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The Confusing State of Sparta


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Confusion reigns supreme throughout history from classical antiquity thru modern times in the categorization of the government form of Sparta. One reason is that the Doric Greeks never had a name for their form of government so it was up to observers to guess at its proper form. (Plato, §712d) Some say it is an oligarchy and others a democracy. But the Lacedaemonian government is a paradox and purposely so, for it is the Golden Mean. A paradox is a situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature and since a classical republic is mixed government, it would exhibit contradictory characteristics hence the bewilderment of her form of government.

Buried in the middle of his treatise on politics, in book IV and obviously overlooked by most and sundry, Aristotle points to the answer to the confusing state of Sparta. Aristotle notes that the sign of a good mixture of the politeia/classical republic is when it is possible to speak of the same constitution as a democracy and an oligarchy at the same time! The constitution of a classical republic should be so well blended that both characteristics stand out perfectly. This is so because the “mixture is complete”. (Bk IV vii, 4-5; 1294b; pg 321-323)

This is the concept of the Doric form of government, that it lies in the middle, “for each of the two extreme forms can be seen in it”.

Aristotle then conclusively states that “This is the case with the constitution of Sparta”.

For many people endeavor to describe it as being a democracy” because rich and poor boys are equally trained in the agoge, the common people elect the members of the Gerousia and all can participate in the Ephorate. “[B]ut others call it an oligarchy” because the offices are elective and not by chance in a lottery amongst other aristocratic instances.

Despite the conclusion of Aristotle, others have insisted that she is an oligarchy. Professor Whibley in 1896 wrote that:

The uncertainty and inconsistency of the Greek writers leaves us to form our own definition, and in the light of present knowledge we conclude that the Spartan constitution, so peculiarly compounded of diverse elements as to evade exact definition, must alike from the form of its institutions, the spirit of its administration, and the exercise of sovereign power, be included among the oligarchies of Greece. (p. 19)

The problem people have in seeing the dual nature of the Spartan government is that they are inconversant with Doric Greek culture, their mentality and the philosophy that superintended them. The Golden Mean was a very important principle that guided everything they did. The Golden mean is where the two extremes meet that form a harmony and in the Spartan republic, there are two extremes in a harmony which produces a third state of being, the μέσος πολίτης. This harmony is the Golden mean. It is easy to see everything as this or that but it takes a high level of sophistication to comprehend dual natures existing at once in the same thing. Yes, Sparta is confusing and difficult to categorize, only if one is unaware of the concept of the Golden Mean and its modality.

Another principle was δῐκαιοσύνη, or righteousness. This entails that only one duty was given to one particular class. This is to say no class could do more than one duty.

Understanding the culture and the mentalities of the people being studied and how they thought are extremely important to understanding the institutions they built. The Lacedaemonians were a very philosophical people who built their government on very sublime principles from the natural order. Unless one is heavily acquainted with their ideas and principles, one can easily make mistakes in judgement about them. Being a philosopher himself, Aristotle, as a Greek was very conscious of these principles of the Golden Mean and δῐκαιοσύνη that guided Doric government; he defined correctly the governmental form of Sparta. As to the seemingly contradictions in Aristotle’s account of Sparta, Prof. Eckart Shütrumpf addresses this issues very well by laying out that Aristotle comments on the deficiencies of Spartan practice no way inhibits her design of mixed government. (Powell & Hodkinson, 323f) Sparta is the archetype of the classical republican form of government because she is so perfectly blended, so evenly balanced.

  1. Aristotle, (1932) Politics, trans. by H. Rackman, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass Vol. #264.
  2. Plato, (1961)b The Laws, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  3. Powell, Anton (ed), and Hodkinson, Stephen (ed), (1994) The Shadow of Sparta, Routledge, New York. Number: 332.
  4. Whibley, Leonard, (1896) Greek Oligarchies: Their Character and Organisation, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Chicago.
  5. Internet Encyclopaedia (2005, 5 February). “Golden Mean”. Accessed 5 th February 2005.

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The article The Confusing State of Sparta 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.
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Articles by W. Lindsay Wheeler:

Doric Crete and Sparta, the home of Greek Philosophy


The Spartan Republic


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