The Political System of Sparta
The Spartan political mindset was war. Law forbade all Spartan males from any occupation other than that of being a soldier. Because of this, Sparta had the only full time army in all of Greece. Other Greek city states had an almost all militia army. They conducted war in a narrow season that was constructed around the planting and harvesting of crops as most men were farmers. Because of this, Sparta was able to have much better trained soldiers and a more disciplined army than any other Greek city-state. The one thing that made this possible was the helot.
The helots were subjugated tribes and people that the Spartans had conquered and held in slavery. They conducted all trade and agricultural duties, freeing Spartan males to serve exclusively in the army. Both helots and Spartan women enjoyed much more freedom than slaves and women in any other Greek city. Spartan women had almost perfectly equal rights to Spartan men and were highly respected. Helots had both many more rights and much more to fear from their Spartan masters. The helots were allowed to marry, own small amounts of property and practice their own religious rights – all three things frequently denied to slaves in other cities. To defend these rights, helots often accompanied the Spartan army to war although they rarely took part in the actual fighting. Should a helot son gain sponsorship from a full Spartan citizen, he could even enroll in the agoge, the incredibly fierce and brutal Spartan training program that all male citizens went through, and potentially become a citizen himself one day.
On the other hand, helots were victims of numerous terror attacks by the Spartan in an effort to keep them in line. One way these were conducted was through the activity of the “secret service”. This elite and covert organization consisted of warriors under the age of 30. They were charged with keeping any revolt talk or action in check through whatever means necessary. This special op group would serve for two years. They frequently roamed at night and killed any helot found out of doors. They could even strike during the day if the killing served as an example to others. In addition to this, every year during the krypteia, Spartan citizens were allowed to kill any helot without fear of repercussion. As helots grossly outnumbered Spartan citizens, these actions were thought to be needed in order to prevent revolts.
Sparta had two kings that would rule in tangent and a council, offering a sort of checks and balance in their version of a democratic society. For continuity one king could then stay home to continue to rule while the other was leading the Spartans in battle. Although not a true democracy, the homoioi, or full Spartan male citizens who had served in the military already, were allowed to vote on a range of laws decided by the kings and council.
by Alex Smith, MRL staff writer
Cleombrotus Ordered into Banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta, Benjamin West, 1768