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Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Sparta's Ephors: Citizens not Monsters

In the Hollywood film "300" the Ephors are depicted as monsters strangely determined to destroy Sparta. How five officials elected annually from among the citizens by the Assembly to enforce Sparta's laws should have been so corrupted is only one of the many mysteries of Hollywood. What follows is a short history of this uniquely Spartan institution.

The Ephors as depicted in "300"

The ephors, despite later importance, were not mentioned in the so-called Great Rhetra, which allegedly encapsulated Lycurgus’ constitutional reforms, nor did they appear in any of the surviving fragments of Tyrtaeus’ poetry.  Indeed, it appears that originally the ephors were little more than official servants of the kings, charged with executing the kings’ orders. In consequence, the ephors make no particular mark in history prior to the mid-sixth century.

By about 750 BC, however, the institution appears to have evolved somewhat farther. Each year, five citizens were elected by the Spartan Assembly to serve for one year and one year only. No one could be re-elected, so the composition of the ephorate was constantly (annually!) changing. It was not, therefore, a body "controlled" by any particular faction or even class. Yes, Sparta's most famous statesman and philosopher, Chilon, served as an ephor one year (and may have done much for the prestige of the institution), but we also know that some very poor and many obscure men also held the office.  The individual members of the ephorate were not particularly powerful either before or after their one year in office. 

Furthermore, because the ephors changed annually, the ephors as a body did not have a specific policy or even a consistent bias. A.H.M. Jones in his succinct book on Sparta (A.H.M. Jones, Sparta, Barnes and Noble, 1967) notes: "Roughly speaking the ephors represented the will of the majority. When feeling was strongly in one direction there would be continuity of policy. When opinion was equally divided, or fluctuated, the ephors reflected this instability. When a king like Agesilaus was carrying out a policy which all Spartans approved, the ephors gave him their full support. When a king like Achidamus was fighting the tide of public opinion, he would often be over-ruled or frustrated by the ephors." (p. 30) Nevertheless, as an institution, the ephors were very powerful.

The first recorded act of the ephors was when they forced a reluctant King Anaxandridas to take a second wife. This interference in the personal life of a king was justified by their concern over the future of the Agiad line and indirectly the Spartan Constitution. It was initiated because, according to Herodotus, the ephors were tasked with observing the heavens at regular intervals and interpreting the stars.  In other words, this first act of interference could be interpreted as more a religious than a political role, in that the ephors were simply interpreting the Will of the Gods, rather than acting in a constitutionally independent role.

In the centuries that followed, however, the ephors increasingly engaged in activities that are unashamedly political. By the late fifth century, the ephors could fine citizens -- even those elected to public office -- for misdemeanors and bring charges against them for more serious crimes.  The ephors also controlled relations with the perioikoi and helots (at some point initiating the practice of declaring war on the helots annually). The ephors drafted bills for presentation to the Assembly and set the agenda at Assembly meetings. They could summon the Assembly and presided at it.  The ephors decided (based on their estimate of the comparative volume of the shouted “ayes” and “nays,”) whether a motion had passed or not. Last but not least, they enforced the decisions taken at Assembly.

The ephors, furthermore, had diplomatic and military roles as well as political and administrative ones. Not only did they receive and dispatch ambassadors, they also named – and recalled – commanders such as Pausanias and Lysander.  They appointed the three hippagretai, who then each selected one hundred men from the citizens on active service (aged 21 – 30) to form the royal body guard.  After the Assembly voted for war, it was the ephors, who mobilized the troops.
Perhaps most important, two ephors accompanied whichever king commanded the Spartan army on campaign.  Thus, although the kings commanded absolute obedience while the Spartan army was outside of Lacedaemon, the ephors were expected to keep an eye on them and exercise their right to bring charges against the kings for any unconstitutional behavior on their return.  The mere presence of the ephors, therefore, acted as a curb on arbitrary and unlawful actions by the kings.  Last but not least, if a king was charged with a capital offense, the ephors sat in judgment of him along with the Gerousia.

The ephors as both representatives from the Assembly and executors of it's will were fundamentally a democratic institution. The power of these annually elected ordinary citizens exercised is an testiment to the degree to which the Spartan monarchy was a constitutional monarchy.

The Ephors play a significant role in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

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  1. They amassed such power and yet you think they weren't out to destroy Sparta? At the least, it sounds as though they were out to reshape it in their own image.

  2. In 241 BCE, King Agis IV attempted to implement economic and social reforms, including the cancellation of debts and redistribution of land. His reforms threatened the interests of the wealthy elite, including the ephors. As a result, he was arrested, tried, and executed by the ephors, marking a harsh response to his reformist agenda.