previous next

Cleomenes, son of Anaxandridas


(ca. 535-488 B.C.) Sixteenth king of the Agiad line, the senior of the two royal households of Sparta. Cleomenes was famed for the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias from Athens in 510 B.C. and for his impious destruction of the Argive forces at the battle of Sepea in 494 B.C. His later attempts to persuade Athens and Aegina to yield to Spartan demands were frustrated by Demaratus the Europontid king. Cleomenes became so incensed at the opposition of his fellow king that he bribed the Priestess at Delphi to declare Demaratus illegitimate and thereby deposed him. This bribery proved his own undoing, however, and Cleomenes was forced from the throne in 491/490 B.C. In a violent effort to regain his crown, Cleomenes started a league in Arcadia but returned to Sparta when the Ephors promised him the kingship. His return was shortlived though, for he soon met a violent end.


Cleomenes was a member of the Agiad royal household and traced his lineage back some 20 generations to Heracles. His birth was the result of a singular event of Spartan history. Since King Anaxandridas was childless, the Ephors feared that the Agiad line might be extinguished, and asked the aging King to divorce his wife and take another (Hdt. 5. 39). Anaxandridas agreed, but only if he were allowed to remain married to his first wife (his own sister's daughter) whom he loved. So it was that Cleomenes was born to the second wife (daughter of Prinatades the son of Demarmenus the brother of Chilon) of Anaxandridas. Soon after the second wife had given birth, the first wife conceived and gave birth to Dorieus, and then to Leonidas and Cleombrotus (perhaps the latter two as twins). Dorieus found it irksome to be ruled by his half-brother Cleomenes and so attempted to found a city of his own in North Africa and then later in Sicily (Hdt. 5. 42). Both of Dorieus' attempts failed however, and the second proved fatal. Therefore it was Leonidas who succeeded Cleomenes upon his death circa 488 B.C. (Hdt. 6.75). Some have proposed that Leonidas murdered his half-brother to obtain the throne although it may have been the Ephors who arranged the deed. Neither seems an unlikely alternative especially if the dislike of the ruling half-brother was shared by all the sons of Anaxandridas' first wife, or if the unrest stirred in Arcadia and Messenia was as severe as as the ancient sources indicate.


Cleomenes I succeeded his father Anaxandridas circa 519 B.C. and ruled until about 488 B.C. when he died by his own hand (Hdt. 6. 75). The exact date on which he ascended the throne is unknown, and even the dating of the earliest reported event in his life remains speculative. Many feel that Thucydides' report of Cleomenes advising the Plataeans to ally in 519 with Athens (Thuc. 3.68.5) must have been an event very early in Cleomenes' reign and so date the beginning of it to about this period. On the other hand, this alliance may date as late as 509 B.C.; for a discussion of the problem see A.W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides 2.358. In the Thucydidean story we see a very shrewd individual conducting foreign policy by playing the Athenians off against the Thebans, while maintaining Spartan neutrality. The story of Maeandrius the Samian exile in about 517 B.C. (Hdt. 3.148) is the other early event in Cleomenes' life. Herodotus shows us a very different Cleomenes who is amazed to see gold and silver, needs to be told how to accomplish bribery, and finally bows before the authority of the Ephors to get Maeandrius banished.

The next episode occurs about 510 B.C. when Cleomenes, at the command of the Delphic oracle, released Athens from the tyranny of the Peisistratids. This later resulted in the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes (Hdt. 5.63-5). Within two years however, Cleomenes' personal friend Isagoras was losing power in Athens and prevailed on the Spartan King to undertake a second invasion with the pretext of driving out the accursed family of the Alcmeonidae, which included among its members Isagoras' opponent Cleisthenes (Hdt. 5.70-71). After the expedition's initial success in expelling 700 families from the Athens, the people thwarted Cleomenes' efforts to dissolve the senate and install 300 of Isagoras' partisans in power, and forced the smaller Spartan force to withdraw into the Athenian Acropolis. It was on this occasion that Cleomenes made the famous retort "I am an Achaean" to the priestess' warning that it was not lawful for Dorians to enter the Acropolis (Hdt. 5.72). After being forced to withdraw from the Acropolis, Cleomenes mounted a third expedition to put Isagoras in power taking with him a large force of Spartans, Corinthians and other Peloponnesian allies. This attempt too was frustrated when, on the point of joining battle at Eleusis, the Corinthians and Demaratus, the other Spartan king, left the battle (Hdt. 5.75). Thus Athenian democracy and the Cleisthenic reforms were saved. This incident also changed Spartan government so as not to allow both kings to accompany the same army when it went out on campaign.

Disappointed in his aspirations in Attica, Cleomenes withdrew to the Peloponnesus and seemed little interested in external affairs for some time. He refused to help the Ionian Aristagoras against the Persians when he came to Sparta in 500 B.C. believing the war to be too far away to be safe or profitable for the Spartans (Hdt. 5.50-1). Aristagoras did not give up though, and tried to bribe Cleomenes with an offer of 50 talents. Gorgo, Cleomenes young daughter warned her father to beware lest the stranger corrupt him, and the King again refused the requests of the Ionian cities. Cleomenes worked much more successfully in his campaign against the Argives. At Sepea in 494 B.C. via a clever strategem, Cleomenes fooled the Argives into believing that his troops were about to prepare a meal and as the Argives did the same he attacked them unprepared. Many of the Argives escaped into a grove nearby which was sacred to Argus. Some fifty of these were lured out with the promise of safety through ransom and immediately killed. When the rest would not leave, Cleomenes refused to be deprived of his victory, and forced all the Helots to set fire to the grove killing those inside (Hdt. 6.77). This victory allowed the Spartans a much freer hand in the Peloponnese, for their archenemy Argos was enfeebled during the next twenty years until the sons of those slain at Sepea grew up.

Finally, in his last acts as a Spartan King, Cleomenes opposed surrender to the Persian advance and promoted a panhellenic attitude toward resistence. In the winter of 492/1 B.C., at the request of the Athenians, Cleomenes came to Aegina to attempt to reverse their acquiescence to Persian domination. Once there he was opposed by a certain Crius who, on the advice of Demaratus (who was at Sparta) stated that Cleomenes could not arrest any of the Aeginetans without the other Spartan king's presence. Cleomenes responded with a bitter jest (Hdt. 6.50), returned to Sparta, and immediately began plotting the demise of both Crius and Demaratus. Cleomenes first struck a bargain with Leutychides, who was the grandfather of King Archidamus, and who was next in line for the Eurypontid throne. The terms were that he would depose Demaratus on the condition that Leutychides should support him in Aegina. Then Leutychides swore that Demaratus was not the true son of Ariston and produced witnesses. Soon the matter came to trial, and the question was referred to the Pythia whom Cleomenes promptly bribed to declare Demaratus illegitmate (Hdt. 6.65-6). Once Leutychides had gained the kingship, Cleomenes proceeded to Aegina took Crius and other leading citizens hostage, and handed them over to their bitterest enemies the Athenians. This insured that the Aeginetans would neither medize nor otherwise ally with the Persians (Hdt. 6.73). The corruption of the Pythia was soon discovered however, and Cleomenes fled from Sparta to Thessaly and ended up leading a league of states in Arcadia against Sparta. This generalship was short though, for at the invitation of the Ephors, Cleomenes came home. What happened at this point is mysterious. Herodotus tells us that Cleomenes went raving mad as a result of bribing the Oracle to depose Demaratus, and had to be locked up. While in such a condition Cleomenes persuaded a helot to give him a dagger, and proceeded to slice himself to bits from the calves up (Hdt. 6.74-75). The Spartans themselves said that he drank himself to madness and then death (Hdt. 6.84). Historians are divided as to the insanity of Cleomenes. Some see it as a clear case of schizophrenia, especially since all the Greeks agreed on madness. Others see it as part of a cover story devised by his murderers. Whatever the truth may be, no one can deny that Cleomenes was a powerful, influential and important figure in the shaping of the century to come.

    Bradford, 1985: Alfred S. Bradford, A Prosopography of Lacedaemonians From the Earliest Times to the Death of Alexander the Great. 2nd edition, Chicago. Cartledge, 1979: Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Laconia, a Regional History 1300 - 362 B.C. London, Boston and Henley. Fontenrose, 1978: Joseph Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, its Responses and Operations, with a Catalog of Responses. Berkley, Los Angeles, London. Forrest, 1968: W.G. Forrest, A History of Sparta. London. Forrest, 1980: W.G. Forrest, A History of Sparta, 2nd edn. Oxford. Gomme,1956: A.W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. Oxford. Harvey, 1979: D. Harvey, Leonidas the Regicide? Speculations on the Death of Cleomenes I. Arktouros, Hellenic Studies pp 253-60 1979. How & Wells, 1912: W.W. How and J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus. Oxford. Huxley, 1962: G.L. Huxley, Early Sparta. London. Jeffery, 1976: L.H. Jeffery, Archaic Greece: The City States c. 700-500 B.C. p 123-7. London and Tonbridge. Jones, 1967: A. M. H. Jones, Sparta. Oxford. Powell, 1989: A. Powell, Classical Sparta. Norman and London.
Geoffrey Revard

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: