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Moses and Lycurgus

Published August 23, 2016 by amaic



Damien F. Mackey


The esteemed Spartan “Lawgiver”, Lycurgus, is so reminiscent of the biblical Moses as to inspire scholarly efforts to attempt running ‘parallel lives’ between these two characters.

 Given the semi-legendary nature of early ancient Greek ‘history’, the apparent ‘Dark Ages’, and the constant borrowings of Greece from its more easterly neighbours, might not “Lycurgus” be simply another of those manifold Greek appropriations from the Hebrews?



Scholars are intrigued by the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”, and the apparent disappearance from the biblical record of a large portion of the tribe of Simeon, which some think may have become the Spartans of Greek Lacedaemonia. That there was a blood connection between the Spartans and the Jews is apparent from a letter written in the Maccabean age by the Spartan king, Arius, to the high priest, Onias (I Maccabees 12:20-21):

“King Arius of Sparta to Onias the High Priest, greetings.We have found a document about the Spartans and the Jews indicating that we are related and that both of our nations are descended from Abraham”.


Louis H. Feldman has written a detailed Parallel Lives of Two Lawgivers: Josephus’ Moses and Plutarch’s Lycurgus:

whilst preserving the conventional belief that Lycurgus was a real C9th (900-800) BC Spartan. I, for my part, when confronted by what I perceived to be certain notable parallels between the so-called Athenian statesman, Solon, and king Solomon of Israel – and being acutely aware of the problems of early Greek history in need of a revision – had opted for Solon as, not just like Solomon, but rather as a Greek appropriation of King Solomon: my bottom line here being that there was no historical Athenian statesman, Solon.

I wrote briefly about this in my:


Solomon and Sheba

in which I proposed that the quasi-royal official, Senenmut (or Senmut), of 18th dynasty Egypt (who was a real person) was also Solomon:




There is a case in Greek ‘history’ of a wise lawgiver who nonetheless over-organised his country, to the point of his being unable to satisfy either rich or poor, and who then went off travelling for a decade (notably in Egypt). This was Solon, who has come down to us as the first great Athenian statesman. Plutarch [115] tells that, with people coming to visit Solon every day, either to praise him or to ask him probing questions about the meaning of his laws, he left Athens for a time, realising that ‘In great affairs you cannot please all parties’. According to Plutarch:


‘[Solon] made his commercial interests as a ship-owner an excuse to travel and sailed away … for ten years from the Athenians, in the hope that during this period they would become accustomed to his laws. He went first of all to Egypt and stayed for a while, as he mentions himself

where the Nile pours forth

its waters by the shore of Canopus’.’


We recall Solon’s intellectual encounters with the Egyp­tian priests at Heliopolis and Saïs (in the Nile Delta), as described in Plutarch’s ‘Life of Solon’ and Plato’s ‘Timaeus’ [116]. The chronology and parentage of Solon were disputed even in ancient times [117]. Since he was a wise statesman, an intellectual (poet, writer) whose administrative reforms, though brilliant, eventually led to hardship for the poor and disenchantment for the wealthy; and since Solon’s name is virtually identical to that of ‘Solomon’; and since he went to Egypt (also to Cyprus, Sidon and Lydia) for about a decade at the time when he was involved in the shipping business, then I suggest that ‘Solon’ of the Greeks was their version of Solomon, in the mid-to-late period of his reign. The Greeks picked up the story and transferred it from Jerusalem to Athens, just as they (or, at least Herodotus) later confused Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem (c. 700 BC), by relocating it to Pelusium in Egypt [118].

Much has been attributed to the Greeks that did not belong to them – e.g. Breasted [119] made the point that Hatshep­sut’s marvellous temple structure was a witness to the fact that the Egyptians had developed architectural styles for which the later Greeks would be credited as originators. Given the Greeks’ tendency to distort history, or to appropriate inven­tions, one would not expect to find in Solon a perfect, mirror-image of King Solomon.

Thanks to historical revisions [120], we now know that the ‘Dark Age’ between the Mycenaean (or Heroic) period of Greek history (concurrent with the time of Hatshepsut) and the Archaic period (that commences with Solon), is an artificial construct. This makes it even more plausible that Hatshepsut and Solomon were contemporaries of ‘Solon’. The tales of Solon’s travels to Egypt, Sidon and Lydia (land of the Hittites) may well reflect to some degree Solomon’s desire to appease his foreign women – Egyptian, Sidonian and Hittite – by building shrines for them (I Kings 11: 1, 7-8).

Both Solomon and Solon are portrayed as being the wisest amongst the wise. In the pragmatic Greek version Solon prayed for wealth rather than wisdom – but ‘justly acquired wealth’, since Zeus punishes evil [121]. In the Hebrew version, God gave ‘riches and honour’ to Solomon because he had not asked for them, but had prayed instead for ‘a wise and discerning mind’, to enable him properly to govern his people (I Kings 3:12-13).

[End of quotes]


This is how I would also assess the historicity of Lycurgus, too, that there was no historical Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus. And even more so with him than in the case of Solon, given that Lycurgus is supposed to have anteceded Solon by about a century and a half. And I may be assisted in this estimation by the suspicions regarding the real existence of Lycurgus anyway. Thus, for example: “The actual person Lycurgus may or may not have existed, but as a symbolic founder of the Spartan state he was looked to as the initiator of many of its social and political institutions …”.

Below I give some parts of what Feldman has written concerning the considerable likenesses between Moses and Lycurgus, recommending, however, that one read the whole document:


Parallels between the Lives of Moses and Lycurgus


We may here note a number of similar themes in Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus and Josephus’ biography (in effect) of Moses: genealogy; upbringing, virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and especially moderation and piety; relation to the divine; rejection of kingship; setting up a council of elders; military leadership; educational systems for youths; dealings with the masses and with opponents; suppression of rebellions; attitude toward aliens; opposition to putting laws into writing; attitude toward wealth and poverty; setting up a tribal and sub-tribal system; allotment of lands; laws pertaining to first-fruits; laws and practices pertaining to marriage and parentage; laws pertaining to the modesty of women; the status of women, priests, and slaves; the training of soldiers; diet, burial; laws against sorcery; the manner of the lawgiver’s death; laws forbidding modification of the laws. In particular, both felt strongly that the introduction of alien principles and institutions would destroy the internal harmony of the state.



and, regarding the actual Laws:


The Legal Codes of Moses and Lycurgus


Both Moses’ laws and those of Lycurgus were meant for the purpose of instruction. They were intended to teach a way of life in order to direct people to act in a manner most beneficial for themselves and for society at large. It is surely significant that the laws promulgated by Moses are called Torah in the biblical Hebrew known to Josephus (Josh. 8: 31–2; 2 Kgs. 14: 6; Mal. 3: 22; Neh. 8: 1). This word comes from a root meaning ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. Lycurgus’ social system is called ἀγωγή (direction, training, guidance, conduct) (Polyb. 1. 32. 1), emphasizing the relationship between the laws and the method of their transmission.

Philo (Spec. 4. 102) had already thought of comparing Moses to Lycurgus. Moses, he says, ‘approved neither of rigorous austerity like the Spartan legislator, nor of dainty living, like him who introduced the Ionians and Sybarites to luxurious (p.225) and voluptuous practices. Instead he opened up a path midway between the two.’ He compares him, in speaking of the dietary laws, to a musician who blends the highest and the lowest notes of the scale, thus producing a life of harmony and concord, which none can blame.

Josephus is well aware of the reputation of Lycurgus as the legislator who is held in the highest admiration and notes that the city for which he legislated is praised throughout the world for having remained faithful to his laws (Ap. 2. 225). Nevertheless, in comparing Moses with Lycurgus and other legislators, he states (Ap. 2. 154, Loeb trans.) that ‘our legislator’ is the most ancient of all: ‘Compared with him, your Lycurguses and Solons and Zaleucus, who gave the Locrians their laws, and all who are held in such high esteem by the Greeks, appear to have been born but yesterday.’ He then remarks that the very word ‘law’ (νόμος) was unknown in ancient Greece, for Homer never employs it in his poems. To emphasize the durability of the constitution promulgated by Moses as compared with that introduced by Lycurgus, he remarks that Moses’ constitution has lasted more than two thousand years, far longer than that of Lycurgus.11 Furthermore, the Spartans adhered to Lycurgus’ code only so long as they retained their independence, whereas the Jews retained theirs, even though it imposed far stricter obligations and more demanding physical duties than those of Sparta, for hundreds of years when they were no longer independent and were suffering numerous calamities. Large numbers of Spartans, in defiance of Lycurgus’ code, have actually surrendered in a body to the enemy.

In his generally favourable description of Moses and the Jewish constitution, Hecataeus of Abdera (ap. Diod. Sic. 40. 36) asserts that ‘their lawgiver was careful also to make provision (πρόνοια) for warfare, and required the young men to cultivate manliness (ἀνδρεία), steadfastness (καρτερία), and, generally, the endurance (ὑπομονή) of every hardship (κακοπαθεία)’, the implication being that the laws were of Moses’ own devising. Furthermore, according to Hecataeus (ap. Diod. Sic. 40. 3. 4), ‘the sacrifices that he established differ from those of other nations, as does their way of living, for as a result of their own expulsion (p.226) from Egypt he introduced a somewhat unsocial and intolerant mode of life’. Similarly, when Plutarch’s Lycurgus returned to Sparta after his travels abroad, he was convinced (Lyc. 5. 2) that a mere partial change of laws would not suffice and so introduced a new and different regimen.

Josephus’ Moses, in preparing the Israelites for departure from Egypt, arranged them by fraternities (AJ 2. 312), this unit (ϕρατρία) being a subdivision of the tribe (ϕυλή) in Greek political usage. Again in connection with the Passover (AJ 3. 248) he divided the Israelites into tribes and into subdivisions of tribes known as fraternities or brotherhoods (ϕρατρίαι). The word ϕρατρία (or ϕατρία in Josephus—depending upon the manuscripts) is also used of a group celebrating the pagan festival of the Karneia at Sparta (Demetrius of Scepsis, ap. Ath. 4. 141f). Lycurgus also (Lyc. 6. 1–2), following advice from the Delphic oracle, divided the people into tribes (ϕυλαί) and subdivisions known as ὠβαί, corresponding to ϕρατρίαι.

One of the institutions that Josephus’ Moses established to assist him in governing the Israelites was a council of elders (γερουσία, AJ 4. 186). Similarly, according to Plutarch (Lyc. 5. 6) the first and most important of the innovations made by Lycurgus was his institution of a council of elders (γέροντες), which, as Plutarch says, citing Plato (Leg. 691e), ‘by being blended with the feverish government of the kings, and by having an equal vote with them in matters of the highest importance, brought safety and due moderation into counsels of state’, through avoiding the extremes of tyranny and democracy.

According to Hecataeus of Abdera (ap. Diod. Sic. 40. 3. 7), Moses assigned equal allotments to private citizens, though greater parcels to the priests. As to Lycurgus’ reforms, Plutarch (Lyc. 8. 2) says that Lycurgus, in his determination to banish insolence, envy, crime, and luxury, persuaded his fellow-citizens to make one parcel of all their territory and allotted equal amounts of land to all citizens, so that later when he traversed the land just after the harvest and saw heaps of grain equal to one another, he remarked (Lyc. 8. 4): ‘All Laconia looks like a family estate newly divided among many brothers.’

Whereas the Bible (Exod. 20: 4, Deut. 5: 7–9) prohibits making a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven, on earth, or beneath the earth, Josephus (Ap. 2. 191, Loeb trans.) (p.227) goes much further in explaining why this is so. ‘No materials’, he says, ‘however costly, are fit to make an image of Him; no art has skill to conceive and represent it. The like of Him we have never seen, we do not imagine, and it is impious to conjecture.’ Although, of course, Sparta did have statues, the arts were not practised, since, as Plutarch says (Lyc. 9. 3), Lycurgus banished the ‘unnecessary and superfluous’ arts. Instead, the Spartans excelled in producing common and necessary utensils, such as the famous Laconian drinking-cup (Lyc. 9. 4–5).

In Deut. 18: 10–11 we read that an enchanter, conjurer, charmer, consulter with familiar spirits, and a wizard are not to be tolerated among the Israelites. Exod. 22: 17 specifically reads ‘You shall not permit a sorceress to live.’ The Septuagint renders this latter verse as ‘You shall not preserve poisoners’, and Josephus (AJ 4. 279) renders it similarly: ‘Let not even one of the Israelites have poison, whether deadly or one of those made for other injuries; and if, having acquired it, he should be discovered, let him die.’ Lycurgus, Plutarch says (Lyc. 9. 3), by banishing all gold and silver money and by permitting the use of iron money only, which proved to be so heavy and clumsy, effectively made it impossible to acquire a vagabond soothsayer. Moreover, whereas, according to the Bible (Lev. 21: 7; cf. AJ 3. 276), only a priest is actually forbidden to marry a prostitute, Josephus has carried this further in stating that it is forbidden for anyone to marry a prostitute (AJ 4. 245). Similarly, according to Plutarch (Lyc. 9. 3), Lycurgus, by banishing gold and silver money and permitting only cumbersome iron money, made it impractical to purchase a keeper of harlots.

According to the Bible (Num. 18: 12; Jos. AJ 4. 70), the first-fruits of all the produce that grows from the ground are to be offered for sacrifice. Similarly, according to the Lycurgan constitution (Lyc. 12. 2), whenever anyone made a sacrifice of first-fruits or brought home game from the hunt, he sent a portion to his mess.

Josephus’ Moses stresses the particular importance of education in his extra-biblical remark (AJ 4. 261) of the parents to the rebellious child: ‘Giving the greatest thanks to God we reared you with devotion, sparing nothing of what seemed to be useful for your well-being and education (παιδεία) in the best of things.’ In an extra-biblical statement (Ap. 2. 173–4), Josephus (p.228) emphasizes that Moses, starting with the food fed to infants, the persons with whom one may associate, and the period of time to be devoted to strenuous labour and the time to be devoted to rest, left nothing to the discretion and caprice of the individual. The code promulgated by Moses likewise prescribed matters of clothing, notably the prohibition of mixed wool and linen (Lev. 19: 19; Deut. 22: 11; AJ 4. 208), with Josephus adding that such clothing had been designated for the priests alone. The code likewise prohibited transvestism (Deut. 22: 5; AJ 4. 301), which Josephus applies to warfare, and prescribed laws pertaining to hair for nazirites (Num. 6: 5; AJ 4. 72). We find an emphasis on education in Josephus’ extra-biblical remark (AJ 4. 165) that Joshua had already been given a complete education, Moses having taught him thoroughly, in the laws and in divine matters. A similar importance is attached to education by Lycurgus in Plutarch’s statement (Lyc. 14. 1) that ‘in the matter of education (παιδεία), which he regarded as the greatest and noblest task of the lawgiver, he began at the very source, by carefully regulating marriages and births’. Similarly, Lycurgus legislated among other provisions the amount and type of food to be fed (Lyc. 8. 4, 10. 1–3, 17. 4), the people with whom one might associate (12. 4–7), the clothing to be worn (14. 2, 16. 6), and the arrangement of hair (16. 6).

Josephus’ Moses (AJ 3. 270–4) places great emphasis on the laws of marriage, adding numerous extra-biblical remarks, particularly pertaining to the ordeal of women suspected of adultery and the complete prohibition of adultery, ‘considering it blessed for men to behave soundly with regard to marriage and advantageous for both states and households that children be legitimate’. He terms it outrageous (AJ 3. 275) for a man to have sexual relations with a woman who has become unclean with her natural excretions, with animals, or with other males because of the beauty in them. Being himself a priest, Josephus stresses the special marital prohibitions for priests and, above all, for high priests (AJ 3. 276–7). In another statement of the laws of marriage (AJ 4. 244–8) he adds further stringencies, such as the requirement to marry free-born virgins, not to marry female slaves, even if compelled by passion, and not to marry a prostitute. In a further restatement of the laws of marriage (Ap. 2. 199–203) he again emphasizes the provisions in the Pentateuch, (p.229) adding that marriage is solely for the procreation of children and that abortion is prohibited (Ap. 2. 199, 202).

Moses (Deut. 4: 2, 13: 1), in his address to the Israelites just before his death, forbids adding to or subtracting from the commandments of the Torah (so also Jos. Ap. 1. 42). He further-more forbade deviating from the decisions of judges (Deut. 17: 10–11). Similarly Lycurgus (Lyc. 29. 1), just before he died, we are told, ardently desired, so far as human forethought could accomplish the task, to make his system of laws immortal and to let it go down unchanged to future ages. Lycurgus accordingly (Lyc. 29. 2), like Moses, assembled the Spartans and told them that they must abide by the established laws and make no change in them. He then proceeded to exact an oath from the kings and the councillors, as well as from the rest of the citizens, that they would abide by these laws. He thereupon proceeded to consult the Delphic Oracle (Lyc. 29. 3–4), which confirmed that the laws were good and that the city would continue to be held in the highest honour so long as it kept to the policy of Lycurgus. He himself resolved never to release the Spartans from their oath and proceeded to abstain from food until he died (Lyc. 29. 5).

For Josephus’ Moses the hallmark of education was obedience, and the worst offence for a child was to be disobedient (Deut. 21: 18–21; AJ 4. 260–4). Moses’ success in educating his people, says Josephus, is shown by the fact that his laws survived his own lifetime. Indeed (AJ 3. 317–18): ‘there is not a Hebrew who does not, just as if he were still there and ready to punish him for any breach of discipline, obey the laws laid down by Moses, even though in violating them he would escape detection.’ Josephus notes that only recently, in his own lifetime, when certain non-Jews from Mesopotamia, after a journey of several months, came to venerate the Temple in Jerusalem, they could not partake of the sacrifices that they had offered because Moses had forbidden this to those not governed by the laws of the Torah. Similarly Lycurgus, clearly Plutarch’s paragon of the lawgiver, regarded education as the greatest and noblest task of the lawgiver (Lyc. 14. 1), and the training of youths was ‘calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer in battle’. Indeed, Plutarch (Lyc. 30. 3) expresses amazement at those who claim that the Spartans, under the inspiration of Lycurgus, knew how to obey but did not know (p.230) how to command and quotes the remark of the Spartan king Theopompus, who, when someone said that Sparta was safe and secure because her kings knew how to command, replied, ‘No, rather because her citizens know how to obey.’12 Under Lycurgus, according to Plutarch, Sparta attained utter stability. The city maintained the first rank in Greece for ‘good government and reputation, observing as she did for five hundred years the laws of Lycurgus, in which no one of the fourteen kings who followed him made any change, down to Agis the son of Archidamus’ (Lyc. 29. 6).

The main, most serious, and most recurrent charge by intellectuals against Jews was that the Jews hated gentiles. It was the self-isolation of the Jews that was apparently at the heart of these attacks (Sevenster 1975: 89; Feldman 1998a: 125–49; Schäfer 1997: 170–81, 205–11). Even Hecataeus of Abdera (ap. Diod. Sic. 40. 3. 4), though on the whole well disposed toward the Jews, characterizes the Jewish mode of life as somewhat un-social (ἀπάνθρωπος) and hostile to foreigners (μισόξενος). Though the Pentateuch (Exod. 23: 9) commands the Jew to treat the stranger with respect, the dietary laws, Sabbath laws, and rules pertaining to idolatry were formidable barriers that to a large extent prevented the Jews from fraternizing with gentiles. In a very real sense, Josephus’ Antiquities is an extended answer to charges that the Jews were guilty of hatred of mankind. Josephus adds to the Bible by explaining (AJ 1. 192) that the reason for the commandment of circumcision was to prevent mixture with others and thus to preserve the individual identity of the Jewish people. But, at the same time, Josephus’ Moses interprets the law (Exod. 22: 27), as the Septuagint does, as forbidding the cursing of ‘gods whom other cities believe in’ (AJ 4. 207) ‘out of respect for the very word “God”’ (Ap. 2. 237). Moreover, Josephus significantly omits the passages (Exod. 34: 12–13; Deut. 12: 2–3) in which God instructs Moses that when the Israelites enter the land of Canaan they should destroy all the statues, devastate all the high places, and make no covenant with the Canaanites. On the contrary, he stresses (Ap. 2. 146) that the Mosaic code was designed to promote humanity toward the world at large, that (p.231) ‘our legislator’ inculcated into the Jews the duty of sharing with others (Ap. 2. 211–13), and that not only must the Jew furnish food and supplies to those gentile friends and neighbours who ask for them, but he must show consideration even for declared enemies. Moses’ lack of prejudice is likewise displayed in the respect shown to Reuel (Jethro), Moses’ father-in-law, who is described (AJ 2. 258) as a priest held in high veneration by the people in the country (see Feldman 1997: 573–94).

Just as the code promulgated by Moses was intended to make sure that the Israelites would be kept separate and distinct from others, so Plutarch’s Lycurgus (Lyc. 27. 3–4) introduced measures to isolate the Spartans from foreign influences. In particular, he did not permit Spartans to live abroad and, in turn, kept foreigners away from the city, ‘for along with strange people, strange doctrines must come in; and novel doctrines bring novel decisions, from which there must arise many feelings and resolutions which destroy the harmony of the existing political order.’

Josephus (Ap. 2. 259) makes specific note of both of these practices of the Spartans, namely forbidding citizens to travel abroad and not permitting foreigners to enter the city, and for the reason given by Plutarch, that such contacts might lead to corruption of their laws. At this point Josephus introduces a major difference between the Spartans and the Jews, namely that the Jews, while having no desire to emulate the customs of others, nonetheless gladly welcome any who wish to share their own (Ap. 2. 261).