Lycurgus of Sparta
Lycurgus (//; Greek: Λυκοῦργος, Lykoûrgos, Ancient Greek: [lykôrɡos] c. 900 - 800 BCE) was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity.
He is referred to by ancient historians and philosophers Herodotus, Xenophon, Plato, Polybius, Plutarch, and Epictetus. It is not clear if this Lycurgus was an actual historical figure; however, many ancient historians believed Lycurgus was responsible for the communalistic and militaristic reforms that transformed Spartan society, most notably the Great Rhetra.
The following account is taken almost solely from Plutarch's "Life of Lycurgus" (part of Parallel Lives), which is more of an anecdotal collection than a real biography. The actual person Lycurgus may or may not have existed, but as a symbolic founder of the Spartan state he was looked to as the initiator of many of its social and political institutions; much, therefore, of Plutarch's account is concerned with finding the "origin" of contemporary Spartan practices.
It is said that Lycurgus had risen to power when his older brother, the king, had died. With his father deceased, he was offered the throne. Lycurgus' brother, however, had died with a pregnant wife. When his child was born, Lycurgus named the child, "Charilaus", or, "joy of the people". He gave him his kingship. After that, Lycurgus was said to be a man who could lay down the supreme power easily out of respect for justice, so it was easy for Lycurgus to rule the Spartans in his capacity as the guardian of his nephew Charilaus. However, the young king's mother, and her relatives, envied and hated Lycurgus. Among other slanders, they accused Lycurgus of plotting the death of Charilaus.
Lycurgus finally decided that the only way that he might avoid blame in case something should happen to the child would be to go travelling until Charilaus had grown up and fathered a son to secure the succession. Therefore, Lycurgus gave up all of his authority and went to the island of Crete.
In Crete, Lycurgus met Thaletas the poet. Thaletas made his living as a musician at banquets, but in reality Thaletas was a teacher of civilization. Eventually, Lycurgus persuaded Thaletas to go to Sparta with his songs to prepare the people for the new way of life that he intended to introduce later.
Lycurgus had carefully studied the forms of government in Crete, and had picked out what might be useful for Sparta. He also travelled to Ionia, to study the difference between the pleasure-loving Ionians and the sober Cretans, as doctors study the difference between the sick and the healthy. Apparently he took this comparison to the Spartans, training one puppy in a disciplined manner and leaving the other to eat and play at will. The Spartans were taken by the discipline of Crete and liberties of Ionians at the same time.
In Ionia, Lycurgus discovered the works of Homer. Lycurgus compiled the scattered fragments of Homer and made sure that the lessons of statecraft and morality in Homer's epics became widely known. The Egyptians claim that Lycurgus visited them too, and that it was from the Egyptians that he got the idea of separating the military from the menial workers, thus refining Spartan society.
After Lycurgus had been absent for a while, the Spartans wrote and begged Lycurgus to come back. As they admitted, only Lycurgus was really a king in their heart, although others wore a crown and claimed the title. He had the true foundation of sovereignty: a nature born to rule, and a talent for inspiring obedience. Even the Spartan kings wanted Lycurgus to return because they saw him as one who could protect them from the people.
Lycurgus had already decided that some fundamental changes would have to be made in Sparta. When he returned, he did not merely tinker with the laws, but instead followed the example of the wisest ephors to implement incremental change.
First, however, Lycurgus went to the oracle at Delphi to ask for guidance. The oracle told Lycurgus that his prayers had been heard and that the state which observed the laws of Lycurgus would become the most famous in the world. With such an endorsement, Lycurgus went to the leading men of Sparta and enlisted their support.
He began with his closest friends, then these friends widened the conspiracy by bringing in their own friends. When things were ripe for action, thirty of them appeared at dawn in the marketplace, fully armed for battle. At first, Charilaus thought they meant to kill him, and he ran for sanctuary in a temple, but eventually he joined the conspirators when he found out that all they wanted was to make sure there would be no opposition to the reforms Lycurgus had in mind.
The first reform instituted by Lycurgus was a Gerousia of twenty-eight men, who would have a power equal to the two royal houses of Sparta. The people had the right to vote on important questions, but the Gerousia decided when a vote would be taken. As Plutarch puts it, a Gerousia "allays and qualifies the fiery genius of the royal office" and gives some stability and safety to the commonwealth, like the ballast in a ship. Before, Sparta had oscillated between the extremes of democracy and tyranny: anarchy and dictatorship. With the addition of the Gerousia, which resisted both extremes, the government became stable and the people and their rulers respected each other.
Some further refinements of the Spartan constitution came after Lycurgus. It turned out that sometimes the public speakers would pervert the sense of propositions and thus cause the people to vote foolishly, so the Gerousia reserved the right to dissolve the assembly if they saw this happening.
A hundred and thirty years after the death of Lycurgus, a council of five ephors took executive power from the kings. When King Theopompus, in whose reign the ephors were established, was scolded by his wife for leaving his son less royal power than he had inherited, he replied: "No, it is greater, because it will last longer." With their decision-making power reduced, the Spartan kings were freed of the jealousy of the people. They never went through what happened in nearby Messene and Argos, where the kings held on so tight to every last bit of power that in the end they wound end up losing it all.
Lycurgus is credited with the formation of many Spartan institutions integral to the country's rise to power, but more importantly the complete and undivided allegiance to Sparta from its citizens, which was implemented under his form of government. Perhaps most famously, he is credited with the basic Spartan institution of the sussita/syssitia, the practice that required all Spartan men to eat together in common messhalls. Plutarch describes the institution as consisting of companies ("syssitia", or "eating-together" groups) of about fifteen men, each bound to bring in and contribute each month a bushel of meal, 8 gallons of wine, 5 pounds of cheese, 2 and a half pounds of figs, and a small amount of money to buy meat or fish with. When any member made a personal sacrifice to the gods, he would send some portion to the syssition, and when any member hunted, he sent part of the animal he had killed, to share with his messmates. Personal sacrifices of this sort and hunting were the only excuses that allowed a man to justify eating at his own home, instead of with the messhall (syssition): otherwise, men were expected to eat daily with their syssition comrades. Even kings were apparently expected to take part in a messhall, and were not to eat privately at home with their wives. Spartan women apparently ate together with and spent most of their time with each other, and not their husbands or sons older than seven (see below on the "agoge").
Plutarch, in his Life of Lycurgus, attributes to Lycurgus also a thoroughgoing reassignment and equalizing of landholdings and wealth among the population, "For there was an extreme inequality amongst them, and their state was overloaded with a multitude of indigent and necessitous persons, while its whole wealth had centred upon a very few. To the end, therefore, that he might expel from the state arrogance and envy, luxury and crime, and those yet more inveterate diseases of want and superfluity, he obtained of them to renounce their properties, and to consent to a new division of the land, and that they should all live together on an equal footing; merit to be their only road to eminence..." (trans. Dryden) That is, Lycurgus is said to have been the originator of the Spartan "Homoioi," the "Equals," citizens who had no wealth differentiation among them, an early example of distributism, insofar as the citizens (not the Helots) were concerned. This radical lifestyle differentiated the Spartans once again from other Greeks of their time.
To support this new land division, Lycurgus was said to have divided the country all around Laconia into 30,000 equal shares, and the part attached to the city of Sparta in particular into 9,000; all shares were distributed among the Spartans. Helots (the population of the territories the Spartans had captured in their wars in Laconia) were attached to the land, not to individual owners; hence, all slaves were property of the state. Plutarch further reports that he divided up their movables as well, using the strategy of introducing money called pelanors made of iron which had been weakened by it being cooled in a vinegar bath after being turned red-hot, and calling in all gold and silver, in order to defeat greed and dependence on money. The new money, besides being almost intrinsically worthless, was also hard to transport. This move was seen by Plutarch also as a way of isolating Sparta from outside trade, and developing its internal arts and crafts, so as to prevent foreign influences and the decadence of markets.
As a measure against luxury, Lycurgus prescribed forbidding the use of any tools other than an axe and saw in the building of a house. This practice was consistent with Spartan moderateness in that it prevented the walls and ceilings of the home from being excessively embellished or superfluous, thus discouraging citizens from further adorning their homes with extravagant furniture or other decorations.
He was also credited with the development of the agoge. The infamous practice took all healthy seven-year-old boys from the care of their fathers and placed them in a rigorous military regiment. This system of education, famous in antiquity among the other Greeks, was one of the largest and most influential social institutions attributed to Lycurgus.
Lycurgus himself was said to be mild, gentle, forgiving, and calm in temper, even when attacked; he was thought to have been extraordinarily sober and an extremely hard worker, all qualities that other Greeks admired in the Spartans; in this sense he was also the "founder" of the admirable qualities displayed by contemporary Spartans of later ages.
According to the legend found in Plutarch's Lives and other sources, when Lycurgus became confident in his reforms, he announced that he would go to the oracle at Delphi to sacrifice to Apollo. However before leaving for Delphi he called an assembly of the people of Sparta and made everyone, including the kings and Gerousia, take an oath binding them to observe his laws until he returned. He made the journey to Delphi and consulted the oracle, which told him that his laws were excellent and would make his people famous. He then disappeared from history. One explanation was that being satisfied by this he starved himself to death instead of returning home, forcing the citizens of Sparta by oath to keep his laws indefinitely. He later enjoyed a hero-cult in Sparta.
Lycurgus is depicted in several U.S. government buildings because of his legacy as a lawgiver. Lycurgus is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. The bas-relief was sculpted by Carl Paul Jennewein. Lycurgus is also depicted on the frieze on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
- Forrest, W.G. A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C Norton. New York. (1963)pg 50
- Plutarchus, Mestrius. Parallel Lives. Chs.Lycurgus and Lycurgus and Numa Compared. Plutarch lists Eratosthenes, Apollodorus of Athens, Timæus, and Xenophon, among others as sources.
- BBC In Our Time
- Forrest, W.G. A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C Norton. New York. (1963) pg 45
- Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus (written 75, trans. John Dryden 1683), The Internet Classics Archive
- The Spartan Iron Currency Encyclopaedia of Money
- Mitchel, Humfrey The Phoenix Classical Association of Canada (1947)
- Plutarch Lives: Lycurgus Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Chicago. (1990)pp.32-48
- Forrest, W.G. A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C Norton. New York. (1963)pg 51
- see the biography of Lycurgus in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
- A commentary on Herodotus books I-IV By David Asheri, Alan B. Lloyd, Aldo Corcella, Oswyn Murray, Alfonso Moreno Page 127 ISBN 0-19-814956-5
- "Relief Portraits of Lawgivers: Lycurgus." Architect of the Capitol
- "Courtroom Friezes: North and South Walls: Information Sheet" Supreme Court of the United States
- Descartes, Discours de la méthode (1637)
- Forrest, W.G. A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C Norton. New York. (1963)
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques The Social Contract (1762)
- Woodhouse, South Carolina English-Greek Dictionary: A Vocabulary of the Attic Language (1910)
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