Sparta's Kings

Posted on Friday 18th January 2013

When young prince Kleomenes of the Agiad royal house of Sparta was in his teens, and being groomed for the succession to his father Anaxandridas II about 530 BC, the city Ephors – the group of magistrates who wielded the real political power in Sparta – privately shook their heads in foreboding.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Kleomenes’s pedigree, even though he had been born in the midst of a Spartan royal family mix-up with strong soap opera elements. Neither was there anything wrong with him physically. It was his mind that was causing concern.
Kleomenes was, to use the historian Pausanias’s careful words, ‘subject to fits of mad excitement.’ This, admittedly, is not much to base a reliable psychological profile on. But in the Sparta of the late 6th century BC, when the twin kings were brought up to be not only ceremonial heads of state but also commanders of the army in time of war, a level head and cool mind were the sine qua non of any king in the field. Kleomenes manifestly did not fit the bill.
For Kleomenes made war with his heart rather than his head. He was the first Spartan ruler, as far as we know, to enforce what today we might call a ‘values-based’ military policy, in which his hatred of rival regimes in other Greek cities coloured his military judgement, resulting in the biggest setback that Sparta ever experienced – the rise of the democracy in Athens.
Some of the ruins of ancient Sparta today.

Then, to general amazement, Anaxandridas’s wife number one had given her husband three sons in quick succession, one of them being the Leonidas of Thermopylai fame. The eldest of these three was Dorieus, who appears to have been a sober character whom the Ephors actively championed for the kingship. Yet intrigue as they might, nothing could change the ironclad fact that Kleomenes was Anaxandridas’s first-born, regardless of mother. So on the death of Anaxandridas about 520 BC, Kleomenes became king.
His ‘fits of mad excitement’ now had a political object – the furtherance of what a later age would call ‘human rights.’ For a king of Sparta, this was a radical departure in military mentality. Until now the two kings reigning simultaneously, of the Agiad and Eurypontid houses, even they commanded the army were largely takers of orders from the Ephors, who had commissars in place on each expedition to make sure the kings had their minds on military duties and avoided political decisions.
Kleomenes, however, stubbornly insisted on injecting his personal politics into his wars. He knew his main enemy. This was Athens, the great city on the eastern Greek seaboard which for some time had been in the hands of an enterprising business class that was developing trade and influence all over the Aegean islands, and as a consequence, threatening Spartan commercial interests. Business and money-grubbing of all kinds were anathema to the Spartan ruling class, and Kleomenes was no exception. Moreover, Athens was under the capable but iron rule of the tyrant Hippias, and Kleomenes, donning his human rights hat, set out to unseat him.
To us it may seem odd for a king of Sparta – probably Greece’s most reactionary polity – to take arms against another dictator in the name of liberty. But neither Kleomenes nor any other Spartan cared for the common people. Hippias’s sin was to have elbowed aside the old landed Athenian aristocracy, a class with which Kleomenes felt a kinship of values. Eight years into his reign, about 512 BC, he led his Spartans up to the Acropolis of Athens where he besieged Hippias and his family. But Kleomenes hadn’t quite thought out his campaign. Hippias had plenty of provisions and could stay on the Acropolis indefinitely. Kleomenes’s Spartans, on the other hand, had come unprepared for a long siege. He wavered and appeared to be on the point of lifting the siege when Hippias slipped up by trying to smuggle his children out. They were caught, and Kleomenes used them to force Hippias into a safe-coduct.
6th century BC marble stele showing a senior Spartan, possibly a king.

It was a signal triumph for Spartan arms, though arguably it owed more to Hippias’s mistake than to Kleomenes’s tactical abilities. What the Spartan king did not count on, however, was the seismic shift that occurred in Athens as a result of his invasion. With Hippias’s regime now discredited, a democratic movement under Kleisthenes gained momentum and in 508 BC took control of Athens, inaugurating the world’s first working democracy. Kleomenes, like any Spartan, had even less liking for democracy than for business-class rule, and that summer he marched up to the Acropolis a second time. But he didn’t count on the determination of the newly-enfranchised Boule, or parliament, who gathered together supporters who besieged Kleomenes in his turn.
Here his judgement deserted him. Like many impulsive and mentally unbalanced men, Kleomenes could ride success. But when he met failure he would suddenly lose confidence. When the stern priestess of the Acropolis bravely barred his way into its inner sanctum, he meekly backed off. The Ephors after this watched him closely. He himself was no doubt aware of this, for he spent the next two years putting together another expedition against Athens by which he could redeem himself. In 506, with forces from Corinth and other allies at his side, he moved on Athens once more. This time he didn’t even get to the city’s outskirts.
First, the Corinthian contingent got up and left when they realized the target was Athens, a city with which they then had no quarrel. Kleomenes simply hadn’t told them. Then his co-king of the Eurypontid house, Demaratos, seeing how badly Kleomenes had judged affairs, led his own men home. This left Kleomenes with very little in the field, and he, too, had to turn tail, chalking up another failure for the Spartan royal houses.
This doesn’t mean that Kleomenes didn’t have genuine abilities. No-one doubted his courage in the field. Herodotus, who dismisses Kleomenes as quite mad, has to admit at length that he was the most incorruptible of Spartans, repeatedly spurning offers of wealth. His end, if we are to believe the good historian, was a bad one: confined to the stocks because of erratic behaviour, he slashed himself to death with a knife he cajoled out an unwilling gaoler. By that time, Sparta’s arch-rival Athens was starting out on its classical golden age – thanks in part to Kleomenes’s military misjudgements.

Further Reading

Sparta's Kings
ISBN: 9781848848498

Only £19.99

In ancient Greece, Sparta was unique in having a dual kingship – two kings from different clans, the Agiads and the Eurypontids, reigning simultaneously. The institution was already well-developed by the 8th century BC, when Theopompos of the Eurypontid clan emerges as the first recorded Spartan king. At least fifty-seven men held office as Spartan king between Theopompos and the Agiad Kleomenes III who died in 222 BC. For almost all this period the Spartan kingship was primarily a military office, and thus the kings embody much of the military…
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