Greece did not prosper in the time immediately after the gods withdrew their corporeal forms from the world. The Greeks could not understand why these gods who had once walked among their ranks, who had even interbred with them to produce some of their greatest heroes, had now abandoned them. A sense of spiritual despair gripped the land, and virtually all of its cities — even Athens, where the gods had granted men their freedom from constant divine interference — fell into decline. It was soon hard to fathom how the downtrodden country Greece had become and the one that had once been the locus of so much divine favor and heroic glory could be one and the same place. If the withdrawal of the gods was a test of man’s capacity for self-determination and self-reliance, it was one that these generations of Greeks failed. Greeks of later generations would come to call this period their Dark Ages.
Delphi as well grew meaner and shabbier during the Dark Ages. The Pythian Games, for which the best and brightest across all of Greece used to assemble for contests and performances, shrank and finally died. Delphi took on much the same look as a hundred other hardscrabble towns reminiscing about better days.
But despite it all, Delphi did its best to preserve at least a semblance of its old identity. New oracles, still selected from the most clever and devout girls of the town, still listened to suppliants’ requests, retired to Apollo’s inner sanctum, inhaled the sacred vapors there, and communed, as well as they were able, with the god. Yet even the oracles themselves would admit in unguarded moments that their experience was different from what they understood to be the experience of their predecessors. On very few occasions would the god still speak to them clearly and directly. Instead his advice and prophecies came in the form of vague feelings and fleetingly amorphous visions. Necessity forced the oracles to bring more of their personal intelligence and imagination to their occupation; they became interpreters — even embellishers — rather than mere spokespeople. Some sacrilegious souls among the people whispered darkly that the oracles might not be communing with a god at all — that these naïve girls were meddling in the affairs of their betters in accordance only to their own whims.
Still, the number of people who thought this way was relatively small. In these difficult times, Delphi remained for most Greeks a potent, necessary reminder of their spiritual heritage. Most of them still wanted to believe, and so they did believe. Suppliants from all over the land continued to bow before Delphi’s oracles every week, if no longer every day.
Thus it was that there arrived in Delphi one day a delegation of elders from the once-proud city of Sparta, seeking help with a delicate question of royal succession. “Argeia, the queen to our King Aristodemos, recently gave birth to identical twin boys, marking the couple’s first male issue,” they told the oracle. “There was much rejoicing on the occasion. But our joy turned to sorrow just weeks later, when our king was stricken by a sudden illness and died. The throne should of course be passed to his first-born son. But, well…” — here the elders hesitated in what almost seemed like embarrassment — “…we don’t actually know which one of the boys to crown. Identical as they are, no one is quite sure which boy was born first. Even their mother Argeia claims not to know whether her son Eurysthenes or her son Prokles is the elder.”
After the oracle had gone to pray and commune in her inner sanctum, she returned with a commandment. “The god says that the two boys should become your joint kings,” she said. “So may they temper each other’s judgment and restrain one another’s excesses. In fact, Sparta should continue with such a system even after the reign of these two. From now on, your city should always have two kings. Diffusing power in such a way will bring stability and consistency.”
Strange though the commandment sounded to them, the elders returned home and dutifully implemented it. And over the generations that followed, they found that it did seem to protect their city from the capricious tyrants that plagued many other cities in Greece. Nevertheless, they found it to be a mixed blessing at best. When the two kings were reasonable men, willing to compromise and work together to achieve their ends, Sparta thrived as well as any city could be said to do in the Greece of this bleak period. But when the kings were stubborn men — which sadly was much more often the case — they argued and plotted against one another continually, thereby failing in their duty to lead their city. Sometimes Sparta verged on anarchy. At others, the kings relied on the god of Delphi to make those decisions which simply had to be made, such that some joked that the real ruler of Sparta was whatever woman was Delphi’s current oracle. Some saw this as an appropriate arrangement for a city which had once been renowned for the ferocity of its warriors, but was now divided between a small class of dissolute rich men and a mass of emasculated poor ones.
During one of Sparta’s worst periods of confusion, an unmarried man named Lycurgus ascended to one of the city’s thrones, succeeding a brother who had died of a suspicious illness and a father who had been stabbed to death in the street. In both cases, people suspected King Agesilaus, the holder of the other throne; such royal treachery had by now become depressingly common. Lycurgus, however, was a very different sort of man than any of those who had recently sat on Sparta’s thrones, and this he would soon prove.
Just days after Lycurgus’s crowning, his recently deceased brother’s queen — a scheming, ambitious shrew — came to him and told him that she was pregnant with his brother’s child. If the child should prove a boy, it must according to the laws of succession take Lycurgus’s place on the throne. “But I am sure we can come to an arrangement,” said the woman. “If you will marry me and return me to my own place on the throne, I will ensure that this child is never born.”
Appalled by the woman’s ruthless mendacity, but concerned most of all about the fate of the potential royal heir, Lycurgus answered her in deceptively sympathetic tones. “Such a drastic step is far too dangerous to your health, my dear. Go ahead and have the child, then leave it to me to take care of. Never fear; you will get your just reward thereafter.” Then he conspired further with the former queen to have her baby whisked away to him just as soon as it was born if it should prove a boy.
It was indeed a boy — and so the new-born infant came to him one day while he was eating dinner with several of his officials. “Men of Sparta, here is a new king born unto us,” he said, cradling the child reverently in his arms. “I propose that we name him Charilaus.” Then he placed the baby in his own ornate chair at the head of the table. Taking a humbler place, he told everyone present about the evil plot the former queen had tried to hatch with him.
Lycurgus believed as he did so that justice would prevail, and the woman would be “rewarded” with execution or exile. But he didn’t reckon with the influence she and her family still wielded, nor with the fact that he had just voluntarily ceded his own authority. A hue and cry was raised against him when the former queen denied everything, and he in turn was accused of all manner of twisted machinations. When trusted confidantes came to him to warn him that his own life was in danger, he realized he had no choice but to leave Sparta. So, hoping that his advertising of the infant king’s existence would enure the boy against further mischief by the vipers at court, he elected to go into exile until Charilaus came of age. He hoped that thereafter the new king would be grateful to him for saving his life, and he would be able to live in peace once again in the city he loved.
In the meantime, he decided, he would ponder the problem of Sparta’s ineffectual system of governance, along with its more generalized malaise of decadent, dishonorable dysfunction. In the years that followed, he wandered far and wide across Greece and its neighboring lands and islands, talking with whoever seemed worth the effort, seeking always after wisdom. He studied the details of government and social ordering wherever he went. He took a positive example from here, a negative example from there, and began to formulate a political philosophy, endeavoring constantly to separate the efficacious from the inefficient. Sometimes his burgeoning wisdom could spring from the most unexpected sources.
On the island of Crete, for example, he witnessed with surprise and delight a street performance by a humble musician named Thaletas. After the performance was over, Lycurgus showered Thaletas with praise. “Your songs are exhortations to obedience and concord,” he said. “Their very measure and cadence convey order and tranquility. Look around at your listeners! See how they have renounced their private feuds and animosities in favor of a common admiration of virtue.” He was so taken with the music that he begged Thaletas to journey to Sparta and play for the people there; the music would, he thought to himself, help to prepare the people for the new dedication to discipline which he was slowly formulating. The musician, much flattered, promised to make the trip.
On the eastern island of Chios, he had another life-changing encounter. Here he met a blind poet named Homer, who held the people rapt for hours at a time as he chanted for them meticulously constructed verses which existed only in his head, telling of the exploits of gods and heroes during the Trojan War and its aftermath. Lycurgus found Homer’s poetry to be full of lessons about proper martial morality, a vibrant depiction of what had been lost to the Greeks of his own time. He spent days sitting at the blind man’s feet in the hot, dusty town square, transcribing the verses as well as he could. When he reluctantly moved on, he begged the people of Chios to continue his work for the sake of posterity.
At last, after more than a decade and a half of wandering, Lycurgus returned to Sparta with his store of wisdom. Just as he had hoped, he found the situation there a much more hospitable one for himself. The deceitful queen whose would-be conspiracy had caused all of his problems had died. Ditto the guileful King Agesilaus, who had been replaced by the milder King Archelaus. Meanwhile Charilaus, who had now come of age and assumed the full powers of his own throne, was well aware of the debt he owed to Lycurgus. And Thaletas too had arrived, and played his music for the people almost every evening.
But Lycurgus wasn’t soothed by the relative calm in the city; he knew that Sparta’s system of government and society as a whole still left much to be desired. Looking around him, he still saw a shabby, slovenly people consumed by their individual desires, a far cry from the heroic Greek soldiery he had heard Homer chant of. It seemed to him that the rot went from the top down. Far from discouraging him in this belief, Charilaus, who was wise beyond his years, did just the opposite. “Kings indeed we have,” said the young king, “who wear the marks and assume the titles of royalty, but the qualities of their minds are no better than those of their subjects.”
So, Lycurgus now took a trip to one of the few places in Greece which he hadn’t visited over the course of his long exile: Delphi. “For seven generations now, we have obeyed Apollo’s precept that we should have two kings at all times,” he told the oracle there. “Yet I must humbly say that it has not brought a full measure of the stability and consistency which the god promised us. The fact is, our city is still a sad shadow of what it was before the Trojan War. I have wandered for fifteen years seeking an answer to the sickness that eats at our body politic. I didn’t find the perfect model of government which I sought in any one place. I returned instead to Sparta with a head full of details — small examples of things that work and things that do not. But now I know not what to do. I renounced the role of king long ago. Do I still have a role to play at all?”
The answer the oracle brought back from the god was, to say the least, bracing. “Apollo is well-pleased with the honesty and initiative you have demonstrated thus far. Now, he expects you to go much further. Return to Sparta with all of the wisdom you have collected, and put it into practice with the god’s blessing — for your laws of government, he is certain, will be the best yet devised by man. If you implement them faithfully, Sparta’s glory and fame will return. And you will be remembered for all time as one of the truly great Greeks, on a par with even the great heroes of old.”
And so Lycurgus returned to Sparta with buoyed spirits, ready to put his thoughts into action. He quietly recruited twenty of the most respected elders of the city to his cause, emphasizing always that what he contemplated was not a coup — certainly he had no intention of seizing power himself — but a program of reform. Then he led the delegation to King Charilaus. The latter was at first much taken aback, as anyone in his position would be, but soon saw the wisdom of Lycurgus’s cause; Charilaus joined the delegation on its visit to King Archelaus. “I know you to be a good and wise man,” said Archelaus to his royal counterpart. “If you believe Lycurgus when he says that his reforms are necessary and, indeed, sanctioned by the god Apollo, that is good enough for me.”
Thus all of these men, and many more beside, packed themselves into Sparta’s largest hall one day to hear Lycurgus’s plan for their future government. “All Greek cities to date have ceded absolute authority to a monarch,” he began. “Yet it seems to me that such a system is inherently unstable — for a good king may all too easily be followed by a bad one, who undoes, whether deliberately or inadvertently, all of the progress made by his predecessor. In olden times, when the gods still walked the earth, we could hope for them to inspire correct action, or even to mix their own bloodlines with those of our royalty, thus making all of our kings wiser and stronger. But, as we all know, those times are sadly past. We must do a better job of governing ourselves if we are to return Sparta to its old glory. Doing so, I believe, requires a diffusion of power in place of its concentration. That way, one bad actor will be able to do only limited damage to the body politic.
“Generations ago, the god Apollo set us Spartans down this course when he ordered us to have two reigning kings at all times. But this remedy alone has not proved sufficient: the result has too often been squabbles and petty intrigues, or the total domination of one king by a counterpart who is stronger in personality or in patronage. These problems even the god has acknowledged to me. So, with his blessing, I now propose these further reforms.
“From now on, Sparta will have another governing body in addition to its kings: a Senate, consisting of 28 men of good family. To ensure that they bring a lifetime of wisdom with them to this chamber, men must be over 60 years of age to be eligible for election to it; the method of their election I will describe shortly. Once chosen, these senators will serve for the rest of their lives. Their numbers will be augmented by the two kings to make a total of 30 senators. They will meet as often as they deem necessary to deliberate potential changes to current law and policy, and will decide on the basis of simple majorities which proposals should be presented to the people.
“The ‘people’ of which I speak will constitute yet another, much larger governing body, consisting of all male citizens of twenty years or older, in good standing with the law, who have also duly fulfilled certain other requirements which I will describe shortly. They will normally meet once per month, on the feast day of Apollo, but can be summoned by the Senate to an emergency session if circumstances dictate. Their first and perhaps most important function will be to elect new senators from the pool of aged candidates among their own ranks, provided that their choices are approved by the kings. But they will also be the final arbiters of all changes in law and policy which the Senate has voted to place before them. Once again, they will decide these questions on the simple basis of majority rule. They will not be allowed to amend or create, or even to debate overmuch among themselves. Their mandate is only to vote the proposals of the Senate up or down, thereby serving as a final check on any unwise policy which does manage to make its way through those august ranks. If all goes as I hope, the vast majority of the people’s votes will be in the affirmative, as they defer to the wisdom of the elders whom they themselves have elected.
“I am sure you have many questions at this point. One of them is doubtless where this system leaves Sparta’s present two kings. The answer, my fellow citizens, is that they will still have much to do, even beyond the role they will play in the Senate and the veto power they will enjoy over the people’s choice of senators. For, while the Senate and the people’s tribunal will set the direction for our ship of state, it will be the kings’ responsibility to ensure that it actually reaches its destination unscathed. In short, they will administrate the laws and policies which the Senate and the people adopt. This extends even — especially, actually — to matters of war; a king must lead our armies into battle, not an assemblage of white-haired old men. The Senate’s only role in such matters will be to adjudicate disputes between the kings, to prevent the paralysis which has so often afflicted our government under the current system. In such cases, the Senate’s word shall be law.
“Some of you may say, reasonably enough, that my proposal nevertheless represents a substantial reduction in the kings’ power. To you, I would reply that just the opposite may be true, for it sets their power on a firmer basis. The power that lasts longer is ultimately the stronger.
“But now, my fellow citizens, we come to the harder parts of my speech. For when I look at this once-great city and its surrounding lands, I feel it to be in the grip of a malaise which even the sweeping changes I have already proposed are ill-equipped to remedy. Sparta was once a city of peerless warriors, the chosen city of Ares himself. All, Greek and barbarian alike, feared the beating of our drums and the crashing of our spears. But looking around me today, I see a soft, weak citizenry who have lost the old spirit of martial brotherhood. The few enrich themselves on the backs of the many. This must end, here and now, if Sparta is to see a return to glory.
“Therefore I propose that all lands shall be confiscated and redistributed, giving every male citizen who has reached the age of twenty an equal share. And we should do the same with all goods. In short, all of our lands and goods should become one family estate, divided up evenly among brother-citizens. From now on, we must live together on an equal footing, with merit the only route to eminence. From now on, we must judge each citizen strictly on the basis of his actions. Even those lands and goods which are bestowed upon the individual should rightly be viewed by him and others not as his own, to do with as he will, but merely as that part of the public trust for which he is responsible. Gold and silver coinage will be abolished. By living all of us as paupers, we will keep covetousness — the root of so many evils — at bay among our ranks. Wealth will hold no allure for us, for we shall assure that it comes complete with social stigma rather than social status. Thus we shall ensure as well that henceforward our people live free of the temptation to turn their backs on their warrior heritage and take up a degrading mechanical or mercantile trade in pursuit of lucre alone.
“To further ensure that no artificial markers of status spring up again among the citizens, all of the males of Sparta, men and boys alike, should be divided into common messes who will eat their midday meal together every day. All in each mess will be expected to contribute their fair share of the provisions for each meal. All will eat the same food at the same table. These rules will apply even to the kings and senators, who will themselves be members of messes filled out with common men of all ages and backgrounds. The messes will be places for boys to learn directly from our most experienced statesmen of politics, war, and all the niceties of manly behavior. We must do everything in our power to re-mold our present slack citizenry in the image of the Spartan legions of yore.
“We must reform the institution of marriage. It should be encouraged at a young age with all the force we can bring to bear, for Sparta has need of many more soldiers to achieve its return to glory. Every year, we should bring together all of the men and girls who came of age that year — age twenty for the men, age fifteen for the girls — for a moonlight dance. All will be naked, but they will not be permitted to touch one another. Their natural desires will soon take their course, leading to many marriages in the weeks that follow. Those men who are still bachelors on the occasion of the next annual dance will be stripped of their voting franchise, along with all of the public property with which they have been entrusted. They will be forced to march naked through the city, singing humiliating songs about their lack of manhood. Everywhere they should be scorned until they see the error of their ways and choose a bride.
“After marriage, husbands and wives should continue to live apart during the prime child-bearing years. The husband should visit the wife only one night per month. This will ensure that he is not distracted from his duties to the state by the allure of hearth and home — as it will ensure that the couple will come together, when they do, with affections fresh and lively, unsated and undulled by easy access and routine continuance, still full of longing and mutual delight. It will lead to strong and healthy babies, which is after all the only real purpose of marriage. To that end, a man who fails to conceive a child with his wife over a reasonable period of time should consider letting one of his mess mates try his luck with her. There is no shame for either husband or wife in such an arrangement. Quite the contrary, in fact.
“For, my fellow citizens, our children are by far our most important single resource. They are literally the future of Sparta — and as such, they belong not to their parents but to the state as a whole. I am repeatedly amazed at the care some invest in the breeding of dogs and horses, even as they give no thought whatsoever to the breeding of children. That must change. The foolish, the infirm, and the diseased among our population should not have children. Nor should defective children, whatever their parentage, be suffered to live and sap the strength of our state. I therefore propose that all new-born babies be required to pass inspection by a council we will institute for the task. Those that are judged insufficiently stout and well-made will be cast into the chasm near Mount Taygetus.
“From the age of seven, all boys should be taken from their families to live together in common camps under identical order and discipline — learning, exercising, and playing together. The quarrels which naturally occur among boys should not be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be encouraged, as a way of separating weak from strong; the strongest of all within each camp shall be given the title of captain for as long as he can hold it. They should learn as much reading and writing as practical need demands, but our principal focus should always be on teaching our boys how to endure hardship and how to conquer the enemy in battle; their modes of thought and speech should be short but sharp, like their swords. By the time they reach the age of twelve — the age at which they will be assigned to a mess — our boys should already be the equal of any other city’s adult soldiers. By the time they attain adulthood, they should be far superior to all others.
“These soldiers of Sparta must be utterly heedless of fear or pain. What comfort they find, they must find in one another; it is acceptable, and even desirable, for them to take one another as lovers, as long as such relationships do not lead them to effeminacy and do not interfere with their marriages. Only those who pass through the rigors of the common camps and, as I’ve already noted, marry soon after coming of age will be allowed to participate in the governance of our city. The rest should ideally be exiled, if not executed, for their failure to meet the standard of true Spartans.
“While we are about all this, we should not be neglectful of the girls our boys will someday marry. Although they will not be taken to live in camps like the boys, they should not be pampered either, but should learn to wrestle, to run, to throw the discus, and to shoot the arrow as well as the men of any other city. For from their wombs must come our next generation of still stronger men.
“If we are to maintain the perfectly egalitarian warrior society I have described, we must protect its citizens at all costs from the contagion of foreign mores and values. Citizens… I see all around me, even in this very hall in which I speak, useless objects created only for the idle gratification of the senses. What some men call ‘art,’ I call ‘decadence.’ We should do away with all art which fails to inculcate the traditional Spartan virtues of honor, discipline, order, and martial pride. The works of the musician Thaletas, whom I sent to you during my exile, and the poet Homer, which transcriptions I carried back with me, are examples of worthy art. All other artworks should be weighed carefully by the Senate, and those deemed unworthy — the vast majority of them, I trust — should be destroyed as corrupters of our collective vitality. Even the ceilings of our houses should be wrought only by the axe, their gates and doors smoothed only by the saw. Luxury in all things should be equated with treason — treason against our young people, our most precious resource.
“We must forbid our citizens to travel abroad except on campaigns of war; this will prevent them from infecting our body politic with overly sentimental ideas of morality, education, and government upon their return. Similarly, visitors from abroad should be allowed to stay in our city only when dictated by the most urgent necessity. For with strange people come strange words; with strange words come novelties in thought; with novelties in thought come the discordant notes which destroy the harmony of the state. Foreign decadence is the pestilence which has sapped the strength of Sparta since the withdrawal of the gods. From now on, Sparta shall be Spartan again!”
When Lycurgus raised his arms above his head to accompany these last words, which he clearly intended to be the rousing finale of his speech, he was greeted by only scattered cheers from the crowd. Most were still struggling to come to grips with such an all-encompassing program of “reform.” Others wondered if they had actually heard correctly at all. The dominant melody in the hall was confusion, undergirded by a harmony of dark discontent. And small wonder: the audience was mostly made up of the pampered, well-to-do men of the city — the very men who stood to lose everything they owned if Lycurgus’s program was implemented. Even the kings had no words of approbation to offer; this speech was far more sweeping in scope than they had been led to expect. Lycurgus slunk out of the hall in rather anticlimactic fashion; he was a mere middle-aged citizen again, looking much less imposing than he had when standing on the speaker’s dais.
One wealthy landowner, a hasty and violent young man named Alcander, slipped out after him and followed him down the street. When Lycurgus turned into a smaller alleyway that led toward his home, Alcander called to him from behind. Lycurgus turned toward his interlocutor, whereupon the latter struck him full across the face with the bronze handle of his walking stick. Lycurgus fell to the ground clutching one of his eyes, shouting for help, whereupon several passersby rushed into the alley to witness a sorry sight: that of a young man standing over a helpless victim much his elder, walking stick raised to strike another blow. They quickly surrounded Alcander and disarmed him.
But as these other citizens were preparing to give the miscreant a thrashing to remember, Lycurgus, regaining his feet, begged them to stop. “This man is a symptom of the malaise that grips our city, but not its cause,” he said. And he began to tell these citizens of his theories about where Sparta had gone wrong and how the city could see a return to glory, albeit delivered this time in more folksy language appropriate to his new audience. For their part, these men proved much more receptive to his message. More and more citizens gathered around him as his speech increased in energy and volume; the wounded eye was entirely forgotten, not least by the speaker himself. When he told how he wanted to confiscate all wealth and place all Spartans on an absolutely equal plain, his audience of mostly poor men grew more enthused than ever. In the end, a large crowd escorted him to his home, singing and cheering the man who would be Sparta’s savior. At Lycurgus’s suggestion, they all agreed that the only appropriate punishment for Alcander was to become a servant of the man he had wronged — to learn firsthand the lot of those who had served him all his decadent life. Lycurgus lost sight in his wounded eye permanently, but, fired with zeal as he was, he brushed this aside as another man might a minor scrape.
In the time that followed, the moneyed men of the city watched with increasing agitation as Lycurgus gave speech after speech to ever larger and more enthusiastic audiences. Soon the audiences became mobs, who ran through the streets looting and beating anyone who resisted their call to revolution. Now the idealism of King Charilaus and the weakness of King Archelaus led these two to agree to his plans — a decision which represented their last act as the unaccountable arbitrators of their city’s fate. For Sparta was then reordered on exactly the lines proposed by Lycurgus. In the violent chaos that accompanied the imposition of the new order, many a wealthy Spartan was killed for refusing to yield up his riches with good grace, while many a dissenter with no desire to live such a harshly regimented, collectivist life fled the city to try his luck elsewhere in Greece.
When all of the rebels had been killed, imprisoned, or driven away, and all of the new institutions had been duly set up, Lycurgus journeyed to Delphi once again in the company of his servant Alcander, who had by now become a devoted disciple of his master’s philosophies. Word of the turmoil in Sparta had reached Delphi long before they did, and the people there were unsure what to make of it all. Even the oracle greeted Lycurgus falteringly, as if shocked by the uncompromising way he had acted upon her god’s sanction. Yet when he begged her to ask Apollo whether the new order he had created was a good, virtuous one, she returned with the answer he had hoped to hear. “The new laws are excellent, and will lead your people to new heights of renown,” she said.
Thus confirmed in his life’s work, Lycurgus decided there was little reason to go on living; as a middle-aged, partially blind man, his body’s strength sapped by the privations he had endured in his long years of traveling, he could do nothing else practical to serve his city in life. Yet he could serve as an example to the collective by his death. So, upon returning to Sparta, he told the people that, as one who no longer had anything to contribute to the common cause, he would refuse to eat any of the communal food. Pronouncing their protestations that he had earned an old age of ease and honor to be shamefully un-Spartan, he held fast to his pledge as he withered and died.
Lycurgus left behind him the first state ordered on the basis of man’s own philosophy rather than any gift of the gods. Indeed, Sparta, the very first ideological state, would stand for all time as the most committed specimen of same ever to exist. Alcander took over Lycurgus’s position as Sparta’s chief philosopher, always prepared to correct the Senate or even the kings if they began to drift back toward soft decadence. He groomed a disciple of his own before his death, and so that cycle too continued.
Life in peaceful, spiritual Delphi had little in common with Spartan life. Nevertheless, Sparta held Delphi in great respect as the place which had given holy sanction to Lycurgus’s new order. Making an exception to the rules about not blending with foreign influences, Sparta sent a delegation to reside permanently in the town. Many of the spoils of Sparta’s wars, for which the Spartans themselves had no use given their vows of mutual poverty, were sent as offerings to Delphi. Perhaps in consequence, the oracle was always available to consult with the Spartans at a moment’s notice. At these consultations, however, she often spoke to them more harshly than anyone else in Greece would have dared to do. Many Greeks of other cities credited the oracle, or her god, or both, with shielding them from Sparta’s appetite for conquest, using only her carefully chosen words.
For example, after Sparta had established firm dominion over the entirety of its own rough-hewn region of Laconia, its delegation asked Apollo to sanction an attack on the bountiful region of Arcadia, a tempting prize boasting rich forests and some of the best farmland in all of Greece. “For Arcadia you ask the god,” the oracle answered. “You ask for much; he refuses to give it. But not all will he begrudge you; Tegea he will give you, a dance floor to tread, a beautiful plain to measure out with a line.” This Tegea she referred to was the southernmost city of Arcadia, standing in an area known for its flat and level farmland. “But this prize cannot be yours until you have found the bones of Orestes — for the son of Agamemnon in this fertile earth lies. Tegea’s conqueror you may be only once you have brought Orestes to Sparta.”
Now, it was well-known that Orestes had asked not to be buried near his hated mother in Argos, and it was also rumored that his chosen alternative resting place lay in Arcadia. But no one still remembered exactly where that resting place was. After receiving the oracle’s directions, the Spartans spent years searching for it. Finally, an enterprising officer heard of a farmer who, in the course of digging a well, had chanced upon an immense gilded coffin; discovering a corpse still inside it, he had immediately covered it up again and dug his well elsewhere. The officer, having tracked down this farmer and compelled him to reveal the location of the first well, returned with the bones of Orestes to Sparta, where they were interred with all appropriate honor. Only then did Sparta launch its attack on Tegea, and soon won out.
By constant little stratagems like this, the oracle or her god restrained the Spartan armies from running rampant through all of Greece. A century and a half after the death of Lycurgus, most of the Peloponnese, including Agamemnon and Orestes’s city of Argos and Perseus and Heracles’s city of Tiryns, was under Spartan sway, but those areas beyond Corinth, the gateway to the Peloponnese, were still free.
The rest of Greece had an ambivalent attitude toward this tiger which had sprung up in their midst. Certainly no other Greek city adopted Sparta’s rigid social and military code; indeed, most of them looked upon it with a visceral distaste. When it suited them, they branded the Spartans unfathomable Others, barely Greeks at all. But they also took an undeniable pride in this Greek city of Sparta’s burgeoning reputation as the greatest nation of warriors the world had ever known. When they found themselves drawn into wars, the other cities of Greece didn’t hesitate to turn to the Spartans, whose messes in their turn were only too happy to hire themselves out as mercenaries. Sometimes, when one Greek city went to war with another, Spartan legions would fight on both sides, killing one another without a second thought. So, while Sparta was often a bully to the other Greek cities, it was also a friend and protector in time of need. The sense of pride it instilled throughout the land did much to lift all of Greece out of the doldrums of the Dark Ages.
New modes of thought took root in these other places in Greece, inspired by the Spartan example of mortal self-reliance but not completely in harmony with it in anything but the broadest sense. Rejecting the rigid utilitarian aesthetic of the Spartans, men in these places began to embrace beauty — mortal beauty — as a worthy end unto itself. They began to play music with more warmth and spontaneity to it than the rigid sonic architectures of Thaletas, and to write poetry which departed from the inflexible rhythm of Homer. And they began to use their pens to record things as well. They attempted to set the events of the past into a chronology; translated into the system of dates which you know, their timeline held that Cadmus had lived around 1500 BC, that the Trojan War and the departure of the gods had occurred around 1000 BC, that Lycurgus had given Sparta its reforms in perhaps 800 BC, and that they themselves were now living in 600 BC. The Greeks had invented history.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)