The little state of Sparta always fascinated the Greeks—it was one of their strangest experiments.
Plato imagined the perfect state in his dialog called The Republic, but that was only a theory. Sparta really existed—it was a working state—and even now it is hard to believe that the whole story isn’t some kind of fantasy.
They say a single man named Lycurgus gave Sparta its laws. He was a nobleman from Sparta and by means of a very easy crime he could have become king; but since that would probably have meant a civil war, and it was a crime, he decided to go away for twenty years while the rightful king, an infant, grew to manhood. During that time Lycurgus would travel around the old Mediterranean and visit countries like Crete and Egypt and Persia and talk to their wisest men. His aim was to observe how those countries were governed and to try to figure out the best constitution for a state. In Athens he was lucky enough to meet a great philosopher, a poet named Thales. Thales gave him some good tips. By the time Lycurgus went back to Sparta he had made up his mind about the perfect state; he knew exactly what he wanted; and the first surprise to us readers of the story is that the Spartans, including their king, received him with open arms and gave him their state to monkey with. That isn’t the last surprise, as you will see.
Right off the bat Lycurgus created a Senate—a sort of House of Lords. Kingdoms are the natural form of government, he said, but they aren’t stable. In time either the king misbehaves or the nobles get strong and try to dump him. Let’s create an assembly of nobles and give them powers that are equal to the king’s. The Senate and the king will rule together, like it or not. And the people—the rest of the state? The people will have their own assembly; and they will have the right to ratify or reject the proposals that the Senate and king dream up. If they say no to a bill, it will be thrown out.
That Spartan Senate was the first of its kind and quite an innovation. The Western world would see a lot of it since. It did seem to be a good way to stabilize a government.
The new kind of government wasn’t the only one of Lycurgus’s ideas. He had many. The Spartans liked that first one and told him to go on, they were game. “All right,” he said, “you asked for it.” And he gave them his next bombshell. “This country has too many poor people,” he said. “I see them wherever I look. Sparta doesn’t have much land and it is all in the hands of a few rich families. That shouldn’t be. How about starting from scratch again and re-dividing the country—slicing it up into thirty thousand little plots of land and giving one to each family. Each plot would yield enough grain and olive oil and wine to keep a family healthy and happy. What more do a man and woman need? The rest is just vice.”
And two thousand years of readers of Plutarch and other authors, and a few more who actually saw old Sparta with their own eyes, have believed with or without reservations, that the “people” of Sparta, including, yes, the land-owning nobles whose land was taken from them, agreed to go ahead with this scheme; that it was done without more than the odd ulcer or gripe expounded privately, at home, during lunch. No revolution.
It did Lycurgus’ heart good to see all the smoke-stacks on all the little plots that first year at harvest time. “A darned beautiful sight,” he gloated. “All of Laconia (Sparta) looks like a family estate, divided among brothers.”
Since the Spartans had swallowed that one, Lycurgus knew they would be good for about anything. So he went on with his dream of the perfect state. “What is the root of all evil?” he asked them.
“Money,” they answered. They had heard that one.
“I want all of you to bring me your gold and silver—not just the coins but your fine plates and medals too—all of it.”
They brought it. They were good kids, those early Spartans—so helpful.
“As of tomorrow,” he said when it was all laid before him, “gold and silver are outlawed in Sparta. For your daily commerce you will use these pieces of iron I have ordered for you.” And he showed them big boxes of iron chips and shavings.
“But those aren’t worth anything,” said one woman.
“Exactly,” said Lycurgus. “So there’s no point in hoarding it. And now I hope to do away with all sorts of evil. This should put an end to stealing, shouldn’t it? Who’s going to steal something that’s worth nothing. And if a thief does steal, he’ll need a wagon to haul off enough iron to make it worth his while.”
Legend has it that the Spartans were delighted and felt liberated. The only contradiction, though it didn’t strike even the admiring Plutarch who wrote hundreds of years later, was that money hadn’t yet been invented in Lycurgus’s time. Countries traded corn for cows, timber for weapons, eggs for nails, and so on. Barter. In time somebody did come up with bronze and then iron money. That was what the Romans and the Carthaginians used for a long time.
“And there will be no more luxury items, no more superfluous stuff,” Lycurgus went on. This more or less followed from the outlawing of money because now the Spartans couldn’t buy things outside their country, where gold was necessary. Merchants stayed away, as well as itinerant rhetoric masters and fortune-tellers and whore-mongers and other undesirables. And at home, since only iron and wood were allowed, all the daily household utensils and furniture were very plain. “As a result,” says Plutarch, “the Spartans became very good at making chairs and tables and bedsteads.” Their cups became famous all over Greece. Whenever a visitor came to Sparta he picked up a few of their cups to take home for his friends.
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?