Spartan Government in Ancient Greece

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  • 0:04 Sparta's Government
  • 0:37 The Great Rhetra
  • 1:10 The Kings
  • 1:58 The Councils
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Greek city-state of Sparta is remembered for its military, but it put a lot of thought into its government as well. In this lesson, we'll look at this system and see how the Spartan government worked.

Sparta's Government

We tend to look at the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta as being a warrior society, which it was, but also as less sophisticated than intellectual centers like Athens. Athens was the birthplace of modern democracy, after all. How could Sparta compete with that? Well, the Spartans may not have invented a political structure we widely use today, but that doesn't mean they weren't also being innovative with their government. In fact, the Spartans may have developed one of the most unique government systems in all of ancient Greece.

The Great Rhetra

If we need proof that the Spartans had an organized and sophisticated government, look no further than the Great Rhetra. In essence, this was the constitution of Sparta, the political document that outlined the powers and structures of government. According to tradition, the Great Rhetra was given to the legendary figure Lycurgus by the mythical Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Oracle was a priestess of Apollo who prophesied on behalf of the gods so when Lycurgus took his ideas of government to her, he was looking for divine approval. Apparently, he got it.

The Kings

So what did the Spartan government look like, according to the Great Rhetra and according to historical sources? Let's start at the top, with the kings. Yes, you read that right - Sparta had two kings. We call this a diarchy, instead of a monarchy. The co-kings each inherited their titles but came from two different families. They were also both recognized as priests of Zeus.

What's really interesting is that generally, one king ruled the government while the other ruled the military. Which king ruled which part of Spartan society changed by occasion. The people selected the best king to deal with each situation. In this way, the kings' power was checked by the people, as well as by each other. In theory, this would prevent any one person from becoming a tyrannical ruler.

The Councils

Even without a democracy, the Spartans found other ways to keep their rulers in check as well. This was done through a series of councils, each of which had a fair amount of power in the city's government. First was the gerousia, a council of 28 elders who served for life. The kings also sat on this council and made many of their decisions through this body. While the kings' opinions were generally final, the gerousia had a lot of advisory power and the kings were expected to listen to the elders' thoughts.

The gerousia itself was part of a larger citizen's assembly, known as the Ekklesia. Meeting once a month, this council was open to all citizens of Sparta. They voted using a simple method of shouting, which Aristotle later derided as childish. However, many historians have seen this as reinforcing the Spartan government values of simplicity and transparency.

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