The Spartan “democratic” experiment

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 – περίοκοί: free inhabitants of Sparta’s outskirts and Laconia coastlines and the Ελωτες – 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:

“ἐγ δμολογ μν ρεν πολλ τν κε καθεσττων, οχ ς Λυκοργου τι τοτων ερντος διανοηθντος, λλς μιμησαμνου τν διοκησιν ς δυνατν ριστα τν τν προγνων τν μετρων, κα τν τε δημοκραταν καταστσαντος παρατος τν ριστοκρατίᾳ μεμιγμνην, περ ν παρμν, κα τς ρχς ο κληρωτς λλαρετς ποισαντος, κα τν γερντων αρεσιν τν πιστατοντων πασι τος πργμασι μετ τοσατης σπουδς ποιεσθαι νομοθετσαντος, μεθσης πρ φασι κα τος μετρους περ τν ες ρειον πγον ναβσεσθαι μελλντων, τι δ κα τν δναμιν ατος περιθντος τν ατν, νπερ δει κα τν βουλν χουσαν τν παρμν.

τι μν ον τν ατν τρπον τκε καθστηκεν σπερ εχε τ παλαιν κα τ παρμν, παρ πολλν σται πυθσθαι τος εδναι βουλομνοις: ς δ κα τν μπειραν τν περ τν πλεμον ο πρτερον σκησαν οδμεινον χρσαντο Σπαρτιται τν μετρων, κ τν γνων κα τν πολμων τν μολογουμνων γενσθαι κατκενοι τν χρνον οτως ομαι σαφς πιδεξειν, στε μτε τος νοτως λακωνζοντας ντειπεν δυνσεσθαι τος ηθεσι, μτε τος τ μτερα μα τε θαυμζοντας κα βασκανοντας κα μιμεσθαι γλιχομνους.”

[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.

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16 comments on “The Spartan “democratic” experiment

  1. Hellen Haan says:

    My dear, interesting piece. Have you also checked out also the Cretan constitution? There are also many similarities with Sparta’s that I think you might find of interest.
    Zoenen! –Hellen

  2. Marsha says:

    Hi dearest, nice post: simple and effective. I would focus that the main fundamental characteristic of Sparta’s constitution was the land reform. Unluckily we have no trace on the date of this event, most of the classic historians believe it early 7th century BC when Sparta faced a violent crisis; a kind of civil war so endangered the existence of the polis itself. Lycurgus, included a redeployment of the land which was divided into equal plots large enough to sustain one family, and assigned it to each citizen. Therefore the Spartans called themselves “Equals” having the same rights and also the very same wealth.
    Thanks for everything……………Kiss

  3. Sandrine says:

    Hello mon chérie, tu sais que je ne suis pas anarchiste, tout au plus libertaire. Le gouvernement de la démocratie, soit n’est pas le meilleur des régimes, et qu’il y en a un autre qui l’est; ou bien que peut-être elle est le meilleur des régimes existants, mais alors, si elle est uniquement le moins mauvais, c’est que le régime le meilleur ne peut pas vivre dans la réalité. En principe, ce serait bien le régime idéal, mais dans la réalité, exclusivement le moins mauvais.
    Gros bisou bientôt

  4. Maria says:

    Again a very interesting post. I love to discover new things about the past, thank you! XXXs Maria

  5. Jacqueline says:

    Mon chérie, pour Platon, il y a cinq constitutions réalisables : La constitution parfaite, en laquelle tout est collectif (femmes, enfants, instruction, moyens de défense) et où les monarques sont philosophes……. Il la nomme quelquefois aristocratie. Les quatre autres sont imparfaites ; elles sont classées par ordre décroissant : timocratie (créée sur l’honneur), oligarchie (fondée sur l’appétit des richesses), démocratie (réalisée sur l’égalité des riches et des pauvres), tyrannie (fondée sur le désir -contradiction même de la politique car carence de législations). Selon Platon, il y a une raison intérieur qui gouverne la marche des régimes. On passe de l’un à l’autre selon cette logique pratiquement inévitable. Clairement, cette loi n’est pas un amélioration mais une déclin, c’est subséquemment une loi de détérioration et de décadence: “tout ce qui naît est obéissant à corruption” . Tu as reçu le message?……………Bisous

  6. Grete says:

    Fascinating new perspective, nicely written, well……. as usual………..

  7. emily says:

    My dear, nice article: uncomplicated subject, but not easy to synthesize.., Personally I believe it would be off beam to distinguish in Plato a devoted enthusiast of Sparta and its institutions. For instance I believe incontestably there is some kind of sarcasm on his part (Laws, I) when on the actual point of accepting the use of the “syssitiai” as the starting ritual of the new city of the Laws, he endeavours to absolve Lycurgus and Minos from the felony for coveting war as the aim of his laws……Love reading you
    XXX Emily

  8. Monica says:

    Hi Athe…. I think on the encouraging side, that the plain inequality of wealth among citizens of other city-states was significantly reduced in Sparta. So from many characters of ancient literature we apprehend that citizens could be forced to live upon beggary, at least each citizen of Sparta owned a small “kleros” to maintain himself and his family. Hugs and kisses

  9. stoa says:

    Dear Hellen, well I remember some Aristotle text where it was reported that he Cretan institutions resemble the Spartan’s: for instance the Ephors are more or less the same as the office of the Cretan “Cosmi”, (the former being composed of five and the latter ten members); as well as the council of the elders which is practically the same. The general assembly powers were pretty much the same, actually only the kings were abolished.
    You are always very precious, thanks,

  10. stoa says:

    Dear Marsha, you have a point on this: the egalitarian social/economical framework favoured the development of this neat and long-lasting constitution. Nonetheless I deem that as years went by with this egalitarianism (in so far as real estate is concerned) was windswept either by heritage or matrimony. Moreover during the very many years of continuous war (I mean around the 400 b.C.) new lands were conquered and piled up in the patrimonies of a minor number of families As a result eventually the “equals” became no longer uniformly rich. Finally the legend of parity still remained, hence in later days laws banned the grandiose demonstration of prosperity – something that was also socially scorned.

  11. stoa says:

    Cher Sandrine,
    The real world’s regimes as well as any other theoretical or even fantastic/ideal form of government are not so easy to actually visualise and then analyse: too much infrastructure, too many social implications, too many economic interests, and nowadays even too many intrusions deriving from the internationalisaton. Therefore I guess, as usual, we have to stick with what we’ve got and get the most out of it….
    Bisou a bientôt

  12. stoa says:

    Dear Maria, thank you indeed, for keeping reading me. “Sunny greetings”! XXX

  13. stoa says:

    Jackie dear,
    Yes: message received loud and clear…

  14. stoa says:

    Thank you dear Grete, for your always exquisite comment.
    Looking forward to reading some “masterpiece” of yours… meanwhile, Kyssa

  15. stoa says:

    Dear Emily,
    I totally concur: Plato’s major aim of laws was to grant contentment to citizens via harmony and peace, and definitely not by the war. Nevertheless he admits that war still is and remains a indispensable means of defence against external attacks. Thus maybe Plato should have given a second thought on several other points he supposed to be excellent in the Spartan regime.

  16. stoa says:

    Hi Monica,
    certainly this and other elements put Sparta on a different level compared to the other Greek poleis, where aristocrac land owners and a growing rich mercantile class were both chasing luxurious amusements and gadgets against the famous Spartan clothing, demeanour and life-style which were extremely modest and yet, still now praised…. However in addition to the subject please read my response to Marsha’s comment here above

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