Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Leonidas Part VI: Leonidas the Soldier

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 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 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  

  Buy now in ebook or paperback.

A Heroic King
  Buy now in ebook or paperback

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Leonidas V: The Reformer King

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 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 


Trade Paperback

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Leonidas IV: The Diplomat

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.

Buy in Trade Paperback 

or in

Kindle Format

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Leonidas III: Usurper and Murderer?

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

or  in

Kindle Format

Monday, June 1, 2015

Leonidas Part II: Love and Marriage

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 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….

Leonidas' relationship and marriage with Gorgo is an important component of the second book in my Leonidas Trilogy: A Peerless Peer. 

Buy as ebook


Trade Paperback

Friday, May 1, 2015

Leonidas I: Childhood and Youth

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 sibling.

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. 

 Leonidas’ education 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 like him.

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 middle son.

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.

 Buy as ebook now here.

Or as paperback here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I Give You Tegea...

Herodotus records 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)

Although 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.

The above 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 games.

For more visit my website:

Two cities at war
Two men with Olympic ambitions
And one slave
The finest charioteer in all Hellas.

This is the story of a young man’s journey from tragedy to triumph, and the founding of the first non-aggression pact in recorded history.