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48 BehaviorAnalysis and SocialAction - Volume7, Numbers1 & 2, 1989

Lycurgus, Legendary Law-giver of


800 B.C. Sparta: Cultural Engineer
A. Ph. Paschalis
University of Patras, Greece
Jerome D. Ulman
Ball State University

The historian E.H. Carr (1961) argues that "the func- students of ancient Greek history, we will accept that Ly-
tion of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emanci- curgus lived around 800 B.C., long before the Greek alpha-
pate himself from the past, but to master and understand it bet was fully developed. Our purpose, however, is not to
as the key to the understanding of the present" (p. 35). How argue aboutthe accuracy of his biography but to examine 800
well we understand the present will of course determine B.C. Sparta as a remarkable feat of cultural engineering in
how effective we can be in planning our future. Presumably, B.F. Skinner's (1971) sense of the term (i.e., the establish-
then, behaviorists concerned with progressive social change ment of practices which induce members to work for the sur-
may benefit from the study of history . Yet historical facts vival of their culture) .
belong to the past, irretrievably; time machines exist only in Spartan society was rigidl y divided into three classes : a
fiction . Consequently, the selection, interpretation, and ruling class of citizens - hoplites or Spartans proper - con-
synthesis of such facts (or assumed facts) are unavoidably, stituting 5 to 10 percent of the population; an oppressed and
in part, a function of the historian's reinforcement history exploited class of helots, outnumbering the citizen by about
and current circumstances, both personal and cultural. 10 to 1; and a small peripheral group call perioikoi, mostly
Hence, behaviorists concerned with understanding the past farmers, miners, and small merchants. Neither the perioikoi
face a challenging task: to render interpretations of historical nor the helots had any political rights . They were denied
writings consistent with our best guess as to the controlling admission to the ranks of the Spartans and prohibited from
variables operating at the levels of behavior and culture at intermarrying with them .
the time. As a case in point, we offer the following exercise in These social class divisions were the result of Sparta's
interpretation drawn from the the extraordinarily remote history. Spartans were descendants of the Dorian con-
culture of ancient Sparta - specifically, the accomplish- querors who had invaded southern Peloponnesus and occu-
ments attributed to Lycurgus, one of the most controversial pied one of the most fertile valleys in Greece, the plain of
and interesting figures of the ancient world. Laconia. The conquered population was promptly reduced
We must first qualify our title. Not only is Lycurgus to the status of helots . During the subsequent period of colo-
considered the legendary law-giver of Sparta; as often, he is nization the problem of overpopulation arose in Laconia.
viewed as a semimythical historical figure. Even the ancients The Spartans met this problem, not by encouraging emigra-
were in doubt about what he actually did or even when he tion abroad as did other Greek city-states, but mostl y by an-
lived, with estimates ranging from the 10th to the 8th cen- nexing adjacent territories, thus initially making it an expan-
tury B.C. Moreover, while Lycurgus is credited with the es- sionistic culture until it's population became stabilized and
tablishment of the Spartan constitution, contemporary Sparta became a unified state . "The luckier descendants of
scholars argue that the institutions and reforms attributed to Spartas' s once independent neighbors became perioikoi; the
him probably developed over centuries. However, there is rest became helots" (Brinton, et al., 1960, p. 60).
general agreement among modem scholars that there was a By the time of Lycurgus the class system was firmly
Spartan constitution and that it has been preserved in the entrenched . The Spartan citizens - numbering about 8,000-
works ascribed to the Greek historian Xenophon (B.C. 434?- 9,000 (Anderson, 1974, p. 35) - had reduced the great
355?). As Moore (1975) notes, this document isn't so much a masses of helots to a cond ition of serfdom and treated them
constitution as it is a discussion of the way of life of the Spar- harshly, occasionally executing a few to discourage recalci-
tans . trance . The helots revolted unsuccessfully a number of
In short, "although Lycurgus may have been a wholly times . Sparta was also threatened by the danger of foreign
mythical personage, the [Spartan] constitution reflects the invasion. Under these precarious circumstances, as legend
realities of Sparta's history and social system" (Brinton, has it, Lycurgus began the task of designing a culture that
Christopher, & Wolff, 1960, p . 60). In accordance with most would change the Spartan people and turn them into an in-

Reprints may be obtained from Jerome D. Ulman, Department of Special Education, Ball State University , Muncie, Indiana 47306.
LYCURGUS: 800 B.C. CULTURAL ENGINEER I A . Ph. Paschalisand JeromeD . Ulman I 49

vincible force. As a result, Spartan culture proved to be mili- dent supply of oil and wine. The awarding of citizenship
tarily unequalled in the whole of Greece for a period of well went along with the awarding of an estate and everything on
over 500 years. These, then, were the social circumstances it, including livestock and slaves . By law, Spartans did not
under which Lycurgus presumably engineered Spartan cul- produce their means of subsistence; they lived off the labor
ture - not an aesthetically refined culture like that of of the helots . At the same time, luxuries were discouraged ;
Athens, but a warrior culture well suited for survival within the only distinction allowed among Spartans was one of rec-
the surrounding hostile social environment : in the immedi- ognition of merit and virtue through the performance of
ate area, a large population of oppressed and exploited peo- worthy acts. Of course, what the state gave, the state could
ple struggling for liberation and, at a farther distance, the take away. Thus, the state "was capable also of suspending
very real danger of invading armies. the civic rights of a Spartiate [Spartan], or of rescinding them
According to the Greek biographer Plutarch (46?-120?) altogether for specified offences, of which the most flagrant
(1864), during the reign of Lycurgus' father there was "anar- was that of cowardice in the face of the enemy" (Hooker,
chy and confusion in Sparta" (p. 50). Determined to put an 1980, p . 118). Such were the reinforcement and response-
end to it, Lycurgus resolved to construct a constitution for cost contingencies of ancient Spartan culture. "The upshot
Sparta. About which, Plutarch writes: of this system was to create an intense collective unity
among the Spartiates, who proudly designated themselves
[Lycurgus] applied himself without loss of time, to a
hoi homoioi - the 'Equals"' (Anderson, 1974, p . 34).
thorough reformation, and resolved to change the
Other ancient law-givers attempted to preserve equal-
w hole face of the commonwealth; for what could a few
ity among their people bu t to no avail. For example, Solon,
particular laws and a partial alteration avail? He must
law-giver of Athens, tried to limit the amount of land one
- act as wise ph ysicians do, in the case of one w ho la-
could possess . The Locrians forbade the sale of property ex-
bours under a complication of diseases, by force of
cept in extreme circumstances (Aristotle, 1939, p. 51). None-
medicines . . . change his whole temperament and
theless, both land and wealth eventually passed into the
then set him upon a regimen of diet . (Plutarch, 1864, p .
hands of the few . To prevent such from happening in
52).
Sparta, Lycurgus is belie ved to have instituted one of the
Among the man y changes that Lycurgus made, the most unusual monetary policies in h istory . Silver and gold
first and the most impo r tant was the establishment of a were abolished as the medium of exchange and replaced
council of elders having equal power with the two kings (a with money in the form of hea vy iron rods . Because of its
quirk of Spartan history), ata timewheneverywhereelsethe great unit weight and supply relative to the precious metals,
word of a king was law . "The Spartan 'kings' were merely this new money w as w orth ve ry little. Hence , as a medium
members of the aristocracy, participants without special of exchange, the reinforcing value of this new money was
privileges in the thirty-man council of elders .. . which origi- offset by the aversive effects of having to lug it around. As
na lly ru led the city" (Anderson, 1974, p. 34). The proceed- one result, the rate of such an tisocia l behavior as stealing,
ings of the council were held in the open and the public and robbing, bribing , and whori ng w as p robably reduced sub-
all citizens could attend and be kept informed of state affairs. stantially if not totally (Con ttr ell, 1977).
Citizens could not vote or speak, but they could criticize and Another pl anned ou tcom e of Lycur gus' new mone tary
comment, and sho w approval or d isapproval of major deci- policy w as to ensure tha t Sp arta w ould n ever end with its
sion s of the council and kings (e.g., declarations of war) . economy suffocating u n de r th e b urd en of a foreign ex-
Like Marx's ai;talysis some 2700 years later, Lycurgus change tra de-deficit (i. e ., d ebt peonag e, a p roblem common
con tended that p olitical democracy was a worthless gift un- to many poo r countries in tod ay' s w orld) . "Merchants sent
less it w as accompanied by economic equality (for Lycurgus, no shiplo ads in to Spar tan p ort . .. an d no itinerate fortune-
how ever, onl y insofa r as it affected the Spartan w ar rior teller, no h arl ot-mon ger s set foot in a cou ntry w here there
clas s). Pluta rch note d that "the most hazardous task he [Ly- was no m oney (Plu tarch, 1864, p. 56). To fu r ther isolate
curgu s] ever und ertook was making a new division of their Spartans from the p otentia lly corrupting in fluence of the
[th e cit izens'] lands. Fo r there was extreme inequality outside w orld, Lycur gu s forbade the m to tr av el abroad and
am ong st them and w ealth centered upon a very few" (1864, also forba d e anyo n e from abroa d to visit Spa rta . Sparta was a
p. 55). With Lycurgus , Ari stotle (384-322 B.C.) (1939, pp . 42- land- locked city -st ate and pr od uc ed vary littl e for exp ort.
43) note d , equa l lots of land w ere given to citizens of new Concludes Plut arch (1984), Lycur gu s "w as careful to p rotect
found cities suc h as in Magna Grecia (Sicily and Southern the city from the infec tion of for eign hab its tha t might de-
Italy ). Such redi stribu tion of land to eliminate inequalities stroy the harm on y of th e State" (p. 73).
had n ever b een attemp te d before. As the story goes (cf. An- To oblite rate any vestig e of inequ ality am ong the Spar-
derson, 1974, pp. 33-34, Lycu rgus divided the land into forty tan citizenry , Lycurgus is credit ed with ordaining th at all the
th ou sand lot s w hic h h e then distributed among the citizens. Spar tans woul d ea t in comm on m esses wh ere the food
Each lot w as calcu late d to yield about eighty-five bushels of served was the sam e for ev ery one includi n g the kings . The
grain for a n ew ly m arried cou p le, enough to obtain a suffi- meals were frugal but h ealthy and n on -fatte ning (thus ex-
50 I A. Ph. Paschalisand JeromeD. Ulman I LYCURGUS:800 B.C. CULTURAL ENGINEER

emplifying the Greek motto, "a healthy mind in a healthy would develop healthy and strong bodies capable of bearing
body"). Indeed, Spartan men were not even permitted as children and be unafraid of the pains of childbirth. In con-
much as to eat at home with their wives and then attend the trast, in the other Greek city-states women were given the
messes. So strict was this rule that, when King Agis returned plainest fare, not allowed to drink wine, and ordered to keep
from a victory over the Athenians and asked for food to be quiet and not complain about doing "women's work"
sent home for him to dine with his wife, he was not only (Xenophon, 1968, p . 137). Although child bearing was con-
refused but fined for even making the request. sidered to be the most important function of Spartan
In death too, equality was regulated . Lycurgus is be- women, according to Aristotle (1939, p. 52), many things in
lieved to have prohibited Spartans from putting anything in Sparta were done by the authority of the women. Morever,
the graves except an olive-tree branch and the deceased unlike women in the surrounding city-states, they could in-
cloak (Conttrell, 1977). No names were to be written on their herit property; nearly two-fifths of the whole country be-
tombs, including tombs of the kings. longed to women.
Lycurgus was apparently the first statesman to realize Even the institution of marriage was not left to chance,
that education was of paramount importance for the well- but was deliberately organized in the interest of perpetuat-
being of the state and its citizens. Education was designed ing Spartan culture. In the processions and festivals held af-
for all Spartans over the age of 7, irrespective of sex. Plutarch ter the return home from a war campaign, Lycurgus ordered
(1864) stated that "every end and object of law and enact- that the women and the young maidens went naked (as did
ment it was his design that education should effect" (p. 59). the young men) . The processionals thus served as entice-
The rigorous life of the Spartans began at birth when ment to marriage. And considering the length of the war
they were first bathed - not in water, as was the custom of campaigns, from early spring until late autumn, it is not sur-
other states - but in wine, based on the belief that defective prising that this bit of cultural engineering was quite effec-
children might waste away while those who were healthy tive. Additionally,
might become vigorous, strong, firm, and tempered like
in Sparta, celibacy was a crime. Street gangs of women
steel. To further ensure that in Sparta only the strong sur-
beat up bachelors. Unmarried men and girls [in pairs]
vived, the elders hurled unfit babies from nearby cliffs (Con-
might be thrust into the same dark room, where [they
ttrell, 1977).
mated] ... Spartans, wrote Plutarch, "sometimes had
Infants were not swaddled but were unconstrained by
children by their wives before they saw their faces by
clothing . Their nurses trained them to eat all kinds of food,
daylight." (Conttrell, 1977, p. 178)
not to be afraid of the dark, to tolerate discomfort, and not to
cry. Spartan children were required to make their beds by The processionals served another important function
cutting or breaking rushes from the bank of the Eurotas for the survival of Spartan culture, strengthening the com- ·
River . Lycurgus emphasized instructing children, not bative behavior of the warriors. Participants in the festivities
merely through verbal behavior, but by having them follow danced and sang songs in praise of those who performed
the examples set by their elders. Every Spartan man consid- gallant actions in battle. But they also made jests at the ex-
ered himself as a father to every boy and never lost an occa- pense of any warrior whose performance in battle was less
sion to instruct, advice, and chastise if necessary. than commendable. The entire city, including the kings and
At the age of 7, boys began eating in the common elders, witnessed these processions, presumably adding to
messes as part of their education. Experienced statesmen in- the quality of social reinforcement for good combative be-
structed them in state affairs - in contrast to neighboring havior.
states where slaves served as companions and tutors Regarding the conduct of war, Lycurgus must have
(Xenophon, 1968, p. 145). Spartan boys learned how to con- been aware of the process of imitation learning. According
verse with humor, to make and take jests without being of- to one of his rhetras (divine revelations and sanctions), Spar-
fended, and to praise or criticize one another's behavior on tan warriors should not engage the same enemy force in
the basis of whether or not it contributed to the common combat often or long lest the latter should learn effective de-
good of Spartan life. At the same time, Spartan instructors fensive practices. On this account, King Agisilaus, because
did not suffer loose and incontinent talkers (hence, the ori- of his continual incursions into Boeotia, was blamed for
gin of the word laconic,derived from Laconia,the greater area making the Thebans a match for the Spartans. So when the
in which Sparta was the main city). king was subsequently wounded in battle, a compatriot told
While the art of conversation, poetry and verse, music him he was very well paid for making the Thebans good sol-
and song, and dance and manners, were the Spartans' com- diers (Plutarch, 1864).
mon pasttimes, their chief preoccupations were athletic con- Because Spartan society was organized on a military
tests, hunting, and all sorts of other vigorous physical exer- basis, we might surmise that it was an imperialist power.
cises. The same exercises were prescribed for both males and However, once Sparta's territory had been established in the
females - races, trials of strength, wrestling, throwing the Laconian plain and then in Messenia to the west, a conquest
quoit, and casting the dart. In so doing, female Spartans incorporated long before Lycurgus' time, the opposite was
LYCURGUS: BOOB.C. CULTURAL ENGINEER I A . Ph. Paschalisand JeromeD. Ulman I 51

true. The Spartans made war only when their safety was the outside world and bring home rich spoils from the wars .
threatened; their primary political goal was to have friendly The reintroduction of gold and silver engendered luxury
governments in neighboring states (Moore, 1975). In con- and greed, the antithesis of the Spartan tradition of simplic-
trast, with respect to the rights and individual freedoms ity and equality. As Anderson (1974) notes,
granted to its citizens, Athens was a more democratic state
The decline of Sparta after the Peloponnesian War
(albeit, its economy was based on slavery). Yet it was "demo -
[431-404 B.C.] was accompanied . . . by a dramatically
cratic" Athens which became imperialistic and turned
widened economic gulf between wealthy and impov-
friendly allies (people living on the many islands of the
erished citizens, amidst demographic contraction and
Agean) into unfriendly tributary subjects-premised on the
political demoralization. But the traditions of marital
rationalization that since Athens held at bay the Persian dan-
equality remained so fierce and deep that in the 2nd
ger of invasion and conquest, it had the right to exact tribute
century B.C., Sparta gave birth to the astonishing epi -
from its "allies" whom it protected.
sodes of the radical king ... (P. 58, fn. 5)
With its constitution and laws, the Spartan state ar-
ranged cultural contingencies in such a way as to shape a Virtually nothing remains of ancient Sparta today .
uniques behavioral repertoire in a distinct body of people on What conclusions can we draw from the study of an-
a scale never before achieved. This Spartan "personality" cient Spartan culture? Two voices from antiquity epitomise
differed from all the rest of ancient Greece and indeed the the verdict of the Greeks. Plutarch states, "With a common
world over. Historians have since described Spartans as fru- staff and a coarse coat they [the Spartans] gained the willing
gal, witty, to the point, and courageous. They endured pain and joyful obedience of Greece" (1864, p . 73). And some-
and entered the field of battle with joy and enthusiasm - as what less admiringly, Xenophon states, "All men praise
if partaking in a grand feast- for they were well trained and their institutions but no state chooses to imitate them" (1968,
motivated for combat. Their respect for their elders was pro- p. 169). In sum, although for five subsequent centuries the
verbial and their rigorous self-discipline was renowned Spartan state never passed beyond the boundaries of aris -
. throughout Greece . It was characteristic of Spartan warriors tocracy and autocracy, it did go one step beyond the ancient
to show exceptional valor in battle, courage in the face of monarchies . Additionally, it set the stage for the historically
adversity, and severe simplicity in their everyday lives . amazing but brief period of radical reforms of 2nd century
Two examples suffice to contrast the Spartan "person- B. C. Sparta - "probably the most coherent and far-reaching
ality" with those of the rest of the people of ancient Greece. set of revolutionary measures ever formulated in Antiquity"
Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator and politician, (Anderson, 1974, p. 58), about which will be the topic of our
devoted a lifetime attempting to rouse his fellow citizens next paper.
against the Macedonian danger of conquest and consequent
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