Around 494 BCE, King Cleomenes of Sparta marched his army against the city of Argos, which was Sparta’s most powerful rival in the Peloponnesus at the time. The Spartans won a great victory against the Argives, destroying the army of Argos and chasing the shattered enemy soldiers into a forest. With the remaining Argive forces trapped in the dense foliage, Cleomenes gave his enemies false promises and coaxed some of the men out of the forest. The unfortunate men who left the protection of the trees were quickly cut down by the Spartans. When the remaining Argive survivors refused to come out of their hiding place, King Cleomenes then set fire to the entire forest. It was after this that Cleomenes learned that the forest he had burned was sacred ground. According to Herodotus, Cleomenes was so distraught over this realization that he sent most of his troops home to Sparta, leaving only his elite men to stay with him near Argos.
In the ancient world, many militaries prized omens, prophecies and oracles, if not purely out of faith, then as a boost to morale. With the disgraceful burning of sacred ground being the epitome of an ill omen, Cleomenes then ventured to a nearby Heraion (temple of Hera), to ascertain if the gods would still give their blessing to the Spartan conquest of Argos.
When Cleomenes arrived at the temple, the Argive priest refused to let the Spartans offer sacrifice. Unperturbed, the Spartan king simply had the priest dragged away. Cleomenes then personally offered a sacrifice to the statue of Hera within the temple, hoping for a sign that would encourage further action against Argos. According to Herodotus, the statue did, indeed, produce a clear sign, yet it was the opposite of what the king wanted. Apparently, jets of fire erupted from Hera’s sculpted breasts. Somehow, Cleomenes knew that this peculiar sign meant that his mission in Argos was over, and that Sparta would not conquer the enemy city. Even stranger, the king supposedly knew the sign that he had wanted, the one which would have spelled the doom of Argos, would have been demonstrated by fire shooting from the head of Hera’s statue. Nevertheless, the fire came from the statue’s chest, not the head, and King Cleomenes returned home to Sparta, with his conquest incomplete.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Histories by Herodotus (Book VI), translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.