Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC

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The issue of Lycurgus (the Great Rhetra)

See text: p.39 Lykourgos and the 'Great Rhetra'

past HSC question - 2008:
(d) With reference to Source 14 and other sources, explain the significance of Lycurgus’ reforms to Spartan society. (12 marks)

Lycurgus, who gave them the laws that they obey, and to which they owe their prosperity, I do regard with wonder; and think that he reached the utmost limit of wisdom. For it was not by imitating other states, but by devising a system utterly different from that of most others, that he made his country pre-eminently prosperous.
Source 14: Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, 2

Examiners' comment:
(d) Better responses clearly explained the significance of Lycurgus’ reforms to Spartan society. Many excellent responses incorporated both primary and secondary sources. They considered how these reforms changed Sparta and the effect they had on society. Some even considered the context of the Xenophon extract. It was important to maintain a clear link between reforms and significance. Weaker responses concentrated on the political structure whether Lycurgan or not. These responses were generally descriptive and failed to make more than a superficial comment on significance. Candidates are reminded that they can not achieve full marks if they do not refer to and use the source provided.

Past HSC question - 2006:
(b) Who was Lycurgus? (2 marks)

Examiners' comment:
(b) The majority of candidates were able to identify who Lycurgus was and what was traditionally attributed to him. Some candidates wrote unnecessarily lengthy responses to this question.

  • Who was Lycurgus?
  • When did he live?
  • What sources are available about him?
  • What is the reliability of these sources?

  • What is the 'Great Rhetra'?
  • What part of the Spartan political system existed before it?
  • What part of the Spartan political system was added later?

Who was Lycurgus?
  • An historical or mythical person?
  • Disagreement over existence and, if so, date of existence
  • This was a problem as early as Plutarch (2nd C. AD)
  • Perhaps an “ancestral reformer” or early lawgiver
  • May have been thought of as a “god or hero” (Forrest)

When did he live?
  • Modern interpretations range from 9th C. (Hammond) to about 600 BC (Finley). Also “mythical” (Cartledge) and questionable (Hooker)
  • The Spartan constitution would have evolved over time and could not have been created in the life time of one individual.

What sources are available about him?
  • The main source is Plutarch. He acknowledges the problems with the person of Lycurgus: “Generally speaking it is impossible to make any undisputed statement about Lycurgus the lawgiver... Timaeus conjectures that there were two Lycurguses at Sparta at different times, and that the achievements of both were attributed to one because of his renown.” (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 1)
  • Plutarch uses a wide range of sources, many of which are lost, e.g. Aristotle’s Constitution of the Spartans.

What is the reliability of these sources?
“... Plutarch retains an independence and a freshness that serve to give the Life tremendous appeal... it comes down to us as the latest and fullest account of how Sparta’s admirers believed her to have been in the days of her greatness.” (Richard Talbert, Plutarch on Sparta, p.6)

What is the Great Rhetra?

“Ordinances such as these, then, Lycurgus called rhetras, because they were considered to come from the god and to be oracles.” (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 13)

Note 2 p.14 of Penguin text: “... the word itself simply means a ‘saying’ (as opposed to a writing) and so could be used of any Spartan enactment.”

An oracle from the shrine of Apollo at Delphi, received by Lycurgus. Plutarch quotes the text of the Rhetra: dedicate a temple to Zeus and Athena; organise the people into social groups called phylai and obai; create a gerousia of 30 members (including the 2 kings); create an assembly of the people.

There was another oracle called the “Rider” (in your text) and the “supplement” (in the Penguin edition), which limited the power of the assembly.

(see text p.42) Ogden (1994) argues that the Supplement came before the Rhetra

What part of the Spartan political system existed before the Great Rhetra?
The two kings.

What part of the Spartan political system was added later?
The ephorate.