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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Smith, A Smaller History of Ancient Greece





Early History of Peloponnesus and Sparta to the end of the Messenian Wars, B.C. 668













Page 3

Argos was originally the chief Dorian state in Peloponnesus, but at the time of the first Olympiad its power had been supplanted by that of Sparta. The progress of Sparta from the second to the first place among the states in the peninsula was mainly owing to the military discipline and rigorous training of its citizens. The singular constitution of Sparta was unanimously ascribed by the ancients to the legislator Lycurgus, but there were different stories respecting his date, birth, travels, legislation, and death. His most probable date however is B.C. 776, in which year he is said to have assisted Iphitus in restoring the Olympic games. He was the son of Eunomus, one of the two kings who reigned together in Sparta. On the death of his father, his elder brother, Polydectes, succeeded to the crown, but died soon afterwards, leaving his queen with child. The ambitious woman offered to destroy the child, if Lycurgus would share the throne with her. Lycurgus pretended to consent; but as soon as she had given birth to a son, he presented him in the market-place as the future king of Sparta. The young king's mother took revenge upon Lycurgus by accusing him of entertaining designs against his nephew's life. Hereupon he resolved to withdraw from his native country and to visit foreign lands. He was absent many years, and is said to have employed his time in studying the institutions of other nations, in order to devise a system of laws and regulations which might deliver Sparta from the evils under which it had long been suffering. During his absence the young king had grown up, and assumed the reins of government; but the disorders of the state had meantime become worse than ever, and all parties longed for a termination to their present sufferings. Accordingly the return of Lycurgus was hailed with delight, and he found the people both ready and willing to submit to an entire change in their government and institutions. He now set himself to work to carry his long projected reforms into effect; but before he commenced his arduous task he consulted the Delphian oracle, from which he received strong assurances of divine support. Thus encouraged by the god, he suddenly presented himself in the market-place, surrounded by thirty of the most distinguished Spartans in arms. His reforms were not carried into effect without violent opposition, and in one of the tumults which they excited, his eye is said to have been struck out by a passionate youth. But he finally triumphed over all obstacles, and succeeded in obtaining the submission of all classes in the community to his new constitution. His last act was to sacrifice himself for the welfare of his country. Having obtained from the people a solemn oath to make no alterations in his laws before his return, he quitted Sparta for ever. He set out on a journey to Delphi, where he obtained an oracle from the god, approving of all he had done, and promising prosperity to the Spartans as long as they preserved his laws. Whither he went afterwards, and how and where he died, nobody could tell. He vanished from earth like a god, leaving no traces behind him but his spirit: and his grateful countrymen honoured him with a temple, and worshipped him with annual sacrifices down to the latest times.

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Greek Literature - Ancient, Medieval, Modern

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