Ancient History & Civilisation



In preparing his Lives of Spartans (Lycurgus in particular) Plutarch read many of the special studies of Sparta produced by Greek authors from the end of the fifth century onwards.1 The title which such works were usually given in Greek – Politeia – has no suitable one-word equivalent in English. Though ‘Constitution’ is perhaps the nearest, and is commonly used, it fails to convey the much broader scope of politeia, which could be expected to embrace the entire social, as well as strictly constitutional, character of the polisor city-state. Such broader scope is certainly a feature of this sole Politeia of the Spartans to survive complete, which I have therefore preferred to render as Spartan Society rather than as the Constitution of the Spartans.

The work was preserved among the writings of Xenophon and seems to have found a considerable number of readers in antiquity, including Plutarch himself. However, even then the attribution to Xenophon was doubted, and it still remains in dispute, not least because plausible arguments can be made on either side. At first sight there does seem good cause to accept Xenophon as the author. The work clearly shows itself to be written by a non-Spartan who is concerned to convey his great enthusiasm for the state to other non-Spartans, while at the same time correcting what he believes to be certain common misconceptions about it. Xenophon can plausibly be seen in this role. An Athenian born no later than the early 420s into a well-to-do family, he became unsettled at home once democracy was restored not long after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War (404 BC); a narrow oligarchy imposed by Sparta immediately following the surrender had not lasted. So he sought occupation abroad as a mercenary – first in the Persian empire, 2 and then in Sparta's campaigns against the Persians in Asia Minor. He formed a lasting friendship with the Spartan king Agesilaus, who came out as commander in 396. After serving with him both in Asia Minor and later in mainland Greece, Xenophon was rewarded with an estate near Olympia, and at the king's invitation sent his two sons to Sparta for their education. Even when forced to move in the aftermath of the great Theban defeat of the Spartans at Leuctra (371), Xenophon went to Corinth rather than back to Athens. It was there in old age that he wrote an admiring tribute to Agesilaus after the king's death in 360, and A History of My Times, 3 a highly partial account, almost invariably pro-Spartan, which reads more like memoirs than history. Thus Xenophon's career and sympathies would appear to make the attribution of Spartan Society to him a sound one; in addition considerable stylistic similarity to his other writings has been noted.

At the same time it may be claimed on the other side that nowhere else does Xenophon offer material of such poor quality. By any reasonable standard Spartan Society is often jejune in presentation and approach – attributing every single Spartan institution to Lycurgus, for example! Moreover the work furnishes only a very limited coverage of its subject. The last chapters in particular tend to dissolve into nothing better than a series of disjointed, scrappy notes. The reader's sense of confusion is heightened by the problem of whether Chapters 14 (the acknowledgement that the laws of Lycurgus are no longer obeyed) and 15 (on the relationship between kings and ephors) are correctly placed. While it is possible that two such unrelated sections were added as successive postscripts by the author, scribes later may equally have confused the order of their material, so that 15 was meant to follow on from 13 in a more or less logical way, and 14 does belong at the end (where it was placed, renumbered as ‘15’, in the first edition of this volume).

Certainly Chapter 14 is most likely to be a postscript, which serves not least to show up the author as lacking personal knowledge of Sparta at the time he wrote his work. This could still fit Xenophon's case, if by chance he wrote (say) in the 390s on the basis of what Spartan comrades abroad told him, before he had ever been to Sparta himself. But against that the disillusionment of Chapter 14 hardly seems characteristic of Xenophon at any stage of his career. Harmosts are mentioned as still in post, which indicates that the chapter must have been written at the very latest in the 370s.4 Yet, as we have seen, Xenophon's other writings show how his devotion to Sparta remained unshaken into the 350s.

While proof is lacking, my own inclination is therefore very much to doubt the attribution of Spartan Society to Xenophon, and instead to consider it the work of an unknown author who completed both the main text and the postscript within the years from 412 to 371 – the only period when Sparta had harmosts permanently stationed abroad. For the purposes of the present volume, however, the content of the work is more important than the identity of its author. It is particularly valuable for the light it sheds on the Spartan army. And there is no doubt that as one of the early works which idealized Sparta, it has had a notable influence from ancient times onwards.


1. See Introduction, ‘Lycurgus: Plutarch's Sources’.

2. His own account of this experience survives in The Persian Expedition (Penguin, 1967).

3. For both works, see further p. xxviii.

4. On the other hand it has been urged that there is no need to take this reference to harmosts as literally contemporary.


1. Now once it had struck me that Sparta, despite having one of the lowest populations, had nonetheless clearly become the most powerful and most famous state in Greece, I wondered how this had ever happened. But I stopped wondering once I had pondered the Spartiates' institutions, for they have achieved success by obeying the laws laid down for them by Lycurgus. I certainly admire him and consider him in the highest degree a wise man, since it was not by copying other states, but by deciding on an opposite course to the majority that he made his country outstandingly fortunate.

Putting first things first, think for instance of the production of children. Elsewhere girls who are prospective mothers and considered to be well brought up are fed the plainest practicable diet with as few extras as possible; certainly wine is not given to them at all, or only if watered down. Other Greeks require girls to be sedentary – like the majority of craftsmen – sitting still and working wool. But then how should girls brought up like this be expected to bear any strapping babies? In Lycurgus' view by contrast clothes could be produced quite adequately by slave women, whereas in his opinion the production of children was the most important duty of free women. So in the first place he required the female sex to take physical exercise just as much as males; next he arranged for women also, just like men, to have contests of speed and strength with one another, in the belief that when both parents are strong their children too are born sturdier.

Moreover, noticing that elsewhere men would have unlimited sex with their wives in the period immediately following marriage, he took the opposite approach to this too. For he made it a matter of disgrace that a man should be seen either when going into his wife's room, or when leaving it. For by having intercourse under these circumstances, their desire for one another was bound to be increased, and any children born would be much sturdier than if they had exhausted each other. Besides he would no longer allow each man to marry when he liked, but laid it down that they should marry when at their peak physically – his idea being that this too would help in the production of fine children. He observed, however, that where an old man happened to have a young wife, he tended to keep a very jealous watch on her. So he planned to prevent this too, by arranging that for the production of children the elderly husband should introduce to his wife any man whose physique and personality he admired. Further, should a man not wish to be married, but still be eager to have remarkable children, Lycurgus also made it lawful for him to have children by any fertile and well-bred woman who came to his attention, subject to her husband's consent. And he would approve many such arrangements. For the women want to have two households, while the men want to acquire for their sons brothers who would form part of the family and its influence, but would have no claim on the estate. For the production of children, then, he made these arrangements so different from those of others. The question of whether he did thereby endow Sparta with men whose size and strength are in any way superior, is for anyone who wishes to investigate for himself.

2. Now that I have explained about procreation I want to give a precise account of the education1 of the two sexes as well. Elsewhere in Greece, of course, those who claim to give their sons the finest education, as soon as the children understand what is being said to them, immediately put them under the care of servants as tutors and at once despatch them to schools to learn reading and writing and music and the art of wrestling. Besides, they make their children's feet soft with shoes and their bodies delicate with changes of clothing. As for food, they certainly let them eat as much as their stomachs can hold. But Lycurgus, in place of the private assignment of slave tutors to each boy, stipulated that a man from the group out of which the highest office-holders are appointed should take charge of them: he is called the Trainer-in-Chief.2 Lycurgus gave this man authority both to assemble the boys and to punish them severely whenever any misbehaved while in his charge. He also gave him a squad of young adults equipped with whips to administer punishment when necessary. The result has been that respect and obedience in combination are found to a high degree at Sparta.

Rather than letting boys' feet grow soft in shoes, he told them emphatically to make them strong by not wearing shoes, in the belief that this practice should enable them to walk uphill with greater ease and come down in greater safety, while the boy who is accustomed to having no shoes on his feet should jump and bound and run faster than the one with shoes. And instead of their clothes serving to make them delicate, he required them to become used to a single garment all the year round, the idea being that thereby they would be better prepared for both cold and heat. As for food, he instructed the Eiren to furnish for the common meal just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. His view was that boys under this kind of regimen would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer, when so ordered; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. He also considered that a diet which produced slim bodies would do more to make them grow tall than one in which the food filled them out.

On the other hand, while he did not allow them to take what they required effortlessly, to prevent them suffering from hunger he did permit them to engage in some stealing in order to ward off starvation. I imagine everyone is aware that he did not let them get food by trickery because he was unable to provide for them. Clearly a prospective thief must keep awake at night, and by day must practise deception and lie in wait, as well as have spies ready if he is going to seize anything. So clearly it was Lycurgus' wish that by training the boys in all these ways he would make them more resourceful at feeding themselves and better fighters. Someone might ask then, if he considered theft a good thing, why on earth did he inflict many lashes on the boy who was caught? My answer is, because – as in every other branch of instruction – people chastise anyone who does not respond satisfactorily. So the Spartans, too, punish those who are caught as being incompetent thieves. And after making it a matter of honour for them to snatch just as many cheeses as possible from Orthia, he commanded others to whip them, wishing to demonstrate thereby the point that a short period of pain may be compensated by the enjoyment of long-lasting prestige.3 This proves that wherever speed is called for, the sluggard gains minimum advantage while also incurring maximum difficulty. With the intention that even in the absence of the Trainer-in-Chief the boys should always have someone in charge of them, he authorized any citizen who happened to be present at the time to give the boys whatever instructions he thought proper, and to punish any slip they might make. By this measure he gave the boys a greater sense of respect too, since there is nothing that either boys or men respect as much as those in charge of them. To ensure that someone should be in control of the boys even when no adult happened to be on the spot, he deputed the smartest of the Eirens to take command of each Squadron.4 As a result the boys at Sparta are never without someone in charge of them.

It strikes me that a word should also be said about men's love for boys, since this too has some connection with their education. Now what happens elsewhere in Greece may be illustrated from Boeotia, where man and boy form a union and live together, or Elis where beautiful youths are won by favours; in contrast there are also places where would-be lovers are absolutely debarred from talking to boys. Lycurgus in fact took a position different from all of these. If out of admiration for a boy's personality a man of the right character himself should seek to befriend him in all innocence and keep his company, Lycurgus would approve that and consider it the finest training. On the other hand if someone was obviously chasing after a boy for his body, he regarded that as an absolute disgrace and laid it down that at Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters. It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this, since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys.

This covers the method of education at Sparta as well as elsewhere in Greece. Which of the two turns out men who are more disciplined, more respectful and (when required) more self-controlled, is again something for anyone who wishes to investigate.

3. The time when boys develop into youths is the very moment when others remove them from tutors, remove them from schools and have nobody in charge of them any longer, but leave them independent. Here, too, Lycurgus took the opposite view. Because he appreciated that at this age youths become very self-willed and are particularly liable to cockiness – both of which produce very powerful cravings for pleasure – this was the age at which he loaded them with the greatest amount of work and contrived that they should be occupied for the maximum time. In fact his further prescription that anyone who avoided this work would gain no future honour prompted concern not just from public officials but also from the family of each of the youths, who did not want shirking on their part to result in a total loss of reputation in the community. Besides, in his wish to see a sense of respect strongly implanted in them, he gave orders that even in the streets they should keep both hands inside their cloaks, should proceed in silence, and should not let their gaze wander in any direction, but fix their eyes on the ground before them. In consequence it has become absolutely clear that by nature the male sex possesses greater strength than the female even in the matter of self-control. Certainly, compared with those youths you would sooner hear a cry from a stone statue or succeed in catching the eye of a bronze one: you would think the youths more bashful than the ‘little girl' in the eye.5 And whenever they attend the mess, the men are satisfied just to hear the youths' replies to any question put to them. Such, then, was the amount of attention he devoted to youths.

4. However, it was for the young adults that he displayed by far the greatest concern, in the conviction that they would have the most influence for good on the state if they were of the right character. And from his observation that when people have a very strong innate spirit of competition their choruses are the ones most worth hearing, and their athletic contests the ones most worth watching, he came to think that if he could also urge the young adults to compete in excellence, then they would attain the height of manly gallantry. Let me explain how he used in fact to urge them.

From among them the ephors select three of those in their prime, men who are called Hippagretae. Each of these picks 100 men6 with a clear explanation of why he is approving some and rejecting others. As a result those who do not achieve the honour are at war with both those who have dismissed them and those chosen instead of them, and the two groups are on the lookout for any negligent act which may contravene accepted standards of honour. This is also the type of competition most highly favoured by the gods and best suited to a citizen community – in which the conduct required of the brave man is spelled out and each of the two groups independently strives to ensure that it will always prove superior, while should any need arise they would as one protect the city with all their might. They must keep themselves physically fit too, since their rivalry actually makes them come to blows whenever they meet. However, all passers-by have the right to separate the combatants. Anyone who defies the man attempting to separate them is brought before the ephors by the Trainer-in-Chief. They levy a stiff fine in their desire to establish the principle that anger must never prevail over respect for the law.

As for those who have passed beyond the youngest grade of adulthood – the group from which the highest office-holders are in fact also appointed – other Greeks, after removing their obligation to keep up their physical strength, nonetheless require them to go on serving in the army. Lycurgus by contrast made hunting the noblest pastime for men of this age (unless some public duty prevented them), so that they too could stand up to the exertions of campaigning just as well as the youngest men.

5. This, then, pretty well completes my account of the training which Lycurgus prescribed by law for each age-group. Now I will attempt to explain the way of life that he laid down for all of them. Well then, when Lycurgus took the Spartans in hand, they were living in separate households like Greeks elsewhere. He concluded that this was the cause of a great amount of misbehaviour and so he promulgated his scheme for common messes on the reckoning that these would reduce to a minimum disobedience of orders. The rations he fixed in such a way that they should have neither too much nor too little food. In addition hunting expeditions produce much that was not part of the calculation, and there are occasions when rich individuals also supply wheat-bread for a change. Consequently there is never a shortage of food on the table until they leave the mess, yet neither is there a lavish spread. Moreover when it came to wine he stopped excessive drinking – which causes both physical and mental degeneration – and just let each man drink whenever he felt thirsty: in his view this would be the least harmful and most enjoyable way of drinking. Well now, with common messes of this type how would anybody ruin either himself or his household by greediness or alcoholism?

Besides, in other cities men of the same age generally congregate together, and the sense of respect in the group tends to be very limited. But at Sparta Lycurgus mixed ages together in the belief that in many ways it would be educational for the younger men to benefit from the experience of their elders. Indeed the local custom was for any noble act on the part of any citizen to be a subject of conversation in the messes, so that there was very limited opportunity for rowdyism and drunken behaviour, and equally for coarse actions or words.

Eating out certainly brings this benefit too, namely that to get home they have to walk, taking care not to trip and fall under the influence of wine, and aware that it is impossible to remain where they have been dining. They also have to do in the dark what they do by daylight; in fact men still liable to military service are not even allowed a torch. Now Lycurgus further noted that the same rations improve the complexion, physique and strength of hard workers, whereas they give lazy people a bloated, ugly and feeble appearance. He did not overlook this either, but bearing in mind that anybody who works cheerfully and spontaneously has a reasonably good-looking physique, he made it the duty of the oldest man in the gymnasium at any time to ensure that each man's workouts were not inadequately strenuous for his diet. And my view is that he was not mistaken in this either. For it would certainly not be easy for anyone to find men healthier or more physically adept than Spartiates, since they exercise their legs, arms and neck equally.

6. Lycurgus definitely held the opposite view to the majority in the following ways too. To begin with, in other cities each man is master of his own children, slaves and property. But Lycurgus, in his wish to arrange that citizens might enjoy a mutual benefit without injury to anyone, caused each man to be master of other people's children just as much as his own. When someone knows that fathers are to behave in this way, he is obliged to give orders to the children over whom he himself exercises control in the same fashion as he would like orders to be issued to his own as well. Should any boy ever disclose to his father that he has been beaten by another, then it is a disgrace if the father does not give his son a further beating. To such a degree do they trust each other not to give their children any dishonourable order.

He even authorized them to use other people's household servants too, if anybody needed them. He also authorized hunting dogs to be shared, so that men who need some ask to take them on their hunt, and the owner is pleased to send them if he is not at leisure himself. They have the same arrangement with horses too, so that if a person has fallen ill, or needs a carriage, or wants to reach somewhere fast, and happens to spot a horse anywhere, he takes it, and then duly returns it after use. The following practice besides, which is unparalleled elsewhere, was instituted by Lycurgus in cases where men have been kept out late by hunting and need food, but happen to have brought none with them. He arranged that those who did have a supply with them should leave some behind in the area, and that those who needed it could break the seals, take what they required and leave the rest sealed up again. Accordingly by sharing with each other in this way, even those who possess little can benefit from everything in the country whenever they are in any need.

7. There are also the following practices instituted by Lycurgus which are quite the opposite to those elsewhere in Greece. In the other states everyone naturally makes as much money as possible: some are farmers, others ship-owners or traders, while crafts support yet others. But at Sparta Lycurgus banned all free men from the pursuit of wealth, and prescribed that their sole concern should be with the things that make cities free. Indeed, why should anyone be seriously concerned to gain wealth there, where Lycurgus prescribed that provisions should be contributed on an equal basis and the way of life be uniform, thus doing away with a self-indulgent passion for money? Besides, there is no point in making money even for the sake of clothes, since it is physical vitality which gives these men a distinctive appearance, not lavish dress. There is no point either in amassing money to spend on fellow members of the mess, since Lycurgus prescribed that the person who helps his companions by undertaking physical labour is more reputable than the one who spends money – thus demonstrating that the former service comes from the heart, whereas the latter is a function of being rich.

In such ways as follows he also prevented moneymaking by illegal means. First he instituted currency of such a type that neither master nor servant could ever be unaware of a mere ten minas coming into a house: indeed this would require much space and a waggon for transport. Searches are made for gold and silver, and should any come to light anywhere, its possessor is fined. So what would be the point of being eager to make money when more trouble comes from having it than pleasure does from spending it?

8. Now we all know that at Sparta there is the strictest obedience to both the authorities and the laws. I think, however, that Lycurgus did not even attempt to establish this discipline until he had won the agreement of the most influential men in the state. I make this conjecture because in other states the more powerful people do not even want to give the impression of fearing the authorities, but instead consider that to be demeaning to free men. But at Sparta the most influential figures are in fact particularly submissive towards the authorities: they take pride in being humble as well as in responding at a run rather than by walking whenever they are summoned. For they believe that if they should take the lead in showing exceptional obedience, the rest also will follow – as has indeed been the case. It is also likely that these same figures collaborated in establishing the power of the ephorate7 too, since they recognized that obedience is of the greatest benefit in a state, as in an army and a household. For the more power the office had, the more they thought it would also cow the citizens into submission. So the ephors have the power to fine anyone they wish, the right to secure payment on the spot, the right also to dismiss office-holders, and actually to imprison and put them on trial for their lives. With power of this degree they do not, as in other cities, always permit elected officials to exercise their authority just as they please for a full year; but in the style of tyrants and umpires at athletic competitions, if ever they detect any irregular behaviour on anyone's part, they at once punish it on the spot.

In order to make the citizens willing to obey the laws Lycurgus was responsible for many other admirable devices. One of the most admirable in my view is this: he issued his laws to the populace only after going to Delphi with the most powerful figures and asking the god8 if it would be preferable and better for Sparta to obey the laws he personally had drawn up. Once the god responded that it would be better in every way, only then did he issue them, with the prescription that it would be not only unlawful but also impious to disobey laws ordained by the Pythian god.

9. Lycurgus merits admiration for this too, namely for bringing it about that the citizens considered an honourable death preferable to a life of disgrace. For in fact anybody would discover on investigation that casualties among them are lower than among men who prefer to retreat from danger. To be truthful, self-preservation in most instances is really associated more with bravery than with cowardice, since the former is in fact easier and more pleasant as well as having greater resources and strength. Clearly glory is the close companion of bravery: indeed everyone wants some alliance with brave men. Now it would be quite wrong to neglect how Lycurgus contrived this attitude. Well, clearly he offered the brave prosperity and the cowards adversity. For in other cities whenever someone displays cowardice, he merely gets the name of coward; yet the coward – if he wants to – goes out in public, and sits down, and takes exercise in the same place as the brave man. But at Sparta everyone would be ashamed to be associated with a coward in his mess or to have him as a wrestling partner. When sides are being picked for a ball game that sort of man is often left out with no position assigned, and in dances he is banished to the insulting places. Moreover in the streets he is required to give way, as well as to give up his seat even to younger men. The girls of his family he has to support at home, and must explain to them why they cannot get husbands. He must endure having a household with no wife, and at the same time has to pay a fine for this. He must not walk around with a cheerful face, nor must he imitate men of impeccable reputation: otherwise he must submit to being beaten by his betters. When disgrace of this kind is imposed on cowards I am certainly not at all surprised that death is preferred there to a life of such dishonour and ignominy.

10. Equally splendid in my opinion was Lycurgus' law that excellence be cultivated up to old age. For by establishing that election to the Gerousia9 should occur near life's end, he ensured that they would continue to care about their moral excellence even in old age. He is to be admired also for the protection he offered to virtuous men in old age, for by making the Elders supreme judges in capital cases he produced more respect for old age than for those at the peak of their strength. And it is certainly reasonable that of all mankind's competitions this one should prompt the greatest rivalry. For indeed athletic contests are honourable too, but they are merely trials of physique, whereas the competition for the Gerousia involves a test of the noble qualities of the spirit. Thus just as the spirit is superior to the body, to the same degree contests of spirit merit greater rivalry than those of physique.

How could one truly deny that the following measure by Lycurgus merits tremendous admiration? He recognized that where only enthusiasts show concern for virtue, their numbers are not sufficient to exalt their country: so at Sparta he made it compulsory for everyone to develop all the virtues as a public duty. Thus just as private individuals who cultivate excellence are superior to those who neglect it, so Sparta too is superior to all cities in this quality, because she alone makes the development of moral excellence a public duty. Isn't this splendid too, that where other cities inflict punishment in cases where one individual injures another, Lycurgus imposed even greater penalties if someone should openly neglect to be as good as possible? For his opinion evidently was that men who make slaves of others or commit some fraud or theft only wrong those they harm, whereas whole communities are betrayed by men who are unmanly cowards. Consequently it strikes me as appropriate that these were the ones on whom he imposed the heaviest penalties. He also made the exercise of all the good qualities of citizens an inescapable duty. Thus he gave an equal share in the state to all law-abiding citizens, without regard for physical or financial deficiencies. But Lycurgus made it clear that if anyone should shirk the effort required to keep his laws, then he would no longer be considered one of the Equals.10

Now it is plain that these laws are extremely ancient, since Lycurgus is said to have been a contemporary of the Heraclids. However, in spite of their age, even today other peoples find them very novel. And the most extraordinary thing of all is that despite the universal praise for such a code of behaviour, not a single city is willing to copy it.

11. Now these advantages they enjoy jointly in time of both peace and war. But if anyone wishes to understand how Lycurgus also caused their organization on campaign to be superior to that of others, he should pay attention to what follows.

First of all, the ephors announce to the cavalry and hoplites which age-groups are required for service, and then to the craftsmen too. Consequently even on campaign the Spartans are fully supplied with everything used by a city population. And orders are given for all the equipment required by the army generally to be supplied – some of it in waggons, and some on pack animals. As a result deficiencies are most unlikely to go undetected. Now as to their equipment for battle, he arranged that they should have a red cloak and a bronze shield, on the reckoning that the former presents the greatest contrast with any female dress, as well as the most warlike appearance; the latter certainly can be polished very quickly and is very slow to tarnish. He permitted those who had reached adulthood to wear their hair long too, in the belief that they would thereby look taller and have a nobler, more fearsome appearance.

Now he divided the men thus equipped into six moras of both cavalry and hoplites. Each hoplite mora has one polemarch, four lochagi, eight pentecosters and sixteen enomotarchs.11 When the word is given, the enomotiae which make up these moras form up now in single file, now three abreast, now six.

The general view, that the Spartan battle formation is very complicated, is an assumption completely at variance with reality. For in the Spartan formation the men who stand in the front line are officers… and all the ranks co-operate by doing what is required of them.12 It is so easy to grasp this formation that nobody who is capable of telling men apart should go wrong, since some have been assigned to lead and others to follow. Orders for deployment are given verbally by the enomotarch acting like a herald, so that the phalanxes13 thin out or grow thicker as required. None of this is in any way difficult to grasp. All the same, what isn't at all easy to grasp, except for those trained under the laws of Lycurgus, is the tactic of continuing the fight with whoever is to hand after the line has been thrown into confusion.

Spartans also execute with complete smoothness manoeuvres regarded as very difficult by military instructors. For instance, whenever they are marching in column, naturally one enomotia follows behind another. If in this situation an enemy phalanx suddenly appears in front, the order is passed to each enomotarch to form a front to the left, 14 and this continues down the entire line until the counter-phalanx is in place. Now should the enemy appear from the rear when the Spartans are in this position, each line countermarches itself so that it is always the men of highest calibre who are facing the enemy. Even the fact that in these circumstances the commander is now on the left15 is seen by them not as a drawback, but sometimes even as an advantage. For should any attempt be made to outflank them, such an encircling movement would catch them on their protected side, 16 not their exposed one. On the other hand if it happened to seem advantageous for some reason that the leader hold the right wing, they first turn the unit in file and reverse the phalanx to the point where the leader is on the right and the rearguard to his left. But on the other hand, should an enemy brigade appear to the right as they are marching in column, all they need to do is to turn each lochus like a trireme17with its prow facing the enemy, and thus the rear lochus again finds itself on the right. Of course an enemy approach on the left is not tolerated either. Instead they repulse it, or turn their lochi to face their foes, and thus the rear lochus is again positioned on the left.

12. I shall also explain Lycurgus' view of how a camp should be laid out. Given that the angles of a square are indefensible, he made his camps circular except where a secure hill or wall or river lay to the rear. Now in the daytime he posted sentries by the weapons facing inwards – men stationed to guard against their friends rather than their enemies. A watch for the enemy was kept by cavalry placed wherever they could spot anyone approaching from a great distance. For night-time he assigned Sciritae18 to mount guard on the camp perimeter, and nowadays any mercenaries who happen to be present join them too. One should also be very clear that the practices of always walking about with spear in hand and of keeping the slaves away from the weapons both have an identical purpose.19 One should not be surprised that when they go off to relieve themselves they do not stray so far from either their comrades or their weapons as to cause each other distress. The point of these practices is certainly security. Moreover they change their camp-sites frequently, both to harm their enemies and to assist their friends.

All Spartans are also instructed by law to keep up their gymnastic training for the duration of campaigns, with the consequence that their sense of their own impressiveness is enhanced and they look superior to other men. No walking or running is to be done beyond the area occupied by the mora, so that nobody goes far from his weapons. After the exercises the first polemarch gives the order by herald to sit down – this is a kind of inspection – and then to have breakfast, and for the scouts to be relieved quickly. Then afterwards there is a period of leisure and relaxation before the evening exercises. Following these the order to prepare the main meal is given by herald, and then, after they have sung a hymn to those gods who have responded favourably to sacrifice, the order to sleep with weapons close to hand.

There is no need to be surprised at the length of my description, because anybody would discover that where military matters are concerned the Spartans have overlooked very little that demands attention.

13. Let me further describe the authority and prestige which Lycurgus bestowed upon a king on campaign. First, while on service a king and his entourage are maintained by the state. The polemarchs mess with him so as to be at his side at all times and to allow them to confer whenever necessary. Three other Equals are also members of the mess to take care of all the others' needs and ensure that they have no concerns to distract them from the business of war.

However, I should go back to how the king starts out with his army. Now first, while still at home, he sacrifices to Zeus the Leader and the associated gods. If the sacrifice then appears favourable, the Fire-bearer takes the fire from the altar and conveys it to the frontier of the country, where the king sacrifices again to Zeus and Athena. Only after both these divinities have reacted favourably does he cross the frontier of the country; and the fire from these sacrifices is conveyed onwards without ever being extinguished, while every type of victim goes with them. In every instance when he is making a sacrifice he begins the operation before daybreak, with the aim of being the first to win the god's favour. The sacrifice is attended by polemarchs, lochagi, pentecosters, mercenary commanders, superintendents of the baggage train, and such generals from particular cities' contingents as wish to come. Also present are two ephors, who do not involve themselves in any way unless the king calls them in, but observe each person's actions and ensure that they are correct in every case. Once the sacrifices have been completed, the king assembles everyone and announces what needs to be done. In short, if you witnessed this you would think that militarily others are amateurs, whereas Spartans alone are real masters of the craft of war.

Provided that no enemy appears, when a king is leading nobody goes in front of him except Sciritae and the cavalry on reconnaissance. However, at any time they think there will be a battle, the king takes the unit of the first mora and under his leadership it wheels right until they are placed between two moras and two polemarchs. The troops to be positioned behind these are marshalled by the eldest member of the king's entourage. This comprises all those Equals who mess with him, seers, doctors, pipers, the superintendents of the baggage train, and such ‘volunteers’20 as may be on the scene. As a result nothing which is required is lacking, since everything has been thought of in advance.

Lycurgus also made the following splendid, and in my view advantageous, arrangements for the actual armed combat. Once the enemy can see what is happening, a she-goat is sacrificed, and the law is that all the pipers present should play and every Spartan wear a garland; an order to polish weapons is also given. Young men may enter battle with their hair groomed… and with a joyful, distinguished appearance.21 Words of encouragement are passed to the enomotarchs because each enomotarch, standing outside of hisenomotia, cannot be heard over the whole of each one. It is the responsibility of the polemarch to see that this is carried out properly.

Now when it seems the correct moment to pitch camp, the king takes charge and indicates the right spot. It is also his function to despatch embassies to both friends and enemies. Everyone who wants to get some business done begins with the king. Now if the person has come seeking justice, the king directs him to the Hellanodicae; 22 if money, to the treasurers; if he has brought in spoils, then to the sellers of booty. With these arrangements the king is left with no other duty on campaign except to act as priest in the divine sphere and as general in the human one.

14.23 Were anyone to ask whether I think that the laws of Lycurgus still remain in force unchanged even at the present time, by Zeus no, I would not have the confidence to make that claim today. For I am aware that in the past the Spartans chose to live together at home with modest means rather than to serve as harmosts in various cities and so be corrupted by flattery. I am also aware of how in the past they feared any disclosure that they had gold in their possession, though nowadays there are even some who glory in having acquired it. I know that in the past too, for this very reason, expulsions of foreigners used to occur and absence abroad was not permitted, so that citizens should not be infected by lax habits caught from foreigners. But I know that nowadays those who have the reputation of being leading citizens have proved keen to serve abroad as harmosts all their lives. At one time, too, they would have taken care to ensure that they deserved to occupy the leading position: but nowadays by contrast their main preoccupation is just to exercise authority rather than to be worthy of so doing. Thus in the past, for instance, the Greeks would come to Sparta and ask her to be their leader against those they felt were wronging them. But now many are calling upon each other to prevent a further period of Spartan rule.24 It is certainly no wonder that these aspersions are being cast against them, since plainly they are obedient neither to heaven nor to the laws of Lycurgus.

15. I also want to explain the accord with the state which Lycurgus made for the kingship. For as an office it is unique in continuing to adhere to its original form, whereas one would find that other types of government have been altered and are still in the process of alteration even currently. Lycurgus laid it down that a king, by virtue of his divine descent, should perform all the public sacrifices on the city's behalf and should lead the army wherever the city despatches it. He also granted him the privilege of taking parts of the animals sacrificed, and he assigned him such selected land in many of the perioecic communities as would ensure that all his ordinary requirements should be met, yet would not make him excessively wealthy. Also, to make certain that the kings ate away from home he assigned them a state mess, and gave them the honour of double portions at meals, not for them to stuff twice as much, but so that they should have something to offer as a mark of respect to anyone of their choice. Moreover he permitted each king to select two fellow members for the mess as well, who – it may be noted – are also termed Pythii.25 He further permitted a king to take a piglet from every sow's litter, so that he should never lack victims with which to consult the gods at any time the need arises. In addition a pool near his residence supplies plenty of water – an advantage in many ways, as those without it appreciate even more. And everyone rises from their place for a king, except ephors from their chairs of office. And there is a monthly exchange of oaths, ephors acting for the city, a king on his own behalf. The king's oath is to rule according to the city's established laws, while that of the city is to keep the king's position unshaken so long as he abides by his oath. These, then, are the prerogatives granted to a king at home during his lifetime – nothing much above the level of private citizens. For it was not Lycurgus' intention either that kings should acquire a tyrannical attitude or that citizens should come to envy their power. As to the honours shown a king after his death, the aim of the laws of Lycurgus here is to demonstrate that they have given special honour to Spartan kings not as humans but as heroes.26

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!