Monday, March 23, 2009

Plutarch's Lives: Lycurgus

Lycurgus was famed in the Ancient World as the Law Giver of Sparta. He was credited with creating the unique social and political structures that made Sparta a military power in its day, and a source of fascination for classics scholars and military historians ever since. While Athens is admired as the birthplace of democracy, and of western civilization, Sparta has drawn interest for its austerity, its military skill, and the regimented way of life it was able to maintain for generations. 

Plutarch, however, is quick to point out that there was very little extant information about Lycurgus, and it was unclear whether he even existed at all. Thus, Plutarch's "life" of Lycurgus spends much more time describing the social and political practices he instilled in the Spartans than it does actually telling the life history of Lycurgus. Plutarch's description of Sparta is quite detailed. For those who find democracy to be too noisy, and a market economy to be too messy, Sparta's austere, self-abnegating egalitarianism seems a welcome alternative. However, reading Plutarch, one comes away more disturbed than impressed with Spartan culture.

As Plutarch describes it, the bare bones of Lycurgus' were all that was known of him. He was apparently born into a royal house, but the era of his birth was unknown. The ancients did not even know what century he lived in with some making him a contemporary of Hercules, and others seeing him as a contemporary of Homer. There was agreement that he traveled around the Mediterranean, including rumored trips to Egypt and Spain. During his travels, he was exposed to different styles of government and political philosophies. Returning to Greece, Lycurgus ended up in Sparta, where he began using his powers of persuasion (supposedly his biggest gift) to talk the Spartans, then ruled by a conventional king, to make radical changes to their society. 

The first change was to create a senate that would act as a buffer between the king and the people. Lycurgus saw the senate as crucial, as it would be best positioned to blunt both the tyrannical impulses of the king and the chaotic demands of the People. The Spartan senate was made up of 30 (or 28) wise men, chosen for their wisdom and age. This would be the basic structure of Sparta's government. 

Lycurgus then set about radically changing Spartan society. Lycurgus' object was to reduce competition in Sparta by creating a system of radical equality. Lyurgus divided Sparta's lands into 40,000 equal sized lots, and then settled families on to each one by lot. The lots were inalienable and could not be passed from one generation to another. When a man came of age, he would simply be assigned a lot, either in the country or city, where he and his family would live. To reduce competition further, Lycurgus persuaded the Spartans to bring forth all of their gold and silver, and replaced Sparta's currency with lead. This supposedly removed the profit motive from Spartan life and prevented lawsuits. Plutarch is famous for mixing myth with straight history, but this is the most fantastical story he has told so far!

Lyurgus set up the boot camp style barracks where Spartan men were expected to live. He also set up the system of military drills and training that all Spartan youths were expected to participate in. For whatever reason, Plutarch spends a lot of time discussing the Spartan's sexual practices which are appropriately "Spartan." Spartan spouses were expected to live apart, with the husband coming home on occasion to sleep with his wife. Spartan intercourse was done  in a darkened room, with both partners unable to see the other. But, while a man could not see his wife naked, women were expected to go about naked on certain festival days, during which they would dance and sing for the men. Lycurgus' idea was that this would remove the mystery of Women from the minds of men and allow them to concentrate on other things, like homosexual affairs, about which Plutarch is also quite voluable. 

By this time, one might begin to wonder how the Spartans supported themselves if there was no currency or private property, and everybody spent the day doing drills. Plutarch explains, but only in passing. The Spartans were supported by the Helots, a sort of slave class that lived in a region conquered by the Spartans. The Helots grew the Spartans food, and also paid rent to the Spartans. Thus, the rigorous "egalitarian" Spartan culture that has been admired by so many was only made possible by a system of vassalage and slavery. The Spartans also seem to have terrorized the Helots as well. Plutarch tells that part of a Spartan youth's rite of passage would be to go to the land of the Helots with nothing but a knife and a bit of food. When the sun went down, the Spartan youths were expected to go out and kill as many Helots as they could get their hands on. This was an annual ritual! Plutarch argues that Lycurgus should not be blamed for this innovation, and says it was a perversion of Lycurgus' original training regimen. 

The picture that emerges of Sparta is thus a disquieting one. While one can admire Sparta's ostensible equality, such equality was only possible with the involuntary support provided by the Helots, who were truly oppressed. Sparta's approach to family life - with little sexual intimacy, family members living apart, and children removed from their mothers at a young age - is similarly oppressive, with the state taking the place of the family and preventing individuals from forming their own associations. And the idea that all of the Spartans willingly gave up their lands and gold is far fetched. If such a thing happened, it could only have happened after coercion and state-sponsored theft. 

The portrait of Sparta that emerges is that of a socialist paradise, where individuals surrendered their desires and ambitions for the good of the state. Such surrender was only possible because the Spartan state oppressed the Helots and treated them as a vast servant class to be terrorized into supporting their masters in Sparta. There are many who admire Sparta,  up to and including in the present day, but I would guess that its admirers would never wish to live there. 

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