Aristotle Takes a Close Look at Spartan Government

Aristotle is taking a close look at the constitution of the Lacedaemonians. Yesterday I noted how he had worked with the assumption that the ruling class founds states and establishes their laws and constitutions for their own benefit, not for that of the people as a whole, and some of the consequences of this assumption.


Today I’ll review some of his specific observations about Lacedaemonian political culture.

Spartan Women

The Spartan constitution regulates the lives of men carefully, in part because of the strong importance Sparta places on its military. Women on the other hand are left to their own devices, and as a result “live intemperately, enjoying every license and indulging in every luxury.”

In a paragraph I found hard to parse, he seemed to be saying that Sparta’s relative discouragement of homosexuality but enthusiasm for sex in general might be part of its problem here. (Aristotle thinks there may be a correlation between how war-like a people is and how enthusiastic about sex it is.) That state of affairs gives women more power over men, so that even if Sparta’s rulers were men, those men were in turn ruled over by their wives. Since the women of Sparta esteemed wealth and luxury, this had a coarsening effect on political life in general, and undermined the military virtues Sparta intended to encourage in its leadership.

This dominance of women is exacerbated when men are off on military campaigns and cannot participate in civic life. And it is also encouraged by men being brought up to a military attitude of obedience that makes them more apt to acquiesce to the law than women are. “It is said that Lycurgus endeavoured to bring [women] under the control of his laws, but that when they resisted he gave up the attempt.”

Economic Inequality

“[S]ome Spartans have come to have far too many possessions, others very few indeed; hence the land has fallen into the hands of a small number.” This, Aristotle blames in part on the female-driven over-honoring of wealth in society, partially on neglect in legislation that permits people to divest themselves of their property too easily, and partially on problems with the way inheritance and dowries are misregulated.

In any case, the upshot is that fewer men can be supported on the land because so much of it is owned by the rich. This means there are fewer military-aged males around to defend the state (thus, says Aristotle, Sparta’s catastrophic loss at the battle of Leuctra), and the government has been reduced to offering tax incentives for people who have many children in order to boost the population.

Aristotle notes that the concentration of property in a strata of rich Spartans has also created trouble for the public treasury. The main taxpayers are also the politically powerful wealthy and as a result “are very bad at paying taxes… [as] they do not inquire too closely into each other’s contributions.”

The Structure of Lacedaemonian Government

Elements of Lacedaemonian government include:

  • The Ephors — Five Ephors were elected each year by the citizens. They had “wide executive and judicial powers [and] exercised close control over the conduct of the kings” (says T.J. Saunders).
  • The Board of Elders — 28 older aristocrats, plus the Kings. It “possessed extensive judicial and administrative functions” (T.J.S.) including setting the agenda for the popular assembly.
  • The Kings — Two of them, from two separate royal houses, in a set-up whose rivalries seem to have had some advantages in curbing the excesses of the executive function.
  • The Common Meals — these were daily meals that were obligatory for all Spartan citizens of whatever rank, and were one way of defining citizenship.
  • The Admiralty — ostensibly restricted to military leadership, it also seems to have exercised some general political power

The Ephors

A big problem with the Ephors, Aristotle says, is that they were elected by and from the population at large (and in a manner Aristotle describes as “quite childish”). As a result, poor people are sometimes elected, and their poverty makes them vulnerable to bribery. The Ephors are very politically powerful, such that “even the Spartan Kings were forced to curry favour with them,” and this makes Sparta vulnerable to the various defects of democracy.

However, the upside to this institution is that “the people are kept quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office,” and this contributes to stability. (The aristocracy have the Board of Elders, and the Kings have the monarchy, so everybody has a seat at the constitutional table that seems to them appropriate to their stature.)

The Board of Elders

Aristotle isn’t sold on the whole “elders” part of this, saying that “the mind grows old no less than the body,” and so a board of people picked on account of their advanced age may not have the mental chops to deal with their responsibilities. In fact, Aristotle says, the character of the Elders has been notoriously bad, and the board has not been adequately kept in check by other branches of government.

Furthermore, instead of the board being chosen by selecting the elders with the best character, people campaign for office, and thus you end up with a board of ambitious people who play off of the ambitions of the citizenry rather than looking to the health of the state.

The Kings

Aristotle doesn’t think much of the paired-kings of Sparta. Hereditary monarchy is no way to choose suitable rulers, and clearly the Spartans don’t trust them themselves — they make sure “to send their personal enemies to accompany them as ambassadors” and maintain two rival kingships so neither one of them is really in charge.

I’m reminded by this how in the original United States Constitution, the vice president was the person who came in second place in the election for president. This originally meant that the president and vice president would likely be of rival factions. I wonder if one of the motives for this was to provide a check on the executive branch.

The Common Meals

Aristotle notes that because the cost of these meals was not paid for out of the public treasury but by requiring an equal payment by all attendees, this forced poorer people out of the meals and therefore cost them their voting citizenship. This turned what was designed to be a democratic assembly into an exclusionary club for the economically well-off and so spoiled its purpose.

The Admiralty

Aristotle briefly notes that the Lacedaemonian Admiralty had become “almost another Kingship” (the Kings were the ostensible commanders in chief of the armed forces) and that this had become “a cause of faction.”

Additional Notes

Aristotle again notes the importance of instilling the virtues in the citizenry in order to have a healthy state. Because Sparta was so oriented around its military and military-oriented virtues, it tended to neglect the more complete set of virtues. As a result, Aristotle says, “the Spartans were stable enough while at war but began to decline once they reached a position of supremacy; they did not understand how to be at leisure.”

In addition, while they were mature enough in their understanding of virtue to understand “that the good things which men fight to get are to be won more by virtue than by vice,” they made the mistake of prizing those good things higher than the virtues, getting this exactly backwards.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics