Saturday, November 8, 2014

Conservative Politics as used by the Spartans in 370BC

There was a prevailing idea in ancient Greece that progress for the sake of progress would bring about the end of civilisation as they knew it.  Due to this idea, the Greeks tried to keep their culture, beliefs, and politics as unchanged as possible.  This was achieved through the use of conservative politics, and the most conservative of the Greeks around the 370s BC with this belief in mind, appear to have been the Spartans.  The cause of this mindset for the Greeks was the belief that the world was created perfect, but with each change[1] the world got worse and therefore conservatism in policy was needed to keep things standard and this would also keep the world from degrading any further. 

Xenophon was full of high praise for the Spartans and their way of life.  This is clearly evident when reading his works on the Lacedaimonian Constitution.  However, it has been said that Xenophon was biased towards Sparta because of the lands that he was given, and as such his accounts should not be taken as complete fact.  This would mean that other sources, such as Plutarch, Aristotle, and Diodorus need to be examined as well to gain perspective.  These sources, too, have a fault in that they were written many centuries later and do not have first hand knowledge of the practices of Sparta at the time.  Therefore, by examining all the sources and relating them to methods of practice used by the Spartans, a reasonable conclusion can be attained in relation to the use of conservative politics within the Spartan culture.[2]

One method that the Spartans employed to ensure continuity through conservatism can be seen in the family arrangements that were made.  The state assumed certain levels of control or input into the familial lives of the citizens, through regulation of a child’s education, stipulations on the manner in which a couple could copulate and reproduce, and the manner in which women were to conduct themselves.  Xenophon starts addressing these family and personal governance issues by addressing the begetting of children.  He does not just address the regulations pertaining to the sexual congress of man and wife, but talks also of the regulations on women to ensure that they are trained and well-fed to be physically fit and hardy enough to be able to produce the healthiest and strongest progeny.  This was done by having the slave women make the clothes and tend the houses in Sparta as the freeborn female citizens of other Greek states did, which allowed the Spartan women to engage in the physical training and trials as set out by the lawgiver Lycurgus.[3] 

There were some aspects to the lives of the women in Sparta that were not conservative, however.  The fact that the women were treated and behaved very differently in Sparta as compared to the rest of Greece was not conservative.  The freeborn women in Greece at that time were to stay home and make the clothes and take care of the house, eat a very plain diet, and refrain from hard physical training.[4]  As Cartledge points out, “[I]n other words, the female citizen population of Sparta – or so it has seemed to non-Spartan males from at least the sixth century B.C. – enjoyed the extraordinary and perhaps unique distinction of both being ‘in society’ and yet behaving in a (to them) socially unacceptable manner.”[5]  This is in no way conservative, but rather forward thinking and breaking with the social norm of Greece at the time.  Therefore, in relation to Sparta being politically conservative in relation to the personal involvement of its female citizenry, it actually was not. 

An interesting bit of policy that Lycurgus gave was that of communal wealth and ownership.  This was done to eliminate the feeling of greed and jealousy among the Spartans that develop when one person has more than another.  An example would be that if a citizen owned a horse and another citizen did not, but needed to use a horse, it was perfectly acceptable for the one in need to just take the horse and use it provided that they treated it well and returned it when finished.  The same went for hunting dogs, servants, and other belongings.[6]  To further this idea of eliminating jealousy through material things, the pursuit of money was also not allowed in Sparta.  With the society having communal responsibility for food, raiment, and belongings, there was no need to pursue money.  Further, the system of money that was used was metal spikes, and large and cumbersome enough that carrying them was impractical.[7]  This was an attempt at conservativeness in wealth which Xenophon praises as being very successful. 

However, according to Plutarch, Thucydides, and others as cited by de Ste Croix, Spartan wealth was very much unbalanced.  There was a marked difference in wealth levels both pre- and post-Lycurgan, as noted by designations of the ‘prosperous ones’, ‘those of good family, and wealth among the first’, and ‘those who had great possessions’.  It would appear that these were the Spartans that were able to breed racing horses and compete in the games at Olympia, the ones that were able to provide wheat for bread instead of just the common barley, and owned the best lands.  This is starkly contradictory to what Xenophon wrote about the Spartans.[8]

It can be concluded from these examples that while the Spartans had a very good and in many ways conservative constitution, they did not always follow it.  Further, it is evident that while Xenophon was a contemporary of the Spartan culture and was writing from first-hand knowledge of events in Sparta, he was also biased and romanticised the state of Sparta.  It is most probable that what Xenophon saw and wrote about was true to a certain extent, but that his bias towards a favourable view of Sparta influenced his writing, and thus his view while positive, is not entirely fair due to this bias. 


Cartledge, P.  (1981).  ‘Spartan Wives: Liberation of Licence?’, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp 84-105. 

Rice, D.  (1974).  ‘Agesilaus, Agesipolis, and Spartan Politics, 386-379 B.C.’, Historia Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, Bd. 23, H. 2, 2nd Qtr, pp 164-182.

Whitby, M.  (2002).  Sparta. ‘Trials at Sparta’, (by de Ste Croix, G).  Edinburgh University Press pp 69-77. 

Xenophon.  Constitution of the Athenians in Marchant, E., and Bowersock, G., trans. (1925), Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7, Harvard University Press.

[1] i.e. from gold period to silver period, etc.
[2] Rice, Agesilaus, Agesipolis, and Spartan Politics, p. 164
[3] Xenophon 1:3-5
[4] Xenophon 1:3
[5] Cartledge, Spartan Wives, p. 85
[6] Xenophon 6:3
[7] Xenophon 7
[8] Whitby, ‘Trials at Sparta’, Sparta, pp. 76-77

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