Section 1

Lycurgus' Constitution

by Xenophon Icon

I was astonished at:

  • the unique position of Sparta amongst the Greek states.
  • the relatively sparse population, (3) and
  • the extraordinary power and prestige of the community.

I was puzzled how to account for this.

  • I realized that the cause was the the peculiar institutions of the Spartans.
    • It is transferred to the legislator who gave them those laws, obedience to which has been the secret of their prosperity.

Their legislator is Lycurgus.

  • I admire him.
  • He is one of the wisest of mankind.
  • He was no servile imitator of other states.

He brought his fatherland to this pinnacle of prosperity through a stroke of invention.

  • It was on a pattern much in opposition to the commonly-accepted one.

First of all, he has a system of begetting and rearing of children.

In the rest of the world, young girls are nurtured on the plainest food attainable, with the scantiest meat or condiments. They are told to:

  • abstain wine or to take it highly diluted with water.
  • work on handicrafts, since the majority of artificers are sedentary

We, the rest of the Hellenes, are content for our girls to sit quietly and work wools.

  • That is all we demand of them.

But how are we to expect that women nurtured in this fashion should produce a splendid offspring?

Lycurgus’ System

Lycurgus pursued a different path.

Clothes were things, he held, the furnishing of which might well enough be left to female slaves.

He believed that the highest function of a free woman was the bearing of children. This is why he primarily insisted on the training of the body as incumbent no less on the female than the male.

He instituted rival contests in running and feats of strength for women as for men.

His belief was that where both parents were strong their progeny would be found to be more vigorous.

And so again after marriage.

In view of the fact that immoderate intercourse is elsewhere permitted during the earlier period of matrimony, he adopted a principle directly opposite.

He mandated that a man should be ashamed to be seen visiting the bed of his wife, whether going in or coming out.

When they did meet under such restraint the mutual longing of these lovers could not but be increased, and the fruit which might spring from such intercourse would tend to be more robust than theirs whose affections are cloyed by satiety.

He refused to allow marriages to be contracted (6) at any period of life according to the fancy of the parties concerned.

Marriage must only take place in the prime of bodily vigour, (7) this too being, as he believed, a condition conducive to the production of healthy offspring.

Or again, to meet the case which might occur of an old man (8) wedded to a young wife.

Husbands tend to jealously watch their wives.

  • He introduced a directly opposite custom.
  • He made it incumbent on the aged husband to introduce someone whose qualities, physical and moral, he admired.
    • That man would play the husband’s part and to beget him children.

Sometimes a man does not want to live with a wife permanently, but still want to have his own children.

  • Lycurgus made a law that he could select the wife of some man, well born herself and blest with fair offspring.
    • He would obtain the consent of her husband to raise up children for himself through her.

At Sparta:

  • a wife will not object to bear the burden of a double establishment (10)
  • a husband is willing to adopt sons as foster-brothers of his own children, with a full share in his family and position, but possessing no claim to his wealth and property.

So opposed to those of the rest of the world are the principles which Lycurgus devised in reference to the production of children.

Whether they enabled him to provide Sparta with a race of men superior to all in size and strength I leave to the judgment of whomsoever it may concern.

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