Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Lycurgus (Part 1)

The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: Lycurgus
Written by Plutarch sometime in the latter part of the 1st century CE
Place: Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia (Greece)

The complete text of Plutarch's biography of Lycurgus can be found online at It utilizes the same Dryden translation of Lycurgus used in the Great Books' series and, indeed, for this essay. Page numbers cited correspond to the 2nd edition of the GB's set.

Part One:

Unlike Plutarch’s biographies of figures closer to him in time, his treatment of Lycurgus (as well as Numa Pompilius) is more an exercise in selective storytelling than a serious historical document. Plutarch himself notes in his opening that there is great discord, even in his time, between those who have written about the legendary figure of Spartan history. By the time Plutarch got around to writing about him, somewhere between 600 and 900 years had passed since Lycurgus had walked the Earth and reorganized the Spartan culture on his journey. For this reason, parsing myth from fact is nigh impossible. Still, Plutarch is upfront about his methodology, announcing that “we shall endeavor to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors most worthy of credit” [32].

Plutarch begins his examination of Lycurgus’ life with a summary of the events that led up to his great reshuffling of Spartan culture. He was born in a line of kings supposedly descended from Hercules himself though the line (the Eurypontids) was named for his ancestor, Eurypon. Eurypon was remembered as having “released the rigor of the monarchy” [34], beginning a trend of multi-generational chaos that found its climax in Lycurgus’ own father’s assassination. After acquiring the throne after his short-lived brother (with no suggestion in the text that Lycurgus himself might have been responsible for his death), Lycurgus quickly abdicates his throne when it is discovered that his brother’s wife is pregnant with his brother’s child. This child, named Charilaus, is installed, essentially at birth, as the rightful heir to the throne and, for a period of time, Lycurgus functions as regent to the infant king.

In short order, however, it became clear to Lycurgus that other powers in the Queen’s family resented his influence on the throne and had begun to plot his death in turn. Rather than suffering his father’s fate, Lycurgus imposed a self-exile, making himself notably scarce until Charilaus had reached the age of marriage and, himself, produced a legitimate heir. His own claim to the throne now twice nullified, Lycurgus began to travel the world in order to collect information from a variety of cultures of the most effective and virtuous means of governance. Visiting Crete, Lycurgus was greatly impressed by their system of governance and convinced the Cretan poet and philosopher, Thales to return to Lacedaemon with him in order to bring some of that harmony to his people. From there, he sailed to Asia (modern day Turkey) to contrast the Cretan style of politics with the more sensual Ionians who resided there. It is from this visit that Lycurgus is said to have first come into contact with the epic poetry of Homer and, in turn, transmitted it for the first time to the people of Lacedaemon, thus assuring that body of work a place in Greek culture for many centuries to come.

In his absence, many had grown weary of the monarchical rule of his nephew and were receptive to his permanent return and involvement in government. Plutarch has them suggesting that, “for kings indeed we have who wear the marks and assume the titles of royalty, but as for the qualities of their minds, they have nothing by which they are to be distinguished from their subjects” [34]. Seizing on this half-hearted support for continuing the monarchy as was, Lycurgus begins considering the possibility of bringing his new-found wisdom on governance back to his people. In order to ensure the best outcome, Lycurgus, we are told, consulted the Oracle at Delphi as to the proper course of action. Plutarch describes the Oracle’s response, writing that:

He returned with that renowned oracle, in which he is called beloved of God, and rather God than man; that his prayers were heard, that his laws should be the best, and the commonwealth which observed them the most famous in the world. [34]

It is, of course, tempting to assume that just as history is written by the victor, so may oracles be later re-written in order to appear favorable to something that turned out well. Plutarch’s participation as a priest of Apollo at Delphi (though much later) lends a good deal of credence to the idea that the utterance that Lycurgus’ received there is, in fact, the same one upon which he built his plans for a new kind of state.

Armed with this divine providence, Lycurgus sets about to reforming the state through measures designed to make sweeping changes to the Spartan way of life; indeed, changes that would define the Spartan apart from other Greeks for centuries to follow. By Plutarch’s account, Lycurgus’ coup of the existing state was essentially bloodless. Gathering thirty prominent Spartans he had won to his cause, the men assembled with arms in a show of force that left King Charilaus taking refuge in the temple of Minerva. After some negotiation, he was brought into Lycurgus’ revolution and, from this vantage, legitimized it among the skeptics and loyalists through his participation. In his first act as lawmaker for this new Spartan state, Lycurgus created a Senate, composed of twenty-eight prominent men of the city, to rule in a co-equal status with the kingship. By Plutarch’s assessment, the establishment of the Senate served as a moderating force between those advocating for an absolute monarchy and those who clamored for absolute rule of the people. We may infer from this that Lycurgus saw both of those ideas of governance as intrinsically flawed and in need of a moderating influence from the oligarchy to act as “ballast in a ship, which always kept things in a just equilibrium” [34].

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