Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The World's First Democracy

The Spartan constitution, commonly dated to the early 7th century BC, is the first known constitution that vested supreme power in the hands of an Assembly composed of all citizens.  Thus, Sparta was the first known functioning democracy – roughly 150 years before the introduction of democracy in Athens.


 
As is typical of early, innovative institutions, later modifications introduced in other cities made the Spartan democracy appear conservative as time went by.  Sparta, for example, never entirely freed itself of its kings.  Two jointly ruling hereditary monarchs from different families held restricted and mostly ceremonial functions throughout Sparta's history as an independent state – very much as the English monarchy functions today.

Another notoriously conservative aspect of the Spartan constitution was the Council of Elders, or Gerousia.  Although this body was elected, as were similar institutions in other cities, the Elders had to be over 60 years of age and were elected for life.  In consequence, they were not subject to the most effective of democratic censures: the need to be re-elected.

Nevertheless, Sparta's constitution clearly gave precedence to the Assembly.  The Assembly, which is believed to have met on a monthly basis, was composed of all adult male citizens.  Although it could vote only on the bills presented by the Council, the common misconception that the Assembly could only vote yes or no is belied by accounts of lively (not to say rowdy) debates.  (Note, also, that modern legislatures also vote on bills presented and do not evolve legislation spontaneously during debate.)  Certainly, the Spartan Assembly was powerful enough to exile kings.  Nevertheless, the Spartan Assembly never attained the absolute tyranny of the Athenian Assembly – a point praised widely by ancient writers, who saw in Sparta's more balanced (bicameral) democracy a means of controlling the fickleness of the mob.  Most people today, used to representational democracy, would feel more comfortable in Sparta's democracy than in that of Athens, where many officials were chosen by lottery and the votes of illiterate and impoverished citizens were easily manipulated and purchased by demagogues.


Nevertheless, the Spartan Assembly is often disparaged today as a body of dumb, 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 instead 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 to act as advisers 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 in the latter 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 is demonstrated by the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” = not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well!

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 with a say in the policies of their city-state. 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. Sparta was very much a democracy in any sense of the word.

The Spartan Assembly plays a significant role in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


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1 comment:

  1. Great Post here thank you for all of the highly informative posts. They are a joy to read!

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