Meet the Spartans

Men dressed as ancient Greek warriors stand in front of the parliament building during a performance in Athens, Greece, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

There are good reasons for the widespread impression, in antiquity as well as modernity, that Sparta was in fact an oligarchy.

November-December 2017

The story gives us an unusual glimpse into the interior of Spartan life. The degree of the ephors’ alarm is noteworthy; they even alerted a cavalry regiment in the event that the arrest did not go smoothly. The men arrested were roughly dealt with, as the ephors had unrestricted power to deal with malcontents. They could commandeer army detachments in an emergency. Social tensions were clearly simmering beneath the placid surface of Spartan unanimity in opinion and feeling, for which Rahe has immense respect. “Without this chapter,” writes George Cawkwell, “the obscurity surrounding ancient Sparta would be ten times more opaque.” Mentioning it would have put flesh and blood on what are, in many instances, Rahe’s rather abstract musings on the Spartan polity. It would have complicated his picture of a Sparta undisturbed by the social conflicts endemic to the Greek poleis. The story does demonstrate the effects of the intense competitiveness—the love of honor—about which Rahe is quite perceptive. For there to be winners, there also had to be losers who would nurse their grievances. Cinadon might well have been one of those expelled from the syssitia, the common meals central to Spartiate existence, for falling beneath the minimum property qualification. The Equals, that is, were not equal. Inequalities in wealth and status steadily increased, owing to heredity laws, as land holdings became ever more concentrated. Cinadon and the Inferiors whom he hoped to enlist in his little vendetta might have been the victims of this system, in which collectivization of the activities of life rested on the retention of private property, and entry into the seigneurial class was conditional on such property. Such “social” facts pass through the filter of Rahe’s “primacy of politics.”

WHY RAHE, who makes no secret of his social conservatism, should feel any affection whatsoever for a system that relegated the family to a secondary role, that separated boys from the family at a tender age to harden them for military service, and that made pederastic attachments more emotionally satisfying than those of man and wife, is puzzling. A tentative answer may be found in his preoccupation with stasis, or factionalism, which he shares with the ancient sources. The Greek polis was riven by factions, coalescing at times around charismatic personalities, and usually setting rich and poor at each other’s throats. Oligarchs and democrats might hate each other more than they did the city’s foreign enemies. Rahe reminds his readers that stasis was very much on Madison’s mind when he proposed his celebrated remedy in Federalist 10. Madison proposed that instead of trying to cure the causes of faction, one might treat its effects. A multiplicity of factions in a territorially extended republic would prevent any one from gaining the power to oppress the rest. Interest would be stymied by interest. Alas, the slave interest was not to be contained by such essentially mechanical expedients, and Madison’s solution could not avert the Civil War. Rahe wishes to do Madison one better by looking back to Sparta. Here was no reliance on effects; by creating a uniformity of feeling and opinion, on the analogy of Rousseau’s general will, Sparta eradicated the very causes of faction. The band of brothers, so close that they might at times engage in wife-swapping, would at all times share opinions.

Rahe sees not just the fierce Spartan educational routine producing unanimity of thought and feeling, but also the mixed regime as an antidote to stasis. All larger interests are, so to speak, represented. The two kings, descended from the Panhellenic hero Heracles, exuding an aura of divinity, are obviously the monarchical element. In historical times, they functioned primarily as military leaders outside the boundaries of the polis; within, their duties were in the main ceremonial. This is why they played no part in quashing the conspiracy of Cinadon. The Gerousia, a council of twenty-eight experienced Spartiates along with the two kings, formed the aristocratic element. Its members, all over sixty years old, seem to have set policy and the general direction of the polis. Rahe, drawing on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, stresses the moderation of the old in tamping down the revolutionary and reformist impulses of the young (where would Bernie Sanders fit in?). These two instances must still be supplemented by a third, namely the board of five ephors elected annually, in contrast to the life terms of the Elders. Here is the democratic element. The ephors were a later addition to the politeia, introduced as a counterweight to the kings, from whom they extract a monthly oath “to rule,” Xenophon writes, “according to the city’s established laws.” He further notes that “everyone rises from their place for a king, except ephors from their chairs of office.” In exceptional circumstances, they might prosecute and imprison a king.