What Kind of Democracy Did the Spartans Have?

Many of Sparta's artworks were crafted by perioeci, who were not full citizens.
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Sparta was an ancient Greek city-state, founded around 1000 B.C. While many are familiar with the Spartans' military prowess, most are unaware that the Spartans had a highly democratic form of government in which all full citizens -- called "homoioi" -- were expected to participate.

1 Becoming a Homoioi

Sparta's entire society was based on the idea that all men should be soldiers who spent their lives in service to the state. Spartan babies who were not deemed likely to be physically fit were left alone on a hillside to die. Boys were separated from their mothers at age 7 to begin rigorous military training and continued to live in military barracks until age 30. At this point, Spartan men were granted the full rights of citizens, including the right to vote for their leaders and laws. Homoioi were expected to continue serving in the Spartan military reserves until age 60.

2 Second Class Non-Citizens

Most of the people living in and around Sparta were not afforded the opportunity to become homoioi. Groups living in Sparta who were not allowed the rights of citizens include the helots -- slaves who performed agricultural labor -- and the perioeci -- free non-citizens who were generally employed in skilled labor and merchant trade. Spartan women were allowed more rights than most Greek women, including the right to own property and to interact socially with men. This gave them considerably more political clout than most ancient women, but it did not afford them the right to vote or actively participate in the democratic process.

3 Kings of Sparta

Sparta had two hereditary kings at any given time. This arrangement allowed one king to govern Sparta while the other was leading the Spartans into battle. Unlike many ancient monarchs, the kings of Sparta did not wield absolute power. They were subject to Sparta's laws and could be punished by Sparta's elected government.

4 Spartan Elected Bodies

All Spartan homoioi participated in the general assembly -- called the apella -- in which they voted on legislation and elected members to the board of ephors and the council of elders. Ephors were magistrates who had power over the king served one-year terms as a sort of executive council. The council of elders or "gerousia" was comprised of elected Spartans 60 years or older who were appointed for life. Their primarily tasks involved advice, training younger Spartans and serving as a sort of court system to decide matters of Spartan law.

Dell Markey is a full-time journalist. When he isn't writing business spotlights for local community papers, he writes and has owned and operated a small business.