Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

- Syllabus Content - Map - Past Questions -

Land ownership: agriculture, kleroi, helots

See text: pp46-47 The myth of the kleros; pp53-54 The Helots

Past HSC question - 2009:
(c) Describe the main features of the Spartan economy in this period. (6 marks)

See text pp. 46-7

Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus 8): "Lycurgus' second, and most revolutionary, reform was his redistribution of the land. For there was dreadful inequality: many destitute people without means were congregating in the city, while wealth had poured completely into just a few hands. In order to expel arrogance, envy, crime, luxury and those yet older and more serious political afflictions, wealth and poverty, Lycurgus persuaded the citizens to pool all the land and then redistribute it afresh. Then they would all live on equal terms with one another, with the same amount of property to support each, and they would seek to be first only in merit. There would be no distinction or inequality between individuals except for what censure of bad conduct or praise of good would determine.”

Plutarch’s account of land ownership:
  • Kleros: an allotment of land given to each newborn Spartan boy.
  • Land was worked by the helots allocated to each family.
  • This provided agricultural produce for a citizen’s contribution to the syssition - mess.
  • Inheritance: in Life of Agis, Plutarch says land was inherited from father to son.
  • Lycurgus’ reform: 9,000 equal kleroi for distribution among the citizens.
  • Aim: to avoid inequality so that Spartans competed only to outdo each other in virtue.

Plutarch’s account is probably an attempt to maintain the myth of equality. He is attributing a later land redistribution under King Agis to the earlier reformer, Lycurgus. Contemporary writers (Herodotus, Xenophon, Aristotle) do not mention the kleros.
There is evidence for a disparity in wealth among Spartans.

Thomas J. Figueira (2004) argues that the kleros represented the primary element of a Spartan’s landholding (indivisible and given at the time of completion of the agoge). There was other land that could be accumulated. This accounts for the disparity in wealth.

(see also the section on Helots in 2.4 Social Structure)

Some notes from “Spartiate Landownership and Inheritance”, Stephen Hodkinson, in Sparta, Michael Whitby (ed.) 2002

Spartiates owned most of the best land in Laconia and Messenia.

There is evidence in Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Aristotle that there were inequalities in land ownership, e.g., references to activities which require a larger than average amount of land: maintaining horses; rich Spartans contributing to the messes; bread made from wheat (rather than barley).

There is little value in the accounts of later ancient writers (e.g. Plutarch*).
Two prominent interpretations (based on Plutarch):
  • each citizen was a tenant of an indivisible lot which reverted to the state on his death (e.g. H. Michell 1964)
  • indivisible lot passed down to eldest son (e.g. J.T. Hooker 1980)

Plutarch is contradictory (which accounts for the two different interpretations)
The two interpretations are impractical
Plutarch’s accounts are the result of fourth-century and later invention.

Hodkinson believes contemporary or near-contemporary accounts are more reliable. From this he argues that land ownership was largely private, there was little state regulation and women had great property rights.

A person could give away or bequest land. The most common method of transmission of land was division among the owner’s children.

Women were landowners and could inherit land even when there were sons. Using the comparison with Gortyn on Crete, Hodkinson argues that daughters probably inherited half the amount of land as sons.

“Spartiate inheritance, therefore, operated on the basis of diverging devolution, according to which the property of both father and mother passed into the hands of children of both sexes.” (p.89)

Some ancient sources:

Thucydides (1.6): “It was the Spartans who first began to dress simply and in accordance with our modern taste, with the rich leading a life that was as much as possible like the life of the ordinary people.”

Xenophon (Constitution of the Lacedaemonians 5): “... and there are occasions when rich individuals also supply wheat-bread for a change.” (referring to contributions to the messes)

Aristotle (The Politics Bk2 Ch9): "For we find that some Spartans have far too much property, others very little indeed; the land has come into the posession of a small number... For their lawgiver... left it open for anyone to transfer land to other ownership by gift or bequest... Moreover, something like two-fifths of all the land is possessed by women... But it is obvious that if many sons are born and the land distributed accordingly, many must inevitably become poorer."