The Father of Sparta
by Plutarch

Lycurgus established harmony, simplicity, and strength in Sparta.  This warrior society tamed its youth through systematic education aimed at developing leadership, courage, public spirit, and wisdom.

    Lycurgus was descended from Hercules, through eleven generations, and he was the second prince in one of the two royal families of Sparta. When his father and older brother died, Lycurgus stood to inherit the kingdom.  However, his deceased brother had left a pregnant wife, and her child, if a boy, would be the rightful heir of the kingdom if he survived birth.  This woman came to Lycurgus and offered to abort the child if Lycurgus would make her his queen.

    Lycurgus pretended to go along with her, and he convinced her not to risk her health by an abortion.  Instead, he offered to do away with the child, and he gave strict orders to bring the child to him as soon as one was born.  One day, as Lycurgus was feasting with some of the judges of Sparta, a new-born boy was brought in to him. "Men of Sparta," he said, taking it in his arms, "here is a king born to us."  Then he laid the boy down in the place of honor and named him Charilaus, which means "joy of the people."

    The people of Sparta admired the character of this man who could lay down the supreme power so easily out of respect for justice, so it was easy for Lycurgus to rule the Spartans in his capacity as the guardian of Charilaus.   However, the young king's mother, and her relatives, envied and hated Lycurgus.   Among other slanders, they accused Lycurgus of plotting the death of Charilaus.

    Lycurgus finally decided that the only way that he might avoid blame in case something should happen to the child would be to go travelling until Charilaus had grown up and fathered a son to secure the succession.  Therefore, Lycurgus gave up all of his authority and went to the island of Crete.

    In Crete, Lycurgus met Thales the poet.  Thales made his living as a musician at banquets, but in reality Thales was a teacher of civilization.  His beautiful songs persuaded men to be fair and to act as brothers to each other.  Good men, and the happiness they enjoyed, were what Thales sang about.   His listeners would forget about their feuds and become united in a common admiration of virtue.  Eventually, Lycurgus persuaded Thales to go to Sparta with his songs to prepare the people for the new way of life that he intended to introduce later.

    Lycurgus had carefully studied the forms of government in Crete, and had picked out what might be useful for Sparta.  He also travelled to Ionia, to study the difference between the pleasure-loving Ionians and the sober Cretans, as doctors study the difference between the sick and the healthy. 

    In Ionia, Lycurgus discovered the immortal works of Homer.  Lycurgus compiled the scattered fragments of Homer and made sure that the serious lessons of statecraft and morality in Homer's epics became widely known.

    The Egyptians claim that Lycurgus visited them too, and that it was from the Egyptians that he got the idea of separating the military from the menial workers, thereby giving Spartan society its refinement and beauty.

    After Lycurgus had been absent for a while, the Spartans wrote and begged Lycurgus to come back.  As they admitted, only Lycurgus was really a king in his heart, although the others wore a crown and claimed the title.   He had the true foundation of sovereignty: a nature born to rule, and a talent for inspiring obedience.  Even the Spartan kings wanted Lycurgus to return because they saw him as one who could protect them from the people.

    Lycurgus had already decided that some fundamental changes would have to be made in Sparta.  When he returned, he did not merely tinker with the laws, but instead followed the example of a wise doctor treating a patient with many diseases, who changes the patient's diet, compels him to exercise, and puts him in a whole new frame of mind.

    First, however, Lycurgus went to the oracle at Delphi to ask for guidance.  The oracle told Lycurgus that his prayers had been heard and that the state which observed the laws of Lycurgus would become the most famous in the world.  With such an endorsement, Lycurgus went to the leading men of Sparta and enlisted their support.

    He began with his closest friends, then these friends widened the conspiracy by bringing in their own friends.  When things were ripe for action, thirty of them appeared at dawn in the marketplace, fully armed for battle.  At first, Charilaus thought they meant to kill him, and he ran for sanctuary in a temple, but eventually he joined the conspirators when he found out that all they wanted was to make sure there would be no opposition to the reforms Lycurgus had in mind.

    The first reform instituted by Lycurgus was a senate of twenty-eight men, who would have a power equal to the two royal houses of Sparta.   The people had the right to vote on important questions, but the senate decided when a vote would be taken.  As Plato puts it, a senate "allays and qualifies the fiery genius of the royal office" and gives some stability and safety to the commonwealth, like the ballast in a ship.  Before, Sparta had oscillated between the extremes of democracy and tyranny: anarchy and dictatorship.  With the addition of the senate, which resisted both extremes, the government became stable and the people and their rulers respected each other.

    Some further refinements of the Spartan constitution came after Lycurgus.  It turned out that sometimes the public speakers would pervert the sense of propositions and thus cause the people to vote foolishly, so the senate reserved the right to dissolve the assembly if they saw this happening.

    A hundred and thirty years after the death of Lycurgus, a council of five ephors took executive power from the kings.  When King Theopompus, in whose reign the ephors were established, was scolded by his wife for leaving his son less royal power than he had inherited, he replied: "No, it is greater, because it will last longer."  With their decision-making power reduced, the Spartan kings were freed of the jealousy of the people.  They never went through what happened in nearby Messene and Argos, where the kings held on so tight to every last bit of power that in the end they wound up losing it all.

    After creating the senate, Lycurgus addressed the question of land ownership.  At this time there was an extreme inequality among the Spartans, with most of the wealth and land in the control of only a few.  Most of the people felt poor and unhappy.  Arrogance and envy, luxury and crime, resulted from this unequal distribution of property.  Lycurgus divided the land equally, so that merit -- not money -- became the only measure of a man's worth.

    Lycurgus intended to remove any inequalities in ownership of personal property as well as real property, but he realized that it would be too difficult to proceed openly.  Therefore, he took an indirect approach.  His solution was to ban ownership of any gold or silver, and to allow only money made of iron.  The iron coins of Sparta were dipped in vinegar to make the metal brittle and worthless.  Merchants laughed at this money because it had no intrinsic value, so imports of luxuries stopped.  Robbery and bribery vanished from Sparta instantly.

    All useless occupations were banned in Sparta.  This law was hardly necessary, because along with gold and silver, all of the evil creatures that accompany them went away too.  Who would come to practice fraud, fortune-telling, prostitution, jewelry, or the other trades of luxury and larceny, in a country where there was no gold and silver money?  So luxury, deprived little by little of the fuel that fed it, gradually died out.  The rich had no advantage over the poor because wealth was useless.

    The most effective measure against the love of money was Lycurgus' law that all meals had to be eaten together at public mess-halls.   Everyone ate the same thing, so money could not buy dainty food.  And since the rich could not eat at home, there was no way for them to show off their fancy things.  The rich could no longer spend their lives at home, lying on their couches and stuffing themselves with unwholesome delicacies, like pigs being fattened for slaughter.  No longer could they ruin not only their minds but also their bodies, becoming so weak by lazy overindulgence that they needed long sleep, warm baths, and about as much care as if they were constantly sick.

    This law was more than the rich could stand, so one day they got together and complained.  Angry words were followed by rocks, and Lycurgus had to run for his life.  He managed to outrun all of his assailants except one young man named Alcander.   When Lycurgus turned to see who was behind him, Alcander hit him in the face with a stick, blinding one eye.  The others caught up and saw Lycurgus with his bloody face and ruined eye.  They were ashamed at what Alcander had done, and they gave him to Lycurgus for punishment.  Lycurgus thanked them for saving him, then he took Alcander into his house as his servant.

    In this position, Alcander had a chance to see how gentle and hard-working Lycurgus was, and from being an enemy he became an admirer and a friend.  Alcander told his friends and relatives that Lycurgus was not as bad as they thought he was, but rather the most gentle man in the world.  Thus did Lycurgus make this wild and violent young man one of the best citizens of Sparta.

    The public mess-halls were divided into tables of fifteen men.  Each man was required to bring a quota of food and wine every month.   The Spartans would send their children to these tables as to a school of wisdom.   There, they would listen to the men discuss the business of the state, and they learned how to talk politely and to the point like men.  Especially important was giving and taking jokes with good humor.  To insure frankness, the oldest man said to each of them as they came in: "Through this (pointing at the door) no words go out."

    Whenever anyone requested to be admitted to one of these little societies, the members took a vote on him by secret ballot.  Each member threw a ball of dough into a bowl, and signified disapproval by squashing the ball flat.   If any ball in the bowl had been squashed, the candidate failed.

    The laws of Lycurgus purported to be utterances of the Delphic oracle, and were called rhetra.  One law was that the law should never be put in writing.  Spartan law would therefore have to be imprinted in the minds of the citizens through good education, and if the education were good enough, then law would be superfluous.  Wise judges would always keep the law's spirit fresh.

    As for commercial law, Lycurgus was unwilling to prescribe rules for business.  He preferred to let questions be decided by wise judgment rather than by specious reasoning based on interpretations of writings.  In this way, the law adapted naturally to changing circumstances.

    Another rhetra that, at first glance, seems bizarre -- but which on close examination turns out to be wise -- was that the ceilings of houses in Sparta had to be made using only an axe, and the gates and doors only with a saw.  Rough wood in these two places made fancy furniture look anomalous.  Lycurgus knew that the people would make their beds and other furniture to match this rustic look, and all other household articles would match these.

    The most important job of any lawgiver, in Lycurgus' opinion, was the proper education of the young.  He began at the very beginning, with the marriages that produced the children that were to be educated.

    Girls were required to run and exercise so that their babies would grow in strong and healthy mothers.  To make them brave, Lycurgus ordered that occasionally the girls had to dance and sing naked in front of all the young men.  Therefore the girls were ashamed to be fat or weak, and they were happy to display their beauty to such an appreciative audience.  In their songs, the girls praised the men who were brave and strong, and they made fun of those who were weak and cowardly, so they sharpened the men's love of glory and fear of shame.  Thus the women of Sparta got a taste of higher feelings, being in this way admitted to the field of action.

    The Spartan women were good judges of manhood.   A foreign lady once remarked to the wife of a Spartan commander that the women of Sparta were the only women in the world who could rule men.  "We are the only women who raise men," the Spartan lady replied.

    The public performances of the young ladies naturally had their effect on the young men, but the meetings of the lovers had to be in secret.  They lived in constant fear of being detected and made the butt of jokes.

    Even their marriages took place in secret.  The bride and her family had a simple private ceremony, then her hair was cut off and she was dressed in male clothes.  After dinner, the bridegroom stealthily came and lay with her, then hurried back to sleep with his companions, in great fear that anyone might find out.  The husband and wife had to scheme to find opportunities to meet without being discovered.  Sometimes the men of Sparta even had children by their wives before ever seeing them in daylight.

    When the young man reached the age of thirty, the couple was allowed to live together openly and to set up a household.  With seeing each other so difficult and rare, they always came together with a healthy appetite for love.  And when they parted, it was always early enough that there was no disgust from being together too long.  There was always some desire left unsatisfied.

    Jealousy was forbidden.  If two men liked the same woman, it was a reason for them to be friends, not enemies.  With certain limitations against irresponsible passion, Lycurgus made it honorable for a man to lend his wife to another man so as to get good seed from him.  He wanted the children of Sparta to be produced by the best men, so that their good qualities might be passed on.   In Lycurgus' opinion, children were not the property of their parents but members of the society.  The laws of other nations about children seemed absurd and inconsistent to him.  Why should a man be so careful about the breeding of his dogs and his horses, and even pay stud fees to get good offspring, but insist on his wife having children only by himself?  Obviously, the bad qualities of this father would be passed on to his children and he would be their first victim, whereas children of good men would be a blessing rather than a curse to the man who gave them a home.

    Whenever a child was born, it was taken to a council of elders for examination.  If the baby was in any way defective, the elders dropped it into a chasm.  Such a child, in the opinion of the Spartans, should not be permitted to live.  New-born children were washed with wine so they would be strong.  They grew up free and active, and without any sort of cry-baby ways.  Spartan children were not afraid of the dark, or finicky about their food.

    At the age of seven, Spartan boys left home and went to live under military discipline.  Those who showed the most skill and courage were appointed by the old men to be leaders, with the authority to order the other boys and the power to punish disobedience.

    The main subject they studied was command and obedience.  Spartan boys learned enough reading and writing to be literate, but learning how to endure pain and conquer in battle was considered even more important.  The old men kept a close eye on them, and often tested them to find out who might turn out to be a good man in a real fight.

    At the age of twelve, their military education began.  A boy entered one of several bands, commanded by one of the irens [twenty-year-old men].  This iren was their leader in battle and their absolute master at home.  They stayed in this hard school until they reached the age of eighteen, and then they were recognized as men.

    While they were boys, the Spartans were not allowed to wear anything but one cloak.  No shoes, no underwear, and no additional clothes were permitted -- even in winter.  They slept in their military groups, on reeds they plucked at the river with their own hands.  What they were given to eat was never enough, so to keep from going hungry they were forced to plan ingenious schemes to steal food.  If they got caught, they got a severe whipping -- not for the moral wrong of stealing, but for the military sin of not being careful enough to avoid capture.   Starvation made them grow taller, because too much food weighs down the spirit of a boy and makes him short and fat.

    Spartans were taught to say a lot with a few words.   Children learned a habit of long silence, so that when they finally spoke, their words had weight and were noticed. 

    For example, an Athenian joked that sword-swallowers used Spartan swords because they were so short, and a Spartan replied: "We find them long enough to reach the hearts of our enemies."  Like their short, sharp swords, their short, sharp sayings get to the point and arrest the attention of the hearer.  Here are some examples from Lycurgus himself:

    A man argued that Sparta should set up a democracy, and to this, Lycurgus replied: "Begin with your own family."

    Another asked why the sacrifices to the gods were not bigger, and Lycurgus answered: "So that we may always have something to offer them."

    When Lycurgus was asked how the Spartans could prevent an invasion by enemies, he said: "By continuing to be poor, and not trying to appear better off than each other."

    To those who proposed to build a wall around Sparta, Lycurgus said: "A wall of men, instead of bricks, is best."

    Their sayings were so sharp and pertinent that the Spartans were more famous for their wit than for their prowess as soldiers and athletes.   Even though at war and in sports they were by far the best in Greece, intellectual exercise was considered to be the essence of the Spartan way of life.  From an early age, they learned to pack many layers of meaning into a few words -- and, more importantly, when to speak and when to shut up.

    Humor was a sort of sauce for their simple, strenuous lives.  Their jokes were not frivolous, but were always based on something worth thinking about.

    Music was as important a part of Spartan education as training in graceful conversation.  The Spartans learned inspirational songs that made them eager for action.  When the time for battle came, they sang to the sound of flutes as they advanced at the enemy.  Calmly and cheerfully, they walked into battle with such complete confidence that it seemed they had been blessed with immunity by some god.  The effect of music on the emotions was used more in Sparta than anywhere else.  As Terpander said of the Spartans:

Their spear was strong, their music sweet,
And Justice kept an honored seat.

    For the Spartans, actual war was a holiday compared to their tough training.  War was the only time they were allowed to relax their discipline and to adorn themselves.  They would take particular care in arranging their hair, which was long because Lycurgus said that long hair adds beauty to a good face, and terror to an ugly one.

    The greatest privilege was to be allowed to fight near the king, and the closest spot was reserved for victors at the Olympic games.   Lycurgus himself was a master of the martial arts.  He also took part in establishing the Olympic games and the truce that was enforced when the Olympic games took place.

    Before battle, the king would sacrifice to the Muses,   to remind the Spartan soldiers that judgment would be passed on their actions, therefore they should do something that should deserve to live in song.  Then, if the omens from the sacrifice were favorable, the king commanded the pipers to play the hymn to Castor, and they moved in step toward pain and death, filled with deliberate valor.  Warriors like these were not likely to be possessed by fear or fury.

    Once the enemy was on the run, the Spartans pursued only long enough to be sure of the victory.  They considered it uncivilized to slaughter an enemy who was not fighting but running for his life.  This was also wise policy: once it became known that the Spartans killed only those who stood their ground -- but spared those who ran -- the enemy soldiers would stampede when the Spartans came near.

    Lycurgus made it a law that the Spartans should not make war often, or for long, with the same enemy, lest they be taught Spartan tactics.   King Agesilaus violated this law of Lycurgus when he persistently made war against the Thebans and thus made them a match for the Spartans.

    It goes without saying that once gold and silver were banished from Sparta, litigation died out.  Greed and poverty were replaced by equality and independence: equality because they all lived in simple houses and ate at common tables, and independence because their wants were small.  Spartans spent their time practicing music and dancing, hunting, and going to the exercise grounds and places of public conversation.

    The helots did the labor, so the Spartans had plenty of leisure time.  Due to their law against frivolous occupations, there was no preoccupation with business.  In a nation where wealth commanded no respect, that would have been a waste of time anyway.  Those who were under thirty were not even allowed in the marketplace, and it was dishonorable for the older men to be seen there often.

    A Spartan visiting Athens heard about an Athenian who had just been punished for being unemployed [which was a crime in Athens], and he asked his host to arrange a meeting with this man who was condemned for living like a Spartan.

    Another time, an Athenian told a Spartan that the people of Sparta were ignorant.   "What you say is true," the Spartan replied.  "We have learned none of your evil ways."

    Foreign travel and foreign visitors were prohibited in Sparta, because Lycurgus feared foreign ideas and foreign luxury like a plague.

    Lycurgus educated his citizens so that they neither would nor could live by themselves.  No one was allowed to live according to his own desires.  The city was like an armed camp, and everyone had some duty.  Public zeal made competition for office very healthy.

    To be eligible for the senate, a man had to be at least sixty years of age.  Senators had life tenure.  There was also a council of 300 representatives.  Later on, a committee of five ephors was elected each year to exercise the executive power of the government.  The term of office for ephors was only one year, and re-election as an ephor was not permitted. 

    Elections were done in the following manner:   All citizens of Sparta were called together in an open field.  Nearby, in a little house without windows, some judges rated the applause as each candidate was presented.  The judges had no way of knowing which man was being applauded, since they did not know the order of presentation.

    When he saw that his laws had taken root in the minds of the Spartans, Lycurgus called an assembly of the people and told them that everything was going well so far, but one more thing -- of the greatest importance -- remained to be done.  What that was, he could not tell them until after he had consulted the oracle at Delphi again.  Before he left on this journey, Lycurgus made the kings, the senate, and the people of Sparta swear to obey his laws and not to change anything until he returned.

    Lycurgus was now at the age where life is still tolerable, but may be left without regret.  After leaving Sparta, he stopped eating and quietly disappeared -- leaving the Spartans forever bound by their oath to keep things as he had left them.

    For five hundred years, Sparta kept the laws of Lycurgus and was the strongest and most famous city in Greece.  But eventually gold and silver were allowed in, and along with them came all of the evils spawned by the love of money.  Lysander must take the blame, because he brought home rich spoils from the wars. Although not corrupt himself, Lysander infected Sparta with greed and luxury, and thus subverted the laws of Lycurgus.

    People do not obey unless their rulers know how to command.  A true leader himself creates the obedience of his followers.  The perfection of the science of government is to make the governed genuinely eager to take orders, just as the perfection of the art of riding is to make the horse respond to gentle guidance.  The Spartans inspired not only willingness to obey, but a positive desire to hear orders.

    To the other Greeks, Sparta was a holy shrine of justice and wisdom, called on to suppress despotism and arbitrate disputes.  Often it was not necessary to resort to force.  The Spartans would merely send a single ambassador, to whose direction everyone immediately submitted, like bees swarming to their queen.  When the other cities of the Greek world needed help from Sparta, they would not send for money or for armies, but only for a Spartan commander.

    Lycurgus did not intend for Sparta to conquer and rule other cities.  His opinion was that the happiness of a nation, like the happiness of a man, consists in the exercise of virtue, and not in power or wealth.   His laws were for the purpose of making the Spartans free-minded, self-reliant, and sober.  Many philosophers have left behind plans for perfect governments, but Lycurgus was the author -- not merely in writing but in reality -- of a complete philosophical state, which others could not even copy.

Return to History of Greece: Biographies