Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lycurgus – Founder of the Spartan System

One can’t discuss the Spartan system without talking about Lycurgus, who designed and implemented this historic militaristic culture. He is a shadowy figure in that we don’t know when he lived, and there are many aspects of his life that are unknown. Indeed, some believe he was a myth, but to me the evidence is too strong in favor of a real human being.

Some scholars believe Lycurgus lived in the early 8th century B.C. (circa 770), and others place him a century later. I believe the reforms were probably implemented after the Second Messenian War in 640 B.C. The Spartans had originally subjugated the Messenians in 708, but they revolted in 640, and had to be defeated and controlled a second time. Most likely changes were made then to prevent further revolts.

The earlier date seems unlikely, because writing was not established in Greece until 750 B.C, and it’s hard to imagine a Lycurgian Constitution before that time. Moreover, the first Athenian Constitution dated from 594, so putting the Spartans one hundred and fifty years ahead of the rest of Greece in the creation of a modern government seems farfetched.

According to Greek history, Lycurgus traveled to Crete and became exposed to the Cretan culture, including the Agoge system (rigorous training) and the Mess. Plutarch says he brought the new system back to Sparta where much of it was adopted easily. Some aspects were resisted for a time before they became part of the new culture. It's impossible to know how long this took and how difficult it must have been. Obviously, in the beginning, Spartans of influence would have to accept the reforms or the Lycurgian system would have been stillborn. One imagines a next step where the leaders forced a new system on the people until it was completely accepted. Not that “forcing” would have been as difficult in this case as other times in history, because there were many elements that would have made the new system attractive to the Spartan people – equality, property, freedom from manual labor, and more, so perhaps the implementation took place rather quickly.

This is the first in a series of posts describing the reforms in detail. These details make the Spartan way of life real and create a human side missing from the uninteresting list of reforms found in most descriptions of the ancient Sparta. My partner in this activity is Plutarch who wrote a book On Sparta, including a chapter on Lycurgus.

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