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Lycurgus & the Spartan State

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“And Theompopus, when a stranger kept saying, as he showed him kindness, that in his own city he was called a lover of Sparta, remarked: ‘My good sir, it were better for thee to be called a lover of thine own city.’” – Plutarch[1]

Just as Mussolini looked to Ancient Rome for the model of a healthy, organic society, the Ancient Romans looked to Sparta. In the first century (A.D.), as Rome continued its imperial ascent to near-hemispheric domination, the distance between the virtuous Republican nobility and the garish imperial nobility began to alert many to the potential for social degeneration. One of these was Plutarch, a Roman scholar of Greek birth.

Plutarch is best known for his series of parallel lives of the most virtuous Greeks and Romans, written to explain the particular virtues and vices that either elevate or subordinate a people. His “Life of Lycurgus,” then, is less a celebratory tale of the legendary king who transformed Sparta from typical Greek polis into the greatest warrior state in Western history than a description of that state. Its lessons are no less astounding to contemporary Americans than they were for Imperial Romans. And, while many Greek, Roman, and contemporary writers have explored the origins of warrior Sparta, Plutarch’s “Life of Lycurgus” remains the only necessary source on the subject.

Lycurgan Sparta was born of decadence. As the mentor of the young Spartan king Charilaus, his nephew, Lycurgus played a Cato-esque role. He imparted conservative and austere virtues to the young king, seeking to stem the love of money and ostentatious displays among the city’s nobility. When this tactic ran afoul of the Spartan elite, Lycurgus left the city and traveled around Greece and Asia. He discovered the Homeric epics and visited the Oracle at Delphi. There, Apollo’s priests told him that under his guidance a state would become the most powerful in Greece. So, with Apollo’s backing, he returned to Sparta and was given legal command of the city.[2] He immediately established a social system in which decadence would be impossible.

Lycurgus sought above all to end the vanity, weakness, and extravagance of the Spartan people. Politically, he devised a dually senatorial and monarchical governmental system that governed for the good of the state, not just its wealthiest citizens. Before Lycurgus, the kings of two royal families ruled Sparta, a model already designed to limit tyranny. In adding the senate, Lycurgus sought only further political stability,[3] understanding that democracy was only as valuable as its subjects were noble.[4]

So whereas the Athenians made democracy the reason of the state, Lycurgus made nobility the rationality of Spartan life. Individual Spartan lives were subordinated to that one ideal.[5] But what made Lycurgan nobility so extraordinary was, one, that it was attainable only by the bravest, strongest, and most accomplished warriors – and their women; and two, the lengths to which the state went in breeding this type of nobility.

Just as we have seen in Italian Fascist thought,[6] Lycurgus was interested in human instincts. Contextually speaking, however, we do not give the latter as much credit as the former. For Lycurgus was living at a time far removed from modern assumptions about the separation of mind and body. The Greek ideal, then, was possible precisely because the body was understood to be an outward manifestation of the mind. What is remarkable in Lycurgan Sparta, though, is the understanding of the link between instinct and conception; and it is this understanding that made warriors the most noble of nobles. In other words, Spartan training was not designed to create warrior bodies and concepts, but warrior instincts, of which the bodies were mere symptoms. Thus the importance placed on ethics and environment, as we will see below.

Lycurgus took one ideal and made it the aim of the state and its subjects. But while Greek nobility had become associated with hereditary wealth, creating a self-perpetuating system of luxury and quality (to which moderns owe much of the value of the Hellenic legacy, in particular) Lycurgus transvaluated nobility, making it instead something attainable only in violent service (and the preparation thereof) to the state. He felt more profoundly than other Greeks the relationship between nobility and the human form – conceptually and physiologically – and the idea of training these in concert. And, he reformed the Spartan state to become a factory of bodily nobility. It was his social and physiological reforms to this end that were critical to Sparta’s transformation, establishing, as they did, the messes, agōgē (meaning abduction but also leading and training), and eugenics that gave content to Sparta’s warriors.

Lycurgus’ first tasks, like establishing the senate, were designed to change the immediate political and social climate of the city. He redistributed all the land in Sparta so that each citizen family had a small plot of land to cultivate. He also banned coined money, instituting instead the trade in vinegar-soaked iron bars, thus making it virtually impossible to amass wealth.[7] Almost all forms of iniquity vanished from Sparta, Plutarch writes, “for who would steal or receive as a bribe, or rob or plunder that which could neither be concealed, nor possessed with satisfaction, nay, nor even cut to pieces with any profit?”[8] Elsewhere, Plutarch explains that wealth “awakened no envy, and brought no honor” to its Spartan bearer.[9]

Although most artisans left Sparta when there was no longer a way to trade their goods, Lycurgus compounded their misery by banishing any “unnecessary and superfluous” arts.[10] When not on campaign, Spartan men spent their time in festivals, hunting, exercising, and instructing the youth.[11] Within months of the Lycurgan monetary reforms, it was impossible to buy foreign wares, receive foreign freight, hire teachers of rhetoric, or visit soothsayers and prostitutes in Sparta. Although such restrictions were not motivated by the desire to protect or develop Spartan artisan crafts, locally produced housewares soon became sought after throughout the Greek world.[12] After establishing the limits of what would be permitted in Sparta, Lycurgus set his sights on educating toward nobility.

To ensure the unity and gastronomical fitness of Spartan men, Lycurgus created a mess system wherein men and youthful warriors dined together. Scholars have pointed to the messes as a crucial element of the Lycurgan reforms, and one that only made sense by Lycurgus’ understanding of the close relationship between mind and body. As Plutarch explains, the mess ensured more than social cohesion, providing a forum for the maintenance of the warrior himself:

With a view to attack luxury, [Lycurgus] . . . introduced the common messes so that they might eat with one another in companies, of common and specified foods, and not take their meals at home, reclining on costly couches at costly tables, delivering themselves into the hands of servants and cooks to be fattened in the dark, like voracious animals, and ruining not only their characters but also their bodies.[13]

The infamous agōgē operated with similar motivations. Breaking with Greek tradition – Xenophon explains that Lycurgus literally transvalued all Greek child rearing and education practices[14] – no private tutors or education were allowed in Sparta. The Spartan state, instead, educated all boys from age seven, regardless of his family’s status. In the agōgē boys were trained for discipline, courage, and fighting. They learned just enough reading and writing to serve their purpose as warriors, with their education “calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer in battle.”[15] Likewise, the boys went barefoot and largely unclothed so that they may function better in rough terrain and in inclement weather. Clothes, Xenophon explains, were thought to encourage effeminacy and an inability to handle variations in temperature.[16]

As well as being scantily clad, boys in the agōgē were underfed and encouraged to steal food. This taught them to solve the problem of hunger by their own hands with cunning and boldness[17] and encouraged the development of warlike instincts.[18] To further this development, the boys were forced to live for a period in the mountain wilderness, without weapons, and unseen.[19] If boys were caught stealing, their agōgē superiors beat them. Kennell debates the legend that these beatings had fatal consequences. After all, a Spartan boy/young man was the focus of the entire social rationale, and would not be killed prematurely. Another part of the legend is not debatable, however: the boys were not beaten for having stolen, but for having been mediocre enough at it to be caught.[20]

Returning to the mess, the boys, as common responsibility of all male citizens of Sparta, were constantly surrounded by “fathers, tutors, and governors.”[21] At dinner, the boys were quizzed on virtues and vices, commanded to answer in a simple and honest style now called laconic (after Lacedaemon). Often these questions demanded that they pass judgment on the conduct of the citizenry. Those without response were deemed deficient in the “will to excellence,” as if any lack of response, whether out of respect or ignorance, was product of an insufficiently critical mind.[22]

In Lycurgan Sparta, the warriors governed because war, and the preparation for war, had made them the most virtuous. Lycurgus is credited with codifying the value of a life cleansed of all superfluous trappings. The life so essentialized not only became the perfect hoplite warrior, moving in concert with his cohorts, but also the most virtuous and reliable citizen. This is because Spartan war training was designed primarily to toughen the mind against fear, adversity, and pain, leaving clarity and the confidence of conquering any foe in any situation.[23]

Steven Pressfield’s Polynikes explains this conception of model citizen:

War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war calls forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all that is base and ignoble.[24]

But what of Spartan men who did not meet these noble and honorable ideals? Xenophon explains that, in Sparta, the cowardly man was, in fact, a man without a city. He was shunned in all areas of public life, including the messes, ball games, gymnasia, and assemblies. This fact of life can be discerned in the “official” Spartan belief that honorable death was more valuable than ignoble life.[25] Xenophon sums the entire Lycurgan social system thus: to ensure “that the brave should have happiness, and the coward misery.”[26] Whereas in Fascist Italy, cowardly men might have been encouraged to “be courageous” in one’s own context, in Sparta, men had only one avenue to courage – war and training for war.

The agōgē has been central to academic and popular visions of Sparta from antiquity to modernity, and justifiably so. The Romans were so enchanted with the agōgē that Roman tourists traveled to Sparta just to visit its sites and temples (Artemis and the Dioscuri each played important roles in the boys’ religious instruction). Indeed, by 100 (A.D.) Rome had re-established the agōgē in Sparta and used it as a finishing school for noble Roman boys. It is only thanks to this period of the agōgē that we know anything about its Classical glory.[27]

And, even though we have been forced to speculate from the few anecdotes provided by Plutarch and Xenophon as to the content of agōgē training, we have a clear delineation of its purpose. As Plutarch explains it, the agōgē was a systematic training regimen in which boys and young men learned warring skills (including the discipline, sense of duty, and leadership already discussed) as well as “the most important and binding principles which conduce to the prosperity and virtue of a city.” These were not merely taught through lecture and regurgitation, but “implanted in the habits and training of [the boys],” through which “they would remain unchanged and secure, having a stronger bond than compulsion”.[28] As Lycurgus is thought to have summarized the agōgē’s rationale: “A city will be well-fortified which is surrounded by brave men and not by bricks.”[29]

Just as the content of the agōgē is speculative, it seems that so to is Lycurgus’ understanding of the links between conceptual and bodily vitality. For up to now, it has only been demonstrated that Lycurgus sought to defeat weakness and vice with strength and nobility. However, Lycurgus’ understanding of the body and mind is best demonstrated by the fate of Spartan women and infants.

As suggested above, sons were not the property of the father in Lycurgan Sparta, but the common property of the state. Unlike other Greek and Roman states, in Sparta the decision to raise a child rested with a council of elders who checked babies for health and stamina. If one was ill born and deformed it was discarded, as life “which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength was of no advantage either for itself or the state.”[30]

In many cases, Spartan children were not even the product of random parentage, “but designed to spring from the best there was.” Eugenics. During his time of exile, Lycurgus noticed something peculiar about Greek men. In Athens, Plutarch explains, he saw men arguing over the particular breeding stock of certain dogs and horses. And yet, these same men sired children even though “foolish, infirm, or diseased, as though children of bad stock did not owe their badness to their parents.”[31] Marriages and births were carefully regulated, then, always with an eye to the physical and political wellbeing of the city.

Because of the Lycurgan exaggeration of the Greek educational ideal, Plutarch exclaimed that the education of Spartan children began before birth – an extraordinary concept, considering the 7th Century (B.C.) context. In reality it began prior to conception. Which brings us to Spartan women as mothers. Uniquely in the Classical Greek world, Spartan women exercised alongside men. They ran, wrestled, and threw the discuss and javelin, so that they might struggle successfully and easily with childbirth, and that their offspring would have a “vigorous root in vigorous bodies.”[32]

Lycurgus had a well-conceived eugenic rationale, believing that the human body would grow taller when unburdened by too much nutrition. Things that are well fed, he noticed, tend to grow thick and wide, both of which went against ideals of beauty and divinity. Thus, while leanness marked the human form as most beautiful, it also gave it a kinship with the divine. However, for mothers and their offspring, the benefits were also mundane, as mothers who exercised were thought to have lean children because the lightness of the parent matter made the offspring more susceptible to molding.[33]

After birth, infants were reared without swaddling so that their limbs would develop freely and robustly.[34] Boys in the agōgē wore a simple loin wrap, and men little more. The scores of near-naked men, boys, and unswaddled babies were joined by scores of near-naked women and girls. Perhaps Lycurgus’ most delicious transvaluation of decadent values is his command that in Sparta, the healthy condition of one’s body was to be more esteemed than the costliness of one’s clothes.[35] Nakedness and a strict code of physical beauty – that equated beauty with nobility – seem like potent stimuli to health; to say nothing of the belief that one’s commitment to beauty and nobility was of great benefit to oneself, one’s offspring, and one’s people.

Lycurgus believed that scant dress encouraged in women the habit of living with simplicity. More so, however, he wanted Spartan women to have an ardent desire for a healthy and beautiful body. And because the path to health and beauty led to the gymnasia and sports field, a beautiful female body ensured that the bearer of such possessed “bravery, ambition, and a taste of lofty sentiment.”[36]

Nowhere in the ancient world were women so integrated in the social and political rationale of a people. As a result of the Lycurgan reforms, Spartan girls were educated to similar principles and standards of courage, discipline, and honor, as the boys. They were literate. They performed public rituals to Artemis and Apollo. They were athletic enough to win medals at the Olympic games – even when competing against men. And they were known for their “vitality, grace, and vigor.”[37]

Meanwhile in Athens, girls received no education beyond the domestic duties of a wife and mother. And they lived sequestered lives, with no thought of how their physical degeneration might adversely affect Athens.[38] Thus the scandalous response provoked by Spartan women. For it is the state of women that provoked the idea that Spartan men were mere slaves to women.[39] But it is also the source of the sentiment, expressed so succinctly by Zack Snyder’s Gorgo, that “Only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Incidentally, the line comes from Plutarch and not Frank Miller.[40]

Lycurgus used political philosophy and physiology to fight degeneration. And while Sparta may seem a frightening place to modern men, this is precisely its value. For Sparta stands apart as the singular place that valued the bodily and conceptual nobility of its citizens above all else.

Plutarch described the legacy of Lycurgan Sparta as an example of what is possible when an entire people lives and behaves in the fashion of a single wise man training himself for war.[41] Wisdom, training, and war: three of the Classical traits most damned by modernity – at least as they were understood and practiced by Classical peoples. Above it was suggested that the lessons of Sparta would be read equally as shocking to a Roman as to an American. Yet, this is perhaps not quite true; and the reason is in the nature of Plutarch’s statement about Sparta acting as a single wise man. For, in effect, this was Plutarch’s explanation of the efficacy of the Lycurgan reforms. Just as his portrayal of Lycurgus’ seizure of power focused on Apollo’s blessing and the will of a handful of men, so here Plutarch sees no modern systemic rationale at work; but instead a natural path of choice for truly noble men.

For, according to Plutarch, what Lycurgus did was to establish a divinely sanctioned ethical aristocracy at the expense of a monetary aristocracy. This was an aristocracy into which one must be born, but also for which one must be born. Lycurgus incorporated each living Spartan into the aristocracy, by virtue of being alive. A Spartan boy would know himself worthy of the nobility being demanded of him simply because he had been selected at birth and progressed through the training of the agōgē. One can imagine that the harshness and forcefulness of Spartan life would have been accepted far more readily by one given a hereditary and ethical rationale for inclusion and acceptance than by liberated and atomized modern men.[42]

There is another aspect of Sparta that discomforts modern men even more than the equation of wisdom and war training, however: purity. In the 300 years of strict adherence to the Lycurgan reforms, no Spartan was allowed to live beyond Spartan territory. What’s more, no foreigners without a useful purpose were allowed to stay in Sparta overnight. None of them were allowed to teach vices.

For along with strange people, strange doctrines must come in; and novel doctrines bring novel decisions, from which must arise [disharmony within] the existing political order. Therefore [Lycurgus] thought it more necessary to keep bad manners and customs from invading and filling the city than it was to keep out infectious diseases.[43]

This desire for social purity also works as part of Lycurgus’ system of ethical and physiological transformation. For there is no reason to believe that noble men and women are made less so in an environment that provides only for their nobility. Imagine, instead, that the body becomes what its environment expects and demands of it. Harshness is the only thing productive of bodily vitality. Lycurgus believed that similar bodily harshness was also productive of conceptual nobility. So, instead of teaching such values in a cesspool and hoping that nature would provide a few prime examples each generation, Lycurgus took on nature, providing an environment that afforded Sparta the “good” in every citizen. This meets the definition of utopia, but unlike unnatural, modern, egalitarian utopia, Lycurgus’ Spartan utopia was hyper-natural. As was his ethical aristocracy.

The attainment of a high standard of noble living was a public duty. Youth were often the products of selective breeding, and it was demanded that all people be fit and vital. The greatest and most noble sentiments and characteristics available to man were attainable only through physical exertion and warlike action. Beauty was reserved for the worthy and actively denied the unworthy. In sum, it was demanded that men and women be as noble as was physically and conceptually possible.[44] And, while Fascist Italy did not go as far to promote the “eugenic improvement” of fascists, it too understood the relationship between ethics, behavior, and environment. Oddly enough, postmodern science agrees, even if it would use this knowledge to promote a global bourgeois community devoid of strife. Nonetheless, the next paper in this series will explain how the chemistry of the body is influenced by environment, opening great possibilities for placing the body directly at the center of a war against bourgeois modernity; and further, at the mercy of Nietzsche’s understanding of instincts, the body, and conceptual vitality.


[1] Plutarch, Lives (Volume One), trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914), 269.

[2] Plutarch 205–17.

[3] Plutarch 219–21.

[4] Xenophon, Scripta Minora, trans. E.C. Marchant (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 169.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Writings from the Period of Unfashionable Observations, trans. Richard T. Gray (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 293.

[6] Giuseppe Bottai, “Twenty Years of Critica Fascista,” in A Primer of Italian Fascism, ed. Jeffrey T. Schnapp, trans. Schnapp, Sears, and Stampino (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 192.

[7] Plutarch 227–29.

[8] Plutarch 231.

[9] Plutarch 279.

[10] Plutarch 231.

[11] Plutarch 281.

[12] Plutarch 231.

[13] Plutarch 233.

[14] Xenophon 141.

[15] Plutarch 257.

[16] Xenophon 143.

[17] Plutarch 261.

[18] Xenophon 145.

[19] Nigel M. Kennell, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 131.

[20] Kennel 179.

[21] Plutarch 259.

[22] Plutarch 263.

[23] Plutarch 267.

[24] Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 137.

[25] Xenophon 167.

[26] Xenophon 165.

[27] Kennell 117–39.

[28] Plutarch 241.

[29] Plutarch 267.

[30] Plutarch 255.

[31] Plutarch 253.

[32] Plutarch 245–47.

[33] Plutarch 261.

[34] Plutarch 255.

[35] Xenophon 161.

[36] Plutarch 247.

[37] Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece (New York: The Overlook Press, 2003), 36–37.

[38] Cartledge 36.

[39] Xenophon 163.

[40] Plutarch 247.

[41] Plutarch 297.

[42] Nietzsche 363.

[43] Plutarch 289.

[44] Xenophon 169.



  1. Jack Laurent
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    “Only gods and heroes can be brave in isolation. A man may call upon his courage only one way, in the ranks with his brothers-in-arms, the line of his tribe and his city. Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a shell, a joke, and a mockery. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home.”

    Steven Pressfield
    Gates of Fire

  2. Lew
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff. Looking forward to the next part.

  3. Jaego
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Once an old man at the Games couldn’t find a seat and none of the young Athenians would get up, but all the Spartans did. The man said, all Greeks know what is right, but Spartans actually do it.

    Plato deeply admired Sparta and its virtues, seeing them as the Wisdom of Socrates made manifest. But no matter how exalted, the physical must fall short of the Ideal Form. But there is no contradiction – only yearning to towards the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And the Body, a Tomb of the Spirit as well as its well crafted vehicle until the release of death. And for the true Philosopher, that Death is sweet indeed, a birth into a the True World that he contemplated through the glass darkly, the bodily tomb.

  4. will
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    However this same Sparta ended up with the problem of an ever shrinking citizenry outnumbered by all the non-citizens. This Utopia is unsustainable and once the Spartan society ran out of enemies they could only then fight among themselves or no longer train for war.

  5. Andrew
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating article, I also look forward to the next installment.

  6. Joseph Bishop
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Sparta provides two other models for us to take heed from. Their men spent virtually all of their time drilling for war and had a very low birthrate. Their elite hoplites were rightly feared everywhere but because they rarely numbered more than 10,000 or so the loss of even a small number of them was unthinkable – which impacted their own military decisions during the Peloponnesian war and other conflicts. Even sending them outside their territory risked catastrophic revolt and disaster (see below). Lesson: must have high birthrate to survive.

    Additionally, they had a huge serf- or slave-like population of helots in and around their state, vastly outnumbering the Spartans, and hating Sparta and chafing for a takeover. THEY had a normal birthrate btw. Sound familiar? Lesson: the obvious.

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