The adoption of the Lycurgan reforms served two purposes for the Spartan ruling class. It diffused the problem of class warfare by raising the status of the lower classes and it created a homeland army to protect the kingdom from another Messenian revolt. At the same time, in a big picture sense, the Spartans had created a stable political model which would be adopted by future Poleis. In the midst of building it, the Spartans were able to avoid the despotic political trend that swept across the region during the period of its adoption.
This Lycurgan regime survived for 400 years before being completely abandoned. Four hundred years is certainly a long period of success, but the inevitable occurred when Sparta could no longer survive in isolation and new political realities had pushed them into a more compatible model. Sparta had to catch up because political innovation had been sacrificed when they chose to build a closed, structured, political system.
We can lay this outcome at the feet of the Sparta’s purposeful peculiarity, because the agoge-based system was an outlier compared to other contemporary political systems. Toynbee believed that the Spartan leaders were aware of their peculiarity and took purposeful steps to shield their people from the outside world.
For example, they made it illegal for Spartans to travel abroad without the government’s permission. Outsiders could visit Sparta, but they were subject to expulsion at any time if their behavior ran counter to the government’s interests. Foreign merchandizing was discouraged by the peculiar Spartan currency which made trade extremely difficult. Previously, all of Greece used iron coins and the Spartans were compatible, but when the others moved on to precious metals, the Spartans chose to stay with their “spit” iron, which was bulky, heavy, and non-convertible. The government even treated the money with chemicals to destroy any commodity value in the iron.
As discussed before, the Lycurgan reforms took time to infiltrate the Spartan culture. One excellent barometer measuring this process was the artistic output of the Spartan people. Before Lycurgus, Spartan accomplishments in the arts were first-rate and comparable to her neighbors to the north. For example, we know that as of 600 B.C. Spartan pottery was still being exported around the Mediterranean. As the reforms took hold, however, aesthetic output began to decline and by 550 B.C. were almost non-existent. In a hundred years time, the Spartan society had been wholly converted to a structured military society, even ending their participation in the Olympic Games, where they had previous set the Greek standard for performance.
It’s interesting to note that Tarentum, the Spartan colony in Italy settled before the reforms, developed its own political system separate and uninfluenced by the mother country. Perhaps a study of the history of that port city would show us what Sparta would have become without the reforms.