The city of Sparta, was founded according to archaeologists in the 10th century BC Along with Athens, it is one of the two major players in Greek history. Renowned for its army, it is the only city in Greece without a wall. According to Spartan philosophy, well-defended cities are defended by men, not bricks. But beyond its military structure, Sparta is also distinguished from other Greek cities by its social model, its political organization and its educational scheme.
Located in the Peloponnese, Sparta is said to have been founded by Sparta. He was the son of Phoroneus king of Argos. According to the legend; Argos, son of Zeus, gave his name to this city in the Peloponnese. In the 5th century BC, this city extended over a territory which represented three times that of its rival Athens. The Spartan territory in the strict sense is bounded to the west by the Taygetos massif, to the south and east by the Mediterranean Sea. On the northern border, Sparta took control of the plateau of Thyreatide from Argos and extended its territory there in 545 BC following the so-called battle of the champions. Sparta is made up of four villages: the village Limnai “of the lake”, Kynosoura “dog’s tail”, Mesoa “central” and Pitana “pastry chefs”. A fifth village, Amyclées will be added later. The State thus constituted includes other Greek cities, called périèques which means “of the circumference”. They are subject to Spartan suzerainty. Their inhabitants are free but are not therefore citizens. They have an obligation to provide troops. Sparta is therefore distinguished from other cities by a social model where a minority, the “Equals”, another name for the Spartans, exercises full-time citizenship. The economic activity as for it, is ensured by the Périèques, the inhabitants of the circumference and by the Helots, the slaves.
A particular social model
Helots were those who had been enslaved after rebelling. However, their social condition differed from other slaves of antiquity. Their master was not a man but the Spartan state. The Helots were responsible for cultivating land where they lived from father to son. They also had to pay the Spartans an annual fee which was called “apophora”. In return, the apophora could not be increased and the owner of the land that the Helots cultivated did not have the right to hunt them or sell them. They could sometimes be called upon to serve in armies and to fight alongside the Spartans. The Helots are estimated at around 220,000 out of a total population of 380,000. The Periecs, about 100,000 members, also belonged to the defeated and conquered population. But, unlike the Helots, they had retained their individual freedom, owned the land and lived in their former cities. The Spartans had even allowed their laws and their justice to subsist. In return, they paid taxes and did military service, but no political rights were recognized. The Spartans, who called themselves the Equals, were the only ones to enjoy the rights of citizenship. They were, for the most part, of Dorian origin. Few in number, they were at most 50,000, women and children included. Outnumbered, the Equals were extremely suspicious of a massive Helot rebellion, and this is one of the many reasons why they continually trained in the art of war.
The Assembly of the Elders and the Assembly of the People
The political life of the city was governed by two assemblies and concerned only the Spartans. The first, the assembly of elders or Gerousia, was composed of twenty-eight members. This assembly was the most powerful organ of the state and really directed public affairs. She had the initiative for all decisions. From antiquity, it was noticed that the Gerontes of Sparta who made up this assembly formed what would today be called an absolute oligarchy. They were the real masters of the state and judged the important crimes which led to the pronouncement of death sentences and civic disqualification. The other assembly was that of the people or Demos which met once a month. All Spartans could participate in it except the Helots and Periecs who were excluded. The people’s assembly could take no initiative. Its role was simply to approve or reject the laws and measures already passed by Gerousia. Most often, voters were asked to make as much noise as possible to ratify a law. This process was called voting by acclamation. When there was a doubt, the members of the assembly separated into two groups according to their opinion. We could then count the votes and validate the law.
THE EPHORUS AND THE TWO KINGS
The royal power of Sparta was divided between two kings, one of the family of Agiades and the other of the family of Eurypontides. These two royal families never united through marriage and we don’t know why the Spartans chose to have two overlords. Each of them had a non-political authority. Of course, they sat in the Gerousia along with the twenty-eight other members of the assembly, their power being above all military. Kings were the commanders-in-chief of the Spartan army on campaign, but could not declare war or sign peace treaties. It was the assembly of the people who alone had this power. In times of peace, the two kings did not even have a personal guard to show that they were equal to others. In fact, it was the Ephors who held the power. Five in number and in office for one year, they were elected, according to some researchers, by the Demos according to the method of acclamation. It is known that there were no conditions of age or rank or wealth, they simply had to be part of the Spartans. All the magistrates and the kings themselves rose before them to honor them. According to Aristotle, their power was as absolute as that of tyrants, they could even depose kings. But it seems that they did not profit by having always acted in agreement with Gerousia.