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Leonidas’ Death:  A Turning Point in Spartan History

The historical record for the period of Leonidas’ life covered in this novel is notably more complete than that for the first two books in this trilogy.  The assassination of the Persian ambassadors, the Battle of Marathon and Sparta’s role in it, the suicide of Cleomenes I, the dispatch of two Spartan sacrificial envoys to Persia, Leonidas’ election to command the combined Greek land forces and the appointment of Eurybiades to command the combined Greek naval forces in 480, and, of course, the Battle of Thermopylae, are all recorded historical events.  (Readers familiar with Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire may be astonished to learn that there is not a trace of historical evidence for the more than twenty wars he describes Sparta fighting against her neighbors during the reign of Leonidas.  Sparta was, in fact, at peace with all her neighbors, including Argos, for the entire decade of Leonidas’ reign.)  Last but not least, almost all the quotes attributed to Leonidas come from this period of his life and provide substantial insight into his personality.

Likewise, four of the key events involving Gorgo – the deciphering of Demaratus’ message, her rebuff of an importunate admirer with reference to “not being able to play even a female role,” her remarks about Spartan men and women, and her leave-taking from Leonidas – are recorded in history.

Based on this skeleton of facts, I have developed the substance of this novel.  The novel weaves a logical story out of the isolated facts, but it is also an interpretation of the known facts.  Furthermore, the interpretation is one based on knowledge of Spartan history before and after Leonidas.  Given the sharp contrasts between archaic Sparta, with its international orientation and artistic flowering, and classical Sparta, with its declining population and xenophobia, I have consciously made Leonidas’ death a turning point in Spartan history.   My Leonidas is conceived as the incarnation and advocate of Sparta’s archaic traditions and virtues; his domestic opponents, including his twin brother (completely unfairly and without historical basis, but for the sake of literary effect), foreshadow the degeneration of Sparta into a bigoted and militaristic state.

This interpretation is not arbitrary.  There are a number of indications in the historical record that give credence to my thesis that Leonidas was well traveled and open-minded.  First and foremost is the fact that Leonidas was elected commander of all Greek land forces by the independent representatives of all Greek states that chose to defy Persia in 481.  This was not merely an acknowledgement of Sparta’s military primacy.  Three years later, the same cities rejected his nephew Pausanias, who had just won the battle of Plataea, and his co-monarch Leotychidas, who had commanded the Spartan forces at another victory, Mycale.

The sacrifice of the Thespians at Thermopylae, which represented a much higher – indeed devastating – loss compared to population size than the sacrifice of the three hundred Spartans, is likewise best explained in terms of personal loyalty to Leonidas.  Thespiae had no alliance or other form of affinity with Sparta.  It was not any more threatened than were other city-states in Boiotia.  Thespiae did, however, demonstrate after Thermopylae a powerful ethos of “victory or death” – as was notably demonstrated at the Battle of Delium during the Peloponnesian War.

Other historical events too often ignored or viewed only in isolation have contributed to my interpretation of Leonidas as well.  Key among these is the Spartan response to Marathon.  A great deal has been written and speculated about Sparta’s curious delay in responding to the Athenian plea for aid.  Too little attention has been paid to the fact that what amounted to the entire active Spartan army (two thousand men) marched north in 490 without a king in command.  Certainly no king is named.  At the time, this was very much against Spartan tradition and requires an explanation.  Speculation about helot revolts (for which there is only the barest of inferential evidence) does not explain this fact.  A domestic leadership crisis (Cleomenes was either still in Arkadia or already raving mad, and Leotychidas was in exile) would explain both the delay in responding and the eventual dispatch of an active army without a king in command.  Leonidas, an Agiad prince, who was by this time a mature man and experienced in war and would shortly afterward became king, is the most likely candidate as Sparta’s commander.

This in turn would explain how Leonidas won the respect and trust of Athens and Plataea.  The Athenian leadership would have been very frustrated by Sparta’s refusal to respond immediately, but they would have been thankful to the commander who turned up – ahead of expectations – after marching an army 120 miles in less than three days.  Furthermore, if Leonidas had commanded the troops Sparta sent to Marathon, it would explain why ten years later he was obsessed with getting to Thermopylae in time – even if he had only an advance guard of three hundred men.

Insinuations that Leonidas played a part in his half-brother’s death are almost unworthy of comment.  There is not a shred of evidence to support the thesis beyond the naked fact that Leonidas succeeded his brother.  But he could have done that at any time after Dorieus’ departure from Sparta.  Why, if Leonidas was a power-hungry man capable of fratricide, did he serve his half-brother loyally for thirty years before suddenly deciding to murder him?  And where was Gorgo while her husband killed her father?  Are we to assume that she suddenly turned patricidal?  Or that she kept her mouth shut?  Gorgo?  Ancient historians blamed Cleomenes’ madness on either a curse of the Gods or excessive drinking.  Modern historians ought to be familiar enough with paranoid schizophrenia to realize that Cleomenes’ behavior – including his self-mutilation – is completely consistent with this serious mental illness.

There is no evidence that Leonidas’ ascension was challenged by his other brother, his twin Cleombrotus.  The rivalry between the brothers is an invention of my own for literary purposes.  That said, we do have a curious quote attributed to Leonidas that inspired my interpretation.  According to Plutarch, “When someone said to him: ‘Except for being king, you are not at all superior to us,’ Leonidas, son of Anaxandridas and brother of Cleomenes, replied: ‘But were I not better than you, I should not be king’” (Plutarch, “Sayings of Spartans,” 225).  For a man who had not been heir apparent to his father and had gone through the agoge, it seems unlikely that Leonidas was referring to his royal blood alone.  I think the response suggests confidence that he had proved himself superior to others.  That, in turn, hints at some kind of a domestic power struggle.  By making Leonidas a twin who had to convince the Spartan Assembly that he is the rightful king, I do justice to this exchange.  My Leonidas is king not just by virtue of his bloodlines (Cleombrotus has the same bloodlines), but because he has demonstrated superior capabilities that induced his fellow citizens to raise him up above his twin.

Tellingly, another quote attributed to Leonidas is his refusal to accept the crown of “all Greece” from Xerxes with the argument: “If you knew what is honorable in life, you would avoid lusting after what belongs to others.”  This response does not suit the kind of man who would have killed for the throne―most especially not a man who would kill his own brother and father-in-law for the throne.  If Leonidas had been ambitious and greedy (like Pausanias or Lysander after him), he would have accepted Xerxes’ offer!  Certainly his answer underlines the fact that he believed himself entitled to the Agiad throne – not something he would have felt if he had stolen it, by murder or otherwise.  I believe a combination of legitimacy through birth and popular acclaim based on his achievements fits best with the known record of Leonidas.

There is no historical basis for the smallpox epidemic I describe.  However, there was apparently a considerable delay between the murder of the Persian ambassadors and Sparta’s decision to send two men to Persia as human sacrifices.  I felt this delay could best be explained by some kind of catastrophe that could only be interpreted as divine displeasure . An epidemic had the virtue of being drawn out―and so, in contrast to an earthquake or flood, it would likely lead the Spartans to believe their envoys’ offer to the Gods would still be relevant by the time they reached Susa.  The names of the Spartan envoys are recorded, as are the verbal exchanges between them and the Persian satrap Hydarnes and with Xerxes himself.

Although not explicit in the historical record, it also seemed logical that if envoys went to the Persian court, they would encounter Demaratus there – and thereby become the means of bringing Demaratus’ message back to Sparta.  The delivery of that message, scratched on the wooden back of a folding wax writing tablet, is described in Herodotus (7:239).  Herodotus states that at first no one could make sense of the blank tablets, until Gorgo suggested that the message was hidden under the wax.  That she was present when the significance of the tablet was being discussed reinforces my interpretation of Gorgo as a partner to Leonidas, not just his brood mare.

Eurybiades is also a historical figure.  He really did have command of Sparta’s small contingent of ships (twelve at Artemisium and twenty at Salamis), as well as being appointed commander of the combined fleet of ships fighting the Persians in 480-479 BC.  He was not personally elected as was Leonidas, but the allies refused Athenian leadership of their fleet – despite the fact that Athens provided by far the largest number of ships (nearly two hundred).

The allies specifically asked Sparta to provide a naval commander.  This is highly significant, because it suggests that at this time Sparta was considered a naval power capable of providing competent leadership at sea.  It is important to remember that Athens was not a significant sea power in the sixth century BC, and it did not build its massive fleet until the discovery of silver in Laurium in 483 BC. In short, in 480, Athens was a parvenu naval power.  The naval powers of the sixth century had been Corinth and Aegina.  They preferred Spartan command to Athenian command, probably out of deep-seated suspicion of their trade rival Athens, but they would not have accepted Spartan naval leadership if Sparta had been perceived as utterly incompetent and incapable.  This is what led me to hypothesize a Spartan fleet-building policy under Leonidas.

Except for his role at Artemisium and Salamis, Eurybiades appears to play no role in history.  It is important that he was Spartiate, which supports my thesis that under Leonidas, if not before, there were opportunities for Spartiates to gain experience in naval warfare.  The fact that he was replaced as naval commander by Leotychidas the following year further suggests that at least briefly, in the post-Salamis era, naval command attained exceptional prestige.  Then again, Leotychidas never distinguished himself with military valor, and so he may simply have preferred to face the Persians at sea, where the bulk of the fighting inevitably fell to the far more numerous Athenians and other allies, than to face the Persians on land, where he would be expected (but unable) to live up to the reputation of Leonidas.

The other reforms I have attributed to Leonidas tie in with this hypothesized naval policy.  Triremes required oarsmen, and rowing a warship is notoriously back-breaking, tedious, stinking work.  It was so unpleasant that it was seen as punishment in later centuries, when criminals would be condemned to “the galleys.”  The image of slaves chained to the oar-banks is one we carry around with us from films like Ben-Hur.  In fact, however, in the ancient world, particularly in ancient Greece, the crews of warships were predominantly citizens.  This was because no city could afford to entrust the maneuverability and speed of their fighting ships to anyone who did not have a stake in the outcome of an engagement.

This clearly raised a problem for Sparta.  We know that Sparta’s population was in sharp decline in the period after Thermopylae, probably due to a combination of a devastating earthquake in 465 BC and attrition in the brutal war with Athens that began in 459.  Although Spartiates commanded ships and fleets during this war, eventually defeating mighty Athens in the naval battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, Spartiates did not man the oars of Lacedaemon’s (eventually victorious) ships.

The most probable source of competent seamen was the perioikoi residents of Lacedaemon, many of whom were probably merchants and could have had a seafaring tradition going back centuries.  Perioikoi towns, unlike landlocked Sparta, were often located on the coast (Epidauros Limera, Boiai, Kardamyle, Asine, Pylos, and, of course, Gytheon, to name only a few).  On the other hand, perioikoi hoplites were an important component of Lacedaemonian land armies.  The perioikoi element equaled that of the Spartiates at Plataea.  This suggests that the perioikoi elite did not greatly outnumber the Spartiates themselves.  However, there might have been poorer perioikoi who, like Athens’ poorer citizens, manned the Lacedaemonian fleet.  Given the fact that Sparta’s fleet never reached the dimensions of Athens’, it is conceivable that all manpower for the Lacedaemonian fleet came from the perioikoi.  This would explain the trustworthiness of the crews, and would fit the notion that ancient Greek warships were manned by free men.

But we also know that revolutions do not occur when people are generally content or when they are most oppressed and exploited.  On the contrary, revolutions or uprisings are most likely to occur when a long period of rising living standards and political expectations is abruptly ended by economic or political crisis.  No more than fifteen years (and possibly as early as ten years) after Leonidas’ death, the only documented helot revolt in Spartan history occurred.  It occurred before the start of the Peloponnesian War, and so cannot be attributed to the impact of that conflict.  The timing of that revolt needs to be explained.  While the confusion and loss of Spartiate life caused by the Great Earthquake might have been the opportunity that the helots seized, their dissatisfaction – and the period of rising living standards and expectations that had been sharply disappointed – had to predate it.

My hypothesis is that during Cleomenes’ reign the helots had enjoyed a slow but steady increase in living standards, which accelerated under Leonidas and was combined with rising political expectations.  We know that later in Sparta’s history, various popular leaders played with schemes to allow some helots to earn or buy their freedom.  Some of these measures were eventually implemented.  There is nothing inherently absurd about Leonidas entertaining such notions.  Any Spartan politician with the foresight to appreciate naval power might also have looked to the most numerous class in the Lacedaemonian population for manpower.  If Leonidas had introduced laws that opened opportunities for helots to earn their freedom, he would almost certainly have enjoyed huge popularity among the helots – which would in turn explain how a Spartan army could risk mobilizing her entire citizen population and deploying it outside of Lacedaemon, with a force of thirty-five thousand helots in attendance as light troops, during the Plataean campaign.  If these thirty-five thousand helots had been in any way untrustworthy, they would have posed a greater risk than the Persians themselves, and they would never have been taken out of Lacedaemon.

In the post-Leonidas era, however, helot hopes and expectations must have been abruptly shattered, leading to the explosive situation that culminated in the revolt.  This is another reason why I have postulated a conservative faction in Spartiate society that, after the death of Leonidas and his closest companions at Thermopylae, takes control of the Spartan government.  We certainly know that Pausanias was not a paragon of virtue nor popular for long, while Leotychidas’ performance was consistently dismal.

The historical justification for including a chapter with Gorgo in Athens is found in Plutarch’s “Sayings of Spartan Women.”  On the one hand, Plutarch records that “a stranger in a finely embroidered robe” made advances to her, earning the rebuke that he “couldn’t even play a female role.”  While a stranger might have been in Sparta and (somewhat incredibly) risked making advances to the Spartan queen, Gorgo could hardly have retorted with a reference to “playing a female role” based on experience in Sparta alone.  Sparta had no theater at this time.  If Gorgo rebuffed an importunate stranger by implying he looked like an actor playing a female role in a play, her remark implies that she had seen drama performed elsewhere – presumably in Athens, where theater was becoming popular at this time.

More convincing, however, is the fact that Gorgo’s famous quip about Spartan women being the only ones who gave birth to men was, according to Plutarch, in answer to “a woman from Attica.”  Since women from Attica weren’t supposed to be seen outside the women’s quarters of their own homes, it is far more likely that Gorgo was in Attica (Athens) than that an Athenian woman was in Sparta.  Together, these quotes gave me the courage to add a chapter with Gorgo in Athens, because I think it is important to remind readers about the deplorable status of Athenian women.  The misogyny of ancient Athens is one of the most despicable of its qualities, and should not be brushed aside or ignored.

The account of Thermopylae in this novel is based first and foremost on Herodotus.  I follow his very explicit statement that Leonidas and his three hundred were sent “in advance of the main army” (Histories, 7:206), and I have seen no convincing evidence that Leonidas was abandoned or betrayed by his home government, as modern accounts suggest.  According to Herodotus, “The intention was, when the Karneia was over (for it was that festival that prevented the Spartans from taking the field in the ordinary way), to leave a garrison in the city and march with all the troops at their disposal” (Histories, 7:206).  He explicitly states that the only thing that prevented the planned deployment of the full Spartan army was the fall of Thermopylae much sooner than expected.

Herodotus tells us about the four-day delay before the Persians attacked, during which a Persian scout observed the Spartans exercising naked and combing their hair, which Herodotus claims induced Xerxes to send for Demaratus.  Allegedly, Demaratus explained that this was “normal” for the Spartans when preparing to fight.  Note that Herodotus’ Demaratus says the Spartans were preparing to fight, not to die.  There is absolutely no evidence in Herodotus that Leonidas or his men viewed their deployment as a suicide mission that would inevitably end in death for all.

Herodotus records that Xerxes waited four days before attacking and that, losing his patience on the fifth day, he sent the Medes in to clear the Pass, in expectation of easy victory.  Herodotus claims Xerxes sent the Cissians in after the Medes failed, and then ordered the Immortals into the Pass late on the first day, after the Persian troops had suffered very serious casualties in heavy, all-day fighting.  The tradition that Xerxes had a throne set up so he could watch the battle and that he jumped up three times in the course of the day “in terror for his army” also goes back to Herodotus’ account (Histories, 7:212).  Herodotus states explicitly that the Spartans “had their losses, too, but not many.”  He also describes the fighting in relays by city-state, and provides no details of the second day beyond that it was like the first, with heavy losses for the Persians.

Notably, Herodotus claims the Spartans employed various “feints” to outfight their “inexperienced” enemy.  Unfortunately, the only one he describes is that the Spartans would “turn their backs in a body and pretend to be retreating in confusion, whereupon the enemy would pursue them with a great clatter and roar, but the Spartans, just as the Persians were on them, would wheel and face them and inflict in the new struggle innumerable casualties” (Histories, 7:212).  While experts on hoplite warfare doubt that this maneuver is possible, I prefer to follow Herodotus, who wrote his account in the same century that Leonidas died and after interviewing survivors of the Persian wars.

Herodotus explicitly states that Leonidas fought further forward on the third day than on the two previous days, but the wheeling motion I describe on the third day of the battle is not explicitly described.  It may well be too complicated for hoplite warfare at this time.  On the other hand, it is only when describing the third day of battle that Herodotus explicitly mentions that many Persians “fell into the sea” (Histories, 7:223).  This inspired me to imagine a slightly different tactic than used previously – if only to enliven the storytelling.

Herodotus also makes no mention of the night raid, but other ancient sources refer to it.  It seemed a very logical thing for Leonidas to order, once he realized that his position was at risk and that he might not be able to fulfill his mission of holding the Pass until the full Spartan army could deploy.  More important, it makes for a great story. I couldn’t resist including it.

According to Herodotus, “There was a bitter struggle over the body of Leonidas; four times the Greeks drove the enemy off, and at last by their valor rescued it.”  This account has been challenged by modern historians, who feel it is too reminiscent of the Iliad.  Maybe.  But Leonidas’ men were raised on the Iliad and saw themselves as the heirs of the Iliad’s heroes.  I think that as Leonidas’ friends and subjects, they would have felt compelled by the tradition of the Iliad to retain control of his corpse for as long as they had breath in them.

Herodotus records the fate of Aristodemos (the only survivor) and Eurytus, who fought blind.  He says the bravest Spartans, after Leonidas himself, were Dienekes (who is sometimes credited with the remark about “fighting in the shade”) and the brothers Alpheus and Maron.  The bravest Thespian, he says, was Dithyrambus, but the Thespians were commanded by Demophilus (Histories, 7:222).  The fact that Xerxes ordered Leonidas’ head displayed on a stake for his entire army to see as they marched past is also a detail provided by Herodotus.  There would have been hundreds of thousands of witnesses of this fact (unlike many other details Herodotus includes), and so this detail can be considered verified history, more than almost anything else in his entire account.

These notes were first published in Helena P. Schrader's Book Three of the Leonidas Trilogy: Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King  
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