Up to now, the nobles had only squirmed a little. That shows they already had that very Spartan ability to bite their lip. But do you know what the last straw was—what finally made them howl? They woke up one morning and found the following ordinance tacked to the bulletin board in the street:
“Heretofore all Spartans shall eat in common at the mess halls in their town and village. No one, no matter who he is, will be allowed to eat at home, lying on expensive couches at splendid tables, giving himself over to his cook, who fattens him and ruins not only his mind but his body, which is weakened by indulgence and excess, so that it needs long sleep and warm bathing and freedom from work—all as if it were constantly sick.” [The kind of food that would be served at the public mess hall was next specified. It was very plain, of course.] “No one shall eat at home privately, secretly, before coming to the public tables. Everyone will be observed as he eats. Should he repeatedly show a lack of appetite, his domestic habits will be investigated. Signed: Lycurgus.”
You can take his land away from a noble; you can take his money away too and his luxury items. But you CANNOT make him sit at table with the baker, the butcher, and the smithy. The nobles were so angry at Lycurgus that they threw stones at him in the market-place, and he had to run for his life. He got away; but one young noble outran him and swung a stick at him just as Lycurgus was turning around. The stick hit him squarely in the face and put out his eye. The story goes that Lycurgus, a wonder of self-control, simply walked back with the young man to the market-place and showed everyone his mutilated face, making them all ashamed of themselves for stoning him. They hypocritically scolded the young man and told Lycurgus to punish him however he liked. Lycurgus led him to his house and asked the boy to serve him at table, never showing the slightest anger or scolding him at all. So impressed was the young man, that he became one of Lycurgus’s staunchest followers after that and loved him as a father. The kind of thing that happens in stories where the should be and the is; the wouldn’t it be nice if and the was go so sweetly together.
The nobles tried every trick they could think of to get around the new law that obliged them to eat in a public mess hall. In violation of the new law, some had a secret meal at home and then strolled over to the mess hall at lunchtime with a big smile. But everyone noticed that they never had much of an appetite, even though they praised the food—that “black soup” the Spartans became famous for. Their big bellies stayed the same size too. So they were ridiculed, called “pansies” and other flowers; and they had to give up their double life. The king of course considered himself exempt from the law, being king; but when he was caught lunching alone with the queen, a group of commoners tried to punish him by refusing to come when he called. This made him so furious that he then refused to offer a prescribed sacrifice the next day. The ephori fined him. “They’ve forgotten what a king is,” the queen told her husband. “They think you are just an ornament. I wouldn’t stand for it.” But he didn’t have much choice.
At the mess hall the men ate in groups of fifteen. “A table ought to be a school for the boys,” said Lycurgus. “There they will learn not only good manners while watching their elders; they will hear matters of state discussed and other subjects of importance. The mess-schools will teach them how to converse, how to joke, how to take a joke.” Spartan jokes and Spartan wit became famous. Laconic to this day means short, pithy, to the point. Soldiers ever since have been men of few words. Lycurgus wasn’t interested in manners as such, but, like everyone else in the ancient world, in wisdom—in bringing up wise men. He wondered about how to make everyone think a little. He hated babblers. He didn’t allow talk for talk’s sake. Spartan children were brought up without much chatter: everything they heard was short and with a double—a wise—meaning.
They were trained to think before they spoke and to speak, finally, with grace, with sense. The shorter the sentence, the better. Plutarch gives examples of Spartan wit. Once a Spartan king was watching a show with a sword-swallower. “That’s easily done here in Sparta,” laughed an Athenian who was in the audience. “Your swords are so short.”
What was the pithy Spartan King’s reply? “We find them long enough to reach our enemy.” Bang!
“Would you like to hear a man imitate a nightingale to perfection?” someone asked the king.
“No,” he answered. “I have heard the nightingale.”
Someone asked Lycurgus whether he thought the gods themselves liked Spartan austerity. “Why do you offer them such lean and measly sacrifices?”
The answer, without a moment’s delay (though speed wasn’t essential, it gave a greater punch): “So that we will always have something to offer them.”
“How many of you are there?” a visiting foreigner asked a Spartan boy . Did the lad frown and stutter and scratch his head and say the obvious: that he didn’t know exactly? Of course not. He replied: “Enough, Sir, to keep out wicked men.”
All this impressed the Greek historian Polybius, who lived hundreds of years after Lycurgus. Sparta was to him a country with a moral. He liked to chew over Spartan ways—especially their toughness, their warrior education . He thought he saw the good old spirit of Sparta in Rome; and he supposed it was Rome’s secret of success.
See The Legend of Sparta (part 3) and read about their famous warrior education
Go back to The Legend of Sparta (Part 1)