A Lives of Illustrious Men
Plutarch
(Excerpt) translated by A.H. Clough
Chapter 8

Lycurgus

Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, is credited with abolishing the established social system and founding the military state for which they are known. He is probably a legendary figure.

And this was the reason why he [Lycurgus] forbade them to travel abroad, and go about acquainting themselves with foreign rules of morality, the habits of ill-educated people, and different views of government. Withal he banished from Lacedæmon all strangers who would not give a very good reason for their coming thither; not because he was afraid lest they should inform themselves of and imitate his manner of government (as Thucydides says), or ]earn anything to their good; but rather lest they should introduce something contrary to good manners. With strange people, strange words must be admitted; these novelties produce novelties in thought; and on these follow views and feelings whose discordant character destroys the harmony of the state. He was as careful to save his city from the infection of foreign bad habits, as men usually are to prevent the introduction of a pestilence.

Hitherto I, for my part, see no sign of injustice or want of equity in the laws of Lycurgus, though some who admit them to be well contrived to make good soldiers. pronounce them defective in point of justice. The Cryptia, perhaps (if it were one of Lycurgus's ordinances, as Aristotle says it was), gave both him and Plato, too, this opinion alike of the lawgiver and his government. By this ordinance, the magistrates des- patched privately some of the ablest of the young men into the country, from time to time, armed only with their daggers, and taking a little necessary provision with them; in the daytime, they hid themselves in out- of-the-way places. and there lay close, but, in the night issued out into the highways, and killed all the Helots they could light upon: sometimes they set upon them by day, as they were at work in the fields, and murdered them. As, also, Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian war, tells us, that a good number of them, after being singled out for their bravery by the Spartans, garlanded, as enfranchised persons, and led about to all the temples in token of honors, shortly after disappeared all of a sudden, being about the number of two thousand, and no man either then or since could give an account how they came by their deaths And Aristotle. in particular, added that the ephori, so soon as they were entered into their office. used to declare war against them, that they might he massacred without a breach of religion. It is confessed. on all hands, that the Spartans dealt with them very hardly; for it was a common thing to force them to drink to excess, and to lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs, forbidding them expressly to meddle with any of a better kind. And accordingly, when the Thebans made their invasion into Laconia, and took a great number of the Helots, they could by no means persuade them to sing the verses of Terpander, Alcman, or Spendon, "For," said they, "the masters do not like it." So that it was truly observed by one, that in Sparta he who was free was most so, and he that was a slave there, the greatest slave in the world . . . .

From Plutarch. Lives of Illustrious Men (Lycurgus), A. H. Clough trans.

ResourceResearchReference


W.W. Norton
RESOURCE: World Civilizations
http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/ralph/workbook/ralprs7.htm
Page created by Thomas Pearcy, Ph.D and Mary Dickson.
Direct questions or comments to Webmaster.
Last revised February 4, 1997
Copyright (c) 1997. W. W. Norton Publishing. All Rights Reserved