What was the Great Rhetra, and when did it first come into existence?

The accepted convention of the Great Rhetra posits that the Rhetra was an oracle containing the Spartan constitution given to the lawgiver Lycourgos by Apollo Phoebos at Delphi. This oracle is usually dated to be no earlier than the seventh century BC. The corpus of the Great Rhetra focuses on the ekklesia (assembly of Spartiates), assigning a regular time and place to meet and grants the ekklessia formal sovereignty.[1] On the other hand, the last two lines of the Rhetra contradictorily limit the power of the ekklesia, reinstating power to the probouleutic body. Nonetheless, the purpose of the Great Rhetra was to ensure military success and power for the Spartan polis. Through analysing what the Great Rhetra is and when it was created, it becomes apparent that the accepted convention about what the Great Rhetra is and when it first came into existence is incorrect. Yet, through this same analysis it is evident that Sparta’s Great Rhetra is an agreement about the constitution of Sparta, created by Lycourgos in the first half of the eighth century BC. Furthermore, it is observed that the effects of the Great Rhetra were gradually adopted over time from its implementation through to the addition of the Rider, by the Kings Polydoros and Theopompos, up until it was fully implemented by the end of the sixth century BC.

The definition of the ancient Greek word rhetra is ‘an agreement’ of some sort. As the Great Rhetra aims to instill the ekklesia with “ultimate authority and power,” it can be presumed that the ‘agreement’ is between the ekklesia and the subject of the text, Lycourgos.[2] However, if the Great Rhetra is an agreement then it cannot be an oracle, as an oracle is a prophecy from the gods. This idea that the Great Rhetra is not an oracle is supported by its prosaic, rather than oracular, form. This is evident from the use of participles within the Rhetra, which is a characteristic of ancient Greek prose.[3] On the other hand, the lack of poetic hexameter, as well as a lack of an allusive and riddling style, all common within the oracular form indicate that the text is not oracular.[4] According to Herodotos, “the Spartans themselves” believed that their laws were not dictated by Delphi.[5] As van Wees states “If the Great Rhetra did not sound like an oracle, was not called an oracle, and(…) was not believed to have any association with an oracle, it seems safe to conclude that it was not an oracle.”[6] This substantiates that the Great Rhetra was an agreement not an oracle. Although, as the Great Rhetra was claimed to be “Apollo’s command” in order to add divine legitimacy to the laws, it can be termed as a ‘prose oracle’ as both Jeffery and Forrest refer to it.[7]

It is necessary to examine the grammatical subject of the Rhetra since the subject correlates with its creator thus informing us about the identity of who instituted the constitution. As Wade-Gery discusses, the subject of the Rhetra is debatable and could be the ekklesia, Lycourgos (or another consulting body), Apollo, or the oracle.[8] The identity of the Rhetra’s subject comes into question through the verb apellazein (singular apellazo; meaning either to celebrate Apollo or hold assemblies), as it leaves the subject unexpressed.[9]Wade-Gery states that “the unexpressed subject will always be the enacting body itself: any other subject must be expressed”. This implies that the eklessia is the subject. However, since the Rhetra is an agreement between the subject and the ekklesia, the subject is unlikely to be the ekklesia itself. Correspondingly, Wade-Gery continues by stating that as the Rhetra was viewed to be an oracle, the unexpressed subject is the consultant. This implies Lycourgos (or another consulting body) and rules out both Apollo and the oracle itself. Some historians offer alternative options as to the identity of the consulting body, using the plurality of the noun archagetais (leaders) as their evidence. For example, Jeffery suggests Eurysthenes and Prokles to be the consulting bodies, as she attributes the meaning of the noun to imply ‘the first leaders’ rather than just leaders; whereas other historians more popularly prefer Polydoros and Theopompos, as there is corroborating evidence to suggest they were responsible for the creation of the Rider and, therefore, may have also instituted the Rhetra.[10] The issue with these suggestions is that the context by which the word archagetais is used is not one that describes an action relating to the creation of the constitution. Therefore, the plurality of archagetais cannot be used as evidence to disprove the consultation of Lycourgos.

Many historians date the Great Rhetra as a priori, meaning no earlier than the seventh century BC. However, Kõiv argues that the introduction of the Great Rhetra was not later than the eighth century BC.[11] He arrives at this opinion by not neglecting the ancient literary sources on the grounds of potential bias but instead using them as if they are reliable and more informed than modern sources. King Theopompos, who alongside King Polydoros is attributed with the addition of the Rider, is known for his integral part in the Spartan victory of the First Messenian War. This is known through Tyrtaios’ eulogy: “To our king beloved of the gods, Theopompos, through whom we took Messene with wide dancing-grounds.” King Theopompos’ involvement in the First Messenian War places his life around the end of the eighth century BC and the beginning of the seventh century BC.[12] As King Theopompos was supposedly, though not necessarily accurately, portrayed by Aristotle as the grandson of King Charillos, who, in turn, was apparently under the guardianship of Lycourgos, then it can be concluded that the life of King Theopompos was removed three generations from Lycourgos’. If this is accurate then that chronologically places Lycourgos at about seventy-five years earlier than Theopompos, assuming each generation was removed by about twenty-five years. So, if Theopompos was around from the beginning of the First Messenian War, which is probably far-reaching, Lycourgos would have been in the prime of his life in 768BC at the earliest, and it is around this time that the Great Rhetra was likely first created. This early eighth century BC date is supported by the Olympic diskos, which bears the name Lycourgos and can be dated to 776BC, nine years earlier than the aforementioned hypothesized date.[13] (Although, it is possible this diskos belonged to another Lycourgos). The cultural memory becomes distorted over generations where oral tradition preserves only the facts and not the details. This explains why little is known about Lycourgos, even by the time Tyrtaios was writing.

The main purpose of the Great Rhetra was to create eunomia (good order) during a time of stasis (civil disturbance). This stasis was caused by tension with the Messenians, which was followed by the First and Second Messenian Wars in the eighth and seventh centuries BC respectively. However, the integration of the Great Rhetra was piecemeal rather than en bloc as the ‘Spartan mirage’ depicts. Finley’s ‘sixth-century revolution’ portrays the reformation of Sparta in becoming a martial society as only completely fulfilled by the end of the sixth century BC with the necessity of the Great Rhetra becoming apparent to the Spartans after their defeat at the Battle of Hysiae during the Second Messenian War.[14] The successful acceptance of the Great Rhetra was arguably additionally fed by a constant state of fear caused by internal threats, such as those posed by the overwhelming helot (serf) population. The primary method of implementing the Great Rhetra was the agoge (‘raising’), which, according to Plutarch “made citizens obedient to the laws and tractable, like horses are broken in while colts.”[15] By the end of the sixth century BC, the Lycourgan reform had resulted in changes affecting the currency, the syssitia (mess), the agoge (educational system), and the distribution of kleroi (equal allotments of land). The Great Rhetra achieved eunomia by instilling and promoting equality amongst the Spartans, transforming them into what Xenophon, Plutarch, and Plato all describe as technitai ton polemikon (professionals of war).[16] This imagery is represented on an ivory seal portraying three hoplite soldiers who are characterized by their hopla (shields), excavated from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.[17] Spartiates were capable of pursuing a militaristic lifestyle due to chrematismos, the prohibition of business activity, which was instead conducted by both the helots and perioikoi (dwellers-around).[18] Hence, the Great Rhetra was fundamental to achieving eunomia within the Spartan polis.

According to both Plutarch and Aristotle, the last clause of the Great Rhetra was an addition by Kings Theopompos and Polydoros and not part of the original text. This addition has been termed ‘the Rider’. Since the intersection of the reigns of Kings Theopompos and Polydoros takes place in about the mid. seventh century BC, as highlighted by Kõiv, it is probably this is when the Rider was created.[19] The Rider paradoxes the aforementioned “ultimate authority and power” given to the ekklesia in the Rhetra through its limitation of the ekklesia‘s power from being able to amend motions to only being able to accept or reject them.[20]In this same instance, the gerousia receives collective control over the assembly through its power to veto motions proposed by individual gerousiasts, even if these are in the interest of the ekklesia.[21] The contradiction between the first two clauses of the Rhetra and this last one appears to be where the Rhetra in practice has been unsuccessful and the power of the demos needs limitation in order to prevent a tyranny. Wade-Gery suggests that the third clause, the Rider, is worded like an afterthought.[22] This reveals that the Great Rhetra has been tampered with because oracles never contain afterthoughts. According to Plutarch, who was quoting Tyrtaios, Kings Theopompos and Polydoros “persuaded the city [to accept this addition] on the grounds that it was part of the God’s command”.[23] Moreover, Aristotle also separates the Rider from the Rhetra and attributes the separation to Kings Theopompos and Polydoros.[24] Due to the paradoxical nature of the last clause to the rest of the Great Rhetra, the wording of the Rhetra as an afterthought, and the ancient concurrence supporting a separation, it seems likely that the last clause of the Great Rhetra was indeed an addition to the original text. Furthermore, the Kings Theopompos and Polydoros are plausible candidates for the creation of this addition.

Therefore, the Great Rhetra is a Spartan constitution created with the aim of enabling military success and eliminating the Messenian threat. It accomplished this by providing equality to Spartiates through giving them power and authority in the ekklesia; thus, mimicking comradeship which is essential in warfare. The Great Rhetra was created by Lycouros in the first half of the eighth century BC. It is important to note that the Rhetra was an agreement between Lycourgos and the ekklesia and not an oracle of Apollo as is traditionally believed. The Kings Theopompos and Polydoros later added the Rider, legitimising their addition through claiming it to be “Apollo’s command”. As Finley postulates, the effects of the Great Rhetra were gradually adopted over time and were not fully implemented until the end of the sixth century BC. Hence, the accepted convention that the Great Rhetra was an oracle from Delphi given to Lycourgos is incorrect, as is the a priori seventh century BC date typically prescribed to the text.



Butler, D. (1962), “Competence of the Demos in the Spartan Rhetra”, Historia 11, 385-396.

Cartledge, P. (1977), “Hoplites and Heroes”, JHS 97, 11-27.

Figueira, T.J., (2004), ‘The Nature of the Spartan kleros‘ in TJ Figueira (ed.), Spartan Society, Swansea, pp. 47-76.

Finley, M.I, (1981), ‘Sparta and Spartan Society’ in M.I. Finley (ed.), Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, London, 24-40 and 253-255.

Forrest, W.G. (1963), “The Date of the Lykourgan Reforms in Sparta”, Phoenix 17, 157-169.

Holladay, A.J. (1982), “Hoplites and Heresies”, JHS 102, 94-103.

Jeffery, L.H. (1961), “The Pact of the First Settlers at Cyrene”, Historia 10, 139-147.

Kõiv, M. (2000), “The origins, development and reliability of the ancient tradition about the formation of Spartan constitution”, Studia Humaniora Tartuensia 1.3, 1-27.

Lavery, G.B. (1974), “Training, Trade and Trickery: Three Lawgivers in Plutarch”, Classical World 67, 369-381.

Ogden, D. (1994), “The Genesis of the Spartan Rhetra”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 114, 85-102.

Wade-Gery, H.D. (1943), “The Spartan Rhetra in Plutarch Lycurgus VI, A: Plutarch’s text”, Classical Quarterly 37, 62-72.

Wade-Gery, H.D. (1944), “The Spartan Rhetra in Plutarch Lycurgus VI, B: the Eunomia of Tyrtaios”, Classical Quarterly 38, 1-9.

van Wees, H., (1999), ‘Tyrtaios’ Eunomia: Nothing to do with the Great Rhetra’ in S Hodkinson & A Powell (eds.), Sparta: New Perspectives, London, pp. 1-41.

[1] van Wees (1999: 26).

[2] Ogden (1994: 86).

[3] Jeffery (1961: 146-147).

[4] van Wees (1999: 22).

[5] van Wees (1999: 23).

[6] van Wees (1999: 23).

[7] Jeffery (1961: 146); Forrest (1963: 179); Wade-Gerry (1944: 1).

[8] Wade-Gerry (1943: 66).

[9] Wade Gerry (1943: 66).

[10] Jeffery (1961: 145).

[11] Kõiv (2000: 3).

[12] Kõiv (2000: 3).

[13] Forrest (1963: 165-166).

[14] Cartledge (1977:27); Holladay (1982: 97).

[15] Plutarch, Life of Agesilaos 1.2; Lavery (1974: 370).

[16] Xenophon in Cartledge (1977: 16).

[17] Fig. 1 in Cartledge (1977: 26).

[18] Finley (1981: 27); Finley (1981: 31).

[19] Kõiv (2000: 4).

[20] Butler (1962: 386-387).

[21] Butler (1962: 395).

[22] Wade-Gery (1944: 2).

[23] Wade-Gery (1944: 1).

[24] Forrest (1963: 159).

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