Sparta - Lycurgus

At the beginning of this period of Grecian history, our attention is powerfully attracted by a very remarkable series of proceedings which took place in Lacedaemon, or Laconia, a country of southern Greece, of which the chief city was Sparta. This city being in a state of intestine disorder, it was agreed by many of the inhabitants to invite Lycurgus, the son of one of their late kings, to undertake the important task of preparing a new constitution for his country. Fortified with the sanction of the Delphic oracle, he commenced this difficult duty, not only settling the form of government, but reforming the social institutions and manners of the people. The government he established consisted of two joint kings, with a limited prerogative, and who acted as presidents of a senate of twenty-eight aged men. The functions of the senate were deliberative as well as executive, but no law could . be passed without receiving the consent of the assembled citizens. The most remarkable of the arrangements of Lycurgus was his attempt to abolish difference of rank, and even difference of circumstances, among the people. He resolved on the bold measure of an equal division of lands, and actually parceled out the Laconian territory into 89,000 lots, one of which was given to each citizen of Sparta, or free inhabitant of Laconia. Each of these lots was of such a size as barely sufficed to supply the wants of a single family - for Lycurgus was determined that no person should be placed in such circumstances as would permit of luxurious living.

Lycurgus carried into effect a number of other visionary projects: he abolished the use of money, with the hope of preventing undue accumulation of wealth; prohibited foreigners from entering the country, and the natives from going abroad, in order to preserve simplicity of manners among the people; directed that all men, without distinction of rank or age, should eat daily together at public tables, which were furnished -with the plainest food; and finally, ordained that all children who were born, and seemed likely to be strong, should be reared by public nurses, under a rigid system of privation and personal activity, while the weak infants should be thrown out to the fields to perish. The citizens, when they had attained the age of manhood, were en g aged in martial exercises, all labor being left to the slaves, or helots, as they were termed; and in short, the whole nation was but a camp of soldiers, and war was reckoned the only legitimate profession. These laws were in some measure suited to the rude condition of the Spartans, but, as being opposed to some of the best and strongest principles in human nature, they could not possibly endure, and there is reason to believe that some of them were not strictly enforced. It is not unusual to see historians use the term Spartan virtue with a certain degree of admiration of its quality; but the Spartans had, in reality, no moral dignity, certainly no benevolence, in their virtue, either public or private. They were a small confederacy of well-trained soldiers and merely as such, deserve no mark of our respect or esteem. The manner in which they used their helots was at once barbarous and cruel. The murder of a serf by a free citizen was not punishable by law nay, it was even allowable for the young Spartans to lie in wait, as a kind of sport, for any good-looking or saucy-looking slave, and stab him to the heart on the highway. It is certain that at one time, when the helots had stood their masters in good stead in battle, they were desired, by way of reward, to choose out 2000 of their best men, that they might receive their freedom, and be enrolled as Spartans, and that these 2000 men were all silently murdered soon after. At another time, when danger was apprehended from the growing numbers and petty wealth of the boors, the senate enacted the farce of declaring war against them, and coolly murdered many thousands, in order to thin their numbers and break their spirit. Had there been any redeeming trait in the Spartan character to compensate for such barbarity, one would have wondered less at the respect which is sometimes paid them but their military fame only adds another instance to the many already on record, that the most ignorant and savage tribes make the most dogged soldiers.

ATHENS. We now turn to Athens, long the principal seat of Grecian learning. Athens is said to have been founded by Cecrops, 1550 B.C., and in the most ancient times was called Cecropia. It probably received the name of Athens from the goddess Minerva, who was called also Athena, by the Greeks, and to whom an elegant temple had been erected in the city. The old city spread from the mount of the Acropolis over a wide and pleasant vale or low peninsula, formed by the junction of the Cephesus and Ilissus. Its distance from the sea-coast was about five miles. In the course of time Athens became populous and surpassingly elegant in its architecture, while its citizens contrived to take a lead in the affairs of the communities around. At first they were governed by kings, but, as in the case of the Spartan citizens, they became dissatisfied with their existing constitution, and about the year 600 B.C. invited Solon, one of the wisest men in Greece, to reorganize their political constitution. Solon obeyed the summons, and constituted the government on a broad republican basis, with a council of state, forming a judicial court, consisting of 400 members, and called the Areopagus. This court of Areopagus besides its other duties, exercised a censorship over public morals, and was empowered to punish impiety, profligacy, and even idleness. To this court every citizen was bound to make an annual statement of his income, and the sources from which it was derived. The court was long regarded with very great respect, and the right was accorded to it of not only revising the sentences pronounced by the other criminal tribunals, but even of annulling the judicial decrees of the general assembly of the people. The regulations of Solon were not maintained for any great length of time, although the republican form of government, in one shape or other, continued as long as the country maintained its independence. Clesthenes, the leader of a party, enlarged the democratic principle in the state he introduced the practice of ostracism, by which any person might be banished for ten years, without being accused of any crime, if the Athenians apprehended that he had acquired too much influence, or harbored designs against the public liberty. Ostracism was so called, because the citizens, in voting for its infliction, wrote the name of the obnoxious individual upon a shell (ostreon). It is said that Clesthenes was the first victim of his own law, as has happened in several other remarkable cases, ancient and modern.

For a period of about two centuries after the settlement of a republican constitution, there is little of importance to relate in Athenian history. Athens was gradually enlarged, the taste for refinement increased, and various men of sagacious understanding, entitled Philosophers, began to devote themselves to inquiries into the nature of the human mind and the character of the Deity. The principal Grecian philosopher who flourished in this era (550 B.C.) was Pythagoras, a man of pure and exalted ideas, and an able expounder of the science of mind.