PLUTARCH: Lycurgus

PLUTARCH: Lycurgus

  • Generally, nothing can be said about Lycurgus that is not disputed.
  • Aristotle alleges that Lycurgus and Iphitus established the truce observed during the Olympic Games.
  • Generally, historians believe Lycurgus to have lived from 820-730 BC.
  • Of Lycurgus’ ancestors, Sous was the most famous. Besieged by an enemy army in a dry place, Sous agreed to surrender his territory if Sous and all his men drank from a river nearby. Having made the agreement with the opposition, Sous returned to his men, and offered his kingdom to any man who refrained from drinking form the spring. Every one of Sous’ men drank from the spring, but Sous merely sprinkled his face with water and retained his kingdom, on the grounds that all had not drunk from the spring.
  • Lawlessness and confusion plagued Sparta after Sous’ reign. Sous’ son sought to gain favor with the multitude, and therefore relaxed the absolutism of his sway. This made the multitude bold, and they rioted and disobeyed succeeding kings who tried to restore order. Lycurgus’ father, Eunomes, was stabbed to death with a butcher’s knife while trying to quell a riot.
  • Eunomes’ first son, Polydectes, succeeded his father as king, but Polydectes died soon afterwards, leaving Lycurgus as the assumed heir. However, Polydectes’ wife was discovered to be pregnant after Polydectes death, so Lycurgus proclaimed that the kingdom belonged to the unborn infant if it was male, and that he would rule as guardian in the interim.
  • The pregnant woman made secret overtures to Lycurgus, intending to kill the baby on condition that Lycurgus would marry her when he was king of Sparta. Although Lycurgus detested her wickedness, he pretended to accept her proposal, but advised her not to use drugs to induce a miscarriage, lest she might be harmed. He assured her that he would kill the baby when it was born.
  • When Lycurgus learned that the woman was in labor, he commanded attendants to give the baby to the woman if it was a girl, but bring the baby to him if it was a boy. The attendants brought the baby boy to Lycurgus when he was eating dinner with magistrates. Lycurgus pronounced the baby to be king, and fellow citizen admired Lycurgus for his lofty spirit and justice. Indeed, the citizens obeyed Lycurgus because of his virtues rather than because Lycurgus possessed the title of guardian.
  • The queen and the kinsman of the queen, resentful over Lycurgus’ insolent treatment of the queen, promoted suspicion that Lycurgus sought the crown and would kill the infant king. Therefore, Lycurgus determined to travel abroad until his nephew came of age and begot a son to succeed him lest the infant die and the citizens blame Lycurgus for the death.
  • Accordingly, Lycurgus traveled to Crete. There he met the lyric poet Thales. Lycurgus persuaded Thales to travel to Sparta, where he sung his odes to the Spartan people. The odes, with their measured rhythm and ordered tranquility and exhortation to obedience and harmony, induced the Spartans to renounce mutual hatreds and dwell together in pursuit of what was high and noble. Poetry and words can persuade people to pursue what is high and noble.
  • After Crete, Lycurgus traveled to Asia so that he might compare the simple and severe civilization of Crete with the luxurious and extravagant civilization of Asia. In Asia, Lycurgus first became acquainted with the works of Homer. Though there were incentives to pleasure in the texts, the political and disciplinary lessons within the texts were invaluable, so Lycurgus eagerly copied and compiled them in order to take home with him.
  • Egyptians contend that Lycurgus visited them during his travels, and adapted their practice of separating the military from other classes, and removing mechanics and artisans from participation in government.
  • The Spartan citizens very much desired Lycurgus to return; for though Sparta had kings, they were king only in name. Lycurgus possessed the qualities of a man fit to rule.
  • Before Lycurgus returned to Sparta, he traveled to the oracle at Delphi, who proclaimed that Lycurgus was beloved of the gods, and rather a god than a man. The oracle assured Lycurgus that his proposed laws and constitution would be the best in the world.
  • Lycurgus returned to Sparta, mustered support, and persuaded thirty of the chief men in Sparta to go armed into the market place at dawn to strike terror and consternation into those of the opposition. Fearing that the men intended to kill him, the King of Sparta, the baby who Lycurgus saved now turned man, sought refuge in the temple of Athena. When he learned that the men did not intend to assassinate him, he joined them, being of a gentle and yielding disposition.
  • Now king, Lycurgus established a senate to avoid the dangers of tyranny on one hand and rule by the multitude or democracy on the other.
  • Lycurgus ordered public assemblies where laws were discussed and legislated to commune in an unadorned area between a bridge and river. Lycurgus believed that the serious purposes of an assembly were rendered foolish and futile by vain thoughts if the people gazed upon statues, paintings, scenic embellishment, or extravagantly decorated roofs and halls.
  • Lycurgus redistributed the land. Before Lycurgus, there was a dreadful in equality concerning the distribution of wealth. The state was burdened with many indigents, and the wealth of the State was concentrated in the hands of a very few. Because crime, envy, and idleness arise from disparities in wealth and poverty, which are inveterate diseases of every state, Lycurgus divided the land equally among the citizens so that everyone lived with one another on a basis of complete uniformity and equality in the means of subsistence. Men could only be distinguished by virtue. No difference or inequality existed between men except that which was established by blame for base actions and praise for good ones.
  • He introduced an unwieldy currency, namely iron, and assigned a trifling value to a great mass and weight. Thus, he removed much iniquity from the state; for who would accept a bribe or steal that which never could be concealed adequately. Furthermore, storing and transporting the currency was more expensive than what it was worth, so that avarice was eradicated.
  • Furthermore, the other Greek city states refused to accept the iron currency, so immoral artisans such as harlot-mongers, fortune tellers, and goldsmiths never set foot in Sparta.
  • The third political rule he enacted to eliminate avarice and luxury was to establish the institution of common messes, so that men would not eat their meals at home, reclined on costly couches at costly tables, delivering themselves into the hands of servants and chefs to be fattened in the dark like voracious animals, and ruining not only their characters but their bodies by surrendering them to every desire and all sorts of surfeit.
  • The wealthy citizens publicly denounced Lycurgus and threw stones at him, forcing Lycurgus to flee the market place. A young man put out one of Lycurgus’ eye with a staff. Undaunted by the event, Lycurgus displayed his maimed face to the mob, who pitied Lycurgus and brought the young man to Lycurgus to be punished. Lycurgus did not punish the man, but employed him as a servant so that the man could observe his extraordinary asceticism and indefatigable industry. Serving Lycurgus for several years, the young man changed from an enemy to an admirer of Lycurgus’ virtue.
  • Lycurgus never reduced his laws to writing, believing that imprinting the laws in the hearts of young men through proper education and discipline would preserve the principles better than reducing them to writing and compelling people to obey the laws against their will.
  • Lycurgus passed an ordinance forbidding Sparta to make war often, or for a long period of time, with one enemy, lest Sparta should train and instruct the enemy in war by forcing them to habitually defend themselves.
  • Lycurgus commanded the women to exercise, so that the offspring would be strong and healthy. He also ordered the young maidens to dance naked before the city, in order to incite the young men to marry. The naked dances were not shameful, but noble, allowing the women to praise those men who fought valiantly in battle and ridicule those men who were cowards. Men who lived as bachelors were ridiculed and forced to march naked through the city in the wintertime while singing humiliating songs about their disgraceful actions.
  • On a wedding night, women would cut the wife’s hair close about her hair, dress her in men’s clothing and leave her in a room lying on a bed. The husband would come into the room, untie her virgin knot, and takes her to himself. Then the husband returns to his own apartment as usual and sleeps with the other young men. This routine continues indefinitely. The husband always visits his wife in shame and fear when he thought he would not be observed by the other men. Some husbands begot children before ever seeing their wives faces in daylight. This practice allowed their affections to remain undull and unsated from easy access and long continuance with each other. Lycugus also eliminated jealousy by making it honorable for men to give the use of their wives to those whom he saw fit, so that they could have children by them. Lycurgus ridiculed those men who would go to war and shed blood over sharing his wife with another man.
  • The children were not the property of the parents, but the property of the State. At birth, women would bathe the babies in wine, thinking that epileptic children would faint and waste away. The elders would view the baby, and if they agreed that the baby was stout, then it would live. If the baby was puny or misshapen, then they would leave it in a chasm to die.
  • When children turned seven, they were enlisted in companies, where they all lived under the same order and discipline. Their education was one of a ready and perfect obedience. The chiefs taught them to endure pain and conquer in battle.
  • They fed the boys barely anything.  This was to encourage them to steal. If they were caught stealing food, then they were whipped mercilessly for stealing so poorly. Another reason the Spartans did not feed the children much was because they believed the children would grow tall. Furthermore, a lean body is more beautiful than an over-fed one.
  • One youth, who had stolen a fox, allowed the animal to tear out his bowels under his coat and died on the spot rather than allow his masters to discover the theft.
  • They taught children to speak with a natural and graceful raillery, and to comprehend much matter in few words. Their retorts and sayings were short and caustic.
  • Their songs were mostly in praise of someone who had died in defense of his country, or in derision of someone who had been a coward. The songs inspired men with courage and ardor for action.
  • While in the field of battle, the Spartans abated the severity of their manners, allowing men to curl and adorn their hair. Thus, the Spartan men allowed their hair to grow long after coming of age, and always cared for it. They believed a large head of hair added beauty to a good face, and terror to an ugly one. The exercises became more moderate, they were permitted to eat more food, and their commanders were more lenient with them. Thus, Spartans were the only people in the world to whom war gave repose.
  • They calmly and cheerily marched into battle as if some divinity attended and guided them.
  • Men conceived of themselves as means to serve the country’s ends, not his own.
  • Lycurgus forbid the men from money-making, or engaging in any mean and mechanical art.
  • Lycurgus allowed the dead to be buried within the city so that the youth would not be afraid of a dead body, or imagine that to touch a corpse or tread on a grave would defile a man. Lycurgus set the time of mourning very short, eleven days.
  • He forbade Spartans to travel abroad and acquaint themselves with the morals and habits of ill-educated people. He also deported any man who did not provide a satisfying answer for being in Sparta, lest his foreign habits taint the character of Spartans.
  • Young men would be sent into the country with a dagger and small provisions. There, they would lie in hiding during the day, issue into the streets during the night, and kill Helots (the slaves of the Spartans).
  • Lycurgus traveled to Delphi, to determine whether the laws he established were good. The Delphi assured Lycurgus that the laws were good. Lycurgus then killed himself by abstaining from food. He was old, and before he left for Delphi had sworn the people to follow his laws until he returned. Thinking that this would bind the Spartans forever, he was delighted to end his life in a manner becoming to his honorable life.
  • For 500 years, the Spartans strictly observed Lycurgus’s laws, and thrived. However, gold and silver began to flow into Sparta along with all the mischiefs which attend the immoderate desire for riches.
  • Lycurgus believed that the happiness of the State and the individual consisted chiefly in the exercise of virtue. He taught his fellow Spartans to be self-dependent and temperate.

“In him there was a nature fitted to lead, and a power to make men follow him.” (Reminiscent of Aristotle’s quote regarding natures fated to either rule or be ruled)

“Luxury, thus gradually deprived of that which stimulated and supported it, died away of itself, and men of large possessions had no advantage over the poor, because their wealth found no public outlet, but had to be stored up at home in idleness.”

“He introduced his third and most exquisite political device, namely, the institution of common messes, so that they might eat with one another in companies, of common and specified foods, and not take their meals at home, reclining on costly couches at costly tables, delivering themselves into the hands of servants and cooks to be fattened in the dark, like voracious animals, and ruining not only their characters but also their bodies, by surrendering them to every desire and all sorts of surfeit, which call for long sleeps, hot baths, abundant rest, and, as it were, daily nursing and tending.”

“The songs had a life and spirit in them that inflamed and possessed men’s minds with an enthusiasm and ardor for action.”

“Spartans were the only people in the world to whom war gave repose.”

“He was as careful to save his city from the infection of foreign bad habits, as men usually are to prevent the introduction of a pestilence.”

“All those who have written well on politics, as Plato, Diogenes, and Zeno, have taken Lycurgus for their model, leaving behind them, however, mere projects and words; whereas Lycurgus was the author, not in writing but in reality, of a government which none else could so much as copy.”

“Removed all distinctions of wealth. Eliminated the inveterate and insidious vices which accompany wealth disparity.”

Lycurgus reigned as King of Sparta around 750 BC. Before he became king, Sparta was riotous and dissolute. Poor management by preceding kings allowed for the citizens to become bold an unruly. Lycurgus’ father was stabbed to death with a butcher’s knife while trying to quell a riot. However, Lycurgus changed Sparta from a disordered and chaotic city-state into a virtuous and perfectly obedient State admired by nations throughout the world.

Lycurgus’ first act as king was to establish a Senate. He conceived that a Senate would act as a ship’s ballast. It would curb the faults and injustices associated with democracy and monarchy.

Next, Lycurgus resolved to eliminate the vices which accompany wealth, such as avarice, envy, crime, indolence, gluttony, etc. To accomplish this aim, he redistributed the land equally among the Spartan citizens. He also introduced an unwieldy currency, which was more costly to store and transport than its value. A custom of eating together in groups of 15 men was established, and Lycurgus forbade the citizens to adorn their houses with luxuries. Luxury died away naturally, being thus deprived of what stimulated and supported it. The only distinction between men was obtained from praise for virtuous action, and blame for cowardice and immoderation.

Plutarch attributes the renowned Spartan method of education to Lycurgus. At the age of seven, boys were assigned to military regiments, in which they were instructed in martial combat and taught perfect obedience to their commander. This system of education inspired a sense of nationalism. Men believed that their lives were a means to serve the ends of the State, not their own interests.

After reading Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, I wonder whether Lycurgus’ method of imbuing Spartans with virtue and eliminating the vices, which were previously corrupting the society, is justified. At certain points during the narrative, I thought that Lycurgus was using an effective form of brainwashing tactics rather than persuading the citizens through rational arguments that they can attain happiness by living a life according to virtue.

Lycurgus forbade Spartans from traveling to other States lest they acquire the bad-habits and immoral doctrines of another people. He also severely restricted foreigner access to Sparta in light of this fear. However, by limiting the number of philosophical beliefs and cultures that the Spartans were exposed to, the Spartans essentially became unconscious robots programmed to do a specific task. Because the Spartans did not have another system of beliefs or way of life which they could choose to follow, I hesitate to praise any virtue which the citizens possessed, because they had no choice but to be virtuous. The Spartan were compelled to perform virtuous deeds. A robot can perform deeds of heroism, but we do not praise the robot as virtuous.

Nevertheless, Spartan discipline and moderation ought to be emulated. Wealth and luxuries are the origin of many vices in the world. Lycurgus’ complete elimination of these corrupting influences and the subsequent elevation of the Spartan moral character are persuasive reasons to conclude that the Spartan lifestyle is one way of attaining the blessed life of which Aristotle speaks.

Plutarch’s Lives (Modern Library Classics)

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