The ephors were elected leaders of ancient Sparta, and its colonies of Taras and Heraclea, and shared power with the two Spartan kings. The word "ephors" (Ancient Greek ἔφοροι éphoroi, plural form of ἔφορος éphoros) comes from the Ancient Greek ἐπί epi, "on" or "over", and ὁράω horaō, "to see", i.e., "one who oversees" or "overseer".[1] The ephors were a council of five Spartan men elected annually who swore an oath monthly on the behalf of the state. The Spartan kings, however, would swear on behalf of themselves.[2]

The ephors did not have to kneel before the Kings of Sparta, and were held in high esteem by the citizens because of the importance of their powers and because of the holy role that they earned throughout their functions.[3]

History of the officeEdit

The origin of the ephorate is contested. According to Herodotus, the institution was created by Lycurgus after the Pythia dictated the constitution of Sparta to him.[4] Another account by Plutarch states that the first ephors were appointed much later by Theopompus.[5] Also according to Plutarch, the ephorate was born out of the necessity for leaders while the kings of Sparta were absent for long periods during the Messenian Wars.[6] The ephors were elected by the popular assembly, and all citizens were eligible. The position of ephor was the only political office open to the whole damos (populace) of men between the ages of 30–60, so eligible Spartans highly sought after the position.[7] They were forbidden to be re-elected and provided a balance for the two kings, who rarely co-operated. Plato called the ephors tyrants, who ran Sparta as despots while the kings were little more than generals.[8] Up to two ephors would accompany a king on extended military campaigns as a sign of control, and they held the authority to declare war during some periods in Spartan history.[9]

Since political and economic decisions were made by majority vote, Sparta's policy could change quickly, when the vote of one ephor changed. For example, in 403 BCE, Pausanias convinced three of the ephors to send an army to Attica, a complete reversal of the policy of Lysander, another ephor.[10] According to Aristotle, the ephors frequently came from poverty because any Spartan citizen could hold the position, and it wasn't exclusive to the upper-class. Aristotle stated that because of this they were often liable to corruption.[11] There were times when the legal power of an ephor was taken advantage of, such as with Alcibiades's use of Endius, who persuaded the Spartans to allow Alcibiades to take control of Sparta's peace mission to Athens in 420 BCE.[12]

Cleomenes III abolished the position of ephor in 227 BCE, and replaced them with a position called the patronomos. Cleomenes's coup resulted in the death of four of the five ephors, along with ten other citizens.[13] His abolition of the ephorship allowed him to cement his role as king and prevent anyone from stopping his political reforms. However, the ephorate was restored by the Macedonian King Antigonus III Doson after the Battle of Sellasia in 222 BCE.[14] Although Sparta fell under Roman rule in 146 BCE, the position existed into the 2nd century CE, when it was likely abolished by Roman Emperor Hadrian and superseded by imperial governance as part of the province of Achaea.[15]

Legal powerEdit

1862 imagining of the ephors

The ephors held numerous duties in legislative, judicial, financial, and executive matters.[16] Following Lycurgus's "Asteropus" in 620 BCE (increase in the power of the ephorate), the ephors became the ambassadors of Sparta.[17] They handled all matters associated with foreign relations, including the creation of treaties with foreign powers[18] and meeting with emissaries to discuss foreign politics. They held power within Sparta by also acting as the Presidents of the assembly and the justices of the supreme civil court as well as controlling army composition.[17] The ephors needed a majority vote to make decisions binding and minority or dissenting decisions were not accepted by the assembly.[19]

According to Plutarch,[20] every autumn at the crypteia, the ephors would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of blood guilt. This was done to keep the large helot population in check.[21] Plutarch also stated that every eight years the ephors would watch the skies on a moonless night. If shooting stars occurred, it was up to the ephors to decide whether one or both of the kings had transgressed in his dealings with the gods. A transgression could include any behavior that dishonored the Greek pantheon. Unless the oracle from Delphi or Olympia stated otherwise, the ephors had the ability to depose the offending king or kings.[22] Plutarch also stated that the ephors tried cases involving contracts among citizens. He further reported that each ephor specialized in a different type of disputed contract.[23]

According to Pausanias, the ephors served with the Gerousia on the Supreme criminal court of Sparta. This included presiding over treason, homicide, and other offenses that carried serious punishments. These punishments included exile, death, and disfranchisement.[24]

Ephors had the authority to summon and preside over the assembly's regular meetings in the fifth century BCE.[25] Initially this power was only assigned to kings in early years. However, with the passing of the Great Rhetra regular meetings became mandated. By the late sixth century BCE, the ephors had acquired this authority to oversee the assembly and could use this power against the kings of Sparta. For example, they used this authority to force King Anaxandridas II to change his conjugal arrangements to their advantage. King Anaxandridas' wife was barren but he refused to divorce her so the ephors forced him to marry a second wife to provide heirs.[26]

Two ephors were always sent on military expeditions to ensure the king acted in line, and if not, could put the king on trial.[27] Many kings were put on trial by the ephors, including Leotychidas, who was found to have accepted a bribe from the Thessalians during his military expedition to Thessaly.[27][28]

A diagram of the Spartan Constitution

The ephors, along with the Gerousia, held the majority of the power within the Spartan government, as the two kings had to consult either with the ephors or the Gerousia in almost any official matter. The ephors also held power over the Helots and the Perioeci. They controlled the Crypteia, the secret police who repressed the Helots, and they were even able to sentence Perioeci to death without a trial.

Other dutiesEdit

The congress of the Peloponnesian League was always chaired by an ephor.[29]

The ephors also had the authority to choose three hippagretai (Commanders of the Guard) every year from men over the age of thirty. The chosen hippagretes would then choose three hundred of the best hebontes to form a hippeis.[30] The ephors also were responsible for penalizing disobedience in the military using fines.[31]

Ephors could also intervene in cases of "disturbing the peace." This included punishing underage Spartans indirectly for their offenses against Sparta. This form of retribution would include penalizing the boys' erastes (adult lovers).[32] When men between the ages of twenty and thirty (known as hebontes) committed offenses they were brought before the paidonomos, a magistrate charged with supervising the education of the youth in the agoge. Through this system the ephors could directly penalize the hebontes by giving them large fines.[33]

The ephors paid close attention to the education of young Spartans, and played a significant role in ensuring the education was up to standard.[34] According to Aelian, they would examine the naked bodies of the boys every ten days to ensure they were of proper complexion and fitness and not being overfed, as well as examining the boys' clothes daily to ensure that they fit.[35]

Notable ephorsEdit

Only 67 ephors are known by name before the end of the third century BCE, out of potentially 3000.[36]

  • Endius: Scion of wealthy family, son of Alcibiades (served in 413/2 BCE).[37]
Ephor Brasidas during combat
  • Brasidas: Came from higher class family (served in 431/0 BC).[38]
  • Leon: Became an ephor at an older age and was the founder of a Spartan colony and Olympic victor (served in 419/8 BCE).[39]
  • Antalcidas: Known for being the negotiator of peace treaty, named after him (served in 387/6 BCE).[40]
  • Sthenelaidas: Known for causing physical division in the voting process by making voters stand in separate spaces to represent yes or no votes. This eliminated the secrecy of the voting process.[41] (served in 432 BCE).[42]
  • Cleandridas: Known for abandoning the invasion of Athens and returning to Peloponnese in 446 BCE.[43] He went voluntarily into exile, with the Spartans condemning him to death in absentia.[44]
  • Lysander: Was sent as an ambassador to King Agesilaus II on multiple campaigns but suffered a dispute with King Agesilaus over the locals' loyalty to him. Lysander returned home upon the end of term as ephor (served in 243 BCE).[45]
  • Nausikleidas: Accompanied and supported King Pausanias on expedition (served in 403 BCE).[46]
  • Epitadeus:[47] Introduced legislation that destroyed the equal distribution of land that Lukourgos made in the fourth century BCE.[48]
  • Chilon: Served in 556/5 BCE.[49]
  • Agesilaos: Named eponymous ephor by his nephew Agis IV and was charged with implementing a new bill which included debt-cancellation and land-redistribution.[50]

Ephors in modern cultureEdit

The concept of an ephorate continues to be used by some contemporary organizations which require a monarchical element within a democratic framework. One such organization is the Ephorate of the Rascals, Rogues, and Rapscallions, an American fraternal research society.[51]

The Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture and Sports contains several regional ephorates that carry out the administration of archaeological investigations in their respective regions[52]

The Neapolitan Republic's constitution of 1799, written by Francesco Mario Pagano, envisaged an organ of magistrates reviewing constitutional law, the eforato, but lasted only 6 months.

Zack Snyder's 2007 film adaptation of the Battle of Thermoplyae, 300, features ephors throughout the movie. In the film they are dramatized as elderly lepers with pale skin and lesions. At the beginning of the movie, Leonidas is shown visiting the ephors and proposing a war strategy to them. The ephors then consult the Oracle and refuse Leonidas' plan, showing that they have been bribed by Xerxes I. King Leonidas thus leads his 300 'bodyguards' to Thermoplyae without their approval.[53]

Rudolph Maté's 1962 film The 300 Spartans also depicts the ephorate's role in the Battle of Thermopylae. They are shown conflicting with King Leotychidas over the decision to delay the battle until after the religious harvest festival of Carneia. The ephors decide to delay the battle but under the guise of having private bodyguards, King Leonidas marches into battle with 300 Spartans. The ephors are mentioned later in the film when Leonidas receives a letter from his wife informing him that the ephors have the remainder of the Spartan army will not be joining him. Xenathon is an named ephor in the film.[54]

Ephors have appeared in Steven Pressfield's 1998 Gates of Fire, an historical fiction novel that recounts the Battle of Thermopylae. In Chapter 15, the ephors appear when a delegation of mothers and wives goes to the council, requesting they be allowed to join the battle.[55]

In Kieron Gillen's graphic novel Three, ephors are referenced when Gillen describes the Krypteia and writes "Once a year, the masters declare war on the helots." The ephors were in charge of the Krypteia and declaring war on the helots in order to keep them terrified and controlled. The next scene depicts the ephor, Eurytos, being guided by his soldiers to a helot community where they demand hospitality. Eurytos is killed by a helot revolt and the only surviving soldier returns to Sparta to inform the remaining four ephors. The ephors send soldiers to kill the helots who killed Eurytos stating, "The only thing more unthinkable than a helot killing an ephor is that helot escaping punishment."[56]


  1. ^ "ephor, n.". OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 04, 2021).
  2. ^ Xenophon, Constitution of Sparta. 15.7.[1]
  3. ^ Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. page 29. Ithaca/New York 1969, ISBN 0-8014-9556-3.
  4. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, chapter 65, section 5". Retrieved 2021-11-14.
  5. ^ "Plutarch, Lycurgus, chapter 7, section 1". Retrieved 2021-11-14.
  6. ^ "Plutarch • Life of Cleomenes; 10". Retrieved 2021-12-08.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. ^ Figueira, Thomas (2018). "Helotage and the Spartan Economy". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. p. 579.
  8. ^ "Plato, Laws, Book 4, page 712". Retrieved 2021-11-14.
  9. ^ Nicolas Richer (1998). Les éphores. Études sur l'histoire et sur l'image de Sparte (VIIIe-IIIe siècle avant Jésus-Christ). Histoire ancienne et médiévale 50. Pantheon-Sorbonne University. p. 636. ISBN 2-85944-347-9.
  10. ^ Ruze, Francoise (2018). "The Empire of the Spartans (404-371)". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. p. 323.
  11. ^ Pol. 1270b 7-10
  12. ^ Gribble, David (2012). "Alcibiades at the Olympics: Performance, Politics and Civic Ideology". The Classical Quarterly. 62 (1): 45–71 – via JSTOR.
  13. ^ "Plutarch, Cleomenes, chapter 8, section 1". Retrieved 2021-11-14.
  14. ^ Millender, Ellen (2018). "Kingship: The History, Power, and Prerogatives of the Spartans' 'Divine' Dyarchy". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. p. 455.
  15. ^ Kennell, Nigel (2018). "Spartan Cultural Memory in the Roman Period". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. pp. 643–662.
  16. ^ Ancient Sparta – description of governmental system
  17. ^ a b Sahlins, Marshall (2011). "Twin-born with greatness: the dual kingship of Sparta". Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 1 (1): 63–101.
  18. ^ Millender, E. (2001). Spartan Literacy Revisited. Classical Antiquity, 20(1), 121-164. doi:10.1525/ca.2001.20.1.121
  19. ^ Xenophon, Hellenica. 2.3.34
  20. ^ Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7.
  21. ^ Xenophon, Constitution of Sparta 15.6; Xenophon, Hellenica 2.3.9–10; Plutarch, Agis 12.1, 16.2; Plato, Laws 3.692; Aristotle, The Politics 2.6.14–16; A.H.M. Jones, Sparta
  22. ^ Millender, Ellen G. (2018). "Kingship: The History, Power, and Prerogatives of the Spartans' 'Divine' Dyarchy". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. p. 463.
  23. ^ Van Wees, Hans (2018). "Luxury, Austerity and Equality in Sparta". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. p. 212.
  24. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece. 3.5.2
  25. ^ Thuc. 1.67.3
  26. ^ Hdt. 5.40.1
  27. ^ a b Esu, Alberto (2017). "Divided Power and Eynomia: Deliberative Procedures in Ancient Sparta". The Classical Quarterly. 67 (2): 353–373.
  28. ^ Lupi, Marcello (2018). "Sparta and the Persian Wars 499-478". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. p. 282.
  29. ^ Ste. Croix, Origins of the Peloponnesian War, p. 111.
  30. ^ "Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, chapter 4, section 3". Retrieved 2021-12-08.
  31. ^ "Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, chapter 4, section 6". Retrieved 2021-12-08.
  32. ^ "Aelian: Various Histories. Book III". Retrieved 2021-12-07.
  33. ^ Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 4.6
  34. ^ Richer, Nicolas (2018). "Spartan Education in the Classical Period". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. p. 532.
  35. ^ "Aelian: Various Histories. Book XIV". Retrieved 2021-12-07.
  36. ^ Paul Cartledge, "Spartan justice? or the 'state of the ephors'?", Dike, n°3, 2000, p. 14.
  37. ^ Thuc. 8.6.3
  38. ^ Xenophon, Hellenica. 2.3.10
  39. ^ Xenophon. Hellenica. 2.3.10
  40. ^ Plutarch. Ages. 32.1
  41. ^ Thuc. 1.87.1-2
  42. ^ Esu, Alberto (2017). "Divided Power and Eynomia: Deliberative Procedures in Ancient Sparta". The Classical Quarterly. 67 (2): 353–373.
  43. ^ Thuc. 1.114.3
  44. ^ Plutarch. Per. 22
  45. ^ Xenophon, Hellenica. 3.4.10
  46. ^ Ruze, Francoise (2018). "The Empire of the Spartans (404-371)". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Vol. 1. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. p. 323.
  47. ^ Plutarch. Agis. 5.3-5
  48. ^ van Wees, Hans (2018). "Luxury, Austerity and Equality in Sparta". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. p. 205.
  49. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece. 3.16.4
  50. ^ Stewart, Daniel (2018). "From Leuktra to Nabis, 371-192". In Powell, Anton (ed.). A Companion to Sparta. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell. pp. 390–391.
  51. ^ Constitution of the RR&R Ephorate
  52. ^ "Ministry- Structure". Retrieved 2021-12-08.
  53. ^ Snyder, Zack. "300 (2007)". AllMovie. Archived from the original on January 27, 2019. Retrieved January 26, 2019.
  54. ^ Maté, Rudolph. The 300 Spartans, 1962, 20th Century Fox.
  55. ^ Pressfield, Steven (1998). Gates of Fire. Australia: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-49251-5.
  56. ^ Gillen, Kieron (2014). Three. 2001 Center St, Sixth FI, Berkeley, CA: Image Comics Inc.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)