Plutarch’s Lives Volume 2, Plutarch
Plutarch’s Lives Volume 2
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Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans is a series of 48 biographies of famous men, arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, probably written at the beginning of the second century AD. The surviving Parallel Lives comprises 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman of similar destiny, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, or Demosthenes and Cicero. It is a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived.

Plutarch’s Lives Volume 2

Greek Lives Part 2


The Life of Lycurgus

1 Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman; and there is least agreement among historians as to the times in which the man lived. Some say that he flourished at the same time with Iphitus, and in concert with him established the Olympic truce. Among these is Aristotle the philosopher, and he alleges as proof the discus at Olympia on which an inscription preserves the name of Lycurgus. But those who compute the time by the successions of kings at Sparta, like Eratosthenes and Apollodorus, prove that Lycurgus was many years earlier than the first Olympiad. ​ And Timaeus conjectures that there were two Lycurgus at Sparta, at different times, and that to one of them the achievements of both were ascribed, owing to his greater fame; he thinks also that the elder of the two lived not far from the times of Homer, and some assert that he actually met Homer face to face. Xenophon, also, makes an impression of simplicity in the passage where he says that Lycurgus lived in the time of the Heracleidae. For in lineage, of course, the latest of the Spartan kings were also Heracleidae; but Xenophon apparently wishes to use the name Heracleidae of the first and more immediate descendants of Heracles, so famous in story.

However, although the history of these times is such a maze, I shall try, in presenting my narrative, to follow those authors who are least contradicted, or who have the most notable witnesses for what they have written about the man. For instance, Simonides the poet says that Lycurgus was not the son of Eunomus, but that both Lycurgus and Eunomus were sons of Prytanis; whereas most writers give a different genealogy, as follows: Aristodemus begat Procles, Procles begat Soüs, Soüs begat Eurypon, and he begat Prytanis, from whom sprang Eunomus, and from Eunomus Polydectes by a first wife, and Lycurgus, who was a younger son by a second wife, Dionassa, as Dieutychidas has written, making Lycurgus sixth from Procles, and eleventh from Heracles.

2 Of these ancestors of Lycurgus, Soüs was most famous, under whom the Spartans made the Helots their slaves, and acquired by conquest from the Arcadians a large additional tract of land. It is also related of this Soüs that when he was besieged by the Cleitorians in a rough and waterless place, he agreed to surrender to them the land which he had conquered if he himself and all his men with him should drink from the adjacent spring. After the oaths to this agreement were taken, he assembled his men and offered his kingdom to the one who should not drink; no one of them, however, could forbear, but all of them drank, whereupon Soüs himself went down last of all to the water, sprinkled his face merely, while the enemy were still at hand to see, and then marched away and retained his territory, on the plea that all had not drunk.

But although on these grounds he was held in great admiration, his royal line was not named from him, but were called Eurypontids from his son, because Eurypon appears to have been the first king to relax the excessive absolutism of his sway, seeking favour and popularity with the multitude. But in consequence of such relaxation the people grew bold, and succeeding kings were some of them hated for trying to force their way with the multitude, and some were brought low by their desire for favour or through weakness, so that lawlessness and confusion prevailed at Sparta for a long time; and it was owing to this that the father of Lycurgus, a reigning king, lost his life. For as he was trying to separate some rioters, he was stabbed to death with a butcher’s knife, leaving the kingdom to his elder son, Polydectes.

3 Polydectes also died soon afterwards, and then, as was generally thought, the kingdom devolved upon Lycurgus; and until his brother’s wife was known to be with child, he was king. But as soon as he learned of this, he declared that the kingdom belonged to her offspring, if it should be male, and himself administered the government only as guardian. Now the guardians of fatherless kings are called “prodikoi” by the Lacedaemonians. Presently, however, the woman made secret overtures to him, proposing to destroy her unborn babe on condition that he would marry her when he was a king of Sparta; and although he detested her character, he did not reject her proposition, but pretended to approve and accept it. He told her, however, that she need not use drugs to produce a miscarriage, thereby injuring her health and endangering her life, for he would see to it himself that as soon as her child was born it should be put out of the way. In this manner he managed to bring the woman to her full time, and when he learned that she was in labour, he sent attendants and watchers for her delivery, with orders, if a girl should be born, to hand it over to the women, but if a boy, to bring it to him, no matter what he was doing. And it came to pass that as he was at supper with the chief magistrates, a male child was born, and his servants brought the little boy to him. He took it in his arms, as we are told, and said to those who were at table with him, “A king is born unto you, O men of Sparta;” then he laid it down in the royal seat and named it Charilaüs, or People’s Joy, because all present were filled with joy, admiring as they did his lofty spirit and his righteousness. And so he was king only eight months in all. But on other accounts also he was revered by his fellow-citizens, and more than those who obeyed him because he was guardian of the king and had royal power in his hands, were those who clave to him for his virtues and were ready and willing to do his bidding.

There was a party, however, which envied him and sought to impede the growing power of so young a man, especially the kinsmen and friends of the queen-mother, who thought she had been treated with insolence. Her brother, Leonidas, actually railed at Lycurgus once quite boldly, assuring him that he knew well that Lycurgus would one day be king, thereby promoting suspicion and paving the way for the accusation, in case any thing happened to the king, that he had plotted against his life. Some such talk was set in circulation by the queen-mother also, in consequence of which Lycurgus was sorely troubled and fearful of what might be in store for him. He therefore determined to avoid suspicion by travelling abroad, and to continue his wanderings until his nephew should come of age and beget a son to succeed him on the throne.

4 With this purpose, he set sail, and came first to Crete. Here he studied the various forms of government and made the acquaintance of their most distinguished men. Of some things he heartily approved, and adopted some of their laws, that he might carry them home with him and put them in use; for some things he had only contempt. One of the men regarded there as wise statesmen was Thales, whom Lycurgus persuaded, out of favour and friendship, to go on a mission to Sparta. Now Thales passed as a lyric poet, and screened himself behind this art, but in reality he did the work of one of the mightiest lawgivers. For his odes were so many exhortations to obedience and harmony, and their measured rhythms were permeated with ordered tranquillity, so that those who listened to them were insensibly softened in their dispositions, insomuch that they renounced the mutual hatreds which were so rife at that time, and dwelt together in a common pursuit of what was high and noble. Thales, therefore, after a fashion, was a forerunner in Sparta of Lycurgus and his discipline.

From Crete, Lycurgus sailed to Asia, with the desire, as we are told, of comparing with the Cretan civilization, which was simple and severe, that of the Ionians, which was extravagant and luxurious, just as a physician compares with healthy bodies those which are unsound and sickly; he could then study the difference in their modes of life and forms of government. There too, as it would appear, he made his first acquaintance with the poems of Homer, which were preserved among the posterity of Creophylus; and when he saw that the political and disciplinary lessons contained in them were worthy of no less serious attention than the incentives to pleasure and license which they supplied, he eagerly copied and compiled them in order to take them home with him. For these epics already had a certain faint reputation among the Greeks, and a few were in possession of certain portions of them, as the poems were carried here and there by chance; but Lycurgus was the very first to make them really known.

The Aegyptians think that Lycurgus visited them also, and so ardently admired their separation of the military from the other classes of society that he transferred it to Sparta, and by removing mechanics and artisans from participation in the government, made his civil polity really refined and pure. At any rate, this assertion of the Aegyptians is confirmed by some Greek historians. But that Lycurgus visited Libya and Iberia also, and that he wandered over India and had conferences with the Gymnosophists, no one has stated, so far as I know, except Aristocrates the son of Hipparchus, the Spartan.

5 The Lacedaemonians missed Lycurgus sorely, and sent for him many times. They felt that their kings were such in name and station merely, but in everything else were nothing better than their subjects, while in him there was a nature fitted to lead, and a power to make men follow him. However, not even the kings were averse to having him at home, but hoped that in his presence their subjects would treat them with less insolence. Returning, then, to a people thus disposed, he at once undertook to revolutionize the civil polity. He was convinced that a partial change of the laws would be of no avail whatsoever, but that he must proceed as a physician would with a patient who was debilitated and full of all sorts of diseases; he must reduce and alter the existing temperament by means of drugs and purges, and introduce a new and different regimen. Full of this determination, he first made a journey to Delphi, and after sacrificing to the god and consulting the oracle, he returned with that famous response in which the Pythian priestess addressed him as “beloved of the gods, and rather god than man,” and said that the god had granted his prayer for good laws, and promised him a constitution which should be the best in the world.

Thus encouraged, he tried to bring the chief men of Sparta over to his side, and exhorted them to put their hands to the work with him, explaining his designs secretly to his friends at first, then little by little engaging more and uniting them to attempt the task. And when the time for action came, he ordered thirty of the chief men to go armed into the market-place at break of day, to strike consternation and terror into those of the opposite party. The names of twenty of the most eminent among them have been recorded by Hermippus; but the man who had the largest share in all the undertakings of Lycurgus and co-operated with him in the enactment of his laws, bore the name of Arthmiadas. When the tumult began, King Charilaüs, fearing that the whole affair was a conspiracy against himself, fled for refuge to the Brazen House; but he was soon convinced of his error, and having exacted oaths for his safety from the agitators, left his place of refuge, and even joined them in their enterprise, being of a gentle and yielding disposition, so much so, indeed, that Archelaüs, his royal colleague, is said to have remarked to those who were extolling the young king, “How can Charilaüs be a good man, when he has no severity even for the bad?”

Among the many innovations which Lycurgus made, the first and most important was his institution of a senate, or Council of Elders, which, as Plato says, ​ by being blended with the “feverish” government of the kings, and by having an equal vote with them in matters of the highest importance, brought safety and due moderation into counsels of state. For before this the civil polity was veering and unsteady, inclining at one time to follow the kings towards tyranny, and at another to follow the multitude towards democracy; but now, by making the power of the senate a sort of ballast for the ship of state and putting her on a steady keel, it achieved the safest and the most orderly arrangement, since the twenty-eight senators always took the side of the kings when it was a question of curbing democracy, and, on the other hand, always strengthened the people to withstand the encroachments of tyranny. The number of the senators was fixed at twenty-eight because, according to Aristotle, two of the thirty original associates of Lycurgus abandoned the enterprise from lack of courage. But Sphaerus says that this was originally the number of those who shared the confidence of Lycurgus. Possibly there is some virtue in this number being made up of seven multiplied by four, apart from the fact that, being equal to the sum of its own factors, it is the next perfect number after six. But in my own opinion, Lycurgus made the senators of just that number in order that the total might be thirty when the two kings were added to the eight and twenty.

6 So eager was Lycurgus for the establishment of this form of government, that he obtained an oracle from Delphi about it, which they call a “rhetra.” And this is the way it runs: “When thou hast built a temple to Zeus Syllanius and Athena Syllania, divided the people into ‘phylai’ and into ‘obai,’ and established a senate of thirty members, including the ‘archagetai,’ then from time to time ‘appellazein’ between Babyca​ and Cnacion, and there introduce and rescind measures; but the people must have the deciding voice and the power.” In these clauses, the “phylai” and the “obai” refer to divisions and distributions of the people into clans and phratries, or brotherhoods; by “archagetai” the kings are designated, and “appellazein” means to assemble the people, with a reference to Apollo, the Pythian god, who was the source and author of the polity. The Babyca is now called Cheimarrus, and the Cnacion Oenus; but Aristotle says that Cnacion is a river, and Babyca a bridge. Between these they held their assemblies, having neither halls nor any other kind of building for the purpose. For by such things Lycurgus thought good counsel was not promoted, but rather discouraged, since the serious purposes of an assembly were rendered foolish and futile by vain thoughts, as they gazed upon statues and paintings, or scenic embellishments, or extravagantly decorated roofs of council halls. When the multitude was thus assembled, no one of them was permitted to make a motion, but the motion laid before them by the senators and kings could be accepted or rejected by the people. Afterwards, however, when the people by additions and subtractions perverted and distorted the sense of motions laid before them, Kings Polydorus and Theopompus inserted this clause into the rhetra: “But if the people should adopt a distorted motion, the senators and kings shall have power of adjournment”; that is, should not ratify the vote, but dismiss outright and dissolve the session, on the ground that it was perverting and changing the motion contrary to the best interests of the state. And they were actually able to persuade the city that the god authorized this addition to the rhetra, as Tyrtaeus reminds us in these verses: —

“Phoebus Apollo’s the mandate was which they brought from Pytho,
Voicing the will of the god, nor were his words unfulfilled:
Sway in the council and honours divine belong to the princes
Under whose care has been set Sparta’s city of charm;
Second to them are the elders, and next come the men of the people
Duly confirming by vote unperverted decrees.”

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