The Lacedemonian constitution, its politeia, is probably one of the most common topics in the study of ancient Sparta. However, in spite of evident advances in the knowledge of the archaic history of Sparta, the problem of its origin continues to be unsatisfactorily solved. The confluence of traditions, in many cases late, the biased view of Sparta’s enemies, or the idealized look of their unconditional admirers have muddled considerably the discussion. If the “Lycurgus matter”, the problem of the double kingship and the role of the ephors are added, the overall result could not be more discouraging.
Thommen’s book, arising from his 1995 Habilitationschrift, tries to dissect the different terms of the problem in order to shed some light on the origin and development of the Lakedaimonion politeia. T. proceeds in an extremely analytical way, advancing slowly but confidently through the heap of information and traditions accumulated throughout the centuries. This is why he pays special attention to the greater or smaller proximity of the sources to the facts they provide, clearly distinguishing the nature of the transmitted information.
In the “Einleitung” T. approaches the state of the research, introducing short status quaestionis about topics such as Lycurgus, the relationship between the kings and the ephors, the political institutions of Sparta, and the particularities of the Spartan polis. Also T. alludes to new perspectives in the study of archaic Sparta, such as those provided by new advances in the knowledge of oral tradition, or the application of the anthropological model. One of the strong points of this first approach is T.’s suggestion that Spartan nobility may have played a much more important role than customarily believed. From then on T. develops a clearly evolutionary vision of the Spartan political system and, we could add, one that is very far from treating archaic Sparta as an exceptional case. Ehrenberg would incorporate, in a certain way, this old vision. 1
It is at this point that T. presents the basic goals of his book. After consulting the sources on the genesis of the polis and its organs, T. is interested in providing the answer to a basic question: “welche Betätigungsmöglichkeiten sich für ambitionerte Spartiaten ergaben und wie deren Machtansprüche in den Staat eingebunden werden konnten”. As T. recognizes, behind this vision lay the contemporary role of the aristocracy in the shaping of the polis in Athens. 2 This approach, therefore, allows T. to establish a basic hypothesis, to be developed in the rest of the book: The Spartan constitution cannot be considered as the work of a single reformer but has to be explained as the result of a long historical process.
T.’s method includes a comparison between the most ancient traditions (Tyrtaeus, Alcman) and the subsequent ones (Herodotus, Thucydides) in order to provide understanding of what happened in Sparta during the seventh century, when Sparta established a solid control over southern Peloponnese, as well as the relationship between Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. T. considers the League more a starting point in the shaping of the Spartan constitution rather than an ending point. This means that, in T.’s opinion, the typical features of the Spartan system, traditionally dated from mid-sixth century, should correspond to a somewhat later time. This hypothesis forces us to see in a different light the role of the ephorate during the sixth century, as well as Chilon’s paper, the role of the kingship and, lastly, the definition itself of the Spartan citizenship as a group of equal people or homoioi. This last point corresponds already, according to T., to the age after the Persian Wars.
The rest of the “Einleitung” is devoted to giving a rapid presentation of the sources. Among them, T. emphasises Herodotus, in spite of the fact that in his work abundant features of the oral tradition survive, and with them the danger of the constant “update” of such a tradition. 3
Chapter 1, “Eunomia: Herrschaftssicherung durch ‘Verfassungsgebung'”, begins with the analysis of the tradition represented by Herodotus (1.65). For T., this shows the consolidation, at the time in which the Halicarnassian writes, of the tradition of an unchanging constitution. Equally, Sparta appears to be already at that moment, that is, mid-fifth century, a model and prototype of a politically stable organization. T. gives an interesting appraisal of the fact that a good part of the episodes which compose the image of this ancient Sparta can serve to legitimate the position of certain noble families of fifth-century Sparta, linked to the ruling circles of other contemporary Greek poleis. Thucydides’ position (especially Thuc. 1.18.1) is not too different.
The second part of the chapter is devoted to the analysis of Tyrtaeus and Alcman. After arguing in favour of a similar chronology for the two poets (second half and last quarter of the seventh century, respectively), T. introduces Tyrtaeus’ poem Eunomia (fr. 14G-P=3aD). Interestingly, in the tradition represented by Tyrtaeus, and as compared to that represented by Plutarch ( Lyc. 6.10), the first political ordering of the Spartan citizenship is related to Delphi and has nothing to do with Lycurgus. As a consequence, “Lykurg kann freilich … nicht als historische Person gesichert werden”. This early rejection of the figure of Lycurgus allows T. to enter fully into the main topic, the Spartan constitution. T. is not solving, however, what remains of the “problem of Lycurgus”, that is, how, when and, above all, why he will be converted into the individual who personified the reform.
In connection with the oracle of Apollo comes the so-called “Great Rhetra” (Plut., Lyc. 6.2). T. accepts its genuineness, in agreement with most scholars, although suggesting that Tyrtaeus does not transmit literally the text of the oracle, but an outline, intended to serve as an ideological support to the Spartan citizens in the war against the Messenians. Viewing the sanctuary of Apollo as interested in supporting the social organization implicit in the “Great Rhetra” makes a quite commendable and suggestive scenario. The problem of an early date for this change, the eighth-century, is solved by T. dating it to the age of Tyrtaeus himself: “eine Datierung in die Mitte des (7.) Jahrhunderts am plausibelsten ist”.
T. then studies the political institutions depicted in the “Great Rhetra”, beginning with the kingship. T.’s vision is very suggestive; the political supremacy of the two kings, and of their corresponding families, means they are to remain, in a certain way, outside of the political struggle. Consequently, an important source of tension disappears, as opposed to other contemporary Greek poleis. I believe that we can see here a clear consequence of the previously mentioned approach which T. takes to Spartan history, in which the aristocratic circles acquire an importance greater than is traditionally attributed to them. In the same way, the gerusia, established on a new basis and integrated with the two kings, fulfills in good part the aspirations of the main families, the only ones who could accede to the same. As the gerousia presides over the Assembly of the People, and in spite of the fact that its right to veto is not wholly credited, its political preeminence is certain. The principal innovation of the Assembly is that it is institutionalized and its meetings do not depend any more on the will of the kings (as did the Homeric assemblies). Although with limited powers (it cannot promote laws, only approve those proposed by the gerousia), the constitution creates a certain balance of power. In T.’s opinion, the main objective is to avoid abuse of the popular Assembly by certain members of the aristocracy.
The Great Rhetra is, for T., the definitive document of the constitution and its principal achievement seems to have been to end the aristocratic factions, which in other poleis made use of the demos in their power struggles, and to prevent tyranny. T. observes that this new order does not imply meaningful changes in the traditional aristocratic way of life, as Alcman’s poems also show. Furthermore, it is possible that T. is right when he suggests that this new order avoided an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the aristocrats and an abusive land accumulation as a consequence of the conquest and allotment of Messenia. Their preeminence in the system itself would prevent, according to T., the abuse.
The Rhetra does not seem to have anticipated a new type of military order or to have promoted the integration of different groups in the phalanx. The concept of homoioi, applied to the ensemble of the Spartan citizens, would not seem to correspond to this period. In the same way, the Rhetra does not contain references to the perioikoi, and the testimonia on the Helots (and/or subdued Messenians) are not relevant.
Chapter 2, “Herrschaftsrationalisierung im Peloponnesischen Bund und Lakedaimonischen Staat” deals with a time customarily considered fundamental in the development of the Spartan constitution, namely, mid-sixth century, when decisive steps were taken in connection with the constitution of the Peloponnesian League. This chapter analyzes how the long process of configuration of such a League contributed to the modification of the internal organization of Sparta. However, after analysing some of the principal milestones of that process (Arcadia and Tegea, Helike, Argos, the Tyreatis), T. concludes that the gradual process of shaping of the League is not a part of a wider process of reforms; nor can it be attributed to the actions of a single individual, a Neugründer, to use the term already coined by Ehrenberg. 4
Among the changes introduced in Sparta by the formation of the League, T. emphasises the possible creation of an elite body, possibly including the most select citizens ( Hippeis and Agathoergoi); T. explains its creation as a means in the hands of the most ambitious Spartiates of acting on behalf of the polis, and establishing international contacts, in their own interests. In the same way, the increase of the control over the perioikoic cities and increasing relations with the allies provoked a greater number of Spartan citizens to participate actively in the service of Sparta. However, there was no increase in their weight or in their presence in the Council or in the Assembly, but rather their actions developed within structures of a military sort. In the same way, the ephorate developed, according to T., as a consequence of the Spartan needs of more personnel to attend to the commitments generated by the new situation as the head of the League. Finally, the Spartan Assembly would also benefit as a result of this process.
In order to complete the perspective, T. provides a rapid review of the issues of the presumed change of mentality in mid-sixth century and the shaping of a new order, only to reject it. The emergence of a new politics and of new individuals as well as of new mechanisms can be observed only, T. maintains, from fifth century onwards.
Chapter 3, “Der Aufstieg des Ephorats”, is devoted to this fundamental office, whose importance was be created through the use given to it by the aristocrats, as an instrument in the political struggle. After dismissing as a later construct the presumption that Chilon may have been the first ephor, and rejecting the origin of the magistracy as being in the eighth century, T. asserts that the ephorate in fact emerged in the second half of the sixth century and that the origin of the ephorate was in function of the needs of the League, stressing the role of the ephors as collaborators of the gerontes and the leadership that they exercise on the Assembly. As might be expected, and in opposition to previous opinions, the social origin of the ephors must be sought not in the damos but, on the contrary, in well situated aristocratic families. T. argues convincingly that the ephorate was a means used by aristocratic groups to obtain a position of power within the polis and won a leading position as a consequence of the creation of the League.
In chapter 4, “Die Einbindung des Königtums” the role of the kings in this changing world is addressed. From the complex story told by Herodotus (6.56 ff.) T. observes that in spite of the many honours (
The Persian Wars are addressed in Chapter 5, “Neue Führungsaufgaben und Kontrollmechanismen in den Perserkriegen”. In T.’s opinion, it was at this moment, and immediately after the wars, that the most important developments which were to determine the radical transformation of the Spartan constitution took place. The war with the Persians, in which Spartans were not initially interested, brought about the creation of new military offices, forcing Sparta to take on new coordination duties and increasing the influence of the ephors. Of the new offices T. stresses the polemarch and the nauarch, which, due to the war, required a period of duty greater than a year. The creation of military offices detached from the kings and the vast amount of work of coordination required, explains for T. the great development of the ephorate at this moment. Thus, and this is one of T.’s main suggestions throughout the book, the increase of the ephorate would not be explained by struggles and internal conflicts but, on the contrary, by the requirements of the extensive Spartan foreign policy. Furthermore, the case of the regent Pausanias shows that, on one hand, the royal power could be delegated and could assume the character of a magistracy; on the other hand, this mandate provided curious novelties: he had a lieutenant and he was accompanied by a delegation of ephors whose job was to look after him. The Spartan victory in the Persian Wars and the development of a wide foreign policy deepened some of the developments caused by the war and introduced a new image of Sparta. It was during this time, immediately subsequent to the victory that, for T., the idea of the existence of an ancestral constitution, which would be attributed to Lycurgus, developed.
In the last chapter, “Krisensymptome und Machtbewährung zur Zeit der Pentekontätie”, T. discusses how those ideas rising after the Persian rout were established. During the Pentecontaetia the different social groups, coordinated by the ephors, established a new political framework in which the gerousia, composed by the most outstanding members of the ruling families, played a very important role; equally, the ephorate is reinforced, as its eponymous character from mid-fifth century shows. All this was detrimental to the damos, which had no political opening and was forced to submit to the ruling groups. The great earthquake of the 460s represents, in T.’s opinion, the very moment in which all the previously mentioned ingredients combined to give birth to the stereotyped image of Sparta. The problems in foreign policy, the Helot danger and the issue of the citizenship will find solution in these years: the redefinition of citizenship in mid-fifth century, with the agoge acting as the instrument of integration, the development of the clearly military ideology of the homoioi, the establishment of measures to be used against the Helots ( krypteia) and the recurrence to the ideal of Lycurgus and Leonidas. T. discusses each one of these aspects in order to argue for a transfer of behaviour from the field of individuality to the collective, as well as to a self-discipline of the citizenship. The myth of the xenelasia, documented only in some isolated instances, confirms that drastic change in the mid-fifth century, made in order to increase the cohesion of its citizens and to prevent abuse of power.
The reconstruction of the Lakedaimonion politeia accomplished by T. is, undoubtedly, suggestive. Maybe the events of the sixth century are somewhat minimised and the importance of Chilon greater than suggested by T.; Cleomenes’ III reign and its abundant new features have certainly aroused changes at least as important as those which took place in mid-fifth century. T.’s vision of the Peloponnesian League is maybe too rigid and organised for the sixth-century; it is possible that some military offices were created previous to the fifth-century, such as the nauarchy. The interest in maritime matters must certainly be related to Dorieus’ expedition, which was perhaps more meaningful for Sparta than has been conceded by T. Besides, it is somewhat problematic that the “new” configuration of Sparta, dated only some decades back according to T., acquired in Herodotus the appearance of a remote antiquity; it would seem that Herodotus would have had as informers only the representatives of the Spartan “official truth”, a situation which was not without problems.
Nevertheless, the main advantage of T.’s vision is that it places the archaic history of Sparta within normal parameters, as compared to the exceptional qualities supposed by the traditional vision; the great earthquake of 460s, traditionally considered to be of great importance in terms of the relationships between the Spartan polis, the Helots and the Messenians, is converted by T. into being the turning point in the development of the mythical image of Sparta, which will last throughout the centuries. This is not impossible, but even from T.’s analysis, I believe that a good deal of the base of that image was already laid in the last part of the sixth-century and that maybe the role of that earthquake has been magnified on occasion. Lastly (and in the future) it will be necessary to add other components to the study of the Spartan polis and its relationship with its territory. Once the first results of the Lakonia Survey became available, they will allow some observations on the role of the perioikoi, also fundamental in terms of the definition of the Spartan citizenship. 5
In short, T.’s book solves with intelligence some of the most discussed questions on archaic Sparta; whether or not all his proposals be accepted, there is in it a series of absolutely convincing interpretations which permit a reappraisal of the problem of the origin of the Spartan constitution on new grounds.
In terms of the formal presentation, some maps of places mentioned in the text would be very useful. Concerning misprints I have only detected three: “köngliche” instead “königliche” (p. 81), “Konrinther” instead “Korinther” (p. 127) and “Erbeben” instead “Erdbeben” (p. 129).
1. V. Ehrenberg, “Spartiaten und Lakedaimonier”, Hermes 59, 1924, 23 f.
2. Stahl, M. Aristokraten und Tyrannen im archaischen Athen. Untersuchungen zur Überlieferung, zur Sozialstruktur und zur Entstehung des Staates (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1987); Stein-Hoelkeskamp, E. Adelskultur und Polisgesellschaft: Studien zum griechischen Adel in archaischen und klassischer Zeit (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1989).
3. On the issue of oral tradition, it would have been of interest to deal with works not included in the bibliography, especially Thomas, R. Oral tradition and written record in classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Id. Literacy and orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
4. Ehrenberg, V. Neugründer des Staates. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte Spartas und Athens im VI. Jahrhundert (Munich: Beck, 1925).
5. Cavanagh, W.; Crouwel, J.; Catling, R.W.V.; Shipley, G. Continuity and change in a Greek Rural Landscape. The Laconia Survey. II. Archaeological Data (London: BSA, 1996); on the perioikoi see Shipley, G. “PERIOIKOS: the discovery of classical Lakonia”. PHILOLAKON. Lakonian Studies in Honour of Hector Catling. (London: BSA, 1992), 211-226.