Spartan Constitution in the Fifth Century B.C!

Noted for their conservatism, the Spartans re­tained the old order of things that existed in the days of Homer, even in the fifth century B.C. The most strik­ing of these survivals was the dual kingship.

The mechanism of the Spartan constitution com­prised four distinct parts two Kings, Council called Gerusia,. Assembly called Apella and Five Overseers called the Ephors.

There were two kings at Sparta simultaneously. Union of two distinct communities with their kings per­haps was the origin of the dual kingship that existed in Sparta. The system was by itself one of checks and balances, one acting as a check on the other. The original powers of the kings in Sparta were abolished but not the institution.


They were reduced to a mere magistracy. It must have been the result of the general trend of transformation of kingship into aristocratic republics in different parts of Greece. Of their original powers and functions only some were retained. It was the privilege of the kings to offer Solemn sacrifices for the city to Apollo, to hold certain priesthoods. They would also offer necessary sacrifices before a war or anything of great importance. They were the high- priests.

As the supreme commanders of the army, they had the power of declaring war or peace, and to lead armies to battles and to have powers of life and death while in the battle-field. It was the custom to send one of the two kings to the battle-field and the other to remain in the city.

Their functions as judges were limited to judging cases relating to adoption, marriage and public roads.

Socially, the kings had the highest honour. In public ceremonies they had the highest place of honour. In banquets they occupied the first seats, were served first. On death they were shown highest honour. Horsemen would carry the information of the kings death all over the country and mourning dress would be worn by a man and a woman of each family. The kings were succeeded by their eldest sons. In case of failure of an heir the nearest male would succeed.


Next to the king was the Council of Elders called Gerusia consisting of thirty members including two Kings as ex-officio. The other twenty-eight members must be of sixty years of age. They held office for life and chosen by the General Assembly of the people. Persons of high integrity and moral virtues would be chosen and, in fact, it was in recognition of merits that one would be chosen a member. It was in the nature of an advisory body.

It prepared matters which were to come before the Popular Assembly, held a great influence over the political affairs of the country and functioned as highest criminal court. But most peculiar feature of the council was that which its members were chosen by the people, they were not to be chosen from the people. They must be men of noble birth. This gave an oligarchical touch to the Spartan constitution.

The General Assembly of the people comprised all persons who had attained the age of thirty. It was called Apella. The Assembly, however, had no power of initiative or debate. It could either approve of or reject a proposal placed before it by the kings or ephors. The sessions of the Assembly could be summoned originally by the kings but later on by the Ephors.

Election of magistrates, members of the Gerusia, deter­mining the questions of peace and war, and foreign politics fell within their competence. They also decided questions of disputed succession to the kingship. The decision of the Apella was supreme. But in case a wrong decision was taken by the Assembly, the Gerusia or the Ephors had the power to annul it.


The most characteristic part of the Spartan consti­tution was the institution of Five Ephors. How this institution had originated is not known. It is possible that in a struggle for power between the people on the one hand and the kings and the nobility on the other, the institution of Five Ephors as representatives of the people emerged.

That the Ephors were representatives of the people can be understood from their election by the people, from all the Spartans. They were the guardians of the rights of the people, they watched the conduct of the kings, accompanied the king in times of war, could call the kings to appear before them to explain their conduct.

They also shared the judicial functions, originally belonging to the kings, with the Gerusia. The Ephors constituted the highest civil court. In certain cases they could also try criminal cases. They were particularly responsible for the maintenance of order and discipline among the people.

The nature of the Spartan constitution was such as would not admit of being called either a kingship, oligarchy or democracy. In fact it was a mixture of all the three. Ostensibly it was a kingship as- there were two kings at the head, constitutionally it was a demo­cracy as the Apella or the Popular Assembly was sup­reme. But in reality it was oligarchic as the Council of Elders drawn from the nobility exercised important influence on politics and could override the decisions of the Assembly. It was a mixed constitution.