The Rise and Fall of King Cleomenes I of Sparta

Cleomenes I. of Sparta was one of the most influential figures of his time. He was a skilled diplomat and general, but also notoriously inexorable and ruthless.

Jan 2, 2023By Armin Unfricht, MA History

mussini education sparta eckersberg spartan boys training painting


The Spartan king Cleomenes I. is one of the most influential and enigmatic figures of Greek History during the late 6th and early 5th century BCE. His biography – of which our knowledge rests primarily on the writings of Herodotus (5th century BCE) and Pausanias (2nd century CE) – has all the elements of the classical rise and fall story: the underestimated youth who turns out to be a competent leader, rivalries fueled by hatred and envy, intrigue, deceit, and of course a tragic fall from grace followed by a descend into madness and ultimate suicide. It is the stuff novelists and screenwriters dream of when striving to create an intriguing story arc for their fictional characters, which makes this another instance where life itself seems to tell the best tales.


Cleomenes’ Early Life and Becoming King

Three Spartan Boys Practicing Archery, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1812, via Google Arts & Culture


Cleomenes was the eldest son of king Anaxandrides of Sparta. The year of his birth is unknown, but we can assume that it must have been somewhere around 540 BCE. The family situation into which Cleomenes was born was very unique by Spartan standards: His father`s first marriage, according to Herodotus, to his own sister`s daughter had proved childless, so that the Ephors (the highest official body in Sparta, consisting of five annually elected men) ordered Anaxandrides to send his wife away and marry another, in order to produce an heir. Anaxandrides, however, steadfastly refused to do so. Ultimately, the concession was made that he could keep his first wife if he would agree to take a second. Thus, Anaxandrides became “the only Lacedaemonian to possess at one and the same time two wives and two households” (Paus. 3,3,9).


The plan proved successful, since shortly thereafter, Cleomenes was born. But to everyone`s surprise, Anaxandrides` original wife, who had been barren up until this point, revealed to be pregnant as well, which was met with anger and skepticism by the Ephors as well as the mother of Cleomenes, whose friends and supporters claimed she was bluffing. Despite that, she gave birth to Dorieus, and then in quick succession to two more sons, Leonidas – whose name was later immortalized because of his stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (480 BCE) – and Cleombrotus.


After the death of Anaxandrides, Cleomenes succeeded to the Agiad throne (which he held approximately from 520 until 490 BCE) – not because of his merit or suitability, as both Herodotus and Pausanias point out, but solely because of the customary primogeniture. Indeed, Herodotus, whose account is strongly biased against Cleomenes and at times misleading, describes him as not being of sound mind, but quite mad. Dorieus, on the other hand, is presented as the ideal heir apparent: He is said to be constantly first among his peers and to possess better judgment and military skill than his slightly older half-brother. As the story goes, Dorieus, who had fully expected to become king by virtue of his excellence, couldn`t bear being ruled by Cleomenes, so he left Sparta and ultimately died during a colonial venture.

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Cleomenes, the Cautious and Cunning Diplomat

Education in Sparta, by Cesare Mussini, 1850, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, via Wikimedia Commons.


The first time we hear of Cleomenes taking to the political stage as king is when he happens to be in the small Boeotian town of Plataea on some business we do not know about. The Plataeans were in an uneasy position at the time (c. 519/8 BCE), since close-by Thebes – far and away the most populous city in the region – tried to coerce them into joining the Boeotian League. The Plataeans, in search of a coalition that would allow them to keep their independence, turned to Cleomenes and the other Spartans. They were turned down, however, and told to try their luck at Athens instead.


This seemingly minor episode had far-ranging consequences: The Plataeans followed the advice and did indeed find an ally in the Athenians. This, in turn, was the catalyst for a long lasting enmity between Thebes and Athens, the two biggest cities north of the Corinthian Isthmus, the beneficiary of which was Sparta, who in this way kept their budding Athenian rivals busy.


Seal of King Darius the Great lion-hunting in a chariot, 6th-5th century, via British Museum


A few years later, a prominent refugee arrived in Sparta in the shape of the former tyrant of Samos, Maeandrius, who had just been forced into exile by a Persian army and was now looking for support in order to regain his position. He tried to dazzle Cleomenes with the wealth he had managed to rescue when fleeing his home, in order to convince him to support his cause, but Cleomenes displayed his “exemplary honesty” – as Herodotus (3,148) remarks in a rare word of praise for the Spartan king – by not being swayed by all the pomp.


There are several other occasions, where Cleomenes declines picking up arms against the Persians:


In 514/3 BCE, a Scythian delegation tries in vain to recruit Spartan help against king Darius, who is in the process of invading their homeland. In 499 BCE, Cleomenes refuses to support the Ionians in their revolt against Persia. Although not initially averse toward joining the uprising, Cleomenes only declines to help when learning that the plans of Aristagoras – the former tyrant of Miletus and main originator of the revolt, who had come to Sparta in order to seek allies – go far beyond the mere liberation of Ionia and involve marching on the heartland of the Persian Empire. Throughout these attempts to suck the Spartans into foreign affairs, Cleomenes displays a prudent and astute mind, belying the supposed mental weakness the later tradition attested him.


It is interesting to note that Herodotus relates almost all the important events during Cleomenes` reign as if he presided over Spartan foreign policy, which speaks volumes about his influence, specifically in the main political body of the Spartan assembly.


Cleomenes of Sparta: Founding Father of the Athenian Democracy?!

Pisistratus` guard armed with clubs, Attic black-figure amphora by the Swing Painter, c. 530-525 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


In 510 BCE, a Spartan army led by Cleomenes marched onto Athens in order to drive out the tyrant dynasty of the Peisistratids, who had ruled the city for over three decades. As the legend has it, the Spartans, who were renowned for their piety as well as their gullibility in religious matters, were coaxed into taking this step by the Delphic oracle, which gave every Lacedaemonian who came to ask for advice the same answer – that they should free Athens. The oracle had supposedly been bribed by the Alcmeonids, one of the foremost aristocratic families of Athens, who wanted the tyrant gone. Upon entering the city, Cleomenes and his men started to besiege the Athenian Acropolis, where the tyrant and his clan had taken refuge.


The Acropolis was well supplied with food and drink, and the Spartans had not prepared for a long siege so that they now found themselves in a rather difficult position. In a stroke of luck, however, they managed to catch a few sons of the Peisistratid family in the attempt of fleeing the city, so that an agreement was reached: the tyrant and his family promised to withdraw from Athens in exchange for the unharmed return of their children.


This intervention into Athenian internal politics and the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias proved to be the single most impactful event of Cleomenes` reign, since the political power struggle that followed saw the introduction of Cleisthenes` radical reform program (508/7 BCE), which formed the basis of what we know today as the Athenian Democracy.


Harmodios and Aristogeiton assassinate Hipparchus, depiction from an Attic stamnos, via Wikimedia Commons


The Athenians of the following generations were naturally not very keen on reminding themselves that it had not been their own fathers and grandfathers, which had thrown out the last tyrant, but in fact a foreign army, and a Spartan one at that. Obviously, this would not do as a suitable narrative for one of the key events in Athenian history. Consequently, a different version of what had transpired was constructed, according to which Harmodius and Aristogeiton, two Athenians who had assassinated the tyrant`s brother in 514 BCE and were killed as a result, were presented as the liberators. This heroic but untrue tale was then popularized and commemorated by way of erected statues, vase paintings, coins, (drinking) songs, and other forms of media available at the time.


Cleisthenes Besieged in Athens

The Acropolis of Athens, by Leo Von Klenze, 1846, via Neue Pinakothek


After Cleisthenes had introduced his reforms and garnered praise and support by a large part of the Athenian populace, his political rival Isagoras, who was in favor of an Oligarchic constitution, tried to avert his impending political defeat by calling on Cleomenes once again. Cleomenes answered the call and came, presumably only accompanied by a small troupe of personal guards, in order to oust Cleisthenes and his supporters from the city.


Cleisthenes, however, had already left secretly before Cleomenes arrived. The Spartan king forced a great deal of Cleisthenes` supporters into exile and then tried to dissolve the Athenian counsel and entrust the government to Isagoras and his faction. But these actions were met with great resistance, so that Cleomenes and Isagoras had to withdraw to the Acropolis, where they were then besieged by the angry Athenian populace – in an ironic turn of events, Cleomenes was now himself under siege in the very same place he had besieged only a few years prior. On the third day, the Spartans negotiated a truce and were able to leave, taking Isagoras with them. Following this, Cleisthenes and the other exiles returned and the democratic constitution was put firmly in place.


But Cleomenes was not one to back down so easily. The following year (506 BCE), he mustered a Spartan army led by himself and his fellow king Demaratus, as well as other members of the Peloponnesian League, and marched on Attica, in order to exact his revenge and install Isagoras a second time. The campaign became a fiasco for the Spartans and especially Cleomenes.


After the invasion of southwest Attica, the Corinthian contingent began to have second thoughts about the righteousness of the undertaking and decided to return home. Demaratus, the other Spartan king, fell in with them. Cleomenes and Demaratus had been on good terms up to this point, but this event would cause a permanent rift between the two, which would culminate in mutual intrigues and the deposition of Demaratus. The disunity of the two kings in the field also changed Spartan kingship forever. After the incident, a law was passed to the effect that the kings of Sparta were no longer allowed to undertake a military venture together, as had been the practice. As a result of all this, the other allies also decamped and began their march homewards, so that the Spartans were left with no choice but to do the same.


The Capable but Ruthless Military Leader

Bronze figurine of a Spartan warrior, 6th century BCE, British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons


Another event in which Cleomenes played a main role was the famous Battle of Sepeia (c. 494 BCE), in which Sparta won a striking victory over its perpetual rival Argos. The historian G.E.M. de Ste. Croix calls it “the greatest slaughter of hoplites known to me in any war between Greek states”, which is saying a lot considering the countless times Greek poleis went to war against one another.


According to Herodotus (7,148), about six thousand Argives met their end, partly in the actual battle and partly in the aftermath. If this number is somewhat accurate, the Spartans must have virtually annihilated the entire Argive hoplite army that day.


The Greek historian (Hdt. 6,75-82) also provides a detailed account of what occurred on the battlefield. The Argives made use of the Spartan herald, observing whatever signal he gave to his army and following the command themselves, so that a stalemate came about. After realizing what was happening, Cleomenes thought up the following stratagem. He told the herald to signal for breakfast and commanded his soldiers to put on their armor, grab their weapons and charge at the Argive army as soon as they heard the according cry. Thus, the Spartans caught the Argives in the midst of a meal, killing many of them. The others fled into the holy grove of Argos, which the Spartans promptly surrounded. Cleomenes then decided to set fire to the grove, burning it down alongside the men trapped inside of it.


Why Did Cleomenes Visit the Temple of Hera after Defeating Argos?

The Spartan king Pausanias conducts an animal sacrifice before the Battle of Plataea (479 BCE), from The illustrated history of the world for the English people, 1881, via


Instead of marching on the now undefended city of Argos, Cleomenes proceeded to the temple of Hera five miles to its north, in order to offer a sacrifice to the goddess. When the priest of the sanctuary objected to this, he had him carried away and flogged. Afterward, he returned home to Sparta.


A close reading of Herodotus` description of this campaign reveals the strategic and diplomatic brilliance Cleomenes must have possessed alongside his mercilessness and propensity towards gratuitous violence. After approaching Argos from the southwest – the most direct route coming from Sparta – we learn that he suddenly doubled back and crossed the Argolic Gulf, resuming his advance from the southeast. What was the reason for this unusual maneuver? In all likelihood, it had to do with the once powerful town of Tiryns, which had been conquered by Argos. Tiryns was situated on the eastern side of the Argolic Gulf, which means that Cleomenes, after crossing over, would have passed it on his way to Argos. Another city, which had been reduced to dependence on Argos, was the famed Mycenae, located in close proximity to the temple of Hera Cleomenes visited after the battle.


Reconstruction of the Hera temple near Argos, 1902, via University of Heidelberg


If we add to these details the fact that both Tiryns and Mycenae provided troops which fought on the Greek side against the Persians at Plataea in 479 BCE, whereas Argos chose to keep aloof, it seems plausible to suggest that Cleomenes might have been the one who reinstated Mycenae and Tiryns as independent city-states – which they evidently were when Xerxes invaded Greece some fifteen years later.


To sum up: during his military campaign against Argos, Cleomenes not only wiped out the entire opposing army, but probably also set up two independent poleis at its borders, effectively crippling the city and eliminating it as a force to be reckoned with for several decades.


Sparta had long reached its limit in terms of its geographical expanse, and it did not possess enough manpower to subdue Argos long-term. Hence, Cleomenes` course here was probably a much better option for the Spartans.


The “Aeginetan Affair”: Part 1

Silver stater of Aegina, 456/45-431 BC, via American Numismatic Society


In 492/1 BCE, after having crushed the Ionian revolt, King Darius sent envoys to Greece in order to demand earth and water from the different city-states as a symbol of their submission to Persia both by land and by sea. It was clear that he intended to punish Athens and Eretria, the only two cities that had sent help to the Ionians in their disastrous bid to shake off Persian rule.


Athens and Sparta were among the few cities that rejected Darius` demand, but many gave in, including the island of Aegina, an important trading port located opposite the Athenian harbor. The situation posed a serious threat to the Athenians. If the Aeginetans, who were bitter rivals of theirs, would allow a Persian fleet to use their port as a military base, it could spell doom for Athens. Consequently, the Athenians appealed to the Spartans, who were the leaders of the Peloponnesian League, of which Aegina was a member, to set the Aeginetans straight.


The man chosen for the task was Cleomenes, who went to Aegina in order to arrest the men responsible for the surrender and to take away some hostages in order to ensure that the Aeginetans would not support the Persian enemy any further. He was opposed by an Aeginetan named Crius, who insinuated that Cleomenes was not following a genuine decision made by the Spartan assembly, since both kings would have been sent in that case. Rather, he accused Cleomenes of having been bribed by the Athenians. Herodotus adds here that Crius was given these instructions by Demaratus, the other Spartan king, who had been Cleomenes` enemy ever since their falling out in 506 BCE (see above). Meanwhile, Demaratus was using the absence of Cleomenes to slander him back home. In the end, Cleomenes had to return to Sparta empty handed, but he now turned his attention to Demaratus.


The “Aeginetan Affair”: Part 2

The oracle priestess of Delphi, Attic red-figure kylix by the Kodros Painter, c. 440-430 BCE, via Altes Museum, Berlin


The first step he undertook was to bribe the priestess of Delphi through his connections there. From that point on, the oracle framed Demaratus, claiming that he was a bastard and thus had no right to the throne he occupied. Secondly, Cleomenes convinced Leotychides to put in a claim to said throne. Through these actions, Cleomenes actually managed to get Demaratus deposed and to replace him with a candidate of his choosing in Leotychides, who seems to have been very much under his influence. Demaratus fled to Persia, where he was royally treated by Darius and later became one of the advisors of Xerxes in his war on the Greeks.


Now Cleomenes had his hands free to return to Aegina – with his new fellow king in tow. This time he met with no resistance, and the Aeginetans delivered the hostages he had demanded.


Manuscript of Herodotus` Histories, 1502, via Wikimedia Commons


It must be emphasized how level-headed and farsighted Cleomenes` actions here were. He reprimanded and forced a Dorian state and member of the Peloponnesian League into giving up some of its own citizens as hostages for the benefit of Athens, a rival of Sparta, who had also twice been the cause for major disasters Cleomenes himself had suffered during his career as king (firstly the shameful withdrawal from Athens in 508/7 BCE, secondly the disintegration of the army during the invasion of Attica in 506 BCE and the consequent falling-out with Demaratus).


Even Herodotus (6,61) admits that Cleomenes was “working for the common good of Hellas” when he ensured that Aegina would not support the Persians. As it turned out, the steps taken by Cleomenes came none too soon, since the following year (490 BCE), a large Persian army arrived in Greece and, after having sacked Eretria, landed in eastern Attica, where it was surprisingly defeated in the Battle of Marathon. Had the Persians been able to land on Aegina undisturbed and with local support, things might have been very different.


Downfall, Madness and Suicide

A Greek soldier about to take his own life by throwing himself on his sword, print made by Gerard van der Gucht, after Gravelot, ca 1735, via British Museum


Probably around the same time, Cleomenes’ manipulation of the Delphic oracle was found out. As a result, he took to flight and ended up in neighboring Arcadia, where he began to unite the discordant local population. According to Herodotus (6,74), he made some Arcadian leaders swear an oath by the river Styx – the holiest of oaths in Greek mythology – to follow him wherever he led them. When news of Cleomenes` activities reached Sparta, it was decided that the best course of action was to bring him back and have him rule under the same conditions as before his departure.


This is where the accounts of Cleomenes` life, as well as the man himself, become somewhat unhinged.


Shortly after his return, Cleomenes went utterly mad, hitting every Spartan he chanced to meet on the street square in the face with his staff. Since the king had obviously lost his mind, his relatives put him in the pillory and had him guarded. Once he was alone with the guard, Cleomenes began demanding a dagger, making threats at the man about what he would do to him once freed. The guard, who was a slave, got frightened and obliged. The king took the weapon and then proceeded to slash himself from the shins upwards, cutting chunks out of his thighs and slicing his belly into little strips, at which point he died.


Herodotus provides several explanations for Cleomenes` insanity and suicide, which the historian claims to have picked up from different Greeks. Easily the most entertaining version is the one he says the Spartans themselves told, according to which Cleomenes` madness was due to his drinking of unmixed wine, a practice he had picked up from Scythian envoys who had once come to Sparta (if genuine, the most likely date would be 514/3 BCE in the context of Darius` campaign against Scythia). It is curious though that this bad habit, which the Greeks, who usually watered down their wine extensively, considered barbaric, should only rear its ugly head some twenty years after Cleomenes had allegedly taken to it.


Unsurprisingly, Herodotus himself is not overly impressed by the notion that the drink was the devil. In his own opinion, it was a matter of fate and Cleomenes ultimately paid the price for his treatment of Demaratus, namely that he had bribed the Delphic oracle in order to dethrone him.


The Two-Headed Legacy of King Cleomenes I of Sparta

The Spartan Mother by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, 1770, via National Trust UK


Cleomenes stood out among the Greeks of his day. His actions draw the picture of a man who was, on the one hand, pragmatic, clever, cunning, and prudent, and on the other hand, impulsive, vengeful, and ruthless.


Throughout his reign, Cleomenes` tried to maintain and strengthen Spartan control over the other member states of the Peloponnesian League, as well as to expand its range of influence through various undertakings, such as driving a wedge between Thebes and Athens and interfering in the internal affairs of the latter – an act which made him the unintentional obstetrician of Athenian Democracy.


Despite his unwillingness to take up arms against the Persians abroad, it is evident that Cleomenes was one of the first – certainly the first Spartan – to become keenly aware of the threat the Persian Empire posed toward the Greek city-states, and when needed, he was able to put aside internal Greek animosities and personal grudges for the sake of strengthening the Greek side, demonstrating that he understood the priorities of his day.


Over the course of his reign and especially towards the end, Cleomenes accrued a large host of enemies, both at home and abroad, and this is likely the reason why, after his demise, he got such a bad press. By the time Herodotus wrote about his life and deeds some fifty years after his death, his political achievements had been belittled or obscured, while his inexorability and ruthlessness had been magnified.

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By Armin UnfrichtMA HistoryArmin is a teacher and historian whose main interests are Ancient Historiography and Philosophy, as well as Greek and Roman Athletics. He holds an MA in History from the University of Graz and is currently pursuing a PhD in Ancient History at the Universities of Graz and Erfurt. In his spare time, he likes reading, writing, practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and playing the guitar.