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The ephors were leaders of ancient Sparta, and its colonies of Taras and Heraclea, and shared power with the two Spartan kings. The ephors were a council of five Spartan men elected annually who swore an oath monthly on the behalf of the city. The kings however, would swear on behalf of themselves.
The ephors did not have to kneel down 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.
Herodotus claimed that the institution was created by Lycurgus, while Plutarch considers it a later institution. It may have arisen from the need for governors while the kings were leading armies in battle. 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) between the ages of 30–60, so eligible Spartans highly sought after the position. 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. 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.
Since decisions were made by majority vote, Sparta's policy could change quickly, when the vote of one ephor changed. For example, in 403 BC, Pausanias convinced three of the ephors to send an army to Attica, a complete reversal of the policy of Lysander. According to Aristotle, the ephors frequently came from poverty because any Spartan citizen could hold the position, and it was not exclusive to the upper-class. Aristotle stated that because of this they were often liable to corruption. There were times when the legal power of an ephor was taken advantage of. Such is the case with Alcibiades' use of Endius, who persuaded the Spartans to allow Alcibiades to take control of Sparta's peace mission to Athens in 420 BC.
Cleomenes III abolished the ephors in 227 BC, and replaced them with an position called the patronomos. His abolishment of the ephorship allowed Cleomenes to cement his role as king and prevent anyone from stopping his political reforms. His coup resulted in the death of four of the five ephors, along with ten other citizens. However the ephorate was restored by the Macedonian King Antigonus III Doson after the Battle of Sellasia in 222 BC. Although Sparta fell under Roman rule in 146 BC, the position existed into the 2nd century AD, when it was probably abolished by Roman Emperor Hadrian and superseded by imperial governance as part of the province of Achaea.
The ephors held numerous duties in legislative, judicial, financial, and executive matters. Following Lycurgus' 'Asteropus' in 620 BC (increase in the power of the ephorate), the ephors became the ambassadors of Sparta. They handled all matters associated with foreign relations, including the creation of treaties with foreign powers 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. The ephors needed a majority vote to make decisions binding and minority or dissenting decisions were not accepted by the assembly.
According to Plutarch, 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. That was done to keep the large helot population in check. 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 them to decide whether both or one of the kings had transgressed in his dealings with the gods. A transgression would 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(s). Plutarch also stated that the ephors tried cases involving contracts among citizens. He also reported that each ephor specialized in a different type of disputed contract.
According to Pausanias, the ephors served with the Gerousia on the Supreme criminal court of Sparta. This included presiding over treason, homicide and other offences that carried serious punishments. These punishments included exile, death and disfranchisement.
Ephors had the authority to summon and preside over the assembly's regular meetings in the fifth century BC. 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 BC, 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 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.
Two ephors were always sent on military expeditions to ensure the king acted in line, and if not, could put the king on trial. 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.
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.
The ephors also had the authority to choose three hippagretai (commanders) 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. The hebontes was an age category in the Sparta education system called the agoge. The hebontes would range from 20 to 29 years of age and would roughly join at age 20. This marked when the men would officially become a part of the syssitia and join the Spartan army
Ephors could intervene in cases of "disturbing the peace." This included punishing underage Spartans indirectly for their offences against Sparta. This form of retribution would include penalizing the boys' adult lover (insert word for it here). When men between the ages of twenty and thirty committed offences they were brought before the paidonomos; this men in this age group were called hebontes. The paidonomos was an 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.
The Ephors paid close attention to the education of young Spartans and played a role in ensuring the education was up to standard. According to Agatharchides, they would examine the naked bodies of the boys every ten days to ensure they were "chiselled" and not being overfed.
Leon: Became an ephor at an older age and was the founder of a Spartan colony and Olympic victor (served in 419/8 BC).
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. (served in 432 BC).
Lysander: Was sent as an ambassador to King Agesilaus 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 BC).
Nausikleidas: Accompanied and supported King Pausanias on expedition (served in 403 BC).
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.
Rudolph Maté's 1962 The 300 Spartans also depicts the Battle of Thermopylae. The ephors 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.
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.
Zack Snyder's 2007 film adaptation of the Battle of Thermoplyae, 300, features ephors throughout the movie. 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 of Delphi about whether or not to approve Leonidas' plan. King Leonidas is then shown leading his bodyguards to Thermoplyae.
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 ephor Eurytos being guided by his soldiers to an helot community where they demand hospitality. Eurytos is killed by an 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."