Section 6

The Spartan Economy

by Xenophon

Lycurgus views ran counter to those commonly accepted.

In other states, a citizen is master over his own children, domestics, goods and chattels, and belongings generally.

But Lycurgus’ aim was to secure to all the citizens a considerable share in one another’s goods without mutual injury.

  • He enacted that each one should have an equal power of his neighbour’s children as over his own.

When a man knows that this, that, and the other person are fathers of children subject to his authority, he must perforce deal by them even as he desires his own child to be dealt by.

If a boy chance to have received a whipping, not from his own father but some other, and goes and complains to his own father, it would be thought wrong on the part of that father if he did not inflict a second whipping on his son.

A striking proof, in its way, how completely they trust each other not to impose dishonourable commands upon their children.

In the same way, he empowered them to use their neighbour’s domestics in case of need.

This communism he applied also to dogs used for the chase; in so far that a party in need of dogs will invite the owner to the chase, and if he is not at leisure to attend himself, at any rate he is happy to let his dogs go.

The same applies to the use of horses.

Some one has fallen sick perhaps, or is in want of a carriage, or is anxious to reach some point or other quickly—in any case he has a right, if he sees a horse anywhere, to take and use it, and restores it safe and sound when he has done with it.

Here is another institution attributed to Lycurgus which scarcely coincides with the customs elsewhere in vogue.

A hunting party returns from the chase, belated.

They want provisions—they have nothing prepared themselves.

To meet this contingency he made it a rule that owners (6) are to leave behind the food that has been dressed; and the party in need will open the seals, take out what they want, seal up the remainder, and leave it.

Accordingly, by his system of give-and-take even those with next to nothing have a share in all that the country can supply, if ever they stand in need of anything.


There are yet other customs in Sparta which Lycurgus instituted in opposition to those of the rest of Hellas, and the following among them.

In the generality of states, everyone devotes his full energy to making money.

  • One man as a tiller of the soil
  • Another as a mariner
  • A third as a merchant
  • others depend on various arts to earn a living.

But at Sparta, Lycurgus forbade his freeborn citizens to have anything whatsoever to do with the concerns of money-making.

As freemen, he enjoined upon them to regard as their concern exclusively those activities upon which the foundations of civic liberty are based.

Why should wealth be regarded as a matter for serious pursuit in a community where, partly by a system of equal contributions to the necessaries of life, and partly by the maintenance of a common standard of living, the lawgiver placed so effectual a check upon the desire of riches for the sake of luxury?

What inducement, for instance, would there be to make money, even for the sake of wearing apparel, in a state where personal adornment is held to lie not in the costliness of the clothes they wear, but in the healthy condition of the body to be clothed?

Nor again could there be much inducement to amass wealth, in order to be able to expend it on the members of a common mess, where the legislator had made it seem far more glorious that a man should help his fellows by the labour of his body than by costly outlay. The latter being, as he finely phrased it, the function of wealth, the former an activity of the soul.

He went a step further, and set up a strong barrier against the pursuance of money-making by wrongful means.

He established a coinage of so extraordinary a sort, that even 10 minas could not come into a house without attracting the notice, either of the master himself, or of some member of his household.

In fact, it would occupy a considerable space, and need a waggon to carry it.

Gold and silver themselves, moreover, are liable to search, (5) and in case of detection, the possessor subjected to a penalty.

In fact, to repeat the question asked above, for what reason should money-making become an earnest pursuit in a community where the possession of wealth entails more pain than its employment brings satisfaction?


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