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Life of Lycurgus

Lycurgus, according to Libanius, was older than Demosthenes,1 though they were practically contemporaries. He belonged to the illustrious house of the Eteobutadae, who traced their descent from one Butes, brother of Erechtheus. The priesthood of Posidon-Erechtheus, and other religious offices, were hereditary in this family.

The grandfather of the orator, also called Lycurgus, was put to death by the Thirty; his father, Lycophron, is known only by name.

In the orator's extant speech, and in his recorded actions, we find abundant proof of a sincere piety and deep religious feeling, which were natural in the true representative of such a family. The traditions of his house may well have turned his thoughts to the stern virtues of ancient days, the days of Athenian greatness, when self-sacrifice was expected of a citizen. He expresses a friendly feeling towards Sparta.

Of his earlier political life we know only that he was an ally of Demosthenes.2 He came into greater prominence after Chaeronea, and was one of the ten orators whose surrender was demanded by Alexander after the destruction of Thebes.

In 338 B.C., when the war party came into power, he succeeded Eubulus, the nominee of the peace party, in an important financial office. In the decree quoted by the Pseudo-Plutarch he is called ‘Steward of the public revenue’ (τῆς κοινῆς προσόδου ταμίας), which is probably not his correct title, though it fairly represents his appointment.3 He kept this office for twelve years. His long administration, which was characterized by absolute probity, brought the finances of Athens to a thoroughly sound condition. During his office he built a theatre and an odeon, completed an arsenal, increased the fleet, and improved the harbour of Piraeus. He also embellished the city with works of art—statues of the great poets erected in the public places, golden figures of Victory and golden vessels dedicated in the temples. His respect for the poets was further shown by his decree that an official copy should be made of the works of the three great tragedians—a copy which afterwards passed into the possession of the Alexandrine library.4

He conceived it as his mission to raise the standard of public and private life. Himself almost an ascetic,5 he enacted sumptuary laws; as a religious man by instinct and tradition, he built temples and encouraged religious festivals; an ardent patriot by conviction, he thought it his duty to undertake the ungrateful part of a public prosecutor, pursuing all who failed in their sacred duty towards their country. In this way he conducted many prosecutions, which were nearly all successful. He was never a paid advocate or a writer of speeches for others; indeed he would have thought it criminal to write or speak against his convictions.6 His indictments were characterized by such inflexible severity that his contemporaries compared him to Draco, saying that he wrote his accusations with a pen dipped in death instead of blood.7

He died a natural death in 324 B.C. (Suda), and was honoured by a public funeral. His enemy Menesaechmus, who succeeded to his office, accused him of having left a deficit, though, according to one story, Lycurgus, on the point of death, had been carried into the ecclesia and successfully defended himself on that score. His sons were condemned to make restitution, and, being unable to pay, were thrown into prison, in spite of an able defence by Hyperides. They were released on an appeal by Demosthenes, then in exile.8

1 Hypothesis to Demos., Against Aristogiton.

2 In some MSS. of Demosthenes (Phil., iii., § 72) his name occurs as a member of an embassy which made a tour of the Peloponnese in 343 B.C. to rouse opposition against Philip.

3 See (Aristotle) Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία, ch. 43, with Sandys' notes. He must have been either ταμίας τῶν στρατιωτικῶν or president of οἱ ἐπὶ τὸ θεωρικόν, or perhaps he held both these appointments, as the scope of his work seems to imply. Ps.-Plutarch says πιστευσάμενος τὴν διοίκησιν τῶν χρημάτων.

4 Ptolemy Philadelphus borrowed it in order to have it copied. He deposited a large sum as security, but in the end he sacrificed the deposit, kept the original, and presented Athens with his new copy.

5 He wore the same clothes in summer and winter, and shoes only in very severe weather (Ps.-Plut.).

6 See his condemnation of the advocates of Leocrates, § 135.

7 οὐ μέλανι ἀλλὰ θανάτῳ χρίοντα τὸν κάλαμον κατὰ τῶν πονηρῶν (Ps.Plut.).

8 Assuming (with Blass) the authenticity of the third letter of Demosthenes, which is doubtful.

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