Was Sparta a Socialist State?
A more extensive look at Sparta’s political system, culture, and constitution: There is no one way to describe any real political system (as they all tend to be complex). With that in mind, another valid description of Sparta’s system is, “a Constitutional mixed Republic, with aspects of democracy and a separation of powers, rooted in a timocracy (a military state), with a quasi-socialist economic system. Its culture was focused on the virtues of equality, military fitness, and austerity. They had a rigid hereditary class system based on race, where slave classes worked the land and traded and pure-blooded Spartans focused on philosophy and the military arts. Interestingly, despite the more conservative aspects of their culture and constitution, women had extensive rights and could own property. That, paired with their inheritance system which favored women in some respects, made women some of the most powerful Spartans over time. The culture and system in total, although rather socialist and nationalist, became more oligarchical over time as wealth consolidated in fewer and fewer hands.”
An Introduction to Sparta’s Government and Class System
In Sparta the higher classes were essentially organized like a military and were focused on politics, philosophy, and the military arts in the defense of Spartan virtues and the state.
Meanwhile the lower working classes functioned as producer and merchant classes, worked the land, and were assigned various servile roles based on race.
It wasn’t that there was no class mobility in Sparta, rather, it was that the class mobility was based on race and hereditary wealth made class mobility hard within the ranks of pure-blooded Spartans. Sparta was not big on immigration, and the native slave classes they ruled over could not rise up to the ranks to become Spartans.
With that in mind, Sparta was (militant nativist nationalism aside) rather benevolent and egalitarian. Even though only full-blooded Spartans could participate in specific aspects of society like government, all classes shared the fruits of their labor to a large extent (with slave classes being treated more as lower classes than slaves).
Here we can note that pure-blooded Spartans were, speaking loosely, socialist (in that they didn’t use money and were awarded land by the state).
Meanwhile, the lower classes were quasi-capitalist in that they were allowed to use money and trade (although, as noted, some lower classes also had to work the land and fill other service-based roles).
With all that said, there is some complexity as the system became more oligarchical and less socialist over time as Spartans were allowed to accumulate wealth and the number of pure blooded Spartans dwindled (which makes sense when we consider their army mainly consisted of pure blooded Spartans).
With all that said, any attempt to explain Sparta’s complex system in simple terms is bound to fall short. So make sure to watch a few of the following videos and check out the additional documentation provided.
Social and political system of Sparta – Ancient History – itutor.
TIP: See Social and political system of Sparta – Ancient History – itutor for more videos on Sparta’s politics. They aren’t pretty, but they exist, and this is a rare commodity.
TIP: Plato’s five regimes from his Republic describes Crete as a Monarchy, Sparta as a Timocracy, and Athens as a Democracy to illustrate the difference between the three states, their cultures, their laws, and their government types. Plato had a love of Sparta (Laconophilia), but he still painted it as less enlightened than Athens. I can’t say it all here, so consider reading Plato for a different viewpoint. See: EXCURSUS ON THE RELATION OF THE LAWS OF PLATO TO THE INSTITUTIONS OF
CRETE AND LACEDAEMON AND TO THE LAWS AND CONSTITUTION OF ATHENS. See also the video below which explains the Spartan constitution.
The Constitution of the Spartans.
Sparta as a Timocracy
Another way to describe the Spartan state is in the terms of Plato’s five regimes.
In these terms, Sparta can be thought of as a timocracy (a state run like a military, focused on honor and duty and not the accumulation of wealth; a state focused on order and hierarchy in the defense of virtues like equality and education, not a state focused on liberty and equality first like a purely liberal democracy).
In fact, timocracy is probably the best description of Sparta, because Sparta is essentially the example Plato gives for a timocracy when he coins the classical forms of governments in his Republic (or more specifically perhaps, classically speaking, Sparta was a mixed-Republic rooted in a timocracy that had aristocratic, oligarchical, and democratic aspects and a quasi-socialist economic system).
Sparta as a Socialist, Communist, or Fascist State
The idea was that Sparta’s timocracy used its national socialist, communist, AND somewhat fascist militarism to protect its love of wisdom, social equality, and the general Spartan way of life.
Sparta was hardly a hippy commune, despotic, or a fascist military state (WWII really corrupted those terms), it was simply an enlightened timocracy focused on a defense of higher-order virtues.
Speaking in absolutely technical terms, we can use terms like “National Socialism”, “Fascism”, and “Communism” to describe the Spartan system (and Confederate to describe their participation in the Achaean League), but as noted above, given the despotic forms of these ideologies we know in modern times, and accounting for the different classes and the upper-classes’ oligarchical changes over time, timocracy is still a better word (as it implies a well ordered and non-aggressive nationalist, socialist, communist, and militaristic state focused on state identity as a Civil Religion).
Consider, militaries don’t tend to be capitalist in the first place, and a timocracy is essentially a government organized like a military, so the term timocracy essentially explains all the above in one fell swoop (and avoids us having to explain that timocracies, like fascist or communist states, aren’t inherently corrupt).
TIP: Those looking to Sparta’s nativism as a virtue may want to think again. Their lack of immigration and their race-based system focused on military might arguably led to their downfall. When Rome came, they didn’t even have to lift a finger to conquer Sparta, as her numbers had dwindled at that point. Romans would come look at Sparta as a tourist attraction, a relic of an odd old time. Spartans had always feared their slave classes would revolt and take them down, but one can argue that in the end it was their own system that caused their downfall.
The Spartan Virtues: Equality Military Fitness, and Austerity in the Spartan Culture and Constitution… and Classism
Unlike what one may gather from the movies, Spartan society was (militarism and classism aside) based on an equality of the citizens and [to some extent] the sexes.
The three Spartan virtues were equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity (in other words a stern defense of their values and the state) in the Spartan culture and constitution.
Equality was paramount. There was no local currency. State schools were for military and the liberal arts. Land was bestowed on full-blooded Spartans by the state… yet there was a rigid class system and the state was ordered like a military.
Give that whatever label you will, but take care not to only call it National Socialist or Communist (thus conflating it with the despotic WWII-era states), the changes that the Spartans would have sided with the WWII despots is somewhere around zero (they were more like Switzerland than NAZI Germany if anything).
King Philip of Macedon: “Shall I come as friend or foe?”
Spartan reply: “Neither“
FACT: Philip II father of Alexander the Great once sent a message to Sparta saying “If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta“, the Spartans responded with the single, witty reply: αἴκα, “if“. This “laconic wit” is illustrative of Sparta’s culture. Later, when Spartans refused to march with Alexander the Great, it was illustrative of their protectionism. Likewise, when they headed the Confederate Achaean League it displayed their intense militarism. Lastly, their nationalism is clear in their unwavering defense of their values.
WIT: Leave it to Sparta to turn ones idea of Confederate Nationalist Socialist Communist Fascism on its head and make you laugh at the same time.
FACT: Sparta were admired as much in their day as they are in today. This love of Sparta is known as Laconism or Laconophilia. Sparta had many admirable qualities, but modern historians tend to present a much more sober and balanced view of Sparta that shows how their idealist system led to their eventual downfall after the height Classical Sparta after the legendary last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae of which “300” is based.
The Fall of the Spartan State
So far one might think (depending on their tastes) that Sparta was an ideal state of sorts.
However, in practice Sparta’s rigid structure, and its failure to maintain their virtue of equality in practice regarding both equalities in the upper-classes and relative equality between the upper-and-lower classes, proved themselves to be fatal weakness.
The numbers of full-blooded Spartans dwindled over the years and the government generally became more plutocratic/oligarchical over time as wealth and power were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
This resulted in the the eventual fall of Sparta as Rome took over and Sparta became a tourist attraction of sorts.
Below we explain more about the Spartan Constitution, the Spartan form of government, the Spartan class structure, the Spartan economy, and the other mechanics and psychologies of the great Sparta to understand the above claims better.
First let’s discuss how Sparta came to have this form of government.
FACT: The city-state Sparta was also known as “Lacedaemon” in its day. The name Sparta specifically referred to the main settlement on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia (what Lacedaemon is called today), in south-eastern Peloponnese. So all Spartans are also Lacedaemonians from Lacedaemonia. They were also Peloponnesians and headed the Peloponnesian League (a conservative alliance which supported Oligarchies and opposed tyrannies and democracies; consider the Greeks weren’t big fans of pure-Democracy which they considered to be like anarchy).
BBC Documentary: The Rise and Fall of the Spartans – History Documentary Films.
Sparta: From Anarchy to Lycurgus
Sparta was once in a state of Chaos and anarchy. Between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the Spartans experienced a period of lawlessness and civil strife. In response to the chaos they carried out a series of political and social reforms which are historically attributed to the lawgiver Lycurgus.
Lycurgus installed the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity in the Spartan culture and constitution.
Although Lycurgus’ tale is likely part fact and part legend, we can say that these reforms mark the beginning of the history of Classical Sparta as an oligarchical nationalist socialist state. This is a technical description of the well-known Spartan constitution and societal structure in classical terms; not a judgment call.
Plutarch: Life of Spartan King Lycurgus – Summary and Analysis.
Sparta’s Class System and Constitution
The structure of Spartan society set forth by Lycurgus included a rigid class system defined by constitution and custom with an impressive system of checks and balances which let the people and aristocracy check each other’s powers and have representation in government.
Two families ruled by bloodline, they were called the Agiads and Eurpontids (two hereditary kings; two heads of state). The Kings commanded the armies and were part of a law making body, the Gerousia, which also consisted of Spartan Elders.
Beneath the Gerousia and Kings, a Democratic system of checks and balances existed via “the Assembly.” This was the Apella of the Damos where the branches met to discuss politics, elections, laws, and in which all full-blooded Spartans over 18 who could deliberate and vote yes or no on laws in a Democratic fashion.
Sparta had a bicameral legislative branch with a higher and lower house (like Rome, Britain, America, Etc), with the Gerousia being the higher house and the rest of the Apella is the lower. They had what can be called a mixed government with oligarchical, republican, and democratic aspects.
All full-blooded Spartan men were called Spartiates and were separated into 3 phylae and 5 villages, each with a Ephor. The Spartiates were the highest male citizen class and were known as “men of equals.” When they said “equality,” they meant equality of Spartiates. Spartiates were trained in philosophy and the military arts, and were barred from other types of work. This was true in Athens as well; only the lower classes traded, created art, and did laborious jobs.
To provide another balance of power, and to govern in the absence of Kings, Spartiates elected Ephors or overseers. Ephors formed a council of five representatives, one from each village, who shared power with the kings and had legislative, judicial, financial, and executive duties. They were elected annually and swore “on behalf of the city,” while the kings swore for themselves. They could not be reelected.
Between the Spartiates and lower classes were the Spartan women. Women enjoyed more rights than most women in the classical period, but they had fewer rights than male Spartiates.
The Army had a similar structure. Only the Helots were barred from being in the army although only Spartiates could hold the highest positions.
The last note is that is that they seemed to have a Crypteia (secret police) who kept the servile Helots in line. This is exactly the sort of thing that led to the downfall of Sparta as the numbers of Hetlots grew, and the number of Spartiates fell.
TIP: There are a few more positions and classes including Sciritae (like the Perioikoi) and different positions in the army like Agoge (young Spartans in training). We can’t cover everything here, so we will stick to essentials.
TIP: Athenians point to Spartan women being polygamous to ensure strong Spartan children. Like much of the Spartan legend, it’s hard to separate laconism and legend from history.
How Was Sparta an Oligarchy?
An oligarchy is a state “ruled by the few” where a few elected or unelected officials make the laws. Oligarchy may involve an aspect such as rule by bloodline or wealth, but not always.
In the case of Sparta, “the Gerousia” or Kings and Spartiate Elders made the laws as dictated by the Spartan constitution. Below them, only certain classes could participate. This hierarchy can be called different things, a republic, a type of representative democracy, or simply aristocracy. In classical terms, an constitutional hereditary oligarchy with a democratic sub-system, or just “an oligarchy,” is probably the most accurate descriptor.
TIP: Despite specific meanings, this is partly a matter of semantics regarding how we describe types of governments.
How Was Sparta Democratic?
Sparta had a Democratic sub-system because Spartiates could vote Yes or No on laws put forth by the Gerousia (Kings and Elders who created the law) and they could elect officials. Thus, they were a type of representative democracy or representative republic in this respect.
How Was Sparta a Socialist State?
Sparta was a socialist state as, in general, the means of production, distribution, and exchange were owned and regulated by the community as a whole (socialist).
While it was socialist in nearly all ways, it wasn’t purely Communist. Pure-blood Spartans owned the land that the state gave them. The merchant class could use money although there was no local currency. The oligarchical class had wealth differences especially toward the end of the classical period.
Every Spartan was given land by the state, and then given a share of what was produced or cultivated by the other classes. The social structure was socialist in that the labor and the distribution of its fruits were divided by the state, but not fully communist, although, like the forms of government, these terms are somewhat semantical too.
However, over time, this system weakened as pure-blood Spartans died in a series of battles. The numbers of the lower classes grew, and Spartans used workarounds to amass assets creating a system in which fewer and fewer families consolidated of assets and power creating a plutocratic class.
How Was Sparta a Nationalist State?
Spartans were trained to be nationalists, and much of their culture was focused on a love of country. A love of the three virtues of equality, might, and austerity composed the “love of Sparta.” Full-blooded Spartans were trained in the military arts, were intently focused on Sparta’s defense and well being, and were protectionists in terms of military and economics. Thus, their culture was intensely nationalist.
TIP: Later, after Rome took Sparta, Romans would vacation there to observe the strange customs of Sparta. Their intense nationalism and unique customs were as notable to Athenians and Romans then as they are in retrospect.
Was Sparta the first Communist Society? Was Sparta Fascist? Was Sparta National Socialist? To add a few more notes before we end this. As noted above, wouldn’t describe Sparta as purely Socialist, Communist, or Fascist, speaking in technical classical terms, although a case can be made for all these. Some thinkers, like Engels, describe Sparta as Communist, but Sparta’s class structure and land ownership make Socialist a much more accurate term for the system in general, which I’m sure Engels knew. They were Communist in the sense that they shared money and land. However, the class structure and oligarchical periods do not appear to be in line with on-paper communism. Likewise, some people confuse their national socialism (so to speak) with WWII-fascism-in-action, but this too isn’t very accurate. Sparta’s culture was a little fascist (especially their military culture and love of state; in the same way any military or timocracy is fascist, socialist, communist), but mostly it was fiercely nationalist, and otherwise can be described as a timocracy, with a progressively liberal form of socialism, in an oligarchical state, wrought with hereditary divides. Lastly, one should note Hitler and Stalin were tyrannical despots, and their form of government was tyrannical despotism (classically speaking; and also tyrannical fascism in modern terms), despite their party names. So, yes, Sparta was a good example of a militaristic nationalist state with socialism (which is what a timocracy is in the first place), but it was, that aside, one of the more socially liberal states in antiquity using its timocracy to safeguard its otherwise utopian socialist state against tyrannical forces (so not exactly a model of the WWII tyrant states as they were in practice; in fact they generally fought against despots in practice). Learn more about fascism and communism.
The Difference Between Sparta, Athens and Crete and Remembering the Spirit of the Spartan Laws
Crete was focused on monarchy militarism in the classical period. Athens was a free-trade Republic with classes like Sparta, but a more participatory Democracy. Sparta was an oligarchical mix of the two with its quirks.
All three states were successful, all had military might, and all innovated in culture, technology, and philosophy.
Plato describes all three in his Laws, contrasting each… but here in lies part of the problem. Plato was a philosopher, using these states as examples when teaching us how to form the ideal state, and (anthropology aside) most of what we know about Crete and Sparta comes from works like this.
It may be tempting to favor the Athenian free-trade-Republic and Alexander the Great’s brand of militarism over the socialists in Sparta or the Aristocratic and more traditional Kingdom of Crete.
However, the mixed Spartan constitution is worth a close look. Sparta was an older Constitution than Athens, and one must wonder if today we aren’t forgetting some key aspects of what a benevolent timocracy has to offer (likely because WW2 showed us the ugly side of the despotic right-wing and left-wing versions).
Sparta’s treatment of women was exceptional for the time, as were other aspects of their culture like their bicameral legislature, their system of checks and balances, and their limited, but participatory, democracy.
Their lawgiver helped make them great, so whatever gripes we have with Sparta, we are wise to look to their structure and culture to better understand how it was a product of the spirit of the Spartan laws.
Sparta vs Athens: Comparing the Two City-States.