Background to the Reforms:
Before the Rhetra ('pronouncement', supposedly derived from the Delphic Oracle) of Lycurgus and the changes it brought about, Sparta was a relatively simple society, and only a moderate power in the Peleponnese. The two previous Messenian Wars had ensured that Sparta controlled a large area of land, and had a captive, hereditary slave population.The traditional system of Sparta was that of monarchy. There were always two hereditary Kings, one from each of the Agiad and Eurypontid families. The rise of the hoplite class, the middle-income warriors who were not of the nobility and had no political voice in the system, was perhaps a catalyst for social upheaval - as those responsible for the defense of Sparta, it is likely that this group would have wished for more influence. With small rebellions taking place amongst the slave population of Messenia, and tyrants seizing power in other Greek city states, the Spartans (also known as Lacedaimonians) were probably very conscious of their frailties. Although it is not known when (it is thought they occurred sometime in the seventh century BC) or why the reforms of Lycurgus took place, it seems equally likely that the reforms were a concession from the nobility to the middle class in the face of growing resentment.
Lycurgus, the Lawgiver:
Did Lycurgus actually exist? Did the reforms all take place at one time, or were they simply all attributed to one person? It is likely that these two questions will remain unanswered, as the sources available from the time are scanty at best. Despite sources such as Plutarch's Lycurgus, seemingly a full biography, it is important to note that this was written centuries after the reforms, and that it holds many inconsistencies. All information about the Lycurgan Reforms is debated, and so I will attempt to give as many viewpoints as is possible.
Lycurgus, whether or not such a man actually existed, is part of the Spartan myth of equality which remains a curious subject to this day. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus was a Spartan prince, descended from Heracles. If he did exist, then it is thought he may have lived in the seventh century BC, perhaps around the time of the Second Messenian War. Lycurgus was given, by the people of Sparta, the power to reform their entire social, political and financial system - the effects of these radical changes would see Sparta rise to become master of the Aegean, then later fall due to internal decay. The reforms are attributed to the famed 'Rhetra' of Lycurgus.
The Land Reforms:
Lycurgus is attributed with one of the most fascinating and original state reforms ever made - the splitting of Spartan land into lots, known as kleros (pl. kleroi) which were distributed to each male Spartan citizen, although it is doubtful that this allocation was done at one time, or was truly equal in nature. The plots of land were either assigned to each healthy, male baby at birth (a governmental inspection ensured that the population was always capable of being warriors) or may have been able to be inherited (there is conflicting evidence for both points of view, although it is more likely that after the original allocation(s) of kleroi, they became a family possession).
The kleros was an important part of the Lycurgan system which was imposed upon Sparta. Now that each citizen, or 'equal' (homoioi) had the ability to gain sustenance without doing work himself (with the kleros came slaves known as helots), they were to train as hoplite warriors full-time, so that Sparta's infantry power was unmatched by any in the Aegean - in fact, it became illegal for any homoioi to do work apart from military training! It is through this system that the legend of Spartan hoplite invincibility was born, as the city state evolved to become an institutional military power.
Additionally, the Spartan hoplites lived until thirty years of age in a military barracks (syssition), and each month they were expected to present a quota of produce to the mess. Failure to comply with this rule saw the Spartan demoted from 'equal' status, and become an 'inferior'. They thus lost their citizen right of voting, and their kleros probably returned to the state. Promotion back to homoioi status was rare and difficult to achieve, although there were a few recorded instances of so-called mothakes, lesser men achieving higher status.
The kleroi were located in both Messenia (Eastern Peleponnese) and in Laconia (ie, Sparta and its surrounding land), and were probably divided at different points in Sparta's history. Although there are different figures given for the number of lots, 9000 is a recurring number for the Spartan homoioi, and 30000 (probably smaller) lots may have also been allocated for the perioeci class, the freemen of Lacedaimonia but not citizens. The process of division was probably gradual, and occured as Sparta conquered more and more of the Peleoponnese - first, the Eurotas valley, then the Pamisus valley, then the whole of Messenia after the Second Messian War came to its bitter end. It is likely that the nobles kept all of the kleroi produced from the first conquests, and continued to receive extra lots as more land divisions occurred. Thus, the nobles probably ended up with large estates, and the average homoioi had one plot.
With each male citizen in Sparta now owning a kleros (or several), a precedent was set - the plot of land was now a prerequisite of citizenship, as was giving a monthly quota of food to the military barracks. A kleros was only big enough to produce food for one family and the helots which worked the land. Estimates are at approximately eighty to eighty-five bushels of barley per year, along with extra wine and oil. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus "...on returning from a journey some time afterwards, as he traversed the land just after the harvest, and saw heaps of grain standing parallel and equal to one another, he smiled, and said to them that were by: 'All Laconia looks like a family estate newly divided among many brothers.'"
It would take over four hundred years for the land alottment system in Sparta to break down, through loss of land with rebellion, and the reforms of the system made by the Ephor Epitadeus.
Although the land reforms made by Lycurgus were an integral part of the new Spartan system, they were backed up and expanded by other reforms of equal importance...
Lycurgus is attributed with the official changing of Sparta from monarchy to oligarchy, as described in the 'Rhetra of Lycurgus', the document itself:
Having established a cult of Syllanian Zeus and Athena, having done the tribing and obing, and having established a Gerousia of thirty members including the kings, (1) season in season out they are to hold Apellai between Babyka and Knakion; (2) the Gerousia is both to introduce proposals and stand aloof; (3) the damos is to have the power to give a decisive verdict; (4) but if the damos speaks crookedly, the Gerousia and kings are to be the removers.
Firstly, a few translation remarks: Gerousia refers to a council of elders; 'tribing' and 'obing' refers to the splitting of the Doric society into three tribes and five obes (both were population groups used for various state purposes, one based upon ancestry and the other on geography it is thought); Apellai is generally thought to mean a meeting, probably the festival in honour of Apollo; damos is the Greek word demos (ie, people), in the Doric variation of the language (the Spartans were ethnically Doric Greeks, as opposed to Ionian like the Athenians); 'to give a decisive verdict' is Plutarch's glossed-over translation of a confusing phrase in the original document; and finally, the fourth part of the Rhetra is considered to be a later addition.
The changes made by the Rhetra ensured a new level of harmony within the Spartan political system; in turn, the people of the state were able to concentrate on public matters (eg, military training) and protect their interests against other Greek city states, and from internal strife, as a relatively small number of Spartans controlled a huge slave population which was not entirely content with its status. The Rhetra, while still not entirely understood through translation, outlined the powers of the main facets of Spartan politics, although it did not mention the power of the Ephors at all (higher magistrates who would eventually become very powerful).
The two kings had traditionally been checked only by the fact that there were two of them, as they were constitutionally equal in power. Although they retained a few special privileges - such as leading the hoplite armies to war, some social privileges, some priestly authority and some judicial authority - the kings were now but members of the high council of the land. It is thought that originally, the kings had the right to decide foreign policy and declare war, although evidence exists that within a century or two, the damos held this privilege.
The Gerousia, as established by Lycurgus, comprised thirty members of life appointment: the two reigning kings, and twenty-eight elders (gerontes). The elders needed to be full citizens over sixty years of age in order to try to be members of this oligarchic ruling council. The Gerousia held a mainly probouleutic function, in that its primary purpose was to organise proposals that were to be voted upon in the people's assembly (the Ecclesia). This meant that they were the most powerful political body, in that the people could not bring proposals for discussion themselves. Also, the fourth section of the Rhetra (the ammendment) shows that the Gerousia also held the final veto in policy.
The Ecclesia (or Ekklesia, if you will) was the people's assembly, and all full Spartiates (ie, male citizens over thirty and homoioi) had the right to attend this assembly and cast a vote on matters put forward by the Gerousia. The assembly held electoral powers, in that they elected the Ephors and new members of the Gerousia. Although there is much scholarly debate about the powers of the Ecclesia, it seems that it was only a ratification body, and had no right of deliberation.
Military and Social Reforms:
Now that each full Spartan family had the means to support themselves thanks to the state, they were forbidden to partake in any activity which was not for the public interest: the men and boys were to train for combat, the girls were to also to gain physical fitness, and the women were to raise very young children and give birth. The reliance of the state upon its citizens and vice versa meant that a system of Eunomia (condition of being well-ordered, under good laws) was achieved; Sparta now could develop a first-class army with which to suppress any rebellions in the outer lands (the homoioi ruled their helots without leaving the city itself). The social reform that would transform Sparta into a military state was known as the agoge.
The agoge was designed to formulate an army which did not question the orders of its superiors, which was supremely loyal, patriotic, uniform and with a spirit that would see people die for each other and their cause. The system which was put in place achieved these aims, and created the legacy of the Spartan hoplite which would last until the rise of Thebes, after the Spartan defeat of Athens - namely, that the Spartan phalanx could not be defeated, or at least not without great losses for the other side even when the Spartans were considerably outnumbered.
The state military system began for each child at birth, where officials examined the children for fitness. Those deemed unworthy of being a Spartan were to be abandoned in the wilderness, for the Spartans considered that only people who were in prime physical condition would be able to serve the state properly (it is important to note that all Spartans were considered to be the property of the state). If the child passed this examination, then they were to be raised by their mother (and possibly father, depending upon his age) until the age of six. At this point in their lives, all male children excepting the royal hiers-apparent would be placed into 'herds' (agelai), where their training began. In these groups, the most able boy was chosen as leader, and held control of discipline over the other children as they began their physical training; in this way, the group learned to obey orders, and function as a unit.
At age thirteen, the boys graduated into a new phase of the agoge, where they were paired with an eiren (a member of the next stage) who was their tutor and lover. This system of institutionalised homosexuality was considered to create bonds within the army, thus making a tighter-knit fighting force as the men would fight harder to protect those on either side of them. Observed at all times by the full members of the army, the boys continued to train, and at age nineteen, they became eirenes themselves.
Although their is some debate over ages, at either twenty or twenty-four, the trainees needed to be elected into a barracks and common mess (syssition or pheidition; they were elected by the current members of the barracks who used a voting system of placing bread in a basket. Election was a prerequisite to entering the army, and was thus a prerequisite of citizenship. For the most part, the Spartan who entered the barracks would live there for the rest of his life, although marriage was allowed. In fact, it was quite possible for wives of the men to have children by them without ever meeting them by day - the Spartan marriage system was one which involved meeting in the dark, and not seeing each other's face until a certain age!
At age thirty, the member of the barracks gained full citizen rights (voting and membership of the Ecclesia), was a full member of the army and was expected to partake in military duties until the age of sixty. It is also important to note that the female members of society were not closeted away as in other Greek city states of the time, but were expected to keep up with a physical fitness regime designed to help them produce healthy children (this was the duty of the female Spartan). For more specifics (although keeping in mind the limitations of the document), a good reference is reading Plutarch's Lycurgus:
The Spartan system was revolutionary, and has been held up as a model of Marxist society in more recent times. The reforms of the legendary lawgiver, Lycurgus, stayed internal disharmony in Sparta for an additional four centuries, and succeeded in creating a military state which held the complete devotion of its citizens. Sparta, thanks to this system, rose as a power in the Peleponnese, and then in the Aegean, finally ruling the entire region before crumbling itself.
A bunch of lecture notes, Plutarch cited at http://www.e-classics.com/lycurgus.htm, and Terry Buckley's Aspects of Greek History : 750-323BC, 1996, Routledge (London), Chapter 4.