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  • The Spartan Kingship: Some Extended Notes on Complex Duality
  • Dean A. Miller

The Spartans, then, have given these prerogatives to their kings: (to hold) two priesthoods, of Zeus Lakedemon and of Zeus Ouranios . . .

Herodotus The Persian War VI 56

The Spartan kingship has attracted attention from ancient times, not least because during the Archaic and Classical florescence of the Greek polis, when the office of king tended to become extraneous and obsolete, the Lakedemonian state not only kept its royal office intact but maintained a royalty manned by not one but two kings—a dual kingship. Herodotus and then Xenophon examined this curious regal phenomenon, from their different ideological vantage points, and Aristotle and Plato had something to say as well, as did Thucydides. Later, Plutarch, in his Bios of the Spartan “lawgiver” Lykurgus (paired with Rome’s Numa), provides us with some valuable information, and Pausanias adds much more out of his odd and special, völkisch, often demonstrably archaic, fund of data. It was laconically typical of the Spartans not to examine their own institutions, except obliquely. We know that Sparta drew its kings from two royal houses, the Agid and the Eurypontid, and that this geminated kingship was itself derived semi-mythically, the two kingships said to descend from the twin [End Page 1] sons of Aristodemos, Sparta’s founding father figure (Herodotus VI 52). The actual or historical origin of the Spartan double kingship has been variously explained, but the precise aetiological explanation is not much of a target in the present study; it does appear likely that the two lines did not appear simultaneously, and that the Eurypontid line was junior to the Agid, being the more recently enroyalled. 1

It seems clear that despite the purposive archaism of the Spartan system—primarily built on, or at least stated in, their so-called Lykurgan Constitution—the two Spartan kings retained no exceptional powers centered on any primitive or, in Claire Préaux’s important definition, “magical” realm: a recent and thoroughly documented study by Pierre Carlier agrees that these two Spartan royautés did not carry the dangerous charge implicit in the office of the “sacred king,” though they might well have had what Carlier calls a “supernatural halo” derived from the “mystique de la gémellité.” 2 How and why the potent area of the sacred (that is, of intrinsic sacrality, not the administration of the sacred) was detached from the Greek kingly office is, of course, a matter of importance, but little will be attempted on that subject here. The Spartan king, then, was neither “sacred” nor, by definition, a monarch; he (they) maintained certain magisterial and juridical responsibilities, and he (they) was or were involved in the state’s military function, as war-leaders. Even in this military area the king’s powers were circumscribed: according to what we know of the Spartan “constitution,” the nomoi, he could not make war off his own bat, for example, and his behavior (and his success or failure) while he led the Spartan army in the field was legally scrutinized by the Gerousia and the Ephorate, much as the acta of a Roman proconsul, under the Republic, had to be scrutinized and franked, usually by the Senate. 3

The Spartan king, or kings, would thus seem to turn a relatively unmysterious face to the gaze of the inquiring political or institutional historian. The kings were, however, involved in certain religious or, more precisely, cultic activities in the role of priests, that is, serving as the managers of correctly-conducted state sacrifice where they were the orchestrators of the mode of civic appeal to, or contact with, the gods, [End Page 2] though the Spartan king was never regarded as “the interpreter of the [will of] the gods.” 4 Yet the king could hold priestly offices of some resonance, especially the two priesthoods of Zeus—of Zeus Lakedemon and Zeus Ouranios—cited in Herodotus; a second series of royal-priestly activities is drawn from Xenophon and Plutarch and again shows a dual or opposed modality as well as some other, odder features.

Because of the opposed thrust of the two instances of royal priesthood or sacrifice...

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