Document #8 Life of Lycurgus


  1. What qualities, according to Plutarch, do good leaders possess?
  2. What is the purpose of government?


  1. Greek Terms (and their meaning, of course)
  2. The reforms of Lycurgus, what they were and why they were implemented.


Life of Lycurgus by Plutarch

1. Generally speaking it is impossible to make any undisputed statement about Lycurgus the lawgiver, since conflicting accounts have been given of his ancestry, his travels, his death, and above all his activity with respect to his laws and government; and there is least agreement among historians as to when the man lived. Some claim that he was in his prime at the same time as Iphitus and was his partner in establishing the Olympic truce and games. Among those who take this view is Aristotle the philosopher, who alleges as proof a discus preserved at Olympia with Lycurgus’ name inscribed on it. But others who calculate his time by the succession of Spartan kings claim that he must have lived much earlier than the First Olympiad. The philosopher Timaeus conjectures that there were actually two Lycurguses at Sparta at different times, and that the achievements of both are attributed to a single man. The older man may have lived close to the time of Homer; there are some who think Lycurgus even met Homer in person. Xenophon, too, suggests a rather early date in a passage of his written work Nonetheless, even though this is such a muddled topic of history, I shall try to present an account of Lycurgus by following those stories which are least contradicted and from the most distinguished authorities.

2. Of Lycurgus’ ancestors, Soüs was most famous and particularly admired. Under him the Spartans both made slaves of the helots and acquired the lands of Messenia by conquest. Among the succeeding kings some were detested for ruling the people by force, while others were merely tolerated because their rule was feeble. As a result, for a long period Sparta was gripped by lawlessness and disorder. It was as a consequence of this that Lycurgus’ father, too, met his death while king. He died from being struck by a chef’s cleaver in the course of trying to stop a brawl. The throne was left to his elder son Polydectes.

3. When Polydectes also died not long after, everyone figured that Lycurgus ought to replace his brother as king. And he did serve as king until it became apparent that his brother’s widow was pregnant. As soon as he discovered this, Lycurgus declared that the kingship rightfully belonged to the child if it should turn out to be a male, and he would exercise power simply as a prodikoi: prodikoi was the term used by the Spartans for the guardians of young kings without fathers. The mother, however, in secret communication explained to him her wish to abort the baby on condition that Lycurgus would marry her and remain king of Sparta. Though he loathed her suggestion and morals, he raised no objection to the proposal and pretended to approve and accept it. He said that there was no need for her to suffer physical harm and to run the risks by taking drugs to induce a miscarriage, since he would ensure that the child was disposed of as soon as it was born. By this means he continued to mislead the woman up until the time of the child’s birth. When he learned that she was in labor, Lycurgus sent in observers and guards to be present at the delivery with instructions: should the child turn out to be a girl, it was to be handed over to its mother, but if it should be a boy, they were to bring it to him personally. It so happened that Lycurgus was eating with some distinguished Spartans when a boy was born and the servants appeared with the child. The story goes that he took him and said to those present: ‘Spartiates, a king is born to you.’ And then he laid the child in the king’s place and named him Charilaus, meaning the People’s Joy, because everyone, impressed at how high-minded and fair Lycurgus was, felt overjoyed.

4. Lycurgus had been king for eight months and admired by the citizens. Many were obedient because he was the prodikoi and had authority as guardian, but many more were devoted to him because of his personal excellence. Yet there was also some jealousy and attempts to stem his power among the relations and friends of the king’s mother who felt particularly injured by Lycurgus’ popularity. On one occasion her brother abused Lycurgus quite offensively and added that he was fully aware of Lycurgus’ intention to seize the throne and make himself king. This slander laid the ground for accusing Lycurgus of a plot to harm the boy king. Similar sorts of remarks were made by the king’s mother too. Since these caused Lycurgus distress and fear about the uncertain future, he decided to avoid suspicion by going abroad and travelling around until his nephew should come of age and have a son of his own to succeed him and inherit the throne.

5. So he left Sparta, set sail, and arrived first at Crete. Here he studied the various forms of government and associated with men of the highest reputation. He greatly admired the laws there and took note with the intention of bringing them home and putting them to use in Sparta. By his charm and friendliness, he prevailed upon one of these men whom he regarded as shrewd and statesmanlike to undertake a mission to Sparta. This man, named Thales, though a powerful lawgiver, had a reputation as a composer of lyric poetry. His songs served as arguments to evoke obedience and concord. The accompanying music and rhythms had a notably regular and soothing quality, so that those who heard them would unconsciously mellow in character. In place of the mutual ill-will which at that time prevailed there, they would instead became used to striving together for excellence. Thus in a sense Thales paved the way for Lycurgus’ instruction of the Spartiates.

6. From Crete Lycurgus sailed to Asia [Ionian coast]. Some say that his plan was to compare the frugal, tough way of life on Crete with the extravagance and luxury of Ionia, and to observe the differences in the ways of life and government, just as a physician who compares festering and diseased bodies with the healthy. It was apparently in Ionia that Lycurgus first encountered the poems of Homer. And when he observed that besides their tendencies to unrestrained indulgence they also contained political and educational elements which were no less worthy of attention, he enthusiastically had them written down and collected in order to bring them back home. Homer’s epics had already gained a certain reputation among some of the Greeks, and a few individuals had acquired fragments of the works thanks to chance, but Lycurgus was the first and most successful in making them widely known.

7. The Egyptians think that Lycurgus reached them too, and was so impressed with their system that separated the warrior class from civilians that he went home and instituted similar divisions in Spartan society. There are certainly some Greek historians who endorse these claims by the Egyptians. There are even a few who contend that Lycurgus visited both Libya and Iberia and that in his wanderings around India he talked with the Gymnosophists there.

8. The Spartans missed Lycurgus throughout this absence and often summoned him back. To them the kings, while accorded a title and an office, were in other ways not superior to the people. And in Lycurgus they recognized a natural leader with the ability to attract a following. In fact even the kings were not reluctant to see him back again. Their hope was that with his presence they would receive less offense from the people. So when Lycurgus did return to a populace in this kind of mood, his immediate intention was to sweep away the existing order and to make a complete change of constitution rather than attempt to introduce piecemeal legislation. Once he had decided on this road, Lygurgus travelled first to Delphi and after sacrificing to the god and consulting him, he returned bringing that famous oracle in which the Pythia called him ‘dear to the gods’ and ‘a god rather than a man’. Lycurgus asked for Good Order and she declared that the god Apollo granted this and further promised that his constitution would be the finest by far.

9. With this encouragement he made approaches to the most distinguished men and invited them to join in the task. Initially he conferred with his friends in secret, yet ever so gradually he won over more men and organized them for action. When the moment came, he ordered his thirty foremost men to proceed under arms into the agora at dawn, so as to shock and terrify his opponents.

10. First and most significant among Lycurgus’ numerous innovations was the institution of the gerousia. According to Plato, its combination with the kings’ executive authority and the right to an equal vote on the most important matters, produced security and sound policy for the State. For the State had been unstable, at one moment inclining towards monarchy and virtual tyranny and at another towards the people and democracy. But now by placing the senators of the gerousia in between as a kind of ballast, and thus striking a balance, it found the safest arrangement and organization, with the twenty-eight senators always siding with the kings when it came to a matter of resisting democracy, yet in turn reinforcing the people against the development of tyranny. According to Aristotle the number of senators was instituted because two of Lycurgus’ thirty leading associates panicked and abandoned the reforming enterprise. But Sphaerus claims that from the outset there were twenty-eight collaborators in the scheme. Possibly the fact that this number is reached through multiplying seven by four also has something to do with it, as well as the point that it is the next perfect number after six. Yet in my view the main reason for fixing this number was that so the total number of senators should be thirty when the two kings were added to the twenty-eight.

11. Lycurgus was so enthusiastic about the gerousia that he sought an oracle from Delphi, which they call a rhetra. Thus receiving the Pythia’s endorsement, Lycurgus related the origin and source of his constitution to Apollo. When the populace was assembled in the apella, Lycurgus permitted no one else excep the senators and kings to make a proposal, although the authority to decide upon what the latter put forward did belong to the people. Later, however, when the people distorted proposals and mauled them by their deletions and additions, the kings Polydorus and Theopompus supplemented the rhetra as follows: ‘If the people should make a crooked choice, the senators and the kings are to set it aside, that is, not confirm it, but to withdraw it completely and to dismiss the people because they are altering and reformulating the proposal contrary to what was best. Moreover these kings persuaded the city that the god Apollo had ordered this supplement to the constitution — as the poet Tyrtaeus seems to be recalling in the following lines:

Having listened to Phoebus Apollo they brought home from Pytho

The oracles of the god and his words which were to be fulfilled:

To rule in council is for the kings, who are esteemed by the gods

And whose care is the lovely city of Sparta,

And for the aged senators; but then it is for the common people

To respond in turn with straight rhetras.

12. While Lycurgus had thus incorporated a blend of elements in the constitution, Spartans after his day nonetheless still saw oligarchy as undiluted and dominant so that they created the authority of the ephors to act as a curb to the gerousia. It was apparently about 130 years after the time of Lycurgus, during the reign of king Theopompus, that the first ephors were appointed. By its renunciation of excessive authority and the related resentment, the Spartan kingship escaped the danger of suffering the fate which the Messenians and Argives inflicted upon their kings, who refused to concede anything or yield and of their authority to the popular element. Lycurgus’ skill and forsight in this respect are also seen with special clarity in any review of the civil strife and misgovernment among the Spartans’ own kinsmen and neighbors, the Messenians and Argives. Initially they had been equal to the Spartans and even possessed more land than Sparta. However, they did not prosper for long, but through the insolence of their kings and the non-cooperation of the masses they threw their institutions into complete turmoil and their states into disorder, thereby demonstrating what a truly divine blessing the Spartiate enjoyed in the man who constructed Sparta’s constitution and blended it. Yet these development came later.

13. Lycurgus’ second, and most revolutionary, reform was his redistribution of the land. There was in Sparta dreadful inequality: many destitute people without means were congregating in the city, while wealth had poured completely into the hands of but a few. In order to expel arrogance, envy, crime, luxury, and those yet older and more serious political afflictions, wealth and poverty, Lycurgus persuaded the citizens to pool all of the land and then redistribute it afresh. Then they would all live on equal terms with one another, with the same amount of property to support each, and they would seek to be first only in merit. There would be no distinction or inequality between individual Spartan citizens except for what censure of bad conduct and praise of good would determine.

14. Acting upon his word, Lycurgus distributed the remainder of Laconia to the perioikoi in 30,000 lots and divided the part subject to the city of Sparta into 9000. This was the number of lots reserved for the Spartiate. Each citizen’s lot was sufficient to provide a rent of 70 medimni of barley for a man and 12 for his wife, along with proportionate quantities of fresh produce. He thought that just this amount of food would suffice for their proper fitness and health, and that they would need no more than that. There is a story that at some later date, when on return from abroad, he was passing through the country just after the harvesting and saw heaps of grain side by side and all equal in size. He smiled and remarked to his companions that the whole of Laconia had the look of a property which many brothers have recently divided between themselves.

15. Lycurgus attempted to divide up their moveable property too, in order to remove inequalities and contrasts altogether. But when he saw the adverse reaction to outright expropriation, he went about this in a different way and devised constitutional measures against the peoples’ greed. First he declared that all gold and silver coinage was now invalid, and decreed that only iron should be used as currency; and then he assigned a low value to even a great weight and mass of this, so that a sum of ten minas required substantial storage space in a house and a wagon to move it. Once this was made legal tender, many types of crime disappeared from Sparta. For who would set out to steal, or accept as a bribe, or rob, or plunder something which could not be hidden, excited no envy when possessed, and could not even be profitably chopped up? The story is that Lycurgus doused the surface of the red-hot iron with vinegar, thus making it fragile and intractable and removing whatever other use and strength it might have.

16. After this he effected an expulsion of useless and superfluous foreign crafts. Even without banishing them, most would have probably been eliminated by the common currency, since there was no market for their products. The iron money, after all, could not be exported elsewhere in Greece and was considered a joke there rather than an object of value. Consequently it was impossible to buy any shoddy foreign goods in Sparta, and no cargo of merchandise would enter the harbors, no teacher of rhetoric trod Laconian soil, no begging seer, no pimp, and no maker of gold or silver ornaments because there were no more coins. Thus gradually cut off from the things that animate and feed it, luxury atrophied of its own accord. And those who had great possessions won no advantage because there was no public outlet for their wealth, except keeping it at home in storage. As a result, Spartan craftsmanship of everyday essential items of furniture was first rate, and the Spartan kothon or drinking cup is especially valued because of  its practical use on military campaign. Dirt and twigs and other off-putting elements in water which had to be drunk were concealed by its color, while the dirt in the liquid was trapped by the lip so that what reached the mouth for drinking was cleaner. The lawgiver Lygurgus was responsible for this too, since craftsmen had been released from useless jobs and now displayed the quality of their skill in essential ones.

17. With the aim of stepping up the attack on luxury and removing the passion for wealth, Lycurgus introduced his third and finest reform, the establishment of common messes or syssitia. The intention was that they should assemble together and eat the same specified meat-sauces and cereals. This prevented Spartan men from spending spending time at home, lying at table on expensive couches, being waited upon by confectioners and chefs, fattened up in the dark like gluttonous animals, and ruining themselves physically as well as morally by giving themselves free rein to every craving and excess which demanded lengthy slumbers, warm baths, plenty of rest, and daily nursing.

18. Taking meals in common and introducing frugality in diet was a great achievement. When the rich man goes to the same meal as the poor one, he found no use for lavish table settings. It was not even possible for the rich to dine at home first and then proceed to their messes on a full stomach. Rather, the rest were on the look-out for whoever would not drink and eat along with them, and they would abuse him for having no self-discipline and for being too delicate to consume the common fare. [Perhaps something to bear in mind the next time you disparage lunch in the refectory.]

19. We are told that it was this reform above all others that roused the fury of the wealthy against Lycurgus, so that they joined together in a body to jeer at him and to express their anger. Eventually, when many of them pelted him, he ran from the agora to escape and managed to take refuge in a sanctuary. But one youth in particular, a boy named Alcander, pressed hard in pursuit and struck Lycurgus with his stick when he turned around, knocking his eye out of its socket. However, Lycurgus refused to give in and stood to confront the citizens and show them his bloodstained face and ruined eye. When they saw this they were overcome with such deep shame and sorrow that they handed Alcander over to him and escorted him home as an expression of their joint outrage. Lycurgus complimented and dismissed them, but took Alcander into his own home as a servant. Alcander, who was by no means ill-bred, did as he was instructed without a word; and by staying in Lycurgus’ house and living with him as his servant came to recognize his gentleness, his depth of soul, his ascetic lifestyle, and his inexhaustible capacity for work. In consequence, Alacander became quite remarkably attached to him and used to say to his comrades and friends that Lycurgus, far from being severe or unfeeling, was uniquely gentle and mild to others. This then was how Alcander was punished — a criminal and willful adolescent who became the most civil and responsible man. In memory of his injury, Lycurgus dedicated a shrine of Athena Optilletis (because the Dorians call eyes optilloi). It was after this incident that the Spartans gave up the habit of carrying sticks when attending the apella.

20. While the Cretan call messes andreia, Spartans call them phiditia [which has come to be transcribed as syssitia], either because they are places of friendship (philia) and kindliness or because they instill thriftiness and frugality (pheido). This may have been added to the word editia, which suggests the way of life and eating. Spartans gathered in groups of about fifteen. Every month each member of the mess contributed a certain measure of barley meal, wine, cheese, figs, and a small amount of meat and fish. Anyone who had been hunting would also send a share to the mess, for whenever anyone was back late from hunting, he was allowed to have dinner at home; the others had to be at the mess. This practice of dining together was for a long time strictly maintained in Sparta. For example when king Agis returned from the campaign in which he had defeated the Athenians, he wanted to eat at home with his wife and called for his portions; the ephors, however, refused to send them. Next day in his fury he did not carry out the required sacrifice, and they fined him.

21. The boys, too, used to frequent the messes. For them it was like being brought to a school for self-discipline, where they heard both political discussion and witnessed the kind of entertainments appropriate for free men. For their own part they grew used to making fun and joking without becoming indecent, as well as not taking offense when they were the butt of the joke. In fact this ability to take a joke would seem to be particularly Spartan in character. If a joke went too far, a man might plead with the person making it and he willingly left off.

22. The oldest member of the syssytia indicated the doors to each person entering the mess and said: ‘Not a word goes out through these.’ By all accounts anyone desiring to join a mess was vetted in the following way. Each member took a piece of soft bread in his hand and in silence threw it, like a ballot, into the bowl which a servant carried on his head. Those in favor threw the bread as it was, while those against taking the person squeezed it hard, leaving a thumb print. Should they find even one of these squeezed pieces they do not admit the would-be member because it is their wish that all should be happy in each others’ company. They refer to somebody rejected in this way as kaddished, since the bowl into which they throw the pieces of bread is called a kaddichos.

23. The food that Spartans think most highly of is called melas zomos or black broth [made of pig’s blood and vinegar]. Thus the older men do not even ask for a helping of meat but leave it to the young ones. Instead they have black broth poured out for themselves and make a meal of it. There is a story that one of the kings of Pontus even bought a Laconian cook for the sake of the broth, but after tasting it was not pleased. At this the cook declared: ‘This is broth to be savored, O king, by those who have bathed in the Eurotas.’ After moderate drinking the Spartan messmates depart without a torch. Neither for this journey nor for any other are they allowed to walk with a light, so that they should grow used to the darkness and to traveling cheerfully and fearlessly by night. This then is how their messes were organized.

24. Lycurgus did not put his laws into writing. In fact one of the rhetras is that laws should not be written. Instead, he reckoned that the guiding principles of most importance for the happiness and excellence of the state would remain securely fixed if they were embedded in the citizens’ character and training rather than written down upon paper. This approach forged a stronger commitment to such principles than the sense of compulsion induced in the young by book education. In his view it was also better that minor financial agreements should not be bound by written contracts, but that additions and deletions were to be made as circumstances require with the approval of experts. In fact he made his entire legislative reforms completely dependent upon the education of citizens.

25. Thus, as has been explained, one of the rhetras prohibited the use of written laws. Another in turn was directed against extravagance, to the effect that in every house the ceiling should be made with an axe, and the doors only with a saw, not with any other tools. There was no place for luxury or extravagance in such a rough made house. Yet another rhetra of Lycurgus banned frequent military campaigns against the same foe, so that these enemies should not grow used to defending themselves and thus become skilled in warfare. And this very complaint was later brought laid most notably against King Agesilaus, that by his constant forays and expeditions against Boeotia he made the Thebans a match for the Spartans. [Sparta was defeated by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.] Thus when Antalcidas saw the king wounded he remarked: ‘What a splendid tuition fee you received from the Thebans for having taught them to fight when they had neither the wish nor the knowledge to do so.’

26. Since he regarded the upbringing of children as the greatest and noblest responsibility of a legislator, Lycurgus showed special concern for matters relating to marriages and births. He showed all possible concern for women and well as the men. First he toughened the girls physically by making them run and wrestle and throw the discus and javelin. Thereby the children in the embryo would make a strong start in development while the women themselves would also bear their pregnancies with vigor and meet the challenge of childbirth in a relaxed way. He did away with prudery, sheltered upbringing and effeminacy of any kind. He made both girls and boys comfortable walking naked in processions as well as dancing and singing at certain festivals while those of the opposite sex looked on. On some occasions the girls would make fun of each of the young men, helpfully criticizing their mistakes. On other occasions they would sing the praises of those deserving them and so fill the young men with a great sense of ambition and rivalry. The. There was nothing disreputable about the girls’ nudity. It was altogether modest and their was no hint of immorality. Instead, it encouraged simple habits and an enthusiasm for physical fitness, as well as giving females a taste of masculine gallantry since they were granted equal participation in both excellence and ambition. As a result the women of Sparta helped develop and train the men.

27. There were also inducements to marry. Lycurgus placed a certain civil disability on those who did not marry, for they were excluded from the spectacle of the Gymnopaedia, because they had produced no sons for the state. The custom was to capture women for marriage, not when they were small or immature, but when they were in their prime. The so-called ‘bridesmaid’ took charge of the captured girl and first shaved her head then dressed her in a man’s cloak and sandals and laid her down on a mattress in the dark. The groom, who was not drunk but sober as always, first had dinner in the mess, then slipped in unseen and carried his bride to bed. After spending only a short time with her he departed discreetly to return to his normal barracks. And this practice continued, as he would warily visit his bride only in secret, ashamed and apprehensive in case someone in the house might notice him. His bride at the same time devised schemes and helped to plan how they might meet each other unobserved at suitable moments. This went on for an extended period of time so that many men had children before they saw their own wives in daylight. Such behavior was not only an exercise in self-control and moderation, but also meant that partners remained vigorous and fertile rather than being weakened by unrestricted sexual activity. Moreover, some lingering glow of desire and affection was always retained for both partners.

28. After making marriage as modest and orderly as this, Lycurgus showed equal concern for removing absurd, unmanly jealously. He made it honorable for worthy men to share in the production of children. Thus, if an older man approve, he might share his wife with a younger man and adopt the child as his own. Conversely, a respectable man who admired someone’s wife noted for her well-formed children and her good sense, might gain the husband’s permission to sleep with her, thereby producing fine children who would be linked to fine ancestors by blood and family.

29. First and foremost, Lycurgus considered children to belong not privately to their fathers, but jointly to the city. He wanted citizens produced not from random partners, but from the best (aristos). He observed a good deal of stupidity and silliness in other states’ rules on these matters. People intentionally breed their finest horses and dogs by paying for the best of studs, but wives they lock up and guard, claiming the right to produce only their children exclusively, even though they may be imbeciles, past their prime, of diseased. They forgot that where children are born of poor stock, the first to suffer from their poor condition are those who possess and rear them. What was thus practiced in Sparta in the interests of breeding and of the state was at that time so far removed from lax morals that there was absolutely no notion of adultery. There is a story recorded by a Spartan named Geradas, who when asked by a foreigner what the punishment for adulterers was said, ‘There is no adulterer among us.’ When the stranger replied, ‘But what is there should be one?’, Geradas answered: ‘His fine would be a great bull which bends over Mount Taygetus to drink from the Eurotas.’ The foreigner was amazed and said, ‘But how could there be a bull of such size?’ At which Geradas laughed and said, ‘But how could there be an adulterer in Sparta?’

30. The father of a newborn child was not entitled to make the decision about whether or not it should live, but rather brought it to a particular spot where the ephors sat. If after examination the baby proved well-built and sturdy they assigned it one of the 9,000 lots of land and instructed the father to rear it. If it was puny and deformed, they dispatched it to what was called ‘the place of rejection’ (apothetae), a precipitous spot by Mount Taygetus, considering it better both for itself and the state that the child should die if it was poorly endowed for health or strength. And that is why women would test their babies by washing them in wine instead of water. The effect of the unmixed wine on ailing and epileptic children is said to make the weak lose their senses and toughen the healthy. To allow free development of limbs and physique Spartan babies were not swaddled. They trained children to eat all their food and not be fussy about it, not to be frightened of the dark or of being left alone, and not to be prone to fits of temper or crying. This is why some foreigners bought Spartan wet-nurses. But Lycurgus refused to put Spartan children in the care of any tutors who had been bought or hired. Neither was it permissible for each father to bring up and educate his son in the way that he chose. Instead, as soon as boys reached the age of seven, they were distributed into the Troops. Here they were accustomed to live together and be brought up together, playing and learning as a group. The captaincy of the Troop was conferred upon the boy who displayed the soundest judgment and the best fighting spirit. The others kept their eyes on him, responded to his instructions, and endured their punishments from him, so that altogether this training, called the agoge, served as a practice in learning obedience. Boys were constantly watched by their elders in order that they might get to know each boy’s character, in particular how bold he was and how far he was likely to stand his ground in combat.

31. The boys learned to read and write no more than was necessary. Their entire education was aimed at developing smart obedience, perseverance under stress, and victory in battle. So as they grew older they intensified their physical training and cropped their hair, went barefoot, and exercised naked. From the age of twelve they never wore a tunic and were given only one cloak a year. Their bodies were rough and they knew nothing of baths or oils. They slept together by Wolfpacks on mattresses made from rough reeds. The Wolfpacks are each commanded by an Eiren, twenty years of age, and the boys are made to serve him meals like a servant. They steal what food they fetch, some of them entering gardens, others slipping into the men’s messes with a fine mixture of cunning and caution. If a boy is caught he receives many lashes of the whip, not for stealing but for proving an inexpert thief. The boys also steal what provisions they can, thereby learning how to sneak up upon a sleeping person or overcome a guard. A boy is beaten and goes hungry if he is caught. The aim of providing them with only sparse fare is that they should be driven to make up its deficiencies by resorting to daring and cunning. While this is the main purpose of their scanty diet, it is also thought that it will help them grow tall. Good looks are produced in the same way. For where lean, spare features respond to articulation, the sheer weight of obese, over-fed ones makes them resist it.

32. The care which the boys take over their stealing is illustrated by the story of one who had stolen a fox cub and had it concealed inside his cloak. In order to escape detection he was prepared to have his insides clawed and bitten out by the animal and even die. This tale is certainly not incredible, judging from Spartan boys today. I have witnessed many of them dying under the lashes they receive at the altar of Artemis Orthia.

33. As he reclined after his meal, the Eiren would tell one boy to sing, while to another he posed a question which called for a thoughtful response, like ‘Who among the men is the best?’ Or ‘What is your opinion of so-and-so’s action?’ Thereby, early on boys grew accustomed to judging excellence and to making critical appraisal of the citizens. When asked which citizen was good, or whose reputation was low, the boy at a loss for an answer was regarded as a sluggard. Answers had to be reasoned, supported by argument, and at the same time expressed with brevity and concision. A bite on the thumb was the punishment for the wrong answer. An Eiren was permitted to administer punishment without interference.

34. Boys were further taught to express themselves in a style which was at once sharp, yet at the same time attractive and suited to concise exposition of a variety of points. While in the case of iron money, Lycurgus arranged for heavy weight to be matched by low value; he did the opposite for the currency of speech. Here he developed the technique of expressing a wide range of ideas in just a few, spare words. In his scheme, boys, by staying silent most of the time, were led to give pithy, well-trained answers. By contrast the talk of the person who babbles constantly turns out vapid and mindless. When an Athenian once made a joke about how Spartan swords are so short that a circus performer could swallow them, King Agis responded that they were just long enough to reach the hearts of our enemies. While the Laconian style of speech may seem brief, in my view it certainly does penetrate to the heart of the matter and makes a forcible impression upon its hearers’ minds.

35. Judging by his recorded remarks, Lycurgus himself seems to have been a man of just a few, well-chosen words. Take, for instance, what he said about government to a person who advocated making Sparta a democracy: ‘Make your own household a democracy first.’ And his explanation about sacrifices to the person who inquired why the ones he arranged were to small and inexpensive: ‘So that we may never cease to honor the gods.’ When asked how to repel an enemy attack, he responded: ‘If you stay poor and each man among you has no desire to be greater than any other.’ And when asked why Sparta did not construct defensive walls, he said: ‘A city is fortified if it is ringed with brave men rather than bricks.’

36. Spartan distaste for over talking is demonstrated in their pointed remarks. When Charilaus, Lycurgus’ nephew, was asked why his uncle had made so few laws, his reply was that men of few words need few laws. Here are some examples of such remarks. When a man of poor character asked Demaratus who is the best of the Spartiates, he replied: ‘The one least like you.’ When some foreigner congratulated the Eleans on their fair management of the Olympic Games, Agis of Sparta inquired: ‘What is so remarkable about fair conduct on one day every four years?’ When some foreigner claimed that in his own city he was known as a friend of Sparta, Theopompus said: ‘Stranger, it would be more honorable for you to be known as a friend of your own city.’ When an Athenian politician disparaged the Spartans as uneducated, Pleistoanax replied: ‘Your point is correct, since we are the only Greeks who have learned nothing wicked from you Athenians.’ And when a man once inquired as to exactly how may Spartans there are was answered: ‘Enough, my friend, to keep undesirables out.’

37. The Spartans’ character may equally be illustrated from their humorous remarks. It was their habit never to waste words and to articulate nothing which did not in some way or other contain an idea meriting serious thought. If you consider some of the preserved sayings of the Spartans, it justifies some people’s claim that Sparta showed more devotion to the intellect than to even physical exercise. And they were no less enthusiastic about training in music and singing than they were about purity of speech. Their songs roused the spirit for energetic, effective action. In style they were plain, while their subject matter was serious and calculated to mold character. For the most part they praised those who had the good fortune to die for Sparta, condemned cowards, and promised to remain brave. Anyone who has studied Spartan poetry and the music they use while advancing upon their enemies would not think it wrong to connect music and bravery. Spartans are the most musical and at the same time the most warlike of people: ‘Fine lyre-playing matches iron weaponry,’ says one Spartan poet. At time of battle the king first sacrifices to the Muses, thereby reminding his men of their training so that they may face the dangers ahead and perform memorable feats in the fighting.

38. It was during war that the Spartans relaxed the harshest elements of the young men’s training. Before battle they groomed their hair and decorated their weapons and clothes. Adult Spartans wore their hair long; they took particular care over it in the face of danger, combing it and making it look sleek. They bore in mind one of Lycurgus’ statements that long hair makes handsome men better looking and ugly ones more frightening. Their exercises were also less demanding while on military campaign and the young men were less subject to punishment and scrutiny, with the result that for them uniquely among mankind was represented a break from the rigors of military training. Once their phalanx was marshaled together in sight of the enemy, the king instructed everyone to put on garlands, and ordered the pipers to play the Hymn to Castor. At the same time he began the marching paean, so that it was solemn and terrifying to see them marching in step to the pipes, creating no gap in the phalanx nor suffering any disturbance of spirit, but rather approaching the confrontation calmly and happily in time to the music. In all likelihood men in this frame of mind feel neither fear nor exceptional anger, believing heaven to be with them.

39. The king advanced against the enemy surrounded by those who had won honors. A story is told of one Olympic victor in wrestling who, when offered an immense sum of money, refused it. When he was asked: ‘What have you gained from your victory, Spartan?’, he replied with a smile: ‘In battle against the enemy my place will be in front of the king.’ After Spartans defeated an enemy and made them flee, they gave chase only far enough to confirm the victory and then pulled back, because in their view it was neither noble of Hellenic to butcher and slaughter men who had already yielded their ground. This practice was not just magnanimous, but it also paid off politically: it was known that Spartans killed only those who stood in their way, and spared those who surrendered, so adversaries often saw more advantage in fleeing than in standing their ground.

40. Spartiates’ training extended into adulthood, for no one was permitted to live simply as he pleased. Just as in camp, so in the city, they followed a prescribed lifestyle and devoted themselves to communal concerns. They viewed themselves absolutely as part of their polis rather than as individuals. Abundant leisure was unquestionably among the wonderful benefits which Lycurgus had conferred upon his fellow citizens. He totally banned them from involvement in manual craft, and there was no need to try to amass wealth, since riches were neither envied nor esteemed. The helots worked the land for them. Spartans thought that money-making and craft-work as only fit for slaves! As might be expected, legal disputes disappeared along with coinage, since there was no longer greed or want. So Spartans enjoyed plenty and the sense of ease which comes with simply living. Except when they went on campaign, all their time was spent with dances, festivals, hunting expeditions, physical exercise and in conversation.

41. The main function of the time spent in such activities was to bestow praise on good conduct or criticism on bad — in a lighthearted, humorous way which made correction easy to accept. In fact it was Lycurgus himself who introduced humor into Sparta’s drinking parties and dining clubs, so as to sweeten their rigorous lifestyle. Altogether, he accustomed citizens to have no desire for (nor knowledge of) a private life, but rather to be like bees, always attached to the community, swarming together around their leader, and almost ecstatic with fervent ambition to devote themselves entirely to the polis. When Pedaritus was not selected as one of the Three Hundred, he withdrew cheerfully expressing his happiness that the city possessed 300 men better than he.

42. As already mentioned, Lycurgus himself appointed Elders initially from among those who had been associated with his reforms. But later he arranged that whenever an Elder died his place should be taken by a man over sixty whose merits were regarded as most outstanding. And such a position seemed to be the greatest in the world and most worth competing for. A man was chosen not as the swiftest of the swift, nor the strongest of the strong, but as the best [aristos] and wisest of the good and wise, who as a lifelong reward for his merits had in effect sweeping authority in the state, with control over death and the loss of the rights of citizenship. The selection was made in the following way. The assembly [apella] gathered and picked men [the ephors] were shut up in a nearby building where they could neither see out nor be seen, but could only hear the shouts of those in the assembly. One by one, in an order determined by lots, candidates walked through the assembly. The men who had been shut up noted the volume of shouting without knowing the identity of any candidate, knowing each only by number. Whoever received the loudest shouting was declared elected. Then, wearing a crown, he made a round of the sanctuaries of the gods. He was followed by many young men full of admiration and praise for him, and by many young women who sang in celebration of his excellence and proclaimed his good fortune in life. He was served a meal as a sign of the city’s respect before he went off to his mess [syssition]. Here everything was as usual, except he was served a second portion, which he then donated to one of his esteemed female relatives.

43. Those who buried a dead person were not permitted to inscribe the name on the grave except in the cases of a man who died on campaign or a woman who had died while giving birth. In truth, Lycurgus left nothing undone or neglected, but incorporated into each essential function some stimulus to good conduct or disparagement of bad. He provided the city with a quantity of models which would necessarily be encountered all the time by those aiming for excellence. Consequently, he did not permit Spartans to be away from the city and travel freely, acquiring foreign habits and copying lifestyles based upon no training or types of government different from that of Sparta. He even expelled all those foreign people who poured into the city and congregated there for no useful purpose. By definition foreigners must bring in foreign ideas, and novel ideas lead to novel attitudes. Hence inevitably man emotions and preferences emerge which — if the existing government be likened to a piece of music — are out of tune with it. Thus it was the need to protect the city from being invaded by harmful practices which concerned him more than anything else.

44. In all of this there is no trace of the inequity or arrogance with which Lycurgus’ laws are charged by some people. In their view his laws are well designed to develop valor, but fail to foster justice. It may be that even the philosopher Plato was also led to this opinion of Lycurgus and his constitution because of the Spartan institution called the krypteia. Assuming this really was one of Lycurgus’ institutions, as Aristotle maintains, it’s character was as follows.

45. Periodically, the ephors chose young men who appeared particularly intelligent and dispatched them into the countryside in different directions. They were equipped with daggers and basic rations, but nothing else. By day they dispersed to obscure spots in order to hide and rest. At night they made their way to roads and murdered any helot whom they caught. Frequently, too, they made their way through the fields, killing the helots who stood out for their physique and strength. The historian Thucydides tells how those helots who had been singled out by the Spartans for their bravery were first crowned as if they had been granted their freedom, and visited the sanctuaries of the gods, but then a little later they all vanished — over 2000 of them — and nobody was able to explain how they had been eliminated. Aristotle makes further note that immediately upon taking up office the ephors declared war on the helots, so that they could be killed without  guilt or religious pollution.

46. In other ways, too, the Spartans treatment of the helots was callous and brutal. They forced them, for instance, to drink quantities of unmixed wine and then bring them into the messes to show the young men what drunkenness did to a man. They also ordered them to perform songs and dances which were vulgar and ludicrous, while excluding them from the ones that were fit for free men. Later, according to reports, when Theban forces penetrated into Laconia and told the helots they captured to sing the works of Terpander and Spendon the Spartan, the helots refused, claiming that their masters did not approve. The class distinction is reflected fully in the statement that there is nothing to match either the freedom of the free man at Sparta or the slavery of the slave. In my view such ill-treatment on the part of the Spartiates only developed after the time of Lycurgus — especially after the Great Earthquake which started the Second Messenian War, when the helots posed a dire threat to the city. Personally I would not attribute such a foul exercise as the krypteia to Lycurgus; in my estimation his disposition was otherwise mild and fair.

47. Once he saw that his most vital measures had gained acceptance and that the form of government fostered by him was acquiring enough strength to support and protect itself unaided, then, like the god delighted at his universe coming into being, Lycurgus was deeply moved and pleased by the beauty and extent of his legislation now that it was in action. He longed to make sure that the system should be immortal and immutable, so he summoned everyone to an assembly and declared that while what had been established was sufficient and appropriate to secure the happiness and excellence of the state, there remained the greatest, most essential measure, which he would not disclose before visiting the oracle. Consequently they must abide by the laws laid down without dropping or changing any of them until he should return in person from Delphi. On his he return he would do whatever the god recommended. When they unanimously agreed to this and urged him to proceed, Lycurgus made the first kings and elders [senators], and the other citizens, swear that they would abide by the established constitution and continue to use it until he should return. Then he set out for Delphi.

48. Once he had reached the oracle and sacrificed to the god [Apollo], he inquired if the laws which he had laid down were of sufficient quality to secure the happiness and excellence of the state. The god replied that the quality of the laws was high and that by adhering to Lycurgus’ constitution the city would enjoy the most brilliant reputation.  Lycurgus had this oracle written down and sent it to Sparta. He then made a second, personal sacrifice to the god, embraced his friends and his son, and determined never to release the citizens of Sparta from their oath, and committed voluntary suicide on the spot. He had reached the age when a choice can properly be made of whether or not to go on living; so he starved himself to death. In his opinion it was wrong for a statesman’s death to be of no benefit to his city or for the end of his life to be valueless. In his own case, after his wonderful achievements, he end real did serve to crown his good fortune. As for the citizens of Sparta, his death guaranteed them the excellent benefits which he had provided for them during his lifetime, since they ad sworn to observe his constitution until he returned. And he was not mistaken in his thinking, since Sparta occupied the front rank in Greece for good order and reputation for some 500 years thanks to her use of the laws of Lycurgus, which were not altered by any of her fourteen kings after him. The institution of the office of ephor, which came after Lycurgus, served to reinforce the constitution rather than weaken it, but though it appeared to be to the people’s advantage, in fact it strengthened the aristocracy.

49. However, during the reign of King Agis, money first poured into Sparta, and with money there developed greed. Lysander was responsible because even though incorruptible himself, he filled his polis with passion for wealth and luxury by bringing back gold and silver from the war, thereby undermining the laws of Lycurgus. Previously, while these prevailed, it was not so much the constitution of the state which Sparta followed as the lifestyle of a trained, intelligent individual. Just as the poets tell stories of Heracles roaming the world with his lion-skin and club, punishing lawless despots, so this city used to control a willingly compliant Greece with just a skytale and a cloak. She disbanded unjust juntas and tyrannies in the city-states, arbitrated in wars, and quelled civil strife, frequently without having raised a single shield, but merely with the dispatch of one envoy, to whose instructions everyone instantly responded, like bees which on the appearance of their leader cluster together and arrange themselves in order. This demonstrates how outstanding was Sparta’s good order and justice.

50. Personally I am surprised by the claim that the Spartans knew how to obey, but they had no idea how to command. Those who make this claim endorse the remark of King Theopompus, who when somebody said that Sparta was preserved by her kings’ talent for command, replied: ‘No, Sparta is preserved by her citizens’ readiness to obey.’ Men do not submit to orders from those with no ability for leadership, but such obedience is in fact a lesson taught by the commander. It is the good leader who produces good followers. Just as the object of training a horse is to produce one that is docile and responsive, so the science of kingship has the function of instilling prompt obedience in men. What the Spartans instilled in others was not just prompt obedience but a positive desire to come under their command and submit to them. It was not ships or money or hoplites that these other Greeks asked Sparta to send them, but just a single Spartan commander. Once they obtained him they treated him with respect and awe. These men they termed harmosts [military governors] and discipliners of the people, while they viewed the entire polis of Sparta as a tutor or instructor in good living and orderly government. It was this view which the humorist Stratonicus of Athens was mocking when he proposed a law which required Athenians to supervise religious processions and the Spartans to be whipped for any mistakes they made. On a more serious note, Antisthenes witnessed the conceit of the Thebans after the battle of Leuctra [Thebes defeated Sparta here in 371 BC] and remarked that they were like youngsters made cocky after giving their tutor a beating.

51. All the same it was not Lycurgus’ main aim at the time to make his city the leader of so many other cities. His view was that happiness in the life of the whole city, as in that of one individual, derives from its own merits and from internal concord. It was to this end that all of his reforms were aimed. Lycurgus brought a functioning constitution into the light of day. To those who think it impractical to follow sage theories, he has exhibited his whole city practicing philosophy, and has deservedly won greater renown than all those who have ever governed so far among the Greeks. It is for this reason that Aristotle claims the honors granted him at Sparta are slighter than he merits. He has a temple, and sacrifices are made to him every year as if to a god. And when his remains were brought back to Sparta it is said that lightening struck his tomb.

52. Aristocrates says that after Lycurgus died in Crete they burnt the body and scattered the ashes in the sea. They did this in accordance with his own request, for he wished to prevent his remains ever being brought back to Sparta, since such a return might cause the cancellation of his oath, followed by changes to the system he created at Sparta. This concludes my treatment of Lycurgus.

From On Sparta (Penguin, 1988), trans. by Richard J.A.Talbert and edited exclusively for St. Albans School by R.M. Shurmer


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