“Constitution of the Lacedaemonians” by Xenophon

Education of the Spartan Youths

Their voice you would no more hear, than if they were of marble,
their gaze is as immovable as if they were cast in bronze.
You would deem them more modest than the very maidens in their eyes.

In other states equals in age associate together, and such an atmosphere is little conducive to modesty. Whereas in Sparta Lycurgus was careful so to blend the ages that the younger men must benefit largely by the experience of the elder—an education in itself, and the more so since by custom of the country conversation at the common meal has reference to the honourable acts which this man or that man may have performed in relation to the state. The scene, in fact, but little lends itself to the intrusion of violence or drunken riot; ugly speech and ugly deeds alike are out of place.

The Reproach of Cowardice

If any one will investigate the matter, he will find that by comparison with those who make it a principle to retreat in face of danger, actually fewer of these Spartans die in battle, since, to speak truth, salvation attends on virtue far more frequently than on cowardice—virtue, which is at once easier and sweeter, richer in resource and stronger of arm, than her opposite.

Lycurgus induced the whole state of Sparta to regard an honourable death as preferable to an ignoble life. He set himself deliberately to provide all the blessings of heaven for the good man, and a sorry and ill-starred existence for the coward. Consider the day’s round of his existence. The sides are being picked up in a football match, but he is left out as the odd man: there is no place for him. During the choric dance he is driven away into ignominious quarters. Nay, in the very streets it is he who must step aside for others to pass, or, being seated, he must rise and make room, even for a younger man. … Such being the weight of infamy which is laid upon all cowards, I, for my part, am not surprised if in Sparta they deem death preferable to a life so steeped in dishonour and reproach.

The Practice of Virtue is a Public Duty

Whereas other states are content to inflict punishment only in cases where a man does wrong against his neighbour, Lycurgus imposed penalties no less severe on him who openly neglected to make himself as good as possible. For this was his principle: in the one case, where a man is robbed, or defrauded, or kidnapped, and made a slave of, the injury of the misdeed, whatever it be, is personal to the individual so maltreated; but in the other case whole communities suffer foul treason at the hands of the base man and the coward. So that it was only reasonable that he should visit the heaviest penalty upon these latter. Moreover, he laid upon them, like some irresistible necessity, the obligation to cultivate the whole virtue of a citizen. Provided they duly performed the injunctions of the law, the city belonged to them, each and all, in absolute possession and on an equal footing. Weakness of limb or want of wealth was no drawback in his eyes. But as for him who, out of the cowardice of his heart, shrank from the painful performance of the law’s injunction, the finger of the legislator pointed him out as there and then disqualified to be regarded longer as a member of the brotherhood of peers.



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