The Spartan State is both a miracle and an enigma. Its institutions helped preserved Sparta and then transform the minor city in the Peloponnese into the dominant city-state in Greece after the victory against Athens in 404 B.C. To understand fully why Sparta was capable to achieve this status it is important to study its main institutions because basically, the external policy of a state is just an extension of the internal politics.
Wondering what was the most important institution in the Spartan state? The simple answer will be the Gerousia, also known as the Council of Elders.
When it comes to the Spartan system though, the answers are never simple because like Aristotle pointed in the “On the Lacedaemonian Constitution” chapter from his famous “Politics” work, Sparta’s institutions represent all elements of society: diarchy, oligarchy, democracy.
In this article, I will try to present why the Geoursia was the most powerful institution in the Spartan State. In order to do so, I will start by studying its origins, the people who could become members of the Gerousia, and most important, its main powers.
The Great Rhetra and the first mention of the Gerousia.
After two costly wars against the Messenians, the Spartan society felt the need to reform their political system in order to strengthen their holdings on Pellopenez.
In this unstable political and military context, the legendary figure called Lycurgus appears.
Lycurgus is believed to be the father of the Spartan constitution, but this subject is still hotly debated among historians because historical sources (Herodotus, Xenophon) do not match when it comes to the date of ascension to power or when the Spartan constitution was issued.
Today, most historians agree that the institutions of the Spartan state are not the creation of a single person, but rather the result of a long political process. It is also more likely that Lycurgus didn’t create the Gerousia, but he instead legalized an existing institution and defined its role.
In Plutarch’s book about Lycurgus, the writer doesn’t mention directly that the Founder of the Spartan Constitution created this Assembly. According to some scholars, it is possible that before Lycurgus, the Gerousia was the Council of the 2 kings and had only a consultative role.
The first mention of the Gerousia appears in the work of Plutarch called “Life of Lycurgus of Sparta”:
“When thou has built a temple to Zeus Syllanius and Athena Syllania, divided the people into phylai, and divided them into ‘obai’, and established a Gerousia of thirty including the Archagetai, then from time to time ‘appellazein’ between Babyka and Knakion, and there introduce and repeal measures; but the Demos must have the decision and the power.”
From Plutarch’s writing, we have learned for the first time that the total number of members was limited to 30, including the 2 kings(archagetai).
The members of the Gerousia were known as “gerontes” or elders because with the exception of the 2 kings, the other 28 politicians had to be over 60 years in order to be eligible to become members of this assembly. You may wonder why 60 years? Because at this age the military service of any Spartan soldiers ended.
For most Spartan citizens serving in the Gerousia was the highest honor they could aspire to. Another important eligibility criteria was to be a Spartan citizen(spartiate). Helots or pariokoi weren’t able to candidate for this assembly.
Theoretically, any Spartan citizen over 60 years could run for this assembly, but if we consider that the kings were part of Gerousia, we can speculate that this institution was reserved for an inner circle of influential aristocratic families from Sparta.
We know from Plutarch that the fight for the vacant positions in the Gerousia was very though because these positions were desired by many Spartiates “of all the contests in the world this would seem to have been the greatest and the most hotly disputed”.
On the other hand, the kings also wished that the members could be as obedient as possible, so they can have some kind of influence over this assembly.
Candidates for the vacant positions in the Gerousia had to be chosen by the Apella (citizen assembly).
It is not very clear what was the selection process of the candidates and how many of them were presented before Apella.
We only know from Aristotle that the candidate who receives the loudest shoutings from Apella would win the vacant position.
The mandate of a gerontes was for life and they were not responsible for their decisions. Basically, they had total immunity.
Gerousia: Main Powers
I. It had the monopoly over the initiation of any laws/policy for Sparta
II. All important laws were discussed first in the Gerousia before being presented to the Apella
III. It prepared the agenda for the meetings of the Apella
IV. It acted as a Supreme Court, often judging the cases of high treason or homicide. Also, the Gerousia had the ability to exile criminals or set fines.
V the gerontes assisted the kings by offering their opinions
VII could veto the decisions of the Apella by simply walking away from the assembly
VIII Along with the Ephors it had the power to depose and even exile a King that was found guilty for breaking the Spartan laws.
Basil Edward Hammond, THE POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS OF THE ANCIENT GEEEKS, LONDON, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS WAREHOUSE, 1895
Philip Matyszak, Sparta Rise of a Warrior Nation, PEN & SWORD MILITARY, 2017
Thomas Beckett, Sparta The Ultimate Greek Warriors: Everything You Need To Know About the Spartan Civilization
Nigel M.Kennell, Spartans a New History, Wiley Blackwell, 2010