Throughout history the world has seen very few powers that have been quite as unique as the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Very few city-states of ancient Greece were able to rival the Spartan people. Their unique government, social structure, and way of life made them a viable force in the ancient world. It is for these reasons that Sparta has gone down in history as one of the most uniquely structured powers in world history, one that is observed by modern intellectuals and politicians, being used as a model for present day militaries and governments.
One of the major characteristics of Sparta that made it so unique was it’s government. Although oddly structured, it’s main goal was to achieve stability. This is one goal that many Greek city-states strived for but could never reach. Sparta had a dual monarchy with two kings. Underneath these kings was the council of elders, which consisted of twenty-eight nobles over the age of sixty, which was the retiring age of a Spartan soldier. These retired soldiers discussed law, foreign policy, and served as a supreme court in Sparta. Lower on the political ladder was an assembly made up of every noble male soldier in Sparta. This assembly was the closest thing to democracy in ancient Sparta. It had the right to democratically approve or veto the decisions of the council of elders.
The major body of power in Spartan government however was known as the “ephorate”. The ephorate was made up of five Spartan males who had veto power over all other governmental branches, control of the military, the educational system, and the infant selection system. Surprisingly enough, they even had the power to remove a king. These five men were kept in check by a Spartan code that limited them to a maximum term of one year and made them personally responsible for any of their actions while in power. Any member of the ephorate could potentially be put on trial after serving his term. All in all, the Spartan government was established in this way for a single purpose. This purpose was to maintain absolute stability and hinder any change that could potentially dispose of Spartan traditions, which the Spartans owed their power and success to. (1)
Spartan society was can be dissected into three social classes. At the top were the Spartiate or Homoioi. Next in line was the Perioeci, which roughly translates into “the dwellers around”. At the absolute bottom of the social order were the Helots.(1) In ancient Sparta, the elite Homoioi were offered the best education and became part of the Spartan army, eventually attaining the right to take part in government. They were the only Spartans to enjoy full political and legal rights. The duty of the Homoioi citizen was to remain in a constant state of preparedness for war. They were also in charge of keeping the Helots in their place. The Perioeci performed most of the trade and commerce within Sparta. They were given a significant amount of freedom but had no political rights. The Helots, although treated the worst, were the backbone of Sparta.
They made the Spartan system possible. The Helots were foreign people that had been conquered by the Spartan army and forced into slavery and servitude to the Spartan state. The life of a Helot was a harsh one. Not only were they worked to death, but also they were widely abused by the Homoioi. Each soldier was given a number of Helots to command. He could do virtually whatever he pleased with them including torturing or killing them. He was however not allowed to buy or sell a Helot because they were not his personal property like a traditional serf or slave. The Helots were the property of the state itself. A Helot revolt was a constant fear in the minds of elite Spartans so they were ruled with an iron fist and given no pity as to prevent such a rebellion.(2)
Although the life of a Helot was unendurable, every Spartan citizen lived a very cruel and deprived life. The Spartan way of life was based deprivation, discipline, and hardship. The average life of a Spartan male was far less than glamorous. If a child were able to pass the test given as part of the infant selection system in which infants thought to be inferior were murdered, they would be raised by their mother until the age of seven.(5) At this stage in a boy’s life he would be taken out of the home and would begin training in the barracks with other boys to become a soldier. These young males would spend almost all of their lives together training. The warrior bond was so strong in Sparta that the men who lived in such close quarters with each other shared sexual relationships.(1) It was thought that teaching children to live under deplorable conditions in a survival of the fittest atmosphere would produce excellent adult soldiers. Boys were given a single garment and no sandals for the year as a means of toughening them up.
They were fed things which modern society would consider inedible. Young Spartan males were also taught to steal from each other in order to fill their stomachs. Those who were caught were severely punished but a Spartan who didn’t steal was considered weak and cowardly. If a young soldier survived his training he would become a member of the Homoioi. A soldier was expected to marry at the age of thirty.(3) This marriage would be arranged and a ceremony would take place in which the man would symbolically seem to take the woman by force. Spartan soldiers did not live with their wives and were expected to see them only in the dark of the night in order to impregnate them and procreate. At the age of sixty a Spartan soldier would retire from military service. Thus was the live of a Spartan elite. (4)
By separating themselves from luxury and easy living, Sparta was able to condition themselves into on of the most brutal militaristic societies that the world has ever seen. Their unique form of government, social structure, and way of life is like that of no other power in history. This is what makes this ancient Greek city-state so historically significant. It is understandable why Sparta is so often cited in today’s society.
1)Classical Sparta: Techniques Behind Her Success
University of Oklahoma Pr.
2)The Shadow of Sparta
New York, Feb. 1994
3)The History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C
William George Grieve Forrest
W.W. Norton & Company
New York, March, 1969
4)The Greek Way
W.W. Norton & Company
New York 1993