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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Madness of Cleomenes - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

At the start of the month I pointed out that Herodotus described King Cleomenes as "unstable" and that modern historians have noted that his recorded behavior appears to fit well with the behavior of a paranoid schizophrenic. Building on this and based on my own familiarity with the disease (which I observed in a close friend), the Cleomenes in my Leonidas trilogy is shown to be growing increasing insane. Here's just one scene.

“Sir. Your wife has sent for you. She says you must come to the Agiad palace at once.”

Leonidas stared at the meleirene for a stunned moment, and then grabbed his baldric off the wall and pulled it over his head as he started down the corridor at a run.  In four years of marriage, Gorgo had never sent for him.  Only an emergency could have induced her to send for him now. His first thought was that something had happened to Pleistarchos. Infants were terribly vulnerable, and Brotus wanted nothing more intensely than to see “something happen” to the boy that threatened his succession to the throne.  But the summons to the palace suggested this had something to do with her Gorgo’s father rather than her son.

On the front porch of the barracks, Leonidas hesitated, unsure whether it would be faster to go to the stables and tack up one of his horses or just run.  It was very late afternoon. The pipes would soon wail out for dinner.  If he took a horse, it would be easier to get to his syssitia from the palace.  But it would delay him, and Gorgo needed him now. The Agiad palace was not far away and by taking the back streets, he could avoid crowds that might slow him down. He started running
When he came out of a side street at a jog, he saw the meleirenes on duty at the palace had left their posts beside the front door and were peering around the side of the palace curiously. When they caught sight of Leonidas, they pointed vigorously and called out. “The kitchen door! Your wife is waiting at the kitchen door!”
One of his own chariots and the pair of matched grey mares that Gorgo liked to drive were blocking the alley. As he ducked under the necks of the horses he could hear shouting and crashes coming from inside the palace. Gorgo was standing with her back to the door. Her himation had fallen off her head, and her hair was exposed. She looked stunned and helpless, then relief flooded her face as she saw Leonidas. “It’s my father!” She exclaimed, running toward him. “He’s trying to kill the cook!”
Leonidas took her arm in a gesture of reassurance. “He’s doing what?”
“My father’s trying to kill the cook. The staff sent for me but when I went in he chased me out again. He’s got his sword and he’s trying to hack his way through the door to the pantry where the cook has taken refuge.”
Leonidas met her eyes, shook his head in momentary disbelief, and then nodded to indicate he was resolved. He turned, opened the door to the delivery entrance and stepped inside with his hand on his hilt. Gorgo followed in his wake, clutching her himation around her shoulders.
They were greeted by crates of fresh vegetables that had been knocked over and cabbage heads which had rolled in every direction across the courtyard.  Amphora lay shattered on the paving tiles, spilling oil across the floor, while chickens fluttered about screeching in panic. Leonidas slipped on the oil and fell, landing hard on his elbow with a jarring that sent numbness up his arm, while Gorgo found herself splattered with blood from a headless chicken that was still twitching on a bench. Toppled chairs, heaps of broken pottery, and an overturned table greeted them next. From the room beyond, they could hear shouting. Cleomenes was hewing at a door with his sword and screaming at the top of his lungs. “Assassin! Assassin!”
The kitchen staff had evidently scattered or taken cover.
Leonidas gestured for Gorgo to stand back and advanced to just a few feet behind his father-in-law before asking in a firm, commanding voice. “What is this about, brother?”
Cleomenes spun about to look at Leonidas, apparently only moderately surprised by his sudden appearance. He then pointed with his left hand at the closed pantry door. “That man is an assassin! He put vile poison in my wine!”
“It’s not true, my lord Leonidas! I swear on my mother’s grave! It’s not true!” The protest came from the far side of the door.
“That’s old Prothous,” Gorgo recognized and identified the voice.
“Assassin!” Cleomenes screamed and swung his sword into the door again. The blade sliced into the surface and stuck for a moment before Cleomenes yanked it free.
“Why in the name of the twins would Prothous try to kill you, brother?” Leonidas asked stepping cautiously closer to Cleomenes.
Cleomenes spun about and pointed his sword directly at Leonidas’ heart. Leonidas was wearing a linen corselet that would not protect him from a direct thrust and Gorgo called out sharply. “Father! Stop it!”
 Cleomenes eyes shifted. “Gorgo!” This time he recognized her. “Get away! Get away! We aren’t safe here anymore! Take Pleistarchos to safety! Go to Arcadia! To the springs!”
“Not without you, father.” Gorgo answered, getting a grip on her own terror and moving steadily forward.  Leonidas glanced at her and back at her father, uncertain if this was safe, but Cleomenes was confused. He looked from Leonidas to Gorgo, then over his shoulder at the door. “Brotus! Brotus is trying to kill me,” he declared.
“Now that I can believe,” Leonidas conceded in such a normal tone of voice that Gorgo almost laughed, and Cleomenes was instantly disarmed. He let the point of his sword sink so that it no longer threatened Leonidas’ chest. “You know about Brotus?” he asked astonished.
“Believe me, I know about Brotus. He has more than one murder on his hands already. He would like to murder both of us ― and I don’t doubt he has his designs of Pleistarchos. But poor old Prothous is not in his pay.” Leonidas added, reaching out and taking Cleomenes’ sword from his limp hand.
“You’re sure?” Cleomenes asked, glancing again at the door.
“I swear, my lord! I swear!” Prothous raised his voice desperately but hopefully too.
“The wine tasted funny,” Cleomenes felt compelled to justify himself.
“It was from Sicily, my lord, maybe it was a bit off, but there was no poison.”
“Let me taste it,” Leonidas ordered generally, and Gorgo blanched.
“I threw it out the window,” Cleomenes admitted with a giggle.
Gorgo reached her father’s side and stroked his arm. “That was very wise, father.  Whether it was poisoned or just off, it deserved to be thrown out the window.”
Cleomenes stroked her cheek and looked at her as if she were his long lost bride. “My child. Have you come home?”
“Only to see that you are safe, father.”
“But you won’t leave me alone tonight?” Already his look was wild again and he looked around the shattered kitchen in alarm, as if expecting assassins to spring up from the corners.
Gorgo glanced at Leonidas, who answered for her, “No, we’ll both stay with you tonight. Come, let Gorgo take you back into the house and we’ll have some good wine together.  I’ll send word to your syssitia that you are ill, and to mine that I am looking after you.”
Cleomenes docilely allowed Gorgo to lead him out of the kitchen. As soon as he was gone, Leonidas crossed to the pantry door and knocked once. “You can come out.”
The door opened at once and a half dozen terrified helots spilled out into the kitchen, while from outside came the wailing of the pipes calling the men to dinner.
“Fetch good wine ― make it neat and put poppy seed in it,” Leonidas ordered.
Prothous, however, was kissing his hand in gratitude. “You saved my life. You saved all our lives. He surely would have butchered us!”
The images of the wood by Argos were too vivid in his mind for Leonidas to dismiss the thought altogether, but he tried to reassure the terrified old cook. “It’s over now. Put together a tray with things my brother likes to eat, especially fruit or nuts, foods hard to poison and serve up a familiar wine laced with poppy seed. Gorgo and I will stay the night with him and see that he stays calm.”
“Thank you, my lord.” They murmured in unison around him.
“Don’t call me ‘my lord.’” Leonidas corrected them. “I’m just an ordinary peer.”
“Yes, my lord ― I mean sir.”
At the door into the courtyard he glanced back at the chaos left behind by his father-in-law and the anxious faces of the kitchen staff and he knew this could not be allowed to go on much longer.

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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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