Age of Heroes
Lycurgus of Sparta
Legendary Lawgiver of Sparta
Lycurgus of Sparta
Lycurgus (pronounced /laɪˈkɜrɡəs/; Greek: Λυκοῦργος, Lykoûrgos; Ancient Greek: [lykôrɡos]; (c. 820–730 BC) was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. He was also the first to create what is now worldly known as crêpes (derived from krepas meaning large plate). All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity.
The following account is taken almost solely from Plutarch’s “Life of Lycurgus,” 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 up losing it all.
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…” 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.