Given the importance of the Spartan army in Spartan society and history it is surprising how little is known about the system of promotion to officer status. Stephen Hodkinson, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta titled “Social Order and the Conflict of Values in Classical Sparta,” rightly stresses the fact that patronage and family background appears to have been at least as important as outstanding ability and success. However, he fails to put his discussion in context or to provide key information about the promotion of junior and mid-level officers.
The issue of context is particularly irritating. Hodkinson’s article criticizes Sparta for failing to promote purely on the basis of merit. Hodkinson sees nefarious influences at work, and cites command appointments as evidence that Spartan society was not truly egalitarian. Yet, it should not surprise anyone that in any society -- even those with a goal of creating equality among members such as Communist China or Soviet Russia – there are always some members who are “more equal than others.”
Far more relevant is: how did Sparta’s system of promotion and appointment to command compare to the systems used by contemporary societies? Weren’t Persia’s armies commanded by her kings and noblemen? Even in democratic Athens, it was only those wealthy enough to finance ship-building, who commanded triremes. Furthermore, even the nominally elected generals were all from the so-called “better families.” Can anyone explain to me why no one appears to think Athens less democratic just because the opulently wealthy Miltiades or Alkibiades were also commanders, but the presence of wealth in Sparta or the appointment of commanders with connections to the royal families is treated as scandalous, dangerous and offensive?
It would also be useful to remember that even in today’s modern Western societies promotion to senior positions whether in the army, politics or business is not a matter of pure objective advancement by merit. As they saying goes, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” The Germans speak of the importance of “Vitamin B” for Beziehungen (contacts) - we would call it vitamin C. Americans talk of “networking” and “mentoring.” Why should we attach so much approbation to Spartans seeking to capitalize on relationships when we do it ourselves?
Turning to the issue of promotion in the lower ranks, I believe this deserves topic a great deal more attention because promotion to these ranks was probably an essential pre-condition to promotion to higher ranks. To my knowledge, however, no one has attempted to explain how it occurred, which has led me to speculate on possible procedures.
For example, boys in the agoge elected their herd leader so it is not completely unimaginable that they elected their enomotarch. Since an enomotia was a relatively small, close-knit unit similar in many ways to a herd of boys in the agoge, such an arrangement might even have helped solidify cohesion and discipline. The same, however, cannot be said for the election of pentekonteres and lochagoi, however. In these larger units, it would have been difficult for all members to know the qualities of the others and far more difficult to find consensus. Elections and competition for the position of commander would therefore undermine discipline rather than reinforce it. Nevertheless, it is possible that a modified election procedure was used for these more senior ranks in which only the enomotarchs elected the pentekoneres and only the later elected the lochgoi. Yet, while the election of officers is not inconceivable, in the absence of positive evidence to support it, the thesis seems a bit radical. After all, the hippeis were appointed by the hippagretai, who first had been appointed by the ephors. This suggests a top-down approach more consistent with military experience the world-over and up to the present time.
Assuming that officers were appointed rather than elected, we are left with the issue of who did the appointing. The kings, of course, took precedence in war and commanded Sparta’s armies, but they were often at loggerheads with one another and for all their vaunted influence, there is to my knowledge no evidence that they could simply appoint officers. Furthermore, as noted above, the ephors appointed the hippagreta, and as Hodkinson outlines they also played a role in extraordinary appointments such as nauarchos, harmosts and polemarchs. It would appear that at some level the promotion system entailed a formal process involving the ephors. Yet especially for these more senior posts, it is hardly likely that the ephors acted on their own. The ephors were essentially executives, operating -- except under exceptional circumstances -- on the guidance given by the Gerousia and/or Assembly.
The involvement of the Assembly in the promotions of nauarchos, harmosts and polemarchs is particularly plausible. The Assembly was involved in the declaration of war or peace. It could demand the exile or recall even the kings themselves. It does not seem a stretch to picture the Spartan Assembly at least approving senior appointments or selecting a candidate among a short-list presented by the Gerousia/ephors as Hodkinson suggests not only for harmosts and nauarchos but for polemarchs and lochagoi as well. But how practicable would it have been to put forward to the Assembly the names of each candidate for an enomotai? I think this unlikely.
Nor does it seem likely that the Gerousia was the body responsible for appointing junior and mid-level officers. By definition it was composed primarily of old men and their familiarity with the age-cohorts suitable for more junior levels of command would have been limited.
Given the example of the hippagretai, I think it most likely that polemarchs and lochagoi were selected by a combination of Gerousia/ephors making a recommendation that then had to be ratified by the Assembly similar to the procedure used for nauarchos and harmosts, but that they then appointed their pentekoneres, who in turn appointed the enomotarchs. I would suggest further that given the professionalism of the Spartan army and organization of the entire society along age lines, that only men with a set amount of experience would be eligible for each rank.
It would be most logical, as in other military organizations over the centuries, that advancement to a senior rank was only possible after serving in the next lower rank. Thus no man could be a pentekontes without first being an enomotarch, and no one could become a lochagos without first serving as a pentekontes. If this is hypothesized, then the number of men eligible for senior positions would be reduced to a number that would be manageable – the short list that the Gerousia/ephors would present to the Assembly for a final vote. It would also mean that promotion depended heavily on winning the favor of those above you in the chain of command -- system that can be stiffling to the advancement of outsiders, individualists and radical thinkers!
While this procedure seems logical and appears consistent with what we do know, I admit it is almost pure speculation. I’d appreciate your comments on this thesis.