Lycurgus (Greek: Λυκοῦργος, Lukoûrgos; 800 BC?–730 BC?) was the 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 were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality (among citizens), military fitness and austerity.
He is referred to by ancient historians Herodotus, Xenophon, Plato, Polybius, and Plutarch. It is not clear if this Lycurgus was an actual historical figure; however, many ancient historians believed Lycurgus was responsible for the communalistic and militaristic reforms which transformed Spartan society, the most major of which was known as the Great Rhetra. Ancient historians place him in the first half of the 7th century BC
Lycurgus was said to be a man who could lay down the supreme power easily out of respect for justice, so it was easy for Lycurgus to rule the Spartans in his capacity as the guardian of Charilaus. However, the young king's mother, and her relatives, envied and hated Lycurgus. Among other slanders, they accused Lycurgus of plotting the death of Charilaus.
Lycurgus finally decided that the only way that he might avoid blame in case something should happen to the child would be to go travelling until Charilaus had grown up and fathered a son to secure the succession. Therefore, Lycurgus gave up all of his authority and went to the island of Crete.
In Crete, Lycurgus met Thales the poet. Thales made his living as a musician at banquets, but in reality Thales was a teacher of civilization. Eventually, Lycurgus persuaded Thales to go to Sparta with his songs to prepare the people for the new way of life that he intended to introduce later.
Lycurgus had carefully studied the forms of government in Crete, and had picked out what might be useful for Sparta. He also travelled to Ionia, to study the difference between the pleasure-loving Ionians and the sober Cretans, as doctors study the difference between the sick and the healthy. Apparently he took this comparison to the Spartans, training one puppy in a disciplined manner and leaving the other to eat and play at will. The Spartans were taken by the discipline of Crete and liberties of Ionians at the same time.
In Ionia, Lycurgus discovered the works of Homer. Lycurgus compiled the scattered fragments of Homer and made sure that the lessons of statecraft and morality in Homer's epics became widely known. The Egyptians claim that Lycurgus visited them too, and that it was from the Egyptians that he got the idea of separating the military from the menial workers, thus refining Spartan society.
After Lycurgus had been absent for a while, the Spartans wrote and begged Lycurgus to come back. As they admitted, only Lycurgus was really a king in their heart, although others wore a crown and claimed the title. He had the true foundation of sovereignty: a nature born to rule, and a talent for inspiring obedience. Even the Spartan kings wanted Lycurgus to return because they saw him as one who could protect them from the people.
Lycurgus had already decided that some fundamental changes would have to be made in Sparta. When he returned, he did not merely tinker with the laws, but instead followed the example of the wisest ephors to implement incremental change.
First, however, Lycurgus went to the oracle at Delphi to ask for guidance. The oracle told Lycurgus that his prayers had been heard and that the state which observed the laws of Lycurgus would become the most famous in the world. With such an endorsement, Lycurgus went to the leading men of Sparta and enlisted their support.
He began with his closest friends, then these friends widened the conspiracy by bringing in their own friends. When things were ripe for action, thirty of them appeared at dawn in the marketplace, fully armed for battle. At first, Charilaus thought they meant to kill him, and he ran for sanctuary in a temple, but eventually he joined the conspirators when he found out that all they wanted was to make sure there would be no opposition to the reforms Lycurgus had in mind.
The first reform instituted by Lycurgus was a senate of twenty-eight men, who would have a power equal to the two royal houses of Sparta. The people had the right to vote on important questions, but the senate decided when a vote would be taken. As Plutarch puts it, a senate "allays and qualifies the fiery genius of the royal office" and gives some stability and safety to the commonwealth, like the ballast in a ship. Before, Sparta had oscillated between the extremes of democracy and tyranny: anarchy and dictatorship. With the addition of the senate, which resisted both extremes, the government became stable and the people and their rulers respected each other.
Some further refinements of the Spartan constitution came after Lycurgus. It turned out that sometimes the public speakers would pervert the sense of propositions and thus cause the people to vote foolishly, so the senate reserved the right to dissolve the assembly if they saw this happening.
A hundred and thirty years after the death of Lycurgus, a council of five ephors took executive power from the kings. When King Theopompus, in whose reign the ephors were established, was scolded by his wife for leaving his son less royal power than he had inherited, he replied: "No, it is greater, because it will last longer." With their decision-making power reduced, the Spartan kings were freed of the jealousy of the people. They never went through what happened in nearby Messene and Argos, where the kings held on so tight to every last bit of power that in the end they wound up losing it all.
Lycurgus is not credited with the formation of many Spartan institutions integral to the country's rise to power. but he created the sussita/syssitia, the practice that required all Spartan men to eat together in common messhalls. His most important addition to Spartan culture was the development of the agoge. The infamous practice took all healthy seven year old boys from the care of their mothers and placed them in a rigorous military regiment. Lycurgus is prescribed with forbidding the use of any tools other than an axe and saw in the building of a house. This practice was consistent with Spartan moderateness in that it prevented the walls and ceilings of the home from being excessively embellished or superfluous, thus discouraging citizens from further adorning their homes with extravagant furniture or other decorations.
According to the legend found in Plutarch's Lives and other sources, when Lycurgus became confident in his reforms, he announced that he would go to the oracle at Delphi to sacrifice to Apollo. However before leaving for Delphi he called an assembly of the people of Sparta and made everyone, including the kings and senate, take an oath binding them to observe his laws until he returned. He made the journey to Delphi and consulted the oracle, which told him that his laws were excellent and would make his people famous. He then disappeared from history. One explanation was that being satisfied by this he starved himself to death instead of returning home, forcing the citizens of Sparta by oath to keep his laws indefinitely.. He later enjoyed a hero-cult in Sparta.
Bertrand Russell states that he is a mythical person of Arcadian origin - his name meaning 'He who brings into being the works of a wolf.'
Lycurgus is depicted in several U.S. government buildings because of his legacy as a lawgiver. Lycurgus is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol The bas-relief was sculpted by Carl Paul Jennewein. Lycurgus is also depicted on the frieze on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
A Spartan legislator of whose personal history we have no certain information; and there are such discrepancies respecting him in the ancient writers that many modern critics have denied his real existence altogether. The more generally received account about him was as follows: Lycurgus was the son of Eunomus, king of Sparta, and brother of Polydectes. The latter succeeded his father as king of Sparta, and afterwards died, leaving his queen with child. The ambitious woman proposed to Lycurgus to destroy her offspring if he would share the throne with her. He seemingly consented; but when she had given birth to a son (Charilaüs), he openly proclaimed him king, and as next of kin acted as his guardian. But to avoid all suspicion of ambitious designs, with which the opposite party charged him, Lycurgus left Sparta, and set out on his celebrated travels, which had been magnified to a fabulous extent. He is said to have visited Crete, and there to have studied the wise laws of Minos. Next he went to Ionia and Egypt, and is reported to have penetrated into Libya, Iberia, and even India. In Ionia he is said to have met either with Homer himself, or at least with the Homeric poems, which he introduced into the mother-country. The return of Lycurgus to Sparta was hailed by all parties. Sparta was in a state of anarchy and turbulence, and he was considered as the man who alone could cure the growing diseases of the State. He undertook the task; yet before he set to work he strengthened himself with the authority of the Delphic oracle and with a strong party of influential men at Sparta. The reform seems not to have been carried altogether peaceably. The new division of the land among the citizens must have violated many existing interests. But all opposition was overborne, and the whole constitution, military and civil, was remodelled. After Lycurgus had obtained for his institutions an approving oracle of the national god of Delphi, he exacted a promise from the people not to make any alterations in his laws before his return, and then he left Sparta to finish his life in voluntary exile, in order that his countrymen might be bound by their oath to preserve his constitution inviolate forever. Where and how he died nobody could tell. He vanished from the earth like a god, leaving no traces behind him but his spirit; and he was honoured as a god at Sparta with a temple and yearly sacrifices down to the latest times. The date of Lycurgus is variously given, but it is impossible to place it later than B.C. 825. Lycurgus was regarded through all subsequent ages as the legislator of Sparta, and therefore almost all the Spartan institutions were ascribed to him as their author. See Sparta.