Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

Lycurgus And The Spartan Laws

Of the many nations between which the small peninsula of Greece was divided, much the most interesting were those whose chief cities were Athens and Sparta. These are the states with whose doings history is full, and without which the history of ancient Greece would be little more interesting to us than the history of ancient China and Japan. No two cities could have been more opposite in character and institutions than these, and they were rivals of each other for the dominant power through centuries of Grecian history. In Athens freedom of thought and freedom of action prevailed. Such complete political equality of the citizens has scarcely been known elsewhere upon the earth, and the intellectual activity of these citizens stands unequalled. In Sparta freedom of thought and action were both suppressed to a degree rarely known, the most rigid institutions existed, and the only activity was a warlike one. All thought and all education had war for their object, and the state and city became a compact military machine. This condition was the result of a remarkable code of laws by which Sparta was governed, the most peculiar and surprising code which any nation has ever possessed. It is this code, and Lycurgus, to whom Sparta owed it, with which we are now concerned.

First, who was Lycurgus and in what age did he live? Neither of these questions can be closely answered. Though his laws are historical, his biography is legendary. He is believed to have lived somewhere about 800 or 900 b.c. , that age of legend and fable in which Homer lived, and what we know about him is little more to be trusted than what we know about the great poet. The Greeks had stories of their celebrated men of this remote age, but they were stories with which imagination often had more to do than fact, and though we may enjoy them, it is never quite safe to believe them.

As for the very uncertain personage named Lycurgus, we are told by Herodotus, the Greek historian, that when he was born the Spartans were the most lawless of the Greeks. Every man was a law unto himself, and confusion, tumult, and injustice everywhere prevailed. Lycurgus, a noble Spartan, sad at heart for the misery of his country, applied to the oracle at Delphi, and received instructions as to how he should act to bring about a better state of affairs.

Plutarch, who tells so many charming stories about the ancient Greeks and Romans, gives us the following account. According to him the brother of Lycurgus was king of Sparta. When he died Lycurgus was offered the throne, but he declined the honor and made his infant nephew, Charilaus, king. Then he left Sparta, and travelled through Crete, Ionia, Egypt, and several more remote countries, everywhere studying the laws and custom, which he found prevailing. In Ionia he obtained a copy of the poems of Homer, and is said by some to have met and conversed with Homer himself. If, as is supposed, the Greeks of that age had not the art of writing, he must have carried this copy in his memory.

On his return home from this long journey Lycurgus found his country in a worse state than before. Sparta, it may be well here to say, had always two kings; but it found, as might have been expected, that two kings were worse than one, and that this odd device in government never worked well. At any rate, Lycurgus found that law had nearly vanished, and that disorder had taken its place. He now consulted the oracle at Delphi, and was told that the gods would support him in what he proposed to do.

Coming back to Sparta, he secretly gathered a body-guard of thirty armed men from among the noblest citizens, and then presented himself in the Agora, or place of public assembly, announcing that he had come to end the disorders of his native land. King Charilaus at first heard of this with terror, but on learning what his uncle intended, he offered his support. Most of the leading men of Sparta did the same. Lycurgus was to them a descendant of the great hero Hercules, he was the most learned and travelled of their people, and the reforms he proposed were sadly needed in that unhappy land.

These reforms were of two kinds. He desired to reform both the government and society. We shall deal first with the new government which he instituted. The two kings were left unchanged. But under them was formed a senate of twenty-eight members, to whom the kings were joined, making thirty in all. The people also were given their assemblies, but they could not debate any subject, all the power they had was to accept or reject what the senate had decreed. At a later date five men, called ephors, were selected from the people, into whose hands fell nearly all the civil power, so that the kings had little more to do than to command the army and lead it to war. The kings, however, were at the head of the religious establishment of the country, and were respected by the people as descendants of the gods.

The government of Sparta thus became an aristocracy or oligarchy. The ephors came from the people, and were appointed in their interest, but they came to rule the state so completely that neither the kings, the senate, nor the assembly had much voice in the government. Such was the outgrowth of the governmental institutions of Lycurgus.

It is the civil laws made by Lycurgus, however, which are of most interest, and in which Sparta differed from all other states. The people of Laconia, the country of which Sparta was the capital, were composed of two classes. That country had originally been conquered by the Spartans, and the ancient inhabitants, who were known as Helots, were held as slaves by their Spartan conquerors. They tilled the ground to raise food for the citizens, who were all soldiers, and whose whole life and thought were given to keeping the Helots in slavery and to warlike activity. That they might make the better soldiers, Lycurgus formed laws to do away with all luxury and inequality of conditions, and to train up the young under a rigid system of discipline to the use of weapons and the arts of war. The Helots, also, were often employed as light-armed soldiers, and there was always danger that they might revolt against their oppressors, a fact which made constant discipline and vigilance necessary to the Spartan citizens.

Lycurgus found great inequality in the state. A few owned all the land, and the remainder were poor. The rich lived in luxury; the poor were reduced to misery and want. He divided the whole territory of Sparta into nine thousand equal lots, one of which was given to each citizen. The territory of the remainder of Laconia was divided into thirty thousand equal lots, one of which was given to each Periścus. (The Periści were the freemen of the country outside of the Spartan city and district, and did not possess the full rights of citizenship.)

This measure served to equalize wealth. But further to prevent luxury, Lycurgus banished all gold and silver from the country, and forced the people to use iron money,—each piece so heavy that none would care to carry it. He also forbade the citizens to have anything to do with commerce or industry. They were to be soldiers only, and the Helots were to supply then with food. As for commerce, since no other state would accept their iron money, they had to depend on themselves for everything they needed. The industries of Laconia were kept strictly at home.

To these provisions Lycurgus added another of remarkable character. No one was allowed to take his meals at home. Public tables were provided, at which all must eat, every citizen being forced to belong to some special public mess. Each had to supply his quota of food, such as barley, wine, cheese, and figs from his land, game obtained by hunting, or the meat of the animals killed for sacrifices. At these tables all shared alike. The kings and the humblest citizens were on an equality. No distinction was permitted except to those who had rendered some signal service to the state.

This public mess was not accepted without protest. Those who were used to luxurious living were not ready to be brought down to such simple fare, and a number of these attacked Lycurgus in the market-place, and would have stoned him to death had he not run briskly for his life. As it was, one of his pursuers knocked out his eye. But, such was his content at his success, that he dedicated his last eye to the gods, building a temple to the goddess Athene of the Eye. At these public tables black broth was the most valued dish, the elder men eating it in preference, and leaving the meat to their younger messmates.

The houses of the Spartans were as plain as they could well be made, and as simple in furniture as possible, while no lights were permitted at bedtime, it being designed that every one should become accustomed to walking boldly in the dark. This, however, was but a minor portion of the Spartan discipline. Throughout life, from boyhood to old age, every one was subjected to the most rigorous training. From seven years of age the drill continued, and every one was constantly being trained or seeing others under training. The day was passed in public exercises and public meals, the nights in public barracks. Married Spartans rarely saw their wives—during the first years of marriage—and had very little to do with their children; their whole lives were given to the state, and the slavery of the Helots to them was not more complete than their slavery to military discipline.

They were not only drilled in the complicated military movements which taught a body of Spartan soldiers to act as one man, but also had incessant gymnastic training, so as to make them active, strong, and enduring. They were taught to bear severe pain unmoved, to endure heat and cold, hunger and thirst, to walk barefoot on rugged ground, to wear the same garment summer and winter, to suppress all display of feeling, and in public to remain silent and motionless until action was called for.

Two companies were often matched against each other, and these contests were carried on with fury, fists and feet taking the place of arms. Hunting in the woods and mountains was encouraged, that they might learn to bear fatigue. The boys were kept half fed, that they might be forced to provide for themselves by hunting or stealing. The latter was designed to make them cunning and skilful, and if detected in the act they were severely punished. The story is told that one boy who had stolen a fox and hidden it under his garment, permitted the animal to tear him open with claws and teeth, and died rather than reveal his theft.

One might say that he would rather have been born a girl than a boy in Sparta; but the girls were trained almost as severely as the boys. They were forced to contend with each other in running, wrestling, and boxing, and to go through other gymnastic exercises calculated to make them strong and healthy. They marched in the religious processions, sung and danced at festivals, and were present at the exercises of the youths. Thus boys and girls were continually mingled, and the praise or reproach of the latter did much to stimulate their brothers and friends to the utmost exertion.

As a result of all this the Spartans became strong, vigorous, and handsome in form and face. The beauty of their women was everywhere celebrated. The men became unequalled for soldierly qualities, able to bear the greatest fatigue and privation, and to march great distances in a brief time, while on the field of battle they were taught to conquer or to die, a display of cowardice or flight from the field being a lifelong disgrace.

Such were the main features of the most singular set of laws any nation ever had, the best fitted to make a nation of soldiers, and also to prevent intellectual progress in any other direction than the single one of war-making. Even eloquence in speech was discouraged, and a brief or laconic manner sedulously cultivated. But while all this had its advantages, it had its defects. The number of citizens decreased instead of increasing. At the time of the Persian war there were eight thousand of them. At a late date there were but seven hundred, of whom one hundred possessed most of the land. Whether Lycurgus really divided the land equally or not is doubtful. At any rate, in time the land fell into a few hands, the poor increased in number, and the people steadily died out; while the public mess, so far as the rich were concerned, became a mere form.

But we need not deal with these late events, and must go back to the story told of Lycurgus. It is said that when he had completed his code of laws, he called together an assembly of the people, told them that he was going on a journey, and asked them to swear that they would obey his laws till he returned. This they agreed to do, the kings, the senate, and the people all taking the oath.

Then the law-giver went to Delphi, where he offered a sacrifice to Apollo, and asked the oracle if the laws he had made were good. The oracle answered that they were excellent, and would bring the people the greatest fame. This answer he had put into writing and sent to Sparta, for he had resolved to make his oath binding for all time by never returning. So the old man starved himself to death.

The Spartans kept their oath. For five hundred years their city continued one of the chief cities of Greece, and their army the most warlike and dreaded of the armies of the earth. As for Lycurgus, his countrymen worshipped him as a god, and imputed to him all that was noble in their institutions and excellent in their laws. But time brings its inevitable changes, and these famous institutions in time decayed, while the people perished from over-strict discipline or other causes till but a small troop of Spartans remained, too weak in numbers fairly to control the Helots of their fields.

In truth, the laws of Lycurgus were unnatural, and in the end could but fail. They were framed to make one-sided men, and only whole men can long succeed. Human nature will have its way, and luxury and corruption crept into Sparta despite these laws. Nor did the Spartans prove braver or more successful in war than the Athenians, whose whole nature was developed, and who were alike great in literature, art, and war.

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