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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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