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Eastern Mediterranean

Sparta's Organisation

by John De Cleene, 28 April 2024

Sparta's capital seems not to have been important before about 1000 BC, despite legendary emphasis to the contrary. The nearby remains of sites at Amyclae and Therapne (Therapnae) seem to have been more important.

The wars of the Peloponnese in the eighth and seventh centuries BC affected the development of the Spartan constitution, however, creating the Sparta which is familiar to everyone.

At the head of government were the two kings. Other than leading the army in war, their rule consisted more of honour than of power, although especially able kings could wield considerable influence.

The kings were members of the gerousia, which consisted of thirty men at least sixty years of age who held office for life and were chosen from the aristocracy by the acclamation of the body of full citizens.

The gerousia performed certain advisory and judicial functions. There were five annual ephors (overseers), magistrates who were elected from the body of full citizens.

The ephors could only serve for one year. They eventually became the pre-eminent authority, supervising the kings and the government.

Battle of Thermopylae
The Spartan stand at Thermopylae in 480 BC, along with some Greek allies, stopped the Persian advance in its tracks and provided a rallying call for the rest of the free Greek cities to oppose the Persians

A bust of King Leonidas of Sparta
  If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.

King Leonidas  

Two ephors could accompany a king into battle. There were also lesser functionaries and a hierarchy of military officers.

Finally, there was the assembly of full citizens, the homoioi (equals). Other groups included the hypomeiones (inferiors), who fell below full status or who never attained it, and the neodamodeis (newly enfranchised), who were non-Spartan but who were still given citizenship.

Spartan citizens, somewhat like club members, had to complete the agoge, election to a mess (the syssition or andreion), while showing good conduct as a citizen soldier, and paying dues in kind to the mess, plus some money. The messes were small units of the military system.

This efficient organisation did not put an end to murder and manipulation, however, not even in Sparta.

The King Polydorus (circa 700-665 BC) who changed the constitution may have been assassinated by Polemarchus, a disgruntled aristocrat who eventually had a celebrated tomb in Sparta, despite the popularity of the lamented Polydorus himself.

Ruins of Tegea
The city of Tegea lay to the east of Arcadia, traditionally founded by Aleus and a check on Spartan expansion until about 550 BC



Text copyright © John De Cleene. An original feature for the History Files.