‘The Practice of Communism in Sparta’ by Max Beer from Social Struggles in Antiquity. Translated by H. J. Stenning. Small, Maynard and Company Publishers, Boston. 1922.

Young Spartans Exercising by Edgar Degas, 1860.
‘The Practice of Communism in Sparta’ by Max Beer from Social Struggles in Antiquity. Translated by H. J. Stenning. Small, Maynard and Company Publishers, Boston. 1922.

(I) The Lycurgian Legislation.

THE conception of primitive equality persisted in a far stronger form and for a much longer period amongst the Dorians than amongst the lonians. The cause of this difference may be sought in the fact that the Dorian settlements were of an agricultural nature, and neglected trade and sea-faring. Thus, in their case there were lacking two important factors, which hastened everywhere the process of dissolution of primitive conditions.

The first legislator, to whom tradition has ascribed the work of the communistic revolution, was Lycurgus. He is a legendary figure, somewhat like Moses among the Hebrews. Plutarch (born A.D. 50), to whom the whole of the literary sources of Greek and Roman history was accessible, wrote as follows: “Generally speaking, nothing can be said with certainty respecting the legislator Lycurgus, as the historians differ considerably among themselves as to his origin, his journeys and his death; there is least unanimity as to the period in which this man lived.” Lycurgus was remembered by the Spartans as a wise, gentle and unselfish lawgiver, who transformed the whole economic order by a political reform, and firmly established communism.

Lycurgus of Sparta making his fellow citizens swear to respect the institutions established by him

“The second and boldest innovation of Lycurgus,” says Plutarch, “was a new division of the lands. For he found a prodigious inequality, the city overcharged with many indigent persons who had no land, and the wealth centred in the hands of a few. Determined, therefore, to root out the evils of insolence, envy, avarice and luxury, and those distempers of a State still more inveterate and fatal I mean poverty and riches he persuaded the citizens to cancel all former divisions of land and to make new ones, in such a manner that they might be perfectly equal in their possessions and way of living. Hence, if they were impatient of distinction, they might seek it in virtue, as no other difference was left between them but that which arises from the dishonour of base actions and the praise of good ones.”

It is hardly credible that the owners acquiesced in the surrender of their lands only and solely through the persuasion of Lycurgus. A more potent influence was the fact that the poor and needy comprised a great multitude, whilst wealth was concentrated in a few hands, and the Spartans were really Spartans, who knew the use of arms. Anyhow, the rich were constrained to assent to the institution of communism. The proposal was put into practice. Lycurgus made 9000 lots for the territory of Sparta, which he distributed among so many citizens, and 30,000 for the inhabitants of the rest of Laconia.

A story goes of our legislator that some time after, returning from a journey through the fields just harvested, and seeing the shooks standing parallel and equal, he smiled and said to some that were by, “How like is Laconia to an estate newly divided among many brothers.” After this, he attempted to divide also the movables, but he soon perceived that the people could not bear to have their goods directly taken from them, and therefore took another method, counteracting their avarice by a stratagem. First, he stopped the currency of the gold and silver coin, and ordered that they should make use of iron money only, then to a great quantity and heavy weight of this he assigned but a small value, so that to lay up 10 minae (31 los.) a whole room was required, and to remove it nothing less than a yoke of oxen. When this became current, many kinds of injustices ceased in Laconia. Who would steal or take a bribe, who would defraud or rob when he could not conceal the booty, or be dignified by the possession of it? In the next place he excluded unprofitable and superfluous arts. Trade and shipping ceased. Meals were simple and taken in common; they consisted of the famous black soup, bread, cheese, wine, figs and vegetables, sometimes of game or other meat. Eating in common was the strict obligation of every citizen. Even the children were admitted to these meals, in order to learn from the talk of the adults.

Lycurgus Demonstrates the Benefits of Education by Caesar van Everdingen, 1661.

“As for the education of youth,” says Plutarch, “Lycurgus began with it at the very source, taking into consideration their conception and birth by regulating the marriages. He ordered the virgins to exercise themselves in running, wrestling, and throwing quoits and darts. In order to take away the excessive tenderness and delicacy of the sex, he accustomed the virgins occasionally to be seen naked as well as the young men, and to dance and sing in their presence on certain festivals. As for the virgins appearing naked, there was nothing disgraceful in it, because everything was conducted with modesty and without one indecent word or action. Nay, it caused a simplicity of manners and an emulation for the best development of the body, since the female sex was not excluded from sharing, with the male sex, the deeds of bravery and honour. Lycurgus established a proper regard to modesty and decorum with respect to marriage, but he was equally studious to drive from that state the vain and womanish passion of jealousy by making it quite respectable to have children in common with persons of merit.” The healthy children were designed for nurture and education, but the sickly ones were cast aside. The chief aim of education was to furnish the State with strong, active and fearless fighters, to imbue the latter with an unshakable sense of their solidarity in short, to produce men of action, and not chatterers. “In general, Lycurgus so regulated his citizens that they neither knew nor desired a separate private life, but, like bees, they acted with one impulse for the public good, and always assembled about their chief. They were possessed with a thirst of honour, an enthusiasm which made them forget their individual feelings, and had no wish but for their country.”


This communistic and military constitution enabled the Spartans to retain their supremacy in Peloponnesia, and, finally, to defeat even the Athenians (404 B.C.) and compel them to capitulate. The Spartan State appeared even to the greatest minds of Greece, such as Plato and Antisthenes, as the fixed pole in the whirlpool of the Hellenic States. Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates, said, “Sparta is far above all other States, and, in comparison with Athens, it is like a meeting of men contrasted with a chattering of women in a boudoir.” The Lycurgian constitution was generally famous throughout antiquity as far as the sphere of Hellenic civilisation extended. It became the ideal of many thinkers, including perhaps the leaders of the slave revolts in the Roman Empire.

But we, who possess today such immeasurably richer experience of political questions, must consider the Lycurgian State to have been very one-sided. It was aristocratic and warlike; it was based on the productive labour of the helots a multitude of enslaved people who formed the means for production, and belonged as common property to the entire State. In this respect the Spartans deprived themselves of one of the most fruitful elements of human growth productive labour. Their communism consisted only in having and enjoying goods in common, and not in communist production. Strictly speaking, it was not an educational force, but a discipline imposed by the ruler and the warrior.

The entire absence of democracy, which might, to some degree, have curbed the rulers, as well as the neglect of philosophy and the arts, which might have elevated the intellectual life, and finally the constant preoccupation with gymnastic and military exercises, made the Spartans aggressive and warlike as neighbours, and heartless as rulers of the wealth-creating helots. In order to protect themselves from the revolts of the oppressed and exploited class, such as the rebellion which broke out in the year 464, the Spartans organised massacres among the helots, from time to time, with the object of removing the most courageous and capable of them. The morality which Lycurgus had impressed upon his fellow-citizens was a purely local and State morality, and in no sense spiritual and humanitarian. In any case, these conditions were bound to create a splendid race of men and women; and they would have produced intellectually outstanding men, if the mind and the character had been developed as much as the body. When, in the third century, many Spartan nobles came under the influence of the Ionian philosophy and the social ethics of the Stoics, their intellectual natures grew to heroic proportions. The first martyr of communism was a Spartan.

(II) Agis, the first Communist Martyr.

In the course of centuries war and exploitation undermined the Spartan communism. The victorious participation of Sparta in the liberation wars of the lonians against the Persians (494-479), as well as the struggle for supremacy in Greece, which ensued forty years later, followed by the Peloponnesian War (431-404) and succeeding wars up to the year 371, brought to the Spartans much glory, much gold and silver, but also catastrophic defeats and internal disruption, and swept away all the institutions that were bound up with the Lycurgian legislation.

“La mort d’Agis”, Nicolas-André Monsiau, 1789.

Plutarch relates: “The first symptoms of corruption and distempers in their common-wealth appeared at the time when the Spartans had entirely destroyed the Athenian power, and begun to bring gold and silver into Lacedemonia. When the love of money made its way into Sparta, and brought avarice and meanness in its train, on the one hand, on the other profusion, effeminacy and luxury, that State soon deviated from its original virtue, and sank into contempt till the reign of Agis and Leonidas. Men of fortune now extended their landed estates without bounds, not scrupling to exclude the right heirs, and property quickly coming into a few hands, the rest of the people were poor and miserable. There remained not above 700 of the old Spartan families, of which perhaps 100 had estates in land. The rest of the city was filled with an insignificant rabble without property or honour, who had neither heart nor spirit to defend their country against wars abroad, and who were always watching an opportunity for changes and revolutions at home.”

Agis was of the royal house, and belonged to one of the richest families in Sparta. By all indications he was familiar with the Stoic philosophy, and was distinguished by great intellectual gifts and high-mindedness. Although at that time he was not yet twenty years old, and had been pampered and nurtured in luxury by his mother, Agistrata, and his grandmother, Archidamia, he renounced all enjoyment and returned to the old Spartan simplicity, or, as the Stoics said, to nature. Agis also declared that the kingly dignity mattered nothing to him, if it would not permit him to restore the old laws and the primitive institutions. The young people welcomed his ideas, while the old men and the women opposed him. Even his own family were against the proposed reform, but he gained their support by convincing his mother that the proposal was practicable, and would prove to be to the advantage of the State. He states, “It is impossible for me ever to vie with other kings in point of opulence. But if by sobriety, by simplicity of provisions for the body, and by greatness of mind I can do something which shall far exceed all their pomp and luxury I mean the making an equal partition of property among all the citizens I shall really become a great king, and have all the honour that such actions demand.” His mother and his grandmother were won over to the plan of reform. Agis then proceeded to put it into practice. According to the Spartan constitution, two kings stood at the head of the country, and were controlled by five Ephors (supervisory officials, chosen by the noblest families), having the decisive voice in the case of difference of opinion between the two kings. Projects of law were laid before the Senate, and then remitted to the People’s Assembly, which decided their fate. Agis expounded his legislative proposals before the Senate, namely that all debts should be forgiven the debtors and the whole of the land be divided afresh into 19,500 equal portions: 4,500 among the native Spartans, men and women, and 15,000 among the Periokia (descendants of the pre-Dorian population) and such foreigners as were fitted by their physical and mental qualities to be assimilated into the polity of Sparta. All the people were to be divided into groups for common meals, and to revert to the modes of life of old Sparta.


The Senate was unable to agree upon this legislative proposal, whereupon one of the Ephors, who was in accord with Agis, brought the matter before the People’s Assembly, and spoke against the unwilling Senators. After some discussion, Agis himself spoke and informed the People’s representatives that he would contribute largely to the institution which he recommended. He would first give up to the community his own great estate, consisting of arable and pasture land, and of 600 talents in money. Then his mother and grandmother and all his relations and friends, who were the richest persons in Sparta, would follow his example. The People’s representatives were delighted with the magnanimity of Agis, but his co-regent Leonidas spoke against the plan, especially as regards the release from debts and the admittance of foreigners. Agis replied, and the people declared for his proposed law, but there was considerable opposition among the Ephors and in the Senate, which found a determined leader in Leonidas. The latter, however, could await his opportunity. In order to be safe from attack, Agis sought refuge in the temple of Neptune, which he left only to bathe. Leonidas, who had surrounded himself with a posse of soldiers, organised the attack on Agis. When the latter chanced to find himself outside the temple, three warriors approached him, overpowered him and cast him into prison. Leonidas immediately appeared with a troop of soldiers and occupied the building. The Ephors and some Senators then entered the prison, formed a tribunal, and endeavoured by various means to induce Agis to abandon his plans. When, however, he assured them that he felt no repentance and could retract nothing, as the Lycurgian constitution was the best, they condemned him to death by hanging. The request of his mother and grandmother, to bring him before a proper tribunal, and to conduct the proceedings in public, was refused by the Ephors, as they were aware of the popularity of the prisoner. On the same grounds they hastened the execution. Immediately after sentence had been pronounced, Agis was conducted to the place of execution. On the way he noticed one of the servants who was weeping and lamenting, and said to him, “My friend, dry up your tears, for as I suffer innocently, I am in a better condition than those who condemn me, contrary to law and justice.” So saying, he cheerfully offered his neck to the executioner. Afterwards, both his grandmother and mother, Agistrata, were executed. When Agistrata, on reaching the place of execution, saw her son lying dead on the ground, and her mother hanging from the rope, with the help of an attendant she took down the latter and laid her by the side of Agis. Then she threw herself on her son, and kissed his face, saying, “Thy too great gentleness, my son, thy mercy and humanity have brought misfortune on thee and us.” Then she placed herself on the gallows, and cried, “May this but promote the welfare of Sparta.” These events took place 240 B.C.

(III) The Reforms of Cleomenes.

Five years after the execution of Agis, Cleomenes (235-222 B.C.), the son of Leonidas, became ruler. He had married the widow of Agis, and had thoroughly mastered the reform proposals of the latter. He then decided to put them into practice. But he was more warlike than Agis, being a genuine Spartan, who perceived in the might of his army, in battle and victory, the best means to his end. He believed that only as a victorious captain could he obtain sufficient authority in the State to be able to remove the anti- communists, the Ephors, and the rich. An opportunity soon offered itself to invade a neighbouring State, and to win a triumph, which, however, developed into a series of wars. After his first victory, Cleomenes interfered with the Spartan constitution, and abolished the position of Ephors; then he banished eighty citizens who were hostile to reform, and convoked a general assembly of the people, before which he justified his conduct. He accused the Ephors of usurping an ever larger measure of power, contrary to the spirit of the constitution, and of secretly setting up their own tribunal. Further, they had banished or executed those kings who desired to see the excellent and admirable institutions of Lycurgus restored. It had therefore become necessary to put the Ephors out of the way. Cleomenes then continued: “Had I been able, without bloodshed, to banish from Lacedemonia the diseases and crimes, luxury, love of splendour, debts and usury, and the far more considerable evils of riches and poverty, which have insinuated themselves into our State, I should have considered myself the most fortunate of all kings. I have, however, made the most temperate use of the force at my disposal, by merely removing those who stood in the way of the welfare of Lacedemonia. Among all the rest I will now divide equally the whole of the land ; the debtors will be forgiven their debts, a selection will be made of the foreigners so that only the bravest shall become Spartans and help to defend the town, that we may no longer see Lacedemonia fall a prey to the AEtolians and the Illyrians for lack of defenders.” Having said this, he placed his possessions at the disposal of the people. His example was followed by his kinsmen and friends, and then by all the remainder of the citizens. The land was partitioned, a portion even being allotted to the banished citizens, and Cleomenes promised that they would all be permitted to return as soon as the State settled down again. He restored the old Spartan simplicity of life, and proceeded himself to set a good example.

Had the foreign policy of Cleomenes henceforth been of a peaceful character, Sparta would once more have become a model, and the other Hellenic States would have been obliged to introduce the Spartan social reforms. But the warlike policy which he pursued made enemies of his neighbours.

Instead of love, the social reforms of Sparta inspired fear. In their need, the neighbouring States appealed to the Macedonians, in order to be able to ward off the Spartan attack. For several years Cleomenes, with his trusty army, was able, single-handed, to hold the coalition at bay, and to defeat it, but finally he succumbed.

Agis IV and Cleomenes III, Spartan kings by Michael Burghers.

Plutarch gives the following account of the course of the war:

“Cleomenes not only inspired in his citizens courage and confidence, but even by the enemy he was considered an excellent general. With the force of a single town to withstand both the might of the Macedonians and the united Peloponnesians, and not only to protect Lacedemonia against every attack, but also to overrun the country of the enemy, and to capture such large towns these deeds seemed to betray unusual skilfulness and magnanimity. Whoever first called money the nerve of all things in the world may well have said this in special reference to the war…As the Macedonians were amply provided with all requisite accessories to carry on the war permanently, they were bound eventually to be victorious and to humble Cleomenes, who could only, with great efforts, pay his soldiers and provide support for his citizens.”

When Cleomenes was at length defeated (222 B.C., at Sellasia) he advised the citizens of Sparta to open the door to Antigonus, the king of Macedonia. The latter took possession of the town, but treated the Lacedemonians with great clemency and humanity. Without injuring or insulting the dignity of Sparta, he gave them back their laws and constitution, that is, the old laws which were in force before the reigns of Agis and Cleomenes, the non-communist laws.

(IV) Communistic Settlement in Lipara.

It is related by the Sicilian author, Diodorus, that about the year 580 several Knidians and Rhodians decided to leave their homes, as they were discontented with the oppressive rule of the Lydian kings. They sailed towards the west, and when they landed at Lipara (an island near Sicily) they were received in a friendly manner by the inhabitants, and were persuaded by the latter to join them in forming a community. Later on, when they were hard pressed by pirates from Tyre, they constructed a fleet and divided themselves in such a way that a number of them tilled the other island, as a common undertaking, whilst the others protected them from the pirates. All property was declared to be held in common, and the settlers also practised the eating of meals in common. This communal mode of living lasted for some time. Afterwards, the settlers divided the island of Lipara, on which the town was situated, among themselves, and cultivated the other island on the communal principle. At length both the islands were partitioned for a period of twenty years, and at the expiration of this term property was divided again.

The institution of communal meals was also to be found in Crete. Numerous citizens of Crete were provided with repasts out of public funds. Plato believed that the communal meals were established with the object of keeping the citizens in military trim, or to protect them from want. He considered the practice to be a divine necessity (Laws, Book VI. chap. 21), and an institution of the Ideal State.

Social Struggles in Antiquity by Max Beer. Translated by H. J. Stenning. Small, Maynard and Company Publishers, Boston. 1922.

Contents: I) INTRODUCTION, The Meaning of the Term ‘Antiquity’, Ancient Communistic Theory Natural Rights, II) PALESTINE, Social Conditions, Class Antagonisms and Prophets, Social Righteousness, Efforts at Reform, The Jewish Communists Essenes, III) GREECE, Economic and Social Development, Economic Antagonisms, IV) THE PRACTICE OF COMMUNISM IN SPARTA, The Lycurgian Legislation, Agis The First Communist Martyr, The Reforms of Cleomenes, Communistic Settlement in Lipara, V) COMMUNISTIC THEORIES IN ATHENS, Solon’s Middle-Class Reforms, Capitalism and Disintegration, Plato, Aristotle versus Plato and Phaleas, The Poets of Social Comedy, Aristophanes, Zeno Communistic Descriptions Egypt under the Ptolemies, The Downfall of Greece, VI) ROME, Character of Roman Historical Writing, Patricians and Plebeians, World Policy and Dissolution, Reform Struggles Gracchus Catiline and Cicero, Slave Insurrections, Spartacus, VII) ROMAN SOCIAL CRITICS, The Laments of the Dispossessed, Longings for Simplicity Freedom and Harmony, VIII) PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY, Pre-Christian Palestine, Jesus, Communism in the Primitive Communities, The Spirit of Christianity and of the Patristics, The Millennium Communistic Kingdom of God, Downfall of the Ancient World, Causes of the Downfall of the Ancient World, INDEX. 222 pages.

PDF of original book: https://archive.org/download/socialstrugglesi00beer/socialstrugglesi00beer.pdf

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