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The Collaborative International Dictionary

Ephor \Eph"or\, n.; pl. Ephors, L. Ephori. [L. ephorus, Gr. ?, fr. ? to oversee; ? + ? to see: cf. F. ['e]phore.] (Gr. Antiq.) A magistrate; one of a body of five magistrates chosen by the people of ancient Sparta. They exercised control even over the king.

Douglas Harper's Etymology Dictionary

Spartan magistrate, 1580s, from Greek ephoros "overseer," from epi- "over" (see epi-) + horan "to see," possibly from PIE root *wer- (4) "to perceive" (see ward (n.)).


n. (context historical English) One of the five annually-elected senior magistrates in various Dorian states, especially in ancient Sparta, where they oversaw the actions of Spartan kings.


The ephors were leaders of ancient Sparta and shared power with the two Spartan kings. The ephors were a council of five elected annually who "swore on behalf of the city", while the kings swore for themselves.

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 for election. They were forbidden to be reelected. They provided a balance for the two kings, who rarely cooperated with each other. Plato called them 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, even gaining the ability to declare war at some points in Spartan history.

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. This was done to keep the large helot population in check.

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 they earned throughout their functions. Since decisions were made by majority vote, this could mean that Sparta's policy could change quickly, when the vote of one ephor changed (e.g. in 403 BC when Pausanias convinced three of the ephors to send an army to Attica). This was a complete turn around to the politics of Lysander.

Cleomenes III abolished the ephors in 227 BC, but they were restored by the Macedonian king Antigonus III Doson after the Battle of Sellasia in 222 BC. While Sparta fell under Roman rule in 146 BC, the position existed into the 2nd century AD, when it was probably abolished by the Roman emperor Hadrian and superseded by Imperial governance as part of the province of Achaea.

Usage examples of "ephor".

I thought he was going to kill you at once, but the ephor protected you, saying he had to allow you to get your avern.

When Agisaleus was slain in the Great Athenian War three years ago, the ephors elected Parmenion.

Now tell me, which of the ephors spoke against the battle with Philippos?

He was Lycon, the youngest of the ephors, a good-looking youth in his mid-twenties, dark-haired and dark-eyed.

In the same period the Ephors of Sparta declared war on all Helots found living within the territory of Sparta.

The Ephors functioned largely as ombudsmen, but they had certain formal duties as direct representatives of the Citizens.

The Ephors acting in their capacity as Protectors of the Citizens have requested the Ultimate Decree, authorizing the Kings to take all necessary actions to safeguard the State, and it has been duly moved and seconded.

The Sentinels were something between Ephors and ombudsmen, and were supposed to represent the best of Shalnuksi business ethics.

There should be either a temporary or perpetual magistrate to keep the nobles in awe, as the Ephori at Sparta and the State Inquisitors at Venice—magistrates subject to no formalities.

The true sovereigns were the Ephori, since royalty itself was subservient to them.

Now tell me, which of the ephors spoke against the battle with Philippos?

He was Lycon, the youngest of the ephors, a good-looking youth in his mid-twenties, dark-haired and dark-eyed.