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Spartan Constitution

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Structure of Spartan society

The Spartiates (Greek: Σπαρτιάται, "Spartans") or Homoioi (Greek: Ὅμοιοι, "those who are alike"; sing. homoios) were the males of Sparta known to the Spartans as "peers" or "men of equal status". From a young age, male Spartiates were trained for battle and put through gruelling challenges intended to craft them into fearless warriors. In battle, they had the reputation of being the best soldiers in Greece, and the strength of Sparta's hoplite forces let the city become the dominant state in Greece throughout much of the Classical period. Other city-states were reluctant to attack Sparta even though it could muster a force of only about 8000 Spartiates during the zenith of its dominance, such was the reputation of its soldiers.[1]

Structure of Spartan society

Spartan society in the classical period was rigidly divided into several castes, each with assigned duties and privileges. The smallest of these, with the most power and freedom, was the Spartiate elite. Spartiates were exempt from manual labor, and controlled the government of the state. Spartiate men were expected to prepare constantly for military conflict. Below the Spartiates were the perioikoi, literally "dwellers around," inhabitants of outlying towns who carried out most of the trade and commerce of the city, since Spartiates were forbidden from engaging in commercial activity. Further down the ladder were the helots, enslaved populations tied to the land and over whom the Spartan state claimed ownership. In the late 5th century BC and later, a new class, the neodamodeis (lit. 'new' damos dwellers), arose. It seems to have been composed of liberated helots. Also, there were the hypomeiones (lit. inferiors), men who were probably, although not certainly, Spartiates who had lost social rank.

Origins of the Spartan system

According to classical accounts, the Spartan constitution was the product of a great lawgiver, Lycurgus. He was said to have written the Spartan constitution late in the Archaic period, most likely in the 770s BC. It is impossible to determine whether Lycurgus was an actual historical figure. It is clear, however, that at some point in the late Archaic period the model of Spartan society was changed from a monarchical system to an aristocracy for the elite warrior class. This change is likely to have been in some way related to the change from Dark age warfare, in which nobles were the dominant force, to the hoplite warfare of the classical period. Around the time of this change in system, Sparta embarked on the conquest of the neighboring state of Messenia. This acquisition of a large piece of territory and a large conquered population seems to have both provided the basis for the system of helotage and required the existence of a large military force to keep the potentially rebellious Messenians under control. The Spartiates thus became a permanently armed master class, living off the labour of the helots and preventing rebellion through constant struggle.

The lifestyle of the Spartiate class

During the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Spartan system was at its height. In 555 BC, Sparta defeated Tegea and forced that state to become its ally. Around 544 BC, Sparta defeated Argos, establishing itself as the preeminent power in the Peloponnese. For over 150 years, Sparta became the dominant land power of Greece, with the Spartiate hoplites serving as the core of its army.

To maintain the social system of the city, it was necessary to have a force ready to oppose any uprising of the helots (an event which occurred several times in the classical period). To ensure their military readiness, Spartiate youths enrolled in military training (agoge) from the age of seven onwards to thirty (the age of full citizenship). From that age until they became too old to fight, they would live in their barracks, visiting their families (and later, their wives) only when they could sneak out. Spartiate women, as well, were expected to remain athletically fit, since the Spartans believed that strong and healthy parents would produce strong and healthy children. Spartiates were expected to adhere to an ideal of military valor, exemplified by the poems of Tyrtaeus, who praised men who fell in battle and heaped scorn on those who fled.

Each Spartiate male was assigned a plot of land, with the helots that worked it. This was the source of his income, since he performed no labor or commerce himself. The primary use of this income was to pay the dues of the communal mess halls to which all Spartiates were required to belong. Any Spartiate who was unable to pay these dues was demoted from the class.

Politically, the Spartiate males composed the army assembly, the body which elected the ephors, the most powerful magistrates of Sparta after the kings. The Spartiates were also the source of the krypteia, a sort of secret police which, through measures such as assassination and kidnapping, sought to prevent rebellion among the helots.

Decline of the Spartiate class

In the late 5th and early 4th centuries BC, the Spartiate class gradually declined, along with Spartan military prowess. There were several reasons for this decline. First was attrition through the increasingly frequent wars that Sparta found itself embroiled in from the mid-5th century on. Since Spartiates were required to marry late, birth rates were low, and it was difficult to replace losses from the class. To exacerbate this problem, it was possible to be demoted from Spartiate status for a number of reasons; cowardice in battle was a common one, as was inability to pay for membership in the syssitia. Inability to pay became an increasingly severe problem as commercial activity began to develop in Sparta, since some Spartiates would sell the land from which they were supposed to draw their earnings. Since the constitution included no provisions for promotion to Spartiate status, the number of Spartiates gradually dwindled as the classical period wore on.

By the mid-4th century BC, the number of Spartiates had been critically reduced, although Sparta continued to hold sway over much of Greece. Finally, at Leuctra in 371 BC, a Theban army decisively defeated a Spartan force, killing 400 Spartiates of a force of 700 and breaking the back of Spartan military power. In 370 BC, Messenia was liberated by a Theban army, destroying the basis of the Spartan social system. The Spartan state never recovered its former power, and the Spartan army, by the later 3rd century, was not particularly superior to other hoplite armies in Greece.

See also


  1. Harley, T. Rutherford. The Public School of Sparta, Greece & Rome, Vol. 3, No. 9 (May 1934) pp. 129-139.).


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