King of Sparta, Philosopher, Lawmaker (c900 BC – 800 BC)
Lycurgus has always been an enigmatic figure whose entire life and work is shrouded by a veil of mystery. From antiquity he was regarded as a mythical figure whose name hided many glorious statesmen of Sparta under it. Nothing about him can be said without doubt. Nevertheless, his large influence on the political system of Sparta is certain.
The most important information about Lycurgus is drawn from the works of Plutarch. He was a descendent of the royal family of the Procleides. He travelled to Crete, Egypt and Libya where he studied their political systems. Lycurgus was Sparta’s greatest lawmaker, legislator and political reformer, responsible for Sparta’s militaristic political system which made Sparta Athens’ greatest rival. His political system put an end to the civil wars of Sparta and weakened the power of the King by giving power to a series new ruling classes. The Assembly of Elders (Γερουσία), composed of 28 members over the age of 60 was the Senate. It had the power of a legislative body similar to modern days’ Parliament. The Apella was a democratic deliberative assembly composed of men who were over 30 years old. They would gather and discuss multiple subjects regarding the commons. They could also accept or reject laws passed by the Assembly of Elders for discussion by voting. The Ephors were 5 men who shared the power of the state together with the King.
The Lygurgean system focused on discipline of the people from young age and their inurement. Men and women became responsible citizens and capable guardians of their city, placing above all their freedom and what was best for their city, even if that was unjust. Men became acquainted with the art of war and learned to master it. Young people learned to respect and subjugate to their elders while agamy was contemned. Lycurgus also banned the use of foreign currencies and is considered to have introduced the works of Homer to Sparta.
When his work was finished, Lycurgus went to the oracle of Delphi, to assure himself from God Apollo on his laws’ value. He was told from the Oracle: “You came, Lycurgus, to my temple, full of wealth and beauty. Loved by Zeus and the rest of the Olympians. I wonder, as a God or as a man must I give you a divination? But as a God I consider, Lycurgus, to address you!”.
In general, the Spartan political system was mixed with oligarchy, monarchy and elements of democracy. Still, it rendered Sparta one of the most powerful city-states in all of Greece for hundreds of years. Throughout these years, the Lycurgean system remained almost intact, making the Spartan citizens loyal and obedient soldiers of their homeland. After his death, the Spartans built a temple in his honour where every year rituals were performed in his memory. They also invented a celebration called the Lycurgides which were celebrated once every year.
The political system that Lycurgus established was “divine”. According to Plutarch, its ultimate goal was to rid people’s soul of lubricity, idolatry, illogical fear, superstitions and ignorance and aimed at the catharsis and lytrosis of the peoples’ soul. For only then would men and women be truly free and only in freedom would man achieve somatic, psychic, intellectual and spiritual well-being. A political system devoid of fallacies and illusions meant that its people did to need to struggle for survival. The eudaimonism of a city came about only when its people were virtuous and self-reliant.
- Gravingger, Petros. Pythagoras and the Mystic Teachings of Pythagoreanism. Ideotheatron Dimeli: Athens, 1998. Print.
- Lycurgus. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens, 1946. Print.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. ”Lycurgus” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 7, August. 2016.