BMCR 2001.07.26

Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta

, Property and wealth in classical Sparta. London: Duckworth, 2000. xiii, 498 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715630407. $59.50.

In a series of important articles on Spartan social, economic, and cultural history published over the past two decades, Stephen Hodkinson has established a reputation as one of the pre-eminent authorities on classical Sparta.1 This excellent book provides a coherent, systematic study of Spartan society and economy that revises and deepens the arguments of Hodkinson’s earlier scholarship, while introducing new theories and topics. It will be warmly welcomed by Spartanologists, ancient historians, and classical scholars alike.

Despite the quickening pace of Spartan scholarship during the past twenty years and the appearance of several detailed studies of Spartan society and institutions,2 no monograph has provided a systematic analysis of the role that property and wealth played in Spartan society and historical development. Hodkinson has now filled this scholarly lacuna. His comprehensive study reveals just how central issues of property and wealth were to Spartan social, economic, political and cultural structures. By focusing on these significant issues, Hodkinson has shed new light upon almost every facet of Spartiate life, including the basis and nature of Spartiate citizenship; relations between both rich and poor Spartiates and the Spartiates and the other populations of classical Lakonia and Messenia; Spartiate funerary, inheritance, and marital practices; the changing position of women in Spartan society; and the mechanics of Spartan political and social patronage. This book, however, does not merely pose a series of important questions about the overall character of Spartan society and historical development. Hodkinson also uses the issues of wealth and property to construct an analysis of classical Sparta that explains both its long-standing external success from c. 550 to 371 BCE and its rapid decline to the rank of a second-rate polis following its defeat at Leuctra.

Hodkinson brings special qualities to these tasks, for he combines a mastery of both the ancient evidence and secondary literature with a clearly elucidated methodology that is unusually wide-ranging in comparison with other studies of the ancient world. As Hodkinson states in his Introduction (p. 7), he is interested in providing a more rounded portrait of Sparta, one that permits his readers to view this complex society both in the context of other Greek poleis and historical developments, as well as in relation to other societies separated from Sparta by both space and time. In order to view Sparta in this broader, comparative context, Hodkinson does not rely solely on traditional historiographical techniques to approach his varied evidence (literary, archaeological, epigraphic, and numismatic). Instead, he also draws on the methods of intellectual history, comparative sociology, physical geography and geomorphology, statistical analysis of the material record, and the use of historical simulation. This book thus marries a good deal of modern theory—judiciously applied—with a careful interpretation of the ancient evidence. The result is a work that will appeal on many levels to anyone interested not only in Spartan history but also, more broadly, in Greek social, economic, political, and cultural history.

The book’s structure is straightforward and takes the reader through the diverse contexts of Spartiate life, each of which demonstrates the impact of property and wealth in a different light. After an introductory chapter, Hodkinson presents thirteen chapters, which are divided into four main sections. Part I, “Spartan Perceptions,” sets the stage by outlining and analyzing problematic images of Sparta’s property system and attitudes towards wealth that have prevailed since ancient times and have shaped modern interpretations of classical Spartan society. Chapter One traces, clarifies and systematizes modern views on Spartan economic egalitarianism and communitarianism from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Chapter Two moves the reader from modern preconceptions back to the ancient sources and demonstrates that early sources on Spartan society, especially Herodotus and Thucydides, provide evidence of neither egalitarianism nor communism. These sources, on the contrary, clearly reveal the inequality of wealth that operated in classical Sparta. Hodkinson then traces the development of the image of Sparta as a state with a unique property system and set of attitudes towards wealth from the end of the fifth century BCE to Plutarch’s second-century CE Parallel Lives. Hodkinson’s careful analysis of the “invented tradition” of Sparta’s egalitarian property arrangements reveals the complex emergence of a stereotype that continues to obfuscate Spartan studies today. The stereotype arose in the context of late-fifth-century upper-class Athenians’ disenchantment with democracy and the growing philosophical interest in the nature of the ideal state. The idealized image of Sparta’s property system was further stimulated by fourth-century moralizing explanations of Sparta’s internal crisis and international decline (especially in Ephorus). Later, it was immeasurably enhanced by both Hellenistic moral philosophy and the propagandists of the third-century revolution in Sparta, who justified their egalitarian reforms by claiming that they were simply a restoration of the Lycurgan measures that operated in classical Sparta. As Hodkinson cogently argues, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives ultimately combined the diverse images of Sparta’s property system into the pervasive portrait of Sparta as an austere society in which male citizens possessed equal landholdings and disdained material possessions.

In Part II, “The Anatomy of the Spartiate Property System,” Hodkinson provides an exhaustive treatment of Spartan property-holding and concludes that it was private in character and fundamentally inequitable. Chapter Three begins to cut away at the mirage of Spartan egalitarianism and communitarianism.3 It first addresses the mass of evidence that indicates the unequal distribution of wealth in sixth- and fifth-century Sparta. Hodkinson rightly notes the importance of such evidence as Herodotus’ description of Sperthias’ and Boulis’ wealthy families (7.134) and fifth-century accounts of Spartiates who owned victorious Olympic chariot-race teams (cf. Hdt. 6.70, 103; Thuc. 5.50). These and other glimpses of the private and unequal character of land-ownership ante-date the alleged rhetra of Epitadeus, which supposedly undermined the equality of Spartan landholdings and controls over inheritance in the early fourth century (Plut. Agis 5) and which Hodkinson and others have effectively refuted as an unhistorical third-century invention.4

Hodkinson then deals a major blow to the stereotyped picture of Spartan land tenure and inheritance presented by Plutarch and his modern adherents. Instead of the traditional portrait of a property system in which the Spartan state administered indivisible, inalienable, equal allotments ( kleroi), which were owned by male citizens but reverted back to the state at death or succession by primogeniture, Hodkinson reveals a flexible system of land tenure and inheritance that was less fundamentally different from those operating in other Greek poleis than scholars have long postulated. He demonstrates that private landed property was passed down within the family by means of partible inheritance, with daughters inheriting as well as sons through a system of universal female inheritance that Hodkinson also refers to as a “diverging pattern of devolution.” As Hodkinson shows, Spartiate marriage patterns, such as uterine half-sibling unions and royal marriages between close blood relations, closely parallel marital practices found in other societies in which a diverging pattern of devolution operates. Moreover, individual Spartiate citizens could also alienate the private landholdings they possessed through a variety of means, including testamentary bequests and the betrothal of hieresses.

By providing this richer, more nuanced, and historically cogent portrait of Spartiate land tenure, Hodkinson opens a whole new field of historical inquiry. He demonstrates the extent to which Sparta’s property system and the role of wealth shaped Spartan history during the classical period and led to the declining number of citizen households, a development that eventually cost Sparta its relatively short-lived hegemony in the Aegean.

Chapter Four investigates helotage and the Spartiates’ economic exploitation of their territory. The first part of the chapter explores the nature of the Spartiates’ control over the helots, who, through the agricultural labor that was their basic servile function and the agricultural tribute that they paid to their masters, not only underpinned the Spartan property system but also formed the essential foundation of Spartan society. Other scholars have largely focused on the political and social relationships between Spartiates and helots. Hodkinson, by contrast, primarily investigates their relationship as landowners and cultivators as well as the nature of the Spartiates’ economic exploitation of the subject helot population.

The second part of the chapter turns to a detailed consideration of the character, geographical location, and extent of Spartiate landholdings in Lakonia and Messenia. Approaching the relationship between Spartiates and helots from the comparative perspective of both other slave societies and systems of dependent labor, Hodkinson provides a rich portrait of the economic interdependence of Spartiate owners and their helot cultivators. He shows that the helots’ complex role as both the private property of individual Spartiates and subjects of significant communal domination significantly limited the Spartiates’ mastery over the labor force that ensured their citizen status.5 As Hodkinson demonstrates, the helots normally remained attached to the holdings that they cultivated rather than to particular Spartiates. They also provided their masters with a proportional share (50%) of the crops that they farmed on Spartiate estates. These arrangements safeguarded helot subsistence and created long-term mutual interdependence between landowner and cultivator. According to Hodkinson’s careful estimates of a host of variables, including local geology, geomorphology, and soil type, these estates, which were widely dispersed throughout both Lakonian and Messenian territory, were devoted to arable culture, viticulture, arboriculture, and animal husbandry.

Chapter Five examines the Spartiates’ rights of private ownership over and use of various kinds of movable wealth. It tackles the controversial issues of Sparta’s infamous iron currency, the state’s and individual Spartiates’ possession of foreign coinage, and the roles of monetary, market, and other forms of economic exchange in Spartan society. As Hodkinson shows, the Spartiate property system may have been based on citizen ownership of land, but it also embraced the legitimate possession of different kinds of movable wealth. The evidence from classical sources indicates that both the Spartan state and individual Spartiate citizens could, except during a brief period after 404, possess, acquire, and dispose of a wide range of items of movable wealth, including precious metal bullion and foreign currency.

Hodkinson’s discussion of Sparta’s abstention from coining further challenges the traditional view of Spartan isolation from general Greek culture by showing that Spartan practice was far from unusual. According to Hodkinson, Sparta’s abstention from coinage was determined by its socio-economic structure, characterized by, among other things, a landed agrarian elite, an indigenous servile labor force bound to the soil, a conscripted hoplite army, and access to the widespread Aeginetan currency.6

In the latter part of the chapter Hodkinson deals with the connected issues of the acquisition, generation, and exchange of movable and monetary wealth. He concludes that the right to participate in market exchange was a central privilege of Spartiate citizenship (p. 180; cf. Thuc. 5.34). Hodkinson also shows that various forms of movable wealth played important roles in social transactions (such as gift-giving), as well as in commercial exchanges among the Spartiates themselves and also between Spartiates and non-Spartiates (cf. Xen. Hell. 3.3.5).

Chapter Six considers public limitations on private property ownership. As Hodkinson emphasized in earlier chapters, the Spartan polis freed and killed helots without reference to their individual Spartiate masters and also limited the proportion of agricultural produce that citizens could draw from their holdings. In this chapter, he extends his analysis of communal rights over individually-held property by looking at the mechanisms by which either the polis or its constituents could further limit a citizen family’s material resources: taxation of citizen property, levies upon agricultural produce, communal rights to the use of private property, and Spartiate boys’ sanctioned practice of theft. Hodkinson argues that such measures collectively established a certain level of public and communal rights and symbolically asserted public rights over private property. Ultimately, however, none of these measures, including each citizen’s contribution of a large surplus of foodstuffs over what he needed for his personal consumption, had any significant redistributive effect. Therefore, they had little or no impact on the unequal distribution of property that would ultimately lead to Sparta’s dramatic decline in the fourth century.

In Part III, “Rich Citizens and the Use of Private Wealth,” Hodkinson explores the extent to which rich citizens were able to exploit their private resources and the impact that their employment of such material resources had upon Spartiate society. This section of the book demonstrates that while the Spartiates enjoyed a common public lifestyle and a similarly egalitarian commemoration of death, elite Spartiates’ possession of significant surplus wealth allowed them to engage in a range of socio-political activities that effectively distanced them from the ordinary citizens who were nominally their “peers.”

Chapter Seven opens this section with an investigation of the restrictions on the deployment of wealth in Spartiate life. As Hodkinson shows, the Spartan polis coupled the inequality of property discussed in the previous chapters with an ideology of citizen equality and community. The tension between these conflicting values was maintained by structural impediments to the use of wealth. The Spartan polis’ socio-political structure denied rich citizens the opportunities to engage in communal patronage and imposed a common public lifestyle, which demanded uniformity of education, food and feasting, equipment, and personal appearance. Such restrictions on the use of wealth extended to the dress of Spartiate women in the classical period, in an attempt to prevent possible displays of wealth through female appearance. Chapter Eight reveals that this basic uniformity of lifestyle extended to Spartiate funerary and burial practices, which were normally austere and provided no opportunities for wealthy citizens to utilize or advertise their wealth. The only exceptions to the Spartiates’ simple, egalitarian burial practices were the funerals of the two kings and, to a lesser degree, fallen warriors.

Chapter Nine examines one sphere in which elite Spartiates could use their surplus wealth: religious expenditure and investment. Capitalizing on the hitherto unexploited archaeological evidence from the major sanctuaries both in Sparta and abroad, Hodkinson focuses on bronze votive offerings, which survive in reasonable quantities. These votives reflect varying degrees of personal expenditure, and they were dedicated by both men and women. Hodkinson’s careful investigation of the surviving archaeological material reveals that during most of the classical period, Spartan men and women expended their wealth on bronze religious votives without any apparent restrictions. The material record also indicates that wealthy Spartiates made significant expenditures on votive offerings at foreign sanctuaries to advertise their position and advance their reputations in ways not open to the mass of Spartiates, whose dedicatory offerings were largely confined to Sparta.

Chapter Ten looks at wealthy Spartiates’ increased participation in and expenditure on equestrian competition in the second half of the fifth and the early fourth centuries. Hodkinson cogently links the upsurge of interest in equestrian pursuits with the growing concentration of landholding among the Spartiate citizen body. Inequalities in land ownership were intensified by the earthquake of c. 464, which brought sizable additional inheritances to many Spartiates, especially wealthy families. According to Hodkinson, the Spartiates’ growing attraction to these competitions also arose from other connected factors, such as the increasing number of wealthy heiresses produced by the earthquake and the consequent competition for economically advantageous marriages, as well as the increasing importance of wealth as a determinant of status and tool for socio-political advancement. In addition to breeding or keeping horses for participation in equestrian events, rich Spartiate equestrian victors deployed their wealth and gained prestige through the dedication of costly victory monuments—including personal statues, all of which were located outside of Sparta before the fourth century. Such victories, Hodkinson notes, not only created ties and reputations abroad but could also enhance the winners’ prominence in Spartan political life, as in the case of the famous Lichas, Olympic victor in 420 and later leading diplomat in the eastern Aegean in 412-411 (Thuc. 8.39, 42-3, 52, 57-8, 84, 87).

Chapter Eleven builds upon Hodkinson’s account of the socio-political advantages gained through equestrian victory with an important discussion of the use of wealth in Spartan personal and political relations. Hodkinson reveals the central role that patron-client relationships played in Sparta and the degree to which patronage rested on the possession and use of property and wealth. Rich Spartiates, he argues, even further distanced themselves from their poorer fellow citizens by using their wealth to establish and maintain a wide variety of patronal relationships with non-citizen dependents, foreign guest-friends, and perioikoi. Most strikingly, bonds of patronage and clientism also filtered into the nominally egalitarian relations linking the Homoioi, as wealthier Spartiates sponsored the offspring of poorer families through the famous “upbringing” and made extra, voluntary donations of foodstuffs to their messes. Hodkinson concludes this chapter with an analysis of Agesilaos II’s deployment of material patronage to create and maintain adherents, which clearly indicates the significant impact of such webs of patronage on Spartiate social and political life in general.

In Part IV, “Property and the Spartan Crisis,” Hodkinson examines the ways in which the inequalities in wealth and the concomitant economic, social, and political gulf that developed between rich Spartiates and their poorer fellow citizens contributed to Sparta’s rapid decline in the early fourth century. Although scholars have long recognized the important role that the increasing inequality of property ownership and consequent shortage of manpower played in the Spartan crisis, Hodkinson is the first scholar to offer a detailed investigation of the important links between changes in the sphere of property and wealth during the fifth and early fourth centuries and Sparta’s loss of influence in the wider Greek world.

Chapter Twelve sets the stage by identifying the economic demands upon Spartiate households and by questioning how successfully they met such demands through the agricultural exploitation of their holdings. Hodkinson attempts the difficult task of quantifying a number of variables, such as the size and consumption needs of citizen households, the extent of their estates, the number of their helot cultivators, and the overall productivity of their holdings. After considering all of these important factors, Hodkinson concludes that the productive capacity of “ordinary” citizen landholdings (approximately 18.41 ha) would normally have been sufficient to meet not only the helots’ (an average of five families) subsistence but also the Spartiates’ needs to maintain their families and the compulsory contributions to the common messes that ensured their citizen status.

Chapter Thirteen reveals how this fundamentally viable system of land ownership, which operated successfully for much of the archaic and classical periods, was gradually weakened by the increasing concentration of wealth and the gulf between elite Spartiates and their poorer “peers.” Hodkinson examines in detail the socio-economic causes and other factors behind the growing impoverishment of poor citizens and the resulting shortage of citizen manpower. He also explores the impact of these historical developments on Spartiate society, focusing on the emergence of a plutocratic society, in which the dominance of rich Spartiates ultimately undermined the ideology of a community of citizen “peers” that had sustained the classical Spartan social order. According to Hodkinson’s analysis, certain Spartiate marriage practices—strong control over female marriage, male monogamy, polyandry, homogamy, and endogamy—contributed to the concentration of property among a restricted group of wealthy lineages. Contingent developments, such as the great earthquake of c. 464 and heavy losses in battle during the fifth century, accelerated both the normal process of property devolution and the growing economic differentiation among the Spartiate citizen body, with the wealthy inheriting more property than their poorer compatriots. This movement of wealth and greater opportunities to contract profitable marriages—especially given the increased number of wealthy heiresses—led to the increased importance of wealth as a determinant of status. These developments in turn accelerated interest in the acquisition of wealth and led to even further concentration of property. All of these trends, Hodkinson notes, contributed to Sparta’s demographic crisis, which was already clearly in evidence by the last quarter of the fifth century and was only further advanced by the Peloponnesian War and Sparta’s imperial aspirations in the early fourth century.7 Concluding the chapter with a discussion of the development of the opposition between an entrenched plutocracy and egalitarian, revolutionary kings in mid-third-century Sparta, Hodkinson brings his reader back full circle to the beginning of his impressive work.

Hodkinson has given us a rich, stimulating book, whose depth of analysis is matched by its ambitious scope of inquiry. I would also like to note the high quality of the book’s production, especially the unusual carefully editing and generous inclusion of graphs, tables, and photographs. My only quibble with the book is a minor one. The material on Spartan women and their role in the economic sphere and the Spartan crisis is spread over a number of chapters, with separate sections on their property rights (pp. 94-103), restrictions on their use of wealth (pp. 226-30), the nature of their burials (pp. 260-62), their dedications of bronze votives (Chapter Nine), Agesilaos II’s sister, Kyniska’s, equestrian monuments (pp. 321-23, 327-28), women’s place in Spartan household economies (chapter 12), the Spartiates’ practice of diverging devolution and connected marriage practices (pp. 400-415), and the increased importance of wealthy women in fourth- and third-century Sparta (pp. 438-41). Although Hodkinson is wise to integrate women’s experience as fully as possible into his larger portrait of Spartan property and wealth, the important role that Spartan women played in the socio-economic changes leading to Sparta’s fall in the fourth century gets somewhat lost as a result. This criticism, however, is a small one, and its triviality clearly indicates how highly I regard this book. It is an outstanding contribution to an area of Spartan history—and indeed ancient economic and social history—long in need of detailed study.


1. Inter alia, “Land Tenure and Inheritance in Classical Sparta,” CQ n.s. 36 (1986), 378-406; “Marriage, Inheritance and Demography: Perspectives Upon the Success and Decline of Classical Sparta,” in A. Powell, ed., Classical Sparta: Techniques Behind Her Success (London and Norman, Okla., 1989), 79-121; “‘Blind Ploutos’?: Contemporary Images of the Role of Wealth in Classical Sparta,” in A. Powell and S. Hodkinson, eds., The Shadow of Sparta (London and New York, 1994), 183-222; “Lakonian Artistic Production and the Problem of Spartan Austerity,” in N. R. E. Fisher and H. van Wees, eds., Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence (London and Oakdale, Conn., 1998), 93-117.

2. See, esp. P. Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (London, 1987); J. Ducat, Les hilotes, BCH Supplément XX (Paris, 1990); M. Nafissi, La Nascita del Kosmos: Studi sulla storia e la società di Sparta (Napoli, 1991); N. M. Kennell, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta (Chapel Hill and London, 1995); L. Thommen, Lakedaimonion Politeia: Die Entstehung der spartanischen Verfassung, Historia Einzelshriften 103 (Stuttgart, 1996), N. Richer, Les e/phores (Paris, 1998).

3. Chapter Three builds upon Hodkinson’s earlier ground-breaking studies of Spartan ownership and inheritance of land. See Hodkinson (1986) and (1989).

4. For a detailed discussion of the invention of the unhistorical episode of Epitadeus’ law on gift and bequest, see E. Schütrumpf, “The Rhetra of Epitadeus: A Platonist’s Fiction,” GRBS 28 (1987), 441-57.

5. Hodkinson adopts the same comparative perspective in his earlier article, “Sharecropping and Sparta’s Economic Exploitation of the Helots,” in J. M. Sanders, ed., Φιλολακον. Lakonian Studies in Honour of Hector Catling (London, 1992), 123-34.

6. Hodkinson’s discussion builds upon recent studies discussing the factors that would mitigate against coinage. See, esp., T. R. Martin, Sovereignty and Coinage in Classical Greece (Princeton, 1985) and “Why Did the Greek Polis Originally Need Coins?,” Historia 45 (1996), 261-83; F. Barello, “Il rifiuto della moneta coniata nel mondo Greco. Da Sparta a Locri Epizefiri,” Rivista Italiana di Numismatica e Scienze Affini 95 (1993), 103-11.

7. Most Spartan scholars have, on the contrary and less plausibly, viewed the Peloponnesian War and Sparta’s subsequent acquisition of empire as the fundamental causes of its socio-economic crisis, which they treat as an exclusively fourth-century phenomenon. See, e.g., E. David, Sparta Between Empire and Revolution, 404-243 BC (New York, 1981).