Currence 1 Rebecca Currence History 219 Dr. Winter 5.17.07 Xenophon's "On the Polity of the Spartans," written c. 375 B.C.E.

, discusses the policies of Lycurgos, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta. Lycurgos laid the foundations of daily life for the military-oriented Spartans, setting up rules for everything from the education of young boys to communal meals. When examined by Xenophon, Lycurgos’s rules seem to be judged as highly valuable for the formation and maintenance of an efficient society, and the author’s views tend toward advocating these militaristic customs. His experience as a soldier and mercenary1 (serving his home city of Athens as well as Persia and Sparta) likely gave Xenophon his reasoning for his favoring of Spartan methods (and perhaps his covert urging for their implementation into other Greek citystates). Also to consider is his banishment from Athens for fighting not only for the Persians, but also for the Spartans. Such a man would likely have at least some prejudice against his hometown, and be more supportive of a newfound home (in this case, Sparta). After examining "On the Polity of the Spartans," I feel that Xenophon is documenting what he has observed in Sparta and is passing it on as a recommendation to his fellow Greeks. He is subtly holding up the Spartan ideals and ways of life as a prime example for how all of Greece should be ruled. Xenophon begins his discussion of Spartan policy with a note on how, at first glance, Sparta caused him to feel “astonishment” and “wonderment” that with its small population Sparta nevertheless enjoyed such power and high esteem, but deeper examination cleared away his confusion on the subject. He begins by documenting the
1

Evans, R.L.S. "Xenophon" in The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Greek Writers. Ed.Ward Briggs. Vol. 176, 1997.

Currence 2 foundation of Spartan rule: the education system. “[I]nstead of leaving it to each member of the state privately to appoint a slave to be his son's tutor, he set over the young Spartans a public guardian--the paidonomos---[sic]with complete authority over them.” Here we see that education was not simply left to parents. Instead, it was regulated by the state and began at an early age. The paidonomos had the power to punish as he saw fit, and the result was (as Xenophon states) that “in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either.” Lycurgos’s reasoning was that to reform the structure of a city, one must start at the beginning, at the earliest age of the people inhabiting that city. Beyond base educational measures, Spartan young men were given strict rules on their manner of dress: Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. . . . Instead of making them effeminate with a variety of clothes, his rule was to habituate them to a single garment the whole year through, thinking that so they would be better prepared to withstand the variations of heat and cold.

Xenophon goes on to describe the discipline and restrictions on the behavior of the older youths: Lycurgos imposed upon the bigger boys a special rule. In the very streets they were to keep their two hands within the folds of their coat; they were to walk in silence and without turning their heads to gaze, now here, now there, but rather to keep their eyes fixed upon the ground before them.

Currence 3 These codes served to harden these youths and enforce a kind of militaristic sameness, as none of the young men were favored over any of the others with special clothing (such as would separate princes and noblemen’s sons from commoner’s sons). Xenophon’s military training would have appreciated the rigidity of these codes, and he states, “[I]t would seem to be proved conclusively that, even in the matter of quiet bearing and sobriety, the masculine type may claim greater strength than that which we attribute to the nature of women. At any rate, you might sooner expect a stone image to find voice than one of these Spartan youths.” Lycurgos’s rules were not limited to education, however. He also decreed that all citizens of Sparta were to eat in public mess rooms, even the kings of Sparta themselves. Drunkenness became a non-issue since Lycurgos put “a stop to all unnecessary drink”: although they could drink during meals, the provision remained that walking home after meals was a necessity. They had to be able to move as freely in the dark as they could in the light (with or without a torch), which created “a consequent anxiety not to be caught tripping under the influence of wine.” This in itself was a roundabout way of dealing with a problem that plagued many a society without outlawing alcohol completely. The standards set down also provide the methods to deal with cowardice, and it was such that “at Sparta there is not one man who would not feel ashamed to welcome the coward at the common mess-tables or to try conclusions with him in a wrestling bout.” In the rest of Greece, society would still interact with a coward, for the idea of a coward carried weight more in just name and reputation. However, in Sparta a coward was to be shunned, for he could have nothing of good to contribute to the society. Even kings had to follow the codes set down for them. They were required to

Currence 4 “offer on behalf of the state all public sacrifices, as being himself of divine descent” and also “wherever the state shall dispatch her armies the king shall take the lead.” The military man in Xenophon would have applauded this measure. Xenophon’s experience in soldiering, his travels around much of the ‘known’ world (through Anatolia, Northern Syria, along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers), and his banishment from Athens came together to make his work, “The Polity of the Spartans” a piece that takes many of the Spartan aspects which seem so harsh to us (the education system, the methods of punishment, etc.) and spins them in such a way as to sound pleasing and even preferable to the Greek world. His purpose seems, all told, to encourage his fellow Greeks to adopt these ideas and codes into their daily lives, for by doing so they will come to the prestige and glory of Sparta.