Comparing the Spartans – Plutarch Has Lycurgus and Numa Go Head to Head

Plutarch writes our midterm paper for us by comparing Lycurgus and Numa directly right after he tells us about both of their lives. He starts with a quick look at their likenesses: moderation, religion, capacity for government and discipline, and their both deriving laws and constitutions from the gods. Also, both appear to have been Spartans, as Numa was a Sabine, who claimed to be a colony of the Lacedaemonians.

In comparing them both, Plutarch seems to think that Lycurgus was the better lawgiver because the Spartans carried on his government and his plans after Lycurgus was gone, while Numa’s peace lasted only as long as he did, and the Romans needed to reverse course to build an empire by throwing open the gates of Janus and going to war.

While it might seem that this is a value statement on the merits of a military versus a civil society, I would argue that Plutarch’s comparison is more one of method than value. He says that Lycurgus was a better lawgiver, but more because of the duration of his laws than the value of them.

“One benefit among many that Lycurgus obtained by his course was the permanence which it secured to his laws.”

“But Numa’s whole design and aim, the continuance of peace and goodwill, on his death vanished with him; no sooner did he expire his last breath than the gates of Janus’s temple flew wide open, and , as if ware had, indeed, been kept and caged up within those walls, it rushed forth to fill all of Italy with blood and slaughter, and thus that best and justest fabric of things was of no long continuance, because it wanted that cement which should have kept all together, education. “

Here we see that Plutarch says Numa’s city was better, if shorter lived. He called it “that best and justest fabric.” He writes that Numa was a great deal more humane than Lycurgus and nicer overall to women, though I suppose this may be a point of contention depending on the kind of woman who looks at both systems. Plutarch says Lycurgus made his young women more masculine while in Rome “matrons received from their husbands all that high respect and honor which had been paid them under Romulus as a sort of atonement for the violence done to them.”

“Wine they were not to touch at all, nor to speak except in their husband’s company, even on the most ordinary subjects” – hardly an example of women’s liberation.

Still, Plutarch makes much of the similarities between the aims of the two lawgivers.

“In general, it seems that both aimed at the same design and intent, which was to bring their people to moderation and frugality; but of other virtues, the one set is affection most on fortitude, and the other on justice; unless we will attribute their different ways to the different habits and temperaments which they had to work upon by their enactments; for Numa did not out of cowardice or fear affect peace, but because he would not be guilty of injustice; nor did Lycurgus promote a spirit of war in his people that they might do injustice to others, but that they might protect themselves by it.”
Ultimately, the difference in the two comes down to how they educated the children of their respective states. Plutarch writes that the rules Lycurgus drew up for raising children and making them wards of the state are what gave his rule a long lasting effect on the state and the world. Plutarch also indirectly points out that Lycurgus educated children to put the state first and to fulfill a role within it.

Numa, on the other hand, simply lets parents decide how to raise their children, allowing them to choose how children might be educated and what jobs they might pursue, “as if it were of no importance for them to be directed and trained up from the beginning to one and the same common end, or as though it would do for them to be like passengers on shipboard, brought thither each for his own ends and by his own choice, uniting to act for the common good only in time of danger upon occasion of their private fears, in general looking simply to their own interest.”

One can only speculate what the results may have been if Numa has instituted some education system designed to perpetuate his vision of what the state should be. I think, on some level, he tried to ensure the perpetuation of his vision for a state by creating the many religious offices and regulations designed to guide the citizens of Rome. He may have been counting on these offices to keep the ship of state on course after his death.

If we take as an axiom that education is the key for the continuation of the state, or even for the good governance of the state, we must admit that the military education of Lycurgus is easier to implement and understand than a religious or humane education that would further Numa’s ends. It is simpler to organize people into companies and make them drill, march, and spar, and this way weld them together. But what would the curriculum be for a civic education of a free state? How can you make people free and yet infuse them with a spirit of togetherness?

It has been said that the United States is unique in that being a citizen of the country is a political idea, rather than one of birth. In other words, in the highest conception, a person is a United States citizen because they believe in a constitutional republic that is designed to protect the rights of the minority while bending to the will of the majority. I grant this idea may have been more meaningful at the beginning of the Republic, but it is this idea that allows us to be a nation of immigrants and still cohere rather than balkanizing like early Rome. I think Jefferson’s ideal of a public school system and the idea that all children in the United States should learn how the government works in addition o whatever else they may study is an attempt to answer the question of free people with a sense of political responsibility.

One other thought before I close, Plutarch notes that both Numa and Lycurgus want frugality and moderation. One does it by banning wealth, luxury, and superfluous occupations (though the Spartans do need to bring in outsiders and slaves to accomplish certain tasks), and the other tries to instill these virtues by inculcating religious reverence and fear of the gods.

This puts me in mind of a documentary shown on the BBC called “The Power of Nightmares” which argued that radical Islamism and Neo-Conservativism shared a similar desire to make people good through inventing an enemy and making people band together out of fear and a sense of belonging. Although I found parts of the documentary suspect, nonetheless, the ideas were interesting and I think they relate to the questions faced by Numa and Lycurgus in terms of how do you build and maintain a state where the people are good.

Still, it does leave me wondering, isn’t there a way to build a state based on fun and creating more resources so that frugality does not mean denial of a good life for all? Isn’t there a place where the women and men can drink wine, together even, and still be good people? Well, maybe we’ll find out more as we move through the set.

Next Time: Plutarch’s Alexander: So How Great Was He?

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