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Conservative politics in Ancient Sparta

27 Dec

Facing external pressures and internal revolts, Sparta turned inward to adopt a conservative political system that affected every aspect of Spartan life When we look at Spartan society and politics…

Source: Conservative politics in Ancient Sparta

Conservative politics in Ancient Sparta

14 Dec


Facing external pressures and internal revolts, Sparta turned inward to adopt a conservative political system that affected every aspect of Spartan life

When we look at Spartan society and politics, we see a system which was extremely conservative. To define what is meant by conservative, Roger  Scruton believed that for conservatives, the value of individual liberty was not absolute but was secondary to the authority of established government (Scruton, 1980), But we should also see a conservative political system as an attempt to preserve a way of life and institutions in the face of change.

In Sparta fears of external threats and internal unrest was at the heart of the ‘great rhetras’ of Lycurgus in the late 7th century B.C. But the main concern was that of a declining population and the inability of the state to meet these threats.  The importance of this declining population is seen in the start of Xenophon’s discussion of the constitution and the importance of women to undertake physical exercise so that they would produce vigorous and healthy children (Const. Lac. 1.4).

To ensure Sparta could maintain a strong standing army, it was the role of men to become soldiers and it was the role of women to produce healthy males that would become soldiers. Plutarch (Lyc 15) tells us that Lycurgus considered children to belong not exclusively to their fathers, but jointly to the city. To produce healthy children, polygamy was not only sanctioned by the state but husbands had no say in the child’s education. As Sarah Pomeroy (Pomeroy, p38).noted that in Sparta, the authoritarian patriarchy took over the husband’s exclusive rights to his own wife as well as denied his rights as a father.

A common theme which comes out of Xenophon’s writings on the Spartan constitution of Lycurgus is a fear of change. Even for Xenophon, writing 250 years after Lycurgus, the fear of a changing world is prevalent for Xenophon (Const. Lac. 14.2) laments that the Spartans in his own time were no longer content to live modest lives but preferred to ‘expose themselves to the corrupting influences of flattery as governors of dependent states.

An example of this fear of change in Sparta is the banning of all gold and silver coinage as told to us by Plutarch (Lyc, 9), who claims that Lycurgus wanted to remove inequalities and contrasts in Spartan society and instead used iron as the new currency. But H Michell believes that the ban against gold and silver could have originated much later in 404 B.C with the Spartan victory over Athens (Michell, p44) rather than the time of Lycurgus.

We know from Xenophon that Spartan citizens, excluding the perioikoi, were not only banned from engaging in business but that in the days of Lycurgus, it was illegal to live outside of Sparta. Xenophon (Const. Lac. 14.4) believes that the reason for this was to ‘keep the citizens from being demoralized by contact with foreigners’. Plutarch (Lyc.28) expands on this that foreigners bring in ideas with them and therefore there was the need to protect Sparta from harmful practices by ‘unhealthy immigrants’. This fear of outside influences corrupting Spartan’s escalated into xenophobia.

Extreme change in Spartan politics and society was guarded against through the political power of the council of elders or gerousia, an elected body of twenty eight men over sixty years old. We know from Plutarch that the gerousia was to act as a balance against both the tyranny of the kings and democracy. Although elected, Finley suggests that dominant families in Sparta controlled the appointments to the council in favour of their own members (Finley, p32). Although the assembly of Spartans voted on proposals, only the two kings and the council of elders could place and could veto decisions by the assembly.

Inside Sparta, we also see a society being held together against these forces of change through virtues of obedience and discipline that were to be instilled through training and embedded in the citizen’s character (Plut, Lyc. 13). From the age of 7, young males were taken away for compulsory state run training, the Agoge. The system was clearly approved by Xenophon (Const. Lac. 2.14)as he tells us that the system produces more ‘obedient, more respectful and more strictly temperate’ men. Xenophon believed that the decline of Spartan virtues following the Spartan victory over Athens would lead to Sparta’s decline.

But discipline and obedience were more than just admirable virtues as they were essential to being a Spartan citizen, an equal or homonoi. Those that did not obey the rules were considered cowards to be shunned from society. We know from Plutarch (Lyc 15) that Lycurgus ‘placed a certain civil disability for those that did not marry’ which meant that they were publicly shamed. But more harsh treatment awaited those considered to be cowards or to have led a ‘disgraceful life’ as they faced beatings and social exclusion.

Conformity to Spartan virtues and obedience was one of the primary goals of the Spartan education system. Discipline was enforced through regular beatings by older boys, Wardens and even older males in society. The use of older men, the erastai, to accompany teenage boys was used to educate young males in Spartan virtues. Enforcing the laws was the office of the Ephors, which Xenophon (Const. Lac. 8.4) tells us that the Ephors had wide powers in which they could issue fines. Even a king as Agis was not above the laws and was fined for refusing to eat at the public mess and attending the sacrifices.

The historian Xenophon lamented the decline of Spartan virtues and believed that shutting Sparta off from change and enforcing traditional values on her citizens was the key to Spartan military success. But Sparta was to pay a high price for avoiding change at the battle of Leucta against Thebes in 371 B.C.


Finley, M.I ‘Economy and Society in Ancient Greece’ published by Chatoo and Windus, London, 1981

Michell, H ‘The Iron Money of Sparta’ Phoenix, Volume 1, Spring 1947 pp42-44. Accessed: 05-12-2016 08:30 UTC

Plutarch ‘On Sparta’ translated by Richard A Talbert, Published by Penguin Group, 1988

Pomeroy, Sarah. B ‘Spartan Women’ published by Oxford University Press, 2002

Scruton, Roger ‘The Meaning of Conservatism’ published by Penguin Books, 1980

Xenophon ‘The Constitution of the Lacaedomanians