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Scholars generally agree in the judgment that Lycurgus was a real person. It is probable that he was born in the ninth century B.C., and that, in the later part of the same century (850-820), he was an important, if not the principal, agent in the reconstruction of the Dorian state of Sparta, in the Peloponnesus. According to Herodotus, he was the uncle of King Labotas, of the royal line of Eurysthenes. Others, whom Plutarch follows, describe him as the uncle and guardian of King Charilaus, and therefore in the line of Procles. Either way his mythical lineage would be traced to Hercules. We are able to find no trustworthy records of the circumstances of his birth, and of the incidents of his childhood and youth. Plutarch, with all his diligence, found nothing. Nor could he sift and blend the varying stories of his later life and so construct a consistent and credible narrative, O. Mueller says: "We have absolutely no account of him as an individual person."
Accordingly Lycurgus appears already in his maturity. We know what he was only from what he did. He has this imperishable honor, that he did something, and did it in such a manner and with such effect that the memory of him and his deeds has lasted until this late time, and bids fair to last throughout all time.
The following traditions concerning Lycurgus are commonly repeated. Polydectes, his brother, was king in Sparta. After the king's death a son was born to the widow. Lycurgus became his guardian and presented him to the magistrates as their future king. He was suspected by the queen's brother of a design to take the crown, and even of a purpose to destroy his infant nephew. Accordingly he went into exile. He remained some time in Crete, studying the institutions of the Dorian people of that island. He travelled extensively in Asia and was especially careful to observe the manners and customs of the Ionians. He found the poems of Homer, transcribed and arranged them, and caused them to be more generally known. The Egyptians claimed that he visited their country and derived much of his wisdom from them. Meanwhile the affairs of Sparta were in a critical condition and the king and the people alike desired his presence and his aid in restoring peace and renewing the prosperity of the community and the people of Laconia. Immediately upon his return he entered upon the work of framing a constitution and reconstructing the state. Notwithstanding much opposition and complaint from the classes obliged to make concessions and sacrifices for the common good, he secured the assent of the people to his legislation. Having seen the system in working order, he announced his purpose to leave the country for a period, and moved the citizens to take an oath that they would observe the laws until he should return. He departed to remain away to the end of his life, but first repaired to Delphi and obtained an oracle promising prosperity to the Spartans, so long as they should maintain faithfully the constitution.
Laconia was the southeastern portion of the peninsula. The soil was mainly mountain land and meagrely productive under toilsome and careful tillage. So much of it as was naturally fertile lay in the centre, shut in from the sea by the mountains. At the time of the Dorian immigration, it was occupied in part by the descendants of the old Pelasgian population and in part by a mixed people which had come in at different times and from various sources. Because of the limited area there was already considerable pressure between the several elements. Accordingly the Dorians and their Achaean and AEolian allies met with a stout resistance, and established themselves after an obstinate and long-continued struggle. They descended from the sources of the Eurotas and forced their way into the plains in the midst of the land. They seized the heights on the right bank of the river at a point where its channel is split by an island and it was most easy to cross the stream. The hill of Athene became the centre of the settlement. Their establishment in the land was a slow process. It is said Laconia was divided into six districts, with six capital cities, each ruled by a king. The immigrants were distributed among the inhabitants and lands were allotted to them, in return for which they recognized the authority of the kings and engaged to support them in power. They seem to have been adopted by the kings, as their kindred were in Crete, as the military guardians of their prerogatives. The result was inevitable. They who are intrusted to maintain power become conscious that it is really their own, take formal possession of it, and exercise it for their own ends.
Two leading families drew to themselves the central body of the Dorians, rallied the rest, gathered them all at one point, and made it the centre of the district and the seat of government. They were supported by families of common descent and recognized by the people of the land, who suffered no change in the circumstances of their life. These gave them homage, paid to them taxes, and united with their kindred in celebrating funeral rites at their tombs. Sparta became the capital of the whole country, while the former capitals became country towns.
But there were difficulties in the way of the new regime. There were conflicting claims between the two royal families. Both of them were in collision with families in all respects their equals as to lineage and rank. The older and newer elements of the mass of the population were mingled but not yet combined. Everywhere there was friction, with occasions enough for irritation and confusion. The descendants of the primitive races were attached to their ancient ways. The Dorians were not less, but more tenacious of their traditional customs. And they were conscious of their vantage and knew they were able to insist on their preferences. As the props of the royal houses they could hope to make terms with them, or withdraw and let them fall, or turn to cast them down. The kings were compelled, on the one hand, to exert themselves to hold in control a subject people, and, on the other, to check the headstrong Dorian warriors. There was danger of the disruption of the kingdom, a lapse into anarchy, the rise of opposing factions, and a conflict destructive alike and equally of the welfare of all classes of the people.
There was need of a statesman who could comprehend the problem, find a solution, commend it to the judgment of all classes, and gain their cordial consent to the renovation of the state upon a more equitable basis. He must be a man of large capacity, great attainments, thorough sincerity, earnest devotion, generous and self-sacrificing patriotism. He must have ability to conceive a high ideal, steadily contemplate it, and nevertheless consider the materials on which and the conditions under which he must do his work, maintain the sober judgment which discriminates between the ideal and the practicable, and exercise the rigid self-control which calmly renounces the best conceivable and resolutely attempts the best attainable. He must have regard to the ideas, sentiments, associations, sacred traditions, and immemorial customs of the several races and classes of the people. He must be prudently conservative and keenly cautious in shaping and applying new measures and methods. He must study and comprehend the inevitable oppositions of interests, and conceive modes of action which involve reasonable concessions accompanied by manifest compensations. He must ally himself with no party and yet command the confidence of all parties. Whatever prior advantage he may have had in the matters of birth, rank, and association, he must use to conciliate those who would be asked to make the largest apparent sacrifices, and so turn it to account for the benefit of those who might otherwise suspect and distrust him and fall away from his influence. He must be able to explain and commend the system he might devise, convince the several parties of its wisdom, persuade them to yield their preferences and accept the needful compromises, and move them to make a fair and full experiment of its provisions. Such a man was Lycurgus, if we may trust the persistent tradition that he was the framer of the new constitution and the second founder of the Dorian state of Sparta. From time to time the question has been raised, was the work of Lycurgus original or an imitation, shaped perhaps by his observations among the Dorian folk on the island of Crete? It does not matter what the answer shall be. The statesman who fitly adapts may be as wise and skilful as he who invents and creates. The man who loves his people, plans and labors for their good, will not peril their welfare by his experiments, disdaining the help of those who have wrought before him, and the guidance of his contemporaries in examples, the benign results of which he may have had opportunity to witness. The truth appears to be that Lycurgus had respect to the reverence of the people for the ancient ways, and retained as far as he was able the suitable elements of the primitive polity of the Homeric age. This was based on the Council of Chiefs or Elders and occasional meetings of an assembly of the people to listen and learn, to assent and give heed. From whatsoever sources he drew, he adapted the materials of his knowledge to the conditions under which his structure must be shaped, the circumstances under which it must get on its base and stand secure. Those who affirm the exemplary influence of the Cretan polity, hold fast to the tradition that Lycurgus visited the island and could not have failed to observe the features of society there, and could not have expelled from his mind the similarity of conditions among the two peoples and the expedients which the lawgiver of Crete had employed to meet and resolve the difficulties he encountered and secure the results he attained. It must, however, be remembered that similar peoples with common traditions and customs, under like circumstances may independently work out for themselves systems of society analogous in many particulars and varying only by adaptation to special conditions. If Lycurgus perceived what was suitable to the exigency, wrought it into a plan, moved the people to accept it, brought harmony out of discord, order out of confusion, contentment out of unrest, prosperity out of impending calamity, and rescued the commonwealth for the time, he deserved abundant honor and still deserves a permanent rank among the notable statesmen of the world.
The constitution was unwritten. Its provisions were expressed in forms known as Rhaetra. The kings were retained. Their power was a guaranty of unity. They maintained the continuity of civic life. Each was a check upon the other. They were held under restraint by the senate. Its composition and functions were now fixed. It met not only to deliberate and advise, but to perform judicial offices. In case of capital offences the kings sat with the elders, each having, with every other member, but a single vote. The members were thirty in number, one for each of the ten clans of each of the three tribes, the kings representing their clans and sitting as equals with equals, though presiding at the sessions. The elders must be of the age of sixty and upward, and were appointed for life. The ancient division of the people was preserved; the households were grouped in thirties, the thirties in clans, the clans in tribes. Their capital was Sparta. It was not a compact walled town. It stretched into the open country and Dorians lived along the entire valley of the Eurotas. Not only those dwelling at the ford of the river, but all were acknowledged as Spartans. The kings were required to summon the heads of the families in the assembly once every month. The place was designated. The session was brief. To encourage brevity there was no provision for seats, but the freemen stood. Elders and other public officers were chosen. Official persons made known new laws, declarations of war and peace and treaties. The people simply voted aye or nay. The decision was according to the volume of sound. The session closed with a military review.
The army: The Dorians had entered the land and held their place in it by force of arms. To maintain their power it was necessary to develop a military system and maintain a body of vigorous and able soldiers. All citizens were constituted guardians of the nation. To all their rights was attached the duty of military service. They composed a standing army. The valley became a camp. The men left their estates under the management of the women. The wife cared for the home, reared the young children, and superintended the laborers in the business of the farm. The soldier could not leave the valley or enter it without announcement. The older men visited their homes on "leave of absence," the younger by stealth at night. Emigration was desertion punishable by death. To have gold and silver was to risk the same penalty. The heavy iron money only could be held, and this was without value in foreign parts. The soldier was part of an animated machine. His simple duty was to obey. Speech was repressed. It became abrupt, brief, pithy. Relief was found at the Lesche, near the training-ground, where talk was often free and even merry. The whole aim of the discipline was to form the soldier. Marriage was delayed for the sake of vigorous offspring. The girls were trained for motherhood. They were subject to a system of athletic exercises, and engaged in contests of running, wrestling, and boxing. The boys were put under training at the age of eight years. They became accustomed to severe exercise, and were inured to patient and painful endurance. They were compelled to suffer hunger, thirst, cold, heat, and fatigue, and to bear torture without flinching or show of emotion. Their food was kept almost within the limits of war rations. To increase the amount and variety they were allowed to steal. But they were careful not to be detected, lest they should be severely punished. Likely this was a device for training them to stealthy and cautious movements. After the time of their maturity they continued gymnastic culture. They hunted the goats, boars, stags, and bears on the rugged heights of the Taygetus range. There was no system of liberal education; mental growth and development were not sought as ends. They were rather feared. Poetry and music were used to a limited degree, so far as they might be made conducive to forming the traits of the soldier.
While the Spartans were solely occupied in preparation for the art of war, it is evident there must have been a population as wholly given to the pursuit of the practical arts, or the community could not have existed. There were two classes of laborers. The Perioeci dwelt in the rural townships. They were mainly of the mixed population of the lands, but there were Dorians among them. They were freemen; they held lands, and enjoyed certain rights of local government, voting for their magistrates in their townships. More and more they were trained for military service and entered the ranks as heavy-armed infantry. Some of them were shepherds and herdsmen. From them came all the skilled workmen, who wrought in the quarries and mines, provided building materials, shaped iron implements, made woollen stuff and leathern wares. Their number was three times as great as that of the citizens of the capital city. But over all their townships the Spartans held sway through the kings, the senate, and the assembly. These facts exhibit the civil polity which became so common during Greek and Roman times, and obtained again in Italy after the fall of the empire and the barbarian invasions, up to the time of the Renaissance.
The Helots were a rural people dwelling on the lands of the Spartans which lay about the capital or in the Laconian towns. Some of them were in the country as villagers and rustics when the Dorians came. They remained upon their lands as they were before, but were forced to pay a part of the annual produce of barley, oil, and wine. Some of them were people made captive in the border wars. They were serfs. They were, however, wards of the state. No one could treat them as personal property. They could not be sold or given away. They belonged to the inventory of the farm. Their taxes were defined by law. More could not be exacted. They could not be harmed in person. They were of value to the state and therefore protected. More and more they were needed in the army, where they were respected and honored for energy and bravery. Grote says they were as happy as the peasantry of the most civilized and humane modern nations. They lived in their villages, enjoyed their homes and the companionship of their wives and children, and the common fellowship of their neighbors, with ample supply for their needs and comfort from the surplus product of their labor and apart from the eye of their masters. Still the Helot had in him the common sentiments of our nature. His state was servile and mean. It was not to be expected he would always remain content in his subjection to his superiors in social and civil life. More and more his discontent would menace the stability of the community. Especially when the exigencies of war should compel his rulers to place arms in his hands and enlist him for defence against the foreign foe, it would become necessary to keep close watch upon him and to use strong measures for the repression of his impulse toward freedom.
Judged by the highest standards, Lycurgus certainly did not form the Laconians into an ideal nationality. He set up a military sovereignty in the land, and this demanded that the citizens should be soldiers, live in the camp, and devote themselves solely to the art of war. It is likely he perceived the imperfections of the system, anticipated its reflex effect upon the character and manners of the Spartans, and foreknew its weakness and the consequent perils of the people when it should inevitably be put to stress and strain by the aspirations of the subject classes after freedom and social equality. Could he speak for himself, he would doubtless say, with Solon, that he had not done the best he knew but the best he could, that his constitution was provisional and suited to the time, and that it was designed to serve as a bridge over which his countrymen could cross a torrent and reach safely the solid ground on which they might securely stand to rearrange their polity and form themselves on a more equitable and generous basis into a real and happy commonwealth.