Gateway to the Classics: Famous Men of Greece by John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Famous Men of Greece by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland



A BOUT eighty years after the Trojan War the descendants of Hercules with a large band of followers invaded the Peloponnesus, or southern part of Greece, where Agamemnon and Menelaus had once lived. They captured Sparta and made it their capital and after that called themselves Spartans.

The Spartans made slaves of people who were already living in the country and called them Helots or captives. The conquerors divided the land among themselves and made the Helots work their farms.

After about three hundred years had passed it seems that some of the Spartans had grown rich, while others had lost their land and slaves and become poor.

The Spartans who had lost their property were not willing to work like the slaves, and sometimes, when they had no bread for their children, bands of them marched through the streets of Sparta, broke into the houses of the rich and took whatever they could lay their hands on.

During one of these riots, one of the two kings,—for the Spartans always had two kings with equal power,—went out of his palace to stop it. He tried to persuade the people to go quietly home, but they paid no attention to him and a butcher in the crowd rushed up and stabbed him.

The murdered king left two sons. The elder became king, but soon died. The younger was one of the wisest and best men that ever lived in Greece. His name was Lycurgus and after his brother's death every one wished him to become king. But an infant child of the late king was the rightful heir, and Lycurgus refused to be anything more than regent.

For a while he ruled in the young king's name, but some people accused him of wishing to make himself king. So he gave up the regency and went traveling. He visited many lands and studied their plans of government. After being absent several years he came back to Sparta. There he found that the rich were richer and the poor were poorer and more unhappy than when he went away. Everyone turned to him as the only man from whom help could come.

He persuaded the people to let him make new laws for Sparta. The first change that he made was to give every Spartan a vote. There was a Senate of Thirty which might propose laws, but all the citizens were called together to pass or reject them.

Next he persuaded the rich people to divide their land fairly among all the citizens. So now no one had more than he needed, but every one had a farm large enough to raise wheat or barley, olive oil and wine for his family for a year. No Spartan was permitted to work or to engage in any trade, but the slaves were divided, so that every Spartan had slaves to work for him.

Besides the Spartans and the slaves there was another class of men living on the lands of Sparta who were not slaves like the Helots, and yet not citizens like the Spartans. These men were farmers, traders and mechanics. They had to pay taxes and fight when called upon, but neither they nor the Helots had anything to say about the government. There were about 10,000 pure Spartans and about 140,000 in the two lower classes, so you will see that the political power in Sparta was in the hands of a very few men. Their government was what we call an "oligarchy," which means a government by the few.


L YCURGUS did not wish the Spartans to become traders and grow rich, and it is said that he ordered their money to be made of iron. This iron money was worthless outside of Sparta, so the traders of other countries would not take it in payment for their goods and sold nothing to Spartans.

In those days soldiers fought chiefly with swords and spears; therefore no matter how brave men were, they had to have physical strength to win a victory. Lycurgus made laws that the men and boys of Sparta should be trained in running, boxing, wrestling, throwing quoits, hurling javelins, and shooting with bows and arrows. The girls had nearly the same training.


Greek Girls Playing Ball

The feeble and deformed were thought by Lycurgus to be useless. Infants were therefore examined and those that were weak or deformed were not allowed to live. A strong, well-formed infant was handed back to its parents with the order, "Bring up this child for Sparta."

Boys remained at home until they were seven years old. Then they were taken in charge by the State to be trained. The clothing given them was scanty. They went about with their heads and feet bare, and slept on hard beds, or even on floors, with rushes instead of a mattress.

To teach the boys temperance Helots were sometimes purposely made drunk. Thus the boys saw how foolish men become when they drink too much.


Young Spartans Learning a Lesson from Drunken Helots

One lesson that every Spartan boy had to learn was to endure pain without flinching. Another was that in battle a man might die, but must not surrender. When the young Spartan was leaving home for the field of battle his mother would hand him his shield and say, "Come back with this, or upon this."

Lycurgus was opposed to all expensive ways of living. He thought that luxury was a waste of money and made men weak and effeminate. He made a law that the men should not take their meals at home but in a public dining hall; and there only the simplest kind of food was set before them—bread, cheese, olive oil, and a kind of black broth that was probably made of black beans. Figs and grapes served for dessert. It is said that some rich people were very angry because they had to eat at the public tables and that one young man stoned Lycurgus.

A great change came over the Spartans after they had adopted the new laws and ways of living. Instead of being a nation of idlers they became so strong and brave that when there was talk of building a wall round the city, Lycurgus said, "Sparta's citizens are her walls."

When Lycurgus saw what improvement had been made he told the people that he was going on a long journey. He made them promise that they would not change his laws until he returned.

He never returned. When the Spartans felt sure that he was dead they built a temple in his honor and worshiped him as a god. He left Sparta about 825 B.C. and his laws were not changed for several hundred years. They made Sparta the greatest military state in Greece.

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