The origin of the ephorate is not known. Writing in the mid fifth-century, the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus states that it had been introduced by the Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who is presented by Herodotus as a contemporary of the kings Leo and Agasicles in the first half of the sixth century BCE.note[Herodotus, Histories 1.65.] Later writers, like the philosophers Aristotle and Plutarch, think that the ephorate was an earlier development, which they date to the reign of king Theompompus in about 700 BCE.note[Aristotle, Politics 1313a27; Plutarch, Lycurgus 7.]
The fact that the office is also known from Thera (founded in the seventh century?) and Cyrene, founded in 632 BCE, seems to confirm the early date, but ephors are not mentioned where we would expect them: in the “Great Rhetra”, a collection of Spartan laws that may date back to about 700 BCE.note[Plutarch, Lycurgus 6.] The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, a contemporary of king Theopompus, does not mention ephors either. Still, it is intriguing that the ephors exchanged oaths of loyalty with the two kings – every month, according to Xenophonnote[Xenophon, Spartan Constitution 15.7.] – because this suggests that the ephors were originally appointed by the kings and not by the Apella, the popular assembly. This suggests an archaic origin.
It is possible that the number of five ephors has something to do with the fact that Sparta was not a real city but consisted of five smaller towns. This would also suggest a very early origin, before Sparta was really unified; in fact, it may be that the creation of the college of ephors was a step towards unification.
In the classical age, the five ephors in Sparta, chosen from and by the Spartiats (male citizens with full rights),note[Aristotle, Politics 1270b27.] had several tasks. The name, which means “overseer”, suggests that at first, they had to control something, like the market or the cadaster. Alternatively, they may have been overseeing the homeland while the kings were abroad (e.g., during a war).The five men were also responsible for declaring war, every year, on the Messenians, a ritual that guaranteed Spartiats who accidently killed a helot, would not be punished as murderers.
If Herodotus is to be trusted, the ephors and the Gerusia, the Council of Elders, could give orders to the Spartan kings,note[Herodotus, Histories 5.39.] and oversaw warfare.note[Herodotus, Histories 9.76.] The ephors also received foreign ambassadors.note[Xenophon, Hellenica 2.2.13.] All this suggests that they represented the people. This is confirmed by the fact that the chairman of the college of ephors was also the president of the Popular Assembly.note[Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.87.] The chairman was also the eponymous magistrate, which means that he gave his name to a year. For example, the Archidamian War broke out in the year when Aenesias was ephor (431).note[Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.2.]
The ephors were in office for one year of twelve or thirteen lunar months. They could not be reelected. While in office, they were immune to persecution, but they could be judged by their successors.
King Cleomenes III abolished the ephorate in 227, but it was restored five years later, after the Spartan defeat at Selassia. The ephors of the Roman imperial age were normal municipal magistrates.
- Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (2004)