Ancient History & Civilisation

APPENDIX C Spartan Institutions in Thucydides

Social Structure

©1. Sparta was different, “other,” almost un-Greek—or so it could be made to seem from the Athenian side of the fifth-century B.C. “Great Powers” divide (1.77.5; 5.105.3-4). Only a few favored non-Spartans knew Sparta well from the inside. Conversely, unwelcome foreign visitors might find themselves summarily expelled (2.39.1). But the experience of Thucydides was probably more typical. He complains in exasperation of “the secrecy of their government” (5.68.2), and his Athenian speakers emphasize the polar opposition between themselves and their principal foes in character as in institutions (1.69.4-71; 2.39; 8.96.5). These fundamental differences can almost all be traced to two Spartan peculiarities: their educational system and their relationship with the Helots of Laconia and Messenia.

©2. Unlike all other Greek city-states, Sparta had a comprehensively, minutely, and centrally organized system of education that was prescribed as a condition of attaining full Spartan adult citizen status. Its main emphasis was military. Boys were separated early from their mothers—indeed, from all females—and educated roughly in rigidly controlled packs divided and subdivided by age. Fighting, stealing, and finally even murdering (see ©4) were enjoined as integral parts of the educative process. Basic literacy was apparently taught, so some Spartans at least could presumably read the few official documents their city chose to record and display (5.18.23). Music (5.70) and dancing (5.16) were also part of the prescribed curriculum, since they were crucial to performing the major religious festivals devoted to Apollo, such as the Carneia (5.54; 5.76.1), but they were also learned in significant measure for their military benefits. Hence, too, the conscious development of a clipped, military-style form of utterance (4.17.2; 4.84.2), which is still called by us “laconic” (after the Greek adjective meaning “Spartan”), just as we still speak of a “spartan”—that is, a spare, austere, self-denying—mode of existence. Between the ages of seven and thirty Spartan males spent almost their entire lives in communal dormitories, messes, or barracks; even married men were required to make their conjugal visits furtively, briefly, and under cover of darkness.

At the battle of Mantinea, the Spartans advanced slowly (and presumably in unison) into battle to the music of flute players (5.70). Mantinea: Appendix D Map, AX.

©3. The Helots, especially the more numerous portion living in Messenia to the west of Sparta on the far side of the eight-thousand-foot Taygetus mountain range, were the Spartans’ enemy within, not least because they always and appreciably outnumbered their masters. Most were farmers producing the food, drink, and other basics (especially barley, pork, wine, and olive oil) that enabled all Spartans to live a barrack-style military life in Sparta instead of working for a living. But the Helots, though native Greeks, farmed the Spartans’ land under a harsh yoke of servitude, so that many of them vehemently opposed the Spartan regime, yearned to regain the liberty and autonomy they imagined they had lost through earlier defeats (their name probably means “captives”), and were prepared to stake all on revolt (1.101.2; 2.27.2; 4.56.2). Spartan policy, therefore, as Thucydides starkly and accurately asserts, was “at all times … governed by the necessity of taking precautions against them” (4.80.2; cf. 1.132.4-5; 5.23.3—“the slave population”).

©4. Precautions might exceptionally be intensified, as in 425-24, when, in response to the Athenians’ exploitation of Helot disaffection following the vital loss of Pylos and Cythera (4.3.3; 4.55.1; 5.35.7), some two thousand selected troublemakers were secretly liquidated (4.80.5). But Spartans were routinely brought up, within the normal framework of their educational curriculum, to put Helots to death in peacetime. This occurred under cover of a general proclamation, repeated every autumn by each new board of ephors(see below), declaring war on the Helots collectively and thereby exonerating their Spartan killers in advance from the ritual pollution of homicide. There could not be a more perfect illustration of the Spartans’ intense religiosity bordering on superstition that was perhaps another by-product of their military style of life.

Government Institutions

©5. The five ephors, chosen by a curious form of election from any Spartans who wished to stand, were Sparta’s chief executive officials. They possessed very extensive powers in both the formulation and the execution of foreign and domestic policy (1.85.3; 1.86; 1.131.1; 2.2.1; 6.88.10). Collegiality and the majority principle did impose some constraints, but the annual oath they exchanged with the two Spartan hereditary kings indicates where the balance of authority rested: the ephors swore on behalf of the Spartans collectively to uphold the kingship so long as the kings themselves observed the laws (which the ephors interpreted and applied).

©6. Ephors, though, were annual officials, and the office could apparently be held only once. The two kings, on the other hand, and the other members of the thirty-strong Gerousia (Sparta’s senate, also curiously elected, but only from men aged sixty or over who probably also had to belong to certain aristocratic families), held office for life and partly for that reason enjoyed exceptional prestige and authority. However, not even the kings’ supposed direct descent from Heracles, “the demigod son of Zeus” (5.16.2), nor their hereditary right to the overall command of any Spartan army or Spartan-led allied force, prevented them from being disciplined (5.63.2-4), and sometimes deposed and exiled (5.16). An adroit king such as Archidamus might seek to exploit his aura of prestige and abundant opportunities for patronage to exercise a decisive and sometimes lasting influence on policy. But in 432 not even Archidamus (1.80-85) and his supporters in the Gerousia could persuade the assembly of citizen warriors, which had the final say in matters of peace and war, to vote against immediate war with Athens—in this one known instance by a formal division rather than by its usual crude procedure of shouting (1.87).

Messenia and the Taygetus range in relation to Sparta: Appendix D Map, BY.

Pylos: Appendix D Map, BX; Cythera: Appendix D Map, BY.

Military Organization

©7. In his account of the great battle of Mantinea in 418, Thucydides provides a privileged glimpse of Sparta’s unique and complex military organization in decisive and successful action (esp. 5.66, 5.69.2-7; cf. 4.34.1; 5.9). The goal of the Spartan educational system was to produce exceptionally disciplined and efficient hoplite infantrymen (see Appendix F, ©7); the navy was very much an inferior Spartan service (1.142.2). For almost two centuries, indeed, the Spartans suffered no major reverses of any sort. Yet partly because of the constant internal Helot threat, the Spartans did not lightly undertake aggressive foreign wars (1.118.2; cf. 5.107), and they very rarely fought without large-scale allied support.

©8. Moreover, the Spartans experienced a growing and increasingly critical shortage of citizen military manpower, caused basically by internal socioeconomic deficiencies. Each Spartan citizen had to contribute a minimum of natural produce from the land worked for him by Helots toward the upkeep of the communal “mess” in which he lived and ate, and through which he exercised his military and other civic responsibilities. But in the period after the Persian Wars the number of Spartan citizens who could contribute the required minimum declined, through a process not entirely understood today, but which probably was the result of an increasing concentration of land in fewer hands. This socioeconomic manpower shortage was aggravated by the catastrophic earthquake of the 460s (1.101.2; 1.128.1; 2.27.2; 4.56.2) and by important losses in the Peloponnesian War.

©9 The Spartans therefore drew ever more heavily on non-Spartan troops to make up their frontline infantry force. In the first place, they had regular and increasing recourse to the hoplites of the perioikoi (literally, “dwellers around”) whom they even brigaded in the same regiments as themselves. These perioikoi were free Greeks who lived in their own semiautonomous communities, mainly along the coasts of both Laconia (e.g., Epidaurus Limera and Thyrea [4.56.2]) and Messenia (e.g., Methone [2.25.1]), but also along the vulnerable northern border with Arcadia and Argos (e.g., the Sciritae [5.67.2; 5.68.3; 5.71.2-3; 5.73.1-2; cf. 5.33.1]). The perioikoi spoke the same dialect as the Spartans and resembled them in other cultural ways, but they enjoyed no political rights at Sparta and so had no say in Sparta’s foreign affairs (3.92.5; 4.8.1; 4.53.2; 5.54.1; 5.67.1; 8.6.4; 8.22.1). Secondly, and paradoxically, the Spartans also had regular and increasing military recourse to Helots and various categories of liberated Helots, of which the most privileged but still awkwardly unassimilated were the neodamodeis (4.21; 5.67; 7.19.3; 7.58.3). All the same, the Peloponnesian War was decided not on land but at sea, and above all by Persian money, rather than by traditional Spartan military prowess.

Mantinea: Appendix D Map, AX.

Epidaurus Limera: Thyrea: Appendix D Map, AY. Methone: Appendix D Map, BX.

Arcadia: Appendix D Map, AX; Argos: Appendix D Map, AY.

Paul Cartledge
Clare College
Cambridge University
Cambridge, England

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