1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lycurgus (Spartan Lawgiver)

LYCURGUS (Gr. Λυκοῦργος), 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. 66), and to the words of the Delphic oracle (Herod. i. 65)—

δίζω ἤ σε θεὸν μαντεύσομαι ἤ ἄνθρωπον.
ἀλλ᾿ ἔτι καὶ μᾶλλον θεὸν ἔλπομαι, ὦ Λυκόοργε.

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 ἐνωμοτίαι (enomoties), τριηκάδες (triecades) and συσσίτια (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 (γῆς ἀναδασμός) into equal lots, and, in general, the characteristic Spartan training (ἀγωγή). 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. (q.v.). 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 γῆς ἀναδασμός 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 10th 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 Überlieferung über 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 und die grosse Rhetra (Innsbruck, 1887); H. Gelzer, “Lykurg und die delphische Priesterschaft” in Rhein. Mus. xxviii. 1 sqq.; F. Winicker, Stand der Lykurgischen Frage (Graudenz, 1884); G. Attinger, Essai sur Lycurgue et ses institutions (Neuchâtel, 1892); the general Greek histories, and the works on the Spartan constitution cited under Sparta.  (M. N. T.)