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Lycurgus and the Spartan Way

Written by Georgina von Marburg

For centuries, the modern politician has strived for social perfection

in which all members of all communities and sub-cultures are

accounted for. However, over 2000 years ago, an ambitious

Lacedaemonian developed a near-perfect society originating,

ultimately, from a simple concept: weaken a nations physical berth,

and you will strengthen its people. And if I were to ever to choose my

own leader, I would not just choose Lycurgus over Solon, Pericles, and

Alcibiades, but over every safe advocator of mediocrity the world's

leaders have offered. Almost every aspect of Lycurgus' simplified,

idealistic, and patriotically empowered society appeals to my

personage. And, I believe, that under our overly complicated mantle of

materialism and mistrust, the peoples of today's Western culture

hunger for his perfected system of equality.

Lycurgus can be appropriately called "the perfect Communist." He

achieved and maintained for 500 years a government in which

everyone had an equal share of land and produce, and contributed to

their country - not to themselves - in equivalent manners. This political

obsession with equality is no modern fad, but an ancient idea which

Sparta can be fairly called the paternal cradle of. Like the Athenian

leader Solon, Lycurgus realised that the continuous civil war within
nations was due to a great division between the people. But unlike

Solon, who is said to have "put a trick on both parties, and privately

promised the poor a division of the lands, and the rich security for their

debt," [Plutrach's Lives: Solon, p. 69] Lycurgus held steadfast in his

resolve to, not fairly, but equally divide the land. For fairly would mean

equivalent to each person's earnings; Lycurgus literally divided the

Spartan land into "thirty thousand equal shares," [Plutarch's Lives:

Lycurgus, p.36] as recorded by Plutarch, regardless of their occupation.

When comparing this action to 20th Century Communism, surely, one

would say, the people could not long stand for rewardless labor. Yet

the wise Lycurgus had a plan that would reverse the ideal aim for any

ancient empire.

This equality was able to exist through a detachment from

materialism. Unlike the modern Communist countries, Lycurgus did not

attempt to establish his nation as an influential power, for "it was not

the design of Lycurgus that his city should govern a great many

others." [Plutarch's Lives: Lycurgus, p.48] As both Pericles and

Alcibiades sought the riches and powers of foreign lands, Sparta was

closing themselves off from these exotic pleasures. Much to the

disgust of previously wealthy Spartans, Lycurgus destroyed all gold

and silver coins and replaced them with basic, straight steel rods. This

independent currency would have a positive affect on the nation's

unity in several ways. Firstly, it would prevent the wealthy spending


leisure time in matters of money, which would, in turn, encourage self-

sufficiency; if there could be no imports due to invalid currency, they

would have to produce materials themselves. This not only created an

equal playing field of possessions for all citizens, but inspired a strong

sense of patriotism. For they would appreciate the technological

advancements which they themselves had developed, and which were

available in their nation only. Secondly, it suffocated the vices of envy

and greed since theft presented no reward due to, again, the worthless

currency. Not only this, but the punishment for such a crime, "so ill and

awkwardly," was severe beyond reckoning. Plutarch relates the tale of

a young boy, who having stolen a fox, "suffered it to tear out his very

bowels with its teeth and claws and died upon the place, rather than

let it be seen."[Plutarch's Lives: Lycurgus, p. 42]

This tale adds another link to the steel chain of Spartan society. The

education and practise of virtue was observed at such extremes, even

by, as previously exemplified, the youth. How Lycurgus was able to

initiate such a fervour love of virtue in men and women alike does not

remain a mystery, as it too was due to the very first link in Spartan

law. Without any passion for possessions or the creation of wealth,

people were able to devout themselves to the development of the

mind. Sparta may be said to have grown within itself, rather than

without; they strove for philosophical gain, rather than worldly


expansion. A poetic education was installed in the many schooling

sectors, in which children were taught not only the Spartan virtues of

honour and prudence, but courage through the gift of physical

strength. Again, Plutarch exemplifies the dedication to Spartan youth

with this occurrence: as the children would return from their communal

dinning halls (set up to distill any feeling of inferiority between

classes), they would brave the dark with no aid but their human eyes.

It is no wonder that Spartan soldiers were the some of the most

renowned, as their courage, being instilled in their youthful hearts,

became second nature. Referring back to the claim of a "poetic

education," Spartan law is said not to have been inscribed in stone, but

"being imprinted on the hearts of their youth by a good discipline,

would be sure to remain." [Plutarch's Lives: Lycurgus, p. 38] It is to this

nature of education, that Spartans owe their unwavering morality.

The most interesting aspect of Spartan morale was their marital

laws. One would think that, with such harsh physical training, the

women would be seen as lesser or inferior to the male's strength.

However, it was quite the opposite. On their marriage day, the grooms

were required to enter the marital chamber "sober and composed"

[Plutarch's Lives: Lycurgus, p.39] out of respect for their bride. Nor

were the women at all objectified or sexualised, as Plutarch writes that

they would dress in plain men's clothes, hair cut short, on their
wedding night. Lycurgus also showed compassion towards the bearers

of the nation's citizens, one which is often mistaken as being

"hardhearted" by modern readers. Girls were required to undertake

exercises such as running and wrestling, not that they might be a

mockery among men, but that the pain of childbirth would become

more bearable. Their athleticism taught them simplicity and care for

good health and "gave them some taste of higher feelings, admitted as

they thus were to the field of noble action and glory." [Plutarch's Lives:

Lycurgus, p. 39] This honour paid towards females was said to be so

great that a foreigner claimed for them to be the only women in the

world with the ability to rule men. King Leonidas' wife, being brought

up in the art of sharp, Spartan speech, responded thus: "With good

reason, for we are the only women who bring forth men." [Plutarch's

Lives: Lycurgus, p.39]

The price of such an organised, equally distributed, and

patriotically moral society comes down to strict obedience. Men or

women who were caught with "needless or superfluous arts"[Plutarch's

Lives: Lycurgus, p.36], or students who were unable to respond to

political questions on the excuse of disinterest, were taken to a public

square and whipped. Indeed, it seems as though no great nation can

have such altruistic citizens. Lycurgus once stated that Sparta's

success was not due to the rulers' ability to rule, but to the peoples'

ability to obey. From a distance, Sparta may seem more totalitarian


than democratic. However, we must remember that Lycurgus was

much loved and sorely missed, when he left, by his people; his

intention of "making and keeping them free-minded, self-dependant,

and temperate," [Live: Lycurgus, p.48] was not merely carried out by

his word, but by a senate which had power equal to that of the king's.

And monarch was not a king in its traditional sense, but a leader in its

truest sense; he was the spiritual guide and encourager, rather than a

trivial political figurehead. Yes, there was chastisement for

disobedience, but what good are laws when there are none who obey

them? I strongly believe that Spartan punishment was very much

accountable for the stability and unity of the nation. And again,

because of its localised geography, Sparta was only capable of holding

patriotic citizens, leaving no room for treason or the growth of

multiculturalism which would see the demise of a nation's purity. This

is not at all to say that racism is the key to a nation's success, but

unappreciative citizens can destroy their country from within.

Very rarely does a society pertain of such a reasonable and

systematic bond between a peoples and its nation. The Spartan chain

runs as so: an culturally isolated nation leads to a detachment from

materialism; this detachment allows for an equality among possessions

and people; a branch of education also grows from this detachment;

this education instills in the people's hearts the strong love towards

their country which, in turn, unites the people again in thought, not
material gain. And to the many who dismiss Sparta's existence as

fruitless, remember that their demise came from the infiltration of an

outside vice, not from within. For it was an irresponsible king who

brought back the world's currency, and with it, its evils.

A country was inspired when John F. Kennedy stated, "Ask not what

your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Yet

it is this very passion which was briefly lit, then snuffed out amongst

social and economical turmoil. It was a spark that is unique, essential,

and unfortunately rare among the world's nations. Modern history

books, media, and the English language itself have turned the

selflessness of Lycurgus into a feared grave of physical toil and

extremism. The very word "spartan" has become a negative term in

describing people who, essentially, advocate simplicity and

moderation. Yet it was their attitude of "mind over matter" and their

zeal for country which, I believe, subconsciously appeals to the citizens

of this modern world of flamboyant materialism and political

mediocrity. Lycurgus was the bearer of a nation based all aspects of

honour; as Plutarch put it, "he thought…that the happiness of a state

consisted chiefly in the exercise of virtue, and in the concord of the

inhabitants."[Plutarch's Lives: Lycurgus, p.48] A human state. An

immaterial state. A free state.

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