The Lycurgian constitution and legislation was considered to be the prime legacy of the Spartan leader, Lycurgus. He is placed on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during the eighth century BC. His laws had defined the powerful militaristic political state we now envision Sparta to be during those times. What made Lycurgian rule unique to all other Greek states was its insistence on not keeping historical records and issuing any form of written law. Each case that needed resolution was handled on a case to case basis. Lycurgus and his somewhat democratic form of law were instrumental to Sparta’s rise to power.
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It is believed that Lycurgus lived and reigned sometime between 800 to 630 BC. What we know of Lycurgus today can largely be attributed to old historians like Plutarch and his peers considering that Lycurgus did away with any form of historical records. Plutarch is the main source for any semblance of historical study on Lycurgus. In a way, what Plutarch discusses is more of an anecdotal collection rather than a biography. Some believe that Lycurgus may not have actually existed and is symbolic for some ancient ruler who brought sweeping change to Sparta.
Lycurgus started the change in the political and legislative landscape by distributing the king’s power unto an elder senate. At times, a general assembly of the people would be held wherein the public would decide the fate of a piece of legislation. However, the people could not make new laws but could only approve or reject what the Senate has made. This was one of the earliest forms of democracy. This is the basic backbone of the Lycurgian constitution and legislation. Of course, not every citizen, particularly those in the upper class, favored this new arrangement but Lycurgus, according to Plutarch, succeeded in quelling opposition to his rule.
Many of the approved pieces of legislation were somehow idiosyncratic even by today’s standards. One feature compelled citizens to eat in public mess halls, into small groups called “sysstia”. These groups was generally a mixture of citizens both rich and poor. When one member disliked what was being served, they could bring their own meal, provided that they also feed everyone else in the group. Under the constitution, all manner of trade using gold or silver was banned, and iron was the new currency. Any form of occupation deemed useless was also banned, which included prostitution. Adultery was also allowed if it was done in the pursuit of creating an ideal offspring. Having an ideal baby was such an important concept during the Lycurgian era that those infants deemed defective were reportedly cast out into a cliff. The examination of an infant, if he or she was fit to live, was done by the council.
Even after the reported disappearance of Lycurgus, believed to have sought out the Oracle of Delphi and never returned, Sparta continued following the constitutional structure he presented. It is believed that this very adherence to the form of governing was the reason for Sparta becoming a powerful militaristic state in the Greek region. Many surrounding states also favored Spartans to be dispute arbitrators given the structure they followed when it come to conflict resolution. The apparent success in this otherwise crude and primitive form of democracy had led many other states to consider adopting the principles of the Lycurgian constitution and legislation.