Sparta - Lycurgus

Lycurgus of Sparta
Lycurgus of Sparta.

Dateline: 06/22/99

-- Back to Sparta: A Military State --

Although the evolution of Greek law codes is complicated and can't really be reduced to the work of a single individual, there is one man who stands out as responsible for Athenian law and one for Spartan law. Athens had its Solon, and Sparta had its Lycurgus the lawgiver. Like the origins of Lycurgus' legal reforms, the man himself is wrapped in legend. Herodotus 1.65.4 says the Spartans thought the laws of Lycurgus came from Crete. Xenophon takes a contrary position, arguing Lycurgus made them up; while Plato says the Delphic Oracle provided the laws. Regardless of the origin of the laws of Lycurgus, the Delphic Oracle played an important, if legendary, role in their acceptance. Lycurgus claimed that the Oracle had insisted the laws not be written down. He tricked the Spartans into keeping the laws for an ostensibly short period -- while Lycurus went on a journey. Because of the authority invoked, the Spartans agreed. But then, instead of returning, Lycurgus disappears forever from history, thereby eternally obliging the Spartans to honor their agreement not to change the laws. See Sanderson Beck's "Ethics of Greek Culture" for more on this. Some think the laws of Sparta were essentially unchanged until the third century B.C., with the exception of a rider to the rhetra quoted by Plutarch. See "Legislation in Sparta," by W. G. Forrest. Phoenix. Vol. 21, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 11-19.

Source: ( Lycurgus' Reforms and the Spartan Society
Before Lycurgus there had been dual kingship, division of the society into Spartiates, Helots, and perioeci, and the ephorate. After his travels to Crete and elsewhere, Lycurgus brought to Sparta three innovations:

  1. Elders (gerusia),
  2. Redistribution of land, and
  3. Common messes (meals).

Lycurgus forbade gold and silver coinage, replacing it with iron coinage of low value, making trade with other Greek poleis difficult; for instance, there were supposedly loaf shaped and sized iron coins. It is also possible that the iron coins were valued, as iron had been in the Iron Age of Homer. See "The Iron Money of Sparta," by H. Michell Phoenix, Vol. 1, Supplement to Volume One. (Spring, 1947), pp. 42-44. Men were to live in barracks and women were to undergo physical training. In all he did Lycurgus was trying to suppress greed and luxury.
[] Delphi and the Law
We don't know whether Lycurgus asked the oracle simply to confirm the law code he already had or asked the oracle to provide the code. Xenophon opts for the former, while Plato believes the latter. There's a possibility that the code came from Crete.
Source: ( Early Sparta
Thucydides' suggested that it was not the kings who declared war, and the fact that seven helots attended each Spartan indicates the helots' lot may not have been so bad.
The Great Rhetra
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.

Xenophon on the Spartans
Nine passages from Herodotus about the famous Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus. Passages include notice that enslaved women were to work on clothes while free women, since production of children was the noblest occupation, were to exercise as much as the men. If a husband were old, he should supply his wife with a younger man to beget children. Lycurgus made it honorable to satisfy natural cravings by stealing; he forbade free citizens from engaging in business; failing to do one's duty would result in loss of status of the homoioi, (equally privileged citizens).

Occupation Index - Leader

Plutarch - Life of Lycurgus

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Sparta - Lycurgus." ThoughtCo, Oct. 19, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, October 19). Sparta - Lycurgus. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Sparta - Lycurgus." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).