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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Sparta's Radical -- and Imperfect -- Land Reform

  The Messenian War(s) forced Sparta to adopt a new, radical constitution that was quite unlike any in the contemporary world. That new constitution included elements like an Assembly of citizens that would soon be imitated elsewhere, but one feature never found imitators -- until more than a millennia later -- land reform.
Today I look more closely at this radical feature of the Spartan Constitution.

Although this event is lost in the mists of undated ancient history, all ancient historians agree that at some time (probably in the late 8th or early 7th century BC, by our reckoning) Spartan society underwent a severe crisis.  A rebellion or civil war so threatened the continued existence of the city-state that the citizens were prepared to accept radical new laws reputedly developed by Lycurgus. These laws included a redistribution of the land.  The land was divided into equal plots of sufficient size to support a man and his family, and each citizen was given a plot, or estate – a kleros.  Henceforth the Spartans called themselves equals, or Peers – because they were equal not only in rights but also in wealth.

We do not know the exact size of these "kleros," but they were designed to ensure each citizen could produce enough food to contribute to his syssitia and also pay the agoge fees for his sons.  We also know that from the inception of the reforms, Spartan citizens were not expected to till this land themselves. On the contrary, they had helots, agricultural workers of non-Doric descent, who tilled the land for them. Presumably, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” According to the law each party, the Spartiate master and the helot, received 50% of the harvest. Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.”  

It is also probable that not all land in Lacedaemon was divided up. The kings almost certainly retained large estates that were not carved up during the reforms. Furthermore, Because citizens needed to be within walking or riding distance of their syssitia's and barracks, the immediate vicinity of Sparta (that is, in the Eurotas valley) was most likely the land divided into equal portions,  More distant parts of Lacedaemon (such as Kythera or on the coast of Laconia) probably remained in the hands of their former owners, while land conquered later, notably in Messenia, may have been divided on a basis other than strict equality.

Another factor influencing the distribution of land over time would have been inheritance laws, particularly the right of women to inherit.  Furthermore, it is only possible to sustain equal distribution of a fixed amount of land if there is only one male heir to each plot of land. Human demographics do not, however, produce perfect replacement.  Even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England), families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs rapidly reduces a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.  An excellent short discussion of Sparta's land reform is provided in Paul Cartledge's Sparta and Laconia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (Routledge, London, 1979), and a more comprehensive treatment of the subject can be found in Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Duckworth, London, 2000).

Thus, inevitably, with time the equality of wealth created during the Lycurgan reforms was eroded.  By the second half of the 5th century BC, wealth had become concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer families.  Spartan citizens were no longer equally wealthy.  

Yet even if Spartans were not in fact equally wealthy, the myth of equality remained powerful, and laws prohibited the hoarding of wealth, particularly the ownership of gold and silver coins (possibly all gold and silver).  The ostentatious display of wealth was frowned upon socially.  This set Sparta apart from the other Greek city-states, where the landed aristocracy, wealthy merchants, and manufacturers engaged in extravagant displays of wealth and competed for the honor of donating the most generous gifts to their respective cities.  In short, Spartan dress, taste, and style were shaped by the ethos of equality, by the very definition of Spartan citizens as "equals" -- Peers. 

Most important, while some Spartan citizens accumulated wealth and became richer than their fellows, and while the citizens of other cities could be reduced to beggary, all Spartans were guaranteed a minimum standard of living – something most modern observers would applaud rather than condemn.

The need and impact of the land reform is a major theme in Are They Singing in Sparta? (ebook: A Song for Sparta)  a novel set during the Messenian War:


Wednesday, January 24, 2024

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 explicitly 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, too, that modern legislatures also vote on bills presented and do not evolve legislation spontaneously during debate. Modern legislators also ultimately vote either 'yes' or 'no' on the bills introduced.)  Certainly, the Spartan Assembly was powerful enough to exile kings.  

Yet, 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.

Oddly, the Spartan Assembly is often disparaged today as a body of dumb, illiterate automatons. It is dismissed as 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, the Assembly enjoyed very 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. 

Furthermore, we have clear evidence that these men did not obey anyone blindly — not even on the battlefield. An excellent example of this is the famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea. This case 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.

The Spartan Assembly was made up of the same men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world. Thus while some citizens may have been 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. These ambitious men had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Certainly, we know that the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy. It was “the Spartans” - not the ephors or Gerousia - who notoriously threw 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. They were 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 status within his polity should not be denigrated. Sparta was very much a democracy in any sense of the word.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Making of Sparta - the Messenian War(s)

Arguably, nothing was more important to the evolution of Sparta into a city-state with a radically unique constitution than the Spartan conquest of Messenia. W.G. Forrest argues, for example, that the conquest of its agriculturally rich neighbor reduced the need for distant colonies and so the interest in the wider world, while the agricultural basis of Spartan wealth reduced Sparta’s interest in industry and trade. Others argue that the conquest of such a vast territory and the subjugation of an entire people resulted in permanent fear of revolt that in turn created the need for a militaristic state. Sparta as we know it – with its unique institutions from the agoge to citizens permanently under arms – is a function of its conflict with Messenia.
The pass between Lacadaemon and Messenia through the Taygetos Mountains.
Modern histories of Sparta tend to brush over the Messenian War(s) in considerable haste and without providing a great deal of detail. The reason is obvious. As Paul Cartledge stresses in Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (one of the few general histories of Sparta to focus seriously on the early history), the literary evidence is almost nil and the archeological evidence ambiguous. Indeed, he describes Tyrtaios, a poet whose works have been handed down to us only in fragments, as the “only” reliable literary source, while pointing out that the ancient sources Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.
The facts of conquest which are undisputed are quickly summarized: Sparta controlled Messenia completely by the start of the 6th century BC. Sometime in the 7th Century, during the life of the poet Tyrtaios, Sparta was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Messenians, a struggle that Tyrtaios clearly describes as one involving pitched battles between hoplites (though not phalanxes). Tyrtaios furthermore refers in his poems to the great deeds of “our father’s fathers,” which is usually interpreted to mean that the initial conquest of Messenia occurred two generations earlier. Tyrtaios also speaks of a struggle that lasts 20 years. Both the references, however, may be purely poetical; the first may mean little more than “our forefathers,” and the latter be a literary device to stress that it was “a long struggle” by making the fight in Messenia exactly twice as long as the conquest of Troy. Archeologically, we can trace a gradual expansion of Laconian influence into Messenia starting in the late 8th Century.

We also know that in the first quarter of the 7th century BC, Sparta adopted a new constitution attributed to Lycurgus. (There has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the Spartan constitution, but W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan revolution to the period between 700 and 670 are cogent and convincing. See A History of Sparta, 950-192 BC, pp. 55-58.) Furthermore, we know that Sparta’s only colony was established at the turn or very end of the 8th Century BC, traditionally in 706 BC. Both the introduction of a radical, new constitution sanctioned explicitly by Delphi and the establishment of a colony are attributed by ancient sources to internal unrest in Sparta.

Conventionally, these facts are woven together as follows: Sparta invaded and conquered Messenia in the late 8th Century, subjugating the local Messenian population. This conquest was allegedly followed by a period of intense internal unrest that led, first, to the founding of Sparta’s only colony, and second to the Lycurgan reforms. The later, however, are usually dated to the lifetime of Tyrataios and therefore, implemented during a second period of conflict with Messenia, usually described as “the Second” Messenian war. If one presumes that Sparta won the initial conflict with Messenia, this can only be explained by a revolt of some kind. So the allegedly brutally oppressed Messenians were -- within just two generations -- capable of financing hoards of hoplites and fielding entire hoplite armies.

This taxes my imagination. Periods of intense domestic unrest rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.

The history of modern revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly in a crisis that threatens recent gains. If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.

What if, following a period of growing prosperity, productivity and population, Sparta’s kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia, invaded – and then got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver on that promise? What if, as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the war to Laconia?

Such a situation would have produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new, revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict with organized, well-armed Messenian forces.

Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual threat could force a society to adapt a system of government that is so singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.

The paranoid excesses of late classical Sparta (e.g. the krypteia) followed the Helot Revolt of 465, but they probably took the disproportionate form the did because there was still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how memories of past wars still shape, for example, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish relations today. I believe it was more likely the trauma of a lost war than an unbroken series of victories by an invincible army that made Sparta what it was.

  Are They Singing in Sparta? (ebook: A Song for Sparta)  is a novel set during the Messenian War:


Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Sparta's Ancient Roots: Homer's Sparta

Nowadays, when we speak of "Sparta" we are usually referring to the historical capital of the ancient city-state of Lacedaemon located in the Peloponnese from roughly 950 until 192 BC. This is a political entity with institutions and a physical presence, whose military, political, social, educational, diplomatic and artistic accomplishments have left a footprint in the historical and archaeological record. 
Yet there was another Sparta, an older Sparta, a legendary Sparta --
 the Sparta of Kastor and Polydeuces 
and Helen...

Raphael Sealey in his study Women and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: 1990) makes a strong case that the marriage customs and status of women as portrayed in the works of Homer are incompatible with customs in classical Athens. He argues that: “The Athenian and Homeric concepts of marriage are so markedly different that one cannot have developed from the other.” (p. 126) 
Sealey furthermore argues that the depiction of Helen in both Iliad and Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of the Athenian theater but a dignified princess/queen and a wise woman. In the Iliad, Priam honors her, calling her “dear child,” while Hektor, the paragon of Homeric virtue, shows her courtesy and respect. Most important, Menelaos takes her back to be his Queen. In the Odyssey, Helen is depicted in Sparta apparently enjoying the respect of the entire population and providing wise advice to her husband.  It is striking that such a portrayal of Helen is consistent with Spartan tradition, where Helen was honored alongside Menelaos, temples were built to her and an annual holiday was celebrated in her honor.  

One particularly intriguing aspect of the Helen portrayed by Homer in the Odyssey is that she, like Gorgo, is shown to be cleverer than her men! She is the first to recognize Telemachos (Odyssey 4:138:32), and it is Helen who deciphers the significance of an eagle carrying a goose (Odyssey 15:160:78).

This begs the question if Homeric traditions with respect to women had a stronger influence on Sparta, particularly Archaic and pre-revolutionary Sparta, than they did on Athens. Is it possible that Doric traditions generally owed more to the world described in the works of Homer than did Ionian traditions?  Admittedly, we do not know just what society the Iliad and Odyssey actually describe and many argue that the world of Homer, like Homer himself, are completely fictional.  Yet repeatedly, archeological evidence has come to light that verifies elements of the great epics previously dismissed as “fiction” (e.g. helmets with boars tusks).

We know that women in Sparta enjoyed exceptional freedom and status compared, particularly, to women in Athens. While this difference is traditionally attributed to the laws of Lycurgus, it is unreasonable to presume that something as fundamental as attitudes toward women would change abruptly.  It is far more likely that women in Sparta already enjoyed higher status and that the revolution in Sparta that followed the First Messenian War only codified, institutionalized and developed to new levels pre-existing tendencies. The fact that Cretan women, Achaian women and women in Gortyn also had notably more freedom and status than women in classical Athens is further evidence that there was a wider, pre-classical tradition which contrasted sharply to the misogynous practices and laws of classical Athens.

It would be interesting to know if Doric traditions differed markedly to Ionic traditions in other spheres as well – and equally intriguing to investigate to what extent (if any) Ionic traditions were influenced by Asiatic customs. Is it possible that Athenian misogyny had more to do with the influence of the East – of Babylon and Persia – than with the roots of Greek civilization? Was Sparta’s comparatively greater respect for women perhaps more “Greek”? If so, was Sparta's entire society and ethos closer to its "Greek" roots than those of Athens? 

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Time to Reconsider Sparta?

Ancient Sparta is widely perceived today as a militaristic and insular society. Most people believe it lacked intellectual, cultural and artistic achievements. Images of brutal discipline, pederasty and illiterate, brutish citizens ruthlessly oppressing their subject peoples dominate modern depictions of Sparta. Yet modern scholarship does not support these popular images or interpretation of Sparta society.

Plutarch argued that "devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Sparta than love of physical exercise," and the evidence is that literacy was higher in Sparta than any other Greek city - if only because all Spartan women as well as their brothers and husbands enjoyed public education that included literacy. Pausanisus recorded hundreds of monuments, temples and public buildings worth visiting in Lacedaemon. Spartan sculpture and Spartan bronze works were admired throughout the ancient world, and Spartan pottery was an export commodity throughout the 6th century BC. Spartan festivals attracted large numbers of tourists because of the high quality of the musical performances and the dancing provided by both men and women's choruses.

In the archaic period, Sparta was also anything but insular. It was the city to which other Greek cities and even foreign powers turned for assistance. Its diplomats travelled to the courts of Persia and Egypt. Its goods were sold throughout the ancient world.

Furthermore, in no other city-state did women enjoy so much freedom and status. Not only did girls get fed the same food as their brothers (in contrast to girls in other Greek cities who were denied the same diet), they were allowed to exercise and go to school, unlike the girls elsewhere. More significant still, they were not married as frightened children to strangers, but rather married after they were sexually mature to men only slightly older than themselves, and who they would have known all their lives. Most important of all, they had control of the family estate from which their husbands derived citizenship. Economic power has always conferred status, and while Athenian women could own no property and inherit no land, Spartan women could do both in addition to managing their husband's estates, thereby excercising effective control over Sparta's agriculture.

The Spartan economy was also unique because it was the only economy in ancient Greece not dependent on chattel slaves. Instead of human chattels, the Spartan economy was in the hands of freemen called "perioikoi" and serfs called "helots." The perioikoi had their own cities, laws, customs and, except for being subordinate to Spartan foreign and military policy, lived without interference or restrictions on their freedom. Indeed, because Spartan law forbade its citizens from pursuing any profession except that of arms, the perioikoi had a monoply on all the lucrative manufacturing and trading sectors of the Lacedaemonan economy from the tin mines and quarries to timber, dye production, construction, bronze-working, pottery etc. They could accumulate fortunes and display their wealth without restriction. The helots, while less free than the perioikoi and Spartan citizens (Spartiates), were by no means as badly off as chattel slaves. They retained half of the production of the estates on which they worked. This they could dispose of as they wished, which enabled many helots to accumulate substantial wealth. More important, they could not be bought or sold, and they could marry and have families of their own. Chattel slaves were the sexual property of their owners, could not marry and their children were the property of their masters.

In short, Spartan society was far more complex than modern literature or films suggest. My website "Sparta Reconsidered" ( provides a series of essays on different aspects of Spartan society. There is also a list of sources and recommended reading.

This blog is intended to be a supplement to that website, providing an opportunity for interaction with others interested in ancient Sparta and particularly those willing to set aside conventional stereotypes and look deeper into what Sparta really was.