1902 Encyclopedia > Lycurgus

Lycurgus
Spartan lawgiver
(c. 9th century BC)




LYCURGUS, a famous Spartan lawgiver. As even the ancients themselves differed so widely in their accounts of Lycurgus that Plutarch could begin his life by saying that he could assert absolutely nothing about him which was not controverted, it is not surprising that modern historical criticism has been disposed to relegate him wholly into the region of pure myth. One tradition would put him as far back as the age of Troy; another would connect him with Homer; while Herodotus implies that he lived in the 10th century B.C. It is now usual, on the strength of a passage in Thucydides (bk. i. chap. 18), which represents Sparta as having enjoyed a well-established political constitution for as much as four hundred years before the Peloponnesian war, to assign him to the 9th century B.C., and to accept him as a real historical person. But as to the character and result of his legisla-tive work there still remain very conflicting opinions, due to the circumstance that such data as we possess are susceptible of exceedingly diverse inferences and inter-pretations. Plutarch's life, which is the fullest and most detailed account we have of him, is not merely the com-pilation at second hand of a late age (2d century), but also abounds in statements which any one with any knowledge of the early growth of political societies feels to be inherently improbable. Grote prefers on the whole to be guided by what may be fairly inferred from the allusions to his legislation in Aristotle, as being one of our earliest sources of information and certainly the most philosophical estimate of his work. With Thirlwall he takes him to have been a real person, and assumes that he was the instrument of establishing good order among the Spartans, hitherto, according to Herodotus, the most lawless of mankind, and of thus laying the foundations of Spartan strength and greatness.

The traditional story was that when acting as guardian to his nephew, Labotas, king of the Spartans, he imported his new institutions from Crete, in which a branch of the Dorian race had for a considerable period settled themselves. It was said that he had travelled widely, and gathered political wisdom and experience in Egypt and even in India. With the support of the Delphic oracle, which was specially reverenced by Dorians, he was able to accom-plish his work and to regulate, down to the smallest details, the entire life of Sparta. He lived to see the fruit of his labour, and, having bound his fellow countrymen to change nothing in his laws till his return, he left then for Delphi, and was never seen by them again. The oracle declared that Sparta would prosper as long as she held fast by his legislation, and upon this a temple was built to his honour, and he was worshipped as a god.

It was the fashion with writers like Plutarch, from whom our notions of Lycurgus have been mainly derived, to represent the Spartan lawgiver as the author of a wholly new set of laws and institutions. It need hardly be said that any such view has long been abandoned, and that Lycurgus's work, great as it no doubt was, did not go beyond formulating what already existed in germ, and was in fact the peculiar heritage of the Spartans as members of the Dorian race. It has been contended that the laws of Sparta were the typical Dorian laws, and that Sparta herself was the special representative, politically and socially, of the Dorian race. It appears, however, to have been the general view of the Greeks themselves that many of her most important institutions, more especially the severity of her military training and of her home-discipline, were peculiar to Sparta, and were by no means shared by such states as Corinth, Argos, Megara, all of Dorian origin. Grote lays great stress on this point (History of Greece, chap, vi.), and maintains that it was the singularity of the Spartan laws which made such a deep impression on the Greek mind. The truth indeed seems to be that Sparta's political organization in its main lines was of the Dorian type, and resembles the pictures given us in the Homeric poems, but that much in her social life and military arrangements was absolutely unique. It is here that in all probability may be traced the genius and fore-sight of Lycurgus, and he may thus well deserve the credit of having started Sparta on a new career.

The council of elders (gerousia, or senate), a distinctive feature of the Hellenic states generally, must have existed at Sparta long before Lycurgus,. nor is it at all certain that he fixed its number at twenty-eight, the two kings who sat and voted in it making it up to thirty members. It was elected from the people from candidates who had reached the age of sixty, and a senator once elected was a senator for life. It united the functions of a deliberative assembly and of a court of justice, and it prepared measures which were from time to time submitted to periodical assemblies of the people, which, however, had simply to accept or reject, without any power of amendment or criticism. So far the constitution of Sparta was distinctly oligarchical. The two kings, whose office was hereditary, and whose de-scent was from the famous family of the Heraclids, had but very limited political powers, and, with some few excep-tions, even little more than ordinary senators. They owed their position and prerogatives to the religious sentiment of the people, which reverenced their noble and quasi-divine origin, and accepted them as legitimately the high priests of the nation, and as specially qualified in great emergencies to consult the Delphic oracle and receive its answers. An ample royal domain was assigned to them, and some rather delicate legal matters, such as the bestow-ment of the hand of an orphan heiress, were entrusted to their discretion. By far the most important of their I duties was the command of the army on a foreign expedition, with, however, the assistance of a council of war. In fact they closely resembled at all points the kings of the heroic age, and the honour and reverence in which they were held was far greater than their actual power, which really was curtailed within such narrow limits that it was not possible for them to establish anything like a tyranny or despotism.

One great check on the kings was a board of magistrates, annually elected by the people, termed ephors, a name not confined to Sparta, whence we may fairly infer that this institution also by no means owed its origin to Lycurgus. A comparison has been .suggested between the Spartan ephors and the tribunes at Rome. Both were certainly popular magistrates, and as it was at Rome, so too at Sparta, at any rate in her later days, these magistrates made them-selves the great power in the state. There was a form of ancient oaths between the king and the ephors, the king swearing that he would respect the established laws, and the ephors swearing that on that condition he should retain his authority and prerogatives. The unanimous view of antiquity was that it was the special business of the ephors " to protect the people and restrain the kings." We gather from passages in Thucydides that they had in his time great political influence, and in the time of Aristotle they had attained such a position that he says they did not choose to conform themselves to the strict discipline prescribed to Spartan citizens. Although the king took the command in war, it was for the ephors to say when war should be made, and on what terms peace should be concluded. Any public magistrate, the kings not excepted, was liable to be called to account by them, while they themselves seem to have been irresponsible. Of course the fact that they were annually elected necessitated a general conformity in their policy to the popular will. But so great and arbitrary were their powers that Plato hints that the Spartan consti-tution might be almost described as a tyranny. Indeed they were to Sparta what the House of Commons is to England, "the moving spring," as Arnold says (Thucy., App. II.), of the whole Spartan government.

Of the institutions wo have described, not one, as we have seen, was peculiar to Sparta, or, it may be inferred, due to Lycurgus. They were indeed all connected by tradition with his name, and we may believe that he did his best to put them on a sound basis, though, as to the ephors, there is reason to think that they formed no part of the original Spartan constitution. One thing is certain that there was a permanence about Lycurgus's work, what-ever it may have been, to which Sparta's long freedom from revolution was unanimously attributed. She owed this no doubt mainly to her peculiar social customs and usages, and it is here that in the opinion of both Grote and Thirl-wall we must specially look for the reforming hand of Lycurgus.

It was of the first importance that the Spartan should be an efficient soldier. He was a conqueror in the midst of a subject population, to which he stood in the same relation in which the Norman for a time at least stood to the Saxon. This subject population was made up of two classes, the Periceci (dwellers round the city) and the Helots, the first being freemen and proprietors scattered throughout the townships and villages of Laconia, with some powers of local self-government, but with no voice in the affairs of the state, while the latter were simply serfs, attached to the soil which they cultivated, like the villein of the feudal period, for Spartan proprietors, to whom they paid a rent equivalent, it is said, to half of the entire pro-duce. Their condition, though a humble and in some respects a degraded one, was at least free from the worst incidents of slavery, as they lived with their wives and families, and could not be sold out of the country. Thus they must have felt themselves an integral part of the state, which employed them in military service, and rewarded them from time to time with the gift of freedom. Still, as an oppressed class, they often gave uneasiness to Sparta, and on one memorable occasion, recorded by Thucydides (iv. 80), as many as two thousand of them were treacher-ously and secretly massacred for reasons of state expediency. There was even a regular and legalized system of thinning their numbers by stealthy assassination, known as the " crypteia," and carried into effect by young Spartans who were annually commissioned to range the country with daggers for this horrible purpose. If under ordinary circumstances the frugal and industrious Helot might exist in tolerable comfort and even hope for freedom, he must have been made to feel that it was exceedingly dangerous to be too aspiring, and the inferiority of his condition was clearly marked by a distinctive dress which he dared not lay aside, any more than he might presume to sing any of the national songs of Sparta.

It was by the toil of the Helots that the Spartan was enabled to live, as we should say, the life of a gentleman, devoting himself to hunting and military exercises along with some slight admixture of mental culture, based mainly on music and poetry. It was not, however, a life of ease and enjoyment. His physical training was proverbially severe. From the age of seven he was put under a rigorous state discipline which inured him to the patient endurance of the most extreme hardships. The ideal at which he was specially taught to aim was a calm passive fortitude, which implied that he lived solely for the state. Spartan youths would compete with each other in submitting themselves to the lash before the altar of the goddess Artemis, and would, it is said, sometimes suffer even to death without any visible emotion. The story that they were habitually trained to theft means that they had licence to roam the country and forage for food, which they were expected to carry off without detection. In every way they were trained to feel themselves at home amid peril and hardship.

The Spartan woman, whose business it was to be the mother of brave and robust children, was naturally held in great honour, and according to Aristotle had at least in his time great influence on public affairs. The maiden was trained in much the same fashion as the youth, and was exercised in running, wrestling, and boxing, and thus at Sparta there was a much freer intermingling of the sexes than in any other Greek state. In this respect Spartan fashions of life seem to have been altogether peculiar to Spartans. The effect of such a training on the women would as a matter of course be to give them masculine senti-ments and aspirations, and we can well understand what regard would be paid to their praise or censure. The position of women in Sparta takes us back to the old heroic ages, and reminds us of many passages in the poems of Homer.

One of the features of Spartan life, in thorough harmony with its general purpose and tenor, was the public mess, the "syssitia," according to the Greek phrase. Every citizen was bound to be a member of the mess, which was arranged in a number of joint tables, each providing from his allot-ment of land a prescribed quota of provisions, with wine and game from the public forests, and the guests being distributed into parties of fifteen persons, and chosen by ballot. Attendance at the mess was strictly enforced, and even the kings were not permitted to excuse themselves. The claims of the state on her citizens, and the duty of obedience to state discipline, were thus kept perpetually present to the Spartan's mind.
With trade and industrial occupations, even agriculture, the Spartan had nothing to do, all this being left to the Periceci and Helots. We might have anticipated that such would be the case with a military aristocracy. The story that Lycurgus restricted Sparta to an iron coinage can-not well be reconciled with the fact that silver money was not in use among the Greeks till a century after his time.

The organization of the Spartan army was always greatly admired by the ancients. Xenophon praises its system of tactics for " an admirable simplicity in the midst of seeming intricacy," and in Thucydides (v. 66) we have it described as based on an elaborate graduation of authority, by means of which the general's o.rders were transmitted to the rank and file with the utmost promptitude and accuracy. The strength of the army consisted mainly in infantry, every Spartan being a heavy-armed soldier, and the light troops being made up out of the Periceci and Helots. The Spartan cavalry never had much repute, and it was always regarded as a decidedly inferior branch of the service. Nor did they seriously apply themselves to sieges or to sea warfare. Though a brave, they were a very cautious and wary people, and all their military operations were conducted with extreme secrecy. It was a fixed principle with them not to engage the same enemy with needless frequency, and not to carry a pursuit further than victory really required. Anything like cowardice was a disgrace which reduced a citizen to the condition of an outcast. " With it or on it" were the words with which the Spartan mother would bid her son return when he left home with his shield to fight for Sparta.

Lycurgus is fairly described by Grote (Hist, of Greece, chap. 6) as " the founder of a warlike brotherhood rather than the lawgiver of a political community." The Spartan was to be almost wholly estranged from home ties, and to live only for the state. His training, though admired both by Plato and Aristotle as directed towards a noble ideal, was felt by them to be very imperfect, inasmuch as it cultivated only one side of human virtue and contemplated the circumstances of a camp or a garrison rather than of a state organized on a really perfect basis.

With the reforms of Lycurgus Plutarch connects a sweeping readjustment of the entire system of landed pro-perty, whereby Laconia was parcelled out into 39,000 equal lots, 9000 being assigned to Spartan citizens, and the remainder to their free subjects, the Periceci. It was the fashion with certain ancient writers to assume some such measure in the case of every early legislator or reformer. But it is to be noted that we have no hint of any such repartition of land by Lycurgus till we come to Plutarch, and this fact so much impressed Grote that he utterly rejects the story. All historical evidence, lie maintains, points to great inequalities of property among the Spartans from the earliest times, and is therefore irreconcilable with any such belief. Here indeed he seems to be on sure ground, but it may be quite possible that even with equal lots of land there were decided inequalities in wealth. There may have been citizens rich in flocks and herds pastured on common ground, of which, we have reason to believe, there was considerable extent. Plutarch's account is favoured by the fact that equal distributions of land were often made in early days by conquering peoples. The question is one on which it seems impossible to arrive at a certain and definite con-clusion. Possibly, as has been suggested by M. Laveleye, some old tradition of an equality of landed property may have been the origin of the belief that a redivision into equal portions was a part of the system of Lycurgus.

There was, however, an equality which he certainly did attempt to establish. Every Spartan, rich or poor, had to submit to the same hard discipline and to aim at the same ideal. The attempt was not altogether unsuccessful, though the subsequent history of Sparta shows that several of her citizens fell so far short of it as to disgrace them-selves by actual dishonesty in the public service. But we may fairly credit Lycurgus with a work which laid deep the foundations of a very remarkable and at times a truly noble patriotism both in the men and women of Sparta.

The best accounts of Lycurgus and his legislation will be found in Grote's and Thirlwall's histories, and in Miiller's Dorians. The chief original sources from which our knowledge of the subject is derived are the writings of Plutarch and Xenophon, and Aristotle's Politics. (W. J. B.)








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