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Lycurgus – Lacedaemonian Lawgiver


Lycurgus, pondering his laws.

Lycurgus was once asked why Sparta had no defensive wall around its perimeter. He responded, “A city is well-fortified with a wall of men instead of brick.”

Parallel – Numa

Important Places

  • Sparta – Lycurgus’s hometown. This polis will become famous for its military oligarchy and remain undefeated (against a Greek foe) until the Thebans defeat them in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.
  • Crete – Island at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, the center of Bronze Age Minoan civilization and thus respected by the Iron Age Greeks for its antiquity and traditions.
  • Asia Minor – Called Anatolia by the Greeks of the Classical Period, the Aegean Coast of modern-day Turkey had hundreds of Greek colonies who spoke a dialect similar to the Attic, the dialect spoken around Athens.
  • Egypt – One of the greatest powers in the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age, their Iron Age existence was dominated by foreign powers: Nubians, then Assyrians, and finally the Persians.

Important People

  • Homer – Lycurgus discovers his poems in Asia Minor and sees their benefit in training soldiers to seek battle-glory.
  • Alcander – Another poet
  • Lysander – For Plutarch, Lycurgus begins Spartan greatness and Lysander causes its downfall. As he begins the story of Spartan glory, he still keeps their demise in view.
Lycurgus by Pierre-Michel Alix


  • Uncertain origins: second son of King of Sparta
    • Expected to become king when father and brother dead
    • Chemical Abortion or Infanticide?
    • Charilaus born – joy of the people
    • 8-month reign as regent incites envy

Lycurgus Learns through Travel

  • Travels
    • Crete
      • Poetry makes good laws palatable
      • Private hostilities calmed
    • Asia Minor
      • Crete was healthy “simple and severe”
      • Asia diseased “extravagant and permissive”
      • Lycurgus discovers the poems of Homer!
        • makes Homer famous all over mainland Greece
        • Homer’s poetry harmonizes well with the Spartan ideals of military courage as the highest virtue
  • Return Home
    • Lycurgus resolves to rewrite the entire Spartan system of government
      • Not a written constitution; this will become particularly clear later on
    • Apollo gives his blessing calling Lycurgus “more god than man”
      • Apollo also prophesies that his reforms will be “by far the strongest and best of all constitutions”
    • He and 30 friends take over the marketplace

Legals changes 1, 2, 3

  • ONE: Gerousia (Senate)
    • γέρων (gerōn) – old man – Council of Elders –> γερουσία (Gerousia)
    • senex – old man – Council of Elders –> Senate (see Life of Romulus)
    • Rhetrai [sections 6 and 13]
      • Verbal contracts with sacred force
      • The name for most utterances of the gods to men
      • Not to be ignored or trampled over lightly
      • “named in the belief that they came from the gods as oracles”
    • The GREAT RHETRA (from Apollo)
      • Mixed Constitution
        • 2 Kings
        • Gerousia
        • 5 Ephors – balance the power of the oligarchs
  • TWO: Redistribution of Land
    • Purpose – “To end jealousy, vice, and luxury”
    • Homoioi – equals
    • Perikoikoi – (not mentioned in this life)
    • Helots – etym. “the seized” a particularly brutal form of slavery, even by an ancient standard [28]
    • Citizens forbidden from
      • Using coins (iron bars instead)
      • Practicing a trade
        • Even the tradesmen limited in
          • What they could make
          • Tools they worked with
        • Nonetheless, their objects attained the reputation as well-crafted
          • e.g. like modern military-issue gear (K-bar knife, M-16, etc…)
  • THREE: Syssitia (Common Meals)
    • Fixed Menu – black broth the staple!
    • Wealth – blind, lifeless, and still in Sparta
    • The wealthy react poorly
    • Lycurgus loses an eye!
      • Punishment for Alcander
        • Serve Lycurgus
        • Converted to thinking L is best man and himself becomes “Sparta’s most well-mannered and wise citizens”
        • Temple to Athena Optilis
      • The COHORT (15 members)
        • Everyone contributes food
        • King Agis not allowed to dine at home
        • Children learn self-discipline here (GRK: σωφροσύνη)
          • What happens in here, stays in here
          • Take a joke, and give one!
        • Bread-basket ballot
  • Three other minor rhetras
    • Don’t write these down! (Training and Ethics more important than Laws)
    • Simple Homes: All tools except axe and saw forbidden
    • Don’t fight consistently against the same enemy
  •  Marriage and Childbirth [14-16]
  • The Agōgē (ἀγωγή) [16-19]
  • Those Laconic Spartans [19-21]
  • Military  Maneuvers [22-24]
  • Education never stops [24-25
    • Blessing of scholē
    • Freedom and restraint

Political Setup

  • How someone elected to Gerousia [26]
    • Over 60
    • Group of candidates selected
    • Assembly called, and votes decided by length of shout and volume of shout
  • Burying the dead [27]
  • NO injustice or inequality in these laws [28]
    • Those who criticize (cough cough: ARISTOTLE + PLATO) for lack of Justice
    • Krypteia! And treatment of Helots
  • Lycurgus leaves: Spartans are living the laws, established in their hearts and minds [29]
    • Makes Spartans promise never to deviate
    • Goes to Delphi, sacrifices to Apollo, starves himself to death
    • Leaves the Spartans to 500 years of supremacy and prosperity

The End of Perfection: Why Did Sparta fail?

  • Until Lysander [30]
    • Money flowed in and corrupted the morals
    • Before then, Spartans consistently selected as generals:
      • By other Greeks
      • By Sicilians
      • By Egyptians
      • By satraps and kings in Asia
  • Lycurgus created a state not suited to rule others [31]
    • A state “in love with wisdom”
    • “free, self-reliant, self-regulated” citizens
    • Many philosophers agreed with him, but he was the only one who executed on his great ideas, leaving behind a polis rather than just writings.

Helpful External Links

Lycurgus in Art

An English Translation of the Life

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