucracy.

Today, we have a different force at work; theoretical ideas of the left wing elitist academic class, who believes that leveling society is “the right thing to do”. This fairness doctrine is defined as the rich do not deserve their wealth so as much of it as possible should be taken for the benefit of lower classes.

Communism failed because it was idealistic and did not take into account human behavior. European socialism worked for a time, but now it has run out of money and is experiencing the economic impact of inefficiency. So why are we trying to duplicate something that no longer works in Europe?

The fundamental problem with neo-socialism are that it represents an unrealistic view of man in society AND its attempts to create human leveling are doomed to failure because they can only be inefficiently implemented, and, in the end, will not accomplish their purpose.

I call neo-socialism unrealistic because it imagines that if society were leveled, people would be better off. Somehow the have-nots by becoming haves would be happy. Of course, the main assumption behind this is that they desire to live in this new “leveled” society and be the haves. How well the new haves will be able to manage themselves, after they have been pulled out of a lifestyle that was familiar and placed into one that is foreign is open to question.

In the real world, human nature is quite divergent. People’s accomplishments depend on their intelligence and personality type. These two factors largely determine where a person ends up (as long as he hasn’t been born rich) and there is little that society can do to change this equation. Obviously, there are exceptions; a child who escapes the ghetto to enroll in Harvard Medical School being an obvious example. Still, the majority combine their birth situation, family experience, environment, intelligence, and personality traits to achieve what they achieve, and government proscribing their ultimate placement in society is not only unrealistic but a violation of basic human rights. An artificial “leveler” is as silly as Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Let’s set up our leveling system and see how it works. We said we would have the tax rates adjusted to take money from the rich and re-distribute it to the poor. What amount is to be taken? Is a fair amount $ 1,000 per rich person or $ 10,000? How do we decide who to give the money to? Do we start with the poorest, maybe the homeless, and give them money first? How do we know when they have enough money? When they can pay for an apartment? Or when their apartment is full of furniture and they have purchased a car?

The bottom 22% of the American population (yearly income) has about 16,700,000 families. These are people who make less than $ 30,000 per year. The median income of all Americans is $ 65,000, so should we raise the lowest 22% up to the median? If we assume the median income of the lowest 22% is $ 15,000 per year, then it will take $ 50,000 x 16.7 million families or $ 835,000,000,000 to raise the lowest 22%. We still have 28% more families to take care of who are below the median.

Now we have to come up with a mechanism to manage the leveling, so we will create a government bureaucracy to handle the task. This bureaucracy will need tens of thousands of employees to keep track of everything. If person A becomes a “have” he has to be taken off the have-nots list, but remain in monitor status to make sure he doesn’t split back. If he does, the flow of money to him has to begin again. At all times, we will have new haves being monitored, have-nots being funded, and old rich haves giving up their money. Oh yea, we’ll have to monitor the old haves too because they may slip into have-not status.

This all sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

In the real world the rich would have their taxes raised to generate the required $ 835 billion. Then Congress would have to decide how to distribute that money through programs it would create. There would be programs for education, programs for housing, programs for food distribution, and programs for jobs. Wouldn’t those programs have to have a lot of complicated rules? How would they be managed to insure successful outcomes? Wouldn’t they be inefficient like every other bureaucracy?

The other question we have to ask is “How comfortable are we with the permanence of this solution?” In other words is this a teleological (end justifies the means) or deontological (means justifies the ends)? Those on the side of the former are on shaky ground because we cannot predict the long term outcome of a radical re-structuring of a society. Those on the side of the latter can prove their point if there are benefits to society as we move along toward the future. But reality is reality and what will happen will happen.

Today’s western society is in its youth compared to the ancient societies. The Greek Polis lasted 500 years – Rome between Republic and Empire 1000 years. Modern western society had its beginning with the American revolution, a mere two hundred and forty-four years ago. If you read the ancient histories, you know that political systems evolve, as Polybius suggested. Each one has a beginning, middle, and end according to the forces at work on the culture. Radical changes can be effective for a time, but as Toynbee suggests, circumstances spring people back to an equilibrium state at some point.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Comments on Comments

I like to monitor comments about my posts because they’re almost always good ones, but when people comment on older posts I may miss them because I am not paying attention to the older ones. Fortunately blogger keeps track of them.

It’s interesting to see what posts new readers are choosing. Often they are more interested in the old rather than the new. No doubt they are choosing content no matter how old the post is.

Over the past six months, the post Factors in the Development on Ancient Greek Culture has been viewed 1,117 times. It was first posted on April 22, 2009.

In second place is Warships of the Greek Navy, which has been viewed 1,007 times. It was originally posted July 13, 2009.

Third is Hannibal’s March Across the Alps, viewed 916 times. Originally posted on February 23, 2009, this post was updated with more accurate information on August 19, 2010 but the new post is not nearly as popular.

Now to the recent comments:

1. From anonymous – commenting on my post The Spartan Army after the Peloponnesean War. 6/22/2010

A refreshing text, with many rarely heard points.
However I have few disagreements as well as praise.

‘’...maintain its fighting strength during Peloponnesian wars’’ – MAINTAIN or survive. As you said, victories in that war were hollow, political ones if you like..More importantly, system did not survive, no matter how many generations were killed in 465/4,system did not work on principles from before, nor in that level of expectations. Army that was an elite in 550-470,being brought down to counting on Periokoi, Eirenes and Helots in 425 is no longer ‘strong’ and far from maintaining strength..maintain maybe in the sense of being able to prevail even more shattered enemies, but not in a sense of being on the former level.

I agree with the comment. The Spartan Army started a downhill slide once it ran out of Homoioi and had to recruit from outside the agoge. The earthquake of 466 B.C. (or perhaps 464 B.C.) wiped out a generation of recruits and Sparta certainly had to look to the Periokoi for help. I’m not sure Sparta ever got back to 100% Homoioi after that.

I would not call Sparta an oligarchy, especially with their Apella, and especially in comparison with absolute Athenian ‘democracy’.

I think the answer to this question is subjective. Sparta was run by the Gerousia and Ephors in a similar was to the Roman Republic being run by the consuls and Senate, although the details of the Spartan political system’s operation are more obscure. We know that after the land redistribution the wealthy retained their status. One expects they continued to exert great influence, especially in an authoritarian regime.

‘’Spartan army was degraded after 400 B.C’’ – I will argue it being 50 yrs earlier at least (wonder if anyone bothered to see who won which events in Olympia..Spartans COMPLETELY ceased to win athletic events which they dominated until early 5th BC, earthquake, system fall, lowering the criteria etc – I think so)

I agree.

‘’hollowest of victories for Sparta’’ -absolutely true

‘’The date 371 B.C.’’ – If I may I would call it official end, real one being much earlier, during those hollowest of victories in Peloponnesian wars, mentioned so brilliantly in the text. Even Peloponnesian wars saw the reform of Spartan army..especially with Neodamodeis being presented, and armor being discarded (and it was not because it was bad, it lasted so well for centuries..but because no one fought gallantly anymore, including Spartans, no one had time or money for cut throats became better choice than expensive hoplites, fewer in numbers and harder to equip and bring to the battlefield..10:1 ratio of mercenaries versus heavy hoplites would never work out for the hoplites..And it did not unfortunately.) That is why I think 370 is way low for a date when all went downhill for Sparta and hoplite warriors.

‘’There is no question that the traditions of the agoge were degraded after Leuctra’’ – Again I argue that it happened much before, and proof can be in the clear ‘ survive' rather than ‘excel' politic of Spartan government. By the way, junior Olympic victors from Sparta also ceased to exist completely in the 5th BC, and they were the most numerous ones in Golden age of Sparta, Archaic era – and it sounds like earthquake aka system shatter to me.

I agree.

2. From anonymous – commenting on my post Two Kings Better than One. 8/16/2010. I maybe be wrong but don't overestimate the role of the helots.

Spartan wives were the ones mostly doing all the managing and periokoi did basically all that wasn't agriculture and squire jobs. Helots did of course enable Spartans do be a full time ATHLETES and warriors, but not all credit goes to helots only, and arms and armor was not the only thing Spartiate had to manage.

The Spartan/Helot relationship was one of the most unique in history, but as I said before it was a devil’s bargain. To keep the Helots under control, Sparta needed a full time army. They lived in fear if an uprising and went to the trouble of declaring war on the Helots each year.

3. From Vojkan – commenting on my post Day -12 Sparta. 9/16/2010

This is truly an impressive article. Thank you. But
I will have two big remarks however.

Marble statue made of Parian marble is an import that may not represent one particular person, and it is called Leonidas simply because archaeologist who excavated it said 'this is Leonidas', no other reason other than that.

Absolutely right. The statute is called Leonidas but no one knows what it refers to. I didn’t mean to imply that it is known to be Leonidas.

And the other one s Villages are completely mixed up and severely misplaced in the image/map. Pitana lay behind the temple of Athina Kalioikos to the North West. Limnae was smallest village where the temple of Artemis Orthia is located.

Kynosuria was in the area of modern town centre, the Eastern part of it. Mesoa also but slightly nearer to Pitana and acropolis. Other than Amykleia which was around 5km to the south, other villages were not that far away.

I have three maps of the ancient Spartan villages: two match the image I constructed for the post and one matches your description. I do not know which is right.

Did you visit Amykleia and site of Amykleion at modern Ag Kyriaki hill?

Unfortunately no. I was with a small group and my flexibility was limited. The major activity for that day other than the Spartan acropolis was a visit to Mystras.

4. From anonymous – commenting on my post The Spartans as Lacedaemonians. 11/22/2010

‘’because there is no evidence of Mycenaean or sub-Mycenaean culture there’’ – There is no evidence in the Eurotas valley but there is in the Menelaion site.

‘’ and the Spartans were known as the Lacedaemonians from at least the fifth century B.C’’ – There is few of the inscribed monuments in Olympia, dedicated by Spartans (Akmatidas and Gorgos for example),one winning the pentathlon and one probably being one of the judges..both dated from 6th BC. So Lakedaimonioi is the term archeology knows much before 5th BC, Spartans is the term only used rarely, and in the context of Spartan citizens (while Lakedaimonioi is used in the very same context by Spartans themselves).

Later in the post I reference the use of Lacedaemonian by the Spartans as early as when there were two villages (~ 750 B.C.). Indeed, as the commenter points out, there were Lacedaemonians at the Olympics. One of them, named Acanthus the Lacedaemonian, won the diaulos (400 meter race) in 720 B.C.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spartan Armor and the Phalanx Rebuttal

The ink wasn’t dry on my last post before I received a comment from an anonymous reader criticizing the post on multiple grounds. He seems to be a Spartan defender (as am I) emotionally invested in correcting my mistakes.

I thought I’d use this post to discuss the criticisms because I want all my readers to be exposed to the arguments. Although I approach my subjects from an academic point of view, I’m not immune to mistakes particularly in the way the facts are presented. I think there is some of the latter at work here but my readers can judge for themselves what they believe to be the correct arguments.

In the following discussion I have highlighted my own quotes from the post, then listed the criticisms in italics, and then entered a response to the criticisms.

‘’Historical evidence suggests that the hoplite armor (chest corslet, helmet, and greaves) developed at about the same time (circa 650 B.C.)’’

Please forgive me but I don’t understand this one..Bronze armor goes back to Mycenean era.Corinthian helmet and bell curiass however were developed somewhere in the Dark Ages, or after, let’s say 700 BC.

I didn’t mean to suggest at the various components of the Spartan armor were developed simultaneously but that they came together as a set of armor in about 650 B.C. I count the porpax shield as a new development because we know that the Assyrians were using single handled shields a century before. The porpax shield probably contributed to the development of the phalanx as a tactic.

‘’Also with the left hand unavailable, the hoplite would have to use a thrusting spear in his right hand.’’

Shield is among the most powerful weapons of the hoplite since spear could probably survive only the beginning phase of combat. Other parts being brute wrestling, killing with swords, shields, helmets, rocks, hands

I don’t dispute this comment, however, the hoplites also carried a sword and multiple spears. There are more examples on Greek pottery of hoplites carrying multiple weapons than there are of them carrying a single one.

‘This is a picture of frightened Spartan hoplites trying to survive’

That was a picture of LIGHTLY ARMED troops, not the full warriors-hoplites by any means. You severely misunderstood the probably poor translation. I would not go so far sir to call those Messenian war era men cowards Leonidas would be ashamed of. And second Messenian war probably came after reform of 650.

Here I’m looking at the big picture and my critic is taking a closer view. We know that Tyrtaios composed his poems during the Second Messenian War (First Messenian Revolt). My theory backing Toynbee is that the Messenian revolt was the igniter for the reforms of the Spartan army. Prior to the reforms, the Spartan army was not disciplined because it contained citizen soldiers rather than professionals. The reforms were driven by the realization by the Spartan elite that they could not control their vast new territory without a professional army, and the only way to build a professional army was to grant land to the people and level the classes. As I wrote in a previous post, the elite needed the phalanx and the phalanx was made up of commoners. The commoners refused to man the phalanx without rights.

The other reason to quote the poem was to show that we can pinpoint a time when the Spartan army was ineffective, again making it obvious that reforms were needed.

I wouldn’t say the men in the poem were cowards but I don’t think Leonidas would respect their performance.

I will also furiously disagree that they fought poorly before 6th C..First of all Spartans were by far most successful in disciplines of strength in Pan-Hellenic games at the time and later as well, and strength (lifting, wrestling, sprint) was absolutely necessary for hoplite combat, and it was almost the only thing that decided who won and who lost...

The commenter is correct in saying that the Spartans exhibited great athletic prowess at the Pan-Hellenic Games, but I think there is a difference between a few good athletes and 9,000 equally athletic hoplites. It takes a discipline on the order of the agoge to get there.

Again I agree with the commenter. If two armies are using a phalanx, the stronger and better conditioned army should win.

Secondly 669 Hysiae is mentioned only once, by a controversial author almost a millennium after the battle!?!? Never before, not by Herodotus, Xenophon, Thucydides??? No archaeological finds. Nothing..It may have never happened, there is no proof except his doubtful testimony...And Tegean chains is the episode of the overconfident therefore severely outnumbered Spartans. If they took it seriously outcome might be different. By the way Herodotus says ‘ALL other wars with Tegea at the time were successful’’

Regarding the Battle of Hysiae, I believe the battle actually happened and even though there is not a great deal of evidence, Toynbee, Cartledge, and Jones believe it happened and that’s good enough for me.

Again, I think the criticism misses the mark. All I’m trying to show is that once the military reforms were adopted in Sparta, it took a while for the Spartan army to exhibit the superiority it would be known for later.

I would also argue on Spartan achieving superiority and remaining there (Although I agree with 650 being date of new reform, and 550 being date of the peak of Spartan strength that lasted until wars with Tegea, Argos in 470)..Spartans were not invincible after 544 either.

Yes indeed, there are some surprising defeats later when one would think the Spartans were invincible.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Spartan Armor and the Phalanx

We’re still on Toynbee and there is much more to discuss.

The Phalanx was the superior close order battle formation of antiquity until the time of the Romans. Its soldiers wore heavy metallic armor and carried thrusting spears and swords for attacking the enemy at close quarters. While the armor would have been useful in single combat, it became much more lethal in formation.

The origin of the phalanx is not known, but when adopted by the Greeks it became superior to any alternative from the time of Marathon to 197 B.C, when the Greeks were defeated by a Roman javelin and sword army.

Historical evidence suggests that the hoplite armor (chest corslet, helmet, and greaves) developed at about the same time (circa 650 B.C.), and that the phalanx resulted from the armor, not the reverse. The shield predated the other equipment and is of particular importance because the way its use evolved over time.

Originally the shield was carried with the left hand only, but when metal was added to make it stronger, it became too heavy for one hand. The Mycenaeans were the first to add a telemon (strap) which passed over the shoulder and helped support the shield. Later, the Greeks developed a more efficient design by fitting a metal strap (porpax) on the inside of the shield. The hoplite passed his arm through the porpax and then gripped the handle. While the single grip shield offered protection of any part of the body, the hoplite shield could only protect the left side. Also with the left hand unavailable, the hoplite would have to use a thrusting spear in his right hand. Perhaps these limitations pointed to the need for a battle formation that offered protection for the individual while creating a powerful offensive weapon.

The historical evidence is that the porpax shield was adopted first by Corinth in the early seventh century B.C. and Sparta soon after. Geometric pottery displays the hoplite shield as early as 750 B.C, but hoplite tactics are not shown in geometric art. An artifact called the Chigi vase (circa 650 B.C.) is one of the first examples of pottery displaying a phalanx formation.

And then we have the poetry of Tyrtaios, referenced in a previous post, who described the Spartans in battle. Remember he is contemporary to the Second Messenian War.

"For those who, remaining beside one another, dare to go into the hand-to-hand fight and the front rank, fewer die, and they preserve the people behind them. But of men who have begun to tremble every excellence is lost, and no one would ever finish speaking all the ills which happen to a man if he suffers something shameful. For attractive it is to split from behind the back of a fleeing man in hostile war, but shameful is a corpse lying in the dust with the head of a spear driven through its back.

But let a man, having taken his stride, remain in his place, firmly set upon the earth, biting his lip with his teeth and covering thighs and legs below and chest and shoulders with the wide belly of his shield. In his right hand let me brandish a might spear, and let him move the dread helmet crest above his head. By doing mighty deeds let him learn to make war, and let him not stand apart from the missiles holding his shield. But let someone going into the hand-to-hand fight with long spear or wounding with sword take an enemy man, having placed foot against foot and leaned shield against shield, crest to crest, helmet to helmet, breast to breast, drawn close let him fight man to man, taking hold of the haft of his sword or his long spear.

And you, the unarmed ones, crouching beneath a shield, one on one side, another on the other, throw great rocks and cast smooth javelins against them, standing near the fully-armored men."

This is a picture of frightened Spartan hoplites trying to survive – not men Leonidas would admire. We’re getting an early picture of Spartan tactics before the Lycurgian reforms had taken hold.

We know that the Spartans fought poorly in the battle against the Argives in 669 B.C, so at some point after that (perhaps 650 B.C.), the decision was made to re-distribute land and build a real army. Unlike the changes to the government, the Spartan battle tactics took time to develop. Generations would have to pass through the agoge before the fighting machine was tuned. The Spartans were defeated at Tegea in the first quarter of the sixth century, but triumphant against the Argives in 544. Finally the Spartan phalanx had achieved superiority.

In my last post we discussed the Ephor Khilon who was in power circa 550 B.C. He is said to be the statesman who ended the Spartan pattern of conquest in favor of a league of allies (later the Peloponnesean League). His approach was grounded in the reality that Sparta could not both control the Helots and conquer the peninsula. The Homoioi would be needed to control the Helot lands so their marching off to foreign battles would have to be reserved for emergencies.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Spartan Kings and the Ephors

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.
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Monday, December 13, 2010

More about the Beginning of the Unique Spartan Political System

A key component added to the Spartan political system, as part of the reforms, was the Damos, or assembly of hoplites. Members of this body were called Homoioi, and to maintain that designation, an individual was required to make his assigned food contribution to the mess, carry out his military duties, and attend the meetings of the assembly.

This Damos, unlike most of the others, was not an aristocratic assembly, but rather one of peers. Originally consisting of Homoioi and Hypomeiones (inferiors), this class differentiation disappeared over time as the new system matured.

The Damos was a “Sparta only” political body, so it did not include enfranchised citizens from outside the city like other Greek Poleis. And there were certainly some eccentricities in its implementation. It did not include all of the Spartiatai (eligible Spartan citizens) or any Helots. Since all members were Hoplites, those outside the military were not represented.

Beyond these political changes, sat the redistribution of land as the practical force behind the leveling of the classes. New landowners found themselves better off than they had been previously, even though they could never really become peers of the wealthy.

To balance the nobles being merged into the Damos, the kings were merged into the Gerousia. They were added as the twenty-ninth and thirtieth members, with no greater power than any of the other members save not having to stand for election. The kings other functions, besides leading their men into battle, were to oversee the maintenance of roads, approve adoptions, and select the men heiresses could be betrothed to.

These Lycurgian reforms must be considered a great achievement, though they only benefited a minority and were heavily dependent on the subjugation of the Helots. They would serve as a model for all future Poleis in Greece. Other democracies and the oligarchies that passed through an interim period of dictatorships, emerged on the other side with Sparta as the model for a stable and successful political system.

That model included a sovereign assembly and a small councilor body charged with introducing legislation for consideration by the assembly – predating in basic form the Roman Republic. The Athenians would later (461 B.C) increase the sophistication of the assembly by allowing its members to debate and amend bills the council sent to it. Government officials and members of the council were also allowed to speak about the merits of a bill under consideration. At least in its early stages, the Spartan Assembly did not allow debate and was limited to the role of voting on the legislation by a simple majority. It did, however, possess the power to replace deceased members of the Gerousia and elect the Ephors.

The latter was the wellspring of the power of the Damos and fundamental to the goal of a balanced stable political system. Later, the Ephors would expand their own powers to include convening the Damos and presenting motions to it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sparta’s Two Messenian Wars and the Military Government

Following the annexation of Aigytis, Sparta maintained contact with the remnants of the Aipytid Kingdom located at Stenykharos northwest of Sparta on the west side of the Taygetos Mountains. But after the Spartans annexed the Taygetan Minyai (a surviving clan of the Mycenaean Age located on the Laconian side of the Taygetos), they were emboldened to move for control of the west side of the mountain range. The First Messenian War (740-720 B.C.) was the outcome of that desire. After Stenykharos surrendered, its plain became new Helot territory. The full extent of this conquest was not known, but it appears that most of the land west of the Taygetos to the Ionian Sea and north to the Neda River was taken.

Tyrtaios, the Attic poet, sent to Sparta by the Oracle to assist with the Second Messenian War, stated that the first war was fought by the grandfathers of the men who fought in the second war. That would put the timeframe of the second war at about 690 B.C. Technically his words were “the fathers of our fathers”, which could have been an imprecise use of the term, so the second war may have taken place in the middle of the seventh century.

The second war was not one of conquest but the putting down of a revolt. Toynbee suggests that it was the time of establishment of the Lycurgian reforms, not earlier as others have suggested. His reasoning was that the Spartan commoners would have demanded rights in return for their help in protecting the new kingdom.

Let’s look at this is a little more detail. Many of the ancients, including Thucydides connect Lycurgus with the militaristic Spartan system we’re all familiar with and set his date farther back than it should be. In reality we don’t know when Lycurgus lived or whether he even existed. It has been written that the Lycurgian reforms were put into place to overcome the domestic instability in Sparta existing before that time. What was the cause of this instability and when did it occur? A logical explanation derives from the rapid conquests preceding the Second Messenian War. In the period from 760-720 B.C. Sparta conquered Amyklai, Aigiai, Gythion, the lower Eurotos Basin, the Tagetan Minyai, and Stenyklaros – a vast amount of territory to try and control. The administrative challenges associated with these conquests must have been formidable.

With the risk of revolt great and the administrative challenge daunting, the ruling class must have realized the importance of a citizen-based military (hoplite phalanx), and they may have been pushed in this direction by the commons who wouldn’t serve without receiving a property allocation. One piece of evidence to support this is found in Aristotle’s Politics.

“When the difference between the rich and poor is too extreme, the situation is particularly apt to be produced by wars. This too happened at Lacedaemon at the time of the second war with the Messenians. The evidence for this is found in Tyrtaios’ poem Eunomia where he says that there were Spartans who were so hard pressed economically by the war that they demanded that the country be carved up into allotments.”

The Spartan leadership was certainly in a position to allocate land because of the enormous size of the conquered lands. So the devil’s bargain was made – land to the commons in exchange for their willingness to fight in phalanx formation.

It seems that the new structure would have been instituted in a single step because of its interdependency. The need for a new kind of army generated a new constitution and social system. Of course a constitution can be created as a single event while changes in a social system take time and generations to take hold. Even the governmental changes must have occurred over time. For example, the Ephors had to transition from advisors to the king to being elected by a citizen assembly which did not exist before the reforms.