Sparta: Lycurgus Lawgiver; Beginnings

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; but there is least agreement about the period in which the man lived. Some claim that he was in his prime at the same time as Iphitus and was his partner in instituting the Olympic truce. [According to legend, the earliest Olympic Games ere ones in which gods took part. These lapsed, but were revive by Iphitus of Elis-in 776 B.C.E. according to the reckoning made around the year 400 B.C.E. by his fellow Elean, the sophist (or teacher) Hippias. The sacred truce, whereby all greeks were expected to suspend hostilities between each other for the duration of the games anda period both before and afterward, was an essential feature of these and other pan-hellenic games]. But others like Eratosthenes and Apollodrus, who calculate his period by the succession of kings at Sparta, make the claim that he lived a great many years before the first Olympiad. Timæus conjectures that there were two Lycurguses at Sparta at different times, and that the achievements of both were attributed to one because of his renown. The older one might have lived close to Homer’s time: there are some who think that he even met Homer in person. Xenophon, too, suggests a very early date in the passage where he states that Lycurgus lived in the time of the Heraclids. Now of course the most recent Spartan kings were in fact Heraclids by ancestry, Xenophon evidently also wanted to call the first kings Heraclids, as being closely connected with Heracles. Nonetheless, even though this is such a muddled historical topic, we shall attempt to present an account of Lycurgus by following those treatments which offer the smallest contradictions or the most distinguished authorities.
The poet Simonidas maintains that Lucurgus’ father was not Eunomus, but that Lycurgus and Eunomus were the sons of Prytanis. Nearly all other, however, trace his genealogy differently, as follows: Procles, son of Aristodemus, was the father of Soüs; Eurypon was Soüs’ son; Prytanis was Eurypon’s son, Eunomus was Prytanis’ son; Eunomus had Polydectes by is first wife, and Lycurgus was his younger son by a second wife, Dionassa. This is the account given by Dieutychidas, which puts Lycurgus in the fifth generation after Procles and in the tenth after Heracles.
Among his ancestors Soüs was particularly admired: under him the Spartiates both made slaves of the helots and won further extensive Arcadian territory which they annexed. There is a story that when Soüs was being besieged by the Cleitorians in a rugged waterless spot, he agreed to surrender to them the territory which he had gained in the fighting if he and all those with him might drink from the spring nearby. Once the agreement had been confirmed under oath he assembled his men and offered to confer the kingship of the area upon the one who refrained from drinking. Not one, however, possessed such self-restraint, but they all drank. So Soüs went down after everyone else, and with the enemy still there just splashed himself. Then he moved off, but retained control of the land because not everyone had drunk.
Yet even thought he was admired for such act, his families were termed the Eurypontids, not after him but after his son, because Eurypon by courting popularity and ingratiating himself with the masses was evidently the first to relax the excessively autocratic character of the kingship. Syuch relaxation, however, led to a bolder attitude on the part of the people. Among the succeeding kings some were detested for ruling the people by force, while others were merely tolerated because their rule was either partisan or 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 butchers cleaver in the course of putting a stop to some brawl, and left his throne to his elder son Polydectes.
When Polydectes also died not long after, everyone reckoned that Lycurgus ought to be king. And king he was , until it became obvious that his brother’s widow was pregnant. As soon as he discovered this, he declared that the kingship belonged to the child if it should turn out to be male, while for his own part he would exercise power simply as a guardian: prodikoi [Literally, defenders in legal procceedings]was the term used by the Spartans for the guardians of kings without fathers. The mother, however, in secret communications explained to him her wish to abort the baby on condition that while he remained king of Sparta he would marry her. Though he loathed he morals, he raised no actual objection to the proposal, but pretended a to approve and accept it. He said that there was no need for her to suffer physical harm and to run the risk by inducing miscarriage and taking drugs, since he would ensure that the child should be disposed of as soon as it was born. By this means he continued to mislead the woman right up until the baby was due. Than as soon as he learned that she was in labour, he sent observers to be there at her delivery, as well as guards under orders, that should the baby turn out to be a girl, to hand it over to the women, but if it should be a boy, to bring it to him personally, whatever he might happen to be doing. It so happened that he was having a meal with the magistrates when a boy was born, and the servants appeared bringing him the infant. The story goes that he took him and said to those present: “Spartiates, a king is born to you”. The he laid him in the king’s place and named him Charilaus (Peoples Joy) because everyone, impressed at high-minded and fair Lycurgus was, felt overjoyed.
He was king, them, for eight months altogether. There were other reasons, too, for the citizens to admiration. In fact those devoted to him and willing to carry out his orders promptly because of his personal excellence outnumbered those obedient to him because he was a king’s guardian and had the royal prerogative. Yet there also some jealousy, as well as an effort to obstruct his upward rise when he was young, in particular by the relations and friends of the king’s mother, who felt injured by him. On one occasion her brother Leonidas abused Lycurgus quite offensively and added that he was fully aware of Lycurgus’s intention to become king. Leonidas thus roused suspicion and by his slander laid the ground for accusing Lycurgus of a plot, should the king come to any harm. Similar sorts of remarks were put about the king’s mother too. Since these caused him 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 to succeed to his throne.


So he set out and came first to Crete. Here he studied the forms of government and associated with the men of the highest reputations. Among the laws there were those that he admired and took note of with intention of bringing them home and putting them to use, but there were others which he thought little of. By the exercise of charm and friendship he prevailed upon one of those regarded there as shrewd and statesmanlike to undertake a mission to Sparta. This man, Thales, had some reputation as a composer of lyric poetry and had made this art his cover, though in fact his activities were precisely those of the most powerful lawgivers. For his songs were arguments to evoke ready 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 the time prevailed there, they would instead become habituated to striving communally for excellence. Thus in a sense Thales paved the way for Lycurgus’ instruction of the Spartiates.
From Crete Lycurgus sailed to Asia. We are told that his plan was to compare the frugal, tough way of life in Crete with the extravagance and luxury of Ionia, and to observe the contrast in the ways of life and government– just like a doctor who compares bodies which are fasting or diseased with healthy ones. It was apparently in Ionia that he first encountered the poems of Homer, which Creophylus [Follower or even son-law of Homer] descendants were responsible for preserving. And when he observed that besides their tendencies to unrestrained indulgence they contained political and educational elements which were no less worthy of attention, he enthusiastically had them written down and collected them in order to bring them back home. Homer’s epics had already gained a certain vague reputation among the Greeks, and few individuals had acquired certain portions thanks to chance distribution of these works here and there; but in making known Lycurgus was the first and most successful.
The Egyptians thank that Lycurgus reached them too, and that their separation of the warrior class from the others particularly impressed him–the consequence being that h carried it over to Sparta, and by differentiating labourers and craftsmen demonstrated how genuinely refined and pure his constitution was. There are certainly even some Greek historians who endorse these claims by the Egyptians. Yet so far as I am aware nobody except the Spartiate Aristocrates, the son of Hipparchus, has maintained that Lycurgus also visited Libya and Iberia, and that in his wanderings round India he talked with the Gymnosophist [Literally “naked sophists”; indian philosophers and teachers]


The Spartans missed Lycurgus though out his absence and often summoned him back. To them the kings, while accorded a title an office, were in other ways not superior to the people, whereas Lycurgus they recognized a natural leader with the ability to attract followers. In fact even the kings were not reluctant to see him back again: their hope was that with his presence they would receive less offence from the people. So when Lycurgus did return to the populace in this kind of mod, his immediate attention was to sweep away the existing order and to make a complete change of constitution, since piecemeal legislation would have no effect or value. It was like the case of someone in bodily distress from a whole range of different disorders, who will begin a different, new life only by dissolving and changing his existing make-up with drugs and purges. Once Lycurgus had formed his intention he travelled first to Delphi. And after sacrificing to the god and consulting him, he returned bringing that famous oracle in which the Pythias called him ‘ dear to the gods’ and ‘a god rather than a man’: he had asked for Good order, and she declared that the god granted this and promised that his constitution would be by far the finest of all.


With this encouragement he made approaches to the most distinguished men and invited them to join in the task with him. 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 underarms into the agora at dawn, so as to shock and terrify his opponents. Hermippus has recorded the twenty most distinguished among these men. Arthmiadas is generally named as the one who was particularly associated with Lycurgus in all his operations, and who collaborated with him in formulating legislation. When the disturbance began, King Charilaus took fright because he thought that the whole action was being concerted against him, and so sought sanctuary within the goddess (Athena) in her Bronze House. But once reassured by an oath he emerged, and as a man of mil temperament played a part in Lycurgus’ programe. This mildness is reflected in the story of his fellow king Archelaus, who responded to praise of the youngster by saying “How could Charilaus be a gentleman, when he isn’t hard even on scoundrels?”

The Elders

First and most significant among Lycurgus’ numerous innovations was the institution of the Elders. According to Plato, [gerontes, literally ‘old men’] it’s combination with the king, arrogant rule, and the right to an equal vote on the most important matters, produced security and at the same time sound sense. For the state was unstable, at one moment inclining towards the kings and virtual tyranny, at another towards the people and democracy. But now by placing the office of the Elders in the middle as a kind of ballast, and thus striking a balance, it found the safest arrangement and origination, with the twenty-eight Elders always siding with the kings when it came to matters resisting democracy, yet in turn reinforcing the people against the development of tyranny. According to Aristotle this number of Elders was instituted because two of Lycurgus’ thirty leading associates panicked and abandoned the 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 being equal to the sum of its own divisors it is the next perfect number after six. Yet in my view the main reason for fixing this number of Elders was so that the total should be thirty when the two kings were added to the twenty-eight.
Lycurgus was so enthusiastic about this council that he brought an oracle about it from Delphi, which they call a rheta. [“a saying” opposed to “a writing”]It goes as follows ‘ after dedicating a temple to Zeus Scyllanis and Athena Scyllania, forming phylai and creating obai, and instituting a Gerousia of thirty including the founder-leaders, then from season to season apellaze between Babyca and Cnacion so as to propose and withdraw. Biut to the people should be long the right to respond as well as power” In this the phrases ; forming phylai’ and ‘ creating obai,’ refer to the division and distribution of the people in to groups, the former of which he termed phylai, the later obai. The ‘founder-leaders’ means the kings, while ‘to apellaze’ means to summon the assembly, because Lycurgus related the origin and source of his constitution to Pythian Apollo. Their present names for Babyca and Cnacion…. And Oinous. Aristotle says that Cnacion is a river, while Babyca is a bridge. It was between these that they used to hold their assemblies: there were no porticoes nor any other edifice. For in his opinion there were in no way conducive to sound deliberations, but instead harmful. They made those who assemble idiotic and give them silly, mindless notions, when at their meetings they can stare at statues and pictures, or else stage theatres, (21)or the richly decorated roofs of council chambers. When the populace was assembled, Lycurgus permitted no one else except the Elders and kings to make aproposal, 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 Elders and the founder-leaders are to set it aside’—this is, not to confirm it, but to withdraw if completely and to dismiss the people because they are altering and reformulated the proposal contrary to what was best. Moreover these kings persuaded the city that the god had ordered this supplement—as Tyrtaeus seems to be recalling in the following lines: Having listen to Phoebus 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 esteemed by the gods and whose care is the lovely city of Sparta), And for the aged Elders; but then it is for the common people to respond in turn with straight rhetras’
While Lycurgus had thus incorporated a blend of elements in the constitution, Spartans after his day nonetheless still saw oligarchy as the one that was undiluted and dominate—or ‘ inflated and fervent’ (as Plato puts it) ‘ so that they imposed upon it the authority of the ephors to act as a curb.’ It was apparently about 130 years after Lycurgus’ time that the first ephors were appointed, headed by Elatus, during the reign of Theopompus. [Eurypontid king in the late 8th/early 7th B.C.E. For the Ephorate–a magistracy which Putarch significantly does not attribute to Lycurgus] This is the king about whom they also relate that when his fife criticized him because the kingship he would hand on to his sons would be less than the one he inherited, he replied: ‘No, greater—since it will last longer.’ In fact by its renunciation of excessive authority and the related resentment, the Spartan kingship escaped the danger of suffering the fate which 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 foresight in this respect are also seen with special clarity in any review of the civil strife and misgovernment among the Spartans’ own kins-men and neighbors, the Messenians and Argives peoples and kings. Initially their circumstances and those of the Spartans had been equal, and in the allocations of land [According to legend there had been a agreed allocation of territories by lot at the time of the original occupation of Messenia, the Argolid and Laconia] they may even to have seemed to gain more than they did. However they did not prosper very long, but though the insolence of their kings on one side and the non-cooperation of their masses on the other, they threw their institutions into complete turmoil—thereby demonstrating what a truly divine blessing the Spartiates enjoyed in the man wo constructed their constitution and blended it for them. Yet these developments came later.


REFERENCE: Lives: Plutarch (Roman name: Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)
SOURCE: On Sparta; Translation W/notes by: Richard J. A. Talbert


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