Episode 3: The Life of Lycurgus

Lycurgus was the man who gave Sparta it’s laws and transformed it into a polis like no other – a warrior-society which would produce the most fearsome soldiers of the Ancient World.  Welcome to Episode 3!

Checkout the full episode below.

Episode 3

Excerpt from today’s Episode

Ryan:  So today we are going to take on the life of Lycurgus, the legendary law-giver of Sparta.  And when we are talking about Lycurgus we are still pretty firmly in the realm of legend, rather than history.  We are getting closer to history in my opinion but not quite there yet.  Plutarch starts his Life of Lycurgus by saying quote:

“There is so much uncertainty in the accounts which historians have left us of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, that scarcely anything is asserted by one of them which is not called into question or contradicted by the rest”

So that’s a bit of a depressing note to start with

Chris:  Haha yeah

Ryan:  The historian Paul Cartledge isn’t sure if Lycurgus was a flesh-and-blood person at all and suggests the possibility that Lycurgus was in essence a, “reified projection of Apollo, under whose divine guarantee ‘his’ laws were placed”  Cartledge points out that the name Lykourgos translates as ‘wolf-worker’ and that one of the many epithets applied to the god Apollo was ‘wolfish’.

Herodotus, the 5th century BC Greek father or history, doesn’t really help us clear up the exact status of Lycurgus either.  He mentions Lycurgus somewhat briefly in a bit of a sidebar from his main narrative saying:

“the Lacedaemonians had been the worst governed people in the whole of Greece: domestically speaking, their affairs had been a disgrace, while as for external affairs – well – they had simply refused to have any dealings with foreigners at all…It happened that Lycurgus, a man who was much esteemed among the Spartans, went to consult the oracle in Delphi, and no sooner had he entered the shrine than the Pythia began to address him:  ‘Here you are, Lycurgus, come to my rich temple, Dear to Zeus and to all who dwell on Olympus.  Are you man or god?  That is more than I can tell, But on balance I think you must be a god, Lycurgus.’ “

So Herodotus’ story about Lycurgus doesn’t make clear if Lycurgus is a man or a god – but he does go on to say that he introduced major reform to the Spartan constitution, took measures to ensure the changes would take hold, and left the entire constitution greatly improved.  So much improved that after his death the Spartans revered him and raised a temple in his honour.

Chris:  Hmmm interesting – constitutional reform sounds like the action of a man, but having a temple raised in your honour is something usually reserved for a god.

Ryan:  Yes, exactly.  And a quick note before continuing, you may have noticed that Herodotus referred to the people of Sparta as both Lacedaemonians and Spartans – the two different words were used interchangeably by the ancients.  The same goes for the region of Sparta itself – sometimes called Sparta, other times referred to as Laconia.  This is actually where we get the modern word laconic, which we use to refer to expressing onself in very few words, because the Spartans were famous for not wasting words and giving short, pithy remarks.

Chris:  Very cool

Ryan: But anyway – back to Lycurgus – whether he was a man or a god, it is important to look at the story of his life because of how important he was to the Spartan identity.  Because the very unique Spartan constitution – which we find so interesting today, and even other Greeks at the time found so interesting – this constitution was attributed entirely to Lycurgus, and the Spartans revered his memory so much that they rigidly stuck with this really radical way of life for centuries. 

So given the importance of Lycurgus to the history of the Spartans (who themselves really have had an outsized influence on Western civilization) we should be grateful to Plutarch for attempting to penetrate the fog surrounding this legendary figure and giving us a workable biography of Lycurgus.  Plutarch starts his Life of Lycurgus with this mission statement:

“Notwithstanding this confusion and obscurity, we shall endeavour to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors are most worth of credit”

You can’t ask for more than that and Chris I for one, certainly appreciate Plutarch’s effort

Chris:  Hear, hear.  I second that

Hope you enjoy the full episode!

Chris & Ryan

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