“The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: Lycurgus” by Plutarch (Notes)
1 – So much of what was floating around about Lycurgus is legend. They can’t even get the century right of when he was living. Plutarch’s sticking with the most consistent and logical accounts of what was said and written about him. Apparently he his Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great Grandfather was Heracles – half man and half God.
2 – His Great-Grandfather, Soüs, expanded the territory of Sparta and was generally a big badass. He fleeced the Cleitorians during a siege through a shifty bet. Lycurgus’s father, Eunomus, had an elder son, Polydectes who became king after their father’s death.
3 – Polydectes died young and everyone thought Lycurgus would be the next king. However, Polydectes’s wife was up the spout and he just assumed the role of regent before the kid was born. His sister-in-law tried to make herself queen again by going to Lycurgus saying she’d kill the unborn kid if she could become queen. Lycurgus played her back. He said – No, don’t kill the unborn kid because you might get yourself killed. Just let me know when the baby’s born and we’ll sort this thing out. As soon as the kid was born, L’s servants brought him and he proclaimed the kid, Charilaüs, to be king. Polydectes’s wife was really pissed off about this and went to her brother, Leonidas, to sort the situation out. Rumors started floating around that L was going to kill kid. L felt it was safer to get out of town until Charilaüs was old enough for the throne himself.
4 – He went to Crete. He saw a lot of things he liked about the place. He liked a lot of their laws and thought they’d be good for Sparta. He didn’t care much for the ostentatious lifestyle there but the laws were nice. He took the poet, Thales, with him to help implement the laws. Through his great verses, he was able to convince the unruly crowds that the laws were the right way to run the place. Then L went to Asia and saw that they lived much simpler lives. He discovered the poetry of Homer there and brought it back with him. He figured the stories and verses would inspire the Spartans to be heroic and patriotic. Some say he also went to Egypt, Libya, Spain and India. No one knows for sure but he might have heard of some things of the places he liked and brought with him to Sparta.
5 – The Spartans missed him while he was away. All the people brought in to rule in Sparta made a pig’s ear of the place. When he got back for good, he decided to overthrow whatever pitiful form of government there was. Half measures weren’t going to do at all. This had to be a complete overhaul. This time, according to the Oracle of Delphi, he had the gods on his side. He got a lot of friends to help with this coup. He got some pretty powerful friends and they did. Charilaüs, his nephew, skipped town in case he was heading for the chopping block. When he realized that his life wasn’t in danger, he tiptoed back. First order of business was a Senate. It was to be the equal of the king. This was to prevent and knee-jerk reactions or power-hungry megalomaniacs.
6 – The Senate – or Council of Elders – didn’t have a home. L thought that would just of the Council’s heads. They way things worked was like this: People couldn’t make motions, the senate or the king would make a proposal and the people would either accept or reject it. Later, a proviso was added that if the people accepted or rejected something perverse, the council or king would stop it.
7 – While there was a democracy feel to the place, it was more or less an oligarchy. The king yielded a bit of power to the council and to the people in order to preserve it. This form of government lasted a lot longer than those of the other places in the area because it was milder and didn’t piss off the people as much.
8 – Once the government system was established, he redistributed the land. Wealth had been concentrated in a few hands and the ones without power seemed to be lazy because they had nothing to look after. L’s goal was to get rid of crime, luxury, envy, poverty and wealth. The land was collected and then re-divided amongst the people. This way, the only thing that made one man any different from another was the quality of his character. The lots were big enough to support a whole family – enough to grow and trade for other goods.
9 – Land wasn’t the only thing that he went after. He took all the “movable property” to eliminate any other inequality. He took all the gold and silver money, jewelry and ornaments from the people. The only money used was iron coins. Since it was heavy and required a lot of it to money anything of value, it reduced the amount of theft. Even the quality of iron used was shitty so that it couldn’t be melted down and used for something else. He got rid of a lot of “unnecessary arts”. This cut off a lot of trade with the rest of Greece because, luxuries were not only banished but the money was worthless to outsiders. The only luxury was not in beautiful objects but useful objects.
10 – The final way that L got rid of wealth was making all the men eat together. Rather than eating on their comfy and luxurious couches, rich men had to dine with the rest of the slobs of Sparta. Since they were all dining together, they couldn’t sit around and be lazy in a food coma. When a rich man ate with a poor man, it created a sense of togetherness that only common messes can provide.
11 – The rich people began to get really pissed off at Lycurgus for taking all their wealth. They formed a riotous mob and chased him to the Temple he had built. One story says that one fellow got a hold of Lycurgus and put out his eye. When they realized what a bunch of animals they were, they helped him back to his house. Lycurgus was forgiving and allowed the guy to go free. A temple was built named Athena Optilitis – the eye temple to Athena. Some say L was only hurt and the temple was an offering to the gods for sparing him his eye.
12 – The common messes built friendship between the men and simplicity and thrift in life. The men ate in groups of 15 and each of the eating mates contributed his share of food and wine to the cause. This rule was rigidly upheld, even for the kings of Sparta. Boys would also come to messes and learn from the discussions at the dining table. They all learned politics, farming, as well as friendship and trust. For a new man to be admitted to the table there had to be a unanimous vote. After the meal and drinks, the men went home without a torch, to get them used to finding their way in the dark.
13 – The laws weren’t actually put down in writing. These laws were more about getting the people into a habit of life that would bring prosperity and virtue. If the prosperity and virtues were apparent, the habits and customs would continue. If disputes in contracts came up, fixed laws would only complicate matters. They usually appealed to the public opinion on the matter. The banning of written laws was coupled with the order than houses could only be made of axes and saws. This prevented people from living in fancy houses to cause wealth storage. Another order was the prohibition of frequent battles with the same enemies. This would lead the enemies not to be in a habit to have to defend themselves which in turn would make them more warlike. Also, this would prevent potential enemies from learning how the Spartans fight through familiarity with them on the battlefield.
14 – In order to make sure these laws worked and lasted, L started at marriages and births. Men left their wives to run the households. This was necessary if the men were to be on frequent military campaigns throughout Greece. Women had to participate in many sports so that their wombs were healthy to have healthy children. Women were to wear the same clothes as non-military men and were free to mock any youngster who was fucking around. They sang praise to those who deserved it and inspired courage and ambition in the men. Their simple clothes inspired simplicity and health in themselves.
15 – Young men were more attracted to the women in lighter clothing than ornate dresses. This got the men hot and bothered when they watched the women doing athletics. Confirmed bachelors were stigmatized in Sparta. Presumably because they wouldn’t keep the population going. They were kept out of sight in the city. Marriages happened when the women were physically mature, rather than young girls. Marriages were consumed straight away but the men had to remain away from her bride at night. He would have to sneak into her room to sleep with her. This made the man an expert sneak, made them exercise moderation and restraint, and it also kept their passions burning for each other. It also kept the men from being jealous of others because the women and men wouldn’t see others in the company of the opposite sex. It was not unheard of for older men to raise the children their wives had with younger men. The children were not considered property of the father but common property. This meant the best parentage – good genes from a biological father and good upbringing from a rich father. It also meant the wives weren’t kept under lock and key by jealous husbands.
16 – Kids weren’t raised according to their father’s wishes. A place called Lesche was where the elders looked at the baby and determined if it was in good health. If it was healthy, the father would rear it. If it was sickly, it was thrown in the Apothetae – a chasm at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus because Spartans felt that a sick child had no chance and would only be a burden to the city. Children were washed with wine because it tested their constitutions. The nurses didn’t coddle the kids but made sure that they were strong and happy. They were taught not to fear the dark or being alone, and not to be peevish. Once they were 7 years old, the sons of Sparta were taken by the state and enrolled in groups to build their discipline, strength and knowledge. The more courageous of the boys were made captains of the company and the others had to obey his orders. Old men would instruct the young boys and men whenever they felt the need to. They learned elementary reading and writing but most of their education was focused on war. They had no problem being barefoot, naked, hungry, cold and tired. This privation would help them learn how to deal with that in the battlefield.
17 – Old men retired from the army would watch the young men’s training because in a sense all these soldiers were the city’s sons. When the boy did something wrong, the old men would admonish him and correct him. Young boys would be placed in the charge of the Eirens, those who were two years out of training. An Eiren was typically 20 years old and commanded his subordinates in mimic battles and made them serve him at meals. The boys were to fetch woods and pots by stealing them. If they were caught stealing, they were whipped. This trained them to be better thieves. Their diet was for training them as well as to grow tall and strong. They were to be tall and strong, but not fat and unwieldy.
18 – One boy was trying to steal a fox and would rather have the fox tear out his bowels than to be caught stealing. When the Eiren was done eating, he would make a boy sing and ask another what he thought of it or who the best citizen was. This was a way for the Eiren to judge the answerer’s judgments and demeanor to his fellow boys. The Eiren would often punish the boys in front of elders for him to prove how just his punishments were. Boys’ “lovers ” were also punished and disgraced alongside the boy. That would keep the boys’ guardians in line too.
19 – The boys were taught to speak “Laconically” – graceful, short and sharp. Laconia (Sparta) was said to have a useless iron currency, so the real currency was expressions that were deep, yet brief. Intemperance in speaking was said to make speech empty and useless. They responded to remarks or insults with short insults of their own to quiet the interlocutor. Lycurgus was the model of this. Questions about why Sparta was not a democracy were answered with something like: Why don’t you start with Democracy in your own household first?
20 – This laconic speech was legendary and many stories were told of them. “Men of few words need few laws” – Charilaüs. “He who knows how, knows also when to speak.” – Archidamidas. Their witty comebacks displayed their character. They didn’t go blabbing. They didn’t draw attention to themselves.
21 – Spartan music and poetry arouse the spirit and enthusiasm. They were simple, serious and edifying. Plays were mainly praises of those who died in battle for Sparta. Some songs were for marching, accompanied by a flute. Just before battle, the king made a sacrifice to the Muses, and reminded the soldiers of their training and decisions and how any harm that may come to them in battle were merely sacrifices for the benefit of Sparta.
22 – During war, they relaxed soldiers’ discipline. They were allowed to do up their hair and make their weapons and clothes ornate. Hair was worn long after youth. During war, exercises weren’t as rigorous. Just before battle, the king would sacrifice a female goat, the soldiers would were garlands on their heads and music was played to Castor. The men marched off to war, rested, pretty and cheerful. When they thoroughly defeated the enemy, it was seen as bad to chase enemies who ran away from battle. This actually worked in their favor because enemies saw them as far fighters and they were showed mercy.
23 – Lycurgus was very good at war and participated along with his troops. In times of peace, he was seen as peaceful and gentle.
24 – Training continued until Spartans were “fully mature”. Men were not allowed to live as they wanted in the city. They had a very rigid schedule and living situation. The soldiers were busy either teaching the young how to train, learning from elders of tactics and other war-related disciplines, or teaching themselves. Since the people were not allowed to engage in arts or non-basic mechanics, men had a lot of leisure time. Helots worked the land for them. This was in direct contrast to Athenians, who were sometimes fined for laziness. Choral dances, feasts, hunting, exercise and socializing are what they did with their spare time.
25 – Men under 30 didn’t go into the market. Their supplies had to be picked up by family or lovers. Rumors flew around if a man lingered too long there instead of helping the training soldiers. Men were to meet near the training areas known as “leschai”. There they would talk about praising noble actions and deriding base actions and having a laugh while generally focusing on instruction. The soldiers were trained not to devote themselves to themselves but to the whole of the community. Men were not bitter of not being promoted but glad they had people even more capable and devoted to a higher position. Victory was usually attributed to the whole and failure to the individual.
26 – The first senators were appointed by Lycurgus. Afterwards, any deaths were replaced by those elected above the age of 60. These contests were in great dispute because it wasn’t about speed or strength but wisdom. The elections happened like this: The judges were placed in a room and outside the people would gather. The people would cheer for the candidate of their choice. The judges in the room would decide which cheers were the loudest and the person who had the loudest applause would be the winner. The winner was given a garland, a big parade and songs and dances in his honor. Then a feast would take place.
27 – As for burials, Lycurgus broke with tradition by allowing the dead to be buried within the city and have memorials placed near sacred sites. The fact that this happened often and in plain view made the young comfortable with the idea of death. Nothing was allowed to be buried with the dead, just a robe and olive leaves. The name of the dead was not inscribed on the tomb. Mourning lasted 11 days and on the 12th day, a sacrifice was made to Demeter. He didn’t allow citizens to live abroad because they would pick up strange customs and perhaps bring them back with them. This would upset the order of the city that Lycurgus had set up carefully.
28 – These laws eradicated injustice and arrogance by producing valor but not righteousness. The “Krupteia” was a secret service. They killed various Helots they found outside of the city at night. Helots found to be particularly brave in their fight against the Krupteia were given their freedom. Sometimes Helots were made to drink a lot and were brought in front of the group messes to display what drunkenness was to the men. They were made to sing embarrassing songs.
29 – Once his major institutions were set up, the society reinforced them as social norms. It was his hope that these institutions would go on forever as his legacy. He told the people that these changes were great and what they needed for prosperity but something more was needed. He brought everyone to one place and he had to consult the god at Delphi. The senators vowed to uphold his rules and the people vowed their obedience until he came back. He asked Apollo if the rules were good and he answered that they were. He sent a message with the answer on it and decided to starve to death. Upon dying he would never return to Sparta and the people were bound by their oaths to rule as he desired and act as he commanded. The next 14 kings made absolutely no changes to the rules of Sparta.
30 – During Agis’s reign, gold and silver found its way back into Sparta. Under the military command of Lysander the love of riches and money began to corrode the laws and institutions of Lycurgus. Sparta was to continue to work against enemy tyrants and oligarchies throughout Greece, often without any fighting at all but with just an ambassador. King Theopompus did not claim wisdom in his reign but gave credit to the citizens because they knew how to obey. Many far away cities called for Spartan teachers to teach their cities and citizens the ways of Sparta.
31 – Lycurgus’s main opinion was that the people’s happiness depended on widespread virtue and harmony within the state. All of his rules and customs were set up to make the people free-minded, self-sufficient and moderate. Many other Greeks looked up to Lycurgus’s society and recommended a similar policy. No one is certain where Lycurgus died. Various stories are told of him dying in different places but nothing definite.
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