The extraordinary longevity of Sparta fascinated 17th and 18th century political writers and philosophers. From Algernon Sidney, to Walter Moyle, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon of Cato’s Letters fame, the idealized lessons drawn from the Spartan experience in government had enormous impact on our Founding generation. Spanning some six hundred years, until the Roman conquest of 146 BC, the Spartan republic remains the longest lived in history.
Legend holds that Lycurgus, (circa 800 BC) traveled the eastern Mediterranean to observe various governments. He visited Egypt, Crete, and city-states around the Aegean Sea. Sensing that he could design a better governing form suitable for his home country, he visited the Oracle of Delphi for confirmation. The Oracle agreed that his plans would set Sparta above all other cities and history would forever honor him as the greatest lawgiver. Emboldened, he returned to find a poor and miserable Sparta under the rule of his young nephew, King Charilaus. In this tiny city-state with hardly fifteen thousand free males, what passed for government alternated between democracy and monarchy, anarchy and tyranny.1
Through Lycurgus’ personal appeal and leadership, the wealthy and poor alike acceded to his plan. First, he brought about an equitable distribution of land. Second, he divided political power among the one, the few, and the many. The king’s power was limited; he executed the law of the land proposed by the few, the Gerousia, or Senate of twenty-eight elders over sixty years old. Similar to the duty of the Vice President in the American Senate, the king presided over the Gerousia. Bills proposed by the Gerousia were affirmed or rejected by the free warrior males of Sparta.2 The Gerousia also served as the highest court, a duty echoed in the English King-in-Parliament and, for certain matters, the US Senate.
Walter Moyle (1672 – 1721) wrote that Lycurgus wrested envy, fraud, and violence from the poor, and insolence, luxury, and oppression from the wealthy. Personal wealth no longer marked men above others, but rather public esteem and merit. In this virtuous commonwealth, in which avarice was socially unacceptable, all lived on equal terms in relative poverty.3
Regular readers know my admiration of Niccolo’ Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. Several chapters examine lawgivers, especially the good princes who ruled with a steady hand and left behind a happy and prosperous people. While such men were not uncommon, very few left behind institutions that promoted the general welfare of future generations. Second, Machiavelli stressed the importance of a common religion. As the social glue and inner guidance for all, a common religion controls the public passions of men far better than a multitude of civil laws. He believed that no lawgiver could succeed without first resort to religion.
Having established a balanced and stable government, Lycurgus declared his need of further advice from the Oracle at Delphi. Before he left Sparta, he called the assembly of the people, the Gerousia and king, and obtained an oath from all that they would keep his governing reforms during his absence. Lycurgus left, and never returned.
In Part II, we’ll look at American Lawgivers, the Framing generation of 1787-1788.
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