V century B.C. Athens is irrefutably celebrated for being the holy source of Western Culture, the humus into which philosophy and tragedy developed and above all for indisputably representing the very cradle of democracy. Quite as much as Sparta – her most fierce and inextinguishable enemy – is renowned for her warfare excellence, her strictly regimented standard of living and some of her fairly inexplicable inhuman rituals. Nevertheless, analysing VI and V century B.C. Spartan political institutions, it would not be totally inappropriate to admit that even the Lacedaemonians attempted – and to some extent achieved – their own democratic experiment.
Spartan society was divided mainly into three classes, the Omoioi - ὅμοιοι (literally the equals): full right male citizens equally assignees of collectively owned lots of land, the Perioeci – περίοἶκοί: free inhabitants of Sparta’s outskirts and Laconia coastlines and the Εἵλωτες – Helots: nearly state’s slaves-land-workers assigned to the Omoioi – these both with no political rights and compelled to military duties. Politically the Spartans had their assembly (Apella) gathering solely the Omoioi; then a consultative-board composed by 28 Elders Γερουσία (Gerousia) whose members were 60 years or older and belonged to the noble class and 2 hereditary Kings: principally endowed with military powers and full control of the army; finally 5 magistrates yearly elected (Ephores) were in charge of the auditing of the laws and the preservation of the integrity of the institutions – they were a true executive body. This framework of Spartan Constitution was attributed to the patient work of a semi-mythological legislator Lycurgus, who produced them in a sort of unmemorable old epoch, wrapped within a mythical aura as the verses of Tyrtaeus portray:
These oracles they from Apollo heard, and brought from Pytho home the perfect word
So – as Plutarch writes – Lycurgus brought from Delphi the oracle’s Rethra:
So eagerly set was he upon this establishment, that he took the trouble to obtain an oracle about it from Delphi, the Rhetra, which runs thus: “After that you have built a temple to Zeus Hellanius, and to Atena Hellania, and after that you have organised the people in phyles, and ordered them into obes, you shall establish a council of thirty elders, the including the archagetai, and shall, from time to time, apellazein the people betwixt Babyca and Cnacion, there propound and put to the vote. The comunity have the final voice and decision. “By phyles and obes are meant the divisions of the people; by the archagetai, the two kings; apellazein, referring to the Pythian Apollo, signifies to assemble; Babyca and Cnacion they now call Oenus; Aristotle says Cnacion is a river, and Babyca a bridge. Betwixt this Babyca and Cnacion, their assemblies were held, for they had no council-house or building, to meet in. Lycurgus deemed that ornaments were so far from advantaging them in their counsels, that they were rather an hindrance, by diverting their attention from the business before them to statues and pictures, and roofs curiously fretted, the usual embellishments of such places amongst the other Greeks. The people then being thus assembled in the open air, it was not allowed to any one of their order to give his advice, but only either to ratify or reject what should be propounded to them by the king or Gerousia. But because it fell out afterwards that the people, by adding or omitting words, distorted and perverted the sense of propositions, kings Polydorus and Theopompus inserted into the Rhetra the following clause: “That if the people talk and decide deceivingly, it should be lawful for the elders and archagetai to dissolve the assembly and dismiss the people as they divert the motions and bias the works and resolutions of the assembly”.
Thus the Apella, (assembly) gathered once a month and admitted every Spartan over 30 years old and held the power to decide and approve whatever motion the kings (archagetai) and the Gerousia might bring to its attention. Similarities with early pre-Pericles Athenian social structure and political-institutional organisation are evident – perhaps more formal than substantial, though: on most matters in the agenda, the Apella had no actual decisional power as the omoioi could approve or express disapproval, but could not speak in the assembly. That right being reserved to the Ephors, Kings and members of Gerousia, left the other citizens with limited opportunity to suggest new ideas. Although even the members to the Athenian assembly (Ecclesia) were rarely truly numerous, and the people who actually took the stand proposing new motions – something which in theory any participant was entitled to – were always the same few well trained demagogues and/or unofficial spokesman of a specific party…
Nonetheless comparisons were made and sameness already in those days was often pointed out, in so much as Isocrates strove to somehow defended the derivation and originality of Athenian democracy:
“ἐγὼ δ‘ ὁμολογῶ μὲν ἐρεῖν πολλὰ τῶν ἐκεῖ καθεστώτων, οὐχ ὡς Λυκούργου τι τούτων εὑρόντος ἢ διανοηθέντος, ἀλλ‘ ὡς μιμησαμένου τὴν διοίκησιν ὡς δυνατὸν ἄριστα τὴν τῶν προγόνων τῶν ἡμετέρων, καὶ τήν τε δημοκρατίαν καταστήσαντος παρ‘ αὐτοῖς τὴν ἀριστοκρατίᾳ μεμιγμένην, ἥπερ ἦν παρ‘ ἡμῖν, καὶ τὰς ἀρχὰς οὐ κληρωτὰς ἀλλ‘ αἱρετὰς ποιήσαντος, καὶ τῶν γερόντων αἵρεσιν τῶν ἐπιστατούντων ἅπασι τοῖς πράγμασι μετὰ τοσαύτης σπουδῆς ποιεῖσθαι νομοθετήσαντος, μεθ‘ ὅσης πέρ φασι καὶ τοὺς ἡμετέρους περὶ τῶν εἰς Ἄρειον πάγον ἀναβήσεσθαι μελλόντων, ἔτι δὲ καὶ τὴν δύναμιν αὐτοῖς περιθέντος τὴν αὐτήν, ἥνπερ ᾔδει καὶ τὴν βουλὴν ἔχουσαν τὴν παρ‘ ἡμῖν.
ὅτι μὲν οὖν τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον τἀκεῖ καθέστηκεν ὥσπερ εἶχε τὸ παλαιὸν καὶ τὰ παρ‘ ἡμῖν, παρὰ πολλῶν ἔσται πυθέσθαι τοῖς εἰδέναι βουλομένοις: ὡς δὲ καὶ τὴν ἐμπειρίαν τὴν περὶ τὸν πόλεμον οὐ πρότερον ἤσκησαν οὐδ‘ ἄμεινον ἐχρήσαντο Σπαρτιᾶται τῶν ἡμετέρων, ἐκ τῶν ἀγώνων καὶ τῶν πολέμων τῶν ὁμολογουμένων γενέσθαι κατ‘ ἐκεῖνοι τὸν χρόνον οὕτως οἶμαι σαφῶς ἐπιδείξειν, ὥστε μήτε τοὺς ἀνοήτως λακωνίζοντας ἀντειπεῖν δυνήσεσθαι τοῖς ῥηθεῖσι, μήτε τοὺς τὰ ἡμέτερα ἅμα τε θαυμάζοντας καὶ βασκαίνοντας καὶ μιμεῖσθαι γλιχομένους.”
[I acknowledge that I am going to speak at length of the institutions of Sparta, not taking the view, however, that Lycurgus invented or conceived any of them, but that he imitated as well as he could the government of our ancestors, establishing among the Spartans a democracy tempered with aristocracy – even such as existed in Athens -, enacting that the offices be filled, not by lot, but by election, ordaining that the election of the Elders, who were to supervise all public affairs, should be conducted with the very same care as, they say, our ancestors also exercised with regard to those who were to have seats in the Aeropagus, and, furthermore, conferring upon the Elders the very same power which he knew that the Council of the Aeropagus also had in Athens.
Now that the institutions of Sparta were established after the manner of our own as they were in ancient times may be learned from many sources by those who desire to know the truth. But that skill in warfare is something which the Spartans did not practise earlier than our ancestors or employ to better advantage than they I think I can show so clearly from the struggles and the wars which are acknowledged to have taken place in those days that none will be able to contradict what I say – neither those who are blind worshippers of Sparta nor those who at once admire and envy and strive to imitate the ways of Athens.]
Paradoxically the remarkable resemblance of the Spartan Constitution is corroborated by Isocrates argumentations; he, particularly nostalgic in his late years and struggling against the growing praising pro-Spartan atmosphere, even maintained that Lycurgus did actually copycat the Athenian political and institutional framework from Theseus an ancient hero-mythological king of Athens…
In spite of Isocrates, many – in different ways and degrees of appreciation and on diverse grounds and pursuing various aims – have been the admirers of the Lacedaemonian social and political structure including even Plato and Xenophon. An interesting, detached and rather technical analysis of the Spartan political institutions was carried out a few centuries later by Polybius who considered it “the best of all existing constitutions”:
“Lycurgus had perfectly well understood that all the above changes take place necessarily and naturally, and had taken into consideration that every variety of constitution which is simple and formed on principle is precarious, as it is soon perverted into the corrupt form which is proper to it and naturally follows on it. For just as rust in the case of iron and wood-worms and ship-worms in the case of timber are inbred pests, and these substances, even though they escape all external injury, fall a prey to the evils engendered in them, so each constitution has a vice engendered in it and inseparable from it. In kingship it is despotism, in aristocracy oligarchy, and in democracy the savage rule of violence; and it is impossible, as I said above, that each of these should not in course of time change into this vicious form. Lycurgus, then, foreseeing this, did not make his constitution simple and uniform, but united in it all the good and distinctive features of the best governments, so that none of the principles should grow unduly and be perverted into its allied evil, but that, the force of each being neutralized by that of the others, neither of them should prevail and outbalance another, but that the constitution should remain for long in a state of equilibrium like a well-trimmed boat, kingship being guarded from arrogance by the fear of the commons, who were given a sufficient share in the government, and the commons on the other hand not venturing to treat the kings with contempt from fear of the elders, who being selected from the best citizens would be sure all of them to be always on the side of justice; so that that part of the state which was weakest owing to its subservience to traditional custom, acquired power and weight by the support and influence of the elders. The consequence was that by drawing up his constitution thus he preserved liberty at Sparta for a longer period than is recorded elsewhere.”
Polybius could distinguish within the Lacedaemonians Constitution an unparalleled long-lasting political solution, a cleverly conceived organised mix of monarchical ancestral foundations, aristocratic guidance and popular support under the shelter of a well trained army. He admired this lifelong melange of democracy and oligarchy, gained by the Spartans with patience/experience and enforced with the authoritative support of religion, something lacking – as he instead strongly lamented – within the process Rome had been going through in achieving a steady political order.
Undoubtedly it may be objected that part of the bright Spartan democracy/oligarchy success was based on her strongly reduced population (circa 9,000 Omoioi – always decreasing), and a great mass of no-right workers/slaves; and above all on a very primitively socialist – and consequently less complicated – economical system. Nevertheless this attention-grabbing “example” still stands, especially when conceiving democracy not simply as an ideology, but as Hans Kelsen suggests, as an ensemble of procedures in order to defend and promote the development of a society and its members, thus he accordingly maintains:
“Neither capitalism or socialism imply a prefigured political procedure, therefore, in principle, both of them may be compatible with whether democracy or autocracy”.
Moreover the incredible duration of the said Constitution and its relatively remarkable steadiness throughout the stormy centuries previous the spreading of the Roman empire and the collapse/absorption of the Greek world, keep playing a leading role in praising high still now the Spartan peculiarly democratic experiment.