Sparta's government was headed by two hereditary kings furnished by two families; they were titular leaders in battle and in religion. Some of these kings were able (e.g., Cleomenes I, Leonidas, and Agis II), but all were held in check. There was a council of elders and a general assembly of citizens; but the real rulers were the board of five ephors, elected annually. The business of the state was conducted with secrecy (unlike the open forum methods of Athens), and every effort was made to keep the institutions unchanged.
The ruling class, the Spartiates, gave themselves wholly to war. At birth a boy was inspected by the elders, and if he appeared too weakly for future military service, he was taken into the mountains and abandoned. If he was fit, he was taken from his mother at the age of seven to begin rigorous military training. He became a soldier at 20, a citizen at 30, and continued as a soldier until 60. Thus his entire life was spent under rigorous discipline. Spartiate women, under less severe discipline, were part of the soldierly society and were not secluded. The Spartiates were the only citizens and the only sharers in the allotment of lands and of the helots (serfs who were bound to the land). The helots farmed the land and paid part of the produce to their masters, the Spartiates. They could not be sold, but they had no legal or civil rights and were constantly watched by a sort of Spartiate secret police for fear of insurrection. In somewhat less stringent subjection were the perioeci, freemen who were permitted to carry on commerce and handicrafts, by which some of them prospered. Nevertheless, the perioeci were entirely subordinate to the Spartiates.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.