The Spartan Way of Ruling: Government and Politics in Ancient Greece


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Sparta was a powerful city-state in Ancient Greece. It was an oligarchy ruled by a small number of male citizens. The government had four parts. Two kings served in military and priestly roles. A council of elders (two kings and twenty-eight elders) was the law-making body and had judicial duties. Five ephors (supervisors) oversaw day-to-day operations. A citizen assembly voted for the laws. They also chose the elders and ephors. Athens became the model for modern democracies. Nonetheless, Sparta also has something to teach us about the roles of checks and balances, citizen involvement, and government oversight. 

Sparta Snapshot 

Greece is a country in southeastern Europe. Africa is to the south. Asia is to the west. Greece is at the crossroads of three continents. Ancient Greece is chocked full of history. 

Ancient Greece’s geography led to the creation of city-states. City-states are centers of power that develop around cities, which are often significant locations of trade and commerce.

Sparta was a leading city-state in Ancient Greece. Sparta was founded around 1000 B.C.E.  Five towns joined together to form the original city. It then expanded its power over the centuries. 

Lycurgus, the perhaps legendary originator of the Spartan military way of life, lived two hundred years later. Sparta’s height of power was in the 400s. Rome conquered it in 146 B.C.E. 

Learn More About The Society of Ancient Sparta

Sparta Was An Oligarchy

Sparta was an oligarchy. An oligarchy is a government that is “ruled by the few.” 

The three classes were citizens (only men could be full citizens), free non-citizens, and slaves. A small percentage (less than ten percent) of the people governed the rest.  

Spartan citizens (Spartiates) did believe in checks and balances. The system of government had four branches, which included kings, elders, a citizen assembly, and an executive committee.

[1] Two Kings

Sparta had two kings. They came from the two most powerful families, the Agiads and Eurypontid. The position was hereditary. A king served for life. Their eldest son became the next king.  Kings were priests and led armies during wars. Sparta was known for its military. 

Kings also served with the council of elders and had other tasks, including overseeing public roads. Over time, kings lost power to elders and the executive committee. They even had people looking over their shoulder when they went to war. 

Kings became figureheads. 

[2] Council Of Elders (Gerousia)

The council of elders consisted of two kings and twenty-eight men sixty or over. They were of noble birth and often celebrated military heroes. The Gerousia served for life.

The Gerousia proposed laws and other policies. They were the highest court, including in death penalty cases. The elders eventually had the power to indict and try a king.  

The size, minimum age, and term of office for the Council of Elders changed over time. For instance, the term of office became one year. 

[3] Spartan Citizen Assembly [Apella]

A male Spartan citizen who graduated from military training had the right to serve in the national assembly. They were likely thirty or older

The assembly met once a month. Its sessions took place over the slopes of the Taygetus, where there was good acoustics (no sound systems back then) and shelter from the wind.

The Council of Elders submitted laws to the assembly. The assembly could not debate the proposals. They just shouted their support or opposition. Yes or no? Leave the rest to us! 

The members also elected members of the Council of Elders and Executive Council. 

[4] Executive Council (Ephors)

Ephors were “overseers” or supervisors. They were in charge of day-to-day operations. 

Five ephors were elected, one from each of the five tribal communities. A powerful executive council, they had only one-year terms and could not be relected

Two ephors were present on the battlefield to look over the shoulders of the kings. If the two kings divided, ephors would be the tiebreaker. 

Ephors were presiding officers of the Council of Elders and citizen assembly. They served as diplomats, meeting foreign emissaries. They had a secret police force to control slaves. 

The five ephors became the most powerful officials in the Spartan government. 

The Peloponnesian League

Sparta was on the Peloponnese peninsula. The Peloponnesian League was a loose confederation of Greek city-states led by Sparta. The membership changed over the years.  

The league debated war, peace, and relations between its members. 

Each member had one vote. The Spartan assembly would send envoys to the league’s meetings. One of the kings went for something important. The assembly would first provide instructions. The Peloponnesian League lacked the power to do something against the will of the Spartan assembly. Sparta was the “first among equals.”  

Athens vs. Sparta 

Athens and Sparta were two great Ancient Greek city-states. They competed with each other. They also had very different cultures. We honor Athens today as an early democracy. 

Athens had a more democratic system of government. They also only allowed free men to be citizens. Slavery was allowed. Nonetheless, every citizen had more power.

A council of five hundred citizens served as a legislative council to propose laws and run day-to-day affairs. A larger citizen body debated and voted on the proposals. 

A jury in Athens could have hundreds, sometimes over a thousand, men. The jury that decided the fate of the great philosopher Socrates had five hundred (maybe 501) men.  

Athens also was not so focused on the military. Civic life provided the models for how a peaceful democratic society should be. 

Sparta’s government had some checks and balances. We can learn things from them. But, it is not surprising we understand Athens to be a foundation for our modern system of democracy.

QUESTIONS

  1. What type of government did Sparta have, and how did it differ from modern democracies?
  2. Describe the four branches of the Spartan government and their respective functions. How did these branches interact with each other?
  3. How did the role of the two kings in Sparta change over time, and why did they become figureheads?
  4. Explain the composition and responsibilities of the Council of Elders (Gerousia) in Sparta’s government. How did their power evolve over the years?
  5. Discuss the role and significance of the Spartan Citizen Assembly (Apella) in the legislative process. Why couldn’t the assembly debate proposals?
  6. What were the functions of the Executive Council (Ephors) in Sparta, and why did they become the most powerful officials in the Spartan government?
  7. Compare and contrast the government of Athens with that of Sparta. What were the key differences in their political systems and cultural values?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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