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Lycurgus (Greek: Λυκοῦργος, Lukoûrgos; 800 BC?–730 BC?) was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness and austerity.[1]

He is referred to by ancient historians Herodotus, Xenophon, Plato, and Plutarch. It is not clear if this Lycurgus was an actual historical figure; however, many ancient historians[2] believed Lycurgus was responsible for the communalistic and militaristic reforms which transformed Spartan society, the most major of which was known as the Great Rhetra. Ancient historians place him in the first half of the 7th century BC.


Lycurgus was said to be a man who could lay down the supreme power easily out of respect for justice, so it was easy for Lycurgus to rule the Spartans in his capacity as the guardian of Charilaus. However, the young king's mother, and her relatives, envied and hated Lycurgus. Among other slanders, they accused Lycurgus of plotting the death of Charilaus.

Lycurgus finally decided that the only way that he might avoid blame in case something should happen to the child would be to go travelling until Charilaus had grown up and fathered a son to secure the succession. Therefore, Lycurgus gave up all of his authority and went to the island of Crete.

In Crete, Lycurgus met Thales the poet. Thales made his living as a musician at banquets, but in reality Thales was a teacher of civilization. His beautiful songs persuaded men to be fair and to act as brothers to each other. Good men, and the happiness they enjoyed, were what Thales sang about. His listeners would forget about their feuds and become united in a common admiration of virtue. Eventually, Lycurgus persuaded Thales to go to Sparta with his songs to prepare the people for the new way of life that he intended to introduce later.

Lycurgus had carefully studied the forms of government in Crete, and had picked out what might be useful for Sparta. He also travelled to Ionia, to study the difference between the pleasure-loving Ionians and the sober Cretans, as doctors study the difference between the sick and the healthy. Apparently he took this comparison to the Spartans, training one puppy in a disciplined manner and leaving the other to eat and play at will. The Spartans were taken by how feckless the latter dog was and how useful the former.[3]

In Ionia, Lycurgus discovered the immortal works of Homer. Lycurgus compiled the scattered fragments of Homer and made sure that the serious lessons of statecraft and morality in Homer's epics became widely known. The Egyptians claim that Lycurgus visited them too, and that it was from the Egyptians that he got the idea of separating the military from the menial workers, thereby giving Spartan society its refinement and beauty.

After Lycurgus had been absent for a while, the Spartans wrote and begged Lycurgus to come back. As they admitted, only Lycurgus was really a king in his heart, although the others wore a crown and claimed the title. He had the true foundation of sovereignty: a nature born to rule, and a talent for inspiring obedience. Even the Spartan kings wanted Lycurgus to return because they saw him as one who could protect them from the people. Lycurgus had already decided that some fundamental changes would have to be made in Sparta. When he returned, he did not merely tinker with the laws, but instead followed the example of a wise doctor treating a patient with many diseases, who changes the patient's diet, compels him to exercise, and puts him in a whole new frame of mind.

First, however, Lycurgus went to the oracle at Delphi to ask for guidance. The oracle told Lycurgus that his prayers had been heard and that the state which observed the laws of Lycurgus would become the most famous in the world. With such an endorsement, Lycurgus went to the leading men of Sparta and enlisted their support.

He began with his closest friends, then these friends widened the conspiracy by bringing in their own friends. When things were ripe for action, thirty of them appeared at dawn in the marketplace, fully armed for battle. At first, Charilaus thought they meant to kill him, and he ran for sanctuary in a temple, but eventually he joined the conspirators when he found out that all they wanted was to make sure there would be no opposition to the reforms Lycurgus had in mind.

The first reform instituted by Lycurgus was a senate of twenty-eight men, who would have a power equal to the two royal houses of Sparta. The people had the right to vote on important questions, but the senate decided when a vote would be taken. As Plutarch puts it, a senate "allays and qualifies the fiery genius of the royal office" and gives some stability and safety to the commonwealth, like the ballast in a ship. Before, Sparta had oscillated between the extremes of democracy and tyranny: anarchy and dictatorship. With the addition of the senate, which resisted both extremes, the government became stable and the people and their rulers respected each other.

Some further refinements of the Spartan constitution came after Lycurgus. It turned out that sometimes the public speakers would pervert the sense of propositions and thus cause the people to vote foolishly, so the senate reserved the right to dissolve the assembly if they saw this happening.

A hundred and thirty years after the death of Lycurgus, a council of five ephors took executive power from the kings. When King Theopompus, in whose reign the ephors were established, was scolded by his wife for leaving his son less royal power than he had inherited, he replied: "No, it is greater, because it will last longer." With their decision-making power reduced, the Spartan kings were freed of the jealousy of the people. They never went through what happened in nearby Messene and Argos, where the kings held on so tight to every last bit of power that in the end they wound up losing it all.


Lycurgus is not credited with the formation of many Spartan institutions integral to the country's rise to power. but he created the sussita/syssitia, the practice that required all Spartan men to eat together in common messhalls.[4] His most important addition to Spartan culture was the development of the agoge. The infamous practice took all healthy seven year old boys from the care of their mothers and placed them in a rigorous military regiment.[5] Lycurgus is prescribed with forbidding the use of any tools other than an axe and saw in the building of a house.[1] This practice was consistent with Spartan moderateness in that it prevented the walls and ceilings of the home from being excessively embellished or superfluous, thus discouraging citizens from further adorning their homes with extravagant furniture or other decorations.[6]


According to the legend found in Plutarch's Lives and other sources, when Lycurgus became confident in his reforms, he announced that he would go to the oracle at Delphi to sacrifice to Apollo. However before leaving for Delphi he called an assembly of the people of Sparta and made everyone, including the kings and senate, take an oath binding them to observe his laws until he returned. He made the journey to Delphi and consulted the oracle, which told him that his laws were excellent and would make his people famous. He then disappeared from history. One explanation was that being satisfied by this he starved himself to death instead of returning home, forcing the citizens of Sparta by oath to keep his laws indefinitely.[7]. He later enjoyed a hero-cult in Sparta[8].

Bertrand Russell states that he is a mythical person of Arcadian origin - his name meaning 'He who brings into being the works of a wolf.'


Bas-relief of Lycurgus, one of 23 great lawgivers depicted in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lycurgus is depicted in several U.S. government buildings because of his legacy as a lawgiver. Lycurgus is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol.[9] Lycurgus is also depicted on the frieze on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.[10]


  1. ^ a b Forrest, W.G. A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C Norton. New York. (1963)pg 50
  2. ^ Plutarchus, Mestrius. Parallel Lives. Chs.Lycurgus and Lycurgus and Numa Compared.  Plutarch lists Eratosthenes, Apollodorus, Timæus, and Xenophon, among others as sources.
  3. ^ BBC In Our Time
  4. ^ Forrest, W.G. A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C Norton. New York. (1963) pg 45
  5. ^ Forrest, W.G. A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C Norton. New York. (1963)pg 51
  6. ^ Plutarch Lives: Lycurgus Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Chicago. (1990)pp.32-48
  7. ^ see the biography of Lycurgus in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
  8. ^ A commentary on Herodotus books I-IV By David Asheri, Alan B. Lloyd, Aldo Corcella, Oswyn Murray, Alfonso Moreno Page 127 ISBN 0198149565
  9. ^ "Relief Portraits of Lawgivers: Lycurgus." Architect of the Capitol
  10. ^ "Courtroom Friezes: North and South Walls: Information Sheet" Supreme Court of the United States

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

LYCURGUS (Gr. AuKoUvyos), in Greek history, the reputed founder of the Spartan constitution. Plutarch opens his biography of Lycurgus with these words: "About Lycurgus the lawgiver it is not possible to make a single statement that is not called in question. His genealogy, his travels, his death, above all, his legislative and constitutional activity have been variously recorded, and there is the greatest difference of opinion as to his date." Nor has modern historical criticism arrived at any certain results. Many scholars, indeed, suppose him to be in reality a god or hero, appealing to the existence of a temple and cult of Lycurgus at Sparta as early as the time of Herodotus, (i. E6), and to the words of the Delphic oracle (Herod. i. 65) ae Beov ,uavreuaoµac 'Pepunrov aXA' g Beov iA7roµac, Avrcoopye. If this be so, he is probably to be connected with the cult of Apollo Lycius or with that of Zeus Lycaeus. But the majority of modern historians agree in accepting Lycurgus as an historical person, however widely they may differ about his' work.

According to the Spartan tradition preserved by Herodotus, Lycurgus was a member of the Agiad house, son of Agis I. and brother of Echestratus. On the death of the latter he became regent and guardian of his nephew Labotas (Leobotes), who was still a minor. Simonides, on the other hand, spoke of him as a Eurypontid, son of Prytanis and brother of Eunomus, and later the tradition prevailed which made him the son of Eunomus and Dionassa, and half-brother of the king Polydectes, on whose death he became guardian of the young king Charillus. According to Herodotus he introduced his reforms immediately on becoming regent, but the story which afterwards became generally accepted and is elaborated by Plutarch represented him as occupying for some time the position of regent, then spending several years in travels, and on his return to Sparta carrying through his legislation when Charillus was king. This latter version helped to emphasize the disinterestedness of the lawgiver, and also supplied a motive for his travels - the jealousy of those who accused him of trying to supplant his nephew on the throne. He is said to have visited Crete, Egypt and Ionia, and some versions even took him to Spain, Libya and India.

Various beliefs were held as to the source from which Lycurgus derived his ideas of reform. Herodotus found the tradition current among the Spartans that they were suggested to Lycurgus by the similar Cretan institutions, but even in the 5th century there was a rival theory that he derived them from the Delphic oracle. These two versions are united by Ephorus, who argued that, though Lycurgus had really derived his system from Crete, yet to give it a religious sanction he had persuaded the Delphic priestess to express his views in oracular form.

The Reforms. - Herodotus says that Lycurgus changed "all the customs," that he created the military organization of ivw,uoriac (enomoties), Tpu7Kca €S (triecades) and avaairta (syssitia), and that he instituted the ephorate and the council of elders. To him, further, are attributed the foundation of the apella (the citizen assembly), the prohibition of gold and silver currency, the partition of the land ('yes avaSaaµos) into equal lots, and, in general, the characteristic Spartan training (c yw n yi). Some of these statements are certainly false. The council of elders and the assembly are not in any sense peculiar to Sparta, but are present in the heroic government of Greece as depicted in the Homeric poems. The ephors, again, are almost universally held to be either an immemorial heritage of the Dorian stock or - and this seems more probable - an addition to the Spartan constitution made at a later date than can be assigned to Lycurgus. Further, the tradition of the Lycurgan partition of the land is open to grave objections. Grote pointed out (History of Greece, pt. ii. ch. 6) that even from the earliest historical times we find glaring inequalities of property at Sparta, and that the tradition was apparently unknown to all the earlier Greek historians and philosophers down to Plato and Aristotle: Isocrates (xii. 259) expressly denied that a partition of land had ever taken place in the Spartan state. Again, the tradition presupposes the conquest by the Spartans of the whole, or at least the greater part, of Laconia. yet Lycurgus must fall in the period when the Spartans had not yet subjugated even the middle Eurotas plain, in which their city lay. Finally, we can point to an adequate explanation of the genesis of the tradition in the ideals of the reformers of the latter part of the 3rd century, led by the kings Agis IV. and Cleomenes III.. To them the cause of Sparta's decline lay in the marked inequalities of wealth, and they looked upon a redistribution of the land as the reform most urgently needed. But it was characteristic of the Greeks to represent the ideals of the present as the facts of the past, and so such a story as that of the Lycurgan -yijs avabaaµos may well have arisen at this time. It is at least noteworthy that the plan of Agis to give 4500 lots to Spartans and 15,000 to perioeci suspiciously resembles that of Lycurgus, in whose case the numbers are said to have been 9000 and 30,000 respectively. Lastly, the prohibition of gold and silver money cannot be attributed to Lycurgus, for at so early a period coinage was yet unknown in Greece.

Lycurgus, then, did not create any of the main elements of the Spartan constitution, though he may have regulated their powers and defined their position. But tradition represented him as finding Sparta the prey of disunion, weakness and lawlessness, and leaving her united, strong and subject to the most stable government which the Greek world had ever seen. Probably Grote comes near to the truth when he says that Lycurgus "is the founder of a warlike brotherhood rather than the lawgiver of a political community." To him we may attribute the unification of the several component parts of the state, the strict military organization and training which soon made the Spartan hoplite the best soldier in Greece, and above all the elaborate and rigid system of education which rested upon, and in turn proved the strongest support of, that subordination of the individual to the state which perhaps has had no parallel in the history of the world.

Lycurgus's legislation is very variously dated, and it is not possible either to harmonize the traditions or to decide with confidence between them. B. Niese (Hermes, xlii. 440 sqq.) assigns him to the first half of the 7th century B.C. Aristotle read Lycurgus's name, together with that of Iphitus, on the discus at Olympia which bore the terms of the sacred truce, but even if the genuineness of the document and the identity of this Lycurgus with the Spartan reformer be granted, it is uncertain whether the discus belongs to the so-called first Olympiad, 776 B.C., or to an earlier date. Most traditions place Lycurgus in the 9th century: Thucydides, whom Grote follows, dates his reforms shortly before 804, Isocrates and Ephorus go back to 869, and the chronographers are divided between 821, 828 and 834 B.C. Finally, according to a tradition recorded by Xenophon (Resp. Laced. x. 8), he was contemporary with the Heraclidae, in which case he would belong to the Toth century B.C.

Authorities. - Our chief ancient authorities, besides Plutarch's biography, are: - Herodotus i. 65; Xenophon, Respublica Lacedaemoniorum; Ephorus ap. Strabo x. 481, 482; Aristotle, Politics, ii.; Pausanias iii. and v. 4; and scattered passages in Plato, Isocrates, Polybius, Diodorus, Polyaenus, &c. Of modern works the most important are: E. Meyer, "Lykurgos von Sparta," in Forschungen zur alten Geschichte (Halle, 1892), i. 211 sqq.; A. Kopstadt, De rerum Laconicarum constitutionis Lycurgeae origine et indole (Greifswald, 1849); H. K. Stein, Kritik der Uberlieferung fiber den spartanischen Gesetzgeber Lykurg (Glatz, 1882) S. Wide, "Bemerkungen zur spartanischen Lykurglegende," in Skand. Archiv. i. (1891), 90 sqq.; E. Nusselt, Das Lykurgproblem (Erlangen, 1898); H. Bazin, De Lycurgo (Paris, 1885); C. Reuss, De Lycurgea quae fertur agrorum divisione (Pforzheim, 1878); A. Busson, Lykurgos and die grosse Rhetra (Innsbruck, 1887); H. Gelzer, "Lykurg and die delphische Priesterschaft" in Rhein. Mus. xxviii. I sqq. F. Winicker, Stand der Lykurgischen Frage (Graudenz, 1884); G. Attinger, Essai sur Lycurgue et ses institutions (Neuchatel, 1892); the general Greek histories, and the works on the Spartan constitution cited under SPARTA. (M. N. T.)

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