Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Making of a Hero III - Leonidas and his Brother

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 had more leeway. The fact that Herodotos mentions the Spartans blamed his madness on his drinking habits actually underlines the fact 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 all at once -- since Kleomenes was not only Leonidas’ king, but also his brother and father-in-law).

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.” In short, 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, then 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 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 Leonidas 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 outspoken. 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 unstable 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 inherent 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."

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Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Spartan Father - An Excerpt from A Heroic King

The historical record is silent about Leonidas as a father. A novelist, however, is free to imagine. 
In the scene  below, Leonidas, not yet king, is speaking with a Persian cavalry commander who has come with the Persian Ambassador to Sparta to learn more about the Spartan army. He has just witnessed the Spartan army at drill and Leonidas has challenged him to charge a phalanx on horseback together.

Zopyrus smiled graciously and bowed his head to the king's brother. "No, my lord. I know you would win because your horse is familiar with a Spartan phalanx and mine is not. What price do you want for him?"

"For who?"

"Your horse, my lord," Zopryus replied with a smile.

 The king's brother smiled but shook his head. "He is not for sale."

"I'll give you ten gold pieces," Zopyrus offered extravagantly. No horse was worth that much, but he wanted to both show that he could afford it and indicate he was not about to haggle. He wanted the horse.

"He's not for sale," the king's brother repeated more firmly. He was no longer smiling.

"Twenty," Zopyrus retorted. He hated being thwarted in anything, and he wanted to show he would have his way at any price.

"Sir, you could offer me the entire Persian treasury, and the answer would be the same. He is not for sale."

"No horse is priceless," Zopyrus scoffed.

"I did not say he was priceless; I said he is not for sale. I do not sell the things I love at any price."

Zopyrus laughed. "You are a strange man. What did you say your name was?"


"The Lion's Son. Do you not resent that your brother, your twin, is a king and you are given no honors? In Persia, the twin brother of the king would be the second greatest nobleman in the realm, with vast powers and riches."

Leonidas smiled but replied earnestly. "In Persia, I do not believe the twin brother of the king would be allowed to live at all."

Zopyrus was caught off guard by this perceptive remark. Although he had given it no thought until now, he realized that no king with absolute power could risk having a living twin. 

Zopyrus' curiosity was aroused. "Do you have many sons, Leonidas?"

"I have one son and one daughter."

"Is that all?" Zopyrus was flabbergasted. Leonidas looked about forty years old, an age at which a Persian nobleman usually ha scores of children.

"I lost two children in a fire," Leonidas conceded, his face closed, and he quickly asked back, "And you?"

"I have seven sons by my wives and another nine by concubines."

"And daughters?"

"I don't keep track of them," Zopyrus replied, dismissing the nuisances. Each female child was a wasted pregnancy and an added expense. 

"You are a poor man." Leonidas turned his horse around and started riding down from the hillock, his big horse on a loose rein.

"Poor?" Zopyrus' temper flared, and he put his heels to his stallion so that with a leap he was beside Leonidas again. "You dare to call me poor when you ride around on a plow horse and have only one son?"
Leonidas pulled up and stared at the Persian. "Tell me, what was the first word your eldest son said?"

"How should I know?" Zopyrus dismissed the question irritably. "Nursery talk is for women and eunuchs. What matters is that I have seven legitimate sons who will carry on my line and nine more that carry my blood! They will grow up to be great warriors!"

"I have a thousand boys who call me 'father,'" Leonidas countered, "and each of them is being forged into a splendid soldier, but my son -- and my daughter -- have enriched me beyond measure with their smiles and temper tantrums and the trust in their eyes when I take them in my arms.  You are a poor man, Persian, who has never known the joy of a little girl's laugh or the peace of holding a sleeping infant in your arms."

Zopyrus had no answer for this speech. It was incomprehensible to him. They were both speaking Greek, but they clearly did not understand each other.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Making of a Hero II - Husband and Father

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. 

In such a society, a man's wife was not immaterial to his character. In Leonidas' case this was doubly so because his wife was the most famous of all Spartan women after Helen herself: Gorgo. Furthermore, she was Leonidas' niece.  

 Is there any indication of what their relationship might have been?

A Spartan Couple -- Side by Side

While we know that Leonidas was Gorgo’s uncle, we do not know when either Leonidas or Gorgo 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 490, 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 outsider. That means that Leonidas took Gorgo with him when he traveled 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 by Spartan propagandists 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 wife, Leonidas' mother. He married voluntarily a young woman, who had already established a reputation for being outspoken and politically astute. He included her in contexts where affairs of state were being handled. He traveled 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. 

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Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Boy Leonidas - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

At the start of the month, I described Leonidas childhood and its impact on the man he became. His childhood is the focus of the first book in my Leonidas Trilogy. Below is the opening scene.

The first seven years Leonidas rarely saw either of his parents. In fact, when he was still a toddler it had surprised him to learn that the exalted personages who occasionally swept in and out of his life, surrounded by an elaborate entourage, had anything particular to do with him. He and his twin brother Cleombrotus were fed, clothed, washed, and disciplined by their respective nannies, Dido and Polyxo. These were buxom, sturdy girls with black hair and eyes, and apparently sisters. 

Polyxo and Dido competed as fiercely as mothers with regard to their charges, each claiming to have the fi nest boy. Polyxo had all the obvious advantages because Cleombrotus weighed a pound more than Leonidas at birth and he grew faster. By the time the twins were two, Cleombrotus could knock Leonidas over with relative ease— which he frequently did. Dido, however, insisted that her little charge was nevertheless the better of the brothers because while Cleombrotus had brute force, Leonidas had tenacity and cunning. He might get knocked down, but he did not let that defeat him. Quite the contrary, he would at once seek to drag his brother down on top of him. He did not always succeed; but like a good hunting dog, once he had hold of his prey he could not be shaken off easily. 

Polyxo and Dido had once rushed after the sound of high-pitched screaming to find Cleombrotus trying to run down a long flight of stairs to escape Leonidas. But Leonidas clung to his leg so fi fiercely that he tripped his brother. They both fell all the way down the marble stairs, Leonidas still clinging grimly to Cleombrotus’ leg, to land at the scandalized feet of their mother, Taygete. 

Taygete was a regal personage. She was tall and slender, and despite her 50 years of age, she was as straight as a battle spear. Her hair, pulled back behind a diadem of ivory, was the color of iron. And so were her eyes. Leonidas never forgot the way she leveled those merciless grey eyes on him and then lifted her head to demand in an icy voice of Polyxo and Dido: “What in the name of the Dioscuri is going on here? Are these not princes of the Agiad house? I will not have them rolling about in the dirt like helot brats. If you cannot raise your charges in a befitting manner, I will find better nurses for them. The likes of you can be found in any marketplace of any perioikoi town all across Lacedaemon!” 

The girls were terrified—and so was Leonidas. He staggered to his feet, bruised and bleeding, and tried to grab hold of Dido. His mother reached out and yanked him free of the nurse with a single gesture. Taygete’s hands and arms were as hard as her eyes. She had trained at the bow and javelin all her life. Leonidas went flying halfway across the hall to land with an audible thump. Dido gasped in sympathy but did not dare move.

“Have I made myself clear?” Taygete asked the terrified helot girls. 

“Yes, ma’am,” they answered in unison. 

Taygete turned on her heel and departed, her magnifi cent purple silk peplos billowing out behind her. 

Dido came and collected Leonidas into her arms. She was weeping, and he soon found himself comforting her, rather than the other way around. It was then that she tried to explain things to him. 

Taygete, his mother, was the niece and wife of King Anaxandridas, Leonidas’ father. She had been barren for many years after her marriage, and she reached the age of 30 without her womb quickening once. By then King Anaxandridas was in his mid-forties and the ephors and Council of Elders became increasingly concerned. They searched the heavens for a sign, and the stars said that the Agiad King must marry another woman or the Agiad house would die out. So the ephors had demanded that King Anaxandridas put aside his barren wife and take a new bride. 

“Your father,” Dido explained, “being very fond of your mother, flatly refused to do so. He called the suggestion improper and pointed out that his wife was without blame. After much thought and discussion, the ephors and the Council of Elders agreed that the stars had advised only that King Anaxandridas need marry another woman, not that he must divorce his current wife. They decided to make an exception to the law to allow him to take a second wife. Although your father at first resisted this suggestion, after some time he gave in and submitted to the will of the Council and ephors. The ephors then selected a maiden descended directly from the wise Chilon himself. (When you get older and go to the agoge, you’ll hear all about him.) And to your mother’s great dismay, your father not only married her, but bedded her as well. 

“In fact, within a very short period of time, your father’s second wife, who is called Chilonis after her famous ancestor, became pregnant. One year after your father had taken her to wife, she produced a son, your half-brother Cleomenes.” Leonidas thought: oh, no, not another brother! 

Dido continued with the story, “but no sooner had Cleomenes been presented to the ephors and found sound and healthy, than your mother found herself pregnant, although she was nearer to 40 than 30 by this time. There were many people who did not believe her. They thought she was making it all up and would try to deceive the people by putting another woman’s child into her bed and presenting it as her own. So the ephors insisted on being present at the birth -- right in the birthing chamber! “But perhaps it was a good thing after all, because the ephors saw for themselves that there was no deceit, and your mother had indeed produced a fine son. In fact, she presented them with a bigger and healthier son than the boy of the other wife.” 

“What about me?” Leonidas asked, hurt and distressed that even his own Dido would speak only of his bigger, stronger brother. 

“Oh, this was more than ten years before you and Cleombrotus were born!” Dido explained with a little laugh and a hug. “I was speaking of your brother Dorieus.”

Yet another brother! Leonidas thought in despair. 

“After that, your mother felt she had been vindicated of all blame in the affair, and no one ever expected to her to have another child, but ten years after Dorieus was born, she became pregnant again. And at the end of her time, you and Cleombrotus came into the world.” 

“Why don’t I ever see my other brothers?” Leonidas asked, rather hoping that they lived on the far side of the Taygetos, or beyond the Pillars of Herakles, or anywhere where he would never have to encounter them. Cleombrotus was trouble enough. 

“Dorieus is already in the agoge, but he visits his parents on holidays. Cleomenes lives in his mother’s household on the far side of the Eurotas. Your mother will not let him or his mother cross the threshold of this house. When your father wishes to see them, he must go to them.”  

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Saturday, February 1, 2020

Making of a Hero Part I - Leonidas' Birth and Upbringing

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 a 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 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, 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 intact 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 contrast, 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 become 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, therefore, he 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 descendants 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 command subordinates or subjects as rally comrades. They paid him back in the highest currency known to man: with their loyalty unto death.

Leonidas' childhood is the focus of the first book in my three-part biographical novel, "A Boy of the Agoge."

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