The jump from the rule of man (kings) to the rule of law was greatly facilitated by the innovations of Lycurgus in Sparta, Greece, circa 700BC. Although severe in all respects, his very successful model of government equated all Spartan citizens as equal and gave them a voice in government, and at the same time, gave a great boost to the progress of democracy up the ladder of time.

Lycurgus lived at some time between 800 BC to 630 BC.  His legacy is a matter of considerable historical debate.

What is known is that he was a leader of the military Greek city-state of Sparta, situated in the southern part of Greece, at about 730BC, with the exact date a matter of controversy amongst historians.

The Spartans were unique in Greece as they made a point of not keeping historical records or issuing written laws. Lycurgus impressed the population with the need for a bench and from there, each case was to ne handled on a case-by-case basis, similar to England's institution of 2,000 years later, the Court of Chancery.

The absence of solid historical reports makes much of what we know about Lycurgus dependent on Greek historians of antiquity. Lycurgus' was written by Plutarch. With the ad hoc contributions of Plutarch's peers, allowing the cross-referencing of facts and dates, the life of Lycurgus has been pieced together (Plutarch was not one to let a little truth interfere with fact, stating categorically that Lycurgus "was descended from Hercules").

Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus first came to power as the regent of a younger royal heir.

At one point, he is said to have left Sparta and traveled to Crete, where he studied that island's legal code (which was also dedicated to military training of citizens).

Lycurgus returned and allegedly stopped by the Oracle at Delphi, who emboldened him to institute sweeping law reform in Sparta (which became known as "Rhetra").

He started by taking rule away from the  will of a single man (a king)  and gave it to a senate of elders (each of whom had to be at least 60 years of age) and, from time to time, a general assembly of the people, the latter having the final say in the event of any conflict with the Senate.

The people could not propose any new laws; just endorse or veto what the Senate proposed.

It was a small step for Spartans but a giant step towards democracy.

This structure is often referred to as Lycurgus' Constitution of Sparta. Plutarch refers to his legacy as "the perfection of the science of government".

From time to time, particularly the rich, or former rich of Sparta, rebelled but Lycurgus always managed to survive and come out as an even greater legend.

Lycurgus' greatest contribution to the law and justice was to create what had been considered impossible: democracy and order in coexistence. In the words of Plutarch, making "the governed genuinely eager to take orders, just as the perfection of the art of riding is to make the horse respond to gentle guidance."

Lycurgus banned gold or silver money  and instead, replaced it with money made of iron.

The import of luxuries ceased and Plutarch explains that "robbery and bribery vanished from Sparta instantly".

In fact, Lycurgus' laws required that all Spartans eat together at pot-lucks in public mess halls; the rich and the poor eating the same,  And if anyone did not like what was on the table, they could bring their own meal provided only that they also fed everybody else.

Lycurgus banned any occupation he perceived as being useless such as fortune-telling and prostitution.

As mentioned above, one of Lycurgus' laws was that the law ought not to be put in writing and had to be "imprinted in the minds of the citizens through good education and if the education were good enough, then law would be superfluous. Wise judges would always keep the laws spirit fresh" (Plutarch).

Women were dedicated to raising children and young marriages were necessarily conspiratorial affairs, as cohabitation was not allowed until the man reached 30.

Lycurgus' laws allowed adultery if it assisted in getting "good seed".

Plutarch explained it this way: "Why should a man be so careful about the breeding of his dogs and his horses, and even pay stud fees to get good offspring, but insist on his wife having children only by himself?"

Every newborn was taken to a council of elders for examination. If the newborn whined when dumped into a bucket of wine, or were in any way "defective", the baby was killed off by being thrown off a cliff.

Timetable of Legal History logo As he approached old age, Lycurgus told his people that he needed to return for a refreshed consultation with the Oracle at Delphi. He was never seen again. After his disappearance, Sparta exploded as a military force in southern Greece and continued to follow his laws for 500 years, believing the latter to be the cause of the former.

The focus on education and simple life of Spartans made them premiere candidates as arbitrators. When neighboring city states had disputes, they would often ask Spartans to arbitrate.

Plato gave these words to Socrates:

"Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: If you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like some expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child."

The military success of Sparta in the aftermath of Lycurgus, led many great city-states to consider and develop this new form of government, albeit in its crudest form, democracy.

Crude because, inter alia, like many other Greek city-states, all was only possible with a heavily-supervised slave system.

In Sparta's case, these were the Helots, who were their hewers of wood and drawers of water, albeit nonetheless with limited rights.

Lycurgus' Sparta had a creative method of keeping their Helots on the qui-vive: they annually renewed a formal declaration of war against them even though they were integrated into their society.



  • Cartledge, P., Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed The World (2007)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Duhaime's Timetable of World Legal History and The Law's Hall of Fame
  • MacDowell, D., Spartan Law (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986).
  • Image of relief on the wall of the chamber of the US House of Representatives with the inscription: "Semimythical Greek legislator; traditional author of laws and institution of Sparta".