Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Xenophon, “Spartan Constitution”

Or Constitution of the Lacedaemonians. Lacedaemon and Sparta are the same. I’m working on Plato’s Timaeus at the moment, but I revisited this text to keep Xenophon fresh in my mind. This is not an authoritative account, by far.

A few basic points: the golden age of Greece is roughly 500-400 B.C. In that time, the Greek city-states fought off two Persian invasions. The second of these included the famous battle at Thermopylae; I assume all of you have seen 300. Sparta was a city that trained warriors from childhood on. It did not have walls since it was so feared. Nor did it place a great emphasis on wealth, but was excessively traditional and conservative in outlook. It considered others slavish and was very much dependent on slavery to support its citizens. But if there was any doubt Sparta was the most respected city in Greece, Thermopylae erased it. The Athenians, of course, played a critical role in removing the Persians and were jealous of Spartan preeminence after the war. This led to the Peloponnesian War, where democratic Athens attempted to be the leading power in Greece by attacking Sparta outright. Sparta won.

So who cares? Well, given how fast Athens rose to prominence and so quickly went to ruin, the question remains whether Sparta can be a model for those interested in preserving a free way of life. Athenian self-indulgence is a major point of contrast with Spartan continence, and this influenced thinking about republics for a long while afterward.

Xenophon would seem to be a commentator favorable to Sparta. In the Anabasis, Spartan commanders show him respect for his abilities. Not allowed to return to Athens, he was given a country estate outside of Sparta as a home.  The first line of this work reads:

It occurred to me one day that Sparta, though among the most thinly populated [thinly populated: oliganthropotaton] of states [plural of polis], was evidently [ephane: "displayed itself," "appeared" might be a legitimate reading] the most powerful and celebrated city in Greece; and I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer (I:1).

And yet the Spartan Constitution is a scathing satire: the inhumanity of the Spartan way of life is always on display in the text.

1. The text, as we have it, is divided into 15 chapters. Chapter I deals with generation and family. II, education. III, the teenage years. IV, perpetual competition and honor in the “prime of life.” V, the common meals (Spartans ate meals in public like soldiers, always), decency and exercise. VI, common authority and common property. VII, the disparagement of business affairs.  VIII, obedience: the incredible power of the Ephors, the divine status of Spartan Law. IX, Lycurgus (the creator of the “Spartan Constitution” described) making cowardice illegal. X, the power of the old and the “public duty of gentlemanly conduct” (X:5). XI, the simplicity of Spartan arrangements for war. XII, encampment on campaign. XIII, the Spartan King (leader of the army) in the field. XIV, how the Spartans are corrupt nowadays. XV, some comments on Lycurgus’ original compact between King and city.

That overview contains some obvious peculiarities. Xenophon himself makes a few comments as to how he regards the organization of his own work. After generation (II:1) and education (II:14), he spends two chapters on “the institutions of Lycurgus so far as they apply to the successive stages of life” (V:1). V-X seem to be about the Spartan institutions for “all alike” (V:1 and XI:1), XI-XIII are exclusively about war. XIV and XV each stand alone.

Why am I dragging you through these mundane considerations? The work has two centers depending on how you consider it to be organized. It makes perfect sense chapter VIII is one of them. Obedience is most certainly Spartan, they were celebrated for law-abidingness. But the chapters devoted to the institutions for “all alike” are also central.

2. The first chapter should probably be considered with reference to Plato’s Republic. In Book V there, guardian class women will participate in exercises just as the men do. Here, for “more vigorous offspring,” women were to be involved in “races and trials of strength” (I:4). There are a few more pseudoscientific contrivances of this sort, the most notable being the emphasis on people in their “prime” marrying (compare with Republic 459d-3, 461a-b) and thus a system where people are shared in “common” if they measure up. There is a major difference between Sparta as depicted here and the Republic, however. The Republic banishes all private property among the guardians and auxiliaries. Note well:

…the wives want to take charge of two households, and the husbands want to get brothers for their sons, brothers who are members of the family and share in its influence, but claim no part of the money (I:9).

The incentives to Lycurgus’ ideas being adopted depend on self-interest of a lower sort than honor. The wives want property simply, the husbands want allies for their sons who are free.

3. The second chapter almost sounds like the Spartan boys are being trained to be Socrates. Their “education” involves their going barefoot, wearing one garment the whole year, and going hungry (II:2-7). Of course, none of this has anything to do with devotion to knowledge. This is preparation for war, and the first people soldiers to be must fight against are their own people. Spartan boys were allowed to alleviate their hunger by stealing from each other (II:7). If caught, they were beaten, because they stole badly (II:8). Again, note the contrast with Socratic self-sufficiency.

A larger contrast about the corruptibility of youth is made in the same chapter (II:10-14). In the absence of the citizen who was properly the boys’ “Warden,” any citizen present could wield authority and punish them. Xenophon also says there were customs designed to prevent pederasty; men were to make “ideal friends” with boys, not be attracted by “outward beauty” (II:13). No actual case is made for how exactly these customs worked, or were supposed to work. It was known that Spartan men and boys had plenty of not-so-temperate relations, and Xenophon has built a pretty strong case that any citizen could corrupt the youth easily in the Warden’s absence, if not the Warden himself.

4. The Spartans worked to stamp out the insolence of adolescent males in a way that makes me wonder whether they would have used Ritalin and the like more frequently than we do (III). And just like some say we expect boys we’ve neutered to all of a sudden grow up and become men who can compete with vigor and discipline in all situations, the Spartans had those in the “prime of life” purposely organize into factions and compete in official and unofficial capacities. Gang warfare of a sort dominated among those younger (IV:6); older Spartans who actually had power got to keep in shape by hunting.

5. Xenophon does not mention the outright brutality the Spartans exercised toward their slaves (the Helots), but it is hiding in the text, especially in the discussion of war. The Sciritae, a free people under the dominion of Sparta who were not citizens, were pushed into all sorts of awful duties. Thucydides describes how they were entrusted with the extreme left-wing of the hoplite phalanx, which is basically being left alone to take charges and die. Here, we are told they were assigned, at night, to be “sentries outside the lines” of camp (XII:4) and that they had the privilege of being sent ahead of the King and the body of the army routinely (XIII:6). If that’s how the Spartans treat those who are free and march with them, how much more badly do they treat their slaves? You can see all throughout chapter XII an emphasis on camp security to prevent those within from revolting or aiding the enemy (XII:2, sentries keeping watch over the arms; 4,  the “exclusion of slaves from the place of arms;” 6-7, warriors always being near the arms, no matter what).

Plutarch also shares Xenophon’s reticence to a degree, but you can see in the life of Lycurgus that Spartans routinely ambushed and assaulted the Helots to keep them in their place. Xenophon here has not described who exactly the Spartans are campaigning against.

6. Also hiding in the discussion of war is how the Spartans “learned” to love wealth. We know that inheritances were passed down with women, and so marriage could be a very profitable game if rigged right. Originally, Sparta was divided into plots for possession by a number of Spartiates. As marriage became an art of “who could merge the most property through marriage,” the number of Spartiates declined, and Sparta was very much reliant on hiring mercenaries and putting the slaves it abused into battle for the sake of having enough numbers to fight.

Xenophon mentions none of this, but it is telling that he completely skips over the issue of property despite mentioning Lycurgus considering women important in the first book, and saying that women wanted multiple households to rule. You can unravel his account of the lack of desire Spartans had for wealth (VII:5-6) with the mentions made in XIII, especially XIII:11 – “applications for money to the treasurers; and if anyone brings booty, he is sent to the treasurers.” Wait, I thought Sparta warred with civic virtue alone. But those mentions concern the King, who seems to be managing an incredible amount of money from warring.

7. Finally, a comment on the strangeness of chapter XV. There, the King is described as a self-sufficient institution. Considered divine, it was the case that even traitorous kings of Sparta were buried with full honors, as they alone led all public sacrifices. He was offered choice parts of sacrifices; given extra food so he could reward those he liked at the common mess; given personal messengers; given animals for his own sacrifices by law. Moreover, he had his own property, with its own water supply. Xenophon notes that this “demigod” pledged to rule by rule of law, and the Ephors, in turn, told him that as long as he did so, they would preserve the kingship (XV:7).

Yes, that has overtones (please do not read too much into this: see my comment below) of the modern executive, with the very large exception of the religious function of Kingship. That is – in a remote way – analogous to what we do: the unity of the executive branch is not unrelated to our reverence for the law and its execution. In a way, the state has taken on the power of god, and recognizes it as a danger (despotism, unchecked hubris by the populace) as well as a blessing (having a sense of reverence that allows for people to keep each other in check while working for common ends). For all the Sparta-bashing Xenophon does, he may be ending on a Machiavellian note, but perhaps not a pessimistic one. The Spartans may have gotten one institution right (there’s plenty you can use in Xenophon to cast doubt on this: note Agesilaus and the Hellenica as a whole), and that alone might have preserved them despite themselves.


Xenophon, “Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.” trans. E.C. Marchant in Xenophon: Scripta Minora (Loeb Classical Library). Cambridge: Harvard, 1968. 136-189.


  1. I find the last segment of your essay very compelling:

    “For all the Sparta-bashing Xenophon does, he seems to end on a Machi­avel­lian note, but per­haps not a pes­simistic one. The Spar­tans may have got­ten one insti­tu­tion right (there’s plenty you can use in Xenophon to cast doubt on this: note Age­si­laus and the Hel­lenica as a whole), and that alone might have pre­served them despite themselves.”

    I find it compelling especially in light of Thucydides 2.65.9: “In short, what was nominally a democracy was becoming in [Pericles'] hands government by the first citizen.”

    But Pericles as executive was an exception. It seems that after his death, “[the Athenians] fell the victims of their own intestine disorders.”

    These “intestine disorders,” if I am reading Thucydides right, are a symptom of their erotic longings to capture Sicily.

    The intestine disorders seem to be, on their surface, a reference to the plague, which attached its victims with “violent heats in the head,” an “internal burning,” “agonies of unquenchable thirst,” and “the miserable feeling of not being able to rest.”

    But these symptoms seem to also be the symptoms of someone detached from the object of their love. Perhaps Pericles as executive was the only force which could keep these symptoms suppressed.

    After his death, witness the idiocy of Cleon and the recklessness of Athenian leadership. Still trying to work this out.

    So it does seem like the difference between Sparta and Athens has something to do with the executive. And notice that Pausanias seems to be the Spartan exception – a man who acted more like an Athenian. He was also, as Xenophon says the Spartans were inclined to do even for their traitors, given an honorable burial (I think).

  2. I know you’re just thinking through the issue, same as me, but I do need to be clear about “executive” and ancient political thought for anyone else reading.

    There is no such thing as an executive in ancient thought, and it isn’t clear that Xenophon is aiming at any such thing. In fact, if ancient Athens has a threefold division (I have to check this, I’m working from memory), there are those who make laws (concerned with virtue?), those who try those who may have violated the laws (justice), and then “offices,” which isn’t an executive but the entirety of the government. After all, trials are conducted by the Athenians as a mass, and you can look up how laws were made too. When they said “assembly,” they meant it. I think quorum was in the thousands.

    Point is, there are things which point to something like modern thought in Xenophon’s account – note the property of the King, the actual stability of the institution. But it’s more than likely the case Xenophon is going another direction entirely with these considerations. The “piety” stuff counts for more than I’ve let on, far more. But I went the “let’s look at a cute potential parallel between ancient and modern” route because Xenophon is definitely saying that laws which aim at making perfect gentlemen and outlawing cowardice and breeding a super-race are stupid compared to making institutions which stand for something and last themselves.

  3. I think that is a really good insight. Xenophon seems to say the same thing in the Cyropaedia about those kind of laws.

    That was kind of why I brought up Pausanias earlier, as well. Both (Cyrus only to some degree) are both good examples of ‘gentlemen’ brought up under very strict laws who act like sailors ashore as soon as they take a step outside of their city.

    I also think that this is what Xenophon ends up meaning when he says “we were thus compelled to change our mind to the view that ruling human beings does not belong among those tasks that are impossible, or even among those that are difficult, if one does it with knowledge.”

    It seems that in both works Xenophon has a “no duh” kind of epiphany. Contrast my citation above with, “But when I con­sid­ered the insti­tu­tions of the Spar­tans, I won­dered no longer.”

    I don’t know if you could pin the “knowledge” Xenophon speaks of in the Education down to a knowledge of institutions though….

  4. I should extrapolate more on the two contrasted quotes. Both the “knowledge” Xenophon speaks of in the Education and the comment that he “wondered no longer” in the Spartan Constitution seem to point to something other than the externally imposed law. In the former, it seems to have something to do with the conversation Cyrus has with his father, Cambyses and the observation that Cyrus was able to “extend fear of himself” over a great area.

    Cambyses tells Cyrus that to “get an advantage over his enemies,” he must “be a plotter, a dissembler, wily, a cheat, a thief, rapacious…”

    This is perhaps completely unconnected, but I would direct some attention to the opening scene of The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, where the Duke of Gloucester is irritated by what he sees in the “glorious summer”:

    “Plots I have laid, inductions dangerous/By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams/To set my brother Clarence and the King/In deadly hate the one against the other.”

    All this gets pretty far away from the institutions of a regime, but I guess that’s just how my brain works sometimes.

    Seeing the connection in the two books (that there was something in each which gave Xenophon reason to say ‘aha!’) made me lean that way, I suppose.

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