Tuesday, December 1, 2015
2,015 years ago, in Palestine, a man was born, who preached a new religion based on love of one’s fellow man. Dramatically, however, he not only preached this message of love, he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the rest of mankind in an unprecedented manner. This sacrifice, depicted in countless works of art and on crucifixes in churches around the world, has inspired awe and wonder for two thousand years.
By the time Christ was born, the ancient city and culture of Sparta was moribund. Yes, there was still an urban community on the site of the once great capital of Lacedaemon, but the inhabitants of this Sparta no longer lived by the laws nor fallowed the customs that that made ancient Sparta unique and great. And yet there is a bond between Sparta and Christianity in the form of Leonidas.
Leonidas lived roughly 500 years before the birth of Christ and did not benefit from his teachings or example. Yet, while working on my three-part biography of Leonidas of Sparta, I came to realize that Leonidas is important not as a historical personality but as a moral figure. It was Leonidas’ conscious decision to sacrifice himself for his fellow Greeks that made him such an appealing historical figure. Leonidas fascinates us not because he was a Spartan king, but because he was prepared to defy impossible odds for the sake of freedom.
Critical to the appeal of Leonidas is that he died fighting a defensive – not an aggressive – battle. Equally important is the fact that he faced death consciously; Leonidas knew he was going to die, but that did not deter or even dishearten him. Most important of all, Leonidas did not die, like Achilles or Hektor, for the sake of his own glory and even for honor, but for the lives and freedom of others.
Leonidas’ conscious decision to die in order to save Sparta from destruction was proto-Christian. His example is morally up-lifting, and his story inspirational. These, not a fascination with Ancient Sparta or Leonidas’ historical role, are what make his story worth telling and make his story worth reading.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
No Spartan has left a larger footprint in history and art than Leonidas. Not the commander of the Spartan army that actually defeated the Persians, Pausanias, nor the Spartan that eventually defeated Athens after the gruesome thirty-years war, Lysander, are half so well remembered . Lycurgus and Chilon are familiar names only to classical scholars; Leonidas is a cult and comic-book hero, not to mention there is a chocolate company named for him.
Leonidas was, of course, a legend in his own time. The Spartans built him a monument at Thermopylae, notably separate from the monument to the rest of the 300, and a second monument was built to him at home in Sparta as well. His body was brought home after the Persians had been driven out of Greece. But, unless it is an accident of archeology, larger monuments were built to the victors Pausanias and Lysander than to Leonidas. In short, Leonidas’ appeal appears to have been greater in the modern world than the ancient. This might have many explanations – starting with the political agenda of his successors (or those who controlled his immature son) or discomfort with commemorating a devastating defeat. The modern world, perhaps influenced by the Christian tradition of honoring sacrifice, is impressed by Leonidas’ defiance and devotion to duty more than his defeat.
There is also a modern tendency to assume that Leonidas’ behavior was “typical,” that he was indeed only doing what Spartan society expected of him, or acting “in accordance with the law.” This assumes that Spartans were “never” allowed to retreat and always chose death over either retreat or surrender. The Spartans, of course, knew better.
Sparta had suffered many severe defeats before Thermopylae, and in no other did an entire fighting force die to the last man for a lost cause. For example, there is good reason to believe that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and it was ensuing economic and social dislocation that led to unrest and revolution. Certainly, Sparta was given a resounding thrashing by the Argives at Hysiai in 669 BC, but even so the Spartans retreated rather than die to the last man. Roughly one hundred years later, Sparta again over-reached herself in an attempt to conquer Tegea, and again there were survivors; they were enslaved in Tegea and forced to do agricultural labor for Tegean masters. In 525 BC, a Spartan expedition against Samos likewise ended in humiliating defeat, but not the extermination of the expeditionary force. Finally, in the reign of Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes, a Spartan force under Anchimolius was attacked by Thessalian cavalry 1000 strong at Phalerum, and, according to Herodotus, “many Lacedaemonians were killed…and the survivors driven back to their ships.” Note, again, the survivors were driven back to their ships, which they presumably boarded and used to return to Lacedaemon. There is not a word about dying to the last man.
Nor did “death rather than surrender” become the standard for future Spartan commanders after Thermopylae. The history of the Peloponnesian war is littered with Spartan defeats; none were massacres. Even in the infamous case of 120 Spartiates trapped on the island of Sphakteria, the record shows that they surrendered and were taken off into (brutal!) Athenian captivity. Nor were they written off by an indignant population as cowards, "tremblers" or otherwise disgraced and worthless. Had they been so viewed, Sparta would not have sued for peace and made serious concessions to Athens to have them returned. Even their collective degradation from full-citizen status on their return is not indicative of disapproval of surrender. On the contrary, it more likely reflects fear that men who had been in Athens for almost four years might have become subverted (brainwashed, is the Cold War term) by Athenian democracy. After an unknown period, they were collectively reinstated, and some even ran for public office. That would not have been possible, if the majority of Spartans had felt they should have committed suicide rather than surrender.
Leonidas’ legacy was not one of blind, mindless self-sacrifice. His example was one of devotion to duty, even unto death, for a good cause. Leonidas did not die for the sake of dying – much less take his comrades with him to a senseless death. He had clear military objectives that he hoped to achieve by his last stand: 1) giving the other Greek contingents time to withdraw and live to fight another day, and 2) increasing Persian respect for/fear of Spartans. Once the pass at Thermopylae was turned, Leonidas knew the Persian army would advance unopposed into Central Greece. He could not know where it would next be confronted by land-forces, but he must have feared that it might sweep through Central Greece to the Isthmus of Corinth. He must have feared that Sparta might find herself virtually alone facing the onslaught. Anything he could do to make Xerxes hesitate to take on a Spartan army must have seemed worthwhile. That is a legacy worth preserving.
Last but not least, as a devout Spartan, Leonidas undoubtedly believed he had to fulfill the Delphic Oracle. He knew he had to die, if Sparta was to be saved. In that sense, he was from the start a sacrificial lamb, but not until the position at Thermopylae was betrayed, did his sacrifice inherently encompass defeat as well. He probably hoped when he set out for Thermopylae that he could die in a victorious battle – or at least an indecisive one. He certainly hoped and expected that alive or dead his advance force over 6,000 strong could hold the Hot Gates until Sparta’s full army could reinforce the advance guard. When it became clear he would die in a hopeless situation, he tried to minimize the losses by ordering the withdrawal of the allied contingents (and almost certainly all the Perioikoi troops that would have been with him). He even tried to save some of the Spartiates by giving them dispatches for delivery somewhere. They saw through him and refused. They refused out of loyalty, out of friendship, out of personal affection for Leonidas, both the man and the king. They did not act for military reasons but for personal ones. Yet their legacy too is worth honoring.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
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 well.
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 have 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 surprise.
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
A Heroic King
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
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
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 revolt.
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.
Buy now in eBook
Read more about Leonidas the King in the third part of the Leonidas Trilogy:
A Heroic King.
Buy now in eBook
Saturday, August 1, 2015
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.
Leonidas' sophisticated diplomacy is an important theme in the third book of my three part biographical novel of Leonidas: A Heroic King.
Buy in Trade Paperback
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
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 commentator’s fabrication.
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 untenable.
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 schizophrenic suicide.”
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.
Buy in Trade Paperback
Leonidas' relationship with his half-brother and father-in-law is portrayed in depth in my novel: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer.
Buy in Trade Paperback
Monday, June 1, 2015
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.
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 have been?
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 marriage itself.
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….