The survival of information about ancient Spartan history owes a great deal of credit to Plutarch (c. 50-120), a Greek-Roman scholar from Boeotia, Greece. In his influential series of biographies, known as the Parallel Lives, Plutarch compared and contrasted Roman and Greek figures from history, including several influential Spartans. One of Plutarch’s many subjects was Lycurgus, the man credited with founding Sparta’s iconic culture of pragmatic no-nonsense militancy. In Plutarch’s day, stories of Lycurgus were more myth than history, a reality that Plutarch freely admitted in his own writing. Nevertheless, he recounted the stories that he had collected about Lycurgus, often listing his sources and judging which versions he believed were more feasible. As many of the sources he used regarding Sparta have now been lost or damaged, modern historians rely heavily on Plutarch’s summaries.
Plutarch confessed that there were many conflicting accounts that clashed on almost every part of Lycurgus’ life. Nevertheless, he impressively pieced together the various tales into a timeline of Lycurgus’ career and went out of his way to notify his readers where inconsistencies occurred. The first major unknown piece of information regarding Lycurgus was the time in which he was supposed to have lived. Plutarch placed Lycurgus anywhere from as early as the 9th century BCE, in the age of Homer, to as late as the 6th century BCE, when Sparta had become noticeably militant and adverse to luxury.
According to the folklore-laden tales, Lycurgus was a member of the Spartan royal family. He was apparently a king of Sparta for the short span of eight months until he abdicated in favor of his infant nephew. Not wanting to overshadow the young king, Lycurgus allegedly decided to explore the world, collecting useful information and recruiting wise minds as he waited for his nephew to mature.
The first stop on Lycurgus’ grand tour allegedly was Crete. There, he found a masterful poet, singer and songwriter named Thales. Although Lycurgus was generally opposed to such luxury and art, he found that he had much in common with Thales of Crete. Law and obedience were said to have been the most common themes portrayed by Thales in his songs, and these were ideas that meshed perfectly with Lycurgus’ vision for Sparta.
According to Plutarch, Lycurgus recruited Thales of Crete as either an employee or a disciple. Thales traveled to Sparta, where he began performing and popularizing songs about servitude, respect for authority and the achievement of communal excellence. His performances were said to have been almost supernatural in their potency, with his lyrical words and music having the ability to mellow out even the most rowdy personalities.
While Thales prepared and enthused the Spartans for the upcoming revolution in their way of life, Lycurgus reportedly continued with his travels, gathering more ideas from surrounding cultures. The various sources that Plutarch browsed disagreed on where Lycurgus traveled during this period. In addition to Crete, most sources stated that he traveled through Ionia and Anatolia. Other individual sources reported that Lycurgus may have also traveled through Libya, Iberia, Egypt and India before returning home to revolutionize Sparta.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Musicians from the Zliten mosaic, c. 200 CE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.