Sparta Constitution

How was Sparta organised?

How was Sparta organisied? We have two very good sources for our knowledge. One is the biographer Plutarch (AD 50 – 120) who wrote a series of parallel lives, one of which was the life of Lycurgus, a more or less mythical Spartan king to whom the Spartan constitution was always attributed. The other is  the adventurer and writer Xenophon, best known for his description of how he led a group of Greek mercenary soldiers back from the Black Sea to Athens. He went to live near Sparta and a constitution of Sparta is attributed to him — though it is not up to the standard of the rest of his writings.

Many other authors comment on the Spartan way of life, but it is rather like the left wing writers who went to Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s and came back with glowing reports of the New World that ‘Uncle Joe’ (=Lycurgus?) was introducing and overlooked the down side. Though in the case of Sparta there was also an additional sexual frisson when they dwelt salaciously on some of their peculiar sexual arrangements, as well as the sado-masochism involved in the hardships, and the semi-ritual beatings that Spartan boys had to endure.

The economic basis

Map of PeloponneseThe economic basis was provided by the Messenians, who had been captured by the Spartans in the seventh century and were now kept as an underclass called helots. There was  considerable discussion then and now as to whether or not they were slaves. It depends on the definition of slavery: in a way they were not slaves in that each had his own property, but this was tightly controlled and he was compelled to give up half of his produce to his master and provide the food that each Spartan had to bring to the common mess.

The Helots were kept in control by a form of secret police known as the Krypteia, which means secret people. Young Spartans were required as part of their training to make excursions into Messenia, hiding out by day and emerging at night to knife any Helot who was suspected of being becoming too bolshie.  This could be called murder of course, which would bring down divine retribution, but in order to prevent this, every year the Spartans declared war on the Helots so that they could be murdered with impunity.

The Spartans were great believers in equality, and the Lycurgan system is an excellent example of what is involved in promoting a successful equality campaign. Theoretically at any rate, all Spartans were equal: they were called Homoioi, or ‘The Equals’, and Lycurgus is said to have parcelled out the land of Sparta in equal lots; though as usual, when the aim of equality is pursued, some soon become more equal than others.

The agoge

In order to impose this equality, State education was the rule from birth. When children were born they were brought before the elders and any that appeared to be unfit to be ‘equal’ were exposed on the mountainside. At the age of seven they were enrolled in the ‘herd’ controlled by a leader and a squad of assistants equipped with whips. The training was tough and they were only allowed one cloak a year and from the age of 13 they were no longer allowed a tunic. They had to go barefoot and were given the minimum of food. If they wanted more food, they were encouraged to steal it, though if they were caught stealing, they were always soundly whipped, not for stealing, but for getting caught. It was, I suppose, a form of primitive capitalism: if you wanted to accumulate capital (i.e. food) you first had to undergo the risks of getting whipped.

Whipping and nudity played a key role in the Spartan education or at least in the descriptions of its admirers. A key part was played by these ceremonies at the shrine of Artemis Orthia where ritual floggings took place. The original cult statue was a statue of wood, and the statue demanded that it was regularly fed with blood. Originally, says Pausanias, this blood was in the form of human sacrifice, but this was then commuted to a form of flogging where the boys were flogged until they bled and produced blood for the statue. While the floggings were taking place the priestess would hold the statue, and if the floggings were not severe enough, either because the boys were beautiful or perhaps well born, then the priestess would say that the statue was becoming heavy and she could not hold it and it was necessary to beat harder to make the statue become light again. It was all jolly good fun — at least for the spectators who enjoyed seeing young men being flogged in this way.
The girls had an almost equally strict training with the boys, for Lycurgus argued that if you want strong warriors, they must be born of strong mothers, so the girls were also encouraged to exercise like the boys, and perform nude dancing called the gymnopaideia, which was also extremely popular.

The communal messes

Village Sparta 150

Plan of Sparta. There was no single ‘city’ at Sparta, but instead it was composed of five villages, the putative sites of four of which are marked on this map.

Equality was also followed in the domestic arrangements. Families are the biggest obstacle to egalitarianism, so the Spartans discouraged family life. Families did not live together but the men lived in common messes known as sussitia, or eating together places. No sussition has ever been excavated in Sparta —  it would be very interesting to excavate one, though I believe that a similar men’s house and eating place has been found in Crete, where they also spoke Greek with a Dorian accent and had a constitution similar to that of Sparta.

But there are many aspects where it can be compared to more primitive societies and can truly be called Barbarian. A good example is marriage, for sexual habits are always a good indication of the distinction between barbarism and civilisation. Thus at Sparta, married men were not allowed to spend the whole night with their wives, but instead they had to creep out of their barracks to visit and have intercourse with their wives and then return to the barracks, hopefully without anyone seeing them. Wife swapping was encouraged. If a young man fancied an older man’s wife, he could ask the older man if he could sleep with his wife, and if a child was produced, the older man would as a matter of course bring it up as his own. There was a eugenic element in all this, in that only the strongest and fittest young men and the fittest women should produce children, so that the children should themselves be strong and fit. And it is important that you should not have sex with your wife too often, so that when you did have sex, you would be at the peak of your performance.

Their treatment of women wins praise from many feminists for to a considerable extent, both sexes were treated alike: women were toughened by making them run and wrestle and throw the discus and javelin so that they could bear their pregnancies successfully. Lycurgus did away with prudery, making the young girls no less than the young men grow used to walking nude in processions. Indeed there was a spectacle known as the gymnopaedia in which the young men and girls would dance naked in a circle with the women making fun of the young men.

The constitution and the Great Rhetra

This ‘Lycurgan’ system as described by Plutarch and Xenophon is a seriously weird system. However their actual constitution was a good example of the ‘mixed constitution’ of the type that the Greeks admired, in that it mixed together the two main systems of kingship and democracy. Sparta traditionally was ruled by two kings, kingship being hereditary in two different families, the Agids and the Europontids. However the system was modified, as recorded in a deliberately obscure document known as the great Rhetra (the word is cognate with rhetoric) which is recorded by Plutarch as having been the work of Lycurgus. This lays down that there should also be a council of elders, 30 strong, who may select the items that are to be brought forward before the people for debate. However if the people make a crooked choice, then the elders are to set it aside – so much for that silly idea known as democracy. But this mixture of aristocracy and democracy is the type that the Greeks much admired and certainly it served the Spartans comparatively well for much of the fifth century.

But as I have already argued, the crucial feature of the Spartan constitution was the rejection of money. Gold and silver was banished and as a result gold and silver ornaments vanished. Plutarch also assures us that theft and robbery became unknown and pimps and beggars vanished from the streets – as did the teachers of rhetoric — a pet hate of the opponents of democracy at Athens — perhaps the equivalent of the advertising agents of today. Foreign imports also vanished as indeed can be seen from the archaeology: Sparta cut itself off from the outside world. Only iron spits could be used as money, which was, as intended, pretty useless.

The structure of society was almost entirely barbarian. There is the lack of family, the men living altogether in communal barracks, the state educational system and the constant emphasis on war and training for war are all typical features of a barbarian society. But as so often, the totalitarian system was much admired by the intelligentsia of the free society, many of whom seem to long for the ideas of order and discipline.

When did this take place?

What is the date of the ‘Lycurgan’ reforms ? I believe that the dating of these changes is seriously askew, for it is often assumed that the Lycurgan system was the result of the conquest of Messenia in the seventh and sixth centuries.

But from the archaeological point of view, Sparta is a fairly normal city down to the sixth century, but then, particularly towards the end of the century, two things happen more and less simultaneously. Firstly there is the downgrading of the material culture. Alkman, the last of the Spartan poets, flourished around 600 BC. The exotic ivory working ceased around 550 BC — possibly because the sources of ivory were cut off; bronze working declines during the last half of the sixth century, and Laconian painted pottery fizzles out around 520, possibly due to Athenian competition. Gradually, but steadily, Sparta becomes Spartan.

And at around the same time, Sparta rejects money. I believe that the whole new concept of money caused a crisis: should they introduce money as the other Greek states were doing? The trouble was that money brings choice and choice is always dangerous in the sort of society that Sparta had become: did they perhaps have a feeling, a premonition that money and choice has a tendency to break up long established social structures?

Young Spartans National_Gallery

Degas: Young Spartans exercising

I suspect they did not formalise this: it was a feeling rather than an argued philosophy, but nevertheless it was a powerful feeling, and a definite choice was presented to them: should they adopt money or not? I suspect that a formal debate must have been held in the assemblies, certainly in the council of elders possibly even by the people, even with their tendency to make crooked decisions. And when the decision was taken to reject money, they felt that the time had come to formalise their peculiar constitution. The time, at the end of the sixth century, was a time when other Greek states were formalising their constitutions too and Sparta felt it must keep up with the fashion.

I believe that this is the date when the Great Rhetra was cobbled together. An old document was discovered or possibly several bits of old documents were cobbled together, retaining the archaic style but incorporating some surprisingly modern features. The two kings had no doubt existed from time immemorial — surprisingly similar to the two consuls at Rome — and there is a hint of a division of land, if this is what the mysterious ‘obing the obes’ means. But then there is the idea of holding assemblies, of a council of elders, and most daring of all the mention of the ‘people’ , the ‘damos’ or Demos – even though they go on to say that if the people make crooked decisions (as people will) then they are to be set aside. In all this was something that was of intense interest to the politicians at the end of the sixth century, particularly those making up the new systems of democracy at this time. Sparta felt the same influences too; but they went in the opposite direction.

And alongside the Great Rhetra, the Sparta system was formalised. The Spartiates were debarred from manual work, the system of state education, the ‘agoge’ was formalised, and the communal messes, which had no doubt grown up gradually over the centuries, now became formally recognized.

The new system had immediate success and the closing years of the sixth century and the opening years of the fifth was the time of the Spartan’s greatest success notably under its great to erratic king Cleomenes who successfully helped the Athenians eject their tyrant Hippias which led the way to Athenian democracy.

The Lycurgan system had immense influence on many Athenian intellectuals such as Xenophon and later Plutarch, and the whole system has consciously or unconsciously formed the basis of totalitarian ideals ever since. Even today in this country we have an Equality and Human Right Commission which is probably unaware of its antecedents in Sparta

Ultimately however the system must be seen as barbarian. Family life was rejected as leading to too many inequalities. Education was wholly in the hands of the state and a communal way of life was in force with the males living in communal messes, though the enforced egalitarianism was only made possible as part of a strict caste system with the three main castes, the Spartiates at the top, then the allies who lived around Sparta forming a great mass at the centre, and the Helots at the bottom doing all the hard work. In the sixth and fifth century, Greece became the world’s first civilisation; but within that civilisation, Sparta became the world’s most outstanding example of barbarism.


On to the Shrine of Artemis Orthia