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Spartan Oligarchy

The “few” (oligoi ) who made policy in the oligarchy ruling Sparta were a group of twenty-eight men over sixty years old, joined by the two kings. This group of thirty, called the “council of elders” ( gerousia 1), formulated proposals that were submitted to an assembly of all free adult males. This assembly had only limited power to amend the proposals put before it; mostly it was expected to approve the council's plans. Rejections were rare because the council retained the right to withdraw a proposal when the reaction to it by the crowd in the assembly presaged a negative vote. “If the people speak crookedly,” according to Spartan tradition, “the elders and the leaders of the people shall be withdrawers [of the proposal].” The council could then bring the proposal back on another occasion after there had been time to marshal support for its passage.

A board of five annually elected “overseers” ( ephors 2) counterbalanced the influence of the kings and the gerousia. Chosen from the adult male citizens at large, the ephors convened the gerousia and the assembly, and they exercised considerable judicial powers of judgment and punishment. They could even bring charges against a king and imprison him until his trial. The creation of the board of ephors diluted the political power of the oligarchic gerousia and the kings because the job of the ephors was to ensure the supremacy of law. The Athenian Xenophon later reported3: “All men rise from their seats in the presence of the king, except for the ephors. The ephors on behalf of the polis and the king on his own behalf swear an oath to each other every month: the king swears that he will exercise his office according to the established laws of the polis , and the polis swears that it will preserve his kingship undisturbed if he abides by his oath.”

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