Saturday, November 8, 2014

What is the Great Rhetra and When Was It Made?

The question of what the Great Rhetra was is not that complicated, but rather straight-forward.  However, when coupled with the question of when it eventuated, or came about, it then becomes a rather difficult one to pin down to exact facts due to the nature of the document, and due to the primary historical evidence.  Indeed, there has been many a modern scholar, and even many ancient scholars, discuss the origins of the Great Rhetra and where is came from.  Through the course of this essay, some of these ancient and modern scholars will be examined by way of their research and reasoning on the subject of the Great Rhetra for the purpose of ascertaining a reasonable and logical answer to the two aforementioned questions.

In basic terms, the Great Rhetra was the basis or the core of the Spartan constitution.  There were many democratic forward-thinking policies within the Great Rhetra.  As taken from Plutarch’s Life of Lycourgus, the main part of the Rhetra reads as follows: "When thou hast built a temple to Zeus Syllanius and Athena Syllania, divided the people into 'phylai' and into 'obai,' and established a senate of thirty members, including the 'archagetai,' then from time to time 'appellazein' between Babyca and Cnacion, and there introduce and rescind measures; but the people must have the deciding voice and the power."[1]  The other part of the Great Rhetra is known as the Rider, or King’s Rider.  It is another line at the end of the Great Rhetra which is of great debate as to if it is part of the original, if it was added on at a later date, or even if it was written first and the rest of the Rhetra came after.  The line that is the cause of so much debate reads as follows: "But if the people should adopt a distorted motion, the senators and kings shall have power of adjournment.”[2]  This one line has caused a lot of debate on the authenticity of the Great Rhetra, as well as its origins. 

Koiv has a decent summary of the Great Rhetra put into modern terms.  He states that first it prescribed the establishment of a new cult (Syllanian Zeus and Athena), the arrangement of the members of the community into structural units (phylai and obai) the establishment of the gerousia (council or elders) of 30 members, including the two kings, and the regular holding of assemblies.  Second, it prescribed the correct procedure to be followed in the assemblies which left the right of the final decision to the people.  According to Aristotle, the kings Polydoros and Theopompos added later the so-called Rider to the Rhetra.  It gave the gerontes and the kings the right to dissolve the assembly if the people would speak crookedly.[3]  This begins the debate on authenticity of the Great Rhetra and the Rider, and shows that an examination of its structure will be needed to ascertain a better understanding of when it came about.

In examining the structure of the Great Rhetra, Butler believed that Plutarch thought that the kings and elders of Sparta had the ability to dissolve the meetings by becoming dissenters if the demos raised a ‘crooked’ motion.  Further, the demos had been distorting the sense of motions by abstraction and addition.  Butler believes that Plutarch was wrong for believing this.[4]  Indeed, from the Great Rhetra itself, it does state that if the people were to adopt a motion that was not in favour of the state of Sparta, or ‘distorted’, that the kings and the elders would be able to adjourn the motion.  This could be translated as dissent, but it would logically seem that the translation of ‘adjournment’ that was used in Plutarch’s recitation of the Great Rhetra would be the more likely and appropriate.  However, this position of attack on Plutarch by Butler does not make sense, as Plutarch clearly says that he knows that the Rider was added after the Great Rhetra was written.[5]  This means that Butler and Plutarch should be in agreeance on the reforms to the Great Rhetra. 

Contrary to Butler, however, Forest believes that the Great Rhetra was a complete document inclusive of the Rider, and that it does not make any sense without it.  Further, Forest maintains that Aristotle actually invented the separation of the Rider and the Great Rhetra because he could not reconcile his beliefs about the document otherwise.  This, Forest argues, is due largely to the fact that Aristotle had the diskos from Olympia that placed Lycourgos and his legislation in 776 BC, but the poem of Tyrtaios gave credit for something like unto the legislation to the kings Theopompos and Polydoros.  He goes on to say that Aristotle solved this problem by separating the Rider from the Great Rhetra and by limiting reference of Tyrtaios to just the Rider alone.  Then, after stating this series of events, Forest states that he does not entirely believe this to be the case, but feels constrained to put it forward none-the-less as it seems plausible.[6]  Thus the problems of differing opinions regarding the Great Rhetra and the Rider begin to show, and as demonstrated by Forest, can even exist in the same person. 

Koiv addresses what is possibly the crux of the problem with the unagreed upon verdict regarding the Great Rhetra and the Rider.  Koiv spells out that most of the 4th century BC writers are dismissed or treated with scepticism nowadays because there is little proof that they did anything other than conjecture about oral traditions regarding Sparta and its early history.  For example, Aristotle is believed to have deduced his points of view by the combination of the text of the Great Rhetra and Tyrtaios’ poetry with the legend of Lycourgus.  The entire account of Aristotle, including his opinion that the Rider was a later addition to the original Rhetra, is set aside with almost no regard or consideration for its potential value for reconstructing the actual course of events from the era of the Great Rhetra.[7] 

A further problem in the quest to discovering where the Great Rhetra came from arises in Ogden’s work.  Ogden believes that Plutarch is wrong in his understanding of Greek.  As Ogden states, ““The most serious problem for this understanding of the word[s] is the fact that it contradicts Plutarch’s exegesis: Plutarch thinks that …is transitive, but takes as its object the damos.  Wade-Gery concludes that Plutarch simply got it wrong.  Tsopanakis suspects …that he is vague here because he didn’t feel he knew what [it] meant”.[8]  It is interesting that modern scholars will question an ancient source on their ability to understand their own language, and from the time that it was being used as well.  This could be partly to do with Ogden’s opinion on the Rhetra, that the Rider is actually the oldest part, and by this hypothesis is arguing that the two seemingly contradictory parts of the Great Rhetra make perfect sense when taken out of order from what they appear.[9] 

In trying to find the source and origin of the Great Rhetra, Ogden is not alone in rearranging parts of it to try and make it fit better with a hypothesis.  Wade-Gery is of the opinion that the Great Rhetra was not from an Oracle, or that it was the construction of Lycourgus either.  He believes instead that it was a fabrication of the Spartan Ekklesia, and that the Rider was part of the original Rhetra, only that it was designed to appear that it was added later.[10]  However, the way that Wade-Gery supports this theory is by changing a large portion of the Rhetra by taking words and changing them, adding them, and deleting them, until the Great Rhetra reads the way that he wants it to in order to support his own theory of what the Rhetra was meant for and possibly who wrote it.  For his translation, Wade changes some of the words from what Plutarch has them recorded as to different words, (the infinitive of the verb to be, for example), and says that it was improbable that Plutarch or Aristotle would have kept both of the different forms of the word that appears in the Rhetra, and that Plutarch’s copy must be wrong.[11]  This seems to be quite a stretch and manipulation of data in order to get support for a hypothesis, as was expressed by Butler.[12]

It does appear that the majority of the scholars agree on a rough timeframe that the Great Rhetra originated at, though.  Forest ascribes to Aristotle’s dating of Lycourgus to 776 BC, stating that Aristotle had the diskos from Olympia bearing Lycourgus’ name on it and commemorated the institution of the Olympic truce in 776 BC.[13]  Forest goes on to state that one of the very few establishable facts in Spartan chronology is that the reigns of Theopompos and Polydoros overlapped between about 700 and 670 BC.  Any study of early Spartan history must begin with an examination of Aristotle’s reasoning on this last point, for if Aristotles read the kings’ names in his text of Tyrtaios the move towards reform in Sparta began no later than about 670BC.[14]   This method of dating can be compared to Plutarch’s timeline in his Life of Lycourgus, where he dictates things that Lycourgus was to have done.  After travelling for many years to various parts of the world, and observing many different ways of governance, Lycourgus eventually returned to Sparta and found that the populace and aristocracy was in need of major reforms.  He went to the Oracle at Delphi and sacrificed to the god and the Pythian priestess called him “beloved of the gods, and rather god than man”, and said that the god had answered his prayers.  This is when he then received the oracle that is regarded as the Great Rhetra.[15] 

While Forest doesn’t agree that Lycourgus was the one that brought the Delphic oracle to Sparta, he does believe that the reformed legislation in the shape of the Rhetra and the Rider happened around 700-699 BC and was brought by the kings Theopompos and Polydoros, with Lycourgus acting as just an advisor or political browbeater.  He further believes that the Rhetra fits more closely with the reformist and forward thinking of Polydoros.[16]  Jeffery on the other hand, disagrees with both the theory of Lycourgus and that of Theopompos and Polydoros being the progenitors of the Great Rhetra, and believes instead that Hellanicus is correct in his account.  Citing Hellanicus, Jeffery states that Eurysthenes and Procles led the Spartans into Lacedaemon and founded the two royal families.  Further, that they also drew up the Spartan constitution, and that another Greek, Ephorus, attacked Hellanicus on this facet of lack of credit given to Lycurgus.[17] 

All of these discrepancies regarding the Great Rhetra and the lawgiver Lycourgus should not come as a surprise as this is not a new issue.  Plutarch stated in his Life of Lycourgus, “[C]oncerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman; and there is least agreement among historians as to the times in which the man lived.”[18]   Therefore it should not be surprising that in modern day scholarship, there are still problems with trying to reconcile all the accounts concerning the Great Rhetra and Lycourgus and place them into a proper, accepted timeframe.  As Koiv says, there is no reason to discard Aristotle’s conclusions as worthless, because he would have been at the tail end of a continuous chain of information, and would have been well informed of the developments in Spartan politics and therefore would have been better prepared to make judgments about the worth of particular accounts than scholars today are.[19] Indeed, Aristotle himself stated that he regarded the lawgivers of Sparta among the great lawgivers of history, and believed that Sparta was the only state in which the lawgiver paid any attention to the nurture and exercises of the citizens.[20][21]  So, while it may as yet not be possible to know exactly when the Great Rhetra came into existence, it can be narrowed down to between the 7th and 6th century BC, and there can also be no dispute as to the significance that it played in the lives and culture of the Spartans who had it as their constitution for many generations.


Aristotle.  (1934).  Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, trans. by Rackham, H., Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Butler, D.  (1962).  “Competence of the Demos in the Spartan Rhetra”.  Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte,  Bd. 11, H. 4, pp 385-396. 

Forest, W. G.  (1963).  “The date of the Lykourgan reforms in Sparta”.  Phoenix: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada,  Vol. 17, No. 2, pp 157-169. 

Jeffery, L. H.  (1961).  “The pact of the first settlers at Cyrene”.  Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte.  Bd. 10, H. 2, pp 139-147. 

Koiv, M.  (2000).  “The origins, development and reliability of the ancient tradition about the formation of Spartan constitution”.  Studia Humaniora Tartuensia.  1:1.3, pp 1-27. 

Ogden, D.  (1994).  “Crooked speech: the genesis of the Spartan Rhetra”.  Journal of Hellenic Studies.  Vol. 114, pp 85-102. 

Plutarch.  (1914).  The Life of Lycurgus, in The Parallel Lives, Vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library.*.html

Wade-Gery, H. T.  (1943).  “The Spartan Rhetra in Plutarch Lycurgus VI: A. Plutarch’s text”.  Classical Quarterly.  Vol. 37, No. 1/2, pp 62-72. 

[1] Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, in The Parallel Lives, Vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library.  , pp 222-223
[2] Ibid, p 224
[3] Koiv, “The origins, development and reliability of the ancient tradition about the formation of Spartan constitution”.  Studia Humaniora Tartuensia, p 1
[4] Butler, “Competence of the Demos in the Spartan Rhetra”.  Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, pp 386-387
[5] Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, pp 222-223
[6] Forest, “The date of the Lykourgan reforms in Sparta”.  Phoenix: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada, p 159, 165-166 
[7] Koiv, Origins, p 3
[8] Ogden, “Crooked speech: the genesis of the Spartan Rhetra”.  Journal of Hellenic Studies., p 91
[9] Ibid, p 85
[10] Wade-Gery, “The Spartan Rhetra in Plutarch Lycurgus VI: A. Plutarch’s text”.  Classical Quarterly., p 62
[11] Ibid, p 64
[12] Butler, Competence, p 388
[13] Forest, Date of Lykourgan Reforms , p 157
[14] Ibid, p 158
[15] Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, pp 215-221
[16] Forest, Date of Lykourgan Reforms,  p 170-171
[17] Jeffery, “The pact of the first settlers at Cyrene”.  Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte., p 145
[18] Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, p 205
[19] Koiv, Origins, p 24
[20] Aristotle, Ethics , Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, trans. by Rackham, H., Harvard University Press, Cambridge., 1. 13
[21] Ibid, 10.9

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