Classical Sparta was a communist state.
The question whether Classical Sparta was a communist state breaks down into two parts, corresponding to different definitions of “communism” in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The abolition of private ownership?
The original definition of communism is “a theory that advocates the abolition of private ownership, all property being vested in the community, and the organization of labour for the common benefit of all members”.
Since the Renaissance, various thinkers have viewed Sparta as inspiration for radical ideas about equality of property, and sometimes its abolition. These ideas draw primarily upon two works by Plutarch.
His Life of Agis (5.1-2) claims that the number of households created by Sparta’s legendary lawgiver Lykourgos was preserved until after the Peloponnesian war because each citizen’s equal lot of land (klēros) was passed down undivided to his son (the text doesn’t consider the possibility of multiple sons.) His Life of Lykourgos (8.3; 16.1) claims that the lawgiver – possibly assisted later by King Polydoros – divided the Spartans’ land into 9,000 equal lots and that a boy was assigned his lot after passing his physical inspection as an infant.
Plutarch’s evidence, however, has major problems. First, his two passages are contradictory. In the Agis passage the son inherits his father’s lot: implicitly, after the father’s death. In the Lykourgos passage the boy receives his own personal lot while his father is normally still alive. Only the Lykourgos passage represents communism in terms of property being vested in the community; and then only if one assumes that the boy received his lot from a public pool and that it reverted to the state after his death, neither of which Plutarch explicitly states. The Agis passage describes merely a modified version of private ownership involving a prohibition on selling or bequeathing one’s lot away from one’s heir.
Secondly, Plutarch’s evidence is very late, dating from circa AD 100, around half a millennium after Classical Sparta. No earlier source mentions public landownership. Polybius (6.45.1-3), writing in the second century BC, mentions equal landholdings but assumes that they were private. His text may reflect the redistribution of land into equal private lots briefly established from 227 to 222 BC by King Kleomenes III (Plutarch, Kleomenes 11.1).
Thirdly, the system in the Lykourgos is impracticable. It would have necessitated keeping a third of the 9,000 lots unallocated or possessed by boys under age 20, given typical age distributions of Mediterranean pre-industrial populations. Moreover, Sparta did not have the bureaucracy to administer or record a continual reallocation of landholdings. Aristotle (Politics 1271b11-15) states that there was widespread evasion of land taxes because of inadequate public scrutiny.
Fourthly, the system assumes male-only landownership, whereas two-fifths were actually possessed by women (Aristotle, Politics 1270a23-25).
Fifthly, the alleged reallocation of equal lots is incompatible with the dramatic decline in Spartan citizens from 8,000 in 480 BC (Herodotus 7.234) to less than 1,000 after their defeat at Leuktra in 371 (Aristotle, Politics 1270a29-31). The primary reason was increasing inequality of landholding, which led impoverished Spartans to lose their citizenship through defaulting on their mess contributions (Aristotle, Politics 1270a15-18; 1271a26-36).
In contrast to Plutarch, multiple contemporary sources from the Archaic and Classical periods (Tyrtaios, Alkaios, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle) attest that Spartans were always divided by differences of wealth. Their evidence undermines Plutarch’s claim in the Agis that landed equality existed until after the Peloponnesian war, when the rhētra of the ephor Epitadeus allegedly undermined it by giving citizens new rights to give or bequeath away their holdings. Their evidence portrays the Spartans’ landholdings as private property which they had long been able to give or bequeath (though not sell), but which was normally divided among their children, both sons and daughters. Spartans also privately owned diverse forms of movable wealth such as livestock and valuables, including silver bullion.
Sparta therefore does not meet the original definition of communism involving the abolition of private ownership and property being vested in the community. The Spartans’ common public upbringing and adult lifestyle, which applied equally to rich and poor, was designed to lessen the impact of differential wealth (cf. Thucydides 1.6.4; Aristotle, Politics 1294b20-29). It included provisions whereby any citizen could make temporary use of another Spartan’s slaves, hunting dogs or horses (Xenophon, Constitution of Sparta 6.3); but this did not produce economic equality, still less abolish private property. The same would be true of van Wees’s suggestion that after Leuktra there was a partial redistribution of land, creating a basic indivisible and inalienable lot for each Spartan but leaving most land in purely private ownership.
Finally, note the Spartans’ exploitation of their helot slaves, whose labour on their estates enabled them to devote their lives to civic and military concerns. This exploitation exemplified “the organization of labour for the common benefit of all members” only if we restrict “all members” to the Spartan elite and exclude the majority of people within Spartan territory.
Total state control?
A more recent definition of communism, which arose following the creation of the Soviet Union after the 1917 Russian revolution, describes it as “a system of government in which all economic and social activity is controlled by the state acting through the medium of a single authoritarian political party, with the purported aim of realizing the doctrines of revolutionary Marxism”. The Marxist doctrine part of this definition is clearly inapplicable to Sparta; and so is the idea of the state exercising totalitarian control.
In politics, there was no single-party government, but diverse individuals and groups (kings, ephors, the Gerousia/Elders and other prominent persons) competing for influence. The ephors and Elders were chosen by popular election.
On economic matters, there were some restrictions on everyday displays of wealth, but large areas remained beyond state control. There was no collectivisation of agriculture or centralised Five Year Plans. Contrary to previous belief, recent research shows that the helots were not publicly owned but the private slaves of individual Spartans, although their use was subject to certain constraints. Property ownership, as already noted, operated through a largely normal ancient Greek system of private tenure and inheritance. Sparta also imposed fewer legal restrictions over female property-holding and the marriage of heiresses than in Athens. Wealthy Spartans spent large sums on the elite sport of chariot-racing, on commissioning expensive bronze victory statues from foreign artists, on patronage of poorer citizens, and on gift exchanges with foreign guest-friends.
Concerning social life, even the education of boys had private elements. Alongside the public upbringing, which focused on physical training, boys received a private elementary education in literacy, numeracy, oral expression, song and dance. Regarding domestic matters, Dionysios of Halikarnassos writes that “each man’s house door marked the boundary within which he was free to live as he pleased” (20, excerpt 13.2; cf. Plato, Republic 8.548a).
As for the Spartans’ public activities, Plutarch claims that “in their polis, as in a military camp, they had a prescribed lifestyle and devoted themselves to communal concerns” (Lykourgos 24.1).
His exaggerated claim, however, is contradicted by contemporary Classical evidence. Two episodes of everyday life recounted by Xenophon, who knew Sparta first-hand, show ordinary Spartans independently going about their private affairs, following their own personal schedules (Hellenika 3.3.5; 5.4.28). Clearly, the state did not micro-manage its citizens’ daily lives, apart from their required evening meal in their common messes. These episodes also undermine the idea that Spartans were full-time soldiers focused on war. There is minimal evidence for dedicated military training such as weapons practice or mock armed combat, only for elementary marching drill; and the proportion of each year spent on active service was frequently less than 10%.
The Spartans did decide that all non-royal citizens should share a common public upbringing and adult lifestyle; but Sparta was not a communist state on either definition of communism, whether its original economic or its later totalitarian meaning. It is for this reason that we have rated this claim as false.
- J. Ducat, Spartan Education (2006), ch. 4.
- M.H. Hansen and S. Hodkinson, “Spartan exceptionalism? A debate”, in S. Hodkinson (ed.), Sparta: Comparative Approaches (2009), pp. 383-498.
- S. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (2000).
- S. Hodkinson, “Sparta: an exceptional domination of state over society?”, in A. Powell (ed.), A Companion to Sparta (2018), Volume I, pp. 29-57.
- S. Hodkinson, “Professionalism, specialisation and skill in the classical Spartan army?’, in E. Harris, D. Lewis and E. Stewart (eds.), Skilled Labour and Professionalism in Ancient Greece and Rome (2020), pp. 335-361.
- D.M. Lewis, Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC (2018), ch. 6.
- H. van Wees, “Luxury, austerity and equality in Sparta”, in A. Powell (ed.), A Companion to Sparta (2018), Volume I, pp. 202-235.