The Spartan Assembly is often portrayed as a body of dumb, possibly illiterate, automatons, a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Kings, Gerousia and ephors. This view of the Spartan Assembly is based on constitutional provisions that appear to have restricted debate, the absence of secret ballots, and the assumption that Sparta’s notoriously obedient soldiers would “take orders” in the Assembly just as they did on the battlefield.
However, as any officer can tell you, the best soldiers are not automatons who wait for orders, but thinking, self-confident men who take the initiative and act without – or even against – orders if necessary. Furthermore, the famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea is a dramatic case in point demonstrating that Spartans didn’t always obey orders – not even on the battlefield. It further highlights the fact that commanders in the Spartan army did not command obedience: Amompharetus was not, after all, summarily executed or even relieved of his command. Instead, Pausanias tried to reason with him and finally ordered the rest of the army to move out. Last but not least, Sparta had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out act as advisors to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.
Second, the Assembly had real powers, officially more than the kings. The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia whenever vacancies occurred due to death. Hence men with political ambitions had to lobby and ensure a majority of votes against rivals. Also, according to most interpretations of the Great Rhetra, the Assembly had “the final say” on legislation. The Assembly forced more than one king into exile (e.g. Cleomenes I, Leotychidas, Pleistoanax) and could condemn commanders who exceeded instructions such as Pausanius and Phoebidas. Thus, despite the inability to introduce legislation and the public nature of the vote, the Spartan Assembly did exercise real power.
Most important, however, the Spartan Assembly was made up of her soldiers and her soldiers knew that they represented the might and power of Sparta. A body in which a large minority was composed of virile young men, in peak physical condition, who have been raised to think of themselves as the elite is unlikely to have been docile. The men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world rose through the ranks of the army – and all had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Even if some citizens were indifferent to politics and willing to do what others advised, in every generation there would have been ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority. Certainly the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy as the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” – not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well demonstrates.
What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders, but self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment. Sparta’s citizens were not docile or mindless pawns, but thinking and responsible citizens – every bit as confident that their voice in politics mattered as were the citizens of Athens. The differences between Athenian and Spartan democracy were many, and both were imperfect from the modern standpoint, but the Spartan citizen’s individual status within his polity should not be denigrated.