Lycurgus, the Spartan legislator, concerning whose personal history, nothing certain is known, and many modern critics have doubted whether he ever really existed. According to Herodotus, he lived about 996 B. C, and the tradition in regard to him is that he became guardian to his nephew King Labotas of the Eurystheneid line of Spartan kings, and in this capacity transformed the institutions of his country into the order which they retained for centuries. Whether his system of things was revealed to him by the Pythian priestess, whose oracle he visited, or was learned by him in Crete, where he was said to have travelled, was a matter of dispute, the Spartans themselves taking the latter view. Under his institutions the Spartans became from the most lawless of the Greeks tranquil and prosperous, and they regarded him reverentially, and built a temple to him after his death. This is the oldest statement concerning him. Thucydides, without mentioning Lycurgus, agrees in stating that the political system of the Spartans had been adopted by them four centuries before, and had successfully rescued them from intolerable disorders. This would make the introduction of the Lycurgan discipline to have occurred in 830-820 B. C, which Grote accepts as the most probable date.
Timaeus supposed two persons to have existed bearing the name, and that the acts of both had been ascribed to one. The more detailed account of Plutarch is deduced from Xenophon and Aristotle, and the poets Alcman, Tyrtaeeus, and Simonides. He is stated to have been of the Proclid line of kings, 11th in descent from Hercules, son of Eunomus, younger brother of Polydectes, and uncle and guardian to Charilaus. After the death of Polydectes, leaving a pregnant widow, the latter proposed to Lycurgus that he should destroy her offspring, marry her, and become king. He refused the proffer, though temporarily exercising authority, and on the birth of Charilaus immediately presented him in the agora as the future king of the Spartans. Accused by the widow of ambitious designs, he left Sparta, and went to Crete, where he studied the laws of Minos and the institutions and customs of the different cities; thence he visited Ionia and Egypt, and, as some authors aflirm, Libya, Iberia, and even India. In Ionia he is said to have obtained from the descendants of Creophylus a copy of the Homeric poems, which had not previously been known in the Peloponnesus; and some authors report that he had even conversed with Homer himself. Meantime, under the sway of Charilaus, Sparta was in a state of anarchy.
On his return, finding the two kings as well as the people weary of their condition, and that he was regarded as the man to correct the disorders of the state, he undertook the task, and with this view consulted the Delphian oracle. Receiving strong assurances of divine encouragement, and also more special instructions, which were the primitive rhetrce of his constitution, he suddenly presented himself in the agora, with 30 of the most distinguished Spartans, all in arms, as his guards and partisans. King Charilaus at once consented to second the designs of his uncle, and the bulk of the Spartans submitted to the venerable Heraclid, who appeared both as a reformer and as Delphic missionary. "Lycurgus," says Grote, "does not try to make the poor rich nor the rich poor; but he imposes upon both the same subjugating drill, the same habits of life, gentlemanlike idleness, and unlettered strength, the same fare, clothing, labors, privations, endurance, punishments, and subordination. It is a lesson instructive at least, however unsatisfactory, to political students, that with all this equality of dealing he ends with creating a community in whom not merely the love of preeminence, but even the love of money, stands powerfully and specially developed." Having obtained for his institutions the approbation of the Delphic oracle, he exacted from his countrymen a promise not to alter them till his return, left Sparta, and was never again heard from. (For an account of the constitution of Lycurgus, see Sparta.)
Lycurgus, an Attic orator, born in Athens about 396 B. C, died there in 323. He first devoted himself to the Platonic philosophy, but afterward became a disciple of Isocrates. In 343 he was sent with Demosthenes on an embassy to counteract the intrigues of Philip. In 337 he was elected guardian of the public revenue for a term of four years, and continued in office for three consecutive terms, filling it so satisfactorily that 17 years after his death a monument was erected, reciting the great sums he had received and disbursed, and the ability with which he had discharged his office. He was also appointed superintendent of the city and censor, and in the latter capacity caused his own wife to be fined for violating one of his sumptuary enactments. He belonged to the party of Demosthenes, and was one of the ten orators whose surrender was demanded by Alexander, but the people of Athens refused to give him up. Of the prosecutions which he conducted, the most celebrated was that against Lysicles, who had commanded the army of Athens at Chaeronea; Lysicles was condemned to death.
There were 15 orations of his extant in the ages of Plutarch and Photius, but all have since perished except that against Leocrates, and some fragments.