Constitution of the Lacedaimonians


Xenophon, creator; Scripta minora; Marchant, E. C. (Edgar Cardew), 1864-1960, translator; Marchant, E. C. (Edgar Cardew), 1864-1960, editor, translator; Bowersock, G. W, (Glen Warren), 1936-, editor, translator

The law by which Lycurgus encouraged the practice of virtue up to old age is another excellent measure in my opinion. By requiring men to face the ordeal of election to the Council of Elders near the end of life, he prevented neglect of high principles even in old age.

Worthy of admiration also is the protection that he afforded to the old age of good men. For the enactment by which he made the Elders judges in trials on the capital charge caused old age to be held in greater honour than the full vigour of manhood.

And surely it is natural that of all contests in the world this should excite the greatest zeal. For noble as are the contests in the Games, they are merely tests of bodily powers. But the contest for the Council judges souls whether they be good. As much then, as the soul surpasses the body, so much more worthy are the contests of the soul to kindle zeal than those of the body.

Again, the following surely entitles the work of Lycurgus to high admiration. He observed that where the cult of virtue is left to voluntary effort, the virtuous are not strong enough to increase the fame of their fatherland. So he compelled all men at Sparta to practise all the virtues in public life. And therefore, just as private individuals differ from one another in virtue according as they practise or neglect it, so Sparta, as a matter of course, surpasses all other states in virtue, because she alone makes a public duty of gentlemanly conduct.

For was not this too a noble rule of his, that whereas other states punish only for wrong done to one’s neighbour, he inflicted penalties no less severe on any who openly neglected to live as good a life as possible?

For he believed, it seems, that enslavement, fraud, robbery, are crimes that injure only the victims of them; but the wicked man and the coward are traitors to the whole body politic. And so he had good reason, I think, for visiting their offences with the heaviest penalties.

And he laid on the people the duty of practising the whole virtue of a citizen as a necessity irresistible. For to all who satisfied the requirements of his code he gave equal rights of citizenship, without regard to bodily infirmity or want of money. But the coward who shrank from the task of observing the rules of his code he caused to be no more reckoned among the peers.

Now that these laws are of high antiquity there can be no doubt: for Lycurgus is said to have lived in the days of the Heracleidae. Nevertheless, in spite of their antiquity, they are wholly strange to others even at this day. Indeed, it is most astonishing that all men praise such institutions, but no state chooses to imitate them.