Lycurgus was the mythical founder of classical Sparta’s totalitarian regime. Sanctified by Apollo, Lycurgus’ laws were the key to the city’s stability and success for centuries. The fantastic story of these laws was likely propaganda that hid a more complicated truth.
The debate over Lycurgus has occupied scholars since the classical era itself. Was he real, imagined or a composite of others? Who was he and when did he live? And how did the unique laws of classical Sparta come about actually? Plutarch wrestled at length with these questions in his essay “The Life of Lycurgus.” Cartledge (2003) is unconvinced that Lycurgus existed, and is inclined to think that he was an invention. For his part, Rahe (2016) presents a persuasive case that the glorious legend of Lycurgus the lawgiver probably disguised a less unifying history of intra-Spartan tensions and political upheaval.
Plutarch considered it most likely that Lycurgus was a Spartan Heraclid of the Eurypontid line. Born as the second son to King Eunomus, Lycurgus was not raised for kingship, but his lineage bequeathed him with prestige from birth. According to Plutarch, pre-classical Sparta suffered from political tensions between the kings and their subjects and Lycurgus may have come of age in society with considerable internal strife. King Eunomus lost his life trying to break up a riot, and his heir Polydectus (Lycurgus’ older brother) met an untimely death as well. The throne passed to Lycurgus, but soon afterwards he learned that Polydectus’ widow was with child and he wanted to abdicate, wishing to rule as regent until the child, Charillos, came of age. The abdication was complicated by intrigue by the widow and her supporters. At first she attempted to wile her way into his favor by promising to abort the pregnancy if he would marry her and be king, but Lycurgus tricked her into having the child and then rejected her. Then Lycurgus was accused of plotting against Charillos by the widow’s brother. Realizing that his position and even his life were threatened, Lycurgus abdicated after only eight months, and left Sparta to travel and wander until Charillos would become king.
Lycurgus first travelled to Crete which had Dorian colonies, and which was also characterized by a “simple and severe” culture. The choice was perhaps no accident for Crete is one of the places in ancient Greece where a code of law, citizenship and a constitution first appeared (cf. Rahe, 2016) and one of the colonies, Lyktos, had been settled by Spartans. The expatriate, former king studied the forms of government in the various city-states there, and Plutarch writes that he “heartily approved” of some of the laws while rejecting others.
Leaving Crete, he then journeyed to Asia Minor and visited the Ionian Greek cities there. These were a strong contrast to Crete and Sparta. Lycurgus probably frowned upon the wealthy and hedonistic culture of the Ionians. On the other hand, he was introduced to the writings of Homer and derived great inspiration from them.
Some claim that Lycurgus visited Egypt and even Iberia and Libya, but Plutarch seems skeptical. However long he was gone, the expatriate Spartan was missed by many back home, perhaps because the political tensions had not abated in his absence. His return was peaceful and broadly welcomed. The former king was seized by the idea of revolutionizing Spartan political institutions – root and branch. Seeking divine blessing for this agenda, he travelled to Delphi and received confirmation from the Oracle that the he would establish the best constitution in all Greece. Plutarch recounts Lycurgus’ next move:
Thus encouraged, he tried to bring the chief men of Sparta over to his side, and exhorted them to put their hands to the work with him, explaining his designs secretly to his friends at first, then little by little engaging more and uniting them to attempt the task. And when the time for action came, he ordered thirty of the chief men to go armed into the market-place at break of day, to strike consternation and terror into those of the opposite party.
Charillos at first mistakenly believed that Lycurgus was attempting to take his throne, but he was soon convinced otherwise. He then elected to join the plot rather than oppose it.
The Great Rhetra
Once he had established the necessary political control for his reforms, Lycurgus laid forth “The Great Rhetra” – the great pronouncement. First and foremost in the Rhetra was the introduction of a new institution: a senate, or council of elders known in Sparta as the Gerousia. The purpose of the Gerousia was to introduce a third locus of power in the Spartan body politic. In the past, the kings had tended toward tyranny at times while the commoners had pulled toward democracy, the other extreme. The Gerousia would limit and check both their powers so that Sparta would be neither an absolute monarchy nor a fully-fledged democracy. It would become the central political forum of policy debate, and the high court which could judge and sentence kings.
The first members, or senators-for-life, of the Gerousia were appointed by Lycurgus. The members were twenty-eight and with the addition of the two kings, the council totalled thirty in all. If a member died, a new member was elected by a curious, semi-democratic process. Candidates had to be at least sixty years of age. Each would individually pass silently through the general assembly of Spartans and the crowd would indicate the strength of its endorsement for him by cheers. Whoever got the loudest cheers won the election. The victor and his wife were lauded as excellent Spartans and elevated in the public eye. Plutarch described the post-victory celebrations:
The victor then set a wreath upon his head and visited in order the temples of the gods. He was followed by great numbers of young men, who praised and extolled him, as well as by many women, who celebrated his excellence in songs, and dwelt on the happiness of his life. Each of his relations and friend set a repast before him, saying: “The city honours thee with this table.” When he had finished his circuit, he went off to his mess-table. Here he fared in other ways as usual, but a second portion of food was set before him, which he took and put by. After the supper was over, the women who were related to him being now assembled at the door of the mess-hall, he called to him the one whom he most esteemed and gave her the portion he had saved, saying that he had received it as a meed of excellence, and as such gave it to her. Upon this, she too was lauded by the rest of the women and escorted by them to her home.
The introduction of the ephors, who would most closely represent the interests of the commoners, Plutarch does not credit to Lycurgus, but rather to the later King Theopompus who wished to safeguard the monarchy from excesses that could lead to its downfall. Lycurgus’ greatest reform for the common Spartan was land redistribution. Plutarch indicates that the distribution of land pre-Lycurgus had been grossly skewed; there were in Sparta many poor and landless, while others had great wealth. Such extremes sowed dissent and selfishness, Lycurgus believed, and therefore they had to be removed or limited. Thus Spartan land was divided up into thousands of equal allotments and divided among the male citizens so that each received an equal share. State-enforced economic equality would be the rule.
Initially, Lycurgus wished to remove the personal wealth of the citizens. He encountered too much resistance to this idea though and so worked in a roundabout way to discourage the accumulation of wealth. Gold and silver were removed from circulation as currency and iron ingots were introduced, whose size and weight made them inconvenient for transport and storage. Then he devalued the iron currency even further to disincentivize many types of criminal commercial behavior, but free enterprise was also made more difficult and trade with other cities dried up entirely. Spartans were banned from craft and trade professions; they would almost exclusively be warriors. Economic life in Sparta became austere and non-indulgent.
The economic changes made many arts and creative services unprofitable, and forced a practicality into production, for what was not useful was not in demand. Lycurgus even banished certain arts whose influence he found unnecessary. The excessive private consumption of food was discouraged by the introduction of mess-groups. Now Spartan men were expected to eat together and not at home; rich and poor would dine with one another and there was in such circumstances little opportunity for excess – which was considered shameful anyhow. A simple, ascetic lifestyle became a public ideal.
The institution of the mess group with its strict rules on who dined with whom and what they ate was a particular thorn in the side of the wealthier citizens. Legend has it that there was an outpouring of anger at Lycurgus about this, and that he was attacked by a mob and wounded. After fleeing to safety, Lycurgus exhibited great composure and confronted his attackers and gently made them see the error of their ways. His dignity and integrity in adversity became renowned; the cult of his person was established in his own lifetime.
Lycurgus further enforced public asceticism in Sparta by decreeing that houses be built by the simplest tools: axes and saws. This simple measure discouraged expensive home decorations, and furniture which would have looked out-of-place and excessive.
Women enjoyed considerable power on the homefront in Sparta which derived from the fact that their husbands were frequently absent, whether on campaign, or dining, training and sleeping together with their mess-groups in the normal course of affairs. Whilst the women were exempt from military life, Lycurgus aimed to shape the womens’ role in ways that would indirectly benefit the military state. Their education like the mens’ placed a great emphasis on physicality: the maidens wrestled, and threw the discus and javelin. It was thought that their physical strength would ease delivery and produce healthy and vigorous children. Women were thus also in a position to comment on the physicality, or lack of it, in men, and the they were encouraged to praise or mock the men according to their performance. And to be held in esteem by the young maidens was of course a much desired goal for the youths and young men. Unusually for classical Greece, Spartan maidens were scantily dressed and even naked when they exercised; this measure by Lycurgus encouraged their attention to the health and beauty of their bodies, and inspired them to carry themselves with the pride of those who are physically adept. It was not meant to encourage promiscuity, as some foreigners might mistakenly have thought, for Spartan culture emphasized discipline and not debauchery. However, when the maidens were in plain sight of the young men, there would have been unavoidable element of admiration and attraction, which would have made suitors more ardent in their quests.
Marriage was also a carefully regulated affair which Lycurgus arranged to serve the interests of the state. Not to marry was not socially acceptable and bachelors who were slow to do so were publicly shamed: the ephors made them walk about the marketplace in winter only wearing tunics and singing a song about just punishment. The weddings, if they could be called that, were unusual. They did not emphasize the creation of a household; rather they kept the couple apart most of the time. A bride was mock-kidnapped once she had come of age, but the groom and she would not live together afterward; instead, the groom was forced to sneak from his mess-group quarters to her family’s house at night to engage in conjugal relations. Thus Lycurgus ensured that the military lifestyle of the young men was scarcely interrupted by marriage, and that the husband and wife kept their desire for one another fresh.
Producing offspring was the chief purpose of the marriage. New generations of Spartans were needed to fill the ranks, for the vast territory under its control and the many wars it fought demanded manpower. Lycurgus took this logic to its extreme by proclaiming that wives could by mutual consent be shared with other men for the purpose of procreation, though not for romantic liaisons. Consensual adultery was thus institutionalized, and maybe conveniently so, for men absent on campaign or other duties were neither producing offspring, nor attentive to their wives. Following this logic, children were not viewed as the property of their parents, but as the property of the state.
The Lycurgian state was involved in the Spartan child’s life from the earliest moments. Upon its birth the child would be taken for examination to the elders; if it was fit and sturdy enough, the babe would be given back to its father and allotted a parcel of land, equal to all other Spartan citizens. A babe found to be weak, malformed or sickly would be left to die, exposed to the elements at a place called Apothecae near Mt. Taygetus. The practice of state-sanctioned infanticide clearly served the Sparta’s interest in rearing only those likely to be future warriors, and not rearing those who could not pull their own weight in the phalanx. Moreover, to give Spartan status to the weak would undermine the ethos of strength and equality which suffused the warrior class. The ideals of strength and discipline extended into the nursery itself as Plutarch recounts:
Their nurses, too, exercised great care and skill; they reared infants without swaddling-bands, and thus left their limbs and figures free to develop; besides, they taught them to be contented and happy, not dainty about their food, nor fearful of the dark, nor afraid to be left alone, nor given to contemptible peevishness and whimpering.
Lycurgus instructed that at age seven the boys be taken from their homes to the agoge. The agoge is perhaps best comparable to a military boarding school, where food was scarce and conditions and discipline were harsh. There Spartan boys were transformed into the proto-warriors that Lycurgus wanted them to be once they reached adulthood. Their time at the agoge included physical and cultural indoctrination as well as general education. For a Spartan boy, graduating the agoge was the only way to gain his citizenship birthright.
Having wrapped Spartan society tightly his particular ideology of unswerving service to the collective, Lycurgus moved to seclude Sparta and particularly Spartans from foreign influences. Spartans were not allowed to travel or sojourn abroad except by permission, lest they adopt foreign customs. Conversely, foreigners were not allowed to stay in Sparta except by special invitation.
The Oath and Death of Lycurgus
Being satisfied with his reforms and their effects on the polity, the legend has it that Lycurgus sought to make them lasting. He extracted oaths from the kings, the Gerousia and the Spartan commoners that they would abide by his laws until he returned from a pilgrimage to Delphi. The lawgiver wanted the seal of approval of Apollo on his work. He travelled to the Sanctuary across the Gulf of Corinth and made his sacrifices there. The answer from the Pythian Oracle was unmistakable: the laws of Lycurgus were good and would ensure the eminence of Sparta amongst the Greek city-states as long as it kept to his laws. The Spartans were oathbound to keep the laws until Lycurgus’ return, and so the venerable lawgiver decided not to return, but to end his days away from Sparta. The Spartan oaths would thereby be binding in perpetuity.
Some say that the lawgiver journeyed to Crete (where he had long ago begun his travels). He travelled there alone after bidding farewell to his family and friends at Delphi. Once in Crete, far away from his beloved home, he starved himself to death. His death was his final contribution to the state he had so profoundly changed, and it kept with his message of self-sacrifice for the good of Sparta. It is telling that for one not known for his battlefield accomplishments, the Spartans still reserved the highest honor for Lycurgus and built a temple to him.
Man or Myth?
In his book The Spartans (2003), Paul Cartledge considers that Lycurgus may have been an invented character. He suggests the possibility that Lycurgus was a “reified projection of Apollo”, a human symbol of the religious decrees which may have been handed down to the Spartans from Delphi. It is indeed curious that the Spartans and classical historians were unable to agree on when Lycurgus even lived. Aristotle, for example, dates him to the early eighth century, while Herodotus places him two centuries later. Tyrtaeus, one of the Spartans favored poets in the seventh century, shows knowledge of the Great Rhetra, but strangely makes no mention of the fabled lawgiver. To further add to the confusion, there was disagreement about which royal line Lycurgus belonged to. Given how the lives and deaths of their kings were carefully noted in Sparta, it seems incredible for there to be such uncertainty about so central a leader.
The question of Lycurgus existence is further complicated by the attribution of some of his reforms to two kings, Theopompus and Polydorus who reigned at the turn of the seventh century. Thus the establishment of the institution of the Ephors is credited to Lycurgus by some and to King Theopompus by others. The land reform which divided Laconia and Messenia into thousands of allotments is attributed to Lycurgus but also to Polydorus.
In The Spartan Regime (2016) Paul Rahe proposes that the reforms of Lycurgus were not the product of a singular man or event, but rather a series of historical changes which Spartans retroactively attributed to a single personage. The first change, which could have come about as early as the eighth century, was the limitation of the kings’ powers by a body of law and the creation of an institution with powers to regulate the kings’ actions. The same period saw a reduction in royal power in the prominent cities of Athens, Corinth and Argos. Rahe points to evidence that the Spartan colony of Thera in the Cyclades may have had both an Ephorate and a Gerousia at this time. He also convincingly argues that the creation of these institutions were unlikely to have been lead by a king, as those in positions of power seldom work to limit their own power.
The terms of its election and powers indicate that the Gerousia was an institution of aristocrats; the Ephorate might also have had an aristocratic tendency in the archaic period. Originally, there were probably just three ephors (one for each Dorian tribe) who may have been notables, but their number grew to five later (one for each of the Spartan villages) and any Spartan aged forty-five or older could be elected Ephor. Notably, the Spartan army underwent a similar numerical reorganization from a three unit structure to a five unit structure. Rahe speculates that these changes occurred as a result of the introduction of hoplite warfare which due to its egalitarian nature would have had a democratizing effect on the polity. In all likelihood, the rise of the phalanx as the Spartan default tactic handed power to the commoners who would have pushed for a say on the membership of the Gerousia and of the Ephorate. Hence the odd but semi-democratic systems for choosing members of each institution. If these changes occurred during the reign of King Theopompus, and with his acquiescence, then that might explain their attribution to him.
A similar argument is made by Rahe for the land reform. Strained as Sparta was by the Messenian Wars, there would have been an incentive to redistribute land so that the common Spartans (some of whom were poor) would be induced to continue fighting year after year, shoulder-to-shoulder with the aristocrats. The land reforms and associated economic and lifestyle changes may well have provoked the wealthier Spartans, as the Lycurgian legend indicates, and King Polydorus (the supposed champion of the reform according to some), Rahe notes, was murdered by an angry aristocrat. Given the reliance of Sparta on the manpower of the commoners to prosecute the war however, necessity and political pressure may ultimately have forced the aristocrats compliance.
In parallel, Rahe also sees the long Messenian Wars as having influenced the establishment of the mess-groups and the agoge which were so military in style and structure. The institutions required on the campaigns (the mess-groups) and the preparation of warriors (the agoge) became normative and endured afterwards. The egalitarianism of life in the field also translated back to Spartan peacetime practices in, for example, the simple ways that houses were built, and the prevention of the accumulation of wealth.
A Convenient Story
Whether Lycurgus really existed, who he was and what he did will probably never be known with certainty. The wide range of contradictory information about him and the Great Rhetra, just a few centuries after his death, is a strong cause for skepticism. However, it may be incorrect to dismiss his existence completely. The transformation of archaic Sparta, ruled by tribal chieftains, into classical Sparta, a totalitarian regime (with a polity unlike most other Greek city-states) in a few centuries or even a single century was dramatic and revolutionary. It is conceivable that a Spartan of high status such as Lycurgus played a key role in effecting the transformation.
Rahe (2016) argues persuasively that the Messenian Wars and their harsh demands on the entire structure of Laconian society must have been a crucial impetus for change. It is also likely that the existence of internal political strife between the kings, commoners and the aristocrats was real and tangible, and even exacerbated by the demands of long-term warfare and lack of a clear constitution. Examples of these tensions do exist with regard to land, and other economic changes. In this arena stood not just the two kings, but also Spartan notables who would have had a strong interest in not just preserving their own power, but of reaching a lasting political settlement which would preserve Sparta’s dominant position in the Peloponnese. It is not too much to fancy that Lycurgus, or someone like him, took on the role of reformist or political bridgemaker. Much debate and formulation of ideas must have been involved in the development of the Gerousia and Ephorate into the institutions that they eventually became. Likewise, the introduction of the land reform, the mess-groups, the agoge and the economic changes in currency and profession – all radical changes – would have required domestic political leadership which a high-status, influential Spartan could provide. While certainly not all the reforms which established classical Sparta can be credited to Lycurgus, he or others like him may well have played a central role in their formulation.
Building on this role, a myth may have sprung up about Lycurgus whereby the reforms were not the result of an at times ugly political tug-of-war, but rather were seen as the work of a divinely-sanctioned political visionary. Glossing over, or even hiding the internal divisions of the past served an important propaganda role in classical Sparta where the unity and integrity of the body politic was sacrosanct. Obeying the laws of Apollo-via-Lycurgus was a far more palatable pill to swallow amongst devout Spartans, than the obeisance of laws painfully hammered out in political deals from centuries before. In short, the myth of Lycurgus was a central propaganda necessary for Spartan society across generations, and it was a myth that likely grew with the telling.