The Shadow of Christ in the Legal Revolutions in Greece and Rome (Part 2)

Lycurgus of Sparta

Lycurgus of Sparta

The Legal Revolutions

 Before Lycurgus returned to Sparta from his journeys to start his legal revolution, Sparta had the worst government in the world. The city was in a perpetual civil war between the clans, and the royal authority – which had never been strong in the Greek city-states anyway – was disintegrating. Lycurgus’s father, the King of Sparta, was himself killed in the civil war; some say he was hit in the head by a stone thrown from the crowd, other that he was stabbed while trying to quell a riot. Lycurgus’s older brother also died in his young age – possibly another casualty of the internecine strife – so this left Lycurgus the legitimate heir to the throne of Sparta.

But he didn’t want it. The population wanted him as a king for he had exhibited all the qualities of a wise and effective leader in his youth. He agreed reluctantly but eagerly desired to be freed of that burden. So when a month after he was made king he discovered that his brother’s wife was pregnant, he hurried to announce it, and then declared that he would be only a regent to his nephew. When the boy grew to take his position as the rightful king of Sparta, Lycurgus left the city to avoid suspicions that he was working against his nephew to take the throne.

By the time of his voluntary exile, he had already decided that Sparta needed laws. That’s correct, not new laws, but laws. As I mentioned in the previous article, the ancient societies were patriarchal and polytheistic; religion was contained in the family, and there was no shared faith nor shared laws between the patriarchal clans. The Dorian invaders from the north who settled in the Peloponnese to create what later became Lacedaemon, or Sparta, were Barbarians, and they knew only one kind of social organization: military alliance between the family clans to attack neighboring tribes. In times of peace, though, each clan had its own gods (ancestors), and therefore each clan had its own worship. And its own laws. They tried to create a form of society by instituting some kind of social worship after the form of their own clan worship; they entrusted the social rituals and sacrifices to a royal family. But by the time of Lycurgus’s father (850-820 BC) it was obvious that the religious fragmentation between the clans wouldn’t produce a working social order. Polytheism and patriarchy never do. A higher source of law was necessary, and Lycurgus set out to find it.

Strange enough, he did not try to find it in his own society. He knew that the fragmented polytheistic culture of his nation couldn’t produce such universal order. So he left Sparta and went to Crete which at the time was known for its superb law structure and social organization.

And there he found one of the most puzzling personalities of the ancient world: Thaletas, or, as some called him, Thales of Crete.

Thaletas was a poet, and he made his living by composing songs which he sang at banquets; he also had his own system of music, unknown to the Greeks in the mainland at the time. Nothing unusual about that; between 850 and 300 BC, Greece had an abundance of poets, playwrights, writers, singers, musicians, who were supported by rich sponsors or by selling their works. But Thaletas was something more, and Plutarch gives a very interesting description of him:

. . . by his outward appearance and his own profession he seemed to be no other than a lyric poet, in reality he performed the part of one of the ablest lawgivers in the world. The very songs which he composed were exhortations to obedience and concord, and the very measure and cadence of the verse, conveying impressions of order and tranquillity, had so great an influence on the minds of the listeners, that they were insensibly softened and civilized, insomuch that they renounced their private feuds and animosities, and were reunited in a common admiration of virtue.1

Notice how Plutarch’s description of the effects of Thaletas’s teaching on his listeners is almost the same as Eusebius’s description of the effects of the teaching of philosophers and lawgivers. Plutarch doesn’t tell us where Thaletas got his laws and wisdom from. But we can gather from this description that Thaletas was a very unusual poet: We don’t know of any other poet also called “one of the ablest lawgivers in the world.” He used his poetic skills only as a tool to bring to others his ideas of law, virtue, civilization, social order. Were he only an epic poet, like Homer, Lycurgus wouldn’t be so impressed with him; after all, Greece in the 9th century BC was replete with epic poets who sang stories of heroes past. Homer wasn’t an exception. Lycurgus wouldn’t pay much attention to a simple epic poet. But Thaletas was different. He was rather an evangelist who used his poetic skill to teach others a new civilization, very different from the old civilization of fragmented polytheistic patriarchal clans with their narrow views of law, righteousness, and justice.

So impressive were his wisdom and his skill that Lycurgus asked him to go to Sparta, start a music school there, and through his music and his songs prepare the hearts of the Spartans for the future legislative revolution. Plutarch comments: “So that it may truly be said that Thales prepared the way for the discipline introduced by Lycurgus.” In his turn, Thaletas advised Lycurgus to visit the Asian coast and see the difference between the laws of the disciplined and sober Cretans, and the laws of the pleasure-loving Ionians, who were, as Plutarch puts it, “a people of sumptuous and delicate habits.” That the principles of social justice would be connected in a predictable and observable way to the habits of personal morality and righteousness was a new and not very popular idea in the ancient world. Thaletas couldn’t have arrived at his conclusions based on the traditional worldview of the pagan world at the time.

Who was that Thaletas, and where did he get his ideas from? That he was an evangelist is clear from the description of what he did. He couldn’t have been awakened by anything he might have learned in Greece; after all, Lycurgus himself was very intelligent, and he had to leave Sparta in his quest for a system of social order which can bring peace to his nation. If there were any such ideas in Sparta, Lycurgus could have stayed home. Moreover, given the religious climate in the early stages of the Greek civilization, there were no such ideas of universal justice which applied to people across family lines, let alone across national lines. The laws of a family belonged to the family; the stranger was not included in the laws, he could be treated unjustly and no one would even think of it as unjust. One could expect fair treatment by strangers only if he could command their fear by his superior strength. The same applied to the cities; they were only an extension of the family rites to a higher level. Just a father ruled his house, a king ruled his city; the laws were not public, and neither were they known in advance or predictable, and in general, might made right within the city, and in the relations between the cities as well. Spartans weren’t killing themselves in a civil war for nothing: They just did not have any other principle of unity, concord, and peace but the will of the strongest one. A social order based on that religious premise will inevitably lure many to ascertain their position as the strongest one. Universal justice didn’t exist. Force is what mattered. So natural was the belief that there couldn’t be a common system of justice for all that centuries later Aristotle himself was convinced that citizens of different cities could not have a common law to judge between them for there was no common magistracy to rule over them. Law was limited to the clan and to the city. Once a man left his clan and his city, there was no law, and no system of justice to protect him.

In the 9th century BC, there was only one religious system in the world which differed. It was the Law of God given to the Hebrews through Moses. It did not recognize separate domains for families, tribes, or nations when it came to justice and righteousness. It did not recognize the right of the mighty to establish laws. It did not recognize mob justice, and it did not recognize separate law for the stranger and for the native-born. In fact, it specifically required fair treatment of the weak in the society: the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Contrary to all other systems of law, it regarded social justice and personal righteousness as one package. Kings were not allowed to use their power to legitimize actions that would be considered a crime for the individual. And the Law combined personal piety and lawful behavior in one law, something no other law had ever done before. A ruler could be personally immoral but judicially just, has always been the belief of the pagans, from the antiquity to modern days. The Law of God didn’t know about such dualism. God was over all, over the heart of man – and even the heart of the king – and over the society. Universal justice.

Not only was it universally just, it was to be universally proclaimed, and known to all, from the greatest to the smallest in Israel and in all lands. There was no special caste of privileged Brahmins, Eupatrids, or Patricians, who only had access to the Law and knew its workings. There were no plebeians in Israel; God thundered the Law from a mountain, and every seven years all the population of Israel – including the slaves – was to gather before the Temple and listen to the high priest reading the Law. It was a public law, something unheard of in the pagan lands. And, more relevant to our point here, it was to be proclaimed to the nations.

What we take today for granted – the rule of law, the equality before the law, the public character and the predictability of the law, the universal justice, the protection from the personal whims and bias of the ruler – was not known in the ancient world. All these came through the Law of God given to Moses. And, as I pointed to in the previous article, King Solomon made the Law of God known throughout the world at the time, through the wisdom, the prosperity, and the splendor of his kingdom. Solomon was also a poet (he wrote most of the Book of Proverbs) and his father was a poet too (Psalms). It would be normal to expect that the combination of poetic gift and evangelistic zeal for the Law of God of these two great men will inspire a whole new tradition of poetry in the pagan world around them. Thaletas, living a generation or two after Solomon, must have been acting in that tradition of a poet-lawgiver.

We don’t know if Thaletas was a pagan Greek who was inspired by the Hebrew tradition, or may even an Israelite from the Diaspora who used his gifts to reach the nations for the Law of God. We don’t know what specific system of legislation he proposed in his poem-sermons. Of the information we have, he must have been quite satisfied to only influence people, not engage in direct legislation; something of an evangelist and preacher. In any case, he was unlike anything Sparta had seen. And the principles he brought with him were different.

When Lycurgus was finally called back home by a citizenry tired of constant civil wars and yet unable to find a solution to it, he found them prepared to accept his legal revolution. If he learned from the Law of God in his travels to “many countries,” he certainly did not introduce it completely in Sparta. The caste system remained, slavery remained, and Sparta remained the same militarized and oppressive society it was before. It paid for it through the centuries with the many slave revolts which although unsuccessful, still were able to decimate the free citizens’ population to a point where Sparta had to institute a process of emancipation for some slaves, and also for admission of lower castes into full citizenship. But even if imperfect, Lycurgus’s revolution was real. The law was freed from the family clans. A system of universal justice was declared, at least for the free citizens, which overruled the clan prejudices and hatreds. The law was made public and known to all. And the government of Sparta was divided between several institutions which acted as checks and balances to each other, and to the family as a social unit. The elaborate system created by Lycurgus had no precedent in the pagan world. But it had very strong precedent in the Law of God, at least as far as certain principles were concerned. And it helped little Sparta survive for several centuries, and even fight stronger enemies in the Persian Wars, and then in the Peloponnesian War, and prevail.

One thing was necessary, Lycurgus knew: A divine endorsement. If he learned from Solomon and Moses, he knew that people did not willingly obey other people; but they would fear a deity. Near the end of his life he left to go to the closest thing to a universal divine authority Greece had at the time: The Delphic Oracle. He had the Spartans swear to keep the laws he introduced until he returned. The Oracle endorsed his laws. But Lycurgus never returned home. He disappeared from history, making sure Spartans never knew where his grave was. Just like that original example for all great lawgivers, Moses. In the final account, Lycurgus applied most of the principles he learned. And thus he helped his people be freed from their barbarism. As Eusebius said, “the minds of most of the heathen were moderated by lawgivers and philosophers. Savage brutality changed into mildness, so that profound peace, friendship, and easy communication prevailed.”

Of course, the idea that a foreign nation would be influenced in one way or another by the Law of the Hebrews should not be too surprising to us. The Bible tells us of the Queen of Sheba (possibly Hatshepsut of Egypt, if Velikovsky’s chronology is correct) who came to hear Solomon’s wisdom. The king and the people of Nineveh repented when they heard Jonah’s sermon. The Book of Daniel records two kings of pagan empires – Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian and Darius the Mede – who submitted to God. The story of Daniel in the lions’ den is told and retold as a story of miraculous deliverance by God but another aspect of the story is very seldom mentioned: that it is a story about judicial evangelism. The story starts with the “law of the Medes and Persians” as the basis for the King’s edict: a testimony that in its first years the Persian empire was just as much influenced by tribal laws as was ancient Greece. But it ends with a proclamation that “all people fear the God of Daniel”: a declaration of a principle of universal justice under a universal God which is equally applicable and binding on all men irrespective of their tribal or clan membership.

Numa Pompilius

Numa Pompilius

Sparta wasn’t the only polis which experienced civil wars under its old clan and tribe system. Almost immediately after its founding in 753 BC, Rome saw rivalry between its founder, Romulus, and the Senate of the patriarchal clans. The reason was the same as in Sparta: every clan had its own religious worship and authority, and the city – based on the same principle as the clans – had its own city worship and authority. There were no laws and no acknowledged system of universal justice applicable to all. After Romulus died – possibly killed by the Senate – Numa Pompilius set out to establish a system of social order which would last. And he did it based on exactly the same principles as Lycurgus, which explain why in his Parallel Lives Plutarch chose to parallel Numa to Lycurgus. A universal law, inspired by a universal god (Jupiter), made public to all, combining social justice with personal piety and righteousness. As Plutarch points out, Numa understood that the law must also speak to the desires of the heart if a better and more just social system was to be built:

When Numa had, by such measures, won the favour and affection of the people, he set himself without delay to the task of bringing the hard and iron Roman temper to somewhat more of gentleness and equity. Plato’s expression of a city in high fever was never more applicable than to Rome at that time; in its origin formed by daring and warlike spirits, whom bold and desperate adventure brought thither from every quarter, it had found in perpetual wars and incursions on its neighbours its after sustenance and means of growth, and in conflict with danger the source of new strength; like piles, which the blows of the hammer serve to fix into the ground. Wherefore Numa, judging it no slight undertaking to mollify and bend to peace the presumptuous and stubborn spirits of this people, began to operate upon them with the sanctions of religion. He sacrificed often and used processions and religious dances, in which most commonly he officiated in person; by such combinations of solemnity with refined and humanizing pleasures, seeking to win over and mitigate their fiery and warlike tempers. At times, also, he filled their imaginations with religious terrors, professing that strange apparitions had been seen, and dreadful voices heard; thus subduing and humbling their minds by a sense of supernatural fears.2

Numa went even farther than Lycurgus. Not only he had instituted a public law known to all but he also wrote a number of “sacred books” claiming to be inspired by “the deity,” where that law was laid down. Again, this act in itself is not unusual for us today who live in the shadow of Christendom. But for the time of Numa, and given the religious convictions of his people, such act was strange. Any law was supposed to be secret, kept only for a privileged group of family heads – patricians – and never revealed to the commoners. For centuries the patricians refused any citizen’s rights to the plebeians because they had “no knowledge of law, and no access to law.” For Numa to take the initiative to write the laws down in sacred books meant that he broke with the previous custom completely and adopted the tradition of another people – the Hebrews, of which he must have had knowledge since he lived several generations after Solomon.

The best testimony of the true inspiration for Numa’s legislative actions can be found in his religious views, as reported by Plutarch:

Numa forbade the Romans to represent God in the form of man or beast, nor was there any painted or graven image of a deity admitted amongst them for the space of the first hundred and seventy years, all of which time their temples and chapels were kept free and pure from images; to such baser objects they deemed it impious to liken the highest, and all access to God impossible, except by the pure act of the intellect.

Plutarch attributes this to Pythagorean influence. But such influence is impossible given the fact that Numa lived two centuries before Pythagoras. Since there was only one nation that had God who forbade being represented by images, it is obvious that Numa – and Pythagoras later, as well – were influenced by the Hebrew religion more than our modern philosophers are willing to admit.

Solon Supporting Justice, by Noël Coypel

Numa’s “sacred books” did not survive him. Reportedly, he wanted them to be buried with him; more realistically, the Senate made the decision in order to retain the old tribal and clan system which kept the majority of the population without citizen’s rights and without access to any law. That, of course, didn’t make the Roman society any better; to the contrary, civil wars and strifes were constant, and a little over 200 years after Numa’s death a board of ten legislators (decemviri) was appointed by the Senate to draw a public law which would apply to all who lived in Rome. The law was written on twelve ivory tables (the Twelve Tables) and the tables were posted in the Roman Forum where all could read them. Just a generation before the decemviri, Athens was suffering from its own civil wars, and an able legislator, Solon, drew the Solonian Constitution of Athens, based on the very same principles for law, justice, and righteousness on which the Law of God was based. The Stoics, whose influence on the legal thought of Greece and Rome was very strong in later antiquity, proposed that the slaves were not to be considered property but “permanently hired employees,” which is a Biblical notion; later Roman lawyers like Seneca and Cicero shared the same opinion. Cicero, contrary to the inherited pagan worldview in Rome, expressed the opinion that the state should be bound by the same moral principles as the individuals, a step closer to the Biblical idea of individual rights and liberty than many in his time would be willing to accept. And the examples can be multiplied.

All these changes were nothing less than revolutionary; and they had no precedent whatsoever in the pagan societies where they happened. There were no pagan legal precedents they could be based on; and there were no religious principles that could “naturally” lead to such changes. Such precedents and principles at the time could be found only in the Law of God given to Moses, in the constitution of the society of Israel, and in the legal and government practices of David and Solomon. The social, legal, and political “evolution” of the ancient world was not natural evolution at all, it was the result of the spreading influence of the Mosaic legislation, through judicial evangelism (Deut. 4:5-8), and especially through the popularity and the example of King Solomon. True, not a single one of these legislative revolutions created a society of justice and righteousness as Israel was supposed to be, according to the Law of God. But neither did they leave the world as it was, in its primitive barbarism, savage brutality, and immaturity concerning religion and law. The legal and religious revolutions in the ancient world were incremental steps; the Word of God was acting even on the minds of the worst of the heathen, and did not return void. As Eusebius stated,

. . . when their law [of the Hebrews] became famous and penetrated everywhere like a fragrant breeze, the minds of most of the heathen were moderated by lawgivers and philosophers. Savage brutality changed into mildness, so that profound peace, friendship, and easy communication prevailed.

Laying the Foundations of Christendom

Why is this important for us? And what does it have to do with the restoration of Christendom today?

The main opposition to Christendom within the modern churches and seminaries (especially seminaries!) is based on the rejection of theonomy, that is, of the continuing validity of the Law of God as revealed to Moses. Many rhetorical devices are used to reject the Law of God. There is the claim that the Law of Moses was given only to Israel but not to the nations outside of Israel, and therefore we can’t apply the Law of God to our modern cultures today. Then there is the claim that the New Testament is concerned only with “salvation” and therefore whatever laws we have from the Old Testament are those that talk about our personal piety, not about cultural transformation. Another rhetorical objection is the made-up dichotomy between the Law and the Gospel, and the accompanying claim that the New Testament is only about the Gospel, not about the Law. The Two Kingdoms theology, revived in the last 15-20 years as a rhetorical device, insists on common grace and the natural law as the foundations for the culture and civilization, while salvific grace and the Law of God apply only to the church and the individual. There also the claim that in this age we can not build a Christian culture, that any legitimately culture built before the Second Coming will be only pagan. And so on.

These arguments fail to explain why the Church in the early centuries set out to build exactly a culture, a Christian culture to replace the pagan culture of the antiquity. Our modern proponents of natural law and common grace as the foundation of a morally and religiously neutral culture seldom stop to think that they have the luxury to babble concerning these things only because two millennia of theonomic, culturally active Christianity have resulted in the abundance of common grace today (especially in the United States), and that our modern notion of “natural law” is not natural at all, but to the contrary, the very concept in our modern days has been shaped to mimic the Law of God, and only takes God out of it. These critics of Christendom in the churches are living on borrowed capital from the very Christendom they criticize. In a world not shaped by the Christendom, not living in the shadow of Christendom, these critics will be hard pressed to find any common grace, or any “natural law” that is not oppressive and barbaric. What they need is to be moved to live in a place where there has never been any Christendom. Sparta before Lycurgus, for example, or Rome before Numa.

The Law of God can not be contained in a single nation; nor was it designed to be contained in a single nation in the first place. Just as predicted by Moses, it shone forth to the nations. Their religious outlook started changing, and their legal systems started changing. After the flood, the nations had slipped into barbarism and savagery because they had abandoned the faith of Noah. The polytheism of the ancients had destroyed any civilization they might have inherited from the earlier generations after the Flood. There was no common grace to talk about, and no natural law that could be considered a “law” in the first place. It took special grace (to the nation of Israel), special revelation (to the covenant line from Abraham to Solomon, and then the prophets), and revealed law (to Moses) for the ancient world to start shaking off the curse of barbarism and become a more civilized place. Far from being limited to the nation of Israel, the Law of God was actually designed and meant from the very beginning to bring good news to the world, and salvation from God.

That’s why the author of the Book of Hebrews could say that the people of the time of Moses were “evangelized” just as we are today. They had the good news of God returning to the world with light, knowledge, and wisdom. After Solomon, the world knew very well where salvation would come from (hence the wise men of the East coming to worship the newborn king, and the Greek from the West coming to Jerusalem to worship at the feast). The civilization was changing by the spreading of the Law of God and of its principles. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t a Christian civilization, and it certainly wasn’t the Christendom as it was supposed to be; but there was no going back to the savagery and cruelty of the old times. God was building the foundations of Christendom, hundreds of years before Christ came to die on the Cross.

And if the Law of God could change cultures, civilizations, and law codes in those barbaric times, how much more can it do it today, if faithfully preached and proclaimed? Christendom can and must be restored, and this must be the task of our evangelism today. Nothing less.

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  1. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Lycurgus. []
  2. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Numa Pompilius. []

About Bojidar Marinov

A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website:

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6 Responses to The Shadow of Christ in the Legal Revolutions in Greece and Rome (Part 2)

  1. John Caneday May 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    As you may know, Augustine refers to the destruction of the writings of Numa in “The City of God.”

    Here is the relevant portion:

    • Bojidar Marinov May 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      Ha! I had forgotten about it. Thank you! Very relevant.

  2. Vee June 1, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    Great article Boji! It was like reading a sermon of hope to a blind and lost world as well as to a pessimistic church. There can be no lasting political order (coupled with liberty) apart from the Law of God, one of my Theonomic Amill bros whims as I told him the name of your new site, why, because his eschatology will not let him see the possibility of the Kingdoms rule in this physical world. I believe as Christians become more logical in the working out of the implications of there doctrine (epistemologically self-aware) they will be a great division and one view will move forward into the future to have the preeminence in the church. There is one area I would dear to openly disagree with G. Bhansen (ok there is more then on but one pertaining to this topic) that is Theonomy must be married to Postmill eschatology, I heard GB make the statement that “you do not have to be PM to be Theonomic” while I don’t disagree at that point I think that statement needs to have a caveat that you would have to be divided in your thinking with a negative eschatology thus making you a less effective worker in the field that you do not believe will ever see any returns except the spiritual reward of getting your hands dirty, the harvest of fruit (success) is the fuel the hope that drives the engine of the Kingdom, not just for carnal pleasers, but for the glory of the crown rights of Christ. This website is that small cloud the size of a fist, that mustard seed that will start a new era in a eschatology of Hope! !(or at least I hole so!) P.S. I listened to a sermon today on 9/11 that justified the state of the world as well as future decline he used passages like matt 24 and the book of Thess. to justify this hopeful hopelessness and broke only once in his discouragement to state emphatically of the effects of the Gospel on men’s hearts and the change in brings. This was no blind heterodox minister but a self proclaimed reformed Calvinistic Presbyterian of the free variety. I think I better stop my rambling there it speaks for its self ( would not like to be accuse of being the new E. Harris of this great site) Thanks Bo for the encouragement and as usual the excellent history lesson it’s a breath of fresh air, ill be your Huckleberry in this momentous work!



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