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GEROU´SIA (γερουσία), the council of elders (γέροντες), was the name of the Senate in most Doric states, and was especially used to signify the Senate at Sparta. In connexion with this subject it is proposed to give a general view of the Spartan constitution, and to explain the functions of its legislative and administrative elements. In the later ages of Spartan history one of the most prominent of these was the college of the five ephors; but as an account of the Ephoralty is given in a separate article [EPHORI], we shall confine our inquiries to the kings, the γέροντες or councillors, and the ἐκκλησία or assembly of Spartan freemen.

I. The Kings. The kingly authority at Sparta was, as it is well known, coeval with the settlement of the Dorians in the Peloponnesus, and confined to the descendants of Aristodemus, one of the Heracleid leaders, under whom, according to the Spartan legend, the conquest of Laconia was achieved. To him were born twin sons, Eurysthenes and Procles; and from this cause arose the divided royalty, the sovereignty being always shared by the representatives of the two families which claimed descent from them (Hdt. 6.52). A purely formal precedence, involving no substantial inequality of power, was granted to the elder branch, known as the house of the Agiadae or Agidae (the former is more correct: Schömann, p. 225 n.), from Agis son of Eurysthenes; while the other was styled that of the Eurypontidae from Eurypon, a grandson of Procles. Such was the national legend; but the notion that both kings were Heracleids finds little favour from recent criticism (cf. Thumser, p. 158, n. 9). It is more likely that the second house represented another family; and that of the Theban Aegidae, who are believed on other grounds to have taken part in the συνοικισμὸς or Dorian conquest of Sparta, is by far the most probable. The burial-places of the two royal families were in quite different quarters of the city of Sparta (Paus. 3.12.8; 14.2); there was a traditional rivalry between them, and they appear never to have intermarried with one another. The double royalty no doubt originated in some circumstances of the earliest times which have not come down to us: that it was the result of a deliberate plan, on the part of the nobles, for weakening the kingly authority by dividing it, is not likely, though such a feeling may have tended to keep up the institution when once established.

The monarchy passed by hereditary descent, not unconditionally to the eldest son, but to the one who was born first during the reign of his father (Hdt. 7.3), and whose mother was of genuine Spartan descent. Marriages with foreigners were interdicted on political grounds; the kings were not to strengthen themselves at the expense of the constitution by means of union with other leading families. If no sons were born, or if the heir to the crown were incapacitated through some serious bodily defect, the nearest agnate succeeded; he it was, also, who acted as guardian and regent (πρόδικος) during a minority. Some of the most famous Spartan careers, for instance those of Lycurgus the legislator and Pausanias the victor at Plataea, arose out of this office of πρόδικος.

The requirement that the kings should be free from bodily defects was a necessary consequence of their priestly character. It was their duty either to perform in person, or to superintend, [p. 1.913]all the public sacrifices offered on behalf of the state; while in addition to this they held two special priesthoods, those of Zeus Uranius and Zeus Lacedaemon (Hdt. 6.56). For the support of the royal dignity, and of the hospitalities which it involved, public or domain lands were assigned to them in the districts of the perioeci, or provincial subjects, and certain perquisites belonged to them whenever any animal was slain in sacrifice. Besides this, the kings were entitled to various payments in kind (πασῶν τῶν σνῶν ἀπὸ τόκου χοῖρον), that they might never be in want of victims to sacrifice; in addition to which they received, twice a month from the state, a ἱρήϊον τέλειον, to be offered as a sacrifice to Apollo, and then served up at the royal table. Whenever also any of the citizens made a public sacrifice to the gods, the kings were invited to the feast, and honoured above the other guests: a double portion of food was given to them, and they commenced the libations to the gods (Hdt. 6.57). All these distinctions are of a simple and antiquated character, and, so far as they go, prove that the Spartan sovereignty was a continuation of the heroic or Homeric. The distinctions and privileges granted to the king as commander of the forces in war, lead to the same conclusion. These were greater than he enjoyed at home. He was guarded by a body of at least 100 chosen men, more usually 300 (Hdt. 1.67; Thuc. 5.72); and his table was maintained at the public expense: he might sacrifice in his sacerdotal capacity as many victims as he chose, the skins and chines of which were his perquisites; and he was assisted by so many subordinate officers that he had nothing else to do, except to act as priest and strategus. (Xen. de Rep. Lac. 13, 15; Hdt. 6.55.)

On the death of a Spartan king the funeral solemnities were celebrated by the whole community. The markets were closed for three days, and all public business was suspended for ten: horsemen went round the country to carry the tidings, and a fixed number of the perioeci, or provincials, were obliged to come from all parts of the country to the city, where, with the Spartans and Helots and their wives, to the number of many thousands, they made loud lamentations, and proclaimed the virtues of the deceased king as superior to those of all his predecessors. (Herod. l.c.) At the end of the ten days mourning was changed into festivity, and the accession of the new king was celebrated: the occasion was signalised by the remission of all debts due from private individuals to the state or the king; the words of Herodotus ( ἐσιὼν ἐλευθεροῖ, 6.59) suggest that they were not cancelled, but paid by the new monarch as largesse.

In comparison with their dignity and honours, the constitutional powers of the kings were very limited. Their official title seems to have been, not βασιλεῖς, but ἀρχαγέται and βαγοί: the former indicating their presidency of the senate (γερουσίαν σὺν ἀρχαγέταις καταστήσαντα, Rhetra ap. Plut. Lyc. 6), the latter probably from ἄγω with the digamma (βαγὸσ--καὶ βασιλεὺς καὶ στρατηγός Λάκωνες, Hesych.; cf. Boeckh on C. I. G 1.83).

In the γερουσία, it is probable, their votes counted for no more than those of any other senator; when absent, their place was supplied and their proxies tendered by the councillors who were most nearly related to them, and therefore of a Heracleid family. The presidency of that body was lodged either in the king of the elder house (Thirlwall, 1.319) or, as with the Roman consuls, in the two kings alternately (Schömann, Antiq. 1.233, E. T.): the latter supposition is more in accordance with the substantial equality of the royal houses. Herodotus (6.57) states that they each had two votes, but this is denied by Thucydides (1.20); when the votes were equally divided, the president may have had a casting vote, in which case his vote counted as two. The expression of Thucydides, προστίθεσθαι μιθ̂ Ψήφψ, implies that the kings voted last, which was no doubt the case with the president (Schömann, l.c.). Among other prerogatives they had the right of convoking and addressing the public assembly; they appointed the Πύθιοι [PYTHII] and the πρόξενοι [HOSPITIUM], the latter an important office in a state so jealous of foreigners as Sparta. Their judicial powers were by no means extensive; they tried suits respecting the maintenance of the public roads or the disposal of heiresses (πατροῦχοι, ἐπιπάμονες: cf. EPICLERUS p. 748 a); and adoptions took place in their presence. It was only in war that the kings still retained many attributes of the heroic monarchy. In old times they had the right to declare war upon whom they pleased, and any one who hindered them was laid under a curse (Hdt. 6.56); this, however, is not said of the single king, but of the two in joint command (ἐπ̓ ἣν ἂν βούλωνται χώρην), and in Xenophon's time it is στρατιὰν ὅποι πόλις ἐκπέμπῃ ἡγεῖσθαι (cf. Hellen. 3.4.3; 4.7.2). After the quarrel between Cleomenes and Demaratus (B.C. 506), a law was passed that for the future one only of the two kings should have the command of the army on foreign expeditions. When they had once crossed the borders of Laconia, in command of troops, their authority became unlimited, except as to capital punishment (Aristot. Pol. 3.9 == p. 1285, 7). They could send out and assemble armies, despatch ambassadors to collect money, and refer those who applied to themselves for justice to the proper officers appointed for that purpose. (Xen. de Rep. Lac. 13; Thuc. 5.60, 8.5.) Two ephors, indeed, accompanied the kings on their expeditions, but those magistrates had no authority to interfere with the king's operations: they simply watched over the proceedings of the army. (Xen. l.c.) Moreover, there can be no doubt that the kings were, on their return home, accountable for their conduct as generals (Thuc. 5.63), and more especially after the increase of the ephoral authority. Their military power also was not connected with any political functions, for the kings were not allowed to conclude treaties or to decide the fate of cities, without communicating with the authorities at home. (Xen. Hell. 2.2, § 12; 5.3.24.)

II. The γερουσία, or Council of Elders. This body was the aristocratic element of the Spartan polity, and not peculiar to Sparta only, but found, as has been already observed, in other Dorian states, just as a βουλὴ or den<*>ocratical council was an element of most Ionian constitutions. [p. 1.914]

The γερουσία at Sparta, called in the local dialect γεροντία, γερωχία, and perhaps γερωΐα (Schömann, p. 230; Gilbert, p. 51; Thumser, p. 155), consisted of twenty-eight members, exclusive of the two kings, its presidents. Plutarch (Plut. Lyc. 5) gives various explanations of this number; his own, which has been generally followed in modern times, is that, with the kings, the number thirty was made up. Hence it has been very generally supposed that each of the thirty Obae (ὠβαὶ) into which the people were divided was represented by one of the Gerontes (Müller, Dor. 3.5, § § 3, 8). But the evidence for the number of thirty Obae is very insufficient, and it is now admitted that the connexion between them and the Gerousia is, to say the least, extremely doubtful. Like every Dorian state, Sparta was divided into the three genealogical tribes (φυλαὶ γενικαί: cf. DEMUS p. 615 a) of Ὑλλεῖς, Δυμᾶνες, and Πάμφυλοι, whence the Dorians are called τριχάϊκες, or thrice divided (Od. 19.177). But it is now agreed that there was another division of the Spartans into local tribes (φυλαὶ τοπικαί), the number of which is unknown, but was perhaps five, corresponding to the five κῶμαι or villages which made up the city of Sparta, and named, as there is good reason to think, Πιτάνη, Λίμναι, Μεσσόα, Κυνόσουρα, and Δύμη (Thumser, p. 165 n.). The Obae were subdivisions of these local tribes, not of the three hereditary ones; their number and exact nature are unlike unknown, and any definite conclusions on this point must await further evidence from inscriptions (Gilbert, p. 44). Schömann (p. 231) has well pointed out that it is hard to believe that the kings, who ranked as members of one gens, the Heracleidae, can have represented two different Obae; or again, that so obvious a circumstance as the representation of the Obae in the Gerousia, if it really existed, could have remained so completely concealed from the ancients, and especially from Aristotle. Thumser (p. 165) has in our opinion treated these objections much too lightly.

No one was eligible to the Gerousia till he was sixty years of age (Plut. Lyc. 26), and the additional qualifications were strictly of an aristocratic nature. We are told, for instance, that the office of a councillor was the reward and prize of virtue (Aristot. Pol. 2.9 == p. 1270 b, 24; Demosth. c. Lcpt. p. 489.107), and that it was confined to men of distinguished character and station (καλοὶ κἀγαθοί). The election was determined by vote, and the mode of conducting it was remarkable for its old-fashioned simplicity. The competitors presented themselves one after another to the assembly of electors (Plut. Lyc. 26); the latter testified their esteem by acclamations, which varied in intensity according to the popularity of the candidates for whom they were given. These manifestations of esteem were noted by persons in an adjoining building, who could judge of the shouting, but could not tell in whose favour it was given. The person whom these judges thought to have been most applauded was declared the successful candidate. Aristotle calls this mode of election childish (παιδαριώδης, l.c. line 28); and further denounces it because the candidates came forward of their own motion, whereas the best men ought to have been elected even against their will (p. 1271, 10). The office of a councillor was not only for life, but also irresponsible (p. 1271, 15), as if a previous reputation, and the near approach of death, were considered a sufficient guarantee for integrity and moderation. But the councillors did not always prove so, for Aristotle (l.c.) tells us that the members of the γερουσία received bribes, and frequently showed partiality in their decisions.

The functions of the councillors were partly deliberative, partly judicial, and partly executive. In the discharge of the first they prepared measures and passed preliminary decrees (Plut. Agis 11) which were to be laid before the popular assembly, so that the important privilege of initiating all changes in the government or laws was vested in them. As a criminal court they could punish with death and civil degradation (ἀτιμία, Xen. Rep. Lac. 10, § 2; Aristot. Pol. 3.1 == p. 1275 b, 10), and that too without being restrained by any code of written laws, for which national feeling and recognised usages would form a sufficient substitute. They also appear to have exercised, like the Areiopagus at Athens, a general superintendence and inspection over the lives and manners of the citizens (arbitri et magistri disciplinae publicae, Aul. Gel. 18.3), and probably were allowed “a kind of patriarchal authority to enforce the observance of ancient usage and discipline.” (Thirlwall, Hist. of Greece, vol. i. p. 318.) It is not, however, easy to define with exactness the original extent of their functions ; especially as respects the last-mentioned duty, since the ephors not only encroached upon the prerogatives of the king and council, but also possessed, in very early times, a censorial power, and were not likely to permit any diminution of its extent.

III. The ἐκκλησία, or Assembly of Spartan Freemen. This assembly possessed, in theory at least, the supreme authority in all matters affecting the general interests of the state. Its original position at Sparta is shortly explained by a rhetra or ordinance of Lycurgus, which, in the form of an oracle, exhibits the principal features of the Spartan polity:--“Build a temple,” says the Pythian god, “to Hellanian Zeus and Hellanian Athena; divide the tribes, and institute thirty obas; appoint a council with its princes; call an assembly between Babyca and Knakion, then make a motion and depart; and let there be a right of decision and power to the people:” thus translated in Müller, Dor. 3.5.8. The Greek of this ῥήτρα is highly curious, and involves some critical points: Διὸς Ἑλλανίου καὶ Ἀθανᾶς Ἑλλανίας [Συλλανίου . . . Συλλανίας, Sintenis; other conjectures in Thumser, p. 110, n. 4] ἱερὸν ἱδρυσάμενον, φυλὰς φυλάξαντα καὶ ὠβὰς ὠβάξαντα [τριάκοντα] γερουσίαν σὺν ἀρχαγέταις καταστήσαντα, ὥρας <*>᾿ξ ὥρας ἀπελλάζ<*>ιν μεταξὺ Βαβύκας τε καὶ Κνακιῶνος, οὕτως <*>ἰσφέρειν τε καὶ <*>ίστασθαι: δάμῳ δὲ τὰν κυρίαν ἦμεν καὶ κράτος (ap. Plut. Lyc. 6). The technical terms are then explained by Plutarch : ἐν τούτοις τὸ μὲν φυλὰς φυλάξαι καὶ ὠβὰς ὠβάξαι, διελεῖν ἐστι καὶ κατανεῖμαι τὸ πλῆ<*>ος εἰς μερίδας, ὧν τὰς μὲν φυλὰς, τὰς δ<*> ὠβ<*> προσηγόρ<*>υκεν. Ἀρχαγέται δὲ οἱ βασιλεῖς λ<*>´γονται, τὸ δὲ ἀπελλάζειν, ἐκκλησίαζειν. The word τριάκοντα is commonly (as by Müller) joined to ὠβάς, and [p. 1.915]this is the only evidence for the number of thirty obae (see above); Sintenis places a comma after ὠβάξαντα, and joins τριάκοντα γερουσίαν σὺν ἀρχαγέταις, an awkward expression which is not likely to have been used in a law; Curtius and others with good reason reject the word as a gloss (Thumser, p. 166, n. 3). On the name ἀπέλλα, and the probable meaning of the phrase “between Babyca and Knakion,” see under ECCLETI and cf. SPARTA in Dict. Geogr. ii. 1029 a; the text of Plutarch is here defective. The phrase ὥρας ἐξ ὥρας, given up by Müller as unintelligible, is now explained of a monthly meeting, “from full moon to full moon,” on the authority of the Schol. to Thuc. 1.67. On occasions of emergency, extraordinary meetings were convened by the kings and, in later times, by the ephors also (Hdt. 7.134).

By this ordinance full power was given to the people to adopt or reject whatever was proposed to them by the king and other magistrates. It was, however, found necessary to define this power more exactly, and the following clause, ascribed to the kings Theopompus and Polydorus, was added to the original rhetra: “but if the people should follow a crooked opinion the elders and the princes shall withdraw” (αἰ δὲ σκολιὰν δᾶμος ἑλοιτο τοὺς πρεσβυγενέας καὶ ἀρχαγέτας ἀποστατῆρας ἦμεν). Plutarch (l.c.) interprets these words to mean, “That in case the people does not either reject or approve in toto a measure proposed to them, the kings and councillors should dissolve the assembly, and declare the proposed decree to be invalid.” With σκολιὰν Plutarch supplies γνώμην, but probably the word should be ῥήτραν: we read in Tyrtaeus εὐθείαις ρνώμαις ἀνταπαμειβομένους. According to this interpretation, which is confirmed by some verses in the Eunomia of Tyrtaeus, the assembly was not competent to originate any measures, but only to pass or reject, without modification, the laws and decrees proposed by the proper authorities: a limitation of its power, which almost determined the character of the Spartan constitution, and justifies the words of Demosthenes, who observes (c. Lept. p. 489.107), that the γερουσία at Sparta was in many respects supreme--Δεσπότης ἐστὶ τῶν πολλῶν. All citizens above the age of thirty who were not labouring under any loss of franchise were admissible to the general assembly or ἀπέλλα: but no one except public magistrates, and chiefly the ephors and kings, addressed the people without being specially called upon. (Müller, Dor. 3.4.11.) The same public functionaries also put the question to the vote, and the method of voting was by acclamation. (Thuc. 1.80, 87.) Hence, as the magistrates only (τὰ τέλη or οἱ ἐν τέλει) were the leaders and speakers of the assembly, decrees of the whole people are often spoken of as the decision of the authorities only, especially in matters relating to foreign affairs. The intimate connexion of the ephors with the assembly is shown by a phrase of very frequent occurrence in decrees (ἔδοξε τοῖς ἐφόροις καὶ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ). An attempt has been made to distinguish between the phrases οἱ ἐν τέλει and τὰ τέλη: they probably refer to the same persons, according as they are regarded in their individual (οἱ ἐν τέλει) or their collective τέλη) capacity.

“ The subjects of discussion in the popular assemblies which we find in the historians are the election of magistrates and Gerontes, decisions upon a disputed succession between pretenders to the crown, votes concerning peace and war, and treaties with foreign states, or finally legislative measures, although we are unable to state definitely which of these subjects were referred originally to the people, and which only at a later time, or which of them were heard before the Great and which before the Small Ecclesia [on this μικρὰ ἐκκλησία, mentioned only Xen. Hell. 3.3, § 8, see ECCLETI]. As far as concerns legislation especially, this was in Sparta of so fixed and rigid a nature that the assembly had much less business in connexion with it than in other states; and if we except the gradual extension of the privileges of the ephoralty, which could hardly have resulted without occasional decrees of the people, we find no mention until the times of Agis and Cleomenes of legislative measures which can be regarded as passed by the people, with exception of the permission to use gold and silver in the State treasury, and the law of Epitadeus by which the inalienability of family estates was removed.” (Schömann, Antiq. 1.235, E. T.)

The commingling of monarchical, aristocratic or oligarchic, and democratic elements in the Spartan constitution was noticed by ancient writers; but the clearer-sighted among them saw what is still more evident to the moderns, that the oligarchic element largely preponderated. Thus Isocrates, who was completely out of sympathy with the democratic institutions of his own country, referring to the greatly increased authority of the kings in war-time, speaks of the Lacedaemonians as “the best governed of the Greeks, an oligarchy in peace, a monarchy in war” (Nicocl. § 24). It was also seen that the constitution, as settled by Lycurgus, was greatly altered in character by the usurpation of the ephors; while the complete exclusion of the Perioeci and Helots from all share in the government did not strike them as incompatible with democracy. Thus Plato doubted whether the government of Sparta might not be called a “tyranny,” in consequence of the extensive powers of the ephoralty, though it was as much like a democracy as any form of government could well be; and yet, he adds, not to call it an aristocracy (i. e. a government of the ἄριστοι) is quite absurd. Aristotle, when he enumerates the reasons why the Spartan government was called an oligarchy, makes no mention of the relations between the Spartans and their conquered subjects, but observes that it received this name because it had many oligarchical institutions, such as that none of the magistrates were chosen by lot; that a few persons were competent to inflict banishment and death (Pol. 4.9==p. 1294 b, 31). In another passage he views the question somewhat differently, insisting more upon the balance of powers in the constitution and less on the predominance of a single element: “Some declare that the best form of government is one mixed of all the forms, wherefore they praise the Spartan constitution: for some say that it is composed of an oligarchy, a monarchy, and a democracy--a monarchy on account of the kings, an oligarchy on account of the councillors, and a democracy on account of the ephors; but others say that [p. 1.916]the ephoralty is a ‘tyranny;’ whereas, on the other hand, it may be affirmed that the public tables, and the regulations of daily life, are of a democratic tendency” (Pol. 2.6 == p. 1265 b, 33 ff.). In reality the clearest proof of the essentially oligarchical character of the Spartan government is the jealous exclusiveness with which, in spite of dwindling numbers, they refused to admit new blood. As in other oligarchies ancient and modern, this exclusiveness was not incompatible with the haughty equality of all who stood within the charmed circle; but at Sparta that equality was modified by the distinction, still somewhat obscure, between the ὅμοιοι and ὑπομείονες [HOMOEI]. The Greeks naturally associated oligarchy with the ostentatious enjoyment of wealth; and as we see from the last-quoted passage, they were sometimes misled by the simplicity and rigour of the Spartan training, and ascribed to a democratic instinct what was really a necessity of class and racial domination. “All Laconia was a camp, the Spartiatae a garrison” [EMPHRURI]; and they remained during the whole course of their history as alien in blood from the subject population as the Normans in England for a short period after the Conquest. The case is pithily summed up by Grote (2.127): “Though Greek theorists found a difficulty in determining under what class they should arrange it, it was in substance a close, unscrupulous, and well-obeyed oligarchy--including within it, as subordinate, those portions which had once been dominant, the kings and the senate, and softening the odium, without abating the mischief, of the system, by its annual change of the ruling ephors.”

Authorities.--1. for the facts of the Spartan constitution: Schömann, Antiq. 1.191-295, E. T.; Gilbert, Staatsalterth. 1.44-56; Busolt, Griech. Gesch. 1.94-135; Thumser, Staatsalterth. pt. i. (1889), in Hermann-Blümner, § § 23-25, pp. 146-176. 2. for historical criticism of its spirit: Arnold, Thucydides, vol. i. App. ii. in the 2nd and subsequent edd., largely modified by Sir G. C. Lewis' review of edit. 1 in Philol. Mus. 2.38-71; Thirlwall, vol. i. ch. 8; Grote, vol. ii. pt. ii. ch. 6.

[R.W] [W.W]

hide References (30 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (30):
    • Aristotle, Politics, 2.1270b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 3.1275b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 3.1285b
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.67
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.55
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.57
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.52
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.56
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.134
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.3
    • Homer, Odyssey, 19.177
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.12.8
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.14.2
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.72
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.67
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.60
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.63
    • Thucydides, Histories, 8.5
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 2.2
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 3.3
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 10
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 13
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.20
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.80
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.87
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 18.3
    • Plutarch, Lycurgus, 26
    • Plutarch, Lycurgus, 5
    • Plutarch, Lycurgus, 6
    • Plutarch, Agis, 11
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