Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Plutarch: Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius

The founding laws and mores of a state can have long-lasting consequences for the success and development of that government as well as the people being governed. In this first section, Plutarch compares the famous lawgivers of ancient Sparta and Rome, and demonstrates how these individuals affected their countries.

Lycurgus (7th century BC) was a Greek lawgiver from Sparta, a city-state on the Peloponessian peninsula in the area known as Laconia. He is important as being one of the first lawgivers in the Western world and his image is found several times in the US Capitol.
The men of Sparta trained for war their entire lives, shunned luxury and were known for their brevity of speech. The word "spartan" means living without luxury and someone who is "laconic" expresses themselves with few words.

Lycurgus was a king of Sparta and he travelled around the Mediterranean looking for the best form of government. In the end he combined what he thought were the best parts from several governments, which resulted in the idea of Sparta that we know today. Spartans were each given an equal share of land, so that no one had more. Lycurgus also banned money to help reduce avarice, introduced the sharing of wives and the communal raising of children. He also set up a senate to help bring moderation to the government and encouraged the communal eating of meals between men to promote equality. It was sort of a happy little commune - except that their entire lives were focused on becoming perfect fighting machines.

So with everyone training to fight, who planted crops, raised animals and kept everything moving? The Spartans used helots (slaves) to do their their dirty work. The helots significantly outnumbered the Spartans, however, the Spartans were expert warriors. This meant that it was quite dangerous and unlikely for any helots to rise up, even as perilous as it was for the Spartans. Despite the unequal society, the laws of Lycurgus lasted far longer than most other city-states in Greece or anywhere else.

Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC) was the second king of Rome. Like Lycurgus, he lived a very "spartan" life, but he did not insist on the same conditions for Roman citizens. In contrast, he encouraged the accumulation of wealth. Numa found that Rome was in a state of constant war and he tried to encourage diplomacy and other means of acquiring land and power. In comparison, Lycurgus found his city of Sparta soft and weak and tried to mold them into warriors.
Plutarch finishes the comparison by stating that Rome only truly developed when it abandoned the teachings of Numa and became belligerent, aggressive and rapacious. However, when Sparta deserted the doctrines of Lycurgus they became weak and were subjugated by the rest of Greece.

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