Lycurgus of Sparta: Life & Laws

Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn who Lycurgus of Sparta was. Together, we'll take a closer look at his history, his personal life and his legacy. Then we can analyze the improvements he made to Sparta and the ways in which his death impacted the survival of those changes.


Lycurgus of Sparta was a legendary creator of the laws of Sparta. Of particular importance to him were laws that inspired financial frugality, citizen equality and a strong military. Lycurgus


What is known about Lycurgus in history is taken primarily from Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus. This is a gathering of many of Plutarch's thoughts rather than an actual biography. Historians cannot be certain if Lycurgus was an actual historical figure or not. However, he is referred to in literary works by such ancient philosophers such as Plato. It is thought that if Lycurgus lived that it would have been in the time frame of c. 820-730 BC.

Lycurgus had a great respect for justice. He was the younger son of the King of Sparta. His father, the king, and older brother died in battle. The older brother left behind an impregnated wife. The wife offered to marry Lycurgus and kill the child, who would be the next king if it was a boy, so that the wife and Lycurgus could retain power. Lycurgus lied to her and pretended to agree. When the child was born, Lycurgus did not have the child killed. Instead, he named the boy Charilaus and presented him to the citizens of Sparta as their future king. He was appointed guardian of his nephew Charilaus.

When Charilaus was a child, some of the child's jealous relatives, including the boy's own mother, accused Lycurgus of planning to kill Charilaus. In order to remove himself from any blame should harm come to the child, Lycurgus decided to reside in Crete until Charilaus had reached adulthood and fathered a son. Lycurgus gave up his power and left Sparta.

While in Crete, Lycurgus studied civilization, Homer and various forms of government in hopes of learning new things that would make Sparta stronger. He visited many places picking up pieces of knowledge along the way, one example being a military and general population that were separated, which he learned from the Egyptians.

Eventually, the Spartans wrote to Lycurgus and asked him to return. Before Lycurgus returned, however, he visited the oracle at Delphi to ask for guidance. The oracle at Delphi was very important in the early Greek world and was a site for the worship of Apollo. The oracle told Lycurgus that the state that followed his laws would become famous. Lycurgus organized supporters to make changes in Sparta.

Lycurgus' Reforms

One of the important reforms that Lycurgus made was the creation of a Gerousia. This consisted of twenty-eight men who would decide when an issue was brought to a popular vote with the citizens.

Additionally, a constitution was created. This constitution became known as The Great Rhetra. The Great Rhetra was an oral constitution, not written down, which was forbidden by Lycurgus on a condition of the oracle of Delphi.

Lycurgus is also known to have created the syssita. This practice requires all Spartan men over the age of seven to eat with one another in one big hall. Each syssitia, or group of men that ate with one another, was made up of about fifteen men. Each man contributed every month a bushel of meal, eight gallons of wine, five pounds of cheese and two and a half pounds of figs and a small amount of money to buy fish with. If a member made a sacrifice to the gods or hunted, in each circumstance he was to send in a portion to share with his syssitia. These would be the only two times that a man could eat at home instead of with his syssitia. Spartan women spent the majority of their time, eating and otherwise, with one another.

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