Capitalism is from Athens, elected government is from Sparta

October 26, 2007

I think that it is commonly held that our system of government had been inspired by and bears a resemblance to, both in its ideology and in its machinations, the government of Ancient Athens. This idea is expressed and reinforced by the modern usage of the term “democracy” which was also used by the Athenians to describe their system of government.

In reality, however, the formal structure of our system of government – basically a system dominated by elected officials (Congress, the president), but with significant governmental power held by non-elected officials (the courts, especially the supreme court) – does not resemble the structure of Athenian government at all. It does, however, bear a striking resemblance to the government of Athens’ arch-nemesis, Sparta.

Western society, however, does resemble Ancient Athenian society in other, very significant, ways: In its ideology and in its economic structure. It seems that it is fair to say that Western society borrowed Capitalism from Athens, and elected government from Sparta. The result is a society that is much more oligarchical than that of Athens and much less communal than that of Sparta.

The government of Sparta relied on the following institutions: the Ephors, the lower magistrates, the Council of the Elders, the co-kings, and the Apella (the assembly). [All the information here is taken from Gilbert’s “The Constitutional Antiquities of Sparta and Athens”, 1895. Available from Google Books.]

The Ephors were a body of 5 members which was elected annually by the Spartan citizens. The Ephors were the supreme executive body. They presided over the Apella. They had some powers of supervision over other magistrates, including the Kings. They were in charge of carrying out the decrees of the Council of Elders and the Apella and of enforcement of laws. They managed the city’s finances.

The lower magistrates reported to the Ephors. They were either elected by the Apella or appointed by the Ephors or the Kings.

Appointment to the Council of the Elders was by elections, but open only to the old (60 years or older) and only to nobles. Membership was for life. The Council deliberated on questions which were to be discussed before the Apella. The Council had some administrative and judicial powers as well.

The two kings of Sparta were hereditary positions. They had limited judiciary powers and some religious functions. The main powers of the two kings of Sparta were as commanders-in-chief of the military. In cases of conflicting claims to the throne, the matter would be decided by the Apella.

The assembly of Spartans, the Apella, was held once a month and included every Spartan 30 years old or older. On most matters, the Apella had no decision power. The citizens could applaud or express disapproval, but could not speak in the assembly. That right was reserved to the Ephors, magistrates, Kings and Elders. The Apella did take votes on matters of war and peace and on matters of foreign policy. The Apella elected the Ephors, the Council members and some lower magistrates.

It seems that fairly straightforward analogies between Spartan institutions and those of the present day Western governments can be drawn. The Ephors are analogous to the cabinet and together with lower magistrates they form the civil executive arm of modern government. The function of the Council of Elders is similar to that of the supreme court while the position of the kings is similar to that of the chiefs of staff of the military.

The Apella is simply the masses of the people, whose main power is that of electing officials. They can also occasionally vote in a referendum and express approval or disapproval of certain policy ideas, but have very limited opportunity to suggest new ideas.

The situation in Athens was radically different: most official positions were filled by drawing lots rather than through elections, judicial decisions were made by a large jury selected by lot, and, at least in theory, any Athenian could speak in the assembly.

The differences in governmental structures went hand in hand with ideological, economic and social differences. I will next turn to these matters, and their reflections in modern Western societies.

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One Response to “Capitalism is from Athens, elected government is from Sparta”


  1. […] 13th, 2007 Athenian government relied heavily on random allocation of political power. Modern Western-style government systems are thus more similar to the government system of Sparta than to that of […]

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