Lycurgus and Solon: Lawgivers of Sparta and Athens

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The laws of ancient Athens and Sparta are similar in many ways yet different enough that they can be considered separately. Each set of laws is said to be the genius of one man.

Historians agree that the Spartan code of law came from a man named Lycurgus. It was Lycurgus who claimed to have gotten the ideas for most of his laws from a combination of other cultures (Crete and Egypt among them) and edicts given to him by the Oracle at Delphi. (The Oracle was one of the most sacred of religious places in all of Greece.)

One of the most revolutionary things Lycurgus did was redistribute all the land in Sparta into 30,000 equal shares. He also did away with the hereditary ownership of land. He then forbade the Spartans to use anything but iron as a currency and to abandon industry and trade. The idea was to leave the citizens free for government and war.

The government was nominally headed by two kings. The real power was in the two houses, the Assembly and Senate, the members of whom were elected by the people. All male citizens became members of the Assembly when they reached age 30. The Senate made the laws and acted as a supreme court. The Assembly had final say on all laws.

The soldiers were kept apart from the rest of the people, including their families. They were trained relentlessly from a very young age and were the envy of the rest of Greek society.

Having thus given Sparta its signature existence, Lycurgus made the government promise to keep things the same until he returned. He died in solitude. The government kept its promise.

The author of the most famous Athenian laws was Solon, who was elected archon, or ruler, and put in charge of making the struggling city-state into a thriving polis.

The first thing Solon did was cancel all debts. This was an astounding thing. People who owed their lives as payment on debts were suddenly freed.

Then, Solon turned to the laws themselves. The first thing he did was make all laws apply to all people. Before, your standing in life could help determine how severely you were punished. The taxes Solon created were highest for the people with the highest income. The head of the government was the archon, who was elected by the landowing class of citizens. Senators were also elected this way. (Unlike Lycurgus, Solon did not touch the land that powerful citizens owned.) Below the Senate in government was the Council of Four Hundred, which was charged with making life easier for the Assembly. This last group was the symbol of democracy: All citizens could be members. Finally, Solon made all citizens equal in voice for selecting members of the heliaea, the 6,000-person jury that decided most court matters.

All these laws and their punishments Solon made known by having them written in public places for all to see. He made the government promise to obey his laws for 10 years, then embarked on a tour of Egypt and Asia. The government kept its promise.

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