Lycurgus Lawgiver of Sparta

The Legendary Man Credited With the Constitution of Sparta

Lycurgus of Sparta portrait by Merry Joseph Blondel

Photo Josse/Leemage / Contributor / Getty Images

Athens had its Solon, the law-giver, and Sparta, its Lycurgus—at least that's what we like to believe. Like the origins of the reforms of Lycurgus, the man himself is wrapped in legend.

Plutarch on Lycurgus' Rise to Power

Plutarch tells the story of Lycurgus as if he had been a real person, albeit an eleventh-generation descendant of Hercules, since the Greeks generally ascribed genealogy that went back to the gods when writing about important figures. In Sparta there were two kings who jointly shared the power. Lycurgus, according to Plutarch, was the younger son of one of these two kings. His older brother's wife was pregnant when both Lycurgus' brother and father died, and so, the unborn would have become king—assuming it was a boy—in time. Lycurgus' sister-in-law proposed to Lycurgus, saying she would do away with the child if he would marry her. In that way both she and Lycurgus would maintain power in Sparta. Lycurgus pretended to agree with her, but instead of having the child killed after birth, as was a Greek custom, Lycurgus presented the child to the men of Sparta, naming the child and saying that he was their future king. Lycurgus himself was to act as guardian and advisor until the baby came of age.

Lycurgus Travels to Learn About Law

When slander about the motives of Lycurgus got out of hand, Lycurgus left Sparta and went to Crete where he became familiar with the Cretan law code. Plutarch says Lycurgus met Homer and Thales on his travels.

Recalled to Sparta, Lycurgus Institutes His Laws (Rhetra)

Eventually, the Spartans decided they needed Lycurgus back and persuaded him to return to Sparta. Lycurgus agreed to do so, but first he had to consult with the Delphic Oracle. The advice of the oracle was so well respected that it would add authority to whatever was done in its name. The oracle said that the laws (rhetra) of Lycurgus would become the most famous in the world.

Lycurgus Changes Sparta's Social Organization

With the oracle on his side, Lycurgus instituted changes in the Spartan government and provided Sparta with a constitution. In addition to changes to the government, Lycurgus altered the economy of Sparta, banning ownership of gold or silver and useless occupations. All men were to eat together in common mess halls.

Lycurgus reformed Sparta socially, too. Lycurgus started the state-run education system, including the training of women, the peculiar non-monogamous Spartan marriages, and the role of the state in deciding which newborn was fit to live.

Lycurgus Tricks the Spartans Into Keeping His Laws

When it appeared to Lycurgus that all was being done according to his suggestions and that Sparta was on the right track, he told the Spartans that he had one more important mission. Until he returned, they were under oath not to change the laws. Then Lycurgus left Sparta and disappeared forever.

That is the (condensed) story of Lycurgus, according to Plutarch.

Herodotus also says the Spartans thought the laws of Lycurgus came from Crete. Xenophon says Lycurgus made them up, while Plato says the Delphic Oracle provided them. Regardless of their origin, the Delphic Oracle played an important role in the acceptance of the laws of Lycurgus.

The Great Rhetra

Here's a passage from Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus on his obtaining an oracle from Delphi about the establishment of his form of government:

"When thou has built a temple to Zeus Syllanius and Athena Syllania, divided the people into phylai, and divided them into 'obai', and established a Gerousia of thirty including the Archagetai, then from time to time 'appellazein' between Babyka and Knakion, and there introduce and repeal measures; but the Demos must have the decision and the power."
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Lycurgus Lawgiver of Sparta." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). Lycurgus Lawgiver of Sparta. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Lycurgus Lawgiver of Sparta." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).