I think the point of pairing Lycurgus with Solon, rather than Numa, which is what Plutarch does, is that both are lawgivers, and that both fix in some way the characteristics of Athens and Sparta.
Lycurgus does a number of interesting things.
- Establish an oligarchy of thirty rulers, but he also ensures that there is, in theory a countervailing power that represents the people. “Amongst the many changes and alterations which Lycurgus made, the first and of greatest importance was the establishment of the senate, which, having a power equal to the kings' in matters of great consequence, and, as Plato expresses it, allaying and qualifying the fiery genius of the royal office, gave steadiness and safety to the commonwealth.”
- Dividing the lands to ensure that it was parceled out equally among the citizens. However, it’s noteworthy that the Helots were enslaved. There were at least two classes, the citizens, and the slaves.
- The destruction of the currency, and its replacement by iron.
- Outlawing “superfluous arts.”
- Establishing a common mess.
- Refuses to codify his laws into writing.
- Mandates an athletic regime for women, and enforces public nudity for youth and maiden in processions.
- Tries to promote marriage. Although it would appear to be more from the political viewpoint, i. e., “our duty to the state,” than out of any moralistic or humanistic commitment to marriage.
- Encourages extra-marital relationships with a view to producing children.
- Pederasty. Ostensibly a moral thing. Not child molestation, but taking a young person under your wing, and inspiring and guiding him. I suppose the sex thing was supposed to be high-minded and noble. Maybe it was. Maybe it was as icky and perverse as we’re inclined to think it was.
- He bans foreign travel. “He filled Lacedaemon all through with proofs and examples of good conduct; with the constant sight of which from their youth up, the people would hardly fail to be gradually formed and advanced in virtue. And this was the reason why he forbade them to travel abroad, and go about acquainting themselves with foreign rules of morality, the habits of ill-educated people, and different views of government.
Plutarch doesn’t say so here, but I would think that the only way the equal distribution of land can be enforced is by having structures in place that effectively inhibit the profit and loss mechanism so that the more able cannot outdo their less competent brethren in the market place. By effectively getting rid of currency he has one mechanism that may serve that purpose. It would appear that both foreign trade and trade within Sparta were effectively undermined by this technique.
By outlawing “superfluous arts” he imposes a form of censorship that results in the elimination of “foreign goods and small wares; merchants sent no shiploads into Laconian ports; no rhetoric-master, no itinerant fortune-teller, no harlot-monger or gold or silversmith, engraver, or jeweler, set foot in a country which had no money.” Now the rhetoric-master is not a particularly well-loved character, but the teachers of rhetoric brought an openness to new ideas, and by effectively keeping them out the access to those ideas was blocked.
What seems to have happened, based on Plutarch’s description seems to be roughly analogous to the development of the Shaker style of furniture, or the development in the Islamic world of calligraphy, miniatures, and rug making, relatively minor arts in the West, into the major forms of artistic expression.
When Interestingly Plutarch observes that the lack of foreign travel means that Spartan tourists do not come back with ideas of liberation, democracy, and so on. It strikes me as rather similar to the closed society of the old Soviet Union. Travel between the USSR and the West was difficult, and travelers were closely watched. Yet the hunger for Western material goods, the desire for freedom, and the bankruptcy of the economy ultimately did in the old Soviet system.