Saturday, January 5, 2013

Development of the Spartan Political System

In a previous post (June 2009), I discussed Lycurgus and his influence over the development of the Spartan political system. I described him as a shadowy figure who may never have existed. Rather than speculate about Lycurgus as a person and his influence over the Spartan political system, I would like to focus now on the system itself, its development and the forces that pushed it forward.

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.


W.LindsayWheeler said...

I was run off from Wikipedia by the British (modern) republicans because I labelled Sparta a republic. To them, because Sparta had kings, prevented Sparta from being a republic. I then posted on Paul A. Rahe calling Sparta a republic and they dismissed him as a loner and not in union with the majority.

I am glad that you also recognize that Sparta is a republic--a true republic. It seems though that you dismiss the connection between Rome and Sparta but there is more instances of a connection such as the military headgear worn by both. Officer headgear is the same along with the red capes. The connection between the two, for me, is the Sabines. The Sabines, as Plutarch says, claimed that they were Dorians. Furthermore, there were sumptuary laws in both Sparta and Rome albeit in Rome only the senate had sumptuary laws laid against them. If they would have kept to the sumptuary laws, maybe the Republic would have never descended into ochlocracy due to the Gracchi rebellions.

I'm the author of The Spartan Republic.

One can not dismiss either that the same concept "Old Men" in the Spartan gerousia is the same in the Latin "Senatus". Coincidences don't happen. There are just too many coincidences between Rome and Sparta.

I'm just glad that there is another academic now that recognizes that Sparta is a true republic.

Mike Anderson said...

W.Lindsay Wheeler,

You can't call Rome a Republic without calling Sparta a Republic. Both had a Council of Elders (Senate/Gerousia, Assembly (Commitia/Ecclesia),and Chief Magistrates (Consuls/Ephors). The kings of Sparta were an anachronism. As I'm sure you realize, Democracies were much rarer in history than Republics. A Democracy is a hard thing to do and Athens only pulled it off because it was so small.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

FYI, in the article "Sparta" at Wikipedia, in the section on its government, they quote my line about how it is mixed. It is from one of my works on republic. The article states categorically that it is "mixed government" yet in the sidebar on the classification of the form of government, it has "Oligarchy". My complaint has been on the talk page one week now. No one has said "boo".

If you look up many modern dictionaries they do define a "republic" as "Any government without a king". Can you believe that that exact phrase is in Lorenzo Valla's writing on the Donation of Constantine!

Yet I read Cicero's De republica and in there he specifically states that the Roman Republic started under Romulus with the appearance of the Senate. I found this before 2008.

Paul A. Rahe, the author of the three volume set, Republics, Ancient and Modern, wrote a second book called Against Throne and Altar; where in one line states that three Roman writers, Cicero, Livy, Sallust, all state that the Roman Republic was started under Romulus the king. On page 28.

So what happened to "A republic is any government without a king"?

I first posted on a Republic and that Sparta was a republic on 18 Feb 2004. It was in Apr 2005, that I read Cicero's De republica and said Sparta was a republic and that is when Wikipedia deleted my Classical definition of a republic from Wikipedia.

Here is the reference for De republica 103."It was after he had adopted this policy that Romulus first discovered and approved the principle which Lycurgus had discovered at Sparta a short time before—that a State can be better governed and guided by the authority of one man, that is by the power of the king, if the influence of the State's most eminent men is joined to the ruler's absolute power." De re publica, Loeb. Vol #213, pg 123-125

It was in April 2005 that I found out that Cicero had the republic started under Romulus way before Paul Rahe. I present facts at Wikipedia and they still deleted the article. No one there will accept that Sparta is a Republic. All the ancient republics in the West, Doric Crete, Sparta, and Rome all started under kings. The definition "a republic is any government without a king" is Jewish out of the Hebraic politics then circling in Northern Italy and it England. Somebody has their facts wrong but then again, we live in an age where one can make up what one likes.

Mike Anderson said...

W. Lindsay Wheeler,

I think you're too worried about semantics.

Rome was certainly an oligarchy because it was ruled by a few (the Senate). It was also a Republic in the classic sense. Republic comes from res publica or "thing of the people" which means that the people have a say in government - through the assembly. Prior to this time, all governments were monarchies or aristocracies, as in early Sparta.

There is some information we have that Rome, under the kings, had a Senate and Assembly. It is said that King Servius Tullius created the Commitia Centuriata and the Comitia Tributa, although only the latter really represented the people. What's important to me is that this political system was a departure from the previous ones because of the new role of the people. So the presence of a king did not negate the definition. Should Rome be called a Republic before the kings fell? It's debatable, although I have no problems calling Sparta a Republic, even though it had a monarch.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Language is everything. Semantics is important.

Paul A. Rahe in his book on republics singles out a very telling statement from Machiavelli. I produce it here in full:

"He who desires or wishes to reform the condition of a city and wishes that it be accepted and that it be able to maintain itself to everyone's satisfaction is forced to retain at least the shadow of ancient modes so that it might seem to the people that order has not changed—though, in fact, the new orders are completely alien to those of the past. For the universality of men feed as much on appearance as on reality: indeed, in many cases, they are moved more by the things which seem than by those which are....And this much should be observed by all who wish to eliminate an ancient way of life (un antico vivere) in a city and reduce it to a new and free way of life (ridurla a uno vivere nuovo e libero): one ought, since new things alter the minds of men, to see to it that these alterations retain as much as the ancient as possible; and if the magistrates change from those of old in number, authority, and term of office, they ought at least retain the name.

This is called "Revolution within the form" where Machiavelli approves and disseminates the methodology of keeping a name but changing the definition underneath it in order to bring about revolution. Certainly, it is a crime to say "a republic is any government without a king" when originally that was not the case at all and Aristotle would not approve. One is giving false assumptions to something that is not there--thus deceiving somebody.

Second, I'm a Doric Cretan. The Spartans are my cousins, we are all Dorians. Shall my patrimony of my forebearers be stolen from my people. Because certain people are denying the honor of "republic" to Sparta. My people created this. Why should I allow revolutionaries and subversives, people of evil intent, take something that was once beautiful and good and deny them the honor and glory.

Glory is very much Dorian.

In the light of Machiavelli and knowing the use and abuse of language by progressives, communists and socialists, shouldn't semantics be very very important?

The British "republicans" really are clueless aren't they? Should wrong ideas and labels be used?

And then how does one square the circle when John Aylmer sees the parallel between his Tudor style government and Sparta and you have Sir Thomas Symth write a book calling his Tudor government a Republic and then Cromwell and his Puritans create a "commonwealth" or republic under the influence of rabbis (q.v. Eric Nelson's The Hebrew Republic). Cromwell and the Puritans operated under the influence of "a republic is any government without a king".

How does one confront the illogicalness of opposite things, Cromwell and Tudor governments, both appearing under the term Republic? I mean that is why the British "republicans" ran me off Wikipedia because of the contradiction! How do you handle the contradictions in political science? How do you teach history that has NO consistency? If you give people the modern definition, "a republic is any government without a king"---how are modern people going to understand classical antiquity? Is there not glaring inconsistencies? Illogical? What happened to Paramenides principle of Non-contradiction? Is that not central to European thought?

Yes, semantics is everything.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The article of Sparta is locked at Wikipedia.

They now state on the sidebar that Sparta is a Monarchy, or Dual Monarchy!

I guess they are afraid that the Sun will darken if Sparta is named a Republic.

I'm wondering, if you took a poll where you teach, or the professional associations that you are enrolled with, if you asked your fellow associates, "What form of government did Sparta have?"--what would be the answer?

Is there such a thing as "political science"? For science requires an accuracy of terms, does it not?