I recently started reading Plutarch’s Greek Lives and will write a series of notes on the Greek and Roman leaders he depicted. This week is about the biography on Lycurgus (800BC - 730BC), a lengendary lawgiver of Sparta.
Despite being a natural leader, Lycurgus’ path to power was not straightforward. When his father, the king, passed away, his older brother Polydectes took the throne. When Polydectes died, his pregnant widow spread rumours that Lycurgus would murder her to usurp the throne. Once his sister-in-law gave birth to a boy, Charilaus, the high-minded and fair Lycurgus decided to go into traveling until his nephew would father an heir to the throne. During this trip, Lycurgus would travel to Crete, Asia Minor, Egypt, Spain, and even India, learning best practices from the societies and governments he saw.
Lycurgus’ Three Steps to Radical Reforms
Upon returning to Sparta, Lycurgus saw a combination of ineffective kingship (bad leadership) and unruly civilians (bad followership) leading to chaos and instability in society. He believed that the only way to make Sparta stable, free, and strong was to start over. Thus began his project to radically transform the Spartan society.
0. Groundwork: Oracle and Conspiracy
To gain legitimacy, Lycurgus first went to Delphi where the high priest “Pythia called him ‘beloved of the gods’ and ‘a god rather than a man’.” With a godly halo, Lycurgus returned to Sparta and began plotting a conspiracy. He approached friends, negotiated in secrets, and formed a group of conspirators who would support his political reforms.
1. The institution of the elders
The previous Spartan system had been unstable and would swing between the side of the kings, veering towards tyranny, and the side of the masses, leading to paralysis. What was missing was an institution that would temper the feverish rule of kings and the madness of the crowd.
Lycurgus’ first reform was the institutions of the elders, who would have an equal voice with the kings in state affairs. Only the kings and the elders could express opinions, but the people could decide about the policies proposed by the kings and the elders. The reform was effective. While misgovernment and feuding between the kings and the people still afflicted Sparta’s neighbours, Messenia and Argos, Sparta became a stable society and evolved into the dominant player in the region.
2. The redistribution of land and wealth
Quite similar to today, wealth at the time of Lycurgus’ return to Sparta was entirely concentrated in the hands of a few people. To eliminate greed and envy in Sparta, Lycurgus’ second reform was the redistribution of the land and wealth.
First, he took control of all the land and equally divided it to be redistributed back to the people. Then, he divided all the furniture to get rid of traces of inequality. Next, Lycurgus abolished all gold and silver coinage and made iron the currency. These iron coins were deliberately made brittle so that they were unworkable and had no other functions outside Sparta, becoming undesirable to other Greek states. International trade plummeted and the market declined. What Lycurgus saw as “useless, superfluous professions” would leave Sparta so people could no longer purchase or import “foreign trash”.
By banishing wealth from Sparta, Lycurgus instilled a meritocracy in which the only ascendancy they sought was to be assessed by the criterion of excellence on the basis that everyone would have an equal start.
3. The system of the common messes
Finally, Lycurgus put forward the system of the common messes and made sure that wealth had no place in shared meals and simplicity of diet. The formerly rich could not even use or enjoy paraphernalia. Plutarch mentioned that this custom was strictly observed for a long time.
Not even King Agis (died c. 401BC), returning from successful campaign against the Athenians, could eat at home with his wife. A side note: the light and simple diet made Spartan people slim and beautiful in the eyes of Greeks.
Lycurgus was not a greedy and short-sighted leader. He had plenty of opportunities to murder his sister-in-law and his nephew in order to take over the throne. Yet he knew that infighting in the royal family would plunge the society into instability. So he took the sensible approach by leaving the country to quell suspicion. His choices and actions earned him respect and trust from the people and paved the way for his later reforms.
While being high-minded, Lycurgus was pragmatic in his approach to politics. He understood that his reforms required legitimacy, so he obtained a great reference from Delphi. He was also an effective schemer and conspirator who knew how to strike deals in secret and how to recruit and incentivize co-conspirators: the ones who supported the institution of elders would become the first elders who then supported his radical reforms.
Pragmatism aside, Lycurgus was also a visionary. He believed that the principles which would make the most concrete contribution towards the prosperity and excellence of a state must be implanted in the characters and training of the citizens. Therefore, all his arrangements and institutions had been to hone their characters and mold a disciplined lifestyle that would enable the Spartans to be free, autonomous, and self-disciplined for as long as possible.
In conclusion, Lycurgus was what John Lewis Gaddis would call a fox with a compass, artfully achieving his aspirations that led to prosperity for his country.
In hindsight, Lycurgus’ reforms were highly effective and essential to the victories in the Greco-Persian Wars (499BC-449BC) and the Peloponnesian War (431BC - 404BC). But we must also remember that many elements of his policies highly resemble the characteristics seen in communism, socialism, and fascism that would emerge two millennials later. Unlike Athens, Sparta was not a cultural powerhouse and would leave little trace of civilisation to the later world. Life in Sparta also adhered to the survival of the fittest, where strong babies would be taken in as a subject of the state while weak ones would be left in the wild for death.
City life in Sparta was like a military camp. Everyone was a subject to their country and no one regarded themselves as autonomous. Spartans gradually lost both the will and ability to live as individuals. Instead, they became bee-like and dependent on the life of the community, swarming around their leader with an eager desire for recognition while committing themselves to their country. The regime of life was so tough, Spartans were the only people in the world for whom warfare was more restful than their preparations for it.
For an older, tougher world, Lycurgus’ reforms were wise. For a modern world that thrives on a balance of individualism and community, Lycurgus represents a past that is fascinating in cinema but probably dreadful in reality.
Spartan Humours in Plutarch’s Lives
While Sparta is known for its military, it is also full of sharp and witted humour:
When some woman—a foreigner, apparently—said to [Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas (think 300)], “You Laconian women are the only ones who control your men,” she replied, “That’s because we’re the only ones who give birth to men.”
Spartans disliked longwindedness:
When someone chose a bad moment to raise a not unimportant matter with King Leonidas he said, “You’re right, my friend, but the time is wrong.”
When some people were criticizing the sophist Hecataeus for having kept silent at the mess to which he had been invited, Archidamidas said, “People who know how to speak also know when to speak.”
Once an objectionable fellow hammered Demaratus with a whole lot of inopportune questions, including “Who is the best of the Spartiates?”—to which Demaratus replied, “The one who is least like you.”