Spartan Society is probably one of the most abused societies in History. But while everybody from Herman Göring to modern-day Lifestyle coaches seems to be an expert in what virtues Sparta resembled most of us don`t really know the full extend of spartan society and its rigidity.
Spartan society consisted of 4 groups, the Spartiates, the Perioikoi, the Mothakes, and the Helots. Only the Spartiates had a political say. The Spartan society was extremely rigid, switching between the social groups was basically impossible!
Let`s find out more!
How rigid was the social structure of Sparta?
Sparta was not only an extremely militaristic society, as a result, that the social structure of Sparta was also extremely rigid.
There were four social groups in Sparta, the Spartiates, the Perioikoi, the Mothakes, and the Helots.
Switching from one social group into another one was basically impossible.
The only rare exception was that Helot boys could be adopted by Spartiates and had a chance of becoming Spartiates themselves. But that was rare!
In order to find out why the structure of Spartan society was so rigid, we have to look at the different social groups of Sparta, at the origins of Sparta, and then at the political structure of the Spartan state.
Are you ready? Let´s find out why Spartan society was so rigid!
The social groups of Sparta
The smallest group were the Spartiates.
Spartiates were full citizens of the city of Sparta with all privileges and duties.
The Perioikoi, the second-largest group were free but didn`t have full citizens rights.
Then there were the Mothakes who were free non-Spartiates of spartan descent. The last and biggest group were the Helots, these native inhabitants were state-owned slaves who were assigned to agricultural and household duties.
Origins of the spartan social structure
The history of spartan social structure starts around the year 900 BC during the Dorian Invasion.
During that era, Dorian settlers subdued the native population of Laconia. Here these Dorians started a settlement at the banks of the river Eurotas, located at the south-eastern part of the Peloponnese. The settlement was called Sparta.
But since its beginning, Sparta had a problem. A small group of Dorian conquerors had to dominate and control a much larger number of native farmers.
That problem increased around the year 720 BC when Sparta also conquered the neighboring fertile Messenian lands. Suddenly the small number of Spartiates (of Dorian descent) had to control & dominate an even larger group of native inhabitants. Securing Spartan superiority became more and more of a problem. According to legends the solution for the problem was developed by a man called Lycurgus.
Lycurgus` solution for keeping Spartan superiority over the Helots was to divide the most fertile land into 9.000 equal shares. These shares were given to 9.000 Spartiates. Only these Spartiates were citizens with all the privileges and duties of being a full spartan citizen.
But these 9.000 landowning Spartiates would not work the fields. The plots of land were usually supervised by the wives of the Spartiates who lived separated from their barracked husbands while the Helots did the actual work.
The Spartiates lived in the city of Sparta where their main purpose of life was to train for war. That bears the question of who was seen as Spartiate.
By the way. While Sparta today is mostly seen as a totally militaristic society there was a time where Sparta valued the fine arts to the same extend as war. More on that here.
How did you become a Spartiate?
In order to become a Spartiate with full citizenship, you usually had to be of pure spartan heritage and you had to pass the agoge.
To be accepted into this education one had to be a descendent of the early Dorian settlers. But there were two exceptions:
- Foreigners could be accepted as foster sons.
- The son of a Helot could also be accepted if he was formally adopted by a separate who could also pay for his education. If he did really well at training he had a chance of becoming a Spartiate.
Spartans who could not pay for the agoge, the harsh education program, could lose their full citizenship.
These strict limitations proved nearly fatal for Sparta.
Fallen citizens could not be replaced so easily the number of Spartiates dropped from its peak at around 9.000 to merely a few hundred men in 371 BC.
The reason for that decline besides the already mentioned necessity of pure spartan blood was the lifestyle that was required.
Spartiates were not allowed to live in their own homes until they got their full citizenship at the age of 30.
Before that, they were living in barracks and could only visit their families and wives when they managed to sneak out. Obviously, that limited the opportunities on which children could be fathered.
The idea behind soldiers living together rather than being spread out through the city was that it would be much easier to react to a helot rebellion if the bulk of the soldiers was already gathered. The downturn was that the birthrate of Spartiate children was rather low.
Speaking of Spartiates: We all have heard the legend that Spartiate warriors, the so-called Hoplites, were told to return either with their shield (victorious) or on top of their shield (dead). Unfortunately, the legend is not true since fallen Spartiates were buried on the battlefield.
By the way, only fallen Spartiates and spartan women who did in childbirth were granted the honor of a gravestone. Spartiates who didn`t die in battle were buried in unmarked graves. Source.
As mentioned before, a Spartiate had to be of Dorian descent. But what happened if a boy had a Spartiate father and a Helot mother? Or if he was of Dorian descent but his family could not pay for the agoge?
The answer are the Mothakes.
The word Mothakes translates to „step-brother“. These boys were raised alongside the other spartan boys but were not able to archive full citizenship. As a consequence, the Mothakes would not fight alongside the Spartiates.
But the Mothakes were free and usually fought alongside the Perioikoi.
The actual work was done by the Helots. The Helots were the descendants of the native population that was conquered by the arriving Dorians.
Helots were state-owned serfs who were assigned to working the fields or working in spartan households. Their number was somewhere around 7 times as high as the number of Spartiates.
That blatant imbalance between Helots and Spartiates was the reason why the spartan state did its` best to keep the Helots in as much fear of their spartan masters as possible.
Sources indicate that Spartiates were allowed to mistreat and even kill Helots to ensure their dominance. But apart from the mistreat that Helots, according to some sources, had to endure they were one of the reasons for Spartas’ superb military power.
Since the Helots worked the fields the Spartiates could focus on training for war. And that kind of constant training created a superb fighting force.
Since the Spartiates weren`t necessarily needed during the seeding and the harvest they, in contrary to most other city-states, were able to wage war even during spring and fall.
Click here to check out my article on the phalanx for more information on how Spartiates actually fought battles.
For more information about the equipment, a spartan warrior would use during a battle you might want to check out my article here.
An interesting group somewhere between Spartiates and Helots were the Perioikoi. Historians are not entirely sure what their social status was.
It is assumed that the Perioikoi were the free inhabitants of the area surrounding the city of Sparta where they would farm the less fertile parts of the land.
They did not have the full civil rights like the Spartiates but they were also not bound by the restrictions the Helots had to endure.
And especially with the shrinking number of Spartiates, an increasing number of Perioikoi was integrated into the spartan phalanx.
Do you want to learn more about how the phalanx worked and why it was such an effective formation? Here you can find my article with more information!
The political structure of the spartan state
The question is how the three already presented groups interacted and how they were fitting into the structure of the spartan state.
Conveniently only one of the mentioned groups has to be considered when talking about the structure of the spartan state.
Helots had absolutely no saying in anything. While the Periokoi and the Mothakes had the duty of participating in campaigns they had no saying in political questions either.
So we only have to focus on the most important spartan social group, the Spartiates!
All male Spartiates older than 30 would meet regularly in an assembly that was called apella. There were no debates, only Yes or No votes.
The apella decided about going to war or keeping the peace, new laws, and the election of the 5 ephors.
These 5 ephors were elected for 1 year and had the duty to defend the rights of the Spartans against the 2 kings and the gerousia.
The ephors also had the duty to make sure that traditions were respected. Their power was quite big. They were able to dismiss, imprison or sue public servants.
The apella also voted the 28 members of the gerousia. The gerousia was a council of 28 elders who held real power.
Since Sparta was an oligarchy these 28 men had to be aristocrats and were usually part of the extended royal families. They had to be older than 60 years and were voted for life. The 2 spartan kings were also members of the gerousia.
Important decisions were usually discussed in the gerousia before they were brought to the apella.
The 2 kings
The kingship in Sparta was quite famously divided onto 2 kings. Both of these kings, one a member of the agiad family the other a member of the eurypontid family, had equal power.
The spartan kings could not decide against the will of their colleague. Their power was pretty limited and shrank over time. Most of the duties that the spartan kings had were of religious and military nature. And after the Greco-Persian Wars, the spartan kings were more and more reduced to figureheads. Only their duties as generals remained although they had to be accompanied by 2 ephors while on a campaign.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Sparta. If you want to learn more about how the spartan phalanx worked you might want to check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
L. Burckhardt, Militärgeschichte der Antike (2008).
P. Matysazk, Sparta: Rise of a Warrior Nation (2017).
P. Matysazk, Sparta: Fall of a Warrior Nation (2018).
A. Powell, Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC (2016).
G. Mann & A. Heuß (Hrsg.), Propyläen Weltgeschichte. Eine Universalgeschichte (Dritter Band).