Political reforms in the Lives of Lycurgus and Numa:divine revelation or political lie?1

This paper aims to analyze the political importance of divine inspiration for Spartan and Roman  political reforms carried out by Lycurgus (c. 650 BC?) and by Numa Pompilius (715-673 BC).
In the former case, the constitution is supposed to have been transmitted to Lycurgus by the Delphic oracle and consequently it was called Rhetra, a “ceremonial utterance” or an “agreement” (Lyc. 6). Similarly, in the Life of the Roman counterpart, the goddess Egeria (Num. 4.2) inspires the second king of Rome to carry out a profound religious reform. In fact, this is not a specific feature of these Lives, since several other lawgivers were credited with divine assistance, such as Minos, Zaleucus or Zoroaster. The discussion of this issue is designed to reveal the argument that may lie behind these legends: divine inspiration or an artificial way of legitimating the lawgiver’s power? In fact, despite all the effort made in order to sacralise these ancient political institutions, Plutarch himself seems to accept the latter theory. This strategy can be seen as a kind of political lie which had previously been accepted by Plato as an instrument for legitimizing constitutional reforms (R. 389b).

In the synkrisis of Lycurgus and Numa, Plutarch stated four reasons to justify the placing of these two lives in parallel: “their wise moderation (σωφροσύνη),
their piety (εὐσέβεια), their ability for governing (τὸ πολιτικόν) and educating (τὸ παιδευτικόν), and the fact that they both derive their laws from a divine source (τῶν θεῶν … λαβεῖν)”. While these first three features are related to their characters, the fourth concerns their political activity: both reforms were credited with divine assistance. Both reforms were intended to resolve a stasis:
in the former, people “felt that their kings were such in name and station merely” (4.5) and in the second, “it is indeed true that it was the pleasure of all to have a king, but they wrangled and quarreled”. Each lawgiver would establish eunomia for his community; nevertheless, while Spartan eunomia would last 500 years (Lyc. 29.6), the peace of Numa would last only until his death. However, such profound reforms would not have been accepted by people without divine sanction, even though they consist of positive laws, rules
and institutions that are postulated by men among men, a matter of convention.
This paper focuses upon the Plutarchean argument that lies behind the legitimacy of the political reforms carried out by Lycurgus and Numa, the argument that they were undertaken in order to achieve the best interests (τὸ βέλτιστον) of the state. Plutarch insisted that the ruler had to be the best of craftsmen and the maker of lawfulness and justice, as well as being the educator who would discipline an unstable people (Praec. ger. reip. 814A-C).

I. Divine assistance, a topos in the legends of Greek lawgivers In central Italy, the first lawgivers were actually gods – Janus and Saturnus,Picus and Faunus – as B. Liou-Galle 2000: 177 stated: “ces rois anciens représentent à leur manière le passage du monde sauvage à la civilization”2.
Accounts of the lives of early lawgivers of Greece, such as Zaleucus, Charondas,
Lycurgus, and Solon, have always been filled with a rich mixture of myth and invention. In 1893, Julius Beloch, based on the general Indo-European belief in the divine origin of law, argued that Zaleucus and Charondas were personifications of sun gods. In a similar way, Eduard Meyer and Wilamowitz identified “Lyko-orgos” with the ubiquitous figure of the Arcadian wolf-god Zeus Lykaios and the Arcadian light-God Lykaon. Thus, the cult of Lycurgus (like the cults of Helen, Menelaus…) was a relic of the ancient Laconian
religion that had survived the early invasions.
The scarce historical data about early Greek lawgivers has led to a process of “infiguration”, as Cornford3 put it, when “facts shift into legend,and legend into myth”. Thus, as A. Szegedy-Maszad 1978: 210 has pointed out: “This concept of infiguration allows us to treat the stories as a genre,unified and controlled by certain conventions.” In fact, this scholar identified some topoi that became attached to the names of great legislators: firstly, the state’s progress from initial anomia to eunomia; secondly, the main methods of acquiring instruction, i.e. extensive travel and study with a great philosopher;
thirdly, when the lawgiver is selected to establish order, he must apply all the knowledge he has acquired on his travels as well as his acquaintance with philosophers. In addition, some of the lawgivers were credited with divine assistance4. The material provided by this tradition can be summarized in this schema: at an initial stage, there is a crisis in the state and a man rises due to his virtue, education and experience; secondly, there is an intermediate stage, when the crisis is suspended; finally comes the last phase, when the code is firmly established and the lawgiver departs5.

This pattern is one that we can see in Lycurgus and Numa. Lycurgus had  traveled in Crete, Egypt and maybe Libya and Iberia to study their various forms of government, making the acquaintance of distinguished men like the poet and lawgiver Thaletas; Numa had lived in the country, far away from the city, and passed his days with a δαίμων, the goddess Egeria, and might have been a pupil of Pythagoras6. Besides, both legitimise their reforms through a divine source, the former with Apollo’s blessing and the latter with Egeria’s wisdom.
Despite all the energy expended in order to make sacred the first Spartan institutions and Roman religious reforms, Plutarch sought to rationalize this notion of divine inspiration as a source of law:
ἆρα οὖν ἄξιόν ἐστι, ταῦτα συγχωροῦντας ἐπὶ τούτων, ἀπιστεῖν εἰ Ζαλεύκῳ
καὶ Μίνῳ καὶ Ζωροάστρῃ καὶ Νομᾷ καὶ Λυκούργῳ βασιλείας κυβερνῶσι καὶ
πολιτείας διακοσμοῦσιν εἰς τὸ αὐτὸ ἐφοίτα τὸ δαιμόνιον.
Is it worth while, then, if we concede these instances of divine favour, to
disbelieve that Zaleucus, Minos, Zoroaster, Numa, and Lycurgus, who piloted
kingdoms and formulated constitutions, had audiences with the Deity?
(Num. 4.7)7
οὐδὲ γὰρ ἅτερος λόγος ἔχει τι φαῦλον, ὃν περὶ Λυκούργου καὶ Νομᾶ
καὶ τοιούτων ἄλλων ἀνδρῶν λέγουσιν, ὡς δυσκάθεκτα καὶ δυσάρεστα
πλήθη χειρούμενοι καὶ μεγάλας ἐπιφέροντες ταῖς πολιτείαις καινοτομίας,
προσεποιήσαντο τὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ δόξαν, αὐτοῖς ἐκείνοις πρὸς οὓς
ἐσχηματίζοντο σωτήριον οὖσαν.
Indeed there is no absurdity in the other account which is given of Lycurgus and Numa and their like, namely, that since they were managing headstrong and captious multitudes, and introducing great innovations in modes of government,they pretended to get a sanction from the god, which sanction was the salvation of the very ones against whom it was contrived. [emphasis added] (Num. 4.7-8)

At this point, Plutarch was seeking to justify this legend about Egeria and its traditional credibility, as well as other divine inspirations of earlier constitutions. According to Plutarch, if it is hard to believe in Numa’s celestial marriage, it is equally doubtful that lawgivers who managed to resolve a stasis would not have attributed their political measures to a divine source. From this very point we therefore understand how Plutarch takes this divine inspiration– as something that was probably an invention, one that was necessary in order to carry through the planned political reform. Despite Plutarch’s disapproval of δεισιδαιμονία, “an emotion engendered from false reason” (de superst. 165C) or “the most impotent and helpless is superstitious fear” (de superst. 165E), some
scholars such as A. Pérez Jiménez 1987, 1996, D. Babut 1969: 428 and T.Duff 2005: 131, have already explored the approval of political manipulation through superstition in order to achieve a greater end8. Besides the frequent use of superstition, especially in Numa’s case (cf. A. Wardmann 1974: 88-89),we will argue that the well-known Platonic instrument, the noble lie, is behind these political reforms of both lawgivers. In fact, if we take a look at the lives of Lycurgus and Numa, we will see that political artifice is present from the very beginning.

I.1 Lycurgus, “beloved of the gods, and rather a god than a man” (Lyc. 4.5) Lycurgus, “the best example of a lawmaker” (De lat. viv. 1128F) as Plutarch describes him elsewhere, after his travels returns to his people, who sees in him “a nature fitted to lead” (φύσιν ἡγεμονικην), and a “power to make men follow him” (δύναμιν ἀνθρώπων ἀγωγὸν οὖσαν). The first answer from the Delphic oracle legitimised him as a legislator and promised him a “constitution, which should be the best of all”. Blessed with Apollo’s approval9, Lycurgus ordered thirty of the chiefs to strike terror into those of the opposite party, and therefore
both kings (Charilaus and Archelaus) accepted the new political institution:

the Gerousia (κατάστασις τῶν γερόντων), which would function like a “ballast for the ship of the state” (ἰσορροπήσασα τὴν ἀσφαλεστάτην τάξιν ἔσχε καὶ κατάστασιν), avoiding democracy and tyranny. Having established this first institution, there would be a second oracle from Delphi, which was the socalled “rhetra”. This oracle established that the people should be divided into groups, some into phylai and obai; the council of the elders (gerousia) was also confirmed, including the two kings (archagetai)”. Although the people could not initiate a motion, they had the power to accept or reject the proposals of the Gerousia. Later, however, when the people perverted this political mechanism, senators and kings made a proposal which would increase their power: they could dissolve the session when the people did not ratify the vote so as not to prejudice the best interests (τὸ βέλτιστον) of the state. Would Apollo, the first author of this constitution, allow this correction?

Plutarch answered that both kings “were actually able to persuade the city that the god
authorized this addition to the rhetra” (ἔπεισαν δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ τὴν πόλιν ὡς τοῦ  θεοῦ ταῦτα προστάσσοντος: 6.5). However, none of these changes would be more definitive than the educational reform, “which he regarded as the greatest and noblest task of the law-giver” (14.1). According to Plutarch (21.1), the contents of law would be revealed during this public education, by examples of social behaviour, poetry and music, whose “themes were serious and edifying”.
In fact, it is very suggestive that Lycurgus’ first measure to initiate his political reform would be the invitation of the Cretan poet Thaletas, who was also a Cretan lawgiver, as J. D. Lewis 2007: 50 states, “he is said to have brought certain norms of justice to Crete through his poetry and his music, perhaps using choral lyric poetry with dance to promote aristocratic norms”. Only a highly regulated and demanding educational system for both sexes, from birth  until adulthood and even older, would obviate the need for written laws: the law would have its origin in each Spartiate, but also in each free woman; each one should sanction the practice and guarantee the endurance of the law. In fact, one rhetra had forbidden the writing of the laws (13.1). We may regard this process as a way to naturalize a political program in order to become a matter of custom, which is traditionally stronger than positive law: the rhetra  should become an ἐθισμός (29.1) and take its place among those hallowed by age10. Furthermore, we might suggest another political motivation to justify the preference for unwritten law, because if it is not written, it can change whenever political power desired11. In fact, that would happen, when senators
and both kings changed the voting process; this therefore became another strategy to secure the lasting success of a reform.
When the primitive lawgiver saw that his main institutions were firmly fixed and that his civil policy had grown enough to preserve itself, he rejoiced  at seeing his “cosmos come into being and have its first motion”, just as the Platonic demiurge (τὸν θεόν)12. Then, in order to make his system of laws immortal, Lycurgus reveals once again his ἀνθρώπινη προνοία, “as far as human forethought could accomplish the task” (ὡς ἀνυστὸν ἐξ ἀνθρωπίνης προνοίας:
32.2): he assembled the whole people to tell them that the εὐδαιμονία of the city depended on their respect for those institutions, which should remain unchangeable until his return. Thus, the shape of the Spartan constitutional cosmos would depend on the observance of this original archetype.
Finally, there came the third and last inquiry to Apollo, who gave the final ratification of the Lycurgean constitution. The lawgiver would never return home and his civil policy would last for five hundred years13. Thus the people were misled one more time.

(to be continued)

Ália Rosa Rodrigues
Universidade de Coimbra


1 An earlier version of this paper was given in Coimbra (Nomos, Kosmos and Dike in Plutarch,2011). I am grateful to the audience for their interesting comments and suggestions. I wish to thank to Professor Christopher Pelling for reading an earlier version of this text and for offering many valuable remarks as well as for having improved the English text. I’m also grateful to the scholar Anton Powell and Professor Delfim Leão for theirs readings and helpful suggestions.

2 On this matter, see the chapter of B. Liou-Galle 2000.

3 Thucydides Mythistoricus. London, 1907 (repr. New York 1969); apud A. Szegedy-Maszad  1978: 210.

4 See A. Szegedy-Maszad 1978: 204-205.

5 This reflects a dynamic of physis: one is born, grows up, and declines. The biological model is applied to the forms of government succession by Polybius (6. 8.10). See also J. Romilly 1991: 9-12.

6 On this matter, see R. M. Ogilvie 1978: 89. On the Pythagorean tradition in Rome and
its influence on the legend of Numa, see Ferrero 1955: 109-174 and Marino 1999.

7 All translations are from The Loeb Classical Library with some modifications.

8 Fab. 4.4-5.1; Dion 24.1-10; Non posse suav. 1101D. Contra M. Cerezo 1996: 162-163
argues that the description of people’s manipulation through superstition by Numa Pompilius represents an aggressive criticism against this kind of political practice.

9 On the way in which Plutarch and his erudite circle saw Apollo in the first (and second)
century A.D., see A. G. Nikolaidis 2009.

10 One of the most distinguishing features of natural right/custom consists in the fact that
it is unwritten, but inscribed in the memory of the community and revealed by its practices and social sanctions. Concerning the superiority of custom unwritten law over the positive law, we  can mention Antigone’s well-known discourse in the discussion with Creon, symbol of legality of the state (vv. 495-508). We do not intend to discuss here the complex semantic sphere of agraphoi nomoi. On this matter, see J. Romilly 1971. On the traditional idea of the divine origin of justice from Hesiod onwards, see the text of F. Becchi in this volume.

11 M. Flower 2002: passim demonstrated that many traditional Spartan features were actually invented in order to legitimise specific political reforms, such as: the ban on the
ownership of precious metals by a group hostile to Lysander (p. 193), the whole concept
of inalienable and indivisible lots of equal size (p. 196), the abolition of debts (p. 197) were
invented by the King Agis, the general ban on foreign travel (ibidem) which is mentioned by several fourth-century sources (Xenophon, Isocrates, Plato and Aristotle), but there more specific restrictions are elsewhere unattested and finally the re-evaluation the role played by Sphaerus, a friend and advisor to King Cleomenes, in reinventing the agoge (pp. 199-200),among others.

12 Cf. Pl., Ti. 37c, principle of autonomy, καθ’αὑτὸν.
13 Modern scholarship is increasingly convinced that Sparta did change profoundly over
the four centuries (6th-3th BC), culturally as well as demographically. See A. Powell 2010: 87,129 n. 5.


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