Spartan Constitution


Zeus on his throne with his eagle

This article is part of the series:
Spartan Constitution

Great Rhetra
Laws of Lycurgus
List of Kings of Sparta
Apella of the Damos

Spartan army    Other Greek city-states   Law Portal

The Spartan Constitution, or Politeia, refers to the government and laws of the Dorian city-state of Sparta from the time of Lycurgus, the legendary law-giver, to the incorporation of Sparta into the Roman Empire: approximately the 8th century BC to the 2nd century BC. Every city-state of Greece had a politeia at all times of its sovereign life, including the preceding Achaean Sparta and the subsequent Roman Sparta. The politeia of Dorian Sparta, however, was noted by many classical authors for its unique features, which supported a rigidly layered social system and a strong military.

Development of Spartan society

The Dorian affiliation

Main article: Dorians

Spartan society prided itself on being members of a broad ethnic group termed the Dorians, Dōrieis, in their language. This ethnic group self-identified on family and tribal tradition but also was identifiable by the Dorian dialect it spoke. For example, where the Athenian population called itself the dēmos in the Attic-Ionic dialect, the Spartan word was Dāmos, retaining the long a prevalent in an earlier stage of Greek. On the whole Dorian states everywhere could count on mutual identification and support.

Cultural supersession in the mid-Eurotas valley

Main article: Dorian invasion

Ancient Greece, or Hellas, had two non-continuous periods of native literacy: one, dated approximately 1400 BC-1200 BC, falling within the Late Bronze Age, or Mycenaean Period and the other, beginning with the innovation of the Greek alphabet about 775 BC,[1] within the Iron Age. From the earlier period only diurnal administrative records survive in a syllabary called Linear B. They were in a dialect called variously Mycenaean Greek or Achaean, the ancestor of the Attic-Ionic dialect. After 775 alphabetic inscriptions of all sorts began to appear: tombstones, laws, decrees, making possible analysis of their dialects. A few words survive on the Linear B inscriptions which have turned up in Hagios Basileios, Laconia,[lower-alpha 1] such as 𐀁𐀠𐀿𐀲, e-pi-zo-ta, possibly "daggers" or "short swords" (or "tire of a wheel").[lower-alpha 2] The earliest inscriptions from Sparta are a dedication by one Deinis "to Helen wife of Menelaos" on a meathook and writing on a jar dated by style to about 650 BC, both found at the Menelaion, a shrine to Helen at the site of ancient Therapne across the river from Sparti.[1]

All the evidence points to a Mycenaean Greek occupation of major Mycenaean sites; that is, walled cities on high places, citadels with cyclopean walls, palaces or villas featuring a megaron, Linear B tablets, large storage jars and other appropriate Late Bronze Age pottery. The central Eurotas valley has two candidates for the capital of the Atreid state: the citadel at Pellana and the Bronze Age town with villas on Menelaon Hill in Therapnes. The latter has the advantage of being the site of a shrine to Helen and Menelaus. The circumstantial evidence all points to an occupation of the Eurotas valley by Achaeans. If any Dorians were present they left no trace.

Therapne appears to have been abandoned or reduced to a small population at the end of the Bronze Age. A dark age ensued; evidently the administrations that employed Linear B scribes were not present in that capacity any longer. When alphabetic literacy appeared, the population employing it was Dorian. A remnant of the Achaeans comprised the population of Arcadia. Their dialect, Arcadian, with that of Cyprus (Arcado-Cypriote) is the closest of the dialects to Mycenaean Greek. The Dorians that now occupied the valley had superseded the Mycenaean Greeks.

The newly ascendant population of Sparta identified with other traditions than the ones associated with Mycenaean Greece. They had come, they believed, from central and northern Greece. As allies of the Heracleidae they had fought their way into southern Greece and gone on to Crete and the islands. Their tradition was that of warriors. They valued instant readiness for battle above all else. Escaping from them the Mycenaean Greeks had abandoned their homes to go into exile in Athens and then on to augment the colonies on the coast of Asia Minor as Ionians.

Beyond these circumstances no evidence for the entry of Dorians into the Peloponnesus exists. The association of the destruction of Mycenaean palaces with a "Dorian invasion" is somewhat strained by the compression of events requiring decades into a month or two in a single spring season. And yet, there is no question that Dorian culture superseded Mycenaean culture in the Eurotas valley. This circumstance requires either an invasive population or a revolution of a hitherto unknown and unattested resident population. The Spartan constitution recognizing a socially layered society hints very strongly that this layering came about through invasion and resistance. If that is true, then the Spartan constitution is native to Sparta and did not exist as such elsewhere.

The act of foundation

Great Rhetra

According to Plutarch,[5] Lycurgus (to whom is attributed the establishment of the severe reforms for which Sparta has become renowned) first sought counsel from the god Apollo by obtaining an oracle from Delphi regarding the formation of his government. The divine proclamation, which he received in this manner, is known as a "rhetra" and is given in part by Plutarch as follows:

When thou hast built a temple to Zeus Syllanius and Athena Syllania, divided the people into 'phylai' and into 'obai', and established a senate of thirty members, including the 'archagetai', then from time to time 'appellazein' between Babyca and Cnacion, and there introduce and rescind measures; but the people must have the deciding voice and the power.[5]

Plutarch provides by way of explanation: "In these clauses, the "phylai" and the "obai" refer to divisions and distributions of the people into clans and phratries, or brotherhoods; by "archagetai" the kings are designated, and "appellazein" means to assemble the people, with a reference to Apollo, the Pythian god, who was the source and author of the polity. The Babyca is now called Cheimarrus, and the Cnacion Oenus; but Aristotle says that Cnacion is a river, and Babyca a bridge."[5]

Another version of the rhetra is given by H. Michell:[6]

After having built a temple to Zeus Syllanius and Athene Syllania, and having 'phyled the phyles' (φυλάς φυλάξαντα) and 'obed the obes' (ώβάς ώβάξαντα) you shall establish a council of thirty elders, the leaders included.

That is to say that after the people had been divided according to their different tribes ("phyles" and "obes"), they would welcome the new Lycurgan reforms.

Laws of Lycurgus

The Spartans had no historical records, literature, or written laws, which were, according to tradition, expressly prohibited by an ordinance of Lycurgus, excluding the Great Rhetra.

Issuance of coinage was forbidden. Spartans were obliged to use iron obols (bars or spits), meant to encourage self-sufficiency and discourage avarice and the hoarding of wealth. A Spartan citizen in good standing was one who maintained his fighting skills, showed bravery in battle, ensured that his farms were productive, was married and had healthy children. Spartan women were the only Greek women to hold property rights on their own, and were required to practice sports before marriage. Although they had no formal political rights, they were expected to speak their minds boldly and their opinions were heard.

Structure of Spartan society and government

Spartan society can be represented by a three-layer pyramid ruled by the government.

The structure of Spartan society, c. early 7th century BC



Not all inhabitants of the Spartan state were considered citizens (part of the Damos). Only those who had successfully undertaken military training, called the agoge, were eligible. Usually, the only people eligible to receive the agoge were Spartiates—men who could trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the city—although there were two exceptions. Trophimoi ("foster sons") were foreign teenagers invited to study. This was meant as a supreme honor. The pro-Spartan Athenian magnate Xenophon sent his two sons to Sparta for their education as trophimoi. Alcibiades, being an Alcmaeonid and thus a member of a family with old and strong connections to Sparta, was admitted as a trophimos and famously excelled in the agoge as well as otherwise (he was rumoured to have seduced one of the two queen consorts with his exceptional looks). The other exception was that sons of helots could be enrolled as syntrophoi (comrades, literally "the ones fed, or reared, together") if a Spartiate formally adopted him and paid his way. If a syntrophos did exceptionally well in training, he might be sponsored to become a Spartiate himself. A free-born Spartan who had successfully completed the agoge became a "peer" (ὅμοιος, hómoios, literally "similar") with full civil rights at the age of 20, and remained one as long as he could contribute his equal share of grain to the common military mess in which he was obliged to dine every evening for as long as he was battle-worthy (usually until the age of 60). This was meant as assurance that every peer took good care of his estates and patrimony. Such hómoioi were also required to sleep in the barracks until the age of 30, regardless of whether they were married or not.


Others in the state were the perioeci, who can be described as civilians.


Helots were the state-owned serfs who made up 90 percent of the population. They were citizens of conquered states, such as Messenia who were conquered for their fertile land during the First Messenian War.


The Doric state of Sparta, copying the Doric Cretans, instituted a mixed governmental state: it was composed of elements of monarchical, oligarchical, and democratic systems. Isocrates refers to the Spartans as "subject to an oligarchy at home, to a kingship on campaign" (iii. 24).

Dual Kingship

The state was ruled by two hereditary kings of the Agiad and the Eurypontid families, both descendants of Heracles and equal in authority so that one could not act against the power and political enactments of his colleague, though the Agiad king received greater honour by virtue of seniority of his family for being the "oldest extant" (Herod. vi. 5).

There are several legendary explanations for this unusual dual kingship, which differ only slightly; for example, that King Aristodemus had twin sons, who agreed to share the kingship, and this became perpetual. Modern scholars have advanced various theories to account for the anomaly. Some theorize that this system was created in order to prevent absolutism, and is paralleled by the analogous instance of the dual consuls of Rome. Others believe that it points to a compromise arrived at to end the struggle between two families or communities. Other theories suggest that this was an arrangement that was met when a community of villages combined to form the city of Sparta. Subsequently the two chiefs from the largest villages became kings. Another theory suggests that the two royal houses represent respectively the Spartan conquerors and their Achaean predecessors: those who hold this last view appeal to the words attributed by Herodotus (v. 72) to Cleomenes I: "I am no Dorian, but an Achaean"; although this is usually explained by the (equally legendary) descent of Aristodemus from Heracles. Either way, kingship in Sparta was hereditary and thus every king Sparta had was a descendant of the Agiad and the Eurypontid families. Accession was given to the male child who was first born after a king's accession.

The duties of the kings were primarily religious, judicial, and militaristic. They were the chief priests of the state, and performed certain sacrifices and also maintained communication with the Delphic sanctuary, which always exercised great authority in Spartan politics. In the time of Herodotus (about 450 BC), their judicial functions had been restricted to cases dealing with heiresses, adoptions and the public roads. Civil cases were decided by the ephors, and criminal jurisdiction had been passed to the ephors, as well as to a council of elders. By 500 BC the Spartans had become increasingly involved in the political affairs of the surrounding city-states, often putting their weight behind pro-Spartan candidates. Shortly before 500 BC, as described by Herodotus, such an action fueled a confrontation between Sparta and Athens, when the two kings, Demaratus and Cleomenes, took their troops to Athens. However, just before the heat of battle, King Demaratus changed his mind about attacking the Athenians and abandoned his co-king. For this reason, Demaratus was banished, and eventually found himself at the side of Persian King Xerxes for his invasion of Greece twenty years later (480 BC), after which the Spartans enacted a law demanding that one king remain behind in Sparta while the other commanded the troops in battle.

Aristotle describes the kingship at Sparta as "a kind of unlimited and perpetual generalship" (Pol. iii. I285a), Here also, however, the royal prerogatives were curtailed over time. Dating from the period of the Persian wars, the king lost the right to declare war, and was accompanied in the field by two ephors. He was supplanted also by the ephors in the control of foreign policy. Over time, the kings became mere figureheads except in their capacity as generals. Real power was transferred to the ephors and to the gerousia.


The ephors, chosen by popular election from the whole body of citizens, represented a democratic element in the constitution.

After the ephors were introduced, they, together with the two kings, were the executive branch of the state.[7] Ephors themselves had more power than anyone in Sparta, although the fact that they only stayed in power for a single year reduced their ability to conflict with already established powers in the state. Since reelection was not possible, an ephor who abused his power, or confronted an established power center, would have to suffer retaliation. Although the five ephors were the only officials with regular legitimization by popular vote, in practice they were often the most conservative force in Spartan politics.


The difference with today's states is that Sparta had a special policy maker, the gerousia, a council consisting of 28 elders over the age of 60, elected for life and usually part of the royal households, and the two kings. High state policy decisions were discussed by this council who could then propose action alternatives to the Damos.


The collective body of Spartan citizenry would select one of the alternatives by voting. Unlike most Greek poleis, the Spartan citizen assembly could neither set the agenda of issues to be decided, nor debate them, merely vote on the alternatives presented to them. Neither could foreign embassies or emissaries address the assembly; they had to present their case to the Gerousia, which would then consult with the Ephors. Sparta considered all discourse from outside as a potential threat and all other states as past, present, or future enemies, to be treated with caution in the very least, even when bound with alliance treaties.


  1. Greek: Άγιος Βασίλειος. It's also transliterated as inter alia Hagios Vasileios; its epigraphical classification abbreviation is HV.
  2. Found on the HV Rb 1 tablet. This word is also attested on tablets found at Knossos, such as the KN Ra 984 tablet. Cf. 𐀁𐀠𐁑𐀲, e-pi-*19-ta, and ἐπίσ(σ)ωτρον.[2][3] [4]


  1. 1 2 Cartledge 2003, pp. 40–41
  2. Morgan, Catherine (7 December 2010). "Notice 1494: Agios Vasileios". Archaeology in Greece Online. British School at Athens, École française d'Athènes.
  3. "The Linear B word e-pi-zo-ta". Palaeolexicon. Word study tool of Ancient languages. Raymoure, K.A. "e-pi-*19-ta". Minoan Linear A & Mycenaean Linear B. Deaditerranean. "HV 1 Rb". "KN 984 Ra(2) + fr. (127)". DĀMOS: Database of Mycenaean at Oslo. University of Oslo.
  4. ἐπίσωτρον. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  5. 1 2 3 Plutarch, Perrin (1914). Plutarch's Lives. London : William Heinemann , New York : The McMillan Co.
  6. Michell, H. (1964). Sparta. Cambridge University Press. p. 100.
  7. ephor - Britannica Online Encyclopedia


  • Cartledge, Paul (2003). Spartan Reflections. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
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