In what ways did the dual Kingship of Sparta reflect (or perpetuate) other aspects of Spartan society

Sparta, as countless others scholars have noted, was a world apart from the other poleis in Ancient Greece in its customs. It was one of the few poleis to retain a Kingship, and as doubly odd to have had a Dyarchy – two Kings reigning simultaneously, one each from the Agiad and Eurypontid lines respectively. Is it possible, in fact, that this strange royal partnership reflected and maybe even in some way fuelled the peculiar habits of Lacedaemonian society? I wish to explore the nature of the Kings role in the Spartan constitution, their role in Spartan religion and their powers commanding the army.

I will also explore their role in diplomacy.

The concept that we have of archaic monarchs (in this case, dyarchs), especially many of those during the Hellenistic era (like Phillip II & Alexander I of Macedon, the Great Kings of Persia and later on into history) is that of absolute control and to check that power. In Sparta, it was a very different affair (Cartledge, 1987: 17; 2001: 57).

Perhaps a very basic point, but something that reflected the overall ethos of Laconian society was the deemed seniority of the Agiad line (Hdt. 6. 51; Cartledge, 1987: 23, 100). This echoed throughout Spartan society; where the Spartan youth were tutored to obey their elders.

The two Kings were overseen (literally – MacDowell, 1986: 128) by Ephors and laws were passed by the Gerousia (which they were at least part of). It is quite plausible that over the centuries, before the advent of Ephors, the constitutional powers of the Kings were much greater (MacDowell, 1986: 123).

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For example, by the mid 5th century, we know that judicially, the Kings judged cases involving unmarried heiresses, adoptions and public roads (Herodotus, 6.57. 4/5).

Indeed, the constantly fluctuating relationship between the Ephors & Gerousia with the Kings is something worth investigating. In theory, the Ephorate was established to prolong the royal crowns (Cartledge, 2001: 33), with both of them exchanging vows to each other monthly to act within the law (Xen. Lac. Pol. 15.7). But there were instances where ulterior motives on either side came to the fore. Pausanias tells us that when a King committed a misdemeanour and was to be tried back home, the judges included the other governing arms – the Ephors and the Gerousia, the latter including the other king (Paus, 3.5.2); Cleomenes was exiled for trying to dismiss the Athenian boule (Yates, 2005: 75/6). However, it is quite possible that this was a special case, regarding the trial of Pausanias (MacDowell, 1986, 128, Cartledge, 1987: 109).

We also hear of the Ephors conducting a ritual sky watch once every 8 years, searching for bad omens which they could use against the kings rule (Rahe, 1977: 278-9, no. 145). Not only does this show a cautious approach from them towards the dyarchs, but the ritual itself fits very neatly with the religious aspect (page 6) of the kings themselves; they could be impeached by the gods. Ste. Croix goes further, categorising the trials and banishments of the Kings in the 5th & 4th centuries as the work of the Ephors (1972: 350-3; Rahe, 1980: 398). Pleistoanax’s actions in Attica (446-5 BC) led him to being put on trial and exiled, and this may well have been due to the report of the Ephor(s) accompanying him on the campaign (Cartledge, 1987: 17). It might well have been that his peace with Athens was not popular with the Gerousia and Ephors, ably demonstrated by the violation of his peace (Cartledge, 1982: 261/2). This would also show the inherent hostility towards Athens in Spartan society.

Yet, there are instances where the balance is reversed and the ephors were used as an advisory board of sorts. Cleomenes I ‘went to the ephors’ in order to inform them about the suspicious activities of Mnaiandrios of Samos (Hdt. 3.148.2). We also hear from Xenophon that King (regent) Pausanias managed to convince three Ephors to take military action (Xen. Hell. 2.4.29), though this would have been different for other judicial decisions (MacDowell, 1986: 131). There is also the instance where Agesilaos managed to take drastic action and execute conspirators after consulting the ephors (Plutarch, Agesilaos. 32. 11). The Ephors were liable to manipulation from wily Kings (Brunt, 1965: 279).

Despite being put in place to check the power of the Kings, it is likely that the Ephors weren’t indicative of popular representation within Sparta, being as they were, just 5 citizens elected from the damos (Aristotle, Pol. 1256b39-40) and holding office for only a year. Individual Ephors might well have exploited disagreements between Kings to their own advantage (Cartledge, 2001: 59), but split voting, change of policy with new Ephors and disagreements would have put pay to any personal ambitions. Moreover, the Kingship remained the principal office for which true political power remained, as the Machiavellian scheming of Lysander attests to (Cartledge, 2001: 36).

What this shows is the willing subservience of Spartan society to adhere to their rigid hierarchy of royal dominance, and that the downfall of a King would be the reluctant last solution, if it would save the Lacedaemonians from doom. Let us take the example of a King being indicted (see above). If a charge against a King was to be upheld, it was necessary for all the Ephors and the majority of the Gerousia with the other King to vote against said King on trial (Cartledge, 2001: 60).

If the King was summoned by the Ephors, he was only required to do so upon the third time of asking (Cartledge, 2001: 62). In Agesilaos II’s case, he hobbled. The Spartans despised physical disability but since Agesilaos was King; this must have been overlooked because of his status, again reflecting submission to one’s betters. We should also note that in the presence of a King, everyone else had to stand. As Cartledge picks up upon, this mirrored the Spartan ideal ‘whereby juniors were expected to give up their seat to a senior’ (2001: 62) and probably also the deferral to one’s superiors as well (Kelly, 1981: 48).

As for the Gerousia, Cartledge argues that it might well have been as old as the Kingship itself, but its size and the inclusion of the 2 Kings (If a king was away, then his vote was given to another, who would vote for him and himself (Thuc. 1.20.3) thus conforming to the rest of the Gerousia) within it reflect a change in status of the Dyarchy, to the advantage of the Gerousia (2001: 31). He also argues that the Gerousia was the main domestic and foreign decision making body (2001: 60) made from the senior, aristocratic Spartiates (however, as the Kings were ex officio members, it is possible that the Kings could have been the youngest faces within the Gerousia, disagreeing with the superiority of the elders (Pleistarchus and Agis IV – McQueen, 1990: 167)). If this is the case, then a long reigning King would have been able to see the Gerousia membership appointed in his favour (by his own admission: Cartledge, 2001: 65). Agesilaos II’s vote to save Sphodrias in the trial of 378 is a good indication of his control over the Gerousia. So it is a good bet that the Kings were the ‘political foci’ (Mitchell, 1991: 58; despite Lewis, 1977: 48; Hdt. 6.52.8).

Far from the nature of the Dyarchy’s role within the government of Sparta, we can tell a lot about how much they mirrored Spartan society from their day to day lives within the polis. The Kings would both eat in the Royal mess tents (syssitia), which the homioi were separated from, promoting the idea that the Royals were something else (Cartledge, 1987: 104). What’s more, the Kings were awarded double rations so as to honour guests (Cartledge, 1987: 108; Xen. Ages. 5.1; Lak. Pol. 15.4) and we can presume that this was used as part of the xenia process. The mess tents the homioi used were subject to control of membership, along grounds of social, wealth and seniority status (Hodkinson, 1983: 253/4), thus promoting the oligarchic fashion of Sparta. That the Kings were kept separate heightens this idea.

In terms of property, it was very much a case of furthering one’s own ambitions (Leonidas in Plut. Kleo. 1.1) and keeping property within their family by literally doing just that – marrying close consanguineous kin or similarly wealthy aristocrats (Hodkinson, 2000: 82, 408). This was done by the Kings and aristocrats alike. In the cases where they judged adoption, the Kings would make sure that the adopted was landless and would pass them onto those who were the same, thus allowing them to keep the properties in the upper echelons of society (Hodkinson, 2000: 82).

The royal houses were typical of Spartan propertied classes. Good examples of this would be Leonidas I’s marriage to Gorgo, Cleomenes I’s only child so as to inherit Cleomenes property when he died as well as bolster his claim to the Agiad throne (Hdt. 7.239.4), Cleomenes III’s marriage to Agiatis, the widow of Agis IV (Hdt. 6.71), Ariston marrying his friend’s wife (Hdt. 6.61-2) and Aegisilaos I’s marriage to Kleora (Paus. 3.9.3).

We should however note that the Agiad & Eurypontid royal lines owned considerably more land than any other citizen as they possessed territories in many perioikic communities (Xen. Lak. Pol. 15.3). Though they imitated the attitude of the wealthy few in Sparta by such a process, it limited the number of heirs and the division of inheritance, concentrating the property and wealth in the hands of the closely related few; wealth married wealth, segregating society even further. The royal houses enhanced their socio-economic position over history through such activities (Hodkinson, 2000: 413). As the elites perpetuated their position, the decline in citizen numbers accelerated, allowing the successful aristocratic lineages to safely secure high offices and property (Hodkinson, 2000: 415). This in turn would have lead to policy-making being dominated by very few, not least between the 2 Kings and their respective supporters in the Gerousia (Roy, 2009: 442).

Religion was integral part of Spartan life, like most other Classical poleis. In Sparta, the Kings had an important part to play. We learn from Herodotus (6.59) that both Kings were hereditary high priests of Zeus ‘Lakedaimonios’ and Zeus ‘Ouranios’ (perhaps one for each). As such, they were required to sacrifice to Zeus and others before, during and after a military campaign (Lipka, 2002: 221). Whilst marching, the Kings preceded the ‘fire-bearers’, whilst a train of sacrificial animals followed behind the army (Burket, 1985: 257).

The representation of Castor and Polydeukes was taken on military campaigns (Cartledge, 1987: 109). They ate first and received twice as large a portion as everyone else at sacrificial feasts (Cartledge, 1987: 107). The Kings received 72 litres of barley and a quart of wine every new moon and on the 7th day of the lunar month (Lipka, 2002: 221). Lastly, no-one was permitted to touch the Kings (Plut. Agis. 19.9). They were probably not God-Kings, but more than mortal (Miller, 1998: 2).

It is clear that the health of the state was bound to the health of the Kings (Cartledge, 1987: 105; Parker, 1988: 153). The fact that the Kings were apportioned the skins and entrails of the sacrifices shows the high esteem they were held in by the Religious community. As Sparta was an extremely superstitious and seriously religious community, it certainly seems consistent that the Kings were assigned such duties. They were also given the honour of appointing two ‘Pythioi’ each, who acted permanent ambassadors to Oracle at Delphi (Hdt. 6.57.2-4), the highest honour, presumably as Delphi was the pan-Hellenic sanctuary! Lysander’s attempted bribery of Delphi reflects the entrenched power the kings had, since they maintained a close relationship with Delphi through their Pythioi (Cartledge, 1987: 96), maybe even to further their own agenda (Cartledge, 2001: 63).

Royal funerals on the other hand, were perhaps the most spectacular in the Peloponnese (Hdt. 6.58), which would have been in sharp contrast with the simplicities (Laconic) of ordinary Spartans (Parker, 1988: 153), and it would have had an impact upon the members of the royal house (Hodkinson, 2000: 263). Each free household (Spartiate and Perioikic) had to provide one male and female each to the funeral; Helots were obliged to attend (reflecting Spartan society’s dominance over them (Cartledge, 1987: 333)).

The funeral would have been a public affair, lying-in-state, reflecting the very Spartan practice; other cities kept their funerals as private affairs (Cartledge, 1987: 333). Again, unlike anywhere else in Greece, the King would have been buried within the boundaries of the living, maybe even close to a sanctuary, defying the Hellenic taboo of Greek pollution (Plut. Lyc. 27.1). It is interesting to notice that the custom of embalming their King was copied from Persian and Egyptian practices (Hdt. 1.40.2, 4.71.1), which is seemingly at odds with their xenophobia towards foreign cultures.

Leonidas I, who died in battle may well have had an exceptional burial (buried again after his demise 40 years earlier), sharing a similar Spartan trait of honouring only those who died fighting (Cartledge, 1987: 336). The royal funeral was ‘beyond what a mere mortal man could claim’ and what many aristocrats aspired to (Xen. Hell. 3.3.1), thus convincing the Spartiates of the connection between a healthy Sparta and the dual Kingship (though this would become less and less effective in later Sparta (Cartledge, 1987: 337/341)).

For Spartans, soldering was their life. However, unlike the homioi, the heirs to the thrones were not required to go through the Spartan education system – the agoge (Plut. Ages. 1.4). This does seem strange initially, but when you consider how the Kings were perceived as ‘beyond mortal’ (see above), the heirs and Kings were already superior to everyone else (Cartledge, 1987: 24). Agesilaos II’s decision to go through the agoge would naturally have made him even more special, considering his disability; just like Leonidas before him.

Herodotus tells us (5.75.2) that because of a crisis between Cleomenes and Damaratus on a joint campaign in 506 BC, one King stayed behind in Sparta. The King elected on campaign assumed sole command on campaign, handling an enormous amount of power; anyone who tried to prevent this would be cursed (Cartledge, 1987: 81, 105). He was even assigned his own bodyguard (hippeis) who were the elite soldiers (Thuc. 5.72.4). The King could also expect a personal haul of a third of the total booty collected on campaign (Polybius. 2.62.1). Aristotle (Pol. 1285a 7-8, 1285b 26-8) inferred that the Kings were mere ‘hereditary generals’, but as we can see, that was patently not the case. Their power was absolute (they even had the authority to choose between life and death (MacDowell, 1986: 126).

With the King at the head of an army, the connection between the military and the political hierarchy was plain to see. Leadership went hand in hand with the military caste (Cartledge, 1987: 203). To lead the army in a ‘military orientated’ state like Sparta would surely have been the greatest honour. This echoes what was said earlier (page 4), about having to submit to one’s betters, especially in Sparta, replicating the master/student, senior/junior, rich/poor relationship in all of Spartan society. The Lacedaemonians were subject to the power of the Ephors, Gerousia and the Dyarchy at home, yet outside Sparta, it became a Monarchy. I feel this could be due to the way the Spartiates perceived non-Spartiates. As they distrusted foreigners, they needed to be, in theory, intimidated. So, one King with full power and a large army would have done this perfectly and was indicative of Sparta’s xenophobia.

Where it was a matter of gaining advantage for Lacedaemon, the Spartan elites did engage with those from the outside (of Sparta). The Kings were allowed to appoint proxenia, Spartiates who acted as ambassadors for those from other poleis (Hdt. 6.57.2). This was certainly related to Sparta’s xenophobia (cf. Figueira, 2003: 66), where the only ones who were entrusted to make relations with non-Spartiates were those trusted by the Kings, and was thus open to manipulation (Cartledge, 1987: 81, 97, 108).

No doubt, the Spartan kings would already have had friendship ties (xenia) with many Peloponnesian oligarchies, thus enabling them to influence foreign policy in those states (Cartledge, 1987: 246). King Agis II was fined for negotiating with Argives (Thuc. 5.59-63), one was a Spartan proxenos and another had xenos with Agis himself (Hodkinson, 2000: 352; Roy, 2009: 440). Archidamus had terms of xenia with Pericles of Athens (Thuc. 2.13.1; Mosely, 1971: 434). The relationships the Kings had with their friends in the Peloponnese is reminiscent of the 18th – 19th century European Monarchs, who retained ties of blood and friendship with each other.

In what ways did the Dyarchs reflect other aspects of Spartan society? Though they were designed to prevent it, the Kings dominated both of the Ephors and Gerousia, reflecting the superior/inferior (master/slave) aspect of Sparta as a whole. Messing in the syssitia and the accumulation of property through marrying close kin or wealthy others promoted the oligarchic fashion (ruled by the few (in this case – 2!)). The Kings as high priests and their spectacular funerals cemented their demi-god credentials; it fitted perfectly with the zealously religious Spartans. Leadership of the state was reflected by their leadership of the army and the Kings leading the peculiar form of Proxenia and xenos reflected the inherently xenophobic nature of Spartan society.

The Dyarchy was coterminous with Sparta (Arist. Pol., 1310b 38-9), though it has been considered an ‘egalitarian’ society, it was anything but, with competiveness instilled from youth (Kelly, 1981: 54). Sparta demanded ‘high reverence to the continued influence of the Spartan Kings (Rice, 1974: 165) and time passed, the un-checked power of the Kings fostered Hellenistic monarchic tendencies in later kings (McQueen, 1990: 166). The dual Kinship promoted a dual image, where the Spartans promoted one thing, but did another (Miller, 1998: 13).

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In what ways did the dual Kingship of Sparta reflect (or perpetuate) other aspects of Spartan society. (2017, Dec 11). Retrieved from

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