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Title: Ephor
Original Title: Ephore
Volume and Page: Vol. 5 (1755), pp. 774–775
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt (biography)
Translator: Haydn Mason [University of Bristol]
Subject terms:
Ancient history
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Ephor." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2014. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Ephore," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5. Paris, 1755.
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Ephor." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2014. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Ephore," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 5:774–775 (Paris, 1755).

Ephor. A Spartan [1] magistrate. The word comes from εφοραν, to watch, formed by the preposition επι ( over ), and the verb (όραν to see ), so (εφορος ) means specifically a supervisor, an inspector . The ephors were therefore the inspectors for the whole republic. They attained this honour through nomination by the people; but their responsibility lasted for only one year.

They were five in number. Some writers have declared that the Romans based the prestige of the people’s tribunes upon the Spartan ephors. Xenophon describes their authority concisely [2]. They cancelled out the power of the other magistrates, had the right to summon judicially every single one of them if they felt like it, and make them give an account of their moral code and their actions.

They governed the State’s finances when, for the republic’s misfortune, Lysander brought to it the riches that he had acquired from his conquests. A temple had been built near the hall in which they delivered their judgments, dedicated to Fear , so as to show that they must inspire awe and respect as much as if they were kings. In truth, their power extended on one side to everything concerning religion; on the other, they presided over the public games, possessed the right to examine all the magistrates, and rendered verdicts on law courts that Aelian calls ‘thrones’. In short, they were so absolute that Aristotle compares their government to tyranny, which is to say royalty. They did not only counter-balance the authority of the Senate; they applied to Sparta what kings were able to do elsewhere; they controlled the public debates, declarations of war, peace treaties, the employment of troops, foreign alliances, and rewards as well as punishments.

The Spartan armies took their name from the chief among the five ephors, as the Athenian armies took theirs from their leading archon. The ephors were elected at around the winter solstice, and that was when the Spartan year began.

Herodotus and Xenophon think that they were established by Lycurgus, who thought up this way of maintaining a proper balance of authority within the government.

According to Plutarch, it was Theopompus [3], King of Sparta, who set up this supreme magistracy. When this prince, says Plutarch, himself considered the power of the Kings and Senate to be excessive, he established the authority of the ephors as a counter-force against it, about 130 years after Lycurgus. In addition, when his wife blamed him for leaving by this decision much less royal authority to his children than he had inherited, Theopompus he made this splendid reply: ‘On the contrary, I shall be leaving them all the more so as it will last longer.’ Certainly, this institution served to maintain for a long time the monarchy and the Senate within the proper limits of tolerance and moderation.

These limits are essential to the maintenance of every aristocracy, but particularly so in the aristocracy of Sparta, at whose head were two kings as leaders of the Senate. Thus there was a need for positive ways to ensure that the Senators delivered justice to the people. Hence there was a need for tribunes, magistrates who could speak for this people and in certain circumstances subdue the arrogant wish to dominate. One needed to undermine the laws that promote the distinctions created by vanity between families, on the pretext that they are more noble or more ancient : distinctions that must be attributed to the petty ways of individuals. But on the other hand, as it is in the nature of the populace to act out of passion, there must be those who are capable of restraining and controlling them. Consequently, the citizens had to be totally subordinated to the magistrates, once they had elected them. That is how the ephors were set up, equipped to preserve a harmonious consensus in every social class. It can be seen in the history of Sparta how, for the good of the republic, they knew how to suppress, in several different circumstances, the weaknesses of the kings, of the powerful and of the people.

Aelian tells us also of some character features in their wisdom. When one day in the heat of party discord some Klazomenians [4] had spread filth on the ephors’ seats, these magistrates punished them by simply announcing throughout the city of Sparta that such stupid actions would be permitted to Klazomenians.

The only way that was found to destroy their power was to stir up quarrels between them, and that was sometimes successful. Pausanias [5], for example, skilfully practised this stratagem when, jealous of Lysander’s [6] triumphs, he persuaded three of the ephors to give him the authority to continue the war against the Athenians. But King Cleomenes III, the third of that name [7], took a more shameful decision. He fomented trouble in his own country, ordered that the ephors be killed, divided up the lands, abolished debts and admitted foreigners to property rights, as Agis [8] had proposed. However, it becomes clear from passages in Polybius, [9] Josephus [10] and Philostratus [11], that the ephors were reinstated after Cleomenes’ death. The Spartans were not aware of any disadvantages that compared with the benefits of a magistracy expressly designed to prevent royal and aristocratic authority from tending towards harsh tyranny, or popular freedom from leading to anarchy and rebellion .


1. The French text has two words for this city-State, ‘Lacédémone’ and ‘Sparte’, the former referring to the State environs and the latter to the city itself. But most of the time, as here, there is no clear distinction, so it seemed preferable to stick to ‘Sparta(n)’ throughout.

2. See Nigel M. Kennell, Spartans: A New History, Wiley-Blackwell, pp.12-14.

3. King of Sparta (late 8 th -early 7 th cent. BCE). According to Plutarch’s Lives, it was during this reign that the ephors were introduced into Sparta..

4. Klazomenai: an ancient Greek city, on the Ionian coast.

5. Pausanias: King of Sparta, 409-395 BCE. As the text indicates, he was frequently in conflict with the ephors. See also Kennell, passim.

6. Lysander: appointed Admiral of Sparta, 407 BCE and defeated the Athenian fleet the following year, but was killed in battle in 395 BCE.

7. Cleomenes III, King of Sparta, c.260-219 BCE. He tried to reform Sparta’s political structure, but without success.See Plutarch , Life of Cleomenus , trans. J. & W. Langhorne, (1770).

8. Agis IV, King of Sparta, 265-241 BCE. A chapter is devoted to him in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

9. Polybius, c.205-c.120, BCE. Greek historian

10. Josephus, 37-c.100 AD. Romano-British historian.

11. Philostratus, 37-c.100 AD.. Greek writer.