How an adherence to dogma led to Spartan decline
Conservatism appeals to those who do not like to be unsettled. It is an appeal where custom is preferred over reason, and where things are so because they have always been so. Inherited customs that reinforce privileges and benefits on a few consecutive generations within a population are difficult to explain through rational means. So an appeal to tradition is one which demands a static lack of thought, and a state that relies upon such an appeal is liable to fall due to its lack of movement or change. For the Spartans, the Lycurgan reforms of the 8th century BCE were the only reforms that they were ever likely to need and they conformed religiously to them even after their defeat at Leuctra.
The Lycurgan reforms are attributed to Lycurgus, an obscure figure of around the eighth century who is known more through his works than his life. In about 800 BCE the Spartans, or Lacedaimonoi, were the inhabitants of about four villages in Lacedaimon ruled by two kings. Beneath the kings was an aristocracy whose role was to be the generals in war, the priests, judges and advisors, and to run a pyramidal household supported by lesser households. This was a common social dynamic throughout Greece at that time. In Sparta, this was termed the phratry. However, although the primitive elements of phratry were kept, the Lacedaimonoi practiced them with an aspect of communal education for children and communal life for adults which was unique amongst the Greek states. Lycurgus was considered the lawmaker for the Lacedaimonoi and his laws were the basis for the constitution which Xenophon wrote about in the 4th century BCE.
Xenophon begins his Constitutions of the Lacedaimonians with an account of the way Lycurgus thought women should uphold their primary duty that of bearing ‘fine children’. In order to produce ‘vigorous offspring’. Lycurgus thought that physical training through competitive games was as important for women as it was for men. Sexual intercourse between a man and a wife was to be kept to a bare minimum in order for desire to be increased, an element that Lycurgus also thought necessary for optimum reproduction. For the same reason, men were only allowed to take a wife whilst in their prime, and if an elderly man had a young wife he had to take into his house a suitable younger man to assist in reproduction. A man without a wife could also find an aristocratic married woman with whom he could father children with her husband’s consent. This was done in order that inheritance could be legitimately conferred through families and also so that the Lacedaimonoi would breed a premium race of people. In comparison to the other Greek states these seemed like fairly radical reforms but they were conservative in the sense that the purpose of them was to reinforce and uphold the status quo within these tribal communities.
The sons of the Lacedaimonoi were taken from their households at six years and educated by older boys under the supervision of a warden until they were twenty. The purpose of their education was to make them as hardy as possible. Modesty, obedience, endurance, chastity and strategy were the chief characteristics that the Lacedaimonoi wished to imbue in their offspring. As young men they graduated to a class of eirenes, not full citizens but liable for military service and engaged in training the next generation. This emphasis on military training allowed the Lacedaimonoi to become renowned as an army and by the eighth century they had subjugated much of the people around them with the annexation of Laconia and Messenia. This produced increased state wealth and the development of an effective army which no longer relied upon the aristocracy for a military monopoly. However, it was also reliant on a large slave population (helots) as its economy, unlike the rest of the Greek states, was largely agrarian-based. This new land needed a large non-Lacedaimonoi labour force which was difficult to control and seen as a constant threat.
While Xenophon points out the role of cooperation and sharing in the life of the Lacedaimonoi, and the subsequent corruption of this ideal in the Spartan society of his time, he neglects to mention that this was only practiced to a certain extent. The reforms of Lycurgus had implied a constitutional guarantee of equal political rights and equal allotments of public land (kleros) to all citizens. However, these so-called equalities were illusions with only a few being eligible to be part of the governing Gerousia, or senate, and the concurrent existence of private lots of land. This situation was exacerbated in the period before the Spartan defeat at Leuctra in 371 BCE by subsequent gross inequalities in wealth of land after periods of Spartan military success. The kleros had to be sufficient to support the family and the helots that worked it, and also provide a contribution to the state. In the period after the 7th century BCE the Lacedaimonoi had raised their standard of living as did their perioikoi, the citizens of the largely autonomous surrounding communities that provided the bulk of Spartan troops. The kleros was not conceived for luxury living and contributed to a decline in the birth-rate amongst the Lacedaimonoi.
So, while obedience to the state was a virtue which Spartans appeared to practice even after Leuctra, it was this unquestioning obedience that led to the eventual ‘sclerification’ of Sparta itself. Xenophon berates the latter generations of Lacedaimonoi of his time for their corruption through the accumulation of wealth, yet it was reliance upon a militaristic life underpinned by a static agricultural society dependent upon a large slave population that contributed to Spartan decline. The conservative appeal to persist with societal values that may no longer function was apparent in the decline of the Spartan birth-rate and the danger of revolt from a large underclass upon which the society was dependent for its success. Therefore, Xenophon’s history may be coloured with his concept of a golden Lacedaimon past, and his despondent view of contemporary Spartan society.
- Forrest, W.C. (1969), A History of Sparta, Norton Library, N.Y
- Scruton, R. (2006), Political Philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group
- Xenophon, The Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, in Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 7. E. C. Marchant, G. W. Bowersock, tr. Constitution of the Athenians. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1925. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=xen.+const.+lac.+1.1 , viewed on 25 February 2013
 Scruton, R. (2006), Political Philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. vii-viii
 Forrest, W.C. (1969), A History of Sparta: 950-192 B.C., Norton Library, p.40
 Xen. Const. Lac. 1
 Xen. Const. Lac. 2
 Forrest, (1969), p.53
 ibid. pp.58-62
 Forrest, (1969), pp.33-38
 Xen. Const. Lac. 6
 Xen. Const. Lac. 14
 Forrest, (1969), p.51
 ibid., p.136