Episode Five: A Society of Virtue
Lycurgus was the founder of Sparta. The first thing he did was outlaw money. He wanted his people to pursue virtue instead.
The equivalent of a Spartan dime was a two-pound lump of iron, dipped in vinegar so it would be useless for any other purpose.
In today’s video, we’ll examine the warrior virtues that the ancients aspired to … and begin to ask how these ideals can be applied today (and should be applied) to other kinder, gentler pursuits.
“See? The Greeks all know what is right, but only the Spartans
A story from the ancient world:
At the Olympic Games, held every four years at the city of Olympia, the citizens of each city-state sat together as a group Athenians in one section, Corinthians in another, Thebans in another.
On one particularly hot day, when the stadium was packed, an old man entered alone seeking a seat. No one would get up for him. The elderly gentleman passed through the Athenian section. No one stood. Through the Epidaurian. Again every spectator kept his seat. The stadium had noticed this unfolding incident now. They began jeering and making fun of the old man. He passed on through the section of Corinth, then that of Argos. Still, no one would give him a seat. The crescendo of mockery rose higher and higher.
At last, the old man reached the Spartan section. As soon as his foot crossed the line, every Spartan stood and offered the gentleman his seat. At once the stadium burst into cheers and applause.
An observer was heard to say, “See? The Greeks all know what is right, but only the Spartans practice it.”
The Spartans were not like other Greeks. Of the hundreds of autonomous city-states that called themselves Hellenic, only one practiced the hard-core culture that the Spartans did. In fact, it was a commonplace at the time that everyone agreed the Spartan way of life was the healthiest and the most moral, not to say the most effective militarily. But no other city wanted to put out the effort to convert.
How did Sparta do it?
It all came down from one man—Lycurgus, the founding patron of the way of life we call Spartan. His origins in antiquity were so distant, the Spartans believed, that no one could say for certain if he had been a man or a god. Before Lycurgus, Sparta had been like any other Greek city. They farmed, they congregated in the agora, they went to war. Sometimes they lost and their farms were devastated; sometimes they won.
Lycurgus convinced the polity to commit totally to warrior-hood as an ideal. Here are a few of the laws he initiated and which the Spartans lived by for nearly a thousand years:
- Lycurgus outlawed all gold and silver. His intention was that the people would pursue virtue instead. The equivalent of a nickel or a dime was made of iron dipped in vinegar so it was worthless for any purpose as a tool or an implement… and it weighed two pounds.
- He outlawed all professions except that of warrior.
- He decreed that no gravestone may bear a name except that of a warrior killed in battle or a woman who dies in childbirth.
- He broke up all the landholdings in Sparta and divided them into nine thousand equal shares, one for each citizen/family.
- Individuals were no longer to be called citizens, and thus possibly unequal, but Peers or “Equals.”
- The established the agoge, “the Upbringing,” under which each boy was taken from his family and age seven and enrolled with the other youths in a training regimen that would last till he was eighteen and officially became a warrior.
- A man below the age of thirty may no longer dine at home with his wife and children. He must take his meals in a “common mess,” which he shared with the men of his military squad or platoon, i.e. the men he would fight beside in battle.
Lycurgus decreed that the mates of a common mess be men of all ages. His aim was that the elders’ wisdom and experience would be a maturing influence on the younger men, while the youthful warriors’ passion and intensity would be an inspiring influence on their seniors.
Each evening when the men of the mess entered, the eldest stood by the door, intoning Exo tes thryas oden. “Out this door, nothing.” What happened in the common mess stayed in the common mess.
The young men would be tested, standing alone before their elders they would be asked, “Whom do you admire most in all the city? Why? What is courage? What is justice? What single virtue should a man cultivate?
These were just a few of the many radical changes instituted by Lycurgus that made Sparta unique among all Greek cities.
One last story of Lycurgus:
When he was instituting his laws, no few among the citizens were upset, even furious. The rich didn’t like having to give up their land. Others who preferred a life of ease took umbrage at having to sweat and learn the craft of war. One morning in the marketplace, a young man of this faction attacked Lycurgus with his staff, putting out one of Lycurgus’ eyes. The youth was arrested immediately and was about to be hauled off by the magistrates, possibly to be put to death.
Lycurgus stopped this. Instead of punishment for the young man, he insisted that the youth move into his (Lycurgus’) house with him and be assigned to attend upon him.
When the young man had a chance to observe Lycurgus every day and see how honest and virtuous, how compassionate and God-fearing he was, and he devoted he was, not to his own selfish ends but only to the welfare of the city, he changed completely and became Lycurgus’ most loyal and devoted follower and friend. He stayed with him all his life.
These stories, by the way, all come from Plutarch. Let me tell you a little about him, by way of recommendation.
Plutarch was a Roman. He lived in the first century A.D., in other words, four or five hundred years after the golden era of Sparta and Athens, and into the great centuries of Rome. Plutarch’s Lives was a collection of short biographies, where Plutarch paired a great Greek with a great Roman and told their stories side-by-side. For example, Caesar and Alexander the Great. They’re wonderful books, full of interesting details, fun to read, and with a strong moral dimension to them.
Shakespeare got a bunch of his plays from Plutarch. Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens.
When I was researching Gates of Fire, I read Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus over and over, taking notes on just about every line. I highly recommend it. Plutarch’s Lives, sometimes called Parallel Lives or Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.