Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Before the Gracchi - Lycurgus of Sparta: Early Land Reformer and the Father of the Great Rhetra

Image: Lycurgus, his arm bearing his shield raised above his head enters the city in a gold chariot pulled by white bulls, his soldiers around him, and a young man running with white hounds in the left foreground. This graphite, pen and grey ink detailed watercolor heightened with touches of white bodycolor and gum arabic was produced in 1797. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Lycurgus was the quasi-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 promoted the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity and were contained in an oral constitution known as the Great Rhetra.

According to Herodotus, at some time before the reigns of Leon of Sparta and Agasicles about 590 BCE, the Spartans "had been the very worst governed people in Greece" until Lycurgus consulted the Delphic oracle and was provided with an entire constitution which Lycurgus took back and implemented. Lycurgus was the younger son of the Eurypontid king, Eunomus. He was thus passed over for the throne in favor of his brother, Polydectes, but the latter died. Although Lycurgus was offered the throne, his dead brother's wife was pregnant so Lycurgus became regent for the child when it was born. But Polydectes' wife and her relatives envied and hated Lycurgus and accused him of plotting the death of the infant, Charilaus.

So Lycurgus surrendered his position of authority and went on a legendary journey to Crete where he studied the laws of Minos and met the celebrated composer Thales, who, like Orpheus, could sooth the masses and inspire his listeners to become better people. From Crete, Lycurgus traveled to Asia Minor, Egypt, Spain, and, some say, even India. In Ionia he studied the lessons of statecraft and morality in the works of Homer and compiled fragments of them and expounded the lessons widely. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus was inspired by the Egyptians with the idea to separate the military from common laborers and this was the reason later Spartan warriors were not allowed to practice manual crafts. When Lycurgus was finally recalled to Sparta, he, like the Gracchi centuries later in Rome, prescribed land reforms to redistribute wealth more equally among Spartan citizens.

"For there was an extreme inequality among them, and their state was overloaded with a multitude of indigent and necessitous persons, while its whole wealth had centered upon a very few. To the end, therefore, that he might expel from the state arrogance and envy, luxury and crime, and those yet more inveterate diseases of want and superfluity, he obtained of them to renounce their properties, and to consent to a new division of the land, and that they should all live together on an equal footing; merit to be their only road to eminence." — Plutarch, Lycurgus.

Lycurgus was also credited with the development of the agoge for the education of children and the institution of common mess halls, the sussita, that required all Spartan men to eat together and provide the shared meals through the monthly contribution of a bushel of meal, eight gallons of wine, five pounds of cheese, two and half pounds of figs, and a small amount of money to purchase meat or fish. Even kings were not exempt from the daily ritual and expected contributions.

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