PLUTARCH: Lycurgus and Numa Compared

PLUTARCH: Lycurgus and Numa Compared

  • The similarities between Lycurgus and Numa are their moderation, their religious dispositions, their capacity of government and discipline, and that they both derived their laws and constitutions from the gods.
  • A difference is that Lycurgus resigned a kingdom while Numa accepted one. Numa was raised from a private citizen to king while Lycurgus voluntarily descended from king to private citizen. It was glorious for Numa to acquire the throne by justice, but even more glorious for Lycurgus to choose justice over the crown.
  • Lycurgus had the tougher task; for his task was not to persuade citizen to put down their arms, but to cast away their gold and silver; nor was it his task to preach to the citizens to observe festivals and sacrifice to the gods, but to give up feasting and drinking and employ their time in labor and martial exercise.
  • They treated slaves differently. Numa allowed slaves to sit with their master at the feast of Saturn. Lycurgus ordered the male youths to slaughter Helots.
  • Lycurgus forbade all money-making employments. Numa allowed free scope to any employment of money making, curbing only military rapacity.
  • Lycurgus eliminated wealth disparity, Numa allowed people to amass as much money as possible.
  • Spartan women were bold and masculine under Lycurgus reign, freely expressing their opinions. Roman women were forbidden to intermingle, their sobriety was insisted upon, and they had to remain silent.
  • Lycurgus made the Spartan women brides when they were full of age and had an inclination for it. Romans sometimes married their daughters when they were as young as twelve.
  • Spartan children were instructed in military regiments. Roman fathers could teach their children any employment they wished.
  • Plutarch praises Lycurgus for establishing a strict educational system designed to attain a common model of virtue, and ridicules Numa for neglecting to construct an educational system.
  • Lycurgus’ course of action assured that his laws were followed for nearly 500 years after his death. The system of education instilled a love for the country and its laws, as some thoroughly ingrained tincture, into the Spartan citizens.
  • Numa’s goal of ever-lasting peace vanished upon his death because his political structure lacked the cement which would have held it together, education.
  • The Roman Empire grew and its power increased after Numa’s death. Sparta sunk from the highest to the lowest state after it fell from the institutions of Lycurgus.



Avarice is the seed of the greatest evils.


Some may say, has not Rome been advanced and bettered by her wars? A question that will need a long answer, if it is to be one to satisfy men who take the better to consist in riches, luxury, and dominion, rather than in security, gentleness, and that independence which is accompanied by justice. However, it makes much for Lycurgus, that, after the Romans deserted the doctrine and discipline of Numa, their empire grew and their power increased so much; whereas so soon as the Lacedaemonians fell from the institutions of Lycurgus, they sank from the highest to the lowest state.


I agree with Plutarch that Lycurgus had a much more difficult task in establishing his laws than the task with which Numa was confronted. Persuading people to cast away the luxuries and pleasures of life in exchange for an ascetic and severe martial lifestyle seems almost impossible in the abstract. Lycurgus must have been a very charismatic and powerful leader to effect this change.


Plutarch rightly emphasizes the importance of education in developing citizens into virtuous beings. However, the method of education should not be one in which citizens are brainwashed. What type of educational method qualifies as brainwashing? I maintain that one quality of brainwashing is the deliberate removal of access to differing opinions. Furthermore, the Spartan civilization promotes its dogma through negative reinforcements, such as ostracizing men who do not have children and ridiculing cowardly men. The laws and beliefs which Sparta instills into its citizens do not rely upon pure reason or logic, but on tradition and the Spartan’s own definition of justice.


Both recognized that extreme poverty induces dishonesty and crime. Numa attempts to mitigate this threat by distributing some land among indigent citizens. However, he allows citizens to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth, and does not attempt to redistribute wealth. On the other hand, Lycurgus not only distributes land evenly among all his citizens, but essentially removes all currency and wealth from Sparta. Lycurgus prohibits luxuries, adornments, and all employment except soldiering. The citizens are not even permitted to engage in menial tasks such as farming; the slaves tend the fields and perform the other necessary menial labor to sustain life.


I would rather live according to Numa’s laws than Lycurgus’. Freedom is very limited in Lycurgus’ Sparta. Men must become soldiers and must comply with rigid traditions, or they will be ostracized, ridiculed, or killed otherwise. Although Numa presumably imposed upon citizens the duty to perform religious rites and sacrifices, he did not forbid the citizens from engaging in non-religious activities. Roman citizens could choose any employment that they desired, and were free to indulge in luxuries if they so pleased. I also suppose that Rome was a diverse city with inhabitants from different areas of the world which maintained different belief systems and cultural values, much like modern New York. This diversity provides the Roman citizen with different paths to attaining Aristotle’s blessed life, from which they can freely choose to follow. As I previously wrote, choosing virtue instead of vice is more honorable than being compelled to behave according to virtue.


Why did Spartan women bathe their babies in wine after they were born? They believed that the wine would prove the strength and courage of a baby. If the baby was frail or epileptic, then the Spartans believed it would faint or die from the bathing.


What happened to Romulus? While making a public sacrifice to the gods, a tempest settled over Rome. The crowd fled affrighted, and Romulus was never seen again. One Roman claims that he saw Romulus picked up in a whirlwind and carried to the heavens. Some of the citizens believed that the patricians, growing weary of Romulus’ increasing haughtiness and domineering rule, assassinated him in order to establish an oligarchy. I believe that he fled from Rome into the country-side to escape the bitter rivalries among the Roman politicians and to relieve himself of the many burdens accompanying the rule of the Roman empire… Not really. He was assassinated.

Plutarch’s Lives (Modern Library Classics)

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