A statue of Lycurgus at the Law Court of Brussels

LYCURGUS, 8th Century BC: The Reformation of Sparta

It occurred to me one day that Sparta, although one of the more thinly populated of the Greek states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece, and I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the constitution of the Spartans, I wondered no longer.

[Xenophon, "The Constitution of the Spartans"]

The introduction to the rough and warlike Spartan way of life - that is, the strict Agōgē training regime - is often assigned to the lifetime of Lycurgus. These changes set Sparta on a route to become the most unique of Greek city-states, and a Greek military superpower. Lycurgus is known to us as a lawmaker who specialised in state education in an attempt “to make his fellow citizens better”, as Solon quoted.



Check out my previous posts on the hoplite and their phalanx battle formation




Sparta itself was a combination of four villages within the Eurotas Valley, in the south-east Peloponnese. According to legend, Herakles himself sailed across from Crete with his great-great-great grandson's, the twins Eurysthenes and Procles, who would go on to found the two royal households of Sparta: the Agiad and Eurypontid Dynasties. While Herakles himself was near definitely a mythical figure, Spartans themselves believed this, and used it to state that they were not native Greeks, and thus every other Greek around them was a potential enemy, despite sharing a common language and pantheon of deities with their neighbours. To keep the bloodline pure, the two households descended via bloodline, so each king was the son of the prior king, and they served for life. Supposedly, King Leonidas himself could trace his lineage back to Hyllus, the son of Herakles. This weariness of all Greeks around them is supposedly what made Sparta so warlike, even going so far as to eventually, anually, declare war on their own slaves, the Helots.

Territory of ancient Sparta

[ABOVE: The territories controlled by Sparta, southern Greece]



The more realistic origin of Sparta's dual kingship (called a Diarchy, as in dual-monarchy) was through the unification of its 5 old community-like villages: Kynosoura, Limnai, Mesoa and Pitana. Supposedly, the Agiad family ruled from Pitana (which had already absorbed Mesoa), or at least had their burial sites there, and the Eurypontid Dynasty ruled from Limnai (which had already absorbed Kynosoura). The merging of Pitana and Mesoa with Limnai and Kynosoura formerly made the Diarchy that became Sparta. (Sparta's 5th village, Amyklai, was absorbed at a later date.) Greeks of the 5th century BC would remark how the city-state of Sparta had never reduced down the identities of the old rural villages. The merging of villages into city-states was a process known to the Greeks as 'Synoecism', from "syn" ("dwelling together") in the same "house" ("oikos").


[ABOVE: Antique map of Sparta recreated from ancient sources, made in 1783]




Sparta was a diarchy, which unlike a monarchy had two kings at a time instead of just one. The kings had special privileges given to them by the Spartiates citizens: two priesthoods (one to Heavenly Zeus and another to Zeus of Lakedaemon), the right to start a war against anyone they chose with no Spartiate being allowed to obstruct their choice in doing so under threat of being placed under a curse, they had to be the first to leave the city and last to come back into the city when on campaign, their bodyguard unit size was made up of one-hundred picked hoplites and they were allowed to have as much livestock when on campaign as they liked, and when these animals were sacrificed, they got the skins and backs of them.


Those were their given rights when at war, but they had different rights when in times of peace. During a public sacrifice, the kings were the first to take their seat for the festival. The servers were to serve the kings before anyone else, and give them a double-sized portion of food and drink. They also had the privilege of pouring the first libation and had the right of having the skins and backs of the sacrificed animals, like they did in times of war. When a new moon arose, and on the 7th day of a month, both kings were to be given, at the expense of the public, an unblemished sacrificial victim to be sacrificed at the temple to Apollo, as well as a medimnus (51.84 litres-worth according to Herodotus) of Barley and a Laconian fourth (about 14 litres according to Herodotus and F. Hultsch [Berlin, 1882]) of wine. They also got special seats assigned to them at all public games.


[ABOVE: Sparta's theatre, showing Mount Taegytus in the background]

On top of this, they were allowed to choose any citizen they pleased to act as Sparta’s official national diplomat, with each of them being assigned two Pythians. The Pythians served as emissaries to Delphi - the holiest shrine in Greece - and were maintained by the kings, again, at large public expenses. If a king did not attend a public feast, 2 choenixes (1.08 litres) of barley and a cotyle (270 ml) of wine were to be sent directly to them at their own private homes. They were to receive all these benefits if ever invited to someone else’s home as well. Their roles also involved looking after any oracles that Sparta received, although the Pythians were aware of these too. They also had roles to play in marriage, being solely responsible for choosing who should marry a Spartan heiress whose father, without betrothing her to anyone, had recently died. If a Spartan citizen wished to adopt a son, they had to do so in the presence of one of the kings. Spartan kings also had to adjudicate cases that concerned public highways.


[ABOVE: Spartan territory, showing the Perioecic cities, 5th-4th centuries BC]



When a king died, it was tradition for horsemen to gallop all across Laconia to spread the news. At the same time, women around the city would beat on cauldrons in a parade. As this was happening, two people from each royal house, a man and a woman who weren’t slaves, had to disfigure themselves as a sigh of mourning, or else face a heavy fine. Another tradition following a Spartan kings death, some perioeci (second-class citizens) and Spartiates were to come from all across Laconia to attend the funeral proceedings. When Spartiates, perioeci and helots were all gathered in one spot for the funeral, men and women together would beat their own foreheads and give way to passionate grieving, whilst stating that the recently passed king was the best Sparta had ever known, the same claim as each time this happened. If a king died in combat, they had statues made of themselves, and this statue would have been carried around the city streets atop a decorated bier. Ten days following the funeral, the city centre was closed for business and no electoral sessions were to take place - the entire time was devoted instead to pure mourning.


[ABOVE: "Lycurgus of Sparta", by Jacques-Louis David, 1791, depicting Lycurgus handing over the Spartan kingship to a child]

If a citizen was in debt to a king that had just died, the next king to succeed him had to relieve him of his fines to the state, a tradition alike to the Persians.


Likely during the late eighth century BC, Sparta held its dominion to the west across the Taygetus mountains and had doubled their territory following the conquest of Messenia, firmly setting themselves as rulers of the southern Peloponnese. It was during the sixth century that Sparta reformed itself to cope with its new conquered lands and peoples, especially the Messenians, and to prevent uprisings and attacks, both from within Sparta’s borders and from outside, such as from their rival to the north, Argos. This restructuring is credited to reforms set by Lycurgus, and turned Sparta into the unique military power we know it as, a social lifestyle that would automatically make them the lead power in the fight against Persia during the early 5th century, and the victor against Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars a few decades after that. Plato and Aristotle, during the 4th century BC, spoke of Sparta and its political structure, saying it had remained unchanged since Lycurgus, even after Sparta’s crippling defeat by the Thebans in 371 BC at Leuctra.


[ABOVE: The Chigi Vase, depicting hoplites in battle, found in Monte Agusso, Etruria, Italy c.650-640 BC]




[ABOVE: A statue of Lycurgus at the Law Court of Brussels]

While modern historians like to generally place Lycurgus’s life around the sixth century, past historians have ascribed him to earlier periods: Herodotus claims he lived around the seventh century and Plutarch even places his life during the late 10th century. It’s unknown for sure whether Lycurgus even existed or not, so any of these dates could be as true as the other. His visit to the Oracle at Delphi opened with this greeting from the Pythia:

Lycurgus, here you are. You have come to my rich temple,
Beloved of Zeus and all who dwell on Olympus.
Should I address you, I’m my prophecy, as a god or as a man?
I think it would be better to call you a god, Lycurgus.

He arrived there for answers about how he should reform the Spartan state. The Pythia produced this response for him:

Found a sanctuary of Zeus Scyllanius and Athena Scyllania, form tribes and septs, establish a Council of Elders consisting of thirty men including the leaders, and then from time to time hold an paella between Baby and Cnacium, and so make your proposals and vetos. But power and authority is to rest with the people.

(Note: ‘tribes and septs’ refers to the population being divided into two groups, ‘leaders’ refers to the kings and ‘hold an apella’ is holding an assembly.)



[ABOVE: A marble bust in the Vatican Museum depicting Lycurgus]




This was the first and most vital part of his reforms. A 28-strong council also known as the Council of Elders, Plato described them as a means of restraint and security as their role was to temper with the ‘feverish’ kings’ rules, having just an equal part to play as kings in political affairs. Before them, politics could either lean too far towards the kings favour and things could fall towards tyranny, or things could lean too far towards the people’s favour and things could fall towards full mob-rule; The Gerousia allowed for the constitution to have a safe arrangement for itself, as they mostly sided with the kings when resisting democracy but supported the people to avoid tyranny. The council was actually 30 men strong, as the two kings were also members, meaning if any one of them was ever put on trial, they could be a judge at their own trial.


[ABOVE: The Spartan constitution, depicting the Gerousia, Kings, Ephors and citizens]


28 elders formed the Gerousia, and the two kings brought this total up to 30. Originally composed of Lycurgus’ early co-conspirators, Gerousia members were chosen from men over the age of 60 who were deemed of an outstanding quality compared to everyone else. No contest was deemed as vital as this choosing, and anyone chosen was never again as highly praised. It was a test of virtue and and of a sound sense, instead of proving yourself physically. His reward for outperforming his peers was a lifetime office of absolute power, where his role was to decide, essentially, how his fellow citizens should live out their lives.


The selection was done as so: When the assembly met, the men were shut in a room, with no knowledge of what was going on around them. Candidates were brought before the current council one at a time, in a particular order decided by lot, and walked in silence past the assembly. Meanwhile, those still locked in their rooms were given tablets, and were to write down who had the loudest or quietest amount of shouting during their time in front of the assembly, with no knowledge of who they were actually writing about, instead just writing out “first candidate”, “second candidate” and so on. They would declare the winner based on whoever had the loudest and longest shouting.

The winner, given a garland, visited sanctuaries alongside a group of young men praising him, and by women recounting songs relating to his excellence and life achievements, while friends offered him food. When his rounds were finished, he attended his mess as usual, except he was given double portions. Keeping some aside, he retired to his phidition, where he was greeted at the doors by his female relatives. He called for the one he regarded as higher than the rest and gave her the extra food. She was congratulated for being chosen, and the other women escorted her home.


[ABOVE: "Lycurgus as Legislator", from 1832]




Prior to Lycurgus, inequality, large populations of paupers with no property and uneven wealth distribution plagued Sparta. In order to discourage this, Lygurgus’s reforms ordered for the population to pool all land together for it to be more evenly redistributed amongst everyone. This was to provide everyone with a far more equal amount of land between them to produce a more equal amount of wealth between them, to reduce uneven wealth distribution and corruption. A prosperous future provided for them thereafter was one only gained through individual excellence, on the basis that everyone had a far more equal opportunity and start in life. Laconia was divided between around 30,000 plots of land, distributed amongst the Perioeci - Sparta’s second class citizen - and the area of land surrounding the city of Sparta itself was divided into between 6,000 and 9,000 (depending on which source you follow) plots of land for the Spartiates - the full citizens. Each plot provided 70 medimni (c.3,630 litres) of barley and 12 medimni (c.622 litres) for his wife, plus large quantity of fruit, an adequate amount for good health according to Lycurgus.


Lycurgus also confiscated people’s gold and silver, replacing their legal tender with iron bars, again distributing it evenly among the populace. He also decreed it to be near valueless, requiring teams of cattle to transport vast amounts of it despite its low value. Supposedly, crime rates decreased almost to the point of disappearing altogether, as no one would wish to attempt to sneak into a property and steal money that they themselves could not carry. Lycurgus also rid Sparta of useless superfluous superstitions, something that would have naturally happened following the banning of gold and silver coinage anyway. As a result, no foreign merchants carrying exotic items, no maker of ornaments, no keeper of prostitutes etc would even wish to make a living in Sparta, as their iron currency was only worth something in their own city, and nowhere else. When luxurious items gradually disappear from Sparta, no gain was held in owning more property than someone else as wealth had no means of publicly showing itself off. Even beds, chairs and tables began declining in popularity, and Sparta’s drinking cups, used for the military as well as the home, were coloured so as to disguise the discoloured water the soldiers were drinking, and the rim of the cup caught any dirt that might otherwise had been drunk.


[ABOVE: Laconian black-figure Name vase, by an anonymous Spartan artist known as the Rider Painter, c.550-530 BC]


These wealth redistribution laws weren’t popular with the already-wealthy of course; They formed an opposition party against Lycurgus, and he was forced out of the city square by missile fire, taking refuge in a nearby sanctuary. A man named Alcander, however, had caught up to him and knocked out one of his eyes with a stick. When Lycurgus returned to Sparta, he showed his wounds to a sea of horrified onlookers, who handed in Alcander as a result, outraged by the mans actions, which seems a little weird to me considering they threw javelins at him earlier. Lycurgus was somewhat just in his treatment of the man, choosing to simply dismiss his slaves and have Alcander serve him instead, rather than simply killing him. Alcander would go on to note how silently hard working, high minded and, even, gentle Lycurgus was. In memory of his injury, Lycurgus had a statue of Athena Optilletis built in Sparta, “optilloi” being the Doric word for “eyes”, and Spartan custom following this event included not taking sticks when attending a public assembly.




The common mess was a gathering of people who ate the same specified foods in order to prevent people privately engorging themselves at home on costly couches and requiring possible medical assistance for doing so. The lack of a need for wealth in Sparta would have made this an easier reform to implement anyway. It was said that people would actively be on the lookout for anyone who could have been privately feasting at home then turning up to the public mess on a full stomach; the whole idea was to make Sparta a more personally connected community and stop people from living too privately.


The Cretan word for these common messes was “andreia”, or “men’s quarters”, but Spartans called them “phiditia” as they promoted “philia” (friendship) and “phidia” (loyalty). Groups attending the mess would show up in groups of 15, give-or-take, and would turn up with 1 medimnus (51.84 litres) of barley, 8 choes (1.08 litres) of wine, 5 minas (350 drachmae) of cheese, 2.5 minas of figs, and a small amount of money (iron) for savoury purchasing. The common savoury available at the mess was black soup, a food so supposedly vial that a king of Pontus once hired a Spartan chef in order to try the soup, and declared “only people who have washed in the Eurotas should drink this broth”, so older people at the mess tended to avoid it and leave it for the younger. If anyone had made a sacrifice of first fruits or had been hunting, a portion was given to his mess; eating at home was permitted as long as you hunted the meat yourself or if the food was sacrificed. King Agis would later attempt to eat privately at home with his wife, and when he was refused in doing so, he refused to sacrifice his food in turn, and was fined as a result.


Boys were also present at these messes, listening in on politics and watching entertainment and being taught in turn to entertain everyone else and tell non-vulgar jokes. They were also taught to be teased without reacting to it, a characteristic commonly associated with Spartans: the ability to take a joke. If someone found a joke intolerable, they were allowed to protest it though.


When entering the public mess, an elder would greet each person, point at the doors and say, “Not a word is to reach the outside world through these.” Members would take a piece of bread and toss it into a basket atop a slaves head, almost like a voting pebble. A person supporting a candidates entry tossed the bread in as it was, and anyone opposing the candidate would first squeeze it; squished bread was equivalent to a holed ballot, and if even one was found in the basket, the candidate was refused entry to the mess as a means of making everyone happy in everyone else’s company at the mess. Rejected candidates had, in their terms, been “kaddished”, from the route word for the basket, “kaddikhos”.




    Lycurgus believe that the principles that produce the best men to work the best state are ones which don’t have to be in writing, and are instead implemented through training. All his legislation therefore was implemented through training and actions rather than writing.

    His second rhetra, that of homes being made with only axes and doors being only made via saws, made homes more simplistic and less extravagant to match a mans simple clothing, couch and other personal possessions. Leotychidas, an elder, once dined in the city of Corinth, and noticing the palaces decorated roof asked if trees grew square in Corinth.

    The third rhetra forbade Sparta from multiple successive campaigns against the same opponent. This was in order to avoid Spartans being used to defending themselves from the same opponent, thus becoming more expert and rounded fighters. Spartans would even go on to complain about King Agesilaus, saying his repeated invasions against Boeotia (Thebes) had made the Boeotians a match for the Spartans. This is likely how the Theban Sacred Band was born, a group of Theban fighters supposedly said to be some of the best fighters in the Greek world.





Lycurgus valued state education as the most vital piece of legislation to alter, so began his changes based on women and childbirth. When men were on campaigns, which in such a militarised state as Sparta was a frequent occurrence, women actually had a lot more freedoms than one might think, certainly in comparison to other women living in other Greek states at the time; men on campaign had no choice but to leave their estates - even in death - to their wives, not the state, giving women the title of “Mistresses”. Lycurgus made sure that women were also tough enough to defend themselves, implementing training for them in discus and javelin throwing, running and wrestling in order to toughen them up for childbirth. Like boys, he wished to remove their frailty and femininity by getting them use to being publicly nude and publicly dancing and singing at festivals, looked on by men. Opportunities were even presented to women to openly mock and taunt ill-performing men and publicly praise stronger men, filling the better men with pride and the weaker with shame and the desire to do better, a desire made even stronger by the fact that the kings use to attend the public taunting.


[ABOVE: "The Selection of the Ancient Spartans", showing a Spartan baby being judged, by Giuseppe Diotti, 1840]


The nudity was nothing shameful, but rather to accustom them to a more simple lifestyle and to want to appreciate and look up to a physically fitter body. It also improved their way of speaking, apparently; When a foreigner to Sparta approached Leonidas’ wife, Gorgo, she remarked, “You Laconian women are the only ones who control your men”, to which she received the response:

That’s because we’re the only ones who give birth to men.


[ABOVE: Bronze, Spartan-made figure of a girl running, donning a single-shouldered chiton, c.520-500 BC]



All of this public physical prowess of women attracted men, as the men of Sparta were, as Plato words it, “drawn by sexual rather than logical necessity.” Lycurgus also made sure that unmarried men weren’t allowed to watch the Festival of Unarmed Dancing, the Gymnopaideia, a festival involving choral singing and youthful competitions. Even great generals weren’t given such privileges; when a man refused to give up his seat to the distinguished general Dercyllidas, the man stated, “you have no son to give up his seat for me one day”, and the remark went unchecked, as the general was seen a lesser for not being married or having children, despite his successes on the battlefield.


[ABOVE: Bronze, silver and bone dress pins found in the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, c.800-600 BC, now held in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, U.K.]


Marriage ceremonies were definitely odd; they involved men forcibly abducting women. She was then given over to a bridesmaid and had her head shaved bald, dress them like men and leave her unattended on a straw flooring in the dark. A (not drunk, it should be said) man, after dining, would then sneak into the woman’s room, undid her belt, picked her up and carried her to bed, spending a short time with her before quietly leaving and going back to the barracks with the other men. This process would repeat, with the man sometimes sneaking out to be with the woman, cautioning not to be seen with her out of embarrassment and fear of being noticed by anyone in the house, all while the woman would be devising plans to make their meeting a little easier to execute. This meeting process gave back some discipline and self-control and only brought them together when they were both physically fertile enough, so as to make their time apart make them desire each other’s company even more.

Painting depicting a Spartan woman giving her son his shield.

[ABOVE: "A Spartan Woman Giving a Shield to her Son", by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, 1826]

Spartan women were famously stoic in their attitude towards the sending of their husbands and boys to war. Comparatively not wavered by the prospect of their deaths, Plutarch famously relates the story that one woman equipped her son for war, saying:

With this shield, or on it



Men deemed physically good enough for another man’s wife were also allowed to sleep and procreate with that woman. The purpose of all this to Lycurgus was that children belonged to the state, not their parents, and so wished children to come from the best parentage possible instead of solely relying on formerly-made partnerships to determine who should have children with who, in the same way their animals like dogs and horses were bred with the physically best suited partners. This practice, fairly natural in animal nature, reduced the need for people to be overly-secretly promiscuous with someone, reducing the chances of adultery.


When a boy was born, like all Spartans, he was brought to the leskhē, “assembly place”, where elders of his tribe would inspect the boy for imperfections. If deemed strong enough, the elders told the father to assign the boy to one of Sparta’s 9,000 plots of land for the future. If deformed, however, the child - only just recently born - was taken to the Apothetai, the “place of exposure”, near Mount Taygetus, with the idea that death by exposure would be as nothing compared to being raised as a physically impaired person among Sparta. The babies were often tested by being dipped in wine, almost like a baptism, as a test for the constitution. The idea was that babies that are prone to seizures and illnesses and are then dipped in wine brings on fits and severe skin blemishes, whereas healthier babies are toughened by it.


[ABOVE: "The Selection of Children in Sparta", by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours utilising descriptions from Plutarch, from 1785]


Nurses had the job of teaching young children to allow their bodies and limbs to move more freely by wearing less restrictive and lighter clothing at most, and to not be fussy with food, never to fear the dark or being alone and never to demean themselves with tears and tantrums. It’s this tutoring that led to Spartan nurses being popular with other Greeks; the nurse of Alcibiades of Athens, Amycla, is even thought to have been a Spartan.


When the boy reached the age of 7, new Spartan law decreed that the boys be taken by the state from their parents and enrolled into training groups (known to Plutarch as “herds”) so as to accustom them to learning and training together under the same rules. Boys that showed the highest levels of intellect and fighting spirit was placed in charge of the herd, while the others kept their eye on him, while taking his orders and going through his set punishments to train them in obedience.


[ABOVE: Spartan-made bronze appliqué, likely depicting the mythical figure Orestes, c.550-525 BC]



While learning to fight, the boys were taught to read and write so as to read and understand written orders if needed. The rest of their education was solely geared towards war, hard work and winning, something that becomes clearer as the boys got older and the training became tougher; hair was cut short or off, they were made to go barefoot or naked everywhere, and by the age of twelve, the boys were given a single cloth, instead of their tunics, once a year. They became accustomed to getting weathered skin while rarely knowing of bathing and oiling their bodies. They slept with their herd on straw and reed floors (at best) that they’d handpicked (not cut with a knife) and packed themselves, which sometimes included a wolf shape, a type of thistle, to provide some natural warming abilities in winter.


[ABOVE: "Young Spartans Exercising", by Edgar Degas, c.1860]



By that age, boys were often accompanied by lovers from other families. They also begun to receive more attention from their adult tutors, who in turn saw them as pupils, wards and even sons, staying close by them as they wrestled and fought each other. They also stood by to criticise them if they faulted.


One boy would also be chosen from each herd by the herd to be a “boy-herder” to act like an “eiren". Chosen at age 20, they took command of men assigned to him in a battle, who would also attend to him indoors when eating. He would tell the bigger boys to collect wood, and the smaller, perhaps nimbler, ones to collect vegetables, all acquired by stealing from peoples gardens or even into other’s messes. Anyone caught in the act of stealing was thrashed with a whip, as it wasn’t the stealing that was punishable in Sparta, but rather being careless enough to be caught in the act. Stealthily stealing food trained the boys to sneak past foreign guards - their own bravery and cunning would earn them their meal, and a spot away from a thrashing.


Less food also allowed the boys to be lighter, and not encumbered by bodily fats. Instead, the idea was that the boys would grow taller as a result of weighing less. A light diet would supposedly also pronounce the natural features of everyone, making them better looking, which all explained why the Spartans believed that women who ate less during pregnancy produce leaner babies.


A story which isn’t yet provably true, yet definitely believable when one understands the Spartan, is of a boy who tried to sneak a fox cub back and past the Spartans. Rather than reveal the fox and give up, the boy withstood the fox clawing and even eating at the boys flesh and guts. Given that these same boys at aged 7 would undergo a ritual lashing contest, this doesn’t seem a too improbable story in my eyes.


When the eiren had eaten, he’d lay on his couch as one boy sang for him, and another told him stories, asking another boy questions. These questions could include which of the other boys stood out the most, or he’d ask him for his opinion on a recent outstanding action of another person. This practiced them in assessing for perfection and got them into concern for the actions of their peers. This answer had to be backed up with a demonstration on how to do said-thing better, punished if done poorly by - weirdly - a bite on the thumb. Punishments made by the eiren were assessed afterwards by elders to make sure they were leading and disciplining the boys correctly and for the right things.


Spartans did also learn to sing and recite poems in between training. These were designed unpretentiously and plainly to ignite the spirit within the boys and gear them even further towards a fight. Themes included honouring the fallen, remembering those who lived the best and happiest Spartan lives, condemning cowardice and the promise of future bravery. Three choruses were also sung at festivals, one by each different age group; the elders would begin by singing, “We once were valiant young men”, followed by the men who would sing, “But it’s our turn now; please try us out” and finally the boys would sing, “But we shall prove mightier by far.”





Soldiers were also allowed, when on campaign but not fighting yet, to comb their hair and decorate their clothing and even weapons if they could; when they came of age, Spartans famously grew their hair out long, taking good care of it, especially in dangerous moments, keeping it well combed and sleek. This is because Lycurgus had once said that long hair makes a handsome man look more attractive, and a fearsome man more animalistic. They were also encouraged to relax more when on campaign, and not concern themselves with exercises, so as to make war seem as nothing in comparison to living in Sparta.


[ABOVE: A Spartan helmet with sustained damage, now held in the British Museum]



Spartans marched into battle under the rhythm of the flute, and any reader of their poetry and marching rhythms would agree with figures of the past like Pindar, who associated music with courage. Prior to his army engaging with the enemy, a king would sacrifice to the Muses, reminding his soldiers of their sacrifice so as to encourage them to make another sacrifice on the battlefield if and/or when necessary.


When in sight of the enemy, soldiers would line up into a phalanx formation. (I intend to do a blog detailing Greek warfare separately, but to simplify: a phalanx involved soldiers interlocking their shields and presenting their spears towards the enemy, so as to create a near-impenetrable wall of shields, spears and muscle.) While this happened, the king would sacrifice a she-goat, tell the soldiers to ready themselves and the flute players to play the Ode to Castor. (Castor was a supposed son of Zeus and one of Sparta’s patrons.) Men advanced in time with the flutes, marching to cheerfully face the enemy, a terrifying spectacle in itself. It’s presumable that they felt no fear or rage in doing so, being instead a more composed force.


The kings personal guard were hand-picked victors of athletics contests. There’s a story known of a Spartan who, after defeating a tough opponent in wrestling at the Olympics, turned down the prize of money, stating instead that he gained a place at the side of a king, and that was more than enough for him.


Spartans didn’t just advance into a fight with slow moving spearmen, but were accompanied by cavalry detachments. Allegedly reformed by none other than Lycurgus, they were divided into groups of 50 men and horses known as an oulamoi (pl. oulamos), arranged into a square. Their role was to provide the army with some mobility and to protect the flanks (sides) and rear of the phalanx, which naturally had difficulty turning on a spot.




Strict training officially stopped at age 20, but after that, the state education didn’t stop there; no one was allowed to live simply as they pleased. Everyday life was still alike to a military camp, in that people lived in prescribed manners and spent their time on communal concerns; it would never occur to them to regard themselves as autonomous instead of being a subject of a state - that is, they were less like individuals and more each a part of something greater than themselves. They would, therefore, always be supervising the younger generations, unless they had been given specific tasks by their superiors, or else learning from their elders. They had no need to seek a vocation, as wealth was not something to want to acquire in Sparta as previously discussed, nor would they ever need to engage in manual work, as they had plenty of helot slaves doing all that for them. Unless on campaign, a Spartan’s life consisted of attending choral festivals, celebrations and feasts, hunting, exercising and attending any assemblies.


Men under 30 years of age did not go to the city square; their domestic needs were met by elder relatives or lovers. On top of that, older men were demeaned for always partaking in domestic needs instead of being at assemblies or exercising. The main business of assemblies was to discuss what was deemed honourable and disgraceful.


Lycurgus banished all superstitions around death by allowing the dead to be buried in city limits, and by locating tombs near to sanctuaries, meaning that future generations became accustomed to seeing this sort of thing and would grow up not being affected by it when they were older. He also implemented a law that made sure anyone buried was done so only under a red cloak and olive leaves. Prior to Lycurgus, people were sometimes buried with riches. It’s also worth noting that everyone could have a grave, but only two types of people could have a tomb engraved with their own name: either a man who died in combat or a woman who died in childbirth. Both these acts were seen by Sparta as sacrificial acts for the state itself, and worthy of honouring as such. Mourning was limited to a period of 11 days, with a 12th day dedicated to sacrifices to Demeter.


Spartans also weren’t allowed to leave the borders to travel freely. This was to avoid picking up foreign habits and political ways and customs. Lycurgus even disbanded any group of outsiders who wished to come to Sparta, for whatever reason. It was more important to Lycurgus to prevent foreign customs clashing and possibly mingling with Spartan ones than it was to prevent diseased foreigners from entering Sparta and spreading anything.


Lycurgus is accused of making laws suitable for promoting courage, but not justice. As a result, the existence of Sparta’s Krypteia - the secret service - that gave Plato his opinion of Lycurgus, if indeed it was Lycurgus, to implemented the Krypteia. Occasionally, commanders would send men out - those deemed the most intelligent - into the countryside, towards different districts at varying times. Armed with no more than a dagger and minimal supplies, they spread out in the daytime to find places to hide and rest, but come nighttime, they dispersed to the roads to quietly murder helots, and also murdered helots working in the fields they walked through.


Helots were also made to drink vast quantities of unfiltered wine. As drunk as could be, they were brought to messes in order to show Spartans what a drunk really looked like, so as to discourage boys from ever becoming addicted to the drink. They were also made to sing degrading songs and perform degrading dances, whilst being denied the chance to perform any which might be suited for free men.




Lycurgus died by his own hands. Once his constitutions had been put in place and they had been nurtured and woven into society enough to become the norm, he consoled the Oracle at Delphi to ask if his reforms were good enough to guarantee Sparta to remain morally intact. When he received the response he was after, and had the oracle written out and sent to Sparta, he chose to never have to release his citizens from their new oaths, and chose instead to die by starving himself. He had reached an age where an end to his life was a decision he was comfortable making. His dependents even seemed happy with this choice. He saw even his death as an act for his state, and not an event that should be in vein, deciding instead that he had achieved everything he wished for in life and had reached peak happiness, and his citizens had sworn to him to uphold the constitution until he returned.


[ABOVE: "Lycurgus gives his laws to the people before his death", from 1832]


THE EPHORS (Implemented long after Lycurgus)

The constitution didn’t change once, until the reign of Agis, who implemented the ephors, a group of 5 overseers to the kings. Ephors, meaning “overseers” wrote the laws for Sparta. They were at least 45 years in age and served only once in their lifetime. At the start of the new year, and at the start of the ephors term, the ephors declared war on the helots to remind the Spartan people that they classed themselves as foreigners to Greece. That was their first day in office. The rest of the time, they oversaw the kings, promising to “keep the kingship unshaken”. Their oversight allowed them to vote on charging a king of a crime, followed by a trial where they joined with the Gerousia as members of a jury. Guilty kings were exiled from Sparta, and that king’s heir took the throne so as to keep the royal bloodlines untainted.

Ephors even oversaw the kings when on campaign, but only 2 of them accompanied him, 2 being a key number as that wasn’t a majority to vote on whether a king should be guilty of something or not. Decisions like that were made when all 5 ephors were back at Sparta. When not at war, ephors wrote out policy. Votes were taken between them, and a majority of 3 was all they needed to present it before a body of Spartan citizens. Ephors were also responsible for choosing individuals out of a group of 100 boys to serve as the groups officers, and a part of the kings guards. The Gerousia in turn provided a check on the ephors, and could veto any laws written out by them, also holding the power to decide when assemblies met. This body of overseers only strengthened the constitution though, while slightly favouring the aristocracy.


The Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea

[ABOVE: The Temple of Athena Alea, ruins amidst the city of Tegea, near the modern village of Alea]


As the land around Sparta was rich and fertile, their population was ever a growing one, if always a comparably smaller one to most other large city states like Athens. They eventually set their eyes on lands outside their borders, in particular the Archadians, and went to ask the Pythia at Delphi. She responded:

You ask for Arcadia? You ask a lot; I will not give it to you.
There are many men in Arcadia, toughened by a diet of acorns,
And they will stop you. But I do not want to be niggardly.
I will give you the dance-floor of Tegea; you can caper there
And measure out her beautiful plain with a rope.

Given this response, Sparta attacked Tegea instead. Taking chains with them in expectance of enslaving the population soon after, they instead came off worse and ended up being enchained by their own cuffs, and measured out the land of Tegea with the rope they had also brought there. Eventually however, Sparta would come to dominate Tegea years later, and as a result, combined with their conquest of Messenia, came to dominate the southern Peloponnese by around 560 BC.


Other reforms were made by Agis and Cleomenes during the late 3rd century BC, and further were made when the city came under Roman rule the century after. Agis and Cleomenes went to lengths to attempt to restore the then-old Lycurgan constitution, which Cleomenes was able to attempt thanks to a book written by the philosopher Sphaerus, who lived during Cleomenes’ time and wrote a lot about Lycurgus and his reforms. During the times of Plutarch, when Rome ruled the Greek world, Sparta’s training regime attracted young men from across Greece who wished to test themselves in the training; Sparta had become a far more important tourist site than anything else, and put on festivals and shows for vast crowds during the times of Roman rule, so when Plutarch talks in his works about men being tied to columns and flogged, as was traditionally a part of the Agōgē, he is talking of a revived tradition for public viewing in a later time rather than a strict training regime for an army.




Aside from the ephors, these were the customs accredited through history to being implemented by Lycurgus. However true that was in itself, Sparta, through one means or another, was definitely a strict, austere warrior state unlike any other in its time. Its men were indoctrinated into a life of warfare and nothing else. Life was bare and basic. Riches, exotic goods and even money were forbade. Newborns deemed unfit were left to die aside a mountain. Children were brutally beaten near to death to stop them from fearing anything or from crying. Dying on the battlefield or in childbirth was seen as being done for the state rather than for the individual or their family, and it’s aspects like this that have led several throughout history to name the Spartans as not just the best in Greece, but perhaps history’s greatest soldiers, and their valour at battles such as Thermopylae and Plataea would prove that.


[ABOVE: Bas-relief of Lycurgus, shown in the US House of Representatives under the 23 great lawgivers]



NEXT POST: SOLON, 630 - 560 BC: The Reformation of Athens





  • Herodotus' "The Histories"
  • Xenophon, "Constitution of the Lakedaimonians"
  • Oswyn Murray's "Early Greece"
  • Robin Osborne's "Greece in the Making 1200 - 479 BC"
  • Nic Fields' "Thermopylae 480 BC, Last Stand of the 300"




(I do Not own these videos)

"The Constitution of the Spartans" by "Historia Civilis"

"Epic Moments in History - Top 10 Spartan One Liners" by "Invicta"









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Specialising in Ancient and Classical Greek, Persian and Roman studies, particularly military history.

Ancient Greek History
Ancient Greek History

Historical educational posts on Ancient Greek history. I'll be covering Greek history stretching from the Greek Bronze Age and the days of Achilles and Troy, to the Hellenistic Age of Alexander and Cleopatra, covering topics ranging from daily city life to all-out warfare. I'll also be looking a lot into Iranian/Persian history, and their infamous conflicts with the Greeks throughout history. All feedback, positive and/or negative, is very welcome. Hope ya learn plenty-a-stuff! :)

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