Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Understanding Leonidas: Leonidas's Childhood

Modern physicians and psychiatrists recognize that childhood has a significant impact on a person’s physical and mental development, learning abilities, emotional maturity, and interpersonal skills. Information about a person’s childhood can therefore provide insight or at least hints about the motives or reasons of later actions. To the extent that we are interested in historical figures, it is useful to look at their childhood. Leonidas is no exception.

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, over a hundred Spartiate hoplites 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 prevent their deaths that it sued for peace. Only after the peace overtures had been rejected, did the troops surrender. Nor did this surrender lead to their humiliation and rejection. On the contrary, the Spartan government continued to negotiate feverishly to obtain their release and on their return to Sparta they were, after only a short period of collective disgrace, reinstated to full citizenship rights.

So, 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. 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 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 affection or attention after she had performed her dynastic function. Certainly, she bore no children beyond 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, (this time sanctioned by Delphi and so more respectable) 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 child.

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. They paid him back in the highest currency known to man: with their loyalty unto death.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sparta's Mad King

Herodotus tells us that King Cleomenes I of Sparta (c. 520-490) went mad and committed suicide in a gruesome manner. In fact, he claims that Cleomenes “began to mutilate himself, beginning on his shins. He sliced his flesh into strips, working upwards to his thighs, and from them to his hips and sides, until he reached his belly, and while he was cutting that into strips he died.” (The Histories, 6:75). This is an exceptionally graphic description, which in itself suggests an exceptionally well-informed source. Nothing about this description is vague, mysterious, imprecise or contradictory – as one would expect if it were simply speculation, hear-say, or a planted fabrication following what modern historians like to portray as fratricide/patricide “under mysterious circumstances” leading to a “cover up.” (See my earlier blog entry from May 13, 2011 on “Leonidas the Murderer?” also Paul Cartledge “The Spartans,” pp. 97-100.)

Modern historians appear to have two problems with Cleomenes’ suicide. First, such a gruesome death seems aberrant and alienating and so it’s more comfortable to assume Herodotus's description was just an exaggeration or fabrication than to accept that it accurately describes the event. This is understandable, but not sufficient reason to dismiss such an explicit and detailed description. Second, Herodotus’ explanations (punishment for sacrilege and excessive drinking) do not satisfy modern understandings of mental illness.

For this reason I would like to take a closer look at what modern science says about one form of mental illness that – as W.G. Forrest pointed out in his A History of Sparta – in many ways explains Cleomenes behavior throughout his life, namely paranoid schizophrenia.

Let’s start with what schizophrenia is not. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website “schizophrenia isn't split personality or multiple personality. The word ‘schizophrenia’ does mean ‘split mind,’ but it refers to a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking.” Furthermore, schizophrenia is “a chronic condition, requiring lifelong treatment. “

The Mayo clinic goes also provides a list of symptoms, most – if not all -- of which uncannily describe aspects/incidents of King Cleomenes life and reign. These are:

• Auditory hallucinations;

• Delusions “such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you”

• Anxiety

• Anger

• Emotional distance

• Violence

• Argumentativeness

• Self-important or condescending manner

• Suicidal thoughts or behavior

Of these symptoms, Cleomenes clearly demonstrated violence (his massacre of surrendered Argives after the Battle of Speia, anger (attacking anyone who failed to show him respect), self-important or condescending manner (bribing the Pythia at Delphi), argumentativeness (repeated clashes with his co-regents and fellow citizens), and – most important – suicidal behavior. Delusions “such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you” would explain his consistent hostility to Demaratus. And while we have no historical record of “auditory hallucinations,” Cleomenes is on record claiming to have received “signs” from the statue of Hera at a temple during his campaign against Argos. According to Herodotus (Histories, 6:82): “When…he attempted to get a favorable sign by offering a sacrifice at the temple of Hera, a flame shot out from the breast of the goddess’ statue, and he knew from this with absolute certainty that he could not capture Argos.” Since no one else was present at this sacrifice, Cleomenes might simply have been lying (in which case he was certainly showing a “self-important and condescending manner” to the ephors of Sparta.) But it is also possible, if we accept that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, that he honestly believed he had seen this flame. Schizophrenics, psychiatrists agree, often cannot distinguish between what they imagine and what is real.

Of the known symptoms for this severe, lifelong illness, the only two for which we have no direct historical evidence in King Cleomenes are “anxiety” and “emotional distance.” Yet, nothing in his known behavior is inconsistent with these traits either. Indeed, as a novelist, it would be easy to weave these character traits into a portrayal of a man with his historical track record.

Furthermore, Herodotus himself describes Cleomenes at the end of his life as “quite mad.” Herodotus makes it clear that he is not relying on a single source for this assertion. On the contrary, he goes out of his way to provide various explanations of the Spartan king's madness – all of which underline the fact that Cleomenes had a widespread reputation for madness that extended far beyond the borders of Sparta to Athens and Argos and elsewhere in Greece. It hardly seems plausible that so many other Hellenes – including enemies of Sparta - would have considered Cleomenes mad without justification. It is even less likely that they would accept the official version of his death without question, if they had not found it plausible. This suggests that Cleomenes’ behavior during his lifetime had given rise to doubts about his sanity long before he took his life in such a grim manner.

I would also like to note, before looking more closely at the suicide itself, that paranoid schizophrenia usually first appears in a person’s late teens and worsens with time. Again this is highly consistent with what we know about Cleomenes. He came to the throne as a young man, possibly not yet twenty, and at first seems to have been a vigorous and popular leader. But with time, one incident after another revealed erratic, overweening, and violent behavior. He freed Athens of a tyrant and then tried to restore tyranny. He invaded Argos and then refused to destroy it. He forced Demaratus into exile and then promptly started fighting with Leotychidas. He fled to Arcadia and started to stir up rebellion, and then meekly returned to Sparta. There appears little coherent policy in this, and even his alleged anti-Persian stand is questionable. He notoriously did not support the Ionian Revolt, and it was “the Spartans” – not her kings – who threw the Persian ambassadors in a well. His intrigues on Aegina could have a hundred other explanations, including delusions about Demaratus’ ambitions, that had nothing to do with staunch opposition to Persia.

But let’s return to the issue of self-mutilation which modern historians find so implausible that they prefer to interpret it as a “hushed up” murder by a man who, at the time he allegedly committed/ordered this fratricide/patricide, had been a loyal subject of Cleomenes for thirty years. In fact, self-mutilation – particularly with knives – is a well-documented, psychological disorder. The Mayo Clinic has the following to say about self-mutilation: “Self-injury is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It's not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.”

Note that in Herodotus’ account, Cleomenes – a Spartan King – had just been ordered confined to the stocks for attacking citizens. For a king, any king, this would certainly have produced “intense anger and frustration.”

The fact that the intention was not suicidal does not make Cleomenes suicide implausible, because as the Mayo clinic notes, “with self-injury comes the possibility of inflicting serious and even fatal injuries.”

The evidence of both ancient sources and modern psychology overwhelmingly support the thesis that Cleomenes I of Sparta was indeed “quite mad,” most probably with an advanced stage of paranoid schizophrenia at the time of his death. There is no need to postulate murder to explain his death – thereby slandering not only his heir and successor, Leonidas, but his only surviving child, Gorgo, as well. Please refer to my blog entry "Leonidas the Murderer?" for more discussion of why it is implausible that Leonidas was responsible for his father-in-law’s death.

Note: I have had the misfortune to encounter paranoid schizophrenia within my close circle. This first hand experience with the mental illness reinforces my firm conviction that Cleomenes I was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

Next week I will be on Kythera with no internet access. The next entry will be posted January 28.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review of "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge"

Paul M. Bardunias posted the following review of Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge on He gave the book five stars as well! I am always excited by a good review -- but I learn from the critical ones, so either way a review is a good thing. I sincerely encourage all my readers to write and publish reviews of my books on line.  The opportunity for real readers to say what they think about books is, in my opinion, one of the most positively democratic aspects of the World Wide Web.  Now, here's Paul's review.
Helena P. Schrader has, in "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge", prescribed a welcome antidote to the skewed visions of ancient Sparta put forth in works such as "Gates of Fire" and "300". If you have an interest in the real Sparta, without supermen in capes and Speedos, then this is a book for you. The book is wholly appropriate for teen readers, and would be a great holiday gift that sneaks an education in with the entertainment. While obviously a book for boys, girls would find in Sparta characters who have a confidence and power in their own right that does not derive simply from being coveted for marriage by competing men. This is a rare thing in novels set in the ancient world. If at times you feel you are reading "Ender's game" or Harry Potter with shields, this is only because those analogies are far more accurate than the "Full Metal Jacket" or 1940s war movie that you are used to.

All authors of historical fiction must draw from modern analogy to breathe life into long dead Spartan education system or Agoge. Other books have looked to the unlikely parallel of the barracks life of conscript marines, but she rightly sees the more accurate connections to an elite boarding school system. You realize in reading her novel, just as Leonidas does as the pages unfold, that the Agoge is not designed simply to make soldiers, but form Spartan citizens. The system produced men who would be hailed as a nation of philosophers as well as unmatched warriors. Just as importantly the system also produced women who scandalized the misogynists of other ancient societies with their unmatched freedom.

Schrader weaves a considerable amount of teaching into her novel in a remarkably readable fashion. I run a fairly successful blog on ancient Sparta and I found myself often trying to determine what sources she drew from for particular bits of information and where she inserted her own imagination. Much of this is accomplished through allowing us to see the lives of other characters through the lens of young Leonidas. While the young King is the focus of the novel, events often happen around him rather than to him, and I can understand why some would find this confusing if they were expecting a biography. But this book is as much about Spartan society as it is the life of one man.

Helena is a skilled writer, but the sheer density of information about characters and Spartan society conspire to slow the pacing of the early pages of the novel. She soon hits her stride though and does not look back. Chapter three alone is worth the price of the novel, providing insight into the complexity of Spartan social structures that are often glossed over. At once we can see why the system that made Sparta great also contained the seeds of her own destruction.