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Philo of Alexandria, Jewish Philosopher

by February 23, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Many ancient societies were deeply influenced by Graeco-Roman Civilization, including early Judaic culture. The exchange between them produced important thinkers in Judaism, among them the philosopher Philo. He is perhaps the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism whose works had a decisive influence on later Christian thinkers.

The Life of Philo

A print of Philo of Alexandria from a 16th century French text

The exact date of Philo’s birth is not known, but it may have been about 20 BC. He was born into an influential family in Alexandria, Egypt, home at that time to one of the largest Jewish communities in the diaspora. His brother went on to become one of the wealthiest men in the city and even had connections with the imperial family during the reigns of Nero and Claudius.

Philo was brought up in a pious Jewish household and would have studied the Bible and Jewish scholarly works. Alexandria was, at the time, a cultural melting pot of Greeks, Jews and Egyptians. Thus, Philo was deeply influenced by Greek culture and was a student of Hellenic philosophy. He was also a Roman citizen and could speak and read Greek, as was the case with St. Paul, with whom he has some affinities. 

Philo was a devoted Jew and visited the Second Temple in Jerusalem at least once in his life. The only event that we know of in any detail is his role in an embassy to the infamous emperor Caligula. Rome’s Prefect in Egypt had ordered the Jews to worship Caligula as god, part of an empire-wide imperial cult. This, of course, was contrary to the strict monotheism of the Jews. The order also came at a time of conflict between the Greeks and the Jews in the city of Alexandria. In 38 AD, many Jews were killed in the city in what was possibly the first-known pogrom.

Caligula

The Alexandrine Jewish community elected Philo, who was very well-respected, to lead a delegation to Rome and to plead with the Emperor to rescind the Prefect’s orders. Miraculously, Philo was able to persuade Caligula not to force the Jews to worship him or to set up his image in their temples. It is believed that Philo died about 50 AD.

The Theology of Philo

Philo was deeply influenced by Plato and like Plato, he believed that a life of contemplation was superior. The Alexandrine thinker was also influenced by the Stoics, Aristotle and the Cynics. Philo was something of a mystic, believing that a transcendent god could be known by intuition.  He also believed that certain numbers, such as seven, had particular religious significance.

Philo believed the purpose of existence was to strive to know god. He held that a supreme being had implanted in humans an innate love of him, allowing humans to achieve a personal union with the divine.

Philo also believed that reason and religion were not incompatible. He used the concept of Logos, or reason, in a new way. It had long been argued that the Logos referred to the rational ordering of the universe. However, Philo argued that Logos, or reason, was begotten of god and was associated with him. In some of Philo’s works Logos is the mediator between the human mind and the divine. He believed that using reason to understand the world also allowed humans to comprehend the transcendent. The Alexandrine thinker also believed that fate could be suspended, allowing miracles to occur. Unfortunately, the philosopher was a poor writer, and his thoughts are often obscure.

Philo and the Bible

Philo was famous for his exegesis, or interpretation, of the Bible. He was very influenced by Greek philosophy—unlike many of his contemporary Jews, Philo did not reject it. He believed that the truths of Plato and the other philosophers were not incompatible with those of the Bible. He found an ingenious way to synthesize Greek thought with the Hebrew Bible, or Torah: allegory. Philo believed that interpreting the Torah and the Bible in an allegorical way allowed the deeper meaning of the texts to be discovered. His commentaries on the Jewish Patriarchs, such as Moses, were also widely read.

Philo’s Influence

A German woodcut showing Philo of Alexandria

Philo was highly respected by the early Christians. His ideas on Logos were especially influential in Christianity; many consider Philo’s works instrumental to the development of the doctrine of the holy spirit, who along with the god the father and son form the trinity in Christian belief. His views on miracles were also influential among Christians.

Philo also wrote an account called De Vita Contemplativa about groups of Egyptian ascetics known as the Therapeutae, whom some believe were Buddhists monks. This work is believed to have greatly influenced the subsequent development of Christian monasticism. Philo’s belief that reason and faith were not incompatible had a profound impact on the development of Christian theology.

While many Jews reject Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the sacred texts, he did influence the Midrash school of Jewish exegesis, which led to the development of a large body of Rabbinic commentaries.

Conclusion

Philo of Alexandria was a man of two worlds who sought to harmonize Judaism and Greek philosophy. This proved very important, even radical. His concepts and ideas greatly influenced early Christianity. Finally, Philo’s ideas on interpretation also had an impact on both Christian and Jewish interpretations of the Bible.

References:

Seland, T. (Ed.). (2014). Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

 

Alexander of Abonoteichus: Charlatan and False Prophet

by February 16, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

We think of Graeco-Roman world as a fairly rational, even secular. However, classical societies were extremely superstitious. In the ancient world, people used religion and magic to help them to cope with what, for them, could be an unpredictable and brutal world.

This led to the rise of not only many religious sects, but also charlatans and impostors.

One of the most notorious of these was Alexander of Abonoteichus. According to one source, he was a false prophet who founded a religion that was enormously influential in the Roman Empire.

Alexander of Abonoteichus

Illustration of Alexander of Abonoteichus. Image source: The Fortean Times

Our main source for Alexander of Abonoteichus is the writer Lucian, a Greek from what is now Syria. However, there are many cultural artifacts, such as coins, that prove that he was a historical figure. Lucian’s account of Alexander is very hostile, and this has colored our perception of him.

Born before 150 ADS in Abonoteichus, a Greek settlement on the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor, Alexander may have been a disciple of the prophet and philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. At some point, he joined a traveling medicine shows that preyed upon the gullible, and during this time he acquired his skills. Alexander was not an ordinary conman—he had ambitions.

The Rise of a Fraud

Source: esoterx.com

Sometime around 160 AD, Alexander established a snake cult in his home town of Abonoteichus.  The sacred snake was worshipped as Glycon, and according to Lucian, it was a hand puppet manipulated by Alexander. Alexander also persuaded the people of Paphlagonians that Glycon was the reincarnation of the god Apollo. Alexander had Glycon prophesying and offering advice on healing. The cult grew enormously popular and attracted many followers from all over the Eastern Mediterranean.

Lucian writes that Glycon would give ‘nocturnal’ oracles and advise, but only to those who paid. One source claimed that the shrine of the snake god provided 80,000 oracles, paid handsomely for each one. Alexander and his circle must have been fabulously rich. Lucian relates that many people asked Glycon questions and often received answers that were nonsensical or irrelevant. Even so, the faithful came in droves.

Many infertile couples would bring gifts to the shrine in the hope that they would become pregnant. Because of the popularity of his cult, Alexander became very influential in Asia Minor, marrying the daughter of the governor.

The Snake God and Roman Emperors

Glycon statue unearthed in Tomis, Romania, in 1962

The 160s AD were exceedingly difficult ones for the Roman Empire. It was ravaged by plague and suffered greatly due to wars with German and other tribes. This meant that many people were willing to believe that Glycon channeled the divine. Versified oracles from Glycon were found inscribed on amulets from the 2nd century AD, attesting to the popularity of the cult.

Alexander was personally summoned by Marcus Aurelius in order to provide oracles, and thus went to Rome. The emperor, faced with a major battle with the Germans on the Danuban frontier, asked Glycon how to win. The snake-god (or glove puppet) told Marcus Aurelius that he would win if he sacrificed two lions by drowning them in the Danube. The battle nonetheless was a disaster for the Romans, one of their greatest defeats in the Macromannic War.

However, this does not seem to have ended the influence of the snake-cult in the Roman Empire. Instead, its popularity grew and is credited with the expansion of the town of Abonoteichus, which was renamed Ionapolis.

The End of Alexander of Abonoteichus

Minted in Abonoteichos, this bronze coin shows Antoninus Pius and the snake god Glycon

The power and respect that Alexander and his cult held in the late 2nd century AD is evidenced by the discovery of coins that depict Glycon.

The cult of Glycon outlived Alexander, and there is evidence that it was still widely practiced in parts of the Aegean a century after his death. Lucian relates that Alexander declared he would live until he was 150, but died about the age of 70 of a terrible disease.

It appears that the glove puppet was abandoned and Glycon was worshipped in an abstract form. There is some evidence that the religion spread to the region around the Danube. There are also indications that Alexander came to be regarded as the son of Asclepius. It is believed the cult of Glycon finally disappeared in the 4th century AD, after the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

Conclusion

Alexander of Abonoteichus was likely a false prophet and a fraud. The cult of Glycon is testament to the search for meaning in a time of crisis. Alexander was able to use a glove puppet to make himself rich and powerful, eventually establishing a religion that lasted centuries.

References:

Lucian (1925). Alexander the False Prophet. Translated by A Harmon.

Cimon of Athens: Terror of the Persians and Great Statesman

by December 9, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Athens produced many outstanding individuals, and one of the most remarkable was Cimon. A leading political and military figures of his day, Cimon left an indelible mark on Athens and Greece.

Cimon’s Early Career

Cimon (510-451 BC) was the son of the great Athenian general Miltiades, who had defeated the Persians at Marathon. His mother was a Thracian princess. However, Miltiades fell into disgrace and died. Left the head of his household, Cimon found himself in debt and used his aristocratic connections to pay it off. He then launched a military and political career.

Bust of Cimon (510 – 450 BC), Larnaca, Cyprus

Cimon fought with great distinction at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC) and was elected one of the ten generals of Athens in 479. He was instrumental in the formation of the Delian League, which gave the Athens control over the Greek navy, side-lining the Spartans. He worked closely with the conservative politician Aristides. During his political career, Cimon was associated with the conservatives in Athens.

Cimon’s Victories

While the Persian invasion of Greece failed, the Persians were still a threat. Cimon led several naval expeditions which sought to beat the Persians back in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Athenian expelled Pausanias, a Spartan general suspected of having treasonable dealings with the Persian Emperor Xerxes, from Byzantium. Cimon drove the last of Xerxes’ forces from Thrace. He then attacked a nest of pirates and defeated them on the island of Scyros, which he took for Athens. He became very popular at home and was widely seen as the leader of the conservative party. His main rival was Pericles, the leader of the popular party.

The Battle of Salamis, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

The Pinnacle of Cimon’s Career

In 466, Cimon was operating in the Eastern Mediterranean and commanded a fleet of 200 ships. At this time, the Greek cities in Asia Minor, supported by the Delian League, had thrown off the Persian yoke. A massive Persian army gathered at the mouth of the River Eurymedon in Pamphylia (in modern-day Turkey), aiming to retake the Greek cities in Asia Minor and once more threaten mainland Greece. A bold, aggressive commander, Cimon decided to attack the Persians first. He launched a surprise assault on the Persian ships, destroying their entire fleet. Yet many Persian sailors that landed on the beach joined the Persian forces deployed there. Cimon ordered marines to attack them, inflicting a decisive defeat.

Greek Triremes, similar to the vessels commanded by Cimon

Aftermath of the Battle of River Eurymedon

The battle was a great victory for Cimon, making him the Delian League master of the Eastern Mediterranean. He had beaten back the Persians to such an extent that it was to be nearly twenty years before they menaced the Greeks in the region.

However, Cimon did not press home his advantage. Some believe that he did not want to overextend his forces. It is also likely that many members of the Delian League had become restive, and one the island of Thasos had even revolted. Cimon may have felt unable to conduct any more offensive operations against Xerxes. For two years, he laid siege on Thasos. There were reports that he was bribed by the Macedonian king not to attack his territories, even though many Greeks suspected that he had collaborated with the Persians and had encouraged the Thasians. Pericles and the populists brought corruption charges against Cimon. He was acquitted, but his reputation suffered greatly.

Cimon and Sparta

Like many conservative politicians in Athens, Cimon was sympathetic to Sparta. In 462 AD, Sparta was shaken by a rebellion. The helots, or state-owned slaves, had established a fortress on Mount Ithome. Sparta sought the assistance of Athens and her other Greek allies. Cimon called for the Athenians to intervene on behalf of Sparta. He was granted a force of 4,000 hoplites and they marched on Spartan territories. However, Cimon’s attack on the rebels was a failure. The Spartans became suspicious of the Athens and ordered them to return to Attica. This was a humiliation for Cimon and upon his return to his home city, he was ostracized and eventually exiled.

Pericles cartoon

Cimon’s Later Career

The fall of Cimon transformed Athenian politics. Pericles and his allies were able to seize control of the government and they passed several democratic reforms. They also waged a war against the Spartans in the First Peloponnesian War. Cimon volunteered to fight as a common soldier and many of his followers died bravely in the battle against the Spartans. This convinced many in Athens to rescind his exile. Cimon worked tirelessly to reconcile the two most powerful Hellenic states. In 451, a peace treaty was signed by both sides and this ended the First Peloponnesian War. Cimon may have played a role in this, and indeed was given command of a large fleet at the end of the conflict. Later, Cimon laid siege to the city of Citium in Cyprus, during which he is believed to have died of a wound or illness.

Conclusion

Cimon played a crucial role in the rise to power of Athens and he was one of the architects of the Athenian Empire. He was a great naval commander, driving the Persians out of the Eastern Mediterranean. His pro-Spartan policies made him unpopular in Athens and politically speaking, he was out-maneuvered by Pericles. Cimon wanted Athens to ally with Sparta. If he had succeeded, this would have prevented the cataclysmic Athenian defeat in the Second Peloponnesian War and possibly even the rise of the Kingdom of Macedon.

References:

Holland, Tom (2006). Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. Abacus.

How Well Do You Listen? Plutarch and His Letter on Listening

by December 4, 2020

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Plutarch (AD46 – after AD 119) was a Platonic philosopher, essayist, biographer, magistrate, and a priest at the Temple of Apollo later in his life.

Plutarch was known for his involvement in all matters of society, taking on even the humblest of tasks. However, he is best remembered today for Parallel Lives, a series of biographies that followed prestigious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia a collection of essays, letters, and speeches that summarized his life’s work, beliefs, and teachings.

Moralia translated as ‘’Morals’’ or ‘’Matters concerning customs and mores’’ and consists of 78 essays and speeches. From questioning fate to the nature of music, Moralia sheds light on ancient Greek life and offers some of the deepest and most timeless wisdom.

Plutarch etching by Edward Gooch, source: Hulton Archive

Plutarch’s letter on listening was first delivered as a formal lecture and was later converted into a letter to his young friend Nicander, who was about to embark on the study of Philosophy.

While the letter is written to a youth about to enter a period of intense study, it contains lessons from which we could all benefit.

Plutarch’s descriptions of different kinds of listeners are as relevant today as they were then. The lazy listener, the scornful listener, those who listen with excitement, and the over-confident listener are just a handful of listening types he discusses.

Plutarch’s Listeners

Listening to Lectures (De auditu), in Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. I, Loeb Classical Library No. 197 (1927)

The Selective Listener

Plutarch describes the selective listener as someone who is very good at listening – to what they want to hear.

This refers to the tendency to be most interested in hearing about topics that we find exciting and interesting, and how much easier it is to listen to long speeches from great orators or those we admire.

While most of us are guilty of this – no doubt there is great pleasure in listening to topics that one most enjoys – Plutarch warns that only listening to advice and opinions that are pleasing to the ear may mean we miss other important or useful information. Much good can be hidden away in ‘boring’ lectures or speeches from those we deem less interesting or desirable.

The Disapproving Listener

Most people will have listened to opinions that conflict with our values and meet with our disapproval. While there’s nothing wrong with disagreement, Plutarch encourages us to always keep an open mind. Most importantly, he urges us to listen to the speaker in their entirety first, without judgment.

Judgment or disapproval, Plutarch argues, is in itself a distraction of the mind. Those who attend speeches already in a state of disapproval are distracted, often comparing their own intelligence with that of the speaker, and/or observing others in the audience for signs of admiration and approval. In the process, much information is missed and the listener comes away less informed.

Disapproving listeners are at risk of distorting the information conveyed, rendering the whole experience useless.

Plutarch points out that when we have already decided we are against something, we’re likely to recall only what we consider to be the negative points. Great learning, he says, arises when we ponder and reflect on opinions that are opposite to our own.

The Over-Confident Listener

“In praising a speaker, we must be generous, but in believing his words cautious” – Plutarch

“Don’t believe everything you hear” is an adage as old as time. There are certain speakers we confide in due to their achievements, status or because they have previously given honest and useful advice. In that situation it becomes easier just to believe what you hear without a second thought and leave critical thinking at the door.

Plutarch advises us that no matter how much we admire the speaker, or how dazzling and entertaining the performance is, we must be a ‘heartless critic’ when evaluating the quality of the information we are receiving.

Plutarch did not believe that any speaker should be met with hostility, but warns us to be careful not to be swept away by the current. Just because someone may have useful information the first time, does not automatically qualify them to give good advice the second time. All information should be approached with a clear and critical mind, no matter who says it.

Aristotle teaches young Alexander by Charles Laplante (1837–1903)

Listening as a Collaborative Process

One of the core lessons from Plutarch’s essay on listening is that the learning process does not solely rely on the speaker or educator. He continuously reminds us that responsibility also rests on the shoulders of the listener. Learning and informing requires the active participation of both parties.

Thus the listener would do well to reflect on the quality of their listening, be mindful of personal flaws, approach all information with caution, and not be afraid to ask questions.

Quality listening does not mean that the listener must be quiet, Plutarch adds. Questions are an important part of the listening process and should always be welcome, so long as they are related to the topic.

Plutarch believed that the major obstacle in learning from others is one’s own shortcomings and insecurities. To remedy this, proper behavior in all educational settings must be observed so that the information can be adequately understood and assessed without the interference of personal preferences.

Whether we tend to drift off during boring lectures or immediately dismiss speakers we dislike, as listeners we are active participants in the cultivation of ideas. Identifying barriers to our listening and learning, especially those we impose upon ourselves, is a crucial part of personal development and self-improvement.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralia

https://www.loebclassics.com/view/plutarch-moralia_listening_lectures/1927/pb_LCL197.201.xml

https://www.e-ostadelahi.com/eoe-en/the-art-of-listening/

https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_auditu*.html

https://philosophycourse.info/plutarchsite/plutarch-listening.html

Tarquin, Last King of Rome and Bloody Tyrant

by September 18, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Roman Republic was moulded rather decisively by the fall of the monarchy. The Republic was designed to prevent the re-emergence of rule by a single person. Rome’s last monarch was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (died 495 BC). His tyranny provoked a rebellion, and this was to lead to the Republic which was to change the history of the Classical World.  
The early life of the tyrant
Superbus was related to Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of the previous Etruscan king Servius Tullius. He was a member of the Tarquin Dynasty. His grandfather Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, had been an Etruscan by birth and had been adopted by the fourth Roman king. He later became his heir and ruled Rome for many years.
This story may indicate that Etruscans had conquered the Latin City and had imposed a king of Rome. The sources version of events, which were written down many years later, are not regarded as reliable. It is claimed by Cicero that Superbus conspired with his future wife to become king. He killed his wife and then assassinated the 6th king of Rome Servius Tullius.  He was the only king to seize power by force in Roman regal history.  The Roman king only ruled a small area at this time and was more like a petty king or chieftain. 

The murder of King Servius by his son-in-law (details), around 1413 -1415

The reign of Tarquin
Tarquin came to power in either 595 or 594 BC and he proved to be a capable if ruthless ruler.
Traditionally, the king had worked with the Roman nobility. However, Tarquin proved to be a despot and had no respect for the law or tradition. His name Superbus means the ‘proud’ in Old Latin.
Tarquin intimidated the Roman Senate and set aside the precedents established by Romulus. In this way, he was similar to later tyrannical Emperors such as Nero and Caligula. Tarquin often sentenced senators to death for alleged crimes and frequently used capital punishment against his real and imagined enemies. He initiated a reign of terror in Rome.
The dictator was a shrewd politician and he made Rome the head of the Latin League. He did this by charging his main rival with a spurious plot against the Latins. Tarquin was an aggressive leader and he waged war against the Volsci and Aequi and expanded the territory of Rome. He was careful to maintain peace with the powerful Etruscans. Tarquin was a great builder, as many tyrants are. He built a huge Temple to Jupiter and began the construction of the Forum. 

A reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome, Italy, 5-6th century (reconstruction by Dr. Bernard Frischer, Rome Reborn)

Tarquin and the Sibylline Books
The King was approached by the Cumaean Sibyl, who offered him nine books of prophecy. She was the priestess at a shrine to Apollo and was famed for her powers of second sight.
The priestess demanded a huge sum for the books. Tarquin dismissed her and in response, Sibyl burned three of the books. She returned to Tarquin and offered him the six books for the same price. Again, the king refused to pay and dismissed the priestess. The old priestess returned and offered the three remaining books for the same price. Tarquin at last relented and in this way, Rome obtained the Sibylline Books.
The books were a collection of oracular maxims written in Greek verse and they were widely consulted by the Roman Senate, especially during times of crisis. 

A Sibyl, by Domenichino, circa 1616-17

Downfall and exile of Tarquin
By 509 BC, the Roman population was tired of Tarquin and his brutal and burdensome rule. Tarquin went on a campaign that year but this was not a success, as the enemy refused to engage with the Romans.
Tarquin’s son after a night’s drinking raped a Roman noblewoman and she told members of the nobility after her family refused to help her. The Roman noblemen, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, began to plot the overthrow of Tarquin. 
Lucretia committed suicide and Brutus swore on her dead body that he would end the monarchy and free the Roman people. They moved slowly and secured the support of the Roman nobility and many of the ordinary people.
Interestingly, Lucius was an ancestor of the Brutus who was involved in the plot against Julius Caesar.  Brutus and others summoned an assembly of the people and the Senators, and they voted for the expulsion of Tarquin and end the monarchy.

The Story of Lucretia, by Sandro Botticelli, about 1500

The army refused to support the monarch and he was forced into exile. He attempted to regain his crown but he failed and he died in exile in Cumae. In 495 BC, the elderly former king, at the head of an alliance of Latins was defeated by Rome at the Battle of Lake Regillius.
The Romans replaced the monarchy with two consuls, who shared supreme executive power, for a year. The Republican system was designed to ensure that no single person could become the ruler. 
Conclusion
Tarquin was the last king of the Romans. However, he helped to establish the city-state as the greatest power in central Italy and was a great builder. It cannot be denied that he was a despot and that he ruled Rome with an iron fist. His rule was so brutal that it made the Romans determined to never have a king again. This led to the foundation of the Roman Republic, which may not have happened if Tarquin had ruled like his predecessors. The anti-monarchical political culture of Rome was unique and it ultimately transformed the city-state into a Mediterranean power.

Lycurgus: Mysterious Spartan Lawgiver

by September 16, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sparta has fascinated people for thousands of years. One of the most, if not the most important figure in all of Spartan history was Lycurgus, the great lawgiver. The interesting thing is that we know very little about this man and his character and indeed, many suspect that he was only a myth.
Sparta at the time of Lycurgus
The Spartans were Dorian Greeks and they had probably migrated from the Balkans and occupied parts of the Peloponnese during the so-called Dark Ages (12th to 8th century BC). 
At the time of the future lawgiver’s birth, Sparta was just another one of the many petty kingdoms and city-states that controlled Greece. It was not wealthy and was not famed for its military prowess. Indeed, it had many enemies and was very vulnerable to attack. 

This map, dating to some 20 years after the death of Lycurgus, shows Sparta as one of many ancient Greek city-states

The origin of Lycurgus
We know very little about the man who became the founder of the remarkable Spartan state.  It is believed that he may have lived in a date range between the 10th and the 8th century BC.
What we do know about his life is from the biographer Plutarch who wrote several hundred years after his probable death. Many believe that he never existed and that the Lygurgus comes from an epithet derived from the God Apollo. Then some believe that the name Lygurgus may be based on an archaic wolf-deity or cult.
Certainly, the great Spartan is a quasi-mythical figure, but he was almost certainly a historic figure. However, there may have been more than one person with that name, and later generations may have attributed all their works and policies to one single person. 

A statue of Lycurgus at the Brussels Court of Law

The life of Lycurgus
It is widely believed that he was born into the royal family of Sparta. It seemed that he was highly esteemed by his fellow Spartans. His father and his older brother both predeceased him and he was offered the kingship.
He became the rule of the kingdom and was a good and just ruler. However, his brother’s wife was pregnant when he died, and she later gave birth. After some consideration, Lycurgus did something remarkable and abdicated, which astonished all of Greece, according to Plutarch.
He had his nephew crowned the king and he acted as his regent. His brother’s queen became concerned and she and her family feared that Lycurgus was plotting to assassinate the infant. They plotted against him and forced him into exile.

Lycurgus Gives the Laws to the Spartans, by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio (c 1480-1528) or Bonifazio Veronese (1487-1553), date unknown

Travels and Oracle Delphi
During his exile, the Spartan decided to travel the known world. On his travels, he acquired a great deal of knowledge and gained a new perspective on politics.
In particular, he was impressed by the institutions of Crete, whose rulers were also Dorian Greeks. The Spartan also travelled to Asia Minor, where he admired the intellectual pursuits of the Ionians, but not their luxurious lives. According to one source during his wandering Lygurgus met Homer and later helped to compile the Iliad and the Odyssey, but this is almost certainly incorrect.
Some believe that the Spartan travelled as far as Spain. Back in his native land, things began to go badly and the people wanted Lycurgus to return and rule them again. He agreed out of a sense of duty, but before he did he consulted the Oracle at Delphi

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia, by Eugène Delacroix, 1835-45

The Oracle assured him that his reforms would work and that he would make Sparta the greatest Greek state. Many have been struck by the similarities between the Spartan and the Athenian Solon, another great lawgiver.
Lycurgus the lawgiver
The Spartan saw that his kingdom needed to be completely reformed. He redrafted the constitution and established that two kings would rule Sparta. A council of elders would guide them and the male citizens would have a say in the government by their participation in the assembly.
This system provided Sparta with a great deal of political stability for centuries. Next, he established a system that has been likened to communism. He banned the use of gold and silver and all land was owned by the state, which allocated equally among all the citizenry.

Lycurgus Demonstrates the Benefits of Education, by Caesar van Everdingen, 1660-62

Lycurgus decided to make Sparta a highly militaristic society with the best warriors in Greece. He developed the agoge system to train young boys. Under this system, they were taken from their families and trained in warfare from an early age. It was a brutal system, but the young boys became fierce and highly disciplined soldiers.
Lycurgus wanted the citizens to put the state before their own family. He ordered that all adult males have a common mess hall. Lycurgus was almost universally loved, and he was a mild-mannered character. As he grew old, he decided to return to the Oracle at Delphi. 
The mysterious death of Lycurgus
Before he left he assembled all the Spartans and had them swear to maintain the laws he had introduced.
Then he left and he simply disappeared and was never seen again. Some claim that he starved himself to death as part of a ritual.
After his death, he was worshipped by the Spartans and a hero-cult developed around his memory. Such was his reputation, after his death, he came to be regarded as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. 

Lycurgus of Sparta, by Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1828

Conclusion
Lycurgus changed Sparta and he transformed it into a highly disciplined and militaristic society. Without his laws, the Spartans would not have been the greatest power in the Peloponnese nor able to play their decisive role in the defeat of the Persian invaders.  Moreover, without his reforms, they would not have been able to become the dominant power in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.