From the age of twenty onward, a Spartiate took his evening meal with his messmates. Each mess consisted of only about fifteen men (symposium-size), so there were a lot of them, but the small numbers made for tight bonding, critical for Spartan military success. Graduation from the agōgē was the precondition for membership in a mess, which in turn was the criterion of citizenship. In order to retain his membership, a man had to supply his own daily rations from his farm, plus some extra (for the mess servants; for those, like the kings, who were maintained by the state; for guests), and a modest, but not negligible state tax.
At the age of thirty, he was allowed to leave the barracks and spend time at home with his wife, but until he stopped soldiering at the age of sixty he continued to take his evening meals in his mess, and to exercise and dance with his mates. A Spartiate was eligible to attend the assembly at the age of twenty; ten years later, as at Athens, he also became eligible for political office. He was expected to keep fit in case of military need and to play a part in the chastisement of the young that he came across: every senior Spartiate was a surrogate father in this way, tasked with the constant scrutiny to which juniors were subjected.
If a man failed to keep up his contribution to his mess, he was expelled from it and lost his citizenship, to his everlasting shame. He was classified as an “Inferior,” along with those who failed to graduate from the agōgē, and treated with disdain. A fundamental dynamic of Spartiate society was the struggle to avoid becoming an Inferior. Citizens would always be Similars, because anyone dissimilar was denied citizenship. But it was possible for the son of an Inferior to regain his lost status if a wealthy family agreed to sponsor him through the agōgē as their own son’s suntrophos (“brother by upbringing”).
It is curious that, without the cooperation of his helots, a man would not be able to retain membership of a mess and would be demoted. This dependency had to be denied, and Spartiate boys were taught to identify themselves as the very opposites of helots. To this end, helots were sometimes brought into the messes and ritually abused or humiliated. They might be forced to get drunk, for instance, to remind the Spartiates present of the importance of self-discipline, the fundamental Spartan virtue; or they might be made to perform degrading dances, to contrast with the sober dances of the agōgē. This too the helots tolerated—until they reached breaking point.
The Great Rhetra
Plutarch of Chaeronea was an essayist and a biographer—very good in both fields—who died around 120 CE. Despite the distance in time and the possibly dilettantish nature of both genres in which he worked, he was a good researcher and often preserves precious information. Thanks to him, we have the authentic wording of a fundamental Spartan constitutional document, which was known as the Great Rhetra (“covenant”). The Spartans themselves, of course, attributed this Rhetra to Lycurgus, and it has commonly been dated to the early seventh century in the belief that their national poet, Tyrtaeus, displayed knowledge of it. But Tyrtaeus’ words are not that precise, and the document was probably formulated a few decades later, when the state was beginning to cohere in its enduring form.
The Great Rhetra reads as follows:
Having founded a sanctuary for Zeus Syllanios and Athena Syllania, having divided the people into tribes and obes, and having established a Council of thirty Elders including the Leaders, perform Apellai season in and season out between Babyka and Knakion and in this way introduce and set aside proposals. To the people belongs the right to give decisive verdicts, but if the people make a crooked decision, the Elders and the Leaders are to be dismissers.
There is much that is obscure about this—perhaps deliberately so, to give it an aura of ancient authority, as though the divine Lycurgus were making a covenant with his people. But basically, in the manner of early legislation from other states, the Rhetra establishes procedure: assemblies are to be held at regular intervals (every Apella, the seventh day in the month, sacred to Apollo) and at a determined place. Proposals are introduced to the assembly by the Council, made up of twenty-eight Elders and the two kings (called here “Leaders”).
The assembled Spartiates had the authority to approve decisions, but the Elders could ignore or veto their preferences if they felt they were “crooked.” Clearly, the assembly’s decision-making power was more or less a formality, and this is corroborated by the fact that voting was by shouting, which is a crude and fallible method. They were more like troops being addressed by their officers than political participants. The assembly existed to confer legitimacy on decisions taken elsewhere, by the leading men, and many decisions were taken without its slightest involvement. There were no written laws; as already mentioned, the memory and judgment of the ruling class were considered sufficient.
The Officers of the State
Despite the deliberate archaizing, the Rhetra does not reflect a primitive stage of Spartan politics. Judging by their title, the kings must have wielded greater power in the past, but in the Rhetra they are simply two special members of the Council of Elders (Gerousia). The two kings were members of aristocratic families that claimed descent from Heracles via a different twin son, the Agiads from Agis and the Eurypontids from Eurypon. In theory, the latter was the junior branch, but in practice the king who had ruled longest often wielded more authority than the other, whichever house he was from.
As the titular heads of state, the kings were sacred. No one was allowed to touch their persons, and on dying they received ten days of extravagant mourning. All ancient kings based their legitimacy ultimately on their alleged relationship with the gods, and the Spartan kings constantly reinforced their aura of sacredness by their conspicuous role in public ceremonies and sacrifices. Their families were among the wealthiest in Sparta, with landholdings all over Laconia, but their mess was maintained at public expense. They were excused the agōgē: in so far as that was a way to test the fitness of a man to be a Spartiate, it was assumed that the kings already had what it took. They were a cut above all the Similars. As figureheads, they tended to become the focus of political factions in Sparta, so that, not uncommonly, the Agiad king and the Eurypontid king might have different political agendas.
By the time we first meet them, the kings were embedded within the collegiate leadership of Sparta. By the Classical period, they were further humbled by having to declare on oath, once a month, that they would obey the laws or risk impeachment and deposition, and their judicial powers had been greatly restricted: they judged only cases concerning heiresses, adoptions, and public roads. Kings came closest to being absolute monarchs at times of war, and they also had the important right to address the assembly first on any issue. With the help of these ceremonial and military powers, along with his wealth, a determined king could accumulate sufficient personal capital and followers to gain authority. Besides, kings were lifelong members of the Council of Elders, and a young king could spend years, even decades, learning how to bend it to his will, while Elders came and went. Some kings—we have already met Cleomenes I, and Agesilaus II will prove to be another—gained and retained sufficient dominance to develop long-term policies.
The Council of Elders consisted of twenty-eight senior men aged over sixty (that is, past military age) and the two kings. Members other than the kings were elected by assembly acclamation when a place fell vacant; membership was for life, and a councilor never had to submit to an audit of his time in office. Only the most powerful and rich seem to have been represented on the council, so membership might have been restricted by some criterion to a select few families. The Council of Elders was an enormously prestigious institution, with real power, based on its preparation of business for the assembly. As the Rhetra shows, it even had the right to override the assembly. It also sat as a court for all the most important cases, including political trials and homicide suits, since it was the only body that had the right to impose severe penalties, such as exile, execution, and demotion to Inferior status.
The Rhetra makes no mention of another office that came to wield great power in Sparta, that of the Ephorate. The failure of the Rhetra to mention the Ephorate was, curiously, the occasion for the original publication of the document early in the fourth century: the exiled Spartan king Pausanias included the Rhetra in a pamphlet in order to prove that the Ephorate postdated the Lycurgan reforms and was therefore un-Spartan—and that therefore he should not have been exiled by a court that included them among the judges. The Spartans responded by claiming that the office began in the eighth century, but that was a fiction. Be that as it may, by the time we first hear about them, in the sixth century, five Ephors (“overseers”) were appointed by assembly acclamation for one-year terms from the entire male citizen body. The short list of five candidates, however, was probably drawn up by the Council of Elders, so that the acclamation was a mere formality. A man could be an Ephor only once in his lifetime, so many Spartiates gained political experience in this way. When the five voted, a simple majority won.
The office was created to “oversee” the kings, and gained its powers by taking them mainly from the kings. The Ephors’ ability to check the kings was symbolized by the fact that they alone were not required to rise to their feet when a king entered the room. By the Classical period, Ephors had wide-ranging powers. Two of them accompanied a king on campaign. At home, they were responsible for internal security, for which they were awarded the power of summary arrest, and could suspend any officer, even a king—and indeed we hear of seven cases of kings being put on trial just between the 490s and 370s. Kings were tried before a jury made up of the Ephors and the Elders, including the other king, and a majority vote won.
The Ephors also had broad judicial responsibilities in civil cases. They were responsible for the agōgē and for public finance. They received and negotiated with foreign embassies (and hence were fed at state expense, like the kings), and introduced business arising from these meetings to both the Council of Elders and the assembly, so that they effectively controlled much foreign policy. They convened meetings of the Elders and emergency meetings of the assembly, chaired all assemblies, and issued the orders that executed assembly decisions. In the event of war, they decided which and how many age-groups to call up. But the powers of the Ephorate were limited by the fact that every year it was made up of five different men, so that at times of uncertainty policies could rapidly change, even year by year.
Even if there was a degree of “similarity” among the Spartiates themselves, Sparta was a layered oligarchy. At the top, at least in a titular sense, were the two kings; they were supported by twenty-eight Elders and checked by five Ephors, who kept everyone on the Spartan straight and narrow path. Then there were the thousands of Spartiates who made up the assembly—eight thousand at the start of the fifth century. This was the ruling class, and their subjects were the mass of the disenfranchised or relatively disenfranchised populations of Laconia and Messenia.
The Peloponnesian League
Strengthened by the final acquisition of Messenia and by the new social system, the Spartans went on the warpath. Brimming with confidence, in about 560 they set off north to Tegea, with the intention of turning the Arcadians into helots as well and curbing Argive influence in Arcadia. They were defeated by the Tegeans, however, and this prompted a change of policy, from annexation to subordination by alliance. The change was marked by bringing the bones of Orestes, the legendary Peloponnesian hero (the son of Agamemnon and nephew of the Spartan king Menelaus), from Tegea to Sparta, and the bones of Orestes’ son Tisamenus from Achaea to Sparta. The idea was that leadership of the Peloponnese had passed from the others to the Spartans by hereditary right.
By about 550, Sparta had prevailed against the Tegeans and entered into an alliance with them. This seems to have triggered an avalanche, and before long others had agreed to treaties of alliance—above all, Corinth, Elis, Sicyon, Megara, and Epidaurus. The smaller states needed protection, the larger ones the knowledge that their oligarchies would have Spartan support. As the strongest state, Sparta would be the leader of the alliance. The deal was that, in return for Spartan backing for their regimes, they would supply troops for use against external enemies or helots. From 382, however, by which time the hiring of mercenaries was common, they were allowed to supply money in lieu of men, at a rate of three obols for one hoplite or two light-armed soldiers.
The Peloponnesian League, as we call it today, started as a fairly loose arrangement, but this became unsatisfactory from the Spartan point of view, since their so-called friends were not above disobeying Spartan orders or fighting one another. So, seizing opportunities as they arose, they gradually tightened things up until the oath sworn by members of the league obliged them to follow the lead of the Spartans, but the Spartans did not have the same obligation. Each of the member states had an alliance with Sparta, but not with other member states. This left all the league’s foreign policy in Spartan hands, although the allies were otherwise self-governing. Only the Spartans could call meetings of the League Congress, but the fact that each member state had a single vote in Congress meant that the vote could go against them.
The league came close enough to uniting the Peloponnese that members felt themselves to be part not just of a distinct geographical entity, but also of a distinct political entity, with its own interests and identity. The chief holdouts from the league, preventing the Spartans from turning the Peloponnese into a federal state, were Argos, the old enemy, and the Achaeans. In 546, the Spartans had another go at taking Cynouria from the Argives; this time they won, and gained much of the southeast coast of the Peloponnese and the island of Cythera. This was a severe defeat for Argos, which had long been an aggressive and expansive state, and the once-great city took a back seat in Peloponnesian affairs for quite a while afterwards. Its decline was hastened by a further defeat at Spartan hands in 494, in the battle of Sepeia, near Tiryns. Argive losses this time were so devastating that afterwards they had to enfranchise members of their subject populations, just to remain viable as a state.
Cleomenes I, ascending to the Agiad throne of Sparta in 520 or thereabouts, was committed to this policy of Spartan expansion. From early in his reign, he began to target Athens. In 519 the Boeotian town of Plataea approached Sparta for an alliance, since they did not want to get sucked into the orbit of Thebes, which was forming its Boeotian neighbors into a confederacy under its leadership. Cleomenes cunningly refused the alliance and told the Plataeans to ally themselves with Athens instead—which was, of course, far closer. An alliance was duly concluded between the Plataeans and the Athenians—and forever afterwards, unless really drastic circumstances overrode it, the fundamental attitude of the Thebans toward Athens (and vice versa) was one of hostility. Cleomenes had cleverly set two of the most powerful Greek states against each other.
By the time of the Persian invasion in 480, then, the Spartans, with their Peloponnesian allies, were by far the most powerful state in Greece; they had a good battlefield record and were known as professional and disciplined soldiers. They were the natural choice to lead the resistance against the invader.