Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Exiled King

Speak today of eugenics and we think of Nazi Germany. Speak today of unwavering loyalty to honour and we think of feudal Japan. Speak today of absolute rejection of wealth and we dream of a more noble tomorrow. But all are far older than many of us would think. It has been done. There was a civilisation once which bound all three into one of the most controversial, admired, and feared states that ever existed. This was the formidable city state of Sparta, the deeds of whose citizens inspire awe and disbelief in equal measure. Here is the story of the man who had the courage to change everything.

Greece in the Classical Era
Map created by the author
Nearly three thousand years ago, in the most archaic times of Greece, there was no Greece. Greece has existed in its present form only since 1830. About five hundred years after the Trojan War, in the Greek Dark Ages, the land was filled with independent city states, each united by a common language, religion and culture, but fiercely divided by their relentless struggle for supremacy over the others. This rivalry, which never truly faded, would one day spell their doom. Around this time, many of the Greek cities were crippled by the squabbles of the rich and the toils of the poor. Whilst the fields of Attica and Boetia were a battleground between Athens and Thebes, two of the most powerful Greek cities, the peninsula to the south lay largely ignored by their high-minded neighbours. But a new power was rising in the Peloponnese (for the story which gave this land its name, please click here). For the tiny city of Sparta, in the eastern lands of Laconia, thrived. Marvelling at its recent conquest of the neighbouring city of Messenia, the Spartans rejoiced, though their city was in a wretched state.

Uniquely, Sparta was ruled by not one, but two Kings, one borne of the Agiad royal line, and his co-ruler hailing from the Eurypontid royal house, who both could claim descent from Heracles and his progeny who had first conquered Laconia in the distant mists of time. For three generations after the days of Heracles (whose own story begins here), Argeia, Queen to the afflicted Spartan King Aristodemus, gave birth to twin boys. Aristodemus lived just long enought to see his sons, dying tragically of illness within days. As was the law, the Spartans declared that the elder son should be hailed as King. But never before had twin boys been born to the royal bloodline. Who is the elder of twins? Both boys were identical, in size and form, and the succession became a crisis. The Spartans asked the Queen which had been born first, but Argeia replied that she was no more able to tell them apart now than they could. In secret, the Queen knew precisely which was which, though she could not bear to favour one over the other. Desperate now, as constitutional crisis meant the crippling of the state, the Spartans sent an urgent envoy to consult the Oracle of Delphi. Employing the arcane wisdom and ambiguity at which she was so adept, the Oracle answered. “May both be crowned as Kings of Sparta, yet to the elder grant the highest of honour”. The Spartans obeyed, but were still at a loss as to who was the elder. Just then, as hope seemed lost, a wise man from Messenia suggested they secretly watch the mother as she washed and fed her twin boys. If she always attended to the same child first, then that must surely be the elder. Seeing a grain of logic in his words, the Spartans obeyed. As they watched, they saw that the Queen did indeed always care for the same one first. The elder boy was named Eurysthenes, and he was crowned the High King, and his brother Procles his fellow King. So was founded the Agiad and Eurypontid royal houses of Sparta, named for their grandsons Agis and Eurypon, which ruled Sparta for near a thousand years. Some of their Kings ruled by oppressive force, and others through total lack of force. Eurypon was the first King to rule as a true man of the people, relaxing his more autocratic powers. Great was his popularity, but within generations, soon all Sparta was wracked by anarchy and strife, and it seemed as though it would become just another Athens. So grave were matters that, in a violent brawl in the streets, the Eurypontid King Eunomus was slain whilst trying to break up a fight. His throne passed to his oldest son, Polydectes, who died himself not long after. It was to Polydectes’ younger brother, Lycurgus, that the future greatness of Sparta owed its glory.

Sparta today, before Mount Taygetus
Photograph taken by Κούμαρης Νικόλαος
Lycurgus, an honourable and austere man, ruled well, but soon came a revelation which troubled the elders. Not long after the death of Polydectes, it became apparent that his widow was bearing a child. Magnanimous as ever he was, Lycurgus decreed that the throne was rightfully the child’s if it turned out to be a boy, and that he would rule as a guardian until the boy was ready. When, some months later, the widow gave birth to a boy, Charilaus, Lycurgus honoured his pledge, declaring the boy the rightful heir to the Eurypontid throne. The Spartan people rejoiced, and praised Lycurgus for his fair and noble character. But, ever ready to lay waste to the best of people is the shadow of envy. Charilaus’ relatives grew wary of Lycurgus, resenting his popularity. Soon suspicion turned to paranoia, and rumours began to spread that Lycurgus desired the throne alone. When at last Lycurgus, resigned to being the target of false charges, heard these fears he decided to leave Sparta until Charilaus was old enough to be crowned, and thus put an end to the false rumours. Forced into exile by his own city, the resourceful Lycurgus decided to travel the world, and see its nations with his own eyes.

Shrewd and charming, Lycurgus earned the respect of all who crossed his path with his insight and sagacity. By leaving behind his own country for the first time, his eyes were opened to the world, and he began to think what he, and his city, could learn from its peoples. His travels carried him further along the road to enlightenment, and further from home. First he landed upon the shores of verdant Crete, and marvelled at the close knit camaraderie of the locals, their fair songs and lyrical poems. The exiled King befriended many prominent Cretans, studying their way of life intently, admiring their ready obedience to the state. If only things were so in Sparta! Then to Asia did wise Lycurgus venture, and horror and disgust was his. For while it was here that he first heard the stories of Troy and the poetry of Homer, he was appalled at the unbridled extravagance and worship of money around every corner of the Ionian cities. Corruption stalked the land with a festering presence, and men fought tooth and nail to swell their fortunes and shatter those of their rivals. The people groaned under the towering burden of the rich, and the wealthy indulged in the most grotesque revelry, utterly oblivious to the ruin of the poor. Lycurgus, shuddering with anger, eagerly scribbled down all that he saw. South then, to Egypt and the land of the Pharaohs. Most awed was the Spartan King, as he saw the efficiency of this realm. Each man and woman scurried about on his or her errand like bees in the hive, all knowing their place and what to do. The soldiers fought, the priests prayed and the builders built. Such division of labour caught Lycurgus’ eager eye. Some say the wise man’s travels even brought him to the courts of India, the sands of Libya and the pillars of Spain.

One of twenty three portraits of famous lawgivers
to adorn the Chamber of the United States
 House of Representatives
After many years on stranger tides, word reached Lycurgus’ ear, a plea to return from his city of old. Energised by what he had seen in exile like never before, eagerly did he return to the city which bore him. The people of Sparta hailed Lycurgus as a man who was truly a King in heart, though others may wear the crown. Seeing an opportunity to bring all he had learned to bear, Lycurgus seized the chance. Seeing that modifying one law or making some pedantic amendment would be utterly useless, he swept aside the entire constitution, and built a state from the ground up. One of his most dramatic reforms was the abolition of wealth, and the pursuit of it. All gold and silver was seized and melted down, coinage was rendered invalid, and the new system of currency was henceforth to be in iron bars. Lycurgus assigned a tiny value to even a huge weight of iron, such that even a small sum needed substantial storage space and a wagon to carry it. The surface of each bar was doused with vinegar, making it fragile and brittle, rendering the metal useless for anything else. Overnight, almost all crime vanished from Sparta. “For who would set out to steal, or accept as a bribe, or rob, or plunder something which could not be hidden, excited no envy when possessed, and could not even be profitably chopped up?”. Since no other nation would accept such currency, Sparta became completely self-sufficient. No foreign goods flooded the streets, and luxury disappeared. The desire for more money than was necessary became a stigma of the greatest disgrace.

Lycurgus divided all the land of Laconia equally between the Spartan citizens, each part providing just enough farmland to provide for his family. With possessions beyond this prohibited, what was the point of desiring wealth, when there was nothing to spend it on? Recalling the extravagant banquets in Asia, Lycurgus henceforth decreed that all men would live and dine together in common messes. Even the King would dine alongside the citizens in the mess, and each man would bring his share of food from his land. If any man had been out hunting, he would bring along his catch to the mess to share with his comrades. Excessive drinking, which Lycurgus saw as destructive to the mind and the body, was stopped. Lycurgus saw in many other nations, the young and the old mistrusted each other, and never mixed. Here in Sparta, young and old lived and dined together. The young listened in reverence to the stories and wisdom of the old, and the old had the joy of sharing their experiences and inspiring the young. Power at Sparta was now in the hands of the newly created Great Council, consisting of the two Kings and twenty eight elected elders, for whom the age of sixty was a minimum requirement. That way, Lycurgus reasoned, men would be motivated to lead virtuous lives for all of their years, not just a few, and their help of the young in the messes might be rewarded by a place on the council. The Elders could champion the people should the Kings fall to tyranny, or side with the Kings should democracy need to be resisted.

Satisfied that politics had been cured of its maladies, Lycurgus turned to his most legendary reforms. After all, he thought, why just change a state when you can change its people too? Seeing that all the evils that afflict nations stem from the evils of individuals, Lycurgus embarked on an unprecendented revolution. But this would be no mere toppling of a tyrant, only to be replaced by a greater one, such as those which have characterised almost every revolution in history. This time it would run far deeper, changing forever the way that people lived their very lives, and creating a new nation which would be feared and respected even two and half thousand years later...

                                          To be continued...

United Kingdom

On Sparta:
On Sparta (Penguin Classics)
(A unique insight into the stories, customs and founding of the Spartan state, written in ancient times)

United States

On Sparta:
On Sparta (Penguin Classics)
(A unique insight into the stories, customs and founding of the Spartan state, written in ancient times)

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