Lycurgus (lawgiver)

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jul 24, 2023

Table of Content


Lycurgus (various sources, IX, VIII, VII, or VI century B.C.) was an ancient Greek politician to whom the reforms of the state system of Sparta are attributed.

The data on him in the extant sources are contradictory. He belonged to one of the Spartan royal dynasties (Agiades or Euripontides) and ruled as the guardian of his nephew, either Charilaus or Leobotus. Relying on the injunctions of the Delphi's Oracle and on his own experience, drawn in particular from Crete, he brought about political changes: he set up or reorganized council of elders (Herusia), which began to include kings, made more orderly the work of the popular assembly (as a result Sparta turned into an aristocratic polis with limited royal power. Some ancient authors attribute to Lycurgus the broader reforms that shaped all the socio-economic and cultural features of Sparta of the classical era. According to these accounts, it was Lycurgus who created a "society of equals," dividing the state land into equal inalienable parcels (cleras), prohibiting the circulation of gold and silver coinage, minimizing relations between Sparta and the outside world, and developing a specific system of education.

It has long been a common view in historical scholarship that Lycurgus was a fictitious figure (either a humanized god of an archaic era or a collective image of a Spartan legislator). Modern historiography is dominated by ideas about the historicity of this figure. There are discussions about the timing of the life of Lycurgus, which reforms he carried out himself and which were attributed to him.

The data of the ancient tradition about Lycurgus are fragmentary and extremely contradictory. Many ancient Greek authors wrote about the Spartan legislator, but only a negligible part of these reports has survived, and opinions differ on every point of his biography. This has led to discussions in historiography on a number of issues. In general, the problems connected with the personality of Lycurgus and his legislation are among the most complicated and confusing in the history of Sparta.

All the ancient authors who wrote about Lycurgus are characterized by the desire to date his activity to times of distant antiquity. In Xenophon it is the era of the first Heraclides (eleventh century B.C.), in Herodotus it is the reign of the king Leobotus in Sparta (the beginning or the first half of the tenth century B.C.). Thucydides, who does not mention Lycurgus by name, writes that by the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C.) Sparta "was in a state of lawfulness for more than four centuries," and this allows us to introduce the date - the late ninth century B.C. Researcher N. Hammond suggested that Herodotus and Thucydides, acting differently (relying on the list of kings in the first case and calculating the date from contemporary events in the second), have in mind the same date taken from the Spartan tradition.

Eratosthenes and Apollodorus of Athens date the legislation of Lycurgus to the late ninth or early eighth century B.C., Ephorus to the period between 885 and 869 B.C.). ). Aristotle, according to him, read the name of Lycurgus on a disc from Olympia, where the rules of the sacred truce were apparently recorded. Accordingly, the Spartan lawgiver turns out to be a contemporary of the first Olympiad, held in 776 B.C., and this is the latest of the antique dating.

In general, the chronological range in which the ancient authors place Lycurgus is more than three centuries. There is no consensus among scholars as to the dates. For a long time, thanks to the authority of Thucydides, the end of the ninth century was considered canonical, but in modern historiography there are three main dates.

The first version roughly corresponds to the classical one: the late ninth to mid-eighth century BC, the time before the First Messianic War. Its supporters generally trust the ancient tradition and try to iron out some particular inconsistencies. For instance, Hammond believes that Thucydides' and Aristotle's chronological proofs do not contradict each other: Likurgus could have reformed at about 810 B.C. "in the prime of life," and then 34 years later he acted as a Heron in Olympia. Some scholars make an important caveat: Lycurgus could have lived at the turn of the ninth and eighth centuries, but the transformations attributed to him could have taken place later, no earlier than the end of the seventh century BCE (A. Gomme's version) or even in the sixth century BCE (G. Berwe's version).

The second date is the period between the First and Second Messianic Wars, late eighth and first half of the seventh century B.C. In support of this dating there are opinions that the inscription on the Olympic disk could refer to another Lycurgus (a mythological hero from the Arcadian cycle (E. Meyer version) or the legendary king of Nemea in Argolis), or that the disk itself could refer to a later era, around 700 B.C, when Sparta was (presumably) first interested in Olympic affairs).

Finally, the third hypothesis attributes the reforms of Lycurgus to the period after the Second Messianic War, to the sixth century B.C., but often associates them with other legislators who remain unknown. Proponents of this version argue that backward Sparta could not have acquired written laws before more developed Athens and Corinth, and consider the data of ancient authors about Lycurgus unreliable.

Sources attribute Lycurgus to one of the two royal houses of Sparta and, accordingly, to the offspring of the mythological hero Hercules. According to Herodotus, he was the son or grandson of King Agis I, the founder of the Aegis dynasty.

Researchers consider all these data to be a fiction dating back to the classical era. Apparently, each of the two ruling dynasties of Sparta wanted to consider Lycurgus as their representative, but it was impossible to recognize him post facto as king: the lists of Spartan rulers were a well known source. It remained to make Lycurgus the son and younger brother of kings, the guardian under a minor nephew. Within the Plutarchian version, Lycurgus was the guardian of Euripontides Harilaus, while according to Herodotus, he was the guardian of Aegis.

Plutarch states that the future lawgiver did inherit power after the death of his brother Polydectes, but it soon became clear that the latter's widow was pregnant. Then Lycurgus declared that he would give power to the future child, if it was a boy. The queen secretly offered to get rid of the fetus on the condition that Lycurgus would then take her as his wife; he pretended to agree, but insisted on preserving the child and giving birth, promising that he would "get the newborn out of the way." A boy was born, and his uncle immediately proclaimed him king. Thus, Lycurgus' reign lasted only eight months.

Later Likurgus had to leave his homeland because of his constant clashes with Charilai's mother and her relatives (in particular, his brother Leonidas). He traveled to neighboring countries, learning about other states, laws and customs along the way. Lycurgus visited Crete (according to Aristotle, he lived for a long time in the city of Lyctus on this island"), and then Ionia, which was associated by the Hellenes with luxury and pampering. It was there that he first read Homer's poems, then still little known, and "finding that they ... contained much of extreme value for an educator and statesman, he carefully copied and collected them to take away with him. According to Ephorus, Lycurgus met Homer himself on Chios. The Spartan writer Aristocrates, son of Hipparchus, claimed that Lycurgus also visited Africa and the far west of the Oikumene, Spain, and as far east as India, where he conversed with the Hymnosophists.

Meanwhile, civil unrest was taking place in the homeland of Lycurgus. According to Plutarch, "the people grew bolder, and the kings... either by drastic measures aroused the hatred of their subjects, or, seeking their favour or for their own powerlessness, they themselves bowed to them, so that lawlessness and disorder took possession of Sparta for a long time. Lycurgus was asked many times to return and assume power, associating with him the hopes of stabilization. At last he agreed, but first of all he went to Delphi. Pythia answered his question that "the deity promises to grant to the Spartans an order incomparably better than in other states. Encouraged by this answer, Lycurgus began his transformations.

According to the sophist Hippias, Lycurgus "was a man of proven warlike character, a participant in many campaigns. However, other authors call him a peace-loving man, and some associate his name with the idea of a sacred truce during the Olympic Games. According to one version of ancient tradition, Lycurgus arrived at the first Olympiad as a private citizen, but suddenly heard a voice censuring him for "not inducing his fellow citizens to participate in this universal celebration." Lycurgus took this as a sign and joined with Hephaetus, king of Aelis, to "make the feast more magnificent and glorious, to give it a more secure foundation.

When the reforms were completed, the legislator announced to the people's assembly that there was still one question about which he must ask Apollo's advice. Lycurgus obtained an oath from the Spartans that they would remain faithful to the new laws until his return, and went to Delphi. Pythia answered him that "the laws are good, and the city will be at the top of its glory if it does not change the Lycurgus arrangement." Lycurgus sent the text of the divination back home; he himself starved himself so that the Spartans would be forever bound by oath.

"For him, he reasoned, after the most beautiful feats he accomplished, this death will truly be a crown of good fortune and happiness, and for his fellow citizens, who have sworn allegiance to his decrees until he returns, a guardian of the benefits he brought them in life."

In historiography it is believed that Lycurgus had to go into exile because of the resistance to his reforms. Plutarch writes that the legislator was "fiercely hated by the rich," so that on one occasion he even had to flee the square in a hail of stones. A young Spartiat named Alcandre struck out Lycurgus' eye with a stick. He built a temple of Athena Optileptida to commemorate the event.

The lawgiver died, according to some reports, in Cyrrhus, others in Elyda or Crete. According to Aristoxenes, the Cretans showed travelers the grave of Lycurgus by the great road near the city of Pergamum. According to Aristocrates, son of Hipparchus, the body of the deceased, in accordance with his last will, was burned and the ashes scattered over the sea.

Plutarch mentions a son of Lycurgus named Antior, who died childless. In later eras none of the Spartans attributed their ancestry to the lawgiver.

Big Retra

As part of the Lycurgian biography written by Plutarch, the text of the legislative act "Great Retra," taken apparently from Aristotle's completely lost "Lacedemonic Politics. It takes the form of a command from Apollo to the questioner and reads: "To erect the temple of Zeus of Syllania and Athena of Syllania. Divide into phyla and common. Establish 30 elders with chiefs collectively. From time to time to convene an assembly between Babica and Knakion, and there to propose and dissolve, but let the rule belong to the people.

All scholars, with few exceptions, believe that this is indeed the text of an ancient document; scholars who recognize the historicity of Lycurgus link the Great Retreat with his name. The document appears to have been kept in the state archives of Sparta, and at an early stage the law may have functioned orally. It follows from the text that Zeus and Athena were declared patrons of the community (about the semantics of the epithet Sillanius

The Retra mentions phyla (units of the clan division of society) and oba - territorial formations which are also called villages; in Laconic there were four Spartan oba (Limny, Kinosura, Mesoa and Pitana) and one Achaean, Amicles. Apparently, Lycurgus replaced (fully or partially) the generic division by a territorial one, but because of the brevity of Retra, researchers are left only to hypothesize about the details. Thus, N. Hammond suggested that instead of the generic phyla, fundamentally new divisions with the same name were created, each occupying the territory of one of the obas. At the same time, the old phyla, which were divided into fraternities (clans), continued to exist and retained their significance for religious life, while the new phyla were important primarily from a military-political point of view: an army regiment, the loch, was formed on the basis of each of them.

Guerusia and après après

The very first and most important reform of Lycurgus, according to Plutarch, was the establishment of the council of elders, the Herusia. It was the main ruling body of Sparta, subordinate, however, to the people's assembly. Presumably the herusia existed before Lycurgus, but was reorganized by him. The number of Heronians might have been fixed at 30, the clan phyla composition might have been abolished, but the age and class qualifications were retained.

According to Aristotle (the researcher L. Pechatnova admits the historicity of this report), Lycurgus formed the herusium from his friends and associates, but established a clear order of formation of this body for the future. After the death of a Heronite, a Spartiat over 60 years of age was elected to take his place - "the one who would be recognized as the most valiant". This wording presupposed nobility in the first place, and a certain set of moral qualities that should accompany a high birth rate in the second place. As a result, the herusia became an organ of class authority (not clan authority, as before).

Under Lycurgus, kings were also included among the heroes (the Great Retreat mentions them as arhagets). Presumably, in this way the status of the rulers as merely the first among equals was fixed; this meant the transformation of Sparta into a polis with an aristocratic form of government. The phrase from the Great Retra "lordship be to the people" means that the popular assembly (apella) had the right to make final decisions in political matters. The power of the apella was limited: "No ordinary citizen was allowed to give his opinion, and the people, when assembled, only approved or rejected what the elders and kings had proposed. The significance of Lycurgus' reform is that the popular assembly was now convened regularly and in a specific place, so that the apella turned from a Homeric gathering of warriors into a full-fledged and significant state body.


Herodotus attributes to Lycurgus the introduction of a new political institution, the ephorate. This refers to special officials ("ephor" means "observer of the stars", "looking up"), who were elected by the people's assembly to control other organs of power. The ephors convened and presided over the appellate and gerucia meetings, were in charge of finances and foreign policy, monitored the behavior of the Spartites, could demand explanations from the kings on specific matters and even overturned their decisions. The Ephorians received judicial powers and the right of pre-trial arrest, with which they could suspend the powers of officials.

According to alternative sources, the Aephorians appeared in Sparta later, under King Theopompe.

Equal Society

Many ancient authors attribute to the name of Lycurgus, in addition to those innovations recorded in the Great Retreat, all the features of the political and social life of Sparta belonging to the Classical era. Aristotle writes of the creation by Lycurgus of a full-fledged constitution which regulated all aspects of life in the polis; Plutarch attributes to the legislator a powerful influence on politics, the educational system, and the agrarian system.

Aristotle attributes to Lycurgus (though somewhat uncertainly) the creation of the system of criptia. "They say," writes the philosopher, "that he also introduced the cryptia, on the basis of which even now they still, going out during the day, hide themselves, and at night with weapons and kill as many of the ilots as proves convenient.

According to Plutarch, Lycurgus took several measures to establish property equality. He divided the state land into nine thousand kleros (plots of equal income), and each Spartan family received one of these plots. All Spartites, irrespective of their nobility, were now required to participate in a common meal (sissitia or fiditia), donating a certain amount of food each month for this purpose. The circulation of gold and silver coins was forbidden in Sparta; instead, Lycurgus began to mint iron coins, "and even that with its great weight and size he assigned a negligible value, so that a large warehouse was needed to store a sum equal to ten mines, and for transportation - a pair of harness. The consequence was the almost total disappearance of foreign trade, the degradation of crafts, and the rejection of luxury by the Spartan elite.

According to Plutarch, Lycurgus considered "the most important and beautiful work of a legislator" to be that of education. He instituted an order in which girls were engaged in physical exercise on an equal footing with young men, forgetting "pampering, pampering and other feminine whims. The spouses met only at night and briefly, not seeing each other in broad daylight. They were not characterized by feelings of property or jealousy, so it was normal for a Spartite to give his wife to another man for a time so that she might become pregnant by a worthy citizen.

Newborns were examined by the elders of the Philae, who decided on their future fate. If "the child was weak and ugly, he was sent to the Apophets (as the cliff was called on the Taigete), believing that his life was of no use to him or the state. When the boys reached the age of seven, they were taken away from their parents, and from then on they were brought up together, separated into units.

"He taught his fellow citizens that they neither wanted nor could live apart, but, like bees, were in inseparable bond with society, all were closely united around their leader and belonged entirely to the fatherland, almost completely forgetting themselves in the rush of enthusiasm and love of glory.

Ancient tradition

Even ancient authors had no exact data about Lycurgus and his activities. This is due to the lack of Sparta's own tradition of historiography and to the closed nature of this polis: foreigners rarely visited it, and local authorities tried to conceal everything that took place there. Meanwhile, Sparta was the subject of constant interest on the part of ancient Greek intellectuals because of its military successes and the peculiarity of its organization. As a result, legends and rumors about the polis became all too important; separating such legends and rumors from real facts is a serious problem for anticollectors. The earliest extant source mentioning Lycurgus is Herodotus' History (not before the middle of the fifth century B.C.). At the same time, it is known that earlier writers also wrote about reforming the Spartan system: Tirtheus, in one of the surviving verse passages in his Eunomia, sets forth the contents of the Great Retra, and the logographer Gellanicus attributes the reforms to the first kings of Sparta, Proclus and Eurysthenes (he was later reproached by Ephorus for this). Plutarch, in his account of Lycurgus, refers to Simonides of Keos, who lived before Herodotus, but he could be mistaken. In fact, he may be referring to the genealogist Simonides, who lived later.


  1. Lycurgus (lawgiver)
  2. Ликург Спартанский
  3. 1 2 Печатнова, 2001, с. 20.
  4. Андреев, 2008, с. 274.
  5. Печатнова, 2001, с. 11; 23.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Андреев, 2008, с. 275.
  7. Ксенофонт, 2013, Лакедемонская полития, X, 8.
  8. Les extraits de Plutarque sont issus de la traduction d'Anne-Marie Ozanam, 1991.
  9. Propos rapportés par Plutarque, Lycurgue, V, 4 ; comparer avec Hérodote (I, 65) qui livre un récit similaire, avant d'indiquer que Lycurgue apporta ses lois de Crète sous le règne de son neveu Léobotès.
  10. Castrén, Paavo & Pietilä-Castrén, Leena: ”Lykurgos (3)”, Antiikin käsikirja. Helsinki: Otava, 2000. ISBN 951-1-12387-4.
  11. a b c d Paavo Castrén: Uusi antiikin historia, s. 91, 113–115. Helsinki: Otava, 2011. ISBN 978-951-1-21594-3.

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?