Lycurgus, in ancient Greece, the traditional lawgiver of Sparta. Most historians believe he was purely mythological while some believe he actually lived, sometime between 1100 B.C. and 600 B.C., but regard many of the accounts of his life as mythical in origin. According to one tradition, Lycurgus was the uncle and guardian of Charilaus, an infant king of Sparta. Believing that drastic political and social reforms were necessary, Lycurgus spent several years in travel to study the governments and constitutions of other states.
Lycurgus returned home after Sparta put down a serious revolt of its subject people. The Spartans were then willing to adopt drastic reforms. Actually, many of these measures—which were the main features of Spartan government and society—probably were adopted long after Lycurgus supposedly lived. The following measures were attributed to Lycurgus:
- Division of the population into three classes: (1) Spartans, the citizen class, who were forbidden to engage in trade or industry and were obligated to govern and train for war; (2) Perioeci (“dwellers around”), the middle class, who engaged in trade and industry and fought in wars as light-armed soldiers; (3) Helots, the slaves, who did all the menial work.
- Partition of the land into 30,000 equal shares among the Spartans, who had the Helots work the land for them.
- Establishment of two kings ruling jointly, instead of one, to prevent the rise of despotism.
- The vesting of legislative power in a public assembly, consisting of citizens above age 30, and a council of elders, consisting of 28 elders above age 60 and the 2 kings. The assembly elected the elders for life.