Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


There is so much uncertainty about the life of Lycurgus, the law-giver of Sparta, that circumstances related by one historian are often contradicted or differently represented by all the others. No two agree as to the date of his birth, his voyages, or the manner of his death. One reason for this disagreement is that there were two men in Sparta at different periods named Lycurgus. The earlier one, of whom we write, lived not long after Homer, and some of the exploits of the later Lycurgus are often confused with his. However, we shall be careful to present only such facts as are given by the most reliable authors. It must be borne in mind that the capital of Laconia was sometimes called Sparta and sometimes Lacedæmon. The names are used indiscriminately, both meaning the same city.

The most renowned of all the ancestors of Lycurgus was Soüs, who, while king of the Lacedæmonians, gained a tract of land called Helos. He reduced the inhabitants to slavery, and from that time all the slaves that the Lacedæmonians captured in their wars were called by the general name of Helots.

A remarkable story is told of Soüs, which is worth repeating, because it gives an example of wonderful self-control. He was once besieged by the Clitorians in a barren spot where it was impossible to get fresh water. This occasioned the soldiers so much suffering that Soüs was forced to appeal to the besiegers, and he agreed to restore to them all he had conquered providing that he and his men should drink of a neighboring spring. The Clitorians, thinking that they had nothing to lose and much to gain, readily acceded to the terms. Then Soüs assembled his forces and offered his entire kingdom to any man among them who would forbear to drink; but they were so thirsty that they scarcely paid any heed to the offer, and eagerly partook of the cool, refreshing water. When all were satisfied, Soüs approached the spring, and, in the presence of his own soldiers and those of the enemy, merely sprinkled his face; then, without allowing a drop of water to enter his mouth, looked around with an air of triumph, and loudly declared that, since all his army had not drunk, the articles of the agreement were unfulfilled. Thus the country remained in his possession.

When the father of Lycurgus died, his eldest son, Polydectes, succeeded to the throne of Sparta, but he lived only a few months, and at his death it was unanimously agreed that Lycurgus should be king. But it so happened that a short time after her husband died the widow of Polydectes gave birth to a son, when Lycurgus, being too just to deprive the child of his right, presented him to the magistrates, and said, "Spartans, behold your new-born king!" He then placed the infant in the chair of state and named him Charilaus.

Lycurgus acted as guardian of the little king, and was for many months the real ruler of Sparta; but in course of time the friends and relations of the queen-mother became jealous of his power, and complained because they thought they did not receive proper consideration. They went further, and accused Lycurgus of desiring the death of Charilaus in order that he might ascend the throne. This, and various other accusations which they brought against him, so aroused the suspicions of the people that Lycurgus determined to go away, and not return until his nephew had reached manhood. So, in indignation that any one should believe him capable of such baseness, he set sail with the intention of visiting different countries and studying their various forms of government.

The first place he landed at was Crete, where he became acquainted with one Thales, a poet and musician, renowned for his learning and for his political abilities. Thales wrote poems which he set to music, exhorting people to obedience and virtue, and so effective were they that private quarrels were often ended, and peace and order restored by their influence, and Thales had in consequence become a most important and useful person. He and Lycurgus were soon warm friends, and the latter persuaded him to go to Sparta, where, by means of his melodies, he did much towards civilizing the inhabitants.

Lycurgus travelled on, only stopping long enough in each country to find out what was better or worse in its institutions than in those of his native land. While on this journey he first saw some of Homer's poetry, which he admired so much that he introduced it wherever it was not known.

Although Lycurgus remained away from Sparta several years, he was very much missed, and his countrymen frequently sent ambassadors to entreat him to return. They compared their condition with what it had been under his rule, and were convinced that he had a genius for governing, whereas Charilaus was only a king in name. In course of time public affairs went from bad to worse, and then the king himself expressed a wish to have Lycurgus back. When this was made known to the traveller he no longer hesitated.

Lycurgus saw at once, on his arrival in Sparta, that no sort of patching up would restore the government to its proper state, and the only way to remedy the evil condition of public affairs was to begin at the very foundation and frame an entirely new set of laws. The first step he took was to visit the oracle at Delphi, where he offered a sacrifice and asked advice. The priestess called him the "beloved of the gods," and, in answer to his request that he might be inspired to enact good laws, assured him that Apollo had heard him, and promised that the constitution he should establish would be the wisest and best in the whole world. This was so encouraging that Lycurgus went to his friends and to all the prominent men of Sparta and begged them to assist him in his undertaking. They consented, and when his plans were completed Lycurgus requested thirty of the best-known Spartans to meet him at break of day in the market-place, well armed and prepared to attack any one who should oppose him. Such a tumult arose when the new form of government was announced that King Charilaus became alarmed, and thought there was a conspiracy against his person. So he rushed to the Temple of Minerva of the Brazen Horse for safety. There Lycurgus and his party followed, and explained their intentions so satisfactorily that the king was easily won over to their side.

The most important feature of the new government was the establishment of a senate, whose duty it should be to prevent the king on one hand, and the people on the other, from assuming too much control. After this was accomplished a difficult task presented itself in the new division of the land, which was all owned by a few wealthy men of Sparta. Lycurgus considered this a bad state of affairs, but it required a great deal of discussion and persuasion before he could convince these land-owners to part with their estates. He succeeded, however, and nine thousand lots were distributed among as many citizens of Sparta. Then the country of Laconia was divided into thirty thousand equal shares for her citizens. After that, all being rich and poor alike, the only distinction a man could hope for was in acts of virtue. Once when Lycurgus was travelling through the country at harvest-time he smiled to see how equal were the stacks of grain on each division of land, and said, "Laconia looks like a large family estate distributed among a number of brothers."

To divide movables was such an impossible matter that the law-giver had to resort to stratagem to accomplish this. He made gold and silver coin worthless, and substituted iron instead; but it was so heavy and bulky that a whole roomful was not very valuable, and a yoke of oxen was required to remove a small sum. This put an end to robbery, for it was difficult to steal enough of such money to make the crime an object, and impossible to conceal a large sum. Another peculiarity of the iron coin was that it prevented the Spartans from making purchases of their neighbors, who laughed at it, and would not receive it in exchange for their wares. Hence the Spartans were forced to manufacture whatever they needed, so they turned their attention to the production of such useful articles as tables, chairs, and beds, and were willing to dispense with luxuries. Finding that very little money was required for necessities, the Spartans were easily satisfied, and had no reason to covet wealth. This was a state of affairs that Lycurgus particularly desired. Wandering fortune-tellers and venders of trashy trinkets ceased their visits to a country that had undesirable money, and as such people do more harm than good, their absence was an advantage.

Public tables were introduced, and did more than any other institutions of the law-giver in placing the citizens on a more equal footing, by forcing every man to partake of the same description and quality of food as his neighbor. In no circumstance would it do for any one to take a private meal beforehand, even though he made his appearance afterwards at the public table, for a person with a poor appetite was suspected and accused of being dainty and effeminate, and that no Spartan could stand. But the men who had been wealthy objected to eating what Lycurgus prescribed, and one day they collected in the market-place and attacked him with abusive language, which they followed up by throwing stones. Finding that he was in danger, Lycurgus ran for a sanctuary, but he was pursued by a young man named Alcander, who overtook him and struck him such a violent blow in the face with a stout stick as to put out one of his eyes. Lycurgus did not attempt to resent his injury, but turned towards the rest of his tormentors, who, at the sight of his horrible condition, with his face streaming with blood, were so repentant and ashamed that they placed Alcander in his hands for punishment, and conducted Lycurgus to his home with great care and tenderness.

The law-giver thanked them for assisting him, and then dismissed all excepting Alcander, whom he took into his house. No word of reproach or ill treatment of any sort awaited the offender. The usual servants and attendants were sent away, and Alcander was ordered to wait upon Lycurgus instead. This he did without a murmur, because he was sorry for the dreadful injury he had done, and knew that he deserved punishment. Day by day his admiration of Lycurgus increased, and he constantly spoke to his friends of the goodness, the temperance, the industry, and the gentleness of the man he had once deemed proud and severe. Alcander knew that he could not do better than to imitate his master, and by so doing he became a wise, prudent citizen. In memory of his accident Lycurgus built a temple to Minerva, and to prevent the recurrence of such violence, the Lacedæmonians made it a rule never to carry sticks to their public assemblies.

Now we must give a description of the public dining-tables. Fifteen persons sat at a table, each being obliged to furnish monthly a bushel of meal, eight gallons of wine, five pounds of cheese, two pounds and a half of figs, and a little money to buy meat and fish. Any man who offered a sacrifice of first fruits, or killed a deer, had the privilege of eating at home for one day, providing he sent part of the venison to the public table. Besides repressing luxury, these assemblages for dining had another object: they were a kind of school for the young, where they were instructed in state affairs by learned statesmen, who discoursed while eating. Conversation was encouraged among the diners, who chatted freely and made jests, though they were always exceedingly careful not to hurt one another's feelings, that being considered ill bred.

The first time a youth entered the eating-place, the oldest citizen present would say, pointing to the door, "Not a word spoken in this company goes out there." This gave freedom to the conversation, and taught the young not to repeat what they heard. The manner of admitting a candidate to a particular table was as follows: each man who occupied a seat at it took a bit of soft bread and rolled it into a little ball, which he silently dropped into a vessel carried around for that purpose by a waiter. This vessel was called Caddos. If the candidate was desired, the shape of the ball was preserved by the person who made it, but if, for any reason, he preferred somebody else, the ball was flattened before being deposited in the Caddos. One flattened ball was sufficient to exclude an applicant, and such being the case, the fifteen men who occupied each table were always acceptable to one another. A rejected person was said to have ill luck with the Caddos.

The Lacedæmonians drank wine in moderation, and only at the public table; at the conclusion of the meal they went home in the dark. Their reason for not carrying lanterns was that they might accustom themselves to march boldly without light, and thus be prepared for midnight forays against an enemy.

It is remarkable that none of the laws made by Lycurgus were put into writing; indeed, he particularly enjoined that they should not be. He preferred rather to educate people to proper habits than to enforce them by writing. He said that matters of importance would have more weight if they were woven into the actions of everyday life, and imprinted on the hearts of the young by wise discipline and good example. Even for business contracts no writing was deemed necessary; the idea being so to educate men that their judgment would become sufficiently correct to enable them to adhere to an agreement or alter it as time and circumstances might require.

One of the laws of Lycurgus required the ceilings of the houses be wrought with no tool but an axe, and the doors and gates be only so smooth as a saw could make them. This was to prevent extravagance and luxury, for in a house so roughly constructed a man would not be likely to place bedsteads with silver feet, showy drapery, or gold and silver cups and salvers. Such costly articles would seem out of place; plain, substantial ones were selected in preference. So accustomed did the Spartans become to simplicity that when Leotychidas, one of their kings, was entertained in a room at Corinth where the ceilings and door-posts were richly carved, he asked whether the trees of that country grew like that. It is not probable that the question arose from ignorance, but the king had learned to sneer at such sumptuous and expensive buildings as he saw at Corinth.

Lycurgus thought the good education of the Spartan youth the noblest part of his work, and required girls as well as boys to take plenty of exercise in the open air, such as running, wrestling, and throwing quoits, that they might become strong and healthy. Every child was regarded as the property of the state, so it was carried, soon after birth, to a place called Lesche to be examined by certain elders, who decided its fate. If it were found to be well-formed and healthy, an order was given for its rearing, and a portion of land set apart for its maintenance. But a puny or deformed baby was thrown into a chasm, for the Spartans would have no weaklings. Their object was to build up a martial race, and they did not see, as we do, that people whose bodies are not strong often become the most valuable members of the human family.

Those children that were permitted to live were nursed with the greatest care, not tenderly, but with a view to making them robust. Their clothing was loose, their food coarse and plain; they were not afraid to be left alone or in the dark, nor were they permitted to indulge ill humor or to cry at trifles. The Lacedæmonian nurses were so famous that people of other countries often purchased them for their children.

No tutors or nurses were obtained in that way for Spartan children, nor were their parents at liberty to educate them as they pleased. For at the age of seven they were enrolled in companies, and all subjected to the same discipline, performing their tasks and enjoying their recreations in common. The boy who showed most courage was made captain of the company, and the rest had to obey his orders implicitly and submit without a murmur to the punishments he inflicted. Old men were always present at the games, and often suggested some reason for a quarrel, in order that they might study the characters of the different boys and see which were brave and which cowardly. A slight knowledge of reading and writing was all that was required; but a Spartan youth was taught to endure pain, and to conquer in battle; as he advanced in years the severity of his discipline was increased, his head was shaved, he wore no shoes or stockings, and no clothing whatever when at play.

After reaching the age of twelve the boys discarded underclothing, which up to that time they were permitted to wear, and one coat a year was allotted to each. Bathing was not considered a necessity, and in order to render the skin hard and tough it was indulged in only on specified days at rare intervals. The Spartan boys slept together, forming themselves into bands and assisting each other in breaking and gathering the rushes of which their beds were composed. They were allowed to use no tools, their bare hands being considered sufficient for the work. In winter they added thistle-down to their rushes for warmth. They were constantly and carefully watched by the older men of the nation, and promptly punished for neglect of duty.

The bands were selected by the ablest and best citizen, who was appointed for that purpose. He governed them all, selected a captain for each, and exercised a general supervision over them. The captains were chosen from among the Irens, as those who had reached the age of twenty were called, bravery, good temper, and self-control being the necessary qualifications. The position, therefore, was considered one of high honor. It was the captain's duty to command in battle; but in time of peace he was waited on by the members of his band, who obeyed his orders implicitly. The older ones did the hard work, such as fetching logs of wood, while to the younger and weaker ones fell the duty of gathering salads, herbs, meats, or any other food, as best they could, even though it became necessary to steal it. For this purpose they would creep into the gardens or sneak into the eating-houses which chanced to be left unguarded, and help themselves. If caught in the act, these youths were whipped unmercifully for their awkwardness. Their supper was purposely made such a scant meal that they were encouraged to steal from actual hunger. This was done as an exercise of courage and address, for if a youth could not steal or beg food he had to suffer the pangs of hunger. Fortunately for the morals of the Spartan boys, they had no need of riches or luxury, consequently their thefts were limited to the requirements of their stomachs. This was bad enough, but the object was to render children who were destined for war expert in escaping the watchfulness of an enemy, and to accustom them to expose themselves to the severest punishment in case of detection. Another reason for feeding them so sparingly was to make them tall and pliant, rather than short and fat.

The Spartan boys performed their stealing so earnestly that one of them having hidden a young fox under his cloak suffered the animal to tear out his very bowels, choosing rather to die on the spot than be detected and accused of awkwardness. This story might appear incredible in any other nation, but Plutarch assures us that he himself saw several Lacedæmonian youths whipped to death at the foot of the altar of Diana, on which their blood was sprinkled as a sacrifice. All the institutions of Lycurgus tended towards excessive self-control, by which he desired to render Spartans superior to other human beings.

It was the custom of the Iren to spend some time with the boys every evening after supper, when he would test their wits and find out which were the bright and which the stupid ones. For example: one boy was ordered to sing a song, and was expected to comply instantly whether he chose or not. Another was asked who was the best man in the city, or what he thought of the various actions of such and such men. The object of these questions was not only to encourage the boys in forming opinions, but also to oblige them to inform themselves as to the defects and abilities of their countrymen. If a boy was not prepared with an answer he was considered dull and indifferent, and supposed to be wanting in a proper sense of virtue and honor. A good reason had to be given, in as few words as possible, for every statement made, and if it were not clear and sensible the boy had his thumb bitten by his captain. This was done in the presence of the old men and magistrates, who expressed no opinions in the presence of the boys, but as soon as they were gone reproved the Iren if he had been too severe or too indulgent.

The art of talking was so cultivated that the boys became sharp and quick at repartee. Indeed, it was the aim of every Lacedæmonian to condense a deal of sense into as few words as possible. Lycurgus set the example, as the anecdotes related about him prove.

On being questioned as to why he allowed such mean and trivial sacrifices to the gods, he replied, "That we may always have something to offer them." When asked what sort of martial exercises he preferred, he said, "All, excepting those in which you stretch out your hands." That attitude meant a demand for quarter in battle. Lycurgus was once consulted by letter as to how his countrymen might best oppose an invasion of their enemies. His answer was, "By continuing poor, and not coveting each man to be greater than his fellow." When asked whether the city ought not to be enclosed by a wall, he wrote, "The city is well fortified which hath a wall of men instead of brick."

King Charilaus was once asked why Lycurgus had made so few laws: he replied, "Men of few words require few laws." It was said by a learned Spartan in defence of another, who had been admitted to one of the public repasts and had observed profound silence throughout, "He who knows how to speak knows also when to speak." A troublesome, impertinent fellow asked one of the wise men four or five times, "Who was the best man in Sparta?" and got for his answer, "He that is least like you." An orator of Athens declared that the Lacedæmonians had no learning. "True," answered one who was present, "for we are the only people of Greece that have learnt no ill of you." These are enough examples to show how chary the Spartans were of their words.

Music and poetry were cultivated to a great extent, and the songs were such as to excite enthusiasm and inspire men to fight. They were always simple in their expression, serious and moral in their tone; often they were praises of such men as had died in defence of their country, declaring them to be happy and glorified, or they were written to ridicule cowards, who chose rather to drag out a life which was regarded with contempt than seek glory on the field of battle.

At no time was the discipline of the Spartans less severe than when they were engaged in a war. Then they were permitted to have fine clothes and costly armor, and to curl their hair, of which they had a great quantity. They were particular about the arrangement of this ornament, because the law-giver had said that a large head of hair added beauty to a good face and terror to an ugly one. During their campaigns they were better fed and forced to exercise less severely than in time of peace, and their whole treatment was so much more indulgent that they were never better satisfied than when under military rule. They went to battle dancing and keeping step to the music without disturbing their ranks. They were gay, cheerful, and so eager that they resembled race-horses full of fire and neighing for the start. When the king advanced against the enemy, he was always surrounded by those who had been crowned at the public games. Spartans considered it such a favor to be so placed in battle, that one of them, who had gained a difficult victory in an Olympic game, upon being asked what reward he expected, since he would not accept money as other combatants did, replied, "I shall have the honor to fight foremost in the ranks before my prince."

When they had routed an enemy they continued in pursuit until they were assured of the victory, but no longer, for they deemed it unworthy of a Grecian to destroy those who did not resist. This manner of dealing with their enemies was not only magnanimous, but was wise, for their opponents often gave up the fight and fled, knowing that their lives would be spared as soon as they did so. Lycurgus made great improvements in the art of war, and proved himself a brave, competent commander.

He made Lacedæmon resemble one great camp, where each person had his share of provisions and his occupation marked out. Even a man advanced in years could not live according to his own fancy, for he had always to consider the interest of his country before his own. If nothing else was required of him, he watched the boys in the performance of their exercises, and taught them something useful. Lycurgus forbade his people to engage in any mechanical trade, consequently they had plenty of leisure. They required no money, and thought that time devoted to the accumulation of wealth was sinfully wasted. The Helots tilled the ground and did all the menial work which a Lacedæmonian freeman considered beneath his dignity.

Lawsuits ceased, because there was no silver or gold to dispute about, and everybody's wants were supplied without any anxiety on his part. When not engaged in war, the Spartans spent their time in dancing, feasting, hunting, exercises, and conversation, and they were taught to believe that there was nothing more unworthy than to live by themselves or for themselves. They gathered about their commander, and devoted themselves entirely to the welfare of their country, esteeming no honor so great as that of being selected as a member of the senate. This is not remarkable when we remember that it was only the wisest and best of the citizens who were chosen, and only those who could count sixty years of honorable life.

With regard to burials Lycurgus made some wise rules. He tried to lessen superstition by ordering the dead to be buried within the city, and even near the temples, so that the young might become accustomed to seeing dead bodies without fearing them, and that they might touch them or tread upon a grave without fancying themselves defiled thereby. Nothing was allowed to be put into the ground with a corpse except a few olive-leaves and the scarlet cloth in which it was wrapped. Only the names of such men as fell in war, and of such women as died in sacred offices, were inscribed on the graves. Eleven days were devoted to mourning, which terminated on the twelfth day by a sacrifice to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture.

Travelling abroad was forbidden, because Lycurgus did not wish his people to adopt the bad habits and manners of the ill-educated, and, for the same reason, all strangers who could not give a good account of themselves, and a sensible reason for coming to Sparta, were banished.

It seems strange that a man who thought so much of honesty and valor as Lycurgus did should have allowed the Helots to be used with injustice, but such was the fact. The Lacedæmonians treated these poor slaves, who performed for them all the menial offices that they were too proud to stoop to themselves, with positive cruelty. Everything about the downtrodden Helots indicated that they were in bondage. Their dress, their manners, their gestures, all their surroundings, differed from those of their masters. They wore dog-skin bonnets and sheep-skin vests; they were forbidden to study art or to perform any act that was not menial; once a day they received a certain number of stripes, whether they deserved punishment or not, merely to remind them that they were slaves. If they dared, even in the most trivial matter, to imitate their masters, they were made to suffer for the offence, and sometimes they were actually murdered in cold blood by the Lacedæmonian young men. Other shameful cruelties were practised upon them, which it is not necessary to recount.

After Lycurgus had got his ordinances into working order, and was satisfied that the government was firmly established on the principles he had introduced, he felt so pleased that he wanted to do something to make it last forever. Having thought out a plan, he called an assembly of the people, and when they had gathered in large numbers he told them that, although the happiness and well-being of the state seemed assured, there was one very important matter that needed attention, but he did not wish to mention it until he had consulted the oracle. He then begged them to continue to observe the laws strictly, without the slightest alteration, until his return, promising that he would act precisely as the gods should direct. Everybody consented, and urged him to set out at once on his journey. This did not satisfy Lycurgus, however; he needed more binding assurance; and for that purpose the senate, as well as all those in authority, were required to take a solemn oath that they would abide by the laws and maintain them until his return. That done, he departed for Delphi.

On his arrival he offered a sacrifice to the god, and asked whether the laws he had established were acceptable. The reply was that they were excellent, and that so long as they were observed Sparta would be the most glorious city of the world. Having sent this flattering announcement of the Delphic Apollo to Sparta in writing, the law-giver resolved to put an end to his existence, hoping thereby to compel his countrymen to be faithful to their oath for an indefinite period. He therefore starved himself to death, for he considered it a statesman's duty to set an example of heroism, even in his exit from the world.

The oath that Lycurgus had exacted before his departure for Delphi was religiously observed, and Sparta retained her position as the chief city of Greece for five hundred years in consequence. During that period fourteen kings succeeded one another to the throne, but no change was made in the laws until the reign of Agis, who restored gold and silver money, which encouraged avarice and its attending evils. This is not the Agis whose life forms part of this volume, but one of his early ancestors.

The body of Lycurgus was burned at Crete, and the ashes were scattered into the sea. He had requested this, because he feared that if any part of himself went back to Sparta the people would consider themselves released from their oath. A temple was erected in honor of the law-giver, and sacrifices were yearly offered to him by his grateful and loving countrymen.