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Leonidas: Hero or Murderer?

Posted September 29th, 2017 at 11:35 AM by Aristodemus
Updated February 14th, 2018 at 12:35 PM by Aristodemus

King Leonidas of Sparta gets a lot of attention in history and movies like ‘300’ due to his heroic last stand at Thermopylae, one that most people think helped rally the Greek city-states against the Persian invasion of 480 B.C.

But is that what really happened? Why did Leonidas die in the pass? Was he bravely serving as a rearguard so that the rest of the allied Greek forces could escape? Was his sacrifice a result of the Spartan training that demanded ‘victory or death’? Or was there something else at work, something a bit more nefarious that the propaganda machine at Sparta quietly swept under the carpet of history?

A careful reading of Herodotus reveals some details that cast doubt on the traditional, accepted view that Leonidas was one of the greatest heroes in Greek history.

Leonidas was the son of King Anaxandridas of Sparta. Anaxandridas lived during the time of the sage Chilon, one of the ‘seven sages’ of Greek history. Chilon is credited with forming Sparta’s alliance known as the ‘Peloponnesian League of Cities,’ which he did in part by connecting Sparta with past Achaean heroes rather than attributing their right to rule on the 'return of the Heraclids' (Dorians).

Anaxandridas is credited with the victory over Sparta’s chief rival, Argos, at the Battle of Champions. He and Chilon are also thought to have expanded Spartan influence in much of the Peloponnese, in places like Corinth, Elis and Sicyon, and even attempted an unsuccessful foray against the island of Samos. This was the time in Spartan history when they were going from the ruler over Laconia and Messenia to playing a stronger role on the Greek stage.

After reigning for some time, the Spartans became alarmed because Anaxandridas had no heirs. The head men in the city, came to him and said they were concerned that the line of Eurythenes, the progenitor of the royal Agiad House, would die out. They wanted Anaxandridas to divorce his wife and take a new wife to bear him children. The King refused, saying his wife, who happened to be his niece, had done no wrong, so he refused to abandon her.

The ephors and I like to think men like Chilon thought about this, and went back to Anaxandridas with a second proposal. Keep your wife. But take a second wife to bear you a son. Though this was against all Spartan custom, Anaxandridas agreed.

This new wife bore Anaxandridas a son, Cleomenes. Shortly afterwards, Anaxandridas’ first wife, whom Herodotus reports, ‘all thought was barren,’ bore him a son named Dorieus. The ephors were suspicious that Anaxandridas meant to pull a fast one and raise some other man’s son as his own, because he obviously did not like the idea of having been forced to marry Cleomenes’ mother. Herodotus states, the ephors insisted on witnessing the birth to ensure Anaxandridas was not trying to pull a 'switcheroo.'

Some scholars think Anaxandridas named the boy Dorieus, ‘the son of the Dorian.’ because he was irritated with Chilon’s policy of diplomacy with Sparta’s Achaean neighbors, while he was proud of his Dorian roots. Or it could be that Anaxandridas’ second wife was not a pure Dorian. Possibly she had Achaean blood in her, the race of Laconia’s native helots, which Chilon could have done to pacify the locals.

Shortly after Dorieus’ birth, Anaxandridas’ first wife bore him two more sons, Leonidas and Cleombrotus. Herodotus claims they may have been twins. Unfortunately we know nothing about Leonidas’ early life.

We do know that Dorieus grew up to be ‘first’ among his age-group as far as physical prowess in athletics and war. When Anaxandridas died in 520 BC, we are told that Dorieus fully expected to be named his successor. When the ephors declared Cleomenes king because he was first born, Herodotus tells us Dorieus was so angry he left Sparta and went off to Libya to found a colony near Cyrene at a place called the Cinyps Wadi. Cyrene had been founded by the island of Thera, which was one of Sparta’s few colonies. Did Dorieus and Cleomenes hate each other, and the former leave in a huff? Or was Dorieus sent there by the Spartan state to aid its ally Cyrene in stopping the expansion of Persia’s allies Phoenicia and Carthage, who had built a colony west of Cyrene on the African coast called Oea (modern Tripoli).

Whether Dorieus refused to be ruled by his half-brother or it was a planned mission, is hard to say. Herodotus claims the former. We do know that after four years, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the local natives, the Macae, drove him out. Next Dorieus goes to Sicily, where he throws the native Elymites off their land around Mount Eryx and builds a second colony, called Heraclea. This location was on the west coast of Sicily, right in the middle of Phoenician and Carthaginian territory.

The Dorians controlled eastern Sicily out of Syracuse, which makes one question: was Dorieus a hot-head that wanted to continue his fight against the people who had thrown him out of Libya, or was this a well-planned move designed to break the Phoenicians hold on the western side of the island? After a few years, once more the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and their native allies the Elymites and Sicels destroyed Heraclea. Dorieus died in the fighting.

Herodotus claims that on the way to Sicily, Dorieus stopped in Italy and got involved in the war between Croton and Sybaris, helping the former win. That occurred around 510 BC. So Dorieus probably died around 508 BC.

In one of Herodotus’ odd, inaccurate statements, he claims that if Dorieus had remained in Sparta he would have ended up king as ‘Cleomenes did not reign for long.’ Cleomenes reigned from 520 BC to 490 BC. Only 30 years. Yeah, not very long.

During Dorieus’ adventures, it’s tempting to ask, where were Leonidas and Cleombrotus? Did they go with their brother to Libya, Italy and Sicily? Herodotus is silent on the subject, but as most of Dorieus’ expedition perished, it seems safe to assume they remained in Sparta. Cleomenes had no sons, only a daughter, Gorgo. With Dorieus out of the picture, when their older brother died, one of them was next in the line of succession.

Cleomenes is among Sparta’s most brash and brilliant kings, and yet he gets a bad rap from Herodotus. Early in his reign when the Boeotian city of Plataea sought Spartan aid, Cleomenes referred them to Athens. This clever move had the result of putting Thebes and Athens at one another’s throats for the next 100 years. He fought Persian influence by ousting Medizers in the island of Aegina. He overthrew another Persian sympathizer, the tyrant Hippias of Athens. He sidestepped getting involved in the Ionian Revolt, while Athens did get involved—which some could argue triggered Persia’s interest in mainland Greece. Lastly, Cleomenes soundly trounced the Argives at the Battle of Sepeia, killing so many of them they were a non-factor in Hellenic politics for a generation.

Yet Herodotus describes Cleomenes as a madman, who may have lost his sense after a diplomatic visit by the Scythians who taught him how to drink uncut wine, making him a drunkard. Cleomenes undoubtedly had a devious side. When his co-monarch King Demaratus thwarted his plans for an invasion of Attica, he bribed the Delphic Oracle into saying Demaratus was illegitimate and had him replaced with his cousin Leotychides. Does this sound like the work of a drunken madman or scheming politician? I tend to believe the latter.

Eventually Cleomenes’ plot to have Demaratus removed came to light and he was forced to flee Laconia. He took refuge in Arcadia where he raised an army, which alarmed the Spartans into inviting him home again. When Cleomenes returned, the Spartans promptly threw him in jail. There he died in a very mysterious, suspicious manner. Supposedly he begged a helot guard to give him his knife, which he used to mutilate himself and commit suicide.

Was Cleomenes really insane? How could such a crazy man remain on the throne for 30 years and accomplish all that he did? Would anyone actually mutilate themselves, supposedly by flaying off their own skin, before killing themselves? Sounds more like Cleomenes was murdered by someone who had a serious grudge against him—and the story of him committing suicide sounds like a feeble attempt at a cover-up.

Since Leonidas succeeded Cleomenes on the Agaid throne, some people question whether he may have had a hand in Cleomenes’ murder. There is no question Leonidas’ older brother Dorieus felt Cleomenes had stolen his kingship. Would not those same feelings have been transferred to the other brothers of Anaxandridas’ first wife? Might it be possible that Leonidas blamed Cleomenes for the loss of his adventurous brother Dorieus? Like Dorieus, might Leonidas believe the sons of Anaxandridas’ first wife were the rightful heirs to the Agiad throne?

If Leonidas and Cleombrotus were twins as some people think, by taking Cleomenes’ only child, Gorgo, as his wife, Leonidas cemented his claim to the Agiad throne. In the end, the question of Leonidas’ involvement in his half-brother’s death are raised for one good reason: he profited the most. Secondarily, if Leonidas admired his brother Dorieus, who was considered ‘first among the Spartans,’ he more than likely hated Cleomenes. Just the sort of man who had reason to have mutilated his body.

We don’t know anything about Leonidas’ actions between 490 and 480 BC. We do know that the Spartans claimed they could not help the Athenians at Marathon during the Festival of Carneia. Was that Cleomenes’ doing or possibly Leonidas? We don’t know.

What we do know is that when Xerxes and the Persians returned, at the Hellenic Congress in 481 BC, the Greeks gave command of their joint forces to Sparta, and Sparta gave it to Leonidas. Why did they let him march off to Thermopylae with only the 300 Hippeis? Was it because of the Festival of Carneia that forbid them marching off to war, or were they trying to get rid of Leonidas? Had information regarding Leonidas’ involvement in his half-brother’s murder come to light? Did Leonidas die in the pass a martyr fighting a brave rearguard action, or did he know that if he returned to Sparta he would put on trial for the murder of Cleomenes?

Some point to the Delphic Oracle claiming that Sparta must either sacrifice its city or one of its kings. Some question the authenticity of this oracle and believe it was invented after the fact to help cement Leonidas’ place in history as a heroic martyr for the Greek cause.

Unlike the movies that portray Leonidas as strong, handsome young man, he would have been about 65 years old at the time of Thermopylae. If it came down to a choice of returning home to Sparta in disgrace or going out in a blaze of glory, for a Spartan the choice must have been easy.

I know a lot of people will think it blasphemy to question Leonidas’ place in the history books, but there are enough clues in Herodotus, starting with Cleomenes’ mysterious death and ending with Leonidas’ succession, to at least question the traditional account.

The Spartans were a secretive society and masters at propaganda. From everything I’ve read about them, though I have great admiration for the Spartans, a cover-up of Olympic-size magnitude, fits their style.

What do you think? Hero or murderer? You make the call.
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