Written by Tom G. Hamilton, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that the Celts made no distinction of sex when appointing their commanders and in western Iberia. According to the Greek historian Strabo, women fought alongside men. For the Celts, a woman could not only wage war—she was also a warrior herself.
But first: what were the Celts doing in western Iberia? After all, the first countries that come to mind when one thinks of Celtic culture are not Spain and Portugal, which principally comprise the Iberian peninsula (along with a small area of southern France and Gibraltar). But the Celts did indeed live there—and had for a long time. In fact, DNA studies link Celtic roots to the Iberian peninsula. In ancient times, Celtic culture was associated with all of Atlantic Europe—an area that encompasses the British Isles, Portugal, Belgium, parts of Spain, France and northern Germany—creating a major cultural division between Atlantic and Central Europe.
This divide can be seen in many areas. For example, unlike other European cultures, in the Celtic world, domestic roles went out the window in the event of war. In conflict situations Celtic women dropped what they were doing and took up arms.
It was no surprise then that Celtic Queen Boudica, who is known to history for leading a revolt against Rome, had been initiated into the elite warrior class. She rose quickly in the army’s ranks until she had earned the respect of invading Roman legionaries and generals alike. Boudica came very close to changing Rome’s ambitions about Britain forever.
The tribal confederation of Queen Boudica were known as the Vettones. They were a warrior people, and indeed the word Vetton comes from the Celtic roots UEK–TI meaning “warrior.” War was their default mode of existence, and it included women.
The Vetton female warriors were hardly an anomaly in Celtic culture—on the contrary, many Celtic women were skilled fighters. Indeed, an unknown Roman soldier allegedly once said: “A Celtic woman is often the equal of any Roman man in hand-to-hand combat. She is as beautiful as she is strong. Her body is comely but fierce. The physiques of our Roman women pale in comparison.”
Further descriptions of these Celtic women in hand-to-hand combat are even more detailed and should not be omitted from our attention. Greek historian Appian of Alexandria, describing Sextus Junius Brutus’ campaigns against the Celtic tribes in Lusitania, writes:
“Here he found the women fighting and perishing in company with the men with such bravery that they uttered no cry even in the midst of slaughter.” (Appian, The Spanish Wars, 15: 71,72)
Regarding Gaulish women, the Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus writes:
“A whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Gaul] in a fight, if he calls in his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.” — Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XV – 12
Celtic lore and legend celebrated women as valiant and warlike. Take Aoife and Scathach, two rival female warriors from folklore, for example.
Scathach had taught Cú Chulainn, the Irish mythological demigod and great warrior in Irish and Scottish legends. He insisted on taking Scathach’s place in a one-to-one combat challenge called by Aoife. In the combat she reduced his sword to a stump but he, knowing beforehand that her most precious things were her two horses and chariot, distracted her attention by saying her horses and chariot were falling off a distant cliff. Aoife turned back and in that moment Cú managed to overpower her. According to the story, they ended up as lovers and she bore Cú a son.
Whilst motherhood and nurturing were considered sacred feminine qualities in the Celtic tradition, courage and ability to fight in close combat were considered equally important. Celtic spirituality and warfare were not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they were intertwined. A similar fluidity can be seen in gender roles. Being a man in Celtic society and culture had no macho overtone. Calling on your wife as equal—or even superior—to assist you wasn’t considered a weakness. What’s more, a woman could train a man in the art of warfare.
Perhaps Aoife and Scathach really existed and the legend was based upon truth, or maybe it was just apocryphal. Regardless, such stories portray the Celtic woman as both warriors and mothers—and such is our Boudica.
Back in Iberia, the Romans described the women as having a small shield upon which they beat a rhythm. This, almost assuredly, was the adufe, or square frame drum still played by the women today in Beira Baixa. These rhythms, played exclusively by women even now, strongly resemble the sound of a horse. In this way, music also played a part in the pre-battle ceremony.
It’s likely such drums were heard when Boudica, who had assumed the role of a spiritual authority as well as military leader, was giving a speech to her fellow warriors to prepare them for the final conflict and battle against the Romans. She invoked the name of the female Andrasta, the goddess of the Iceni, whilst taking a hare from inside her cloak and releasing it as part of a shamanic prophecy of coming victory.
In Beira Baixa, land of the Vettones, this deity was called Trebaruna, which means house of mystery. Boudica had grown up in a hillfort, considered the sacred high places of the Celts. Warrior training took place within the hillfort culture, and Boudica would have been accustomed to a level of personal discipline that would challenge most of us to the core. This was part of her warrior elite training, although training is perhaps not the most suitable word—it was more of an initiation.
The initiate into the Celtic warrior elite became another person altogether. The would-be warriors were initiated into the world of death. They were driven to the limits of endurance, to the edges of their own personal tolerance of pain and hardship. The initiate would then, at the end, possess another version of themselves. They would come out from the realms of death into a new life as a warrior. The Ver Sacrum part of this warrior initiation prepared them for leaving home. Thus, it was perfectly natural for Boudica to leave her Iberian homeland.
The future queen had been taught how to survive in extreme conditions. She learned to be frugal, to live off nature’s most simple provisions of roots and berries, to deal with extremities of the natural world, of heat and cold, and to handle pain itself. Her formation had given her all this, along with weapons training and, being a Vetton—the Vettones were famed for their horsemanship—she had a natural command over horses.
Her skills did not go unnoticed. Boudica had been chosen to represent Rome in the region along with her husband Tagus. They enjoyed the perks and had become somewhat wealthy—until Boudica decided that Rome’s greediness had gone too far.
As an elite ALAE (Alae Vettonum Hispanorum, the Vetton Winged Cavalry) Boudica would have fought alongside the Roman legions, flanking them to one side on her horse. This must have been a source of intrigue and fascination to the Roman foot-soldiers, giving them an inside view into the secret world of the Celtic warrior elite. They evidently knew her habits and even observed how she dressed—or as Tacitus described it, her “invariable attire.” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXII:1-2)
The Romans would have been familiar with her battle cries and with her god. Her voice was described as strong, authoritative, expressing her conviction and character, and equally impressive as her physical presence. However, we should not confuse this with sexuality. There are no sexual overtones in the description of Boudica by the classical writers. Rather, the tone was one of awe of her person, her warrior’s bearing, and her courage.
The modern idea of the Celtic warrior princess has been sexualized. These depictions were created to entertain men’s fantasies—big-breasted, tall, imposing and heavily-armed vixens designed as characters within the virtual-reality war video games market.
This, however, has no historical basis. Boudica apparently filled her Roman admirers with profound respect. Perhaps she made them question their own Roman sexist moral attitudes. In truth, the two cultures were worlds apart. Here was proof that a woman could ride a horse and wield deadly weapons alongside Roman generals. These women could create legends and inflict deadly wounds on their enemies.
But it is not only modern audiences that have reinvented the Celtic warrior. Medieval writers often had an issue with what they considered to be Boudica’s acts of violence. They seem too extreme, too cruel, so some writers in the early Middle Ages tried to divide her in two. Petruccio Ubaldini in La vite del donne illustri del Regno D’Inghliterra, e del regno di Scotia (1591) split Boudica into two queens, Voadicia the “good” queen, and Bunduica, the “bad” one. He talks about her as being cruel and degrading, and lacking in compassion in her treatment of the prisoners.
In a sense, there were two Boudicas—but not as the medieval writers proposed. There was the Boudica that served the Romans—and the Boudica that turned on the Romans. In her lifetime, Rome’s ever-expanding empire came, saw, and relentlessly conquered the known world. It crushed whatever people and culture that dared stand in the way, often with great cruelty.
Boudica was singularly brave in standing up to Roman power at its height. Not only did she confront Rome, she fought back with intelligence, cunning and precision, as Celtic warrior women of her day were trained to do. She gave Rome a good beating. Stung, Rome retreated only to return with no mercy, but Boudica lived on in the hearts and lore of the Celts, where she is revered to this day.
The Cultural and Ideological Significance Of Representations of Boudica During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, by Samantha Frénée-Hutchins, p. 22.
You may hear that phrase today because the 15th of March is referred to as the ‘Ides of March’ and marks the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general, Consul, statesman, and notable author of Latin prose. He was both a conquering hero and a dictator. He played an essential role in the history of Ancient Rome, acting out pivotal parts in events that led to the demise of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Caesar started off as an accomplished military man, fighting for the glory of Rome. He was able to extend Roman territory to the English channel and the Rhine in his conquest of Gaul, completed by 51 BC.
He became the first Roman general to invade Britain.
Bust of Caesar
His achievements awarded him the position of an unmatched military prowess, but also threatened to eclipse the role of Pompey, the military and political leader of the late Roman Republic. Pompey, who had previously held an alliance with Caesar and Crassus, had realigned himself with the senate after Crassus’ death in 53 BC.
When the Gallic wars had finished, the Senate ordered Caesar to lay down his weapons and commanded him to return to Rome. Caesar, however, refused. In 49 BC he crossed the Rubicon with a legion. This was the moment that marked his defiance; he had left his province and illegally entered Roman territory, bearing arms. A civil war ensued, but Caesar emerged as the unrivaled leader of Rome.
Caesar assumed control of the government and then proceeded to install a program of social and governmental reforms, such as the creation of the Julian Calendar. He centralised the bureaucracy of the Republic and eventually was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity”.
Caesar, however, was not popular with everyone – especially the politicos he had ignored.
On March 15th, 44 BC, the Ides of March, Caesar was stabbed to death at a senate meeting.
According to Plutarch, Caesar had been told that this would come to pass. A seer had warned Caesar that harm would come to him, no later than the Ides on March. Then on that fateful day, Caesar passed the prophesier on his walk to the Theatre of Pompey, the place were he would be murdered. He quipped, “The ides of March have come”, thinking that the morbid prophecy had not been fulfilled.
To this the seer replied, “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”
It is thought that as many as 60 conspirators were involved in the assassination, led by Brutus and Cassius. This scene, as dramatized by William Shakespeare has given us the famous lines, “Beware the Ides of March” and “Et tu, Brute?”
Whether the date was, in fact, the 15th of March is up to debate, as the Roman calendar was structured differently from our modern calendars. For one thing, they only had 10 months. Additionally, the Romans did not number the days of the month sequentially from the first to the last. They actually counted back from three fixed points with in the month and varied depending on the length of the month. These included the Nones (5th or 7th), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st of the following month).
The Ides occurred on the 15th for March, May, July and October, and were supposed to be determined by the full moon. (This reflects the lunar origins of the Roman calendar).
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
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.
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.
Lucian (1925). Alexander the False Prophet. Translated by A Harmon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Holland, Tom (2006). Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. Abacus.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.