Historian Helena P. Schrader discusses ancient Spartan society and culture, seeking to rectify a number of misconceptions. She will also review recent books on Sparta or set in Ancient Greece as well as discuss her published novels on archaic Sparta, and her three part biographical novel on Leonidas and Gorgo.
No, this is not about
Thermopylae. This is about Leonidas’ entire military career.
First and foremost, Leonidas was
one of the few Spartan kings, who was a professional military man. Unlike the
Spartan kings before and almost all the Spartan kings after him, Leonidas
“enjoyed” the complete program of military training imposed on Spartan citizens
from boyhood through ten years of active service, and a lifetime in the
reserves thereafter. Thus, Leonidas was
one of the only Spartan kings as familiar with every formation and drill
employed by the Spartan army as his troops, and as adept with the use of
weapons as his fellow citizens. Equally important, having been an ordinary
ranker, he knew exactly how they thought, felt and reacted. Leonidas was as
much a soldier as he was a commander. This was a significant advantage. It was
what made other Spartan commanders like Brasidas and Lysander effective as
Nor was his experience confined
to the drill-field. Although Sparta in
the late archaic was not a city perpetually at war (though readers of Steven
Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire can be forgiven for being misled into
believing this), in Leonidas’ lifetime Lacedaemon was engaged in a number of
significant military campaigns. Thus, while Leonidas never fought the more than
20 campaigns Pressfield fantasizes about, he would gained second- or
first-hand experience from a more limited number of wars.
First, when Leonidas was still a child
or youth (depending on his date of birth), Sparta made an unsuccessful attempt
to drive the tyrant Polycrates out of Samos. Notably, this required deployment of a
considerable force by sea and involved a forty day siege as well as an assault
in which some of the Spartans managed to break into the city, but were then cut
off and killed. The rest returned. The
failure and the loss of life must have been the topic of many discussions in
syssitia across the city for many years of come – probably with recriminations
and a lot of “Monday-morning-quarterbacking.” Leonidas, as a young Spartan
male serving in the syssitia as part of his upbringing, would undoubtedly have listened avidly to the accounts of this campaign
as told by the veterans, who took part.
Roughly ten years later,
Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes undertook an invasion of Attica, again by
sea. Once again, Sparta’s expeditionary
force was defeated and driven back to their ships, this time by Thessalian
cavalry. Leonidas was by this time very
likely in his late teens, if not already a young man. Conceivably, he even took
part in this expedition, but if so only in a subordinate capacity as an
ordinary ranker. Whatever his age and role, Leonidas would have learned a
valuable lesson, at least second hand, about the capabilities of cavalry and
the advisability of not under-estimating it.
Cleomenes undertook no less than
three additional campaigns against Athens.
In the first, he successfully dislodged the Athenian tyrant Hippias, but
in the second, in which he sought to drive out Cleisthenes and restrict
Athenian democracy, he found himself bottled up on the acropolis by the
outraged Athenian masses and had to negotiate a truce to withdraw – with his
tail between his legs. Given the small and evidently informal nature of these
first two campaigns (Herodotus suggests both campaigns were conducted with
small volunteer forces), it is unlikely that Leonidas was an active participant
in either of these expeditions.
Burning from the humiliation of
his second defeat, however, Cleomenes called up the full Spartan army and
the allies of the Peloponnesian league. Spartan
law at this time, however, did not allow the full army to deploy outside of
Lacedaemon without both kings in command, so Cleomenes was accompanied on this
fourth campaign against Athens by his co-monarch Demaratus. Demaratus was not as enthusiastic about
invading Attica as Cleomenes – and nor were the Peloponnesian allies.
Cleomenes’ army got as far as Eleusis, but there the Corinthians drew the line.
They had no quarrel with Athens, and they refused to continue. Demaratus sided
with the Corinthians. The allied army disintegrated, and the conflict
between Cleomenes and Demaratus hog-tied the Spartan army as well. The Spartans
had no choice but to return, undefeated but humiliated again.
Leonidas was almost certainly present
with the Spartan army during this last campaign against Athens. Depending on
his date of birth, he might already have been a junior officer. Regardless of his military rank, as Cleomenes
half-brother and heir apparent, he almost certainly knew what was going on in
the command tents, if not directly, then indirectly. While the campaign would have provided him
with no combat experience, it would certainly have taught him a great deal
about operations involving multi-national forces – a lesson that would be very
important for his later life.
The next major military campaign
of Leonidas’ lifetime was the campaign against Argos that culminated in the
dramatic Spartan victory at Sepeia. This campaign again involved the entire
active Spartan army, so Leonidas’ participation is almost 100% certain. Significantly, it also contained a nautical
component: the Spartan army was ferried across the Gulf of Argos from Thyrea in
Lacedaemon to Nauplia in the Argolid. There followed a massive confrontation
with the full Argive army that was at least as numerous if not larger than the all-Spartiate force facing it.
Although the Argives had learned how to read the Spartan signals,
Cleomenes cleverly took advantage of this to mislead the Argives into thinking
the Spartans were standing down for a meal. As soon as the Argive phalanx broke
up, he attacked. The ensuing slaughter
allegedly deprived Argos of a generation of fighters, but Cleomenes singularly
failed to follow up his battle-field victory with the occupation of the
undefended city of Argos. The “lessons learned” for Leonidas would have started
with the flexibility of deployment offered by seaborne transport, and included
the importance of intelligence (the Argive familiarity with Spartan signals), and, of course, the advantages of
What Leonidas thought of his
brother’s slaughter of prisoners and the burning of a sacred wood is
unrecorded, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume he
shared popular Spartan opinion – and this was to put Cleomenes on trial for
treason. The accusation was that he had
taken a bribe not to take Argos when it lay undefended before a victorious
Spartan army -- probably because the prosecution could think of no other
plausible reason why such a splendid opportunity would be wasted after over two
hundred years of bitter hostilities.Herodotus specifically says that Cleomenes was charged by his “enemies”
and that he was acquitted because he convinced the ephors that he could not get
favorable signs from the gods.
By this time, Lenoidas was
probably already married to Gorgo, and he was Cleomenes’ heir. It is unlikely that he would have been
counted among Cleomenes’ enemies. It is
almost equally improbable that he approved of Cleomenes behavior. Cleomenes was
acquitted of taking a bribe and he defended himself with weapons (the will of
the gods) against which the ephors were helpless; that is not the same thing as
saying his actions were applauded even by his supporters. Furthermore, Leonidas will have taken careful
note of the fact that failure to exploit a victory – much less defeat -- could
put a king in jeopardy.
The next significant military
engagement of Leonidas’ lifetime was one in which Sparta played no direct role
and yet it may have been the most decisive military moment in Leonidas life
prior to Thermopylae: the Battle of Marathon. To summarize, Leonidas very
probably led the two thousand Spartiates that arrived in Marathon after a
dramatic forced march that enabled them to cover the distance from Sparta to
Athens in less than three days -- but one day after the decisive battle had been
fought. He would have toured the battlefield in company with Athenian
commanders and fighters, gleaning a great deal of information about the
Persians, their weapons, armor, tactics and morale. He would also have gained considerable respect
for Athenian (and Plataean) fighting capacity. Leonidas would have seen first-hand at
Marathon that Greek hoplites could withstand Persian missiles and Persian
cavalry and inflict dramatically higher casualties than they suffered. However, it would
also have left a psychological scar: the sense of having come too late.
And so we come to Thermopylae. Leonidas’
determination to deploy when he did, even if he could take only 300 Spartiates
with him was, I believe, dictated by his experience at Marathon. Leonidas, who undoubtedly appreciated the
military importance of Thermopylae and Artemisium, was determined not to come
too late a second time.
This is not the same thing as
believing he was undertaking a suicide mission.
Leonidas had no reason to believe that the force he took north was not
sufficient to hold the Pass until Sparta and other cities, the Karneia and the
Olympic Games over, could deploy their main forces. Leonidas did not, after
all, march north with just 300 men. In addition to the Spartiates, he had
perioikoi troops, allies from the Peloponnesian League, Thespians, Thebans and
Phocians. Leonidas had between 6,000 and 7,000 Greek hoplites at Thermopylae, a
pass that at that time narrowed down to a cart track at two places.
To be sure, Leonidas allegedly knew
from the Delphic oracle that his own fate was sealed. He presumably expected to
die, but there was no reason to assume his death would be futile. On the
contrary, Delphi had promised to save Sparta, if one of her kings fell in
battle. Leonidas most likely believed
(or wanted to believe) that although he would die, his army would be
successful. Nor did he expect all the
Spartiates he took with him to die. The fact that he took only the fathers of
living sons north with him was not because he expected them all to die, but
because he expected some of them would die. He did not want to risk the
extermination of even a single Spartiate family – not when he had so many men
to choose from.
Leonidas’ tactical competence at
Thermopylae has been questioned primarily because of his failure to put
Spartiates on the mountain trail by which the pass was turned. The argument is that he failed to take the
risk to his flank/rear seriously, and the positioning of Phocian troops on this
critical route was amateurish. Hindsight is always clearer than foresight. But
even with hindsight, it is not completely convincing that Leonidas should have
risked splitting his already very small force to send, say, 100 Spartiates to
guard what was essentially a goat-trail.
Furthermore, one thousand men out of a force just six to seven thousand
strong, represents a very significant commitment of troops available, and
suggests Leonidas took the threat seriously indeed. To imply that a hundred
Spartans would have been better than a thousand Phocians reflects modern
fascination with the Spartan military myth, but can hardly be conisdered a serious
military assessment. Leonidas’ evident assumption that the locals with the
greatest stake in a successful defense of Thermopylae and the best knowledge of
the terrain would be the best defenders of the flanking path is more convincing
than modern dismissals of such logic. It is tempting to judge a strategy
by its result – but that is not always fair.
Otherwise, Leonidas appears to
have developed a highly effective strategy for defending the Pass, one that
effectively neutralized the superiority of numbers on the Persian side and
enabled a comparatively small number of defenders to hold the overwhelming
might of Xerxes army for two days. Although – or rather because -- Herodotus
does not give us the casualties of the first two days, we can presume that they
were not inordinate. The defense of the “Middle Gate” which was wider than the
“Eastern” or “Western Gates” appears to have given the Greeks the optimal
opportunity to reduce Persian pressure but bring sufficient of their own troops
to bear. Equally impressive, Leondias evidently welded the diverse contingents together and succeeded in getting them to cooperate. Herodotus says that the allies fought in
relays, or turns, so that the troops from each city had time to rest, refresh
themselves and tend their wounds between taking their turn at the front. While
this sounds logical and reasonable, it is far from self-evident. It would also
have required considerable skill in execution – or each change would have
produced confusion that the Persians could have exploited.
Leonidas' military career is described in books II and III of the Leonidas Trilogy. A Peerless Peer
Most historians confine their
commentary on Leonidas to his appearance and departure from the scene of
history. His reign was, after all, quite
short (ten years) and there were no known changes to Spartan territory or law, no
works of art or monuments, not even any natural disasters that can be dated
specifically to the reign of Leonidas.
It is therefore presumptuous of me to label Leonidas a “reformer king.”
I know that.
Now that I have your attention….
Looking at Spartan history from the
Messenian War to Sparta’s dismal and ignominious end under Rome, the reign
of Leonidas represents in many ways a turning point. In crude terms, the archaic age extended from
the mid-eight century to end of the 6th century BC. The classical age followed. Thus Leonidas’
reign fell at the transition.
In Sparta, it is exactly that
transition that represents a particularly sharp and significant break in Sparta’s
development. The history of Sparta as a
distinct city-state coincides with the dawn of the archaic period with the
Messenian War that sparked the unrest that led to the introduction of
Sparta’s unique laws. Archaic Sparta saw not only the establishment of this
new, revolutionary form of government (arguably the first democracy in
history), but also a significant flourishing of the arts and trade. Sparta’s
most significant monuments (e.g. the Menelaion, the Amyklaion) were constructed
in the archaic period. Sparta’s most famous poets – Tyrtaios, Alkman – lived
and worked in the archaic age. Sparta produced sculptors – some of whom were
explicitly described as Spartiate – of such international renown that they produced works for Olympia,
while Sparta developed export-quality
pottery in the 6th century.
Sparta’s archaic bronze works were even more outstanding and
competitive, reaching a peak in quality and creativity in the early 6th
century. Not least important, Sparta’s
most admired statesmen in the ancient world, Lycurgus and Chilon, both lived in
the archaic period. While many doubt that Lycurgus was a real person and prefer
to see him as a mere legend, Chilon was very certainly real, one of the ancient
world’s “wise men.”
Sparta in the classical period in
contrast is characterized by artistic stagnation and such a dramatic end to
Sparta’s competitiveness in trade and manufacturing that those who study only
classical and Hellenistic Sparta are completely unaware of Sparta’s impressive earlier
accomplishments. Indeed, based on descriptions of the Spartan state and
constitution written at the end of the fifth century and later, Sparta appears
to have become a city-state that disdained luxury and by inference art
itself. Certainly Sparta’s exports of
finished products declined, and a sharp drop in number of artifacts from this
period found at the sites of Spartan temples may indicate that domestic
production was also severely restricted. (Alternatively, younger layers of
deposits were lost due to flooding, earthquakes etc.)
Assuming the existing archeological
record and the writen depictions of Spartan society more-or-less accurately
describe classical and later Spartan society, then Sparta underwent a radical,
indeed revolutionary, change in the mid-5th century. The question is why?
There are a number of possible
answers: A) the Persian Wars, B) the Great Earthquake of 465 and subsequent
population decline, C) the Helot Revolt; D) the bitter war with Athens, and E)
All of the Above.
So what does this have to do with Leonidas? My thesis is that Leonidas was the last of
the archaic kings not just in terms of timing but in terms of policy. Sparta
obtained its reputation for opposing tyrants and built up the Peloponnesian
League in the second half of the 6th century during the reigns of
Leonidas’ two predecessors, his father and half-brother. These policies reflect on the one hand an
interest in world affairs, and on the other a willingness to negotiate and
compromise rather than rely on brute force.
The evidence for Leonidas’
cosmopolitanism is first and foremost his election to lead the coalition of
Greek states that opposed the Persian invasion of 480. This fact has far too often been
interpreted simply as a tribute to Sparta’s
position as the leading Greek power of the age.
This ignores the fact that just two years after Leonidas’ death, the
same coalition of forces preferred Athenian leadership to submitting to command
by Leonidas’ successor Pausanias ― and Pausanias had just led the coalition to
a spectacular victory at Plataea!
Sparta was not
less powerful in 478 than she had been in 480, and her reputation in arms was
greater. If simply being Spartan was all
that mattered to the allies, the coalition would have asked Sparta to send King Leotychias or another
Spartan general to replace Pausanias, but it did not. Just as Pausasias was not elected in 478, Leonidas was elected in 480, not because he was
Spartan but because of who he was. In
481, Leonidas personally enjoyed the trust of the coalition partners.
Leonidas probably gained that
trust through personal contact, and that suggests a degree of travel within the
Greek world. He probably attended the pan-Hellenic games regularly, for
example. (Other Spartan kings of his age were competitors.) He may also have
met leaders from other cities in Sparta itself, if they came to see the
Gymopaedia or Hyacinthia, for example. However,
Gorgo allegedly made her famous statement about why Spartan women “rule” their
men to a woman from Attica. Since Athenian women weren’t supposed to set foot
out of their home let alone outside their cities, it is far more likely that
the exchange, if it occurred at all, took place in Attica than Lacedaemon. The
most logical explanation would be that Gorgo travelled with Leonidas to Athens
at some point in his reign. As the Persian threat grew, it would have been very
logical to find Leonidas garnering support for a united stand against the
invaders by travelling to all major Greek cities, first and foremost Athens,
but also Thebes and Corinth.
During Leonidas’ lifetime, Sparta
not only took an active interest in world affairs and exported significant
works of art (sculpture, bronze, pottery) overseas, it also commanded respectable
naval resources. In the reign of Leonidas’ father, Sparta undertook an
expedition against Samos and his half-brother launched a seaborne attack
against Attica. The significance of a navy is that it required loyal oarsmen. Rowing
a warship is notoriously back-breaking, tedious, stinking work. It was so
unpleasant that it was a form of punishment in later centuries and criminals
would be condemned to “the galleys.” Slaves, chained to the oar-banks, is an
image we carry around with us from films like “Ben Hur.” In fact, however, in
the ancient world, particularly in ancient Greece, the crews of warships were
predominantly citizens. This was because no city could afford to
entrust the maneuverability and speed of their fighting ships to anyone who did
not have a stake in the outcome of an engagement.
The most probable source of
competent seamen was the perioikoi residents of Lacedaemon. Perioikoi towns,
unlike land-locked Sparta, were often located on the coast (Epidauros Limera,
Boiai, Kardamyle, Asine, Pylos, and, of course, Gytheon, to name only a few.)
On the other hand, the perioikoi element at Plataea equaled Sparta’s,
suggesting that the perioikoi elite did not greatly outnumber the Spartiates
themselves. Another source of seamen would have been helots, but if helots were
as oppressed and hostile to Sparta as most historians claim, then it would have
been suicidal to trust the oars of naval ships to helot oarsmen.
On the other hand, conditions for
helots were not as consistently severe as generally presumed, then there might
have been at least some loyal helots.
Possibly special incentives in the form of emancipation or increased
status was offered to helots who served in Sparta’s fledgling navy, or,
alternatively, conditions for helots were generally improving throughout the
later part of the 6th century when Sparta was evidently enjoying a
period of prosperity and comparative peace.
The very fact that the Spartans could take 35,000 helot auxiliaries with
them to Plataea suggests widespread support among the helot population.
(Suggestions that the Spartans took 35,000 rebellious helots with them when
marching out to face the undefeated Persian army are ludicrous.) In short, in
480 BC Sparta had a fleet of at least 16 triremes requiring almost 3,000
oarsmen and 35,000 light troops, all
of whom were deemed loyal to the Spartan state. Sparta were putting her future
in the hands of these helots.
But roughly one decade later the
only recorded helot revolt against Sparta erupted. This is highly significant because we know
that revolutions occur neither when people are content nor when they are most
oppressed or exploited. Uprisings are
most likely to occur when a long period
of rising living standards and political expectations is abruptly ended by
economic or political crisis. My hypothesis is that during Cleomenes’ reign
helots had enjoyed a slow but steady increase in living standards, something
that accelerated under Leonidas and was combined with rising political
expectations. In the post-Leonidas era, however, these hopes and expectations were
sharply shattered, leading to the explosive situation that culminated in the
Leonidas was undoubtedly the last
of the archaic kings. Sparta’s archaic age saw the foundation and development
of Sparta’s political system, flanked by a highly sophisticated foreign policy
and the evolution of a powerful alliance system. Archaic Sparta witnessed the blossoming of
artistic and musical accomplishment, the growth of trade in finished products
with a wider world, and the growth of naval capability. The archaic was
Sparta’s golden age. Would it have continued if Leonidas and his closest
companions had not died at Thermopylae? Probably not indefinitely, but possibly
the helot revolt that led to intense paranoia in the later 5th
century could have been avoided. Likewise, if Leonidas had still lived, neither
Pausanias nor Leotychidas would have been given a chance to turn Sparta’s
allies into enemies. Read more about Leonidas the King in the third part of the Leonidas Trilogy: A Heroic King.
Fans of “300” may find it hard to think of Leonidas as a
diplomat. In the Hollywood cartoon,
Leonidas is portrayed as the brutal antithesis of a diplomat: he personally
throws a Persian ambassador down a well.
But there is no more historical evidence that Leonidas committed this
crime than that Xerxes was a monster. The historical record, foggy and imprecise as
it is, suggests that far from being a tactless brut, Leonidas was probably a
very savvy diplomat.
The evidence for Leonidas’ diplomatic talent is indirect
rather than explicit. It is evident in what he did, rather than what is said
about him. Quite simply: During his
brief reign, Leonidas managed to forge a coalition of Greek states willing to
oppose the Persian invasion and to convince this loose coalition
of independent and proud city-states to agree to a unified command. The significance of such an achievement can
be measured by the fact that ten years earlier Athens didn’t place her army
even under the unified command of a single Athenian; no less than ten generals
shared command of the Athenian army at Marathon. Equally notable, while Leonidas’ brother Cleomenes
alienated Lacedaemon’s Peloponnesian allies to the point of provoking revolt,
Leonidas won over new Allies such as Mycenae and Tiryns.
As for the incident with the Persian ambassadors, Herodotus
tells us that the Spartans shared the guilt for the murder of the ambassadors. According to Herodotus, the entire city was
threatened by ill-omens and the Spartan Assembly met repeatedly in order to
find volunteers from among the citizens willing to appease the Gods by dying in
atonement for the murdered Persian ambassadors.
If, as when Cleomenes’ burned the Sacred Wood near Argos, the crime had
been committed by either of the Spartan kings, the Spartans would have
expected/demanded that the king bear responsibility. Whoever killed the Persian ambassadors, the
entire Spartiate population felt collectively guilty about it – something that
suggests the Persian emissaries had not been the victims of a spontaneous act of
violence but rather condemned by the Spartan Assembly. (Something which in turn suggests that
Spartan Assemblies could be quite rowdy affairs, but that is a subject for
another day….) Leonidas' sophisticated diplomacy is an important theme in the third book of my three part biographical novel of Leonidas: A Heroic King.
It has become fashionable to denigrate the memory of
Leonidas by associating him with suicide bombers (Cartledge) or by accusing him
of murdering his brother. Thus Dr. Nic Fields in Thermopylae 480 BC: Last stand of the 300 dismisses Herodotus’
version of King Kleomenes’ death on the grounds that “the Spartans were
notoriously abstemious” and concludes instead that: “It seems more likely that
Kleomenes’ reign was cut short [sic] by murder, arranged and hushed up, on the
orders of the man who succeeded him on the Agiad throne.” (p. 14)
There are a large number of problems with this thesis. First and foremost, of course, is that there
is not a shred of historical evidence for it. Not one ancient source accuses Leonidas of fratricide. Herodotus, as Fields notes, has a completely
different version of events. So we are talking about nothing more than a modern
Fields feels justified fabricating this story because,
according to him, all Spartans (every last single one of them over hundreds of
years) were “abstemious” and since none ever drank in excess, a Spartan king
who drank too much is a historical (physical?) impossibility. Frankly, that’s a
little much. Even Spartans were human beings, and human beings are
fallible. Furthermore, we are talking
here about one of Sparta’s kings. Even if one could argue that peer pressure on
an ordinary citizen would have been too great in Sparta’s overweening society
to ever allow anyone to deviate too far from the norms, a Spartan king clearly
did have more leeway. The fact that Herodotos mentions the Spartans blamed his
madness on his drinking habits underlines the facts that Kleomenes’ behavior
was not considered normal in Sparta.
Spartans as a rule were abstemious, Kleomenes was not. Fields’ argument is
Of course, Fields is not the first historian to conclude
that the hero of Thermopylae was really a murderer on the run. Most accept the
fact that Kleomenes might have had a drinking problem, but cannot believe that
anyone would try to flay themselves alive.
Because they cannot imagine something so appalling and hence cannot
accept Herodotus at face value, they feel justified in accusing Kleomenes’
successor of regicide, fratricide and patricide (since Kleomenes was not only
Leonidas’ king, but also his brother and father-in-law) all at once.
Yet, as W. G. Forrest points out in his excellent, concise
work A History of Sparta: 950 – 192 BC
: “A recent psychological study has pointed out that the details of
[Kleomenes’] final self-mutilation are in fact consistent with a paranoid
As so often, the evidence is with Herodotus – not those, who
lack the imagination to believe him.
Yet even if we were to dismiss Herodotus’ version of Kleomenes’
death as implausible, would that justify pointing the finger at Leonidas?
W. P. Wallace in his excellent article, “Kleomenes,
Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia” (The
Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35), suggests
some plausible reasons why the Spartan state might have wanted to rid itself of
Kleomenes. Wallace presents some weak
but nonetheless cogent evidence that an Arkadian league formed at about this
time and Herodotus also speaks of Kleomenes stirring up trouble in
Arkadia. Wallace argues that if
Kleomenes was being successful in turning some of the Arkadian states against
Sparta, than the Spartans may have felt he had to be taken out of circulation
once and for all. But even this does not justify putting the blame for any
surreptitious regicide on Leonidas.
People, who subscribe to this theory, argue that because
Leonidas succeeded to the throne, he had to have the most to gain from
murdering his brother, and so he must have been the man behind it.But Leonidas was Kleomenes’ heir at the
latest from the day his elder brother Dorieus died, possibly from the day Dorieus
departed Sparta. Why would he have waited almost 40 years until he was over 50
years of age to suddenly become ambitious and covet his brother’s throne? Did
he, after serving Kleomenes almost his entire life, suddenly turn against him
because of “troubles” in Arkadia? Surely Kleomenes had made other, more
dramatic blunders, from Athens to Argos, that would have given him a pretext
for murder -- had he been so inclined. But we hear nothing of Leonidas being
disloyal after Kleomenes’ earlier debacles.
Another thing I would like to know from those who charge
Leonidas with murder is what Gorgo was doing while her husband murdered her
father? Gorgo, of all Greek women, is known for being out-spoken. Are we to
believe that she just stood by and let her husband kill her father without a
word of protest? More: that after her husband murdered her father, she
continued to be a loyal wife, assisting him and asking for his instructions as
he marched out to his death? Surely, the
woman, who as a child had told her father not to take bribes, would have gone
on record protesting her father’s murder and then avenging his death or
scorning the murderer? (Think of the wrath of the Spartan princess Kleitamestra!)
Or are we to believe she was an accomplice? That she
supported her murderous husband like some ancient Lady MacBeth?
If so, someone needs to provide an explanation of why
Kleomenes’ only child and heir, evidently greatly favored by him as a child,
suddenly wanted him murdered in a barbaric fashion. Trouble in Arkadia hardly
seems a sufficient reason for such an appallingly unnatural sentiment. Indeed,
explaining why Gorgo allowed her husband to kill her father is psychologically
a great deal more difficult than explaining how a man as consistently instable
as Kleomenes came to commit suicide!
Last but not least, what action or statement by the
historical Leonidas and/or Gorgo justifies imputing to them the level of moral
perversion inherit in fratricide and patricide?
What did Leonidas or Gorgo ever do or say to give historians the right
to dismiss them as brutal, self-serving criminals? The arrogance is staggering.
It is sad that modern
commentators feel compelled to propagate errant nonsense about a historical
figure. To be sure, we know too little about the real Leonidas to know what
sort of man he was, but that hardly justifies untenable accusations of sadistic
fratricide just because we are uncomfortable with the disturbing but completely
plausible explanation provided by Herodotus. Leonidas' relationship with his half-brother and father-in-law is portrayed in depth in my novel: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer.
Although Helen, the ultimate femme fatale, was undoubtedly a
child of Sparta, few people nowadays think of love when they think of Sparta. Certainly,
Spartan art lacks the plethora of explicitly erotic art that is found elsewhere
in Greece. Yet the historical record suggests that love – in contrast to lust –
was indeed a feature of Spartan society. Herodotus, for example, explicitly states that
King Anaxandridas refused to divorce his apparently barren wife out of
affection for her, and only reluctantly agreed to take a second wife. Likewise, Spartan sculpture has a tradition
of showing man and wife side-by-side in harmony and near equality (and strongly
reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture, by the way).
Last but not least, Spartan law was the least misogynous among the
ancient Greek city-states, and so it was the city-state in which women were
most likely to be loved rather than despised.
A Spartan Couple -- Side by Side
Before this general background we have two historical
figures, uncle and niece, man and wife, Leonidas and Gorgo. What can we glean about them from the
historical record? Is there any indication of what their relationship might
While we know that Leonidas was
Gorgo’s uncle, we do not know when either was born and so do not know the age
difference between them. Herodotus states
that Leonidas was born only “shortly” after his brother Doreius, in which case
he would have been roughly 60 years old at Thermopylae. Likewise, according to Herodotus, Gorgo was
only about eight years old in 500, which would have made her 28 when Leonidas
died at Thermopylae, or 32 years younger than he. Such an age difference would have been
unusual in Sparta, and there are several reasons why I believe this is
unlikely. First, Leonidas’ performance at Thermopylae in the forefront of the
most bitterly fought phalanx battles of history is improbable for a man of
sixty. Hoplite fighting was grueling
even if it lasted only a few hours on a single day. Second, it would mean
Leonidas had been nearly 50 when he married, again something that violated
Spartan law and custom. Finally, it would mean that Cleomenes’ only child had
not been born to him until he was over thirty, something which was also
unlikely for a ruling king.
It is far more likely that
Leonidas was not much more than 45 at Thermopylae, 45 being the age at which
Spartan reservists were no longer called-up for front-line service (i.e. the age at which they were considered no longer fit enough for the rigors of hoplite battles.) Likewise, it is very probable that Herodotus
underestimated Gorgo’s age in his depiction of her encounter with Aristagoras, either
intentionally (in order to discredit Cleomenes), or unintentionally (because he
was unaware that Spartan girls did not marry until their late teens). (In the rest of Greece, a girl was married as
soon as possible after her first period, so any girl still in her father’s home
was per definition a “child.”) It is far more likely, however, that Gorgo was a
teenager rather than a small child in 500 BC. This would mean that about 15
years separated Leonidas from Gorgo.
While less unusual than a 32 year
age difference, the age gap is still enough to mean that Leonidas would already
have been in school by the time Gorgo was born, and make it unlikely that they
spent much time together as children. The relationship would have been further
complicated by the fact that Cleomenes was the son of Anaxandridas’ second
wife, while Leonidas the son of his first. Leonidas’ full brother Doreius
refused to serve Cleomenes and twice led expeditions abroad to set up colonies.
While Leonidas appears to have been singularly loyal to Cleomenes, there is no
indication that he was particularly favored or close to Cleomenes – except the
The fact that Leonidas was, after
the departure of Doreius, Cleomenes’ heir apparent provides the most logical
explanation of Leonidas’ marriage to Gorgo.
Gorgo clearly presented the Spartan state with a problem since the most
important duty of Sparta’s kings was to lead her hoplite army – something no woman, not even a Spartan woman, could do.
This does not, however, mean that the throne could not be transferred –
like other property – from an heiress to her husband or son. Sparta’s inheritance laws were notoriously
woman-friendly, allowing for heiresses to inherit. Therefore, the Spartans must have worried
that any man who married Gorgo would claim the Agiad throne, if not for himself
then for his sons by Gorgo. By marrying Gorgo to his half-brother and closest
male relative, Cleomenes avoided any of these potential problems.
In short, the marriage of Gorgo
and Leonidas was almost certainly dynastic; the marriage need not have involved
any kind of inclination or affection on either side. But the case is not quite that simple. First, as the closest male relative of
Cleomenes, Leonidas would have been well positioned to claim the throne without taking Gorgo to wife, if he had
found the marriage objectionable.
Certainly, if he were the kind of man, as some historians claim, who was capable of committing fratricide and regicide to
lay claim to the throne in 480, than he need not have gone to the trouble of
marrying Cleomenes’ daughter. He would have found ways of disposing of her as
well as her father. Second, while Spartan
law did not give women any official say over their husbands, it hardly seems
likely that Gorgo, who went down in history as outspoken even in matters that
did not directly concern her, was going to meekly accept a man she did not
want. In short, while there is no evidence of strong mutual attraction, there
is good reason to believe that both parties to the marriage found it acceptable.
There are two incidents in the historical record, however,
that hint at something more than a marriage of convenience. The first of these is the famous
scene in which Gorgo deciphers the significance of the apparently blank writing
tablets sent by Demaratus. The way the
scene is written, it is clear that Demaratus has sent a message to the Spartan
state – not to Leonidas personally. But “no one” could figure out what the blank
tablets meant until Gorgo suggested scraping the wax off them. The importance of this scene is two-fold.
First, it is further evidence of Gorgo’s cleverness, but secondly, it shows that Gorgo was present when affairs
of state were being discussed. A message to Sparta
would most likely have been sent to the ephors or the Gerusia. If Gorgo was
present when either of these bodies were meeting, it could only have been
because Leonidas was willing to let her be present – a clear sign of respect.
And Gorgo returned the compliment. When asked by a foreign woman why Spartan
women were the only women in the world who “ruled their men,” Gorgo allegedly
said it was because Spartans were the only women who gave birth to men. Her classically Laconic answer went straight
to the heart of the matter, accurately diagnosing the low status of women
elsewhere in the Greek world as the product of misogyny. Only Spartan men, Gorgo implied, were man
enough not to be intimidated by strong, out-spoken women. That is not the
answer of a woman, who thinks little of her own husband.
This second incident is revealing for another reason as
well. Since most Greek women were
confined to the back of their own houses and rarely set foot
outside except for weddings, funerals and assisting in the childbirth of relatives, it is hardly likely that
Gorgo’s allegedly Attican interrogator was outside of her own four walls, much
less outside her city. The woman who
asked Gorgo about the strange power of Spartan woman was in her own
environment; Gorgo was the visitor. That means that Leonidas took Gorgo with
him when he travelled abroad. That in
turn suggests a far closer relationship than a conventional marriage.
Unfortunately, the only exchange between Leonidas and Gorgo that has been passed down to us it is
little more than ideological drivel.
Allegedly, Gorgo asked Leonidas
for his “instructions” or “orders” as he marched away to his death and he told
Gorgo to do her eugenic duty to “marry a good man and have good children.” This text-book exchange is so stereotypical
that it is very probably spurious, intended to give greater credence to the
ideology contained by putting it into the mouths of heroes centuries after both
Leonidas and Gorgo were long dead.
In summary, Leonidas was the son of a man who defied the
ephors for love of his mother. He married voluntarily a young woman, who had
already established a reputation for being out-spoken and politically acute. He
included her in contexts where affairs of state were being handled. He travelled
with her abroad. He had at least one child with her. And he may have explicitly
urged her to marry again and found a new family after his own death. A love
story? Not necessarily, but it has the makings of one….
Leonidas' relationship and marriage with Gorgo is an important component of the second book in my Leonidas Trilogy: A Peerless Peer.
Although Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae is widely viewed as
the epitome of “Spartan” behavior, it was in fact unique in Spartan history. No king had ever died in battle before
Thermopylae, and famously, less than hundred years later in 425 BC, several
hundred Spartans trapped on the island of Sphacteria surrendered rather than
die to the last man.Nor was this later
incident the act of isolated, dishonorable individuals. The Spartan government
was so anxious to recover the men who surrendered that it sued for peace.
Thus, far from doing only what he had been raised to do,
Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae was a very personal one. To understand it, it is useful to look at him
as an individual – starting with his childhood. For the next seven months, I will be looking at Leonidas' biography to trace how he came to make his stand at Thermopylae. I start with his childhood and youth.
Two aspects of Leonidas’
childhood may shed light on his later life: the bitter rift within his family and
his education in the agoge.
By the time Leonidas was born, his father had – very much
against Spartan custom – taken a second wife. The circumstances were
notable. King Anaxandridas, according to
Herodotus, was “devoted” to his wife, the daughter of his sister, but their
marriage was childless for years. The ephors, concerned about the extinction of
one of the royal houses, urged Anaxandridas to put aside his apparently barren
wife and marry again. Anaxandridas
flatly refused. Not only that, he explicitly stated that his wife was
“blameless,” and he called a divorce “improper.” (A Spartan way of saying “absolutely
unthinkable.”) The ephors reconsidered and came back with a new proposal; they suggested
Anaxandridas to take a second wife
for the sake of the dynasty. A key aspect of this deal was clearly that the
former princess and now queen was allowed to retain her status not only as wife
but as queen and that she almost certainly remained in the royal palace.
Anaxandridas’ second wife was a “child of the people” – probably
selected by the ephors because she was the direct descendent of Chilon the
Wise, the man usually attributed with greatly increasing the power of the
ephors, effectively turning them from mere agents of the kings into
independently powerful representatives of the Assembly. Anaxandridas “did his duty” and sired a son on
this second wife, but it is unlikely that she lived under the same roof as his
favored, first wife, or that she enjoyed his affections or attentions after she
had performed her dynastic function. Certainly, she bore no children except the
one son, Anaxandridas’ eldest son and heir, Cleomenes.
On the other hand, Anaxandridas’
first, allegedly barren, wife became pregnant shortly after the birth of
Cleomenes. Despite suspicions that this was a trick of some kind, she gave birth
-- in the presence of the ephors -- to a healthy son, Doreius. What is more,
she went on to give Anaxandridas two additional sons: Leonidas and Cleombrotus.
In short, Anaxandridas continued to
cohabitate with is first, beloved wife, while his second consort was apparently
ignored and neglected.
The importance for
Leonidas is that although he would initially have grown up in an apparently in
tact family unit, he would soon have been confronted with the underlying
rivalries between his older brothers, Cleomenes and Doreius. While we cannot know what Anaxandridas’ first
wife felt about his second (or the fact that her husband allowed himself to be
persuaded into sharing her bed), we can be certain that she favored her own son
over her rival’s. Because Cleomenes had been born first, however, he was
technically the heir apparent. Herodotus further claims that even as a child
Cleomenes showed signs of mental instability (“was not quite right in the
head”). Dorieus, in conctrast, was the
“finest young man of his generation.” This undoubtedly fed the hopes of his
mother – and Doreius himself -- that he would take his father’s place on the
Agiad throne when the time came. Herodotus records that Doreius was “confident”
he would succeed his father, and was correspondingly “indignant” when “the
Spartans” (the ephors? The Gerousia? The Assembly?) made Cleomenes king
instead. So indignant, we are told, that he could not bear to remain in Sparta under
his half-brother’s rule. Instead, he set
off with men and ships – but without the approval of Delphi – to set up a
colony in Africa.
Notably, Leonidas did not go with him. Nor did Leonidas go
with Doreius on his second, sanctioned adventure to Sicily, several years
later. There could be any number of reasons why not, but one plausible
explanation is that Leonidas was more at loggerheads with his older brother
Doreius than his half-brother Cleomenes.
Assuming that Cleonmenes was raised in a separate household and did not
attend the agoge, Leonidas may not have known Cleomenes very well at all.
Doreius, on the other hand, would have been constantly in front of him, the
“perfect” elder brother, who did everything right (as the finest in his
generation) and very likely his mother’s darling as well. Leonidas, on the
other hand, would have been the middle child of three same-sex children born to
his mother. Such children commonly
display distinct characteristics.
The middle child of three same-sex children is often
rebellious, difficult, irresponsible, and a brilliant under-achiever.
Alternatively, they can be the “peace-makers,” sensitive but secretive, more
focused on peer-groups than family. The most consistent characteristic of
middle-children is that they are almost always the opposite of their older
This might explain a key feature of Leonidas’ personality.
Because his older brother was rebellious and convinced of his superiority and
destiny to lead, Leonidas might have become obsessively loyal, the
quintessential “team player.” He might have been the “peace-maker” between the
two, antagonized branches of the family, and as such been rewarded with the
physical symbol of reconciliation, the hand of Cleomenes’ daughter Gorgo.
in the agoge, on the other hand, united him with his subjects in a unique way.
The hardships of the agoge were designed to make youth bond together. A common upbringing, shared hardships and
follies, can even today create a sense of belonging between class-mates that bridges
political differences and is more powerful than business partnerships. The more difficult, rigorous and elitist such
“school ties” are, the most enduring they are likely to be. The Spartan agoge
appears to have worked remarkably well in giving Spartan citizens a sense of
common identity and responsibility for one another. Usually, the kings and
future kings were excluded from this
close-knit society, however, because the heirs to the throne (in
Leonidas’ generation Cleomenes) did not attend the agoge. But Leonidas, like
Doreius, did. He would have forged close bonds with his classmates, and been
accepted as “one of the boys” even by those who did not particularly know or
Furthermore, Leonidas did not became king until later in
life. Certainly he was a full citizen. Possibly he had been an “ordinary”
Spartan for almost half a century before he ascended the throne. Most of his life he was therefore remained
“one of the boys.” He belonged to the
club, but he wasn’t the leader, not like Doreius. This might have undermined
his authority at one level. One quote is recorded in which allegedly someone
challenged him saying: “Except for being king, you are no better than the rest
of us.” This quote reinforces the image of Leonidas as having being “ordinary,”
rather than “extraordinary” before he came to his brother’s throne. It would also fit in with the pattern of an underachieving
But once he was king,
Leonidas could count upon double loyalty from his subjects. He could count upon
not only the loyalty Spartans owed their kings as descendents of Heracles and
demi-gods, but also upon the more visceral, emotional, blind loyalty of his
comrades. Leonidas was both a king and
one of the boys.
I think this is an important aspect of Leonidas’ appeal. At
Thermopylae, he was not so much commanding subordinates or subjects as rallying
comrades. The paid him back in the highest currency known to man: with their
loyalty unto death. The first book in my Leonidas trilogy, A Boy of the Agoge, hypothesizes in fiction form about Leonidas' childhood.
that sometime before the Persian invasion and probably in the mid-6th
Century BC as we reckon time, the Spartans became restless and wanted to
conquer their northern neighbors in Arkadia. As the Spartans were wont to do,
they sent to Delphi for advice and received the following oracle:
Arkadia? Great is the thing you ask. I will not grant it.
In Arkadia are many men, acorn-eaters,
And they will keep you out. Yet, for I am not grudging.
I will give you Tegea to dance in with stamping feet
And her fair plain to measure out with the line.
Taking this to
mean that they would be successful, the Spartan army invaded Tegea only to
suffer a devastating defeat. As Herodotus explains: “…and those who were taken
prisoner were forced to wear on their own legs the chains they had brought,
and to ‘measure out with the line’ the plain of Tegea as labourers. In my own
lifetime the fetter they were bound with were still preserved in Tegea, hanging
up round the temple of Athene Alea.” (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, 66)
Herodotus does not tell us just how many Spartiates were killed or captured, it
is clear that Sparta was both defeated and that a significant number of
citizens surrendered. (Incidentally demonstrating that Sparta did not have any kind
of a “do or die” mentality at this time!) Indeed, Herodotus suggests that
Sparta suffered more than one defeat saying they “continually” had the worst of
it against Tegea and “a long series of reverses” until the reigns of
Anaxandridas and Ariston. These kings certainly lived in the second half of the
6th century and under their leadership Sparta sent for a second
oracle from Delphi. This told them:
In Arkadia lies Tegea in the level plain,
Where under strong constraints two winds are blowing;
Smiting in there and counter-smiting, and woe on woe;
The earth, the giver of life, holds Agamemnon’s son.
Bring him home, and you will prevail over Tegea.
At this point a
clever Spartiate, Lichas, learned that a smith in Tegea had discovered a coffin
ten feet long with a skeleton inside that was just as large. Interpreting this
as the body of Orestes, Lichas reported what he had heard to the Gerousia. The Spartans
pretended he had committed some crime and exiled him. He returned to the forge,
explained what had happened and leased the plot of land with the bones. In
secret he then dug up the bones and brought them back to Sparta, and, according
to Herodotus, “ever since that day the Lacedaemonians in any trial of strength
had by far the better of it.”
But that is only
half the story, for -- despite having recovered what was believed to be
Orestes’ bones -- Sparta refrained from launching a new war against Tegea and
negotiated a non-aggression pact instead.
Why? Herodotus is
silent on this, so we are left to speculate.
We know is that
Sparta opted to negotiate with Tegea rather than to resort to arms. We also
know that the resulting “non-aggression” pact became to pro-type of all
subsequent agreements with other cities in the Peloponnese, and so the core of
the Peloponnesian League. We also know that a key feature of this agreement was
that Sparta agreed to assist Tegea against external enemies (presumably they were
thinking of Argos), but also that Tegea agreed to assist Sparta against internal
revolts. This suggests that recognition of the threats inherent in a large
subject population may have induced Sparta to seek an alliance in place of
conquest. A number of historians point out that the Tegean conflict probably
fell in the life-time and possibly the ephorate of Chilon the Wise, and postulate that this universally respected Spartan leader
may have been the voice of reason that held Sparta back from new aggression.
The course of
history: the attack, defeat, new appeal to Delphi, successful re-location of
“Orestes” and then the astonishing restraint demonstrated by Sparta in not
attacking again suggest that Spartan society was probably divided between “hawks”
and “doves.” Far from being a monolithic society with a single will and a
robot-like population, Sparta was a complex society inherently vulnerable to
internal division by the peculiar institution of the dual kingship. Since the
Kings were equal in all things, any fundamental policy differences between the
kings led inevitably to political strife. Each king could be assured support
from his own relatives, friends and clients in both the Gerousia and Assembly.
This means that each king would seek to win majorities by various means of
persuasion and the same kind of political maneuvering we are familiar with today
in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament. The “hawks” won the first round;
the “doves” – very probably led by Chilon the Wise – won the second round.
hypothesis is the basis for my novel The
Olympic Charioteer. The novel opens in Tegea, after Sparta’s defeat. In the
absence of any historical record about the political system in Tegea at this
time, I have used Tegea to portray one of the characteristic political
developments of the period: the rise of tyrants on the backs of increasing
political demands by the hoplite-class against the aristocratic elite. The
novel moves from Tegea to Sparta, where the internal divisions between two
factions in Sparta are revealed. The central character of the novel is one of
the Spartiates taken captive in the Spartan defeat: a young man, who just
before the start of the war had driven his father’s chariot to victory at the Olympic