884–820 BC

Lycurgus is credited with masterminding the transformation of Sparta from a normal Dorian city state to a military aristocracy, with its unique laws, traditions, and ascetic lifestyle. Although most historians consider him a real character, the details of his life are shrouded in legend. He is thought to have lived shortly after the Messenian wars, which nearly destroyed Sparta, and his severe reforms were accepted because of the danger of further rebellions.

According to the Spartan tradition preserved by Herodotus, Lycurgus was a member of the Agiad house, son of Agis I. and brother of Echestratus. On the death of the latter he became regent and guardian of his nephew, who was still a minor. Although he had the opportunity of killing the boy, and placing himself on the throne, he did not do so, but rather acted as regent, and never became king. Before deciding on the reforms he later proposed, he spent several years traveling throughout the Greek world, making note of various types of government, and how well or poorly they worked. Some of the places he is said to have visit were Crete, Egypt, Ionia, and Libya. On his return to Sparta, his nephew was made king, and Lycurgus worked to carry through his reforms.

The Spartan reforms were very severe. Herodotus says that Lycurgus changed "all the customs," that he created the military organization, and instituted the ephorate and the council of elders. To him also are attributed the foundation of the citizen assembly, the prohibition of gold and silver currency, the partition of the land into equal lots, and, in general, the characteristic Spartan training.

Various beliefs were held as to the source from which Lycurgus derived his ideas of reform. Herodotus found the tradition current among the Spartans that they were suggested to Lycurgus by the similar Cretan institutions, but even in the 5th century there was a rival theory that he derived them from the Delphic oracle. These two versions are united by Ephorus, who argued that, though Lycurgus had really derived his system from Crete, yet to give it a religious sanction he had persuaded the Delphic priestess to express his views in oracular form.

—Adapted from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Hardy Men of Sparta  in  Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch  by  F. J. Gould
Lycurgus  in  Famous Men of Greece  by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
What Lycurgus Did for Sparta  in  Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men  by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Lycurgus  in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/statesmen/_back.html
Lycurgus  in  Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman
Lycurgus and His Little Nephew  in  The Story of Greece  by  Mary Macgregor
Lycurgus and the Spartan Laws  in  Historical Tales: Greek  by  Charles Morris
The Boy and the Fox  in  Stories of the Ancient Greeks  by  Charles D. Shaw
How the Spartans Became Powerful  in  The Story of the Greek People  by  Eva March Tappan
Lycurgus, Who Made His Countrymen into Soldiers  in  Old World Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Image Links

Young Spartans learning a lesson from drunken helots, Mussini
 in Famous Men of Greece

Lycurgus Pledging the Spartans to his Laws
 in Greatest Nations - Greece

 in Back Matter

Lycurgus Offering to go into Exile.
 in The Story of the Greek People

Lycurgus: In the Museum at Naples
 in The Story of the Greek People

Lycurgus Offering to go into Exile.
 in Old World Hero Stories

Short Biography
Sous Illustrious ancestor of Lycurgus, a former King of Sparta.
Charilaus Nephew of Lycurgus, Lycurgus protected him and did not attempt to sieze the throne.
Alcander Enemy of Lycurgus who was won over to his side, by his good conduct.