Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Lycurgus (Part 2)

The first portion of this essay can be read here.

Lycurgus’ establishment of the Senate as a counterbalance to the two kings (Charilaus and his brother Archelaus) was merely the beginning of his reforms. Plutarch provocatively leaves the exact manner in which he brought about the rest as something of a mystery. The protocol for law making that Plutarch describes has the kings and the Senate crafting a new law and then bringing it before an assembly of the people for an up or down vote. There are, however, four essential laws or Rhetra that Lycurgus seems to have pushed through before the new process was allowed to commence. The first was the establishment of the Senate and the process for adding or amending law. No mention is made beyond Charilaus’ brief retreat to the Temple of Minerva of any meaningful opposition to this change. Still, Lycurgus was so concerned about the efficacy of his reforms that he again consulted the Oracle at Delphi and, having received a second confirmation of divine assent at his innovation, he proceeded to establish three more Rhetra that would define Sparta for the next five hundred years.

Lycurgus’ second reform was to take the land inside Sparta and the surrounding kingdom of Lacedaemon and divide it into equal plots, divvying it up among the people equally. As the Spartan civilization had grown and become more complex, greater concentrations of wealth had fallen into fewer and fewer hands. The primary measurement of this wealth was not coin but land, which dictated the quantity of foodstuffs that a family might be able to produce in excess of what they actually needed which might then be transformed into other kinds of wealth. While this kind of wealth redistribution may seem radical even within the context of contemporary political ideologies that have sought to reduce or eliminate the gap between the haves and have-nots, the idea was not unique to Lycurgus or without precedent in the ancient world. The first great civilization in Sumer held all land in common under the authority of the Temple and all food produced on it was held similarly, to be redistributed to the people of the city on the basis of need. Moreover, there was a tradition in Judaism that after a set period of time, any land acquired by one person at the expense of another was essentially forfeited on the basis of a family’s fundamental right to a particular piece of land as their birthright. One is tempted to believe that Lycurgus was ignorant of these traditions. Plutarch, on the other hand, is specific in noting that Lycurgus took great inspiration from some laws of the Cretans as the basis for his own reforms. Whether this particular facet was borrowed from them, from elsewhere, or conceived of whole cloth from his imagination is lost to the ages.

The third reform, an extension of Lycurgus’ assault on the corrupting influence of wealth was to abolish gold, silver, and other precious metals as legal currency within the state in favor of a functionally worthless currency based on large quantities of unworkable iron. This is a means with a panoply of discernable ends. It made the accumulation of coin a fruitless task. Plutarch wryly notes that, “to lay up twenty or thirty pounds, there was required a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen” [36]. Lycurgus would go on to abolish all “needless and superfluous arts,” but the eradication of easily transferred monies made that edict itself superfluous. Though Plutarch doesn’t bring it up in the text, one must also assume that this Rhetra had the effect of isolating Sparta from trade with other developing city-states that didn’t share the Lacedaemonian disdain for coin for centuries to come.

If we are to take Plutarch at his word, Lycurgus’ first three reforms were accepted by the people, however begrudgingly, as means aiming at the highest social good. The fourth, seemingly innocuous in contrast with some as tangible as land re-distribution and the eradication of wealth, struck so deeply the nerves of ambition and status that it was met with eventual violence.

The third and most masterly stroke of this great lawgiver, by which he struck a yet more effectual blow against luxury and the desire of riches, was the ordinance, he made, that they should all eat in common, of the same and same meat, and of kinds that were specified, and should not spend their lives at home, laid on costly couches at splendid tables, delivering themselves up into the hands of their tradesmen and cooks to fatten them in corners, like greedy brutes, and to ruin not their minds only but their very bodies which, enfeebled by indulgence and excess, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick. [36]

Plutarch goes into extraordinary detail about the nature of these daily, common feastings but it is in a passing observation on the name used to describe them (phiditia) that he reveals something important about their implementation, noting that the “Cretans called them andria” [37]. This suggests that the cultural innovation, like the formation of a Senate before it, may have been one of the ideas that Lycurgus’ borrows wholesale from the people of Crete.

Upon being stripped of their last means to benefit in some meaningful way from their acquired wealth, the wealthier men of Sparta rose up against Lycurgus’new-found authority and, as Plutarch so skillfully phrases it, “and from ill words came to throwing stones, so that at length he was forced to run out of the market-place and make to sanctuary to save his own life” [37]. While this is hardly surprising, given the vehemence with which he has struck at the things that made them distinct, Lycurgus manages to avoid all harm until he is confronted by a young man named Alcander who wounds him grievously in one eye. The resolution of this conflict is almost too strange to be strictly historical as Lycurgus, using his wound as a symbol of his virtue, rallies the people behind him and, takes Alcander into his house whereupon he becomes one of Lycurgus’ most vocal and ardent supporters. After this uprising is quelled, Lycurgus builds a new temple to Minerva and the social experiment is underway.

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