This paper discusses whether the Spartan decision-making process was a public affair, with a fair degree of popular participation or whether it was a process dominated by a controlling oligarchy? The paper uses a variety of sources, contemporary and modern, to gain information about Spartan governance, in order to assess whether the Spartan decision making process was a public affair, with a fair degree of popular participation or whether it was a process dominated by a controlling oligarchy. The contemporary sources used include Aristotle’s Politics, Plutarch’s Lykourgos VI, Diodorus Siculus, the writings of Thucydides, in particular the I.79-87, and Xenophon’s Hellenika. The modern sources include the work of noted Spartan academics, including Whitby, Cartledge and Hodkinson.
Whitby’s book Sparta is a collection of essays, which is intended to introduce readers to Spartan society, in terms of its politics, social structure and culture, and historical development. Andrewe’s chapter, The Government of Classical Sparta (pp.49-68) looks at the political structure of Sparta. Essentially, as in other works of Andrewes , Andrewes argues that in Sparta, we have the earliest known manifestations of the function of a council, preparing for business by reference to a sovereign assembly.
As Andrewes makes clear in his summary of Rhetra, “the Council is to introduce measures, and the people to have the power of decision”. Andrewes, throughout his work, equates the sovereign assembly with the hoplite army of Sparta, and traces the development of the assembly from a probouleutic council to an assembly in which the powers are actually something less than government by assembly, with the Ephors created as a counterbalancing force.
The Ephors, however, have not been viewed by all academics as a positive force, for as Aristotle, in his Politics , states, “another defect in the Lacedaemonian constitution is seen in connection with the office of Ephor. The Ephorate independently controls much important business. Its five members are chosen from among all the people, with the result that very often men who are not at all well-off find themselves holding this office, and their lack of means makes them open to bribery…And just because the power of the Ephors is excessive and dictatorial, even the Spartan kings have been forced to curry favor with them.
And this has caused further damage to the constitution; what was supposed to be an aristocracy has become more like a democracy. In itself the Ephorate is not a bad thing; it certainly keeps the constitution together; the people like it because it gives them a share in an office of power. So whether this is due to the lawgiver Lycurgus or to good fortune, it suits the circumstances very well. . . . But while it was necessary to select Ephors from among all the citizens, the present method of selection strikes me as childish.
The Ephors have powers of jurisdiction also, and decide cases of importance; but considering that anybody at all may hold the office, it would be better that they should not have power to give verdicts on their own, but only to decide in accordance with stated rules and regulations. Nor does the way in which Ephors live conform to the aims of the constitution. They live a life of ease, while the rest have a very high standard of strictness in living, so high indeed that they really cannot live up to it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the more sensual pleasures.”.
Thus, Aristotle did not find much favour in the Ephor system, in terms of it being open to bribery and, actually, having bribery almost as a necessary part of the democratic process. As Dickins (1912) argues, Spartan politics were governed, mainly, through conflict between Spartan Kings and the Ephors, with, he argues, vacillations in Spartan policy being due to vagaries of the ongoing conflict. As Dickins (1912) argues, the development of the Ephorate system was gradual, with the Ephorate being subordinate up to 550, but beyond 550, the Ephors moving to a position of dominance across the state, profoundly, as Dickins argues, modifying its political and social composition.
Until the reign of Agis III and Cleomenes III, the Ephors were dominant, argues Dickins (1912) with these two Kings trying to bring Royal order back to Sparta, but, ultimately as Dickins (1912) argues, the conflict between the Ephors and the Spartan Royalty led to massive problems for Spartan society, which led, ultimately, to the loss at the Battle of Leuctra, as we will see, as the Spartan army was not as strong as previously, and so could not fight as strongly as it had previously to defend its territory. As we will see, following the Battle of Leuctra, the Spartans gradually declined, and lost power over the land they held.
Further criticism by Aristotle of Spartan governance comes from further reading of his Politics in which he reveals that the Spartan state, whilst trying to attain equality for all members actually is hypocritical, in that the helots (slaves) can never have equality, as they are bound by repression in to a life of servitude. As Aristotle argues, aswell, the Spartan state saw men as fighters, and women, as a consequence, as in control of affairs (and, indeed, at some point in Spartan history with women in control of most of the Spartan land). As Aristotle says, the differences between male and female opinion sometimes led to disagreements in decisions reached. As Aristotle argues, further, the state of Sparta, when the decision was made to govern by Ephor, moved from an aristocracy to a democracy, but the Ephors judicial authority and function was entirely out of operation to their status within Sparta society, and, as such, the Ephor were, for Aristotle, as we have seen, a mistake. This is in direct contrast to Xenophon, who sees no imperfection in the Ephors or in Sparta governance in general.
Cartledge’s 1987 book Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta covers the four decades from Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian war in 404 until the Battle of Mantineia in 362, a crucial period in Spartan history, which covers Sparta’s years as a great power and its downfall following the Battle of Leuctra in 371. Conveniently, Cartledge uses the reign of King Agesilaos as a framework for discussing this period, as he reigned across this period. Cartledge relies greatly on the works of Xenophon to come to his conclusions, as Xenophon was a contemporary, and indeed friend of, Agesilaos . According to Cratledge, through his readings of Xenophon and also Plutarch, Agesilaos was a pinnacle of Spartan society, shaping Spartan society and culture in terms of its economic, social, political and diplomatic facets.
Cartledge, instead of attributing the fall of Sparta to their loss at the Battle of Leuctra in 371, instead finds a pattern of decline across a much greater part of Spartan history, due to what he terms ‘deep-seated socioeconomic causes’, coupled with what he terms its ‘oliganthropia’ (borrowing Aristotle’s term to describe the pattern of eugenic population control in Sparta). As Cartledge argues, the Spartiate, the hoptile manpower declined in Sparta from about 8000 in 480 to about 1500 at the time of the Battle of Leuctra, mainly tied to economic changes in Sparta, whereby hoptiles fell from the ranks of homoioi to the ranks of hypomeiones. Thus, as Cartledge argues, it was fundamental problems with the political and socioeconomic structure of Sparta that led to its ultimate downfall, following the Battle of Leuctra. This oligarchical pattern of governance was, as Cartledge argues, not good for Spartan society as a whole, and led to massive economic problems which led to the ultimate downfall of the Spartans, as hoptile manpower became eroded, thus leaving Sparta dangerously exposed to attacks.
As seen in the writings of Thucydides, particularly his History, triumph in battle was used as a spiritual foundation for a democratic Sparta (see also Euben, 1986), “as an empowering vision of action and being, sustained through emulation and reenactment”. Thucydides, although with the purpose of providing a chronological account of the Peloponnesian War, actually provided a guide to “those enquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future”, and, as such, Thucydides can provide some relevant detail on the political structure of Sparta and the Spartan decision-making process.
As Fliess (1959) argues, Thucydides explores, ultimately, the struggle between the Spartan oligarchy and the other Greeks, for control of Hellas, was paralleled by the internal strife in Sparta regarding democracy versus eunomic aristocracy, with Thucydides having much more faith in the power of the eunomia to restore faith and order than in the ability of the Athenian isonomia, which gave all citizens an equal share in the control of the affairs of state. As Fliess (1959) argues, the isonomia was actually self-destructive, as it resulted to be dangerous to exclude the poor from access to wealth yet to let them have an equal share in the decision-making process, and the eunomia was actually more long-lasting as it delayed the complete destruction of leadership and coherence in public affairs by suppressing any chance of an uprising of a demoralized people (Fliess, 1959). Thucydides therefore prefers the Spartans’ eunomia to the isonomia of the Athenians, arguing that this system was much more likely to provide a stable social and political environment. This opinion, as we have seen, is in direct contrast to the opinion of Aristotle, and so we shall now move on to look at an in-depth analysis of the politics of Sparta.
Spartans, governed as they were by different oligarchies throughout their history i.e., at some point, by a gerousia of twenty eight elders, with a dual Kingship (with both Kings from rival houses) and an annually elected college of Ephors, and then, later, only by a set of five Ephors (literally ‘over-seers’). Thus, the different types of governance that were active at different times in the history of the Spartans provided some dynamic stability to Spartan governance, with the Kings providing diverging political viewpoints, and the Ephors giving some opportunity for ordinary Spartans to indicate their feelings, in terms of choosing their preferred Ephors.
Thus, the Spartan political system, whilst oligarchical, allowed for some interaction from the populace, and was thus not entirely autocratic. However, as we have seen, this system was open to bribes, and it is known that bribery was rife at this time, with decisions being made as the result of payments rather than, often, for the best interests of Sparta. This is highlighted in discrepancies in contemporary accounts of Spartan decisions, for example the decision as to how many ships to send to the Athenians, which is reported in Plutarch and Xenophon differently.
Hodkinson’s (2000) book Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, and in particular Chapter 11 of this book The Use of Wealth in Personal and Political Relations shows how unequal a society Sparta was, with, as he shows, many contemporary authors showing this, for example, Xenophon referring to bans on gainful activity, Polybios mentioning unequal landholdings and Aristotle criticizing inherent flaws in the Spartan system. As Hodkinson argues in Chapter 11, Spartans patronized their servants, and also poorer Spartans; Hodkinson also shows, through an analysis of the relevant contemporary literature, that bribes were usual in Spartan society, and were particularly important for the furtherance of careers. Thus, far from being the idealistic society it is generally portrayed to be, Hodkinson shows how Spartan was an unequal society, with servants, slaves and bribery rife, in order to further careers and to try to gain land (see, also Hodkinson, 1986, for further information on this idea, which uses Plutarch’s contemporary accounts to arrive at the conclusion that private estates were actually transmitted by partible inheritance).
MacDowell’s (1986) book Spartan Law attempts to give a synopsis of Spartan Law, of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., based on the sparse contemporary documents pertaining to this topic, and avoiding constitutional and sacred law. Successive chapters discuss status, military service and the agoge (different age groups), woman and marriage and landholding and inheritance. Chapter two, for example, provides a good explanation of the different status groups active in Spartan society, and the relevant laws governing these different groups. Many academics have pointed out many errors in the text of MacDowell, and it is thus perhaps not the best source on which to base a discussion of Spartan decision-making , but it is clear from the work of MacDowell that the majority of laws in Sparta were directed towards the attainment, and maintenance, of military excellence.
Thus, in terms of the decision-making process in Sparta, as we have seen, Spartan governance moved from governance by a council of elders, in conjunction with dual kingship and Ephors, to governance by globally-elected Ephors. Andrewe’s chapter in Whitby’s book, entitled The Government of Classical Sparta (pp.49-68) looks at the political structure of Sparta. Essentially, as we have seen, and as in other works by Andrewes, Andrewes argues that in Sparta, we have the earliest known manifestations of the function of a council, preparing for business by reference to a sovereign assembly. As Andrewes makes clear in his summary of Rhetra, “the Council is to introduce measures, and the people to have the power of decision”. Andrewes, throughout his work, equates the sovereign assembly with the hoplite army of Sparta, and traces the development of the assembly from a probouleutic council to an assembly in which the powers are actually something less than government by assembly, with the Ephors created as a counterbalancing force.
This idea, of the Ephors as a counter-balancing force, is important, for, as we have seen, the council of elders that had governed in Sparta previously were open to bribes and, as such, this type of governance led to decisions being made which were not to the benefit of Sparta as a whole but which were, rather, to the benefit of whoever paid the highest bribe. The election of the Ephors was not popular with many contemporary writers, as we have seen, for example, Aristotle, who did not agree that governance by such people was likely to result in benefits for society as a whole, but modern writers have suggested that this type of governance gave some opportunity for ordinary Spartans to indicate their feelings, in terms of choosing their preferred Ephors. Thus, at this stage, when elected Ephors were in governance, the Spartan political system, whilst oligarchical, allowed for some interaction from the populace, and was thus not entirely autocratic. This system was, therefore, democratic, with decisions being taken based on the decisions of democratically elected Ephors.
The issue as to whether the Spartan decision-making process was a public affair, with a fair degree of popular participation, or whether it was a process dominated by a controlling oligarchy, is a difficult question to answer with a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’. As we have seen, the mode of governance of Sparta changed across Sparta’s history, although one defining characteristic of Spartan governance, through the laws and the political system in place was that military excellence was paramount, and indeed, as we saw through the analysis of MacDowell, laws in Sparta were directed towards the attainment, and maintenance, of military excellence.
At all times, however, Spartan government was, throughout its history, based on some form of oligarchy (i.e., a form of government in which political power rests with a small, elite, segment of society). At times, this oligarchy included elders, dual kingships and Ephors, at other times, this oligarchy was made up of just Ephors; at all times, however, even despite the fact that the Ephors were elected democratically, and that, as Aristotle argues, these Ephors were often not fit for duty, in his opinion, these Ephors represented a small number of Spartans, who effectively made decisions on behalf of all Spartans, and, as such, this form of governance can be classed as oligarchical. Thus, under this definition, indeed, Spartan decision-making was oligarchical in origin, although with some small public participation, in that the public could vote to choose who would be the Ephors for t hat year. Thus, decision-making in Sparta was not a public affair per se as decision-making was, ultimately, left in the hands of publicly-elected Ephors, and, as such, could be argued to be dominated by an oligarchy .
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