Lycurgus of Sparta

Lycurgus (Greek: polytonic|Λυκοῦργος, "Lukoûrgos"; 700 BC?–630 BC) was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness and austerity. [Forrest, W.G. "A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C" Norton. New York. (1963)pg 50]

He is referred to by ancient historians Herodotus, Xenophon, and Plutarch. It is not clear if this Lycurgus was an actual historical figure; however, many ancient historians [cite book
title=Parallel Lives
pages=Chs.Lycurgus and Lycurgus and Numa Compared
Plutarch lists Eratosthenes, Apollodorus, Timæus, and Xenophon, among others as sources.
] believed Lycurgus was responsible for the communalistic and militaristic reforms which transformed Spartan society, the most major of which was known as The Great Rhetra. Ancient historians place him in the first half of the 7th century BC.


Plutarch points out in his biography of Lycurgus that: "One can say absolutely nothing on Lycurgus the Lawgiver which is not prone to controversy: his origin, his travels, his death, and finally the development of his laws and constitution give rise to very diverse historical accounts".

According to ancient sources, Lycurgus was a war veteran who, with the support of his comrades, managed to become regent or tutor to the Spartan King Charilaus. In his beginnings, many of his laws were opposed, particularly by the wealthier men. They collected in a body against Lycurgus, and came to throwing stones, so that he was forced to flee and make sanctuary. He outran all but one, a young man named Alcander. When Lycurgus stopped running and turned to see if he was followed, Alcander came up close and hit him in the face with a stick, wounding Lycurgus in the eye. When Lycurgus displayed his damaged face to the protesters, they felt great shame and ordered Alcander to be punished at Lycurgus' will. Alcander's sentence was to serve as Lycurgus's servant and through that period of time, upon learning the greatness of Lycurgus and his dedication to the people, Alcander eventually became one of Lycurgus's biggest supporters.

Among the reforms attributed to Lycurgus are the establishment of the senate, the substitution of iron money for gold and silver coinage, the requirement of eating in commons and living (for men under the age of thirty) in rough-hewn barracks, the destruction of the city walls to promote martial skill, re-dividing Spartan land and forcing it to be worked by Helots, and the system of government that divided power between the King, the Spartan citizenry, the gerousia, and the ephors, all in order to establish within his people a free-mind, self-dependence, and temperance. [Plutarch's Lives Volume 1. The Dryden Translation edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. Published by The Modern Library. New York, 2001.]


Lycurgus is credited with the formation of many Spartan institutions integral to the country's rise to power. He created the sussita/syssitia, the practice that required all Spartan men to eat together in common messhalls. [Forrest, W.G. "A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C" Norton. New York. (1963)pg 45] His most important addition to Spartan culture was the development of the "agoge". The infamous practice took all healthy seven year old boys from the care of their mothers and placed them in a rigorous military regiment. [Forrest, W.G. "A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C" Norton. New York. (1963)pg 51] More dubiously, Lycurgus is prescribed with forbidding the use of any tools other than an axe and saw in the building of a house. [Forrest, W.G. "A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C" Norton. New York. (1963)pg 50]


According to the legend found in Plutarch's "Lives" and other sources, when Lycurgus became confident in his reforms, he announced that he would go to the oracle at Delphi to sacrifice to Apollo. However before leaving for Delphi he called an assembly of the people of Sparta and made everyone, including the kings and senate, take an oath binding them to observe his laws until he returned. He made the journey to Delphi and consulted the oracle, which told him that his laws were excellent and would make his people famous. He then disappeared from history. One explanation was that being satisfied by this he starved himself to death instead of returning home, forcing the citizens of Sparta by oath to keep his laws indefinitely. [see the biography of Lycurgus in Plutarch's "Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans", available online at]

Bertrand Russell states that he is mythical person of Arcadian origin - his name meaning 'He who brings into being the works of a wolf.'


Lycurgus is depicted in several U.S. government buildings of his legacy as a lawgiver. Lycurgus is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. ["Relief Portraits of Lawgivers: Lycurgus." Architect of the Capitol. [] ] Lycurgus is also depicted on the frieze on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building. ["Courtroom Friezes: North and South Walls: Information Sheet." Supreme Court of the United States. [] ]



* Descartes, "Discours de la méthode" (1637)
* Forrest, W.G. "A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C" Norton. New York. (1963)
* Rousseau, Jean-Jacques "The Social Contract" (1762)
* Woodhouse, S.C. "English-Greek Dictionary: A Vocabulary of the Attic Language" (1910)

See also

* Sparta
* Agoge
* Parallel Lives (Lycurgus vs. Numa)

External links

* [*.html Plutarch: Life of Lycurgus]

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