Section 4

Lycurgus' Policies

by Xenophon

But if he was thus careful in the education of the stripling, (1) the Spartan lawgiver showed a still greater anxiety in dealing with those who had reached the prime of opening manhood; considering their immense importance to the city in the scale of good, if only they proved themselves the men they should be. He had only to look around to see what wherever the spirit of emulation (2) is most deeply seated, there, too, their choruses and gymnastic contests will present alike a far higher charm to eye and ear. And on the same principle he persuaded himself that he needed only to confront (3) his youthful warriors in the strife of valour, and with like result. They also, in their degree, might be expected to attain to some unknown height of manly virtue.

What method he adopted to engage these combatants I will now explain. It is on this wise. Their ephors select three men out of the whole body of the citizens in the prime of life. These three are named Hippagretai, or masters of the horse. Each of these selects one hundred others, being bound to explain for what reason he prefers in honour these and disapproves of those.

The result is that those who fail to obtain the distinction are now at open war, not only with those who rejected them, but with those who were chosen in their stead; and they keep ever a jealous eye on one another to detect some slip of conduct contrary to the high code of honour there held customary.

And so is set on foot that strife, in truest sense acceptable to heaven, and for the purposes of state most politic. It is a strife in which not only is the pattern of a brave man’s conduct fully set forth, but where, too, each against other and in separate camps, the rival parties train for victory.

One day the superiority shall be theirs; or, in the day of need, one and all to the last man, they will be ready to aid the fatherland with all their strength.

Necessity, moreover, is laid upon them to study a good habit of the body, coming as they do to blows with their fists for very strife’s sake whenever they meet. Albeit, any one present has a right to separate the combatants, and, if obedience is not shown to the peacemaker, the Pastor of youth hales the delinquent before the ephors, and the ephors inflict heavy damages, since they will have it plainly understood that rage must never override obedience to law.

With regard to those who have already passed (5) the vigour of early manhood, and on whom the highest magistracies henceforth devolve, there is a like contrast. In Hellas generally we find that at this age the need of further attention to physical strength is removed, although the imposition of military service continues. But Lycurgus made it customary for that section of his citizens to regard hunting as the highest honour suited to their age; albeit, not to the exclusion of any public duty. (6) And his aim was that they might be equally able to undergo the fatigues of war with those in the prime of early manhood.

The above is a fairly exhaustive statement of the institutions traceable to the legislation of Lycurgus in connection with the successive stages (1) of a citizen’s life.

What is the style of living which he established for the people, irrespective of age?

When Lycurgus first came to deal with the question, the Spartans like the rest of the Hellenes, used to mess privately at home.

Tracing more than half the current misdemeanours to this custom, (2) he was determined to drag his people out of holes and corners into the broad daylight. This is why he invented the public mess-rooms.

Whereby he expected at any rate to minimise the transgression of orders.

As to food, (3) his ordinance allowed them so much as, while not inducing repletion, should guard them from actual want.

There are many exceptional dishes in the shape of game supplied from the hunting field.

Or, as a substitute for these, rich men will occasionally garnish the feast with wheaten loaves.

So that from beginning to end, till the mess breaks up, the common board is never stinted for viands, nor yet extravagantly furnished.

He banned all unnecessary drinks, detrimental to a firm brain and a steady gait.

He left them free to quench thirst when nature dictated (6); a method which would at once add to the pleasure whilst it diminished the danger of drinking.

How, on such a system of common meals, it would be possible for any one to ruin either himself or his family either through gluttony or wine-bibbing.

This too must be borne in mind, that in other states equals in age, (7) for the most part, associate together, and such an atmosphere is little conducive to modesty.

Whereas in Sparta, Lycurgus was careful so to blend the ages that the younger men must benefit largely by the experience of the elder—an education in itself, and the more so since by custom of the country conversation at the common meal has reference to the honourable acts which this man or that man may have performed in relation to the state.

The scene, in fact, but little lends itself to the intrusion of violence or drunken riot; ugly speech and ugly deeds alike are out of place.

Amongst other good results obtained through this out-door system of meals may be mentioned these: There is the necessity of walking home when the meal is over, and a consequent anxiety not to be caught tripping under the influence of wine, since they all know of course that the supper-table must be presently abandoned, and that they must move as freely in the dark as in the day, even the help of a torch to guide the steps being forbidden to all on active service.

Lycurgus saw the effect of equal amounts of food on different persons.

The hardworking man has a good complexion, his muscles are well fed, he is robust and strong.

The man who abstains from work, on the other hand, may be detected by his miserable appearance; he is blotched and puffy, and devoid of strength.

This observation, I say, was not wasted on him.

On the contrary, turning it over in his mind that any one who chooses, as a matter of private judgment, to devote himself to toil may hope to present a very creditable appearance physically, he enjoined upon the eldest for the time being in every gymnasium to see to it that the labours of the class were proportional to the meats.

He was not out of his reckoning in this matter more than elsewhere. At any rate, it would be hard to discover a healthier or more completely developed human being, physically speaking, than the Spartan.

Their gymnastic training, in fact, makes demands alike on the legs and arms and neck, (13) etc., simultaneously.


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