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Summary Article: PLUTARCH from The Dictionary of Alternatives

Mestrius Plutarchus (CE c. 45–c. 120), known in English as Plutarch, was Greek by birth and educated in Athens, but lived in Rome for a time. The collection of fifty biographies in his Parallel Lives is structured by comparing great ancient Greeks in his past with Romans in his present. At least two of those lives have had a considerable influence on UTOPIAN writing since – that of Lycurgus, the law-giver of Sparta, and Solon, the founder of Athens.

Lycurgus probably lived in the ninth century BCE, but most of Plutarch’s account is difficult to verify in any detail. Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus seized power in a coup, and immediately introduced a 28-man senate to balance the power of the two kings. An assembly meeting in the open air ratified the senate’s decisions. He then proceeded to redistribute land equally between all 9,000 (male) Spartan citizens (excluding the helots, or slaves) and replaced silver and gold with heavy iron money. This was to ensure that the hoarding of money was almost impossible, and that luxuries could not be purchased from abroad. Through a variety of measures, Lycurgus hardened the Spartans into a state of total readiness for war. Citizens were forced to eat at common tables, and (except under special circumstances) forbidden to eat at home. They were not allowed to use anything apart from the crudest tools to make and furnish their homes, making opulence impossible. The family unit was broken up, with men visiting their wives in the evenings for sex, and both sexes being encouraged to seek partners with whom they could produce the best children. If the elders deemed that a baby was not strong it would be thrown into a deep cavern. In addition, mothers washed their babies in wine to discover whether they were weaklings who would be harmed by such treatment, or strong enough to thrive.

Girls were educated by sport, to strengthen their bodies rather than their minds, and took no part in the running of the state. The education of young boys was militaristic and violent, again with an emphasis on toughening the character, not filling the mind with more than was necessary. At the age of seven, they were taken from their parents and subjected to the discipline of older boys. They were allowed one piece of clothing per year, went barefoot with shorn hair, and were often forced to steal to get rations in order to develop the arts of scavenging. Sometimes they also killed helots, for martial practice and for sport. Though Plutarch was critical of this particular practice, in general he was impressed by Lycurgus and notes that his reforms produced a society that lasted for 500 years. Because there were few distinctions in property, wealth or land, the Spartans sought distinction through virtue. Plutarch tells us that it was because Lycurgus had travelled and had compared different states ‘just as physicians compare bodies that are weak and sickly with the healthy and robust’ that he could design this totalitarian COMMUNIST state so effectively. (Though it should be remembered that all manual labour was carried out by the helots, so this was a communism of the slave owners, not for the slaves.) Despite Lycurgus’s cosmopolitan experiences, he did not wish to pollute Sparta with outside influences, so he only allowed visitors who had a compelling reason to come, and restricted Spartans from travelling abroad (see NEW ATLANTIS).

Another of Plutarch’s lives concerns Solon (c. 638–558 BCE), supposedly the founder of Athens and one of the seven sages of Greece whose motto was ‘know thyself’ (see also Plato’s REPUBLIC). He introduced laws that covered the four main classes of the population, and codified military obligations, taxation, trial by jury and systems of representation. His laws were written on wooden cylinders and kept in the Acropolis. Though many of his reforms were reversed by the tyrant Pisistratus, enough were kept to make Solon a legendary figure in terms of the writing of a ‘constitution’ for a state. Lycurgus and Solon were later echoed in UTOPIAN fiction as the lawmakers who founded particular CITY STATES - King Utopus in UTOPIA, Sol in CITY OF THE SUN, King Solamona in NEW ATLANTIS, Olphaus Megalater in OCEANA, and so on. As with many ‘classical’ texts, the influence of Plutarch’s work is partly in its description of a GOLDEN AGE that many later writers would use to criticize the failings of their present. Yet these lives also tell us something about the enduring notion of the figure of the charismatic founder, and the idea of a designed society.

Copyright © Martin Parker, Valerie Fournier, Patrick Reedy, 2007

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