A great deal of what we know about Spartan history comes from Plutarch (c. 50-120), a Greek scholar born in Boeotia while the region was under Roman influence. In a series of biographies known as the Parallel Lives, Plutarch alternated between accounts about Roman and Greek figures from history, including several influential men of Sparta. One of Plutarch’s many subjects was Lycurgus, the man credited with founding Sparta’s iconic culture of pragmatic simplicity and disciplined militancy. By the time Plutarch was writing, the legends of Lycurgus were more myth than history, a reality that Plutarch freely admitted in his work. Nevertheless, he recounted the stories he had collected about Lycurgus, often listing out 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.
Concerning Lycurgus, Plutarch admitted that there were conflicting accounts that clashed on almost every part of the legend’s life. Nevertheless, the scholar impressively pieced together a narrative and notified his readers where most of the inconsistencies occurred. Even the century in which Lycurgus was supposed to have lived was unknown, ranging from as early as the 9th century BCE, in the age of Homer, or as late as the 6th century BCE, by which time Sparta had become noticeably militant and adverse to luxury.
According to Plutarch’s sources, Lycurgus was a king of Sparta for eight months until he abdicated in favor of his infant nephew. So as not to be a threat to the boy-king’s power, Lycurgus allegedly decided to travel the Mediterranean, collecting information that would be helpful for Sparta, as well as recruiting wise people that would be beneficial to Spartan society. The various sources that Plutarch browsed disagreed on where exactly Lycurgus traveled. Most stated that the wandering Spartan sailed to Crete, and then wandered around Anatolia, spending time in the Greek-settled coastal region of Ionia. In addition, Plutarch claimed that other individual sources reported Lycurgus as also having traveled through Libya, Iberia, Egypt and India.
While in Ionia, the homeland of Homer, Lycurgus was said to have run across a community that descended from Creophylus, a legendary figure who was close to the poet. This unnamed community had apparently taken it upon themselves to preserve the works of Homer. According to the tale, the Greeks of Lycurgus’ time had a vague notion of the Ionian poet, but had not fully embraced the famous epics. Plutarch wrote that Lycurgus initially dismissed the poetry as useless, but once he recognized the wise military, political and cultural lessons embedded in the verses, he changed his mind and made copies of Homer’s works. Therefore, according to the tale, Lycurgus helped popularize the poems of Homer by bringing his copies home to mainland Greece. Ironically, along with the timeless poetry, Lycurgus also brought back with him the “Spartan” way of life, which was famously opposed to art and excessive education.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Lycurgus of Sparta, by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781–1853), [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.