The Apella in Ancient Sparta – Origins, Importance, and Powers

The Apella was the popular assembly of Ancient Sparta, it had a deliberative role and according to ancient and modern-day historians, theoretically, it represented the “democratic” element of the Spartan state.

The Apella’s equivalent in Athens would be the “Ecclesia” though it is important to note that like any other ancient institution, there are many major differences between the Spartan “Apella” and the Athenian “Ecclesia”.

What were the main roles of the Apella? How strong was the Apella in comparison with the “Ekklesia” of Athens? Did the Spartan Apella have the powers or the will to change the Spartan State?

These are some of the important questions that this present article wants to analyze and answer.

I. Apella – origins of the name
Spartan Apella

The origins of the term Apella are surrounded by mystery, and most probably the official name of the Spartan Assembly might be another one.

Let’s take a short look at the different works of the Ancient Greek historians to observe how they defined the popular assembly of Ancient Sparta.

 Herodotus uses the term d’ἁλία/alía (Book VII, 134), which strictly refers to the assembly of the people in the Dorian city-states.

Historians Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War; Book V, 77) and Xenophon (Hellenics, ii, 4, 38) are using instead the generic ἐεκκλησία/ Ekklêsía (assembly), which is also used to designate the Athenian popular assembly.

Most probably the origins of the term Apella, can be found in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives where he studies the life of Lycurgus.

The ancient historian uses the phrase “appellazein” to designate “assemble the people”. According to Plutarch’s opinion, the “appelazzein” could be a reference to the Greek God Apollo.

It is very similar but, not the actual word. Plutarch only mentions the name of the members of the Spartan Assembly, but not the actual name of it.

The etymology of the term is debatable, it could also be related to Ἀπέλλων / Apéllōn, the Dorian name for Apollo, and could be linked to the festivals dedicated to this God.

According to Hesychius of Alexandria, the apellai, were the enclosures, by extension the sheepfolds, and from there it was used to designate an assembly.

On the other hand, the word Apella is attested in inscriptions from the Laconian Gythion dating from Roman times where it is found in the plural, and in inscriptions from Delphi where it is used in connection with the ceremonies of the phratry.

II. How the Apella was created

Status of Lycurgus

Like many other Spartan political institutions, the role of the Apella in the Spartan political system is defined by the “Great Rhetra”, the set of laws presented by the legendary reformer Lycurgus.

Plutarch in his book about Lycurgus mentions in the below fragment the role and some other important information about the Spartan Assembly:

“Having established a cult of Syllanian Zeus and Athena, having done the‘tribing and obing’, and having established a Gerousia of thirty members including the kings [here called poetically archagetai or ‘founder-leaders’],season in, season out they are to hold Apellai [festivals of Apollo] between Babyca and Cnaciôn; the Gerousia is both to introduce proposals and to stand aloof; the damos is to have power to ‘give a decisive verdict’ [this is Plutarch’s gloss on a badly garbled phrase in Doric dialect in the original]; but if the damos speaks crookedly, the Gerousia and kings are to be removers.”

This fragment from Plutarch’s book doesn’t explicitly state that the Apella was a creation of the legendary reformer, like the Gerousia or the Ephors, and it leaves open the possibility that the Spartan Assembly was already present in the city.

More likely, Lycurgus only integrated and reformed an existing Spartan Assembly in the newly Spartan Political System.

If indeed, the Apella wasn’t Lycurgus’ creation, then the actual creation can be sometimes between the founding of Sparta, around 1000 B.C, and the 8th Century BC, when it is agreed that the new Constitution of the Spartans was created.

III. Apella – Membership; Location and frequency of the meetings
Spartan Warrios and Agoge system

Who was qualified to become a member of the Apella?

Of course, like many other popular assemblies of the Ancient World, you had to meet certain requirements.

In the Spartan case, Helots and Perioikoi were excluded from the start, only Spartiates, the Spartan male-born citizens could join the Apella.

Concerning the political establishment of the people’s assembly, it remains to be said that its members are exclusively Spartiates who have to meet the rigorous requirements of the Hoplite State.

The minimum age requirement is still debatable, while some modern historians support the 20 minimum age, others are in favor of the 30 years minimum age for being allowed to vote in the Apella.

Regardless of the minimum age, all Spartan males had to meet other important standards demanded by the hoplite state.

 In the Classical Age in order to be a Spartiate(Spartan Citizen) you first had to be born from an already Spartan citizen. Second, you had to finish the agoge(Spartan military education and training).

After finishing the Agoge, the regular Spartan had to be economically able to provide his part in the common messes(syssitia).

Being considered a coward, or having committed any type of crime would automatically disqualify any person from taking part in the workings of the Apella.

Regarding the total membership, according to the number provided by Plutarch, initially, there were only 9000 eligible Spartans that could take part in the workings of the Apella.

This number declined over time because of the demographic situation in Sparta.

Important to mention, that the 9000 Spartiates were not representative if we compare them with the Helots(between 170.000 and 224.000 people) and Perioikoi numbers.

Where did the Apella meet?

Unlike the Athenian Ekklesia, the exact location where the debates of the Apella took place is unknown.

Plutarch mentions that the meetings had to take place between 2 locations: “Babyca and Cnacion” and then adds that according to Aristotle, Babyca was a river and Cnacion was a bridge.

The exact locations of Babyca and Cnacion are unknown today to modern historians.

Also, it is not very well known if the Spartan assembly meetings took place in a building or an open space.

Pausanias, the Greek Geographer from the Second Century B.C, provides other details about the location of the meetings of the Apella:

“Leading from the marketplace is another road, which they have built what is called Scias (canopy), where even at the present day they hold their meetings of the Assembly.” Pausanias, Description of Greece, LACONIA, XII. 9-XIII. 2

Pausanias is the only source who actually provides the name of the building where the Spartiates meet during the workings of the Apella.

What we do know, is that the Gerousia and the Ephors supervised the meetings from a nearby building and once the voting was over, they would come out and declare the final results.

Frequency of the meetings?

Like the exact location, the frequency of the meetings of the Apella is not very well known.

From the Great Rhetra we have a very vague and broad wording:” from time to time”.

Thucydides gives a more exact timing of when there was a day with a full moon.

From Thucydides’s words, we can deduce that the Apella had a meeting at least once a month.

By comparison, the Athenian Ecclesia had at least 40 meetings every year.

IV. The powers of the Apella and voting system

To summarize, below are the most important roles of the Apella in Ancient Sparta:

–         It ratified laws

–         It appointed the military commanders and officers

–         It annually elected the Ephors

–         It elected the members of the Gerousia(Council of Elders)

–         It elected the members of other minor magistrates

–         It could vote on matters of wars and peace and ratified the peace treaties

–         In some situations, it helped the Ephors and the Gerousia to depose the Kings

–         In criminal matters, it acted as a Justice Court

The meetings of the Spartan Assembly were presided by the other governing bodies of the Spartan State: Kings, Ephors, and Gerousia.

 The decisions of the Apellá were adopted by acclamation. The louder the sounds done by shouting/acclamations, it means that the laws were either passed or declined.

 You may wonder how the “votes” were counted and who was responsible for counting them?

 Members of the Spartan elite, locked in a room not far from the Assembly had to estimate the sound volume of the shouts accompanying the statement of the name of the candidate.

This process is described by Aristotle as being “childish” and from a modern-day perspective, he is right, because the masses could be more easily manipulated to vote according to the wishes of the Spartan Leaders.

 In exceptional situations, when the voting by acclamations could not be estimated exactly, the system was replaced with another one: the citizens line up on one side or the other, depending on the political views/options about the debated motion or candidate.

One such exceptional situation is described by Thucydides. The event took place in 432 B.C, and the main protagonist is Ephor Sthenelaïdas:

“Their decisions are made by acclamation rather than vote, and Sthenelaïdas claimed that he could not tell which side had the louder shout. With the intention of promoting the cause of war by making them show their opinions overtly, he said to the Spartans: ‘Those of you who think that the treaty has been broken and the Athenians are guilty should stand up and move over here’ (pointing to a particular area), ‘and those who think otherwise should move over there.’ So they stood up and divided, and there was a great majority on the side of those who thought that the treaty had been broken.”

Theoretically, the Apella should have represented the democratic element of Ancient Sparta, but in practice, the assembly had very limited powers.

From Plutarch, we know that the Apella lacked the legislative initiative. As a consequence, the popular assembly of Sparta could only vote on the laws proposed by the Gerousia, Ephors or Kings.

Unlike its Athenian equivalent, the Ecclesia, the Apella didn’t have the right to initiate or debate laws. The ordinary Spartan citizens didn’t have the right to present their opinions on important matters of state.

During the meetings of the Apella, only the Kings, Ephors or the members of the Gerousia could help speeches to the Spartan people.

In the Athenian Ecclesia, besides Athenian politicians, the ordinary citizens were allowed to speak to the assembly.

The most important laws or reforms were presented to the Apella by the other major institutions of the Spartan state(Ephors, Gerousia, Kings) and the assembly’s only role was only to approve them.

From this perspective, the Apella was a political institution that only confirmed the decisions already taken.

According to Plutarch, though the assembly had the “decisive verdict” if the Gerousia and the Kings disagreed with the decisions of the assembly, they could simply walk away and thus invalidate the decisions of the Apella. 

“Afterward, however, when the people by additions and subtractions perverted and distorted the sense of motions laid before them, Kings Polydorus and Theopompus inserted this clause into the Rhetra: ” But if the people should adopt a distorted motion, the senators and kings shall have the power of adjournment “; that is, should not ratify the vote, but dismiss outright and dissolve the session, on the ground that it was perverting and changing the motion contrary to the best interests of the state. And they were actually able to persuade the city that the god authorized this addition to the Rhetra”.

After walking away, thus dissolving the Apella, there was nothing to stop the members of the Gerousia or the Ephors from submitting the same laws again in another assembly and obtaining more favorable results.

It appears that initially, the Apella originally had the right to at least debate and make amendments to the laws presented by the Gerousia, Kings, and Ephors; and then an unknown chain of events prompted the Spartan Kings Polydorus and Theapompus to take a drastic decision and take this right from the Spartan citizens.

The consequences of this decision cannot be denied, the ordinary Spartan citizens had very little to say when it comes to important decisions in the Spartan State.

The real importance of the Apella was so limited, that when discussing the democratic elements of Ancient Sparta, Aristotle mentions the “Ephors”, not the Spartan Assembly as being the democratic elements of Sparta.

V. Conclusion.

Though in theory, it represented the democratic element of the Spartan State, in reality, the Apella was never in the position to promote any major or real reforms in Ancient Sparta.

The main reason is that the Spartan assembly lacked the power to initiate laws, like the Ekklesia in Athens.

Because it lacked the other elements of a democratic assembly as well: debating, and amending laws; the Spartan assembly’s political role was even further limited.

Last and not least, the fact that the Kings and the Gerousia could simply ignore the decisions of the Apella, by simply dissolving it, proves again that the Spartan assembly was totally subordinate to the Spartan system. 

The Apella’s purpose like the other major institutions of the Spartan State was not to promote reforms, it was only limited to keeping the ancient Spartan traditions and never sought to become a political vehicle for real change in the Spartan society.

It is important not to miss the bigger picture, Lycurgus reforms were meant to create an ordered/disciplined society, obedient to the state, not institutions that in one day could overthrow the Spartan state.

VI. SOURCES:

1. Plutarch’s Lives, Theseus And Romulus; Lycurgus And Numa; Solon And Publicola, Volume I, Translated by BERNADOTTE PERRIN.

2. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Oxford World’s Classics, A new translation by Martin Hammond.

3. Xenophon, Hellenica(Books I-V), Cambridge, Massachusetts Harvard University Press, English Translation By Carleton L. Brownson.

4. Pausanias: Description of Greece (Books 3-5 Laconia, Messenia, Elis 1); William Heinemann; G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

5. Ephraim David, The Trials of Spartan Kings, University of Haifa.

6. Anton Powell, A Companion To Sparta, Volume I, Wiley Blackwell.

7. Philip Matyszak, Sparta Rise of a Warrior Nation, Pen&Sword Military.

8. Paul Cartledge, Sparta, and Lakonia A regional history 1300–362 BC, Routledge, London and New York.

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