Wednesday 16th of April 2014 08:02:36 PM | Login

Back Home » Weblog Articles

The Spartan Republic


Article's Index:
Spartan Republic
Other Sources


The Doric Greeks of Crete and Laconia created and developed mixed government. A true form of the Greek πολιτεια which the Romans translated respublica. It was first developed on the island of Crete which influenced Lycurgus who transferred the form to his polity in Laconia. (Plutarch Vitae Parallelae 52, Müller 1839:I, 35, 152, 236; II, 13, 14, Rahe 1992:I 289, [n.123])

The Doric Greeks, being a very philosophical people, copied the paradigm of mixed government from the Natural/Temporal Order and applied it to the formation of their city-states. It is a by-product of the special Doric Cretan mentality of syncretism (by chance “Crete” forms the central portion of the word) (Ruprecht). “What the Dorians endeavored to obtain in a state was good order, or cosmos, the regular combination of different elements” (Müller, 1839: II, 2).

The governmental form of the Cretan and Lacedaemonian city-states was a blend of the best (arete) parts from Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy. All the classical republics were distinguished by the establishment of a senate body which grew into what is called a bicameral legislative body (the upper house being aristocratic {not elected by the people or if the people did vote for the members, chosen only from the aristocracy}), a popular assembly and by a constitution that marks out the duties and responsibilities of the different bodies (Schmitz). They merged them together in a harmonious partnership applying the rule of Righteousness (Dikaios). (Aristotle Pol. 3; Cicero, Resp. 233) The dictates of righteousness would state that each class was given one duty that its nature suited it for to perform.

To Royalty was given the office of executive, to the Aristocracy (its old function) of counsel and to the soldiers a voice of consent or dissent.

The Greeks defined differing governments by their dominant factor. Aristotle writes: “Now a constitution (Politeia) is the ordering of a state (Polis) in respect of its various magistracies, and especially the magistracy that is supreme over all matters. For the government is everywhere supreme over the state and the constitution is the government” (Aristotle Pol. iv 1, 1278b 5-10) “Our customary designation for a monarchy that aims at the common advantage is ‘kingship’; for a government of more than one yet only a few ‘aristocracy’, …while when the multitude govern the state with a view to the common advantage, it is called by the name common to all the forms of constitution, ‘constitutional government‘” (Aristotle Pol. v 2f, 1279a 30-35). Where a government has only a king, the dominant factor, it is called a monarchy. Where a government has only a few nobles ruling, the dominant factor, it is called an aristocracy. Where the people, only the demos, are the dominant factor it is called a democracy.

The Greek word for State is “Polis”. It denotes “society” in general. Aristotle writes: “A collection of persons all alike does not constitute a state” (Aristotle Pol. i 4, 1261a 20; Plato R. 434; 149). To the Greek mind, a democracy is not a “polis” since it only has one class and everybody is alike. The Greek word, “Politeia” is applied to any form of government that includes numerous classes of people involved in governing and a constitution that defines and delegates rights and responsibilities of those classes. A republic is one that does not have a “dominant factor”. It is mixed. No single class or estate, has complete control, duties are shared amongst the classes. It is worthy of note that Aristotle in his famous treatise on politics leads with Crete then Sparta, then Carthage and then Solonic Athens. The sequence of the list shows that the first politeia originated in Crete and that Crete and Sparta were first in this regard, not Athens and not just any Athens but specifically Solonic Athens. “Politeia” is a Greek word used by Aristotle in his book, Politics, to describe a republican form of government.

Aristotle records that “some people assert that the best constitution must be a combination of all the forms of constitution, therefore praise the constitution of Sparta” (Aristotle, Pol. iii 10, 1265b 30-35) He further argues that the better the constitution is mixed, the more permanent it is. (Aristotle Pol. x 4, 1297a 5-10) The definition he gives for this kind of government is a “politeia”; the form intermediate between a democracy and an oligarchy, which is termed a republic, (mesi de touton in kalousi politeian) for the government is constituted from the class that bears arms.(Aristotle, Pol. iii 9, 1265b 25) Again, Aristotle states that constitutional government is, to put it simply, “a mixture of oligarchy and democracy” (Aristotle, Pol. vi 2, 1293b 30-35).

Polybius (as also Plato and Aristotle) distinguishes three types of governments: “kingship, aristocracy, democracy”. Furthermore, like Aristotle, he goes on to state that the best constitution is that “which partakes of all these three elements”, thus creating a fourth type of government. (Plb. Bk VI, 3) “The first to construct a constitution—that of Sparta—on this principle”, Lycurgus, with some inspiration from his fellow Doric brothers in Crete and the support of Delphi (which was staffed by Cretan priests) created a government that combined an hereditary kingship with a body of advisors from the aristocracy and another that represented the rest of the people (the democracy), all being checks and balances on each other.

Spartan Republic

Plato in The Laws records how the Cretans and the Spartans could not classify their own form of government:

Megillus the Spartan: “Why sir, when I consider our Lacedaemonian constitution, I really cannot tell you offhand which would be the proper name for it. It actually seems to have its resemblances to an autocracy—in fact, the power of our ephors is astonishingly autocratic—and yet at times I think it looks like the most democratic of all societies. Again, it would be sheer paradox to deny that it is an aristocracy, while yet again a feature of it is a life monarchy, asserted by all mankind, as well as ourselves, to be the very oldest of such institutions.”

Clinias the Cretan: “I find myself in the same perplexity as you, Megillus. I am quite at a loss to identify our Cnossian constitution confidently with any of them.”

The Athenian (Plato): “That, my friends, is because you enjoy real constitutions, whereas the types we have specified are not constitutions, but settlements enslaved to the domination of some component section, each taking its designation from the dominant factor” (Plato Lg., 712d).

What is described above is the archetype of mixed government. Cicero labeled Sparta a Republic, i.e. respublica Lacedaemoniorum because it was mixed. (Müller 1839: II, 190 Rahe 1992: I 152, 169, 170).

Duties and responsibilities in the Spartan Republic are outlined in short verses called Rhetra (the constitution). These Rhetra are attributed to Lycurgus, the lawgiver of the Lacedaemonians. The Spartan society consisted of two kings from two different royal families called the Agiads and the Eurypontids. There also existed from former times a royal council called the Gerousia (old men). Members of the Gerousia were appointed for life from the heads of the aristocratic families. The council was made of 28 aristocratic members with two kings sitting in making a total of thirty. Upon this basis did Lycurgus add the Rhetra c. 776 B.C. At some time, an oligarchic body with members elected from the citizen body for one year was introduced called the Ephors. It was the Ephors who presided over the assembly of all the Spartan citizens called Spartiates which could only shout approval or disapproval of measures presented by the two bodies, the Gerousia and the Ephors. The whole legislative process required two legislative bodies and the whole body of citizens to affirm it. Furthermore, the Lycurgan constitution spelled out that if the demos passed crooked rhetra the gerousia and the kings were to veto them. (Plutarch, Vitae Parallelae)

What it means to be mixed is that the abilities necessary for a government, Leadership, Counsel and Force, were divided amongst the three classes. The executive powers were held by the Kings who had the seat of Leadership. The ability of creating laws and direction of action was done by the Gerousia, the Aristocracy, the seat of counsel and of wisdom. The power to move was given to the assembly, the place of the soldiers.

The government of Sparta was trifunctional, a product of their cultural ways. Trifunctionality is an Indo-European trait (Dumézil, cited in Mendle 1985: 21-9). This trait evinced by the Doric Greeks was especially strong. They always migrated in groups of three; Hylleans/Dymanes/Pamphylians (Müller 1839:I, 32-3). The Dorians were so peculiar in this trait that in classical texts they were called the “Thrice-divided” Dorians (Müller 1839:I, 34). Wherever they migrated, the new land was divided into three parts (Müller 1839: I, 33). In Lacedæmonia, the Dorians not only divided themselves from the aboriginal peoples into a triad of Dorians/ Perioci/Helots, they also divided Doric society into three parts, royalty/aristocracy/equals (or similars). Furthermore, the tripod figured prominently in their religion of Apollo (Müller 1839: I, 14). It was natural then that their culture imprinted a tripartite form of monarchy/aristocracy/democracy upon their government.

The Greeks, especially the Doric Greeks, derived their philosophy, laws and institutions from Nature; the cosmos. They observed Order in the Cosmos and, as “lovers of reality” (realists), attempted to imitate that order in their lives and society (Hamilton [1930] (1993): 67-8 [1957] (1964): 18, 187). Hence, “doing politics” was about “ordering” the state in accordance with reason formed by precepts and maxims garnered from nature.

Furthermore, attuned to beauty, they, in everything they did, attempted to do it with proportion, harmony and symmetry; the laws of beauty. (Hesoid Op. 627)

As the cosmos had an established harmony that bestows an underlying universal law, the Greek conviction was that limits were good. Exaggeration was foreign to them; they detested extremes and the idea of the limitless repelled them. “Greek words which meant boundless, illimitable, and the like, had bad connotations” (Hamilton 1964: 18). Their idea of freedom was bound up in the word, “sophrosuné” which meant that in human society just as in nature, “it meant accepting the bounds of excellence laid down for human nature; restraining the impulses to unrestricted freedom, shunning excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion” (Hamilton 1964: 21). Therefore, their form of government was an expression of those inferences. Rejecting the extreme form of the simple forms of government, they developed a type that was the Golden Mean of all them; i.e., the μέσος πολίτης.

This principle of the Golden Mean engraved upon their Doric Temple at Delphi, “Nothing too much”, is central to understanding their form of government. Plato argued that “Persia and Athens show the fundamental elements of all political life exaggerated as far as possible in one direction and the other (the one monarchical, the other democratic)…the merit of Sparta is that she has been trying to blend them, and has therefore maintained herself for a long time” (Plato Lg., cited in Jaeger [1939] (1945): III, 236). A republic is really the Golden Mean between the extremes of democracy and Asian monarchical despotism. (Military Manual TM 2000-25, cited Kuenhelt-Leddihn 1943: 11). Consequently, the Spartan republic was basically formed around the soldiering class in cooperation with the upper classes.

To the charge that Sparta is an oligarchy, Dicaearchus of Messenia, who intensively investigated the Spartan state, was to label his treatise the Tripoliticus. Even though this work is lost, just the title alone speaks volumes about the nature of the Doric Greek government of Laconia. This man had intimate knowledge of the Spartans and the title of his work alone whole-heartedly dispels any notion that the Spartan government was just a plain oligarchy or a democracy as many are now labeling it.

To the charge that Sparta is a democracy, Plutarch relates a story in his biography of Lycurgus: when asked why he didn’t form a democracy in Laconia, Lycurgus replied, “Begin, my friend, and set it up in your family first” (Plutarch, Vitae Parallelae).

Aristotle said Sparta was like an armed camp. But it was more than that. It was a Family. The Doric Greeks, being the most warlike of the Hellenic tribes, modeled their form of government upon the tripartite form found in their military institution. European militaries also exhibit a tripartite form. No doubt the Spartan army was no different and was organized with an officer corps, a non-commissioned officer corps and the regulars. This tripartite form is also inherent in the family structure. The family is composed of a father, mother and children. The paradigms of these two institutions, organic and natural, were copied into the Spartan state. The king as the Father, the middle rank, the mother, was the Aristocracy and the soldiers occupied the spot of the children. In the Dorian political viewpoint, the politeia was a family writ large. The Spartan State was conceived as a family unit and acted as such. Arius Didymus of Stobaeus uses the word “politeia” for the family; “So just as the household yields for the city the seeds of its formation, thus it yields the constitution (politeia)”.

“Connected with the house is a pattern of monarchy, of aristocracy and of democracy. The relationship of parents to children is monarchic, of husbands to wives aristocratic, of children to one another democratic” (Arius Didymus, cited Boring 1995).

He concludes his political philosophy with “The best constitution is some mixture of the good forms”, i.e. monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.

Another facet of the style of the Doric Greeks was that they understood that the cosmos was with strife. Strife was a necessary component. In their development of the state it was necessary that each unit was put into opposition with each of the others. As was noted earlier, each class, royalty, aristocracy and commons, were allocated one state power they were naturally equipped to do. In order to accomplish any task, all three had to find common ground. (Plutarch, Vitae Parallelae714)

Plutarch writes on how this arrangement worked: “Amongst the many changes and alterations which Lycurgus made, the first and of greatest importance was the establishment of the senate, which having a power equal to the king’s in matters of great consequence, and as Plato expresses it, allaying and qualifying the fiery genius of the royal office, gave steadiness and safety to the commonwealth. For the state, which before had no firm basis to stand upon, but leaned one while towards an absolute monarchy, when the kings had the upper hand, and another while towards a pure democracy, when the people had the better, found in this establishment of the senate a central weight, like ballast in a ship, which always kept things in a just equilibrium; the twenty-eight always adhering to the kings so far as to resist democracy, and on the other hand, supporting the people against the establishment of absolute monarchy” (Plutarch Vitae Parallelae)

Furthermore, in the plan of the Doric Greeks, the old, i.e. the old men, were given special prominence in the state. The old are the seat of wisdom. Their years give them experience and knowledge vital for the state. The young have for their advantage strength and youthful spirit. Wisdom, the combination of experience and knowledge are not found in the young and vice versa, strength and spirit are not found in the old. The genius of the Doric government was not only juxtaposing these two characteristics as a check and balance upon each but also combining them together to make an efficient and beneficial force.

Polybius rightly observed that “The result of this combination has been that the Lacedaemonians retained their freedom for the longest period of any people” (Plb. 1959: 482) and “…for securing unity among the citizens, for safeguarding the Laconian territory and preserving the liberty of Sparta inviolate, the legislation and provisions of Lycurgus were so excellent that I am forced to regard his wisdom as something superhuman” (Polibius 1959: 493).

The establishment of the Senate and a True involved Aristocracy marks the True Republic. The Doric Greeks of Crete and Laconia enjoyed stability and civic peace at home because of this structure and form. They became the envy and inspiration for many in Classical Antiquity and beyond. Solon tried unsuccessfully to imitate the Dorian form of government in his state of Athens. Socrates looked to Crete and Sparta as good government (Plato, La. 1961c, 52e). Plato’s Republic is based on the Doric Greek societies and their philosophy, especially the application dikaios (Morgenstern, cited in Müller, 1839: II, 193).

The Sabines, a colony from Lacedaemonia settled near Rome, influenced her. Sabine kings transferred their system into Rome along with many other Dorian practices. The Sabine king Titus Tatius instituted a high council of the Roman aristocracy. The Greek Gerousia became the Latin “Senatus”. (Cicero, Resp.)

Dicaearchus of Messana’s Tripoliticus heavily influenced Cicero and Cicero may have plagiarized him for his work De republica. (Grant, 1995)

Polybius had a great influence upon Cicero, Charles de Montesquieu and the Founding Fathers of the United States. (Grant 1995)

It is Cicero that popularized the idea of ‘mixed’ government and gave it wide currency, influencing many during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Founding Fathers of America. Michael Grant explicates the significance of Cicero: “This ‘mixed’ constitution, previously admired by the historian Polybius (to whom Cicero’s debts were extensive), reappeared again and again in early discussions of the constitution of the United States of America, figuring prominently, for example, in John Adams Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787)” (Grant, 1993: 7)

In Tudor times, John Aylmer, an English classicist, saw the resemblance between his form of government and that of Sparta. Though he was on the fringe of English political thought, his insight of mixed government would influence greatly future English political thought (Mendle, 1995).

Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Plutarch, Dicaearchus of Messana, Cicero, John Aylmer, Niccolo Machiaveli and others have all recognized that Sparta had mixed government. Paul A. Rahe, in his three volume study of republics, categorically affirms the title of republic for Sparta.

That Sparta was of mixed government seems to have been common knowledge in Classical Departments around the turn of the 20th century. In the Sparta article of A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Prof. Leonhard Schmits writes, “In all the republics of antiquity the government was divided between a senate and a popular assembly…” which was the case of Sparta (1875: 1016-1022). The Harpers Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities’ article on Sparta recognizes her “mixed government” (Peck, [1896] 1962: 1493). A. H. J. Greenidge, in A Handbook of Greek Constitutional History, writes that Sparta and Britain had the same form of government: “History has shown that such forms of government (speaking about mixed government) are suited to a commonsense non-idealistic people: the Phoenicians of Carthage, the Dorians of Greece, Romans, and Englishmen have all developed this type of polity” (1911 2001: 76).

In conclusion, the Doric Greeks of Crete and Sparta developed a highly intricate and complex government form that best applied the principles of the Natural Order to bring about stability, longevity and effective government in a hostile world. They created a government that was not dominated by any single class but combined the special abilities of the different classes in a shared atmosphere. Their innovation of an upper body as the seat of wisdom and counsel of the aristocracy was to prove a checking balance on the demands of royalty and the commons. This system provided their societies with liberty and the attainment of the good. Knowing that the Roman institutions derived from that of the Doric Greeks, the translation of the word politeia as republic is not misleading but is proper and right. Sparta is a Republic and a Republic is mixed government.


  • Boring, M. Eugene, et al., (1995), Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN)

  • Grant, Michael (l993), Cicero, On Government, (Penguin Books: NY)

  • Greenidge M. A., A. H. J. [1911] (2001), A Handbook of Greek Constitutional History, (M.A. MacMillin and Co., Limited: London). Republised by William S. Hein & Co., Inc., Buffalo, New York.

  • Hamilton, Edith [1930] (1993), The Greek Way, (WW Norton & Co.: NY)

  • Hamilton, Edith [1957] (1964), The Echo of Greece, (WW Norton & Co.: NY)

  • Jaeger, Werner [1939] (1945), Padeia, The Ideals of Greek Culture, Vol. 3, trans. Gilbert Highet, (Oxford University Press: NY)

  • Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik von (1943), Menace of the Herd, (Bruce Publishing Co.)

  • Mendle, Michael (1985), Dangerous Positions; Mixed Government, the Estates of the Realm, and the Making of the “Answer to the xix propositions”, (University of Alabama Press)

  • Müller, Karl Otfried, (1839), The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race, Vol. 2, trans. Henry Tufnell, & Georg Cornewall Lewis, (John Murray: London, 2nd ed. rev.)

  • Peck, Harry Thurston [1896] (1962), Harpers Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, (Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.)

  • Rahe, Paul A., (1992), Republics Ancient and Modern, Vol. 3, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill)

  • Ruprecht, Louis, (2004), “Crete in Between: Still the Center of a Wine-Dark Sea”, paper in Crete: A Meeting Place of Cultures, Platsis Symposium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

  • Smith, William (1875), A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, (John Murray: London)
  • Other Sources

    • Classical Definition of Republic [was available at]
    • Philosophy of Mixed Government [was available at]
    • Classical Republics & Democracy Contrasted [was available at]
    • State Paradigm [was available at]

    Creative Commons Licence
    The article The Spartan Republic by W. Lindsay Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
    Based on a work at Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History.
    Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Copyrights and Disclaimer.

    Rate this Article:

    Articles by W. Lindsay Wheeler:

    Doric Crete and Sparta, the home of Greek Philosophy


    The Confusing State of Sparta


    Related Articles:

    Book Review: The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz


    Corneille’s Agesilaus: Sparta in French Literature

    About ΣPARTA

    Sparta magazine is published bi-annually by Markoulakis Publications (July and January)
    ΣPARTA (ISSN 1751-0007).

    Editorial Board »
    Help & Support

    We are trying to offer the best customer support for our readers please use our contact us section and email us your questions.

    Get in touch

    Address: Maudslay Buidling, Burton Street, NG1 4BU, Nottingham, UK

    Email: sparta [at] markoulakispub....