Lycurgus and the Revolution
As said, between 1200 and 800 BCE, there were 400 years of “dark age” or Greek Middle Ages. The men were acting on personal glory; their behavior was inspired by the legendary feats of ancient individualist heroes. Blood brothers senselessly killed each other instead of uniting in a common will and not seeking personal glory but the glory of their people. Sparta herself was immersed in this heroic but fratricidal system, where every man was walking his way seeking his own immortality. Noble Dorians killed each other while their real enemies proliferated. Sparta was but a realm of many that existed in Hellas, and also pretty tumultuous and chaotic. But at the end of the dark ages came a figure that heralded a new era: Lycurgus, the father of Sparta, the spokesman of Dorian blood: the man who made what Sparta would later become.
After quelling the second Messenian rebellion with great difficulty, the Spartans found themselves contemplating the disturbing picture of being on the brink of defeat; very vulnerable, and on the reins of a resentful and hostile foreign population that surpassed them in quantity of more than ten to one. And they were not easy slaves to subjugate, but Greek peoples who retained their identity, pride and will to power. All Spartans knew full well that the subjugated would rebel again one day sooner or later and that they must be prepared for the occasion. In this tense atmosphere, if Sparta could preserve its purity and survive it was thanks to Lycurgus.
It is not known when Lycurgus lived. Some say he belongs to the ninth century BCE, that is, before the Messenian wars, others to the eighth century, and others to the seventh. In any case, his extraordinary personality is of an ancestral legislator or “giver of tables.” Lycurgus is half historical and half legendary. His name means “conductor of wolves.” He was a veteran of the Messenian wars and the Heracleidae, and belonged to the royal line of the Agis, youngest son of King Eunomos, who had softened his regime to please the crowds. But these crowds were emboldened and the king fell stabbed with a butcher knife. Polydectes inherited the kingdom, his eldest son, but, having died suddenly, Lycurgus, his younger brother, succeeded to the throne. His reign lasted eight months but it was so right, fair and orderly compared to the previous anarchy that won the respect of his people forever. When Lycurgus knew that his sister-in-law (the former queen) was pregnant of his brother and late King, he announced that the fruit of such pregnancy would inherit the throne, the right thing, and therefore Lycurgus would become merely regent.
But the queen was an ambitious woman who wanted to continue enthroned, so she proposed Lycurgus to marry her and get rid of the baby as soon as he was born, so they could become king and queen for life, and after them his own descendants. Lycurgus was furious at the proposal and rejected it vehemently. However, as a negative response would have meant that the party of the queen rise up in arms, he falsely sent messengers to accept the proposition. But when the baby was born, he sent servants with orders that if the child was a girl to be delivered to the mother; if boy to be handed over to him.
A male baby was born and was delivered as ordered. During a night he dined with military Spartans leaders and Lycurgus ordered the child to be brought, with the idea to let the leaders know there was already an heir. Lifting him with his arms and set him on the Spartan throne, said “Men of Sparta, here is a king born to us!” And since the heir still had no name, he named him Charilaus, “joy of the people.” With this gesture, Lycurgus affirmed his loyalty to the heir and future king and made it clear that he should be protected, and that he became his guardian and protector until he was old enough to rule.
Meanwhile, Lycurgus as Regent was highly revered by the people, who admired his uprightness, honesty and wisdom. The queen mother, however, had not forgiven his refusal and that he kidnapped and made Charilaus known. Due to manipulation and intrigues, she spread the rumor that Lycurgus was conspiring to murder his nephew and become king of Sparta. When this rumor reached the ears of Lycurgus, he went into exile until Charilaus was old enough to reign, marriage and become heir to the Spartan throne. In his exile Lycurgus traveled through different kingdoms studying their laws and customs in order to improve the Spartan after his return. The first country he visited was the island of Crete, the Dorian settlement after Mycenae and of renowned wisdom, where he befriended the wise Tales, convincing him to go to Sparta to help him in his purpose.
Tales appeared in Sparta as a musician-poet, a kind of minstrel, throwing songs of honor and discipline to the people of Sparta, and preparing them for what was to come. The greedy and ambitious willfully abandoned their desire for wealth and material luxuries in the sake of unity in a common will with their race. Lycurgus also visited Ionia, where he not only studied Homer, but legend says that he knew him personally (here it is clear that certain dates do not add up). Lycurgus compiled his work and then made it known to his people, who liked it very much initiating the Spartan celebration of Homer. Another legendary feat attributed to Lycurgus was the founding of the Olympics.
Lycurgus also traveled to Egypt, where he spent time studying the Army training. He was fascinated by the fact that in Egypt the soldiers were lifelong soldiers, as in other nations warriors were called to arms in war and returned to their previous work in peacetime. Although this certainly was not the only purpose of his trip to Egypt, at the time it was a place visited by all those who sought initiation of ancient wisdom.
The Spartan Aristocrates says that Lycurgus also traveled to Iberia, Libya and India, where he met the famous wise gymnosophists, with whom Alexander would also meet centuries later. The gymnosophist school valued, among other things, nudity to the inclemency of weather as a method to tan the skin and make the body and spirit resistant in general. As we will see later, this idea was greatly appreciated in Spartan education.
While Lycurgus was out, Sparta declined. The laws were not obeyed and there was no executive power to punish offenders. Upright men longed the time of the regency of Lycurgus and begged him: “It is true we have kings bearing the marks and assume the titles of royalty, but as for the qualities of their minds, nothing distinguishes them from their subjects. Only you have a nature made to rule and a genius to gain obedience.”
Lycurgus returned to Sparta and his first action was to bring together thirty of the greatest military leaders to inform them of his plans. After these men swore loyalty he ordered to join, armed, in the market square at dawn with their followers to instill terror in the hearts of those who would reject the changes he planned. He compiled a blacklist of potential enemies to hunt them down and eliminate if needed. That day the square was packed with fanatical followers of Lycurgus, and the effect was so impressive that the king fled to the temple of Athena, fearing a conspiracy against him. But Lycurgus sent a messenger to inform him that all he wanted was to introduce new legislation to improve and strengthen Sparta. Thus reassured, the king left the temple and headed to the square, and joined the party of Lycurgus. With Lycurgus, the two kings and thirty military leaders, the party had thirty-three members.
But even with the support of the king, what Lycurgus had made was clearly a coup, a conquest of power or imposition of his will: a revolution. He had united his people, instilling a sense of cohesion that should characterize any grand alliance. The individual is nothing and the species everything. Or as Hitler would say to his followers: “You are nothing, your Volk is everything.”
After developing his laws and make kings sworn they would respect them, Lycurgus reported that he would travel to the shrine of Delphi (the most important religious center of Hellas, considered “navel of the world”) in search of counsel from Apollo, to ratify their decision. Near Delphi, marginal nucleus of Dorian population in the slopes of Mount Parnassus, he saw a shrine to this god with a legend that in that spot Apollo had killed the serpent Python (a telluric idol related to pre-Indo-European peoples). A whole school was there for all initiatory mysteries of Delphi. These mysteries were a venerable institution, Dorian to the core, to which the notables of all Hellas looked for advice, initiation, and wisdom. It was a highly strategic location: from the sea, the sanctuary dominates the heights and seems to lie above the navigator, and from Delphi, everything that comes and leaves the Gulf of Corinth is seen clearly.
The sanctuary was saying, “Here we are the Greeks, dominating the naval and the trade traffic it brings, and we are vigilant.” In the temple of Apollo was a Sibyl, a virgin priestess who believed he had a special bond with this god and, like him, gifts of clairvoyance that were able to see the future and make prophecies. After receiving Lycurgus the Sibyl called him “more god than man” and claimed he was a chosen of the gods, and announced that his laws were good and blessed his plans to establish the Spartan constitution, which would make the kingdom of Sparta the most famous of the world.
This modern reconstruction recreates how the sanctuary of Delphi must have looked in ancient times. The road is strewn of stony plates that the Greek city-states donated to the oracle. The plates are adorned with elaborate writings and long dedications, except the Spartan plate, which reads: “To the oracle of Delphi, from Sparta.”
With the blessing of the priestess, Lycurgus established the Spartan constitution and his laws were so harsh and severe that he prohibited writing them down: only as oral tradition so that, over years of training, each individual assimilated them in his soul, by practice and internalization: something which would make him a carrier of such laws wherever he went and in any situation. His intention was not to create a mechanical, grid, stiff and cold system, but a living wheel: flexible and adaptable not only as common sense and logic, but also as an ancestral intuition and instinct.
By then Sparta was surrounded by hostile neighbors difficult to repel and possessed some nine thousand, non-militarized men to act in case of war or crisis. Lycurgus foresaw that if each of them was to be selected and trained hard in the arts of war since childhood, they would achieve victory over their opponents in spite of being outnumbered. Over generations, the people of Sparta would harden so much that would not be afraid of their enemies, and their fame would spread to the four cardinal points. Since then, Spartan boys became more than warriors: natural-born fighters with a lifelong mission, entirely committed in body and a soul sacrificed in honor of their homeland. They became, then, soldiers; perhaps the first professional soldiers in Europe.
Lycurgus did not exactly intend establishing a kind of democracy. On one occasion a man had before him a compliment of democracy, giving a fiery speech. Lycurgus, having heard all the talk in silence, replied: “Good, now go and set an example by establishing a democracy at home.” Keep in mind that even in those ancient “democracies” only Greek citizens voted, i.e. men of pure Hellenic blood who had reached the majority of age. They had nothing to do with our modern idea. Despite of this, there is no shortage of deceivers today who try to sell us that Sparta was a kind of communist system just because the state was omnipresent and the Spartans knew how to share among them.
Lycurgus’ revolution was not entirely peaceful. The Spartan people soon realized that the laws were extremely hard even for them. A considerable lineage of Dorian Greeks had become accustomed to the comfort and luxury that always come victorious when not maintained on guard. The sober, ascetic and martial socialism preached by Lycurgus, which required all young men to part from their families and eat with their comrades, was not well received among many, especially the rich and affluent. There was a wave of outrage and an angry mob gathered to protest against Lycurgus. The mob was composed especially by the former wealthy individuals who found degrading the military rule that prohibited eating except on a collectively table of comrades in arms. When Lycurgus appeared, the crowd began to stone him and he was forced to flee to avoid death by stoning. The angry mob chased him but Lycurgus—robust despite his age—was so fast that soon after only a young man named Alexander was at his heels.
When Lycurgus turned to see who was chasing him with such agility, Alexander struck him in the face with a stick, gouging out an eye. Lycurgus gave no sign of pain and just stood with his bloodied face to face his pursuer. When the rest of the crowd arrived they saw what the young man had done: a venerable old man, standing solemnly before them, bleeding with an empty eye. Those were very respectful times for the elderly, especially men as charismatic and noble as Lycurgus. Instantly they must have felt immense guilt. Embarrassed, the crowd accompanied Lycurgus to his home to show their apologies, and delivered Alexander to him to punish him as he saw fit. Lycurgus, now one-eyed, did not rebuke the young, but he invited Alexander to live with him as a student. The young man soon learned to admire and emulate the austere and pure way of life of his mentor. As tradition derived from that event, the Senators gave up the habit of attending state meetings with batons.
After the Spartan people swore the laws of Lycurgus, he decided to leave Sparta for the rest of his days. His mission was accomplished and he knew it; now he had to die giving an example of a strong will. Feeling nostalgic for his homeland and being unable to live away from her, he committed suicide by starvation. A man born for a particular purpose, once fulfilled that purpose he has no reason to linger earthbound. The ritual suicide has been practiced by many exceptional men whose mission was over, men who, after serving their fate, nothing was left in the world; they had lost the right to life. Nietzsche also spoke of voluntary death: “Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange soundeth the precept: “Die at the right time!”
Another version relates that before leaving Delphi, Lycurgus made the Spartan people swore to follow their laws at least until he returned from Delphi. And, having committed suicide without ever returning to Sparta, the Spartans were left with no choice but to always abide by the laws of Lycurgus.
For Sparta, Lycurgus was something of a precursor, a vanguard leader, a messenger before his time. He had royal power, and the sacred charisma of great leaders, kings, saints and emperors, “certain power that drew the wills” in the words of Plutarch. He came and transformed a chaotic and overflowing mass with great potential in the most effective army of Earth. He imprinted his world with a new inertia—his—, and gave a new aspect: what he wanted. After his death, a temple was erected in his honor and he was worshiped like a god. And it was from his time that not only Sparta but all Greece shone again: the beginnings of the Classic Age.
Xenophon greatly admired Lycurgus saying that he “reached the highest limit of wisdom” (Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, 1). Savitri Devi referred to him as “the divine Lycurgus” and recalled that “the laws of Lycurgus had been dictated by Apollo at Delphi” (The Hyperborean). Gobineau appreciated the salvation led by the legislation of Lycurgus: “The Spartans were few in number but big-hearted, greedy and violent: a bad legislation would have turned them into poor devils. Lycurgus transformed them into heroic bandits” (An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, book I, chapter V).