King Cleomenes I of Sparta—His Eventful Reign And His Odd Demise

The co-kings of Sparta, Cleomenes I (of the Agiad royal house) and Demaratus (of the Eurypontid royal house), ruled in the opening years of the Greco-Persian Wars. Although Cleomenes and Demaratus were both kings of Sparta, they did not see eye to eye on how to lead their great city in the very tense time of Greek history in which they lived. While Cleomenes would usually get his way, Demaratus was able to thwart his co-monarch’s ambitions in several circumstances.

Cleomenes (r. 520-490 BCE) worked ruthlessly during his reign to make Sparta the most dominant and influential power in the Peloponnesus and to strengthen the Peloponnesian League against its rivals. While he did this, he kept his eye on events elsewhere in Greece, and often participated in the conflicts and power shifts occurring in other Greek cities and leagues.

After ascending to power in Sparta, Cleomenes was able to pit the Thebans and the Athenians against each other in an incident that occurred between 519 and 508 BCE. He did this by advising the region of Plataea to side with Athens against the Boeotian League, led by Thebes. He also directly influenced Athenian politics, often with the use of military force. In 510 BCE, Sparta sent troops into Attica to help the Athenian people oust the last Peisistratid tyrant, Hippias.

 Around 508 or 507 BCE, Cleomenes intervened in Athenian politics, once again, to help Isagoras expel the democracy-advocate, Cleisthenes, from a position of power in Athens. The plan only somewhat worked—Cleisthenes was ousted, but Isagoras was also forced to leave. In 506 BCE, Cleomenes raised a coalition army to restore Isagoras to power in Athens. The campaign initially looked promising, but support wavered when the soldiers realized they were fighting for Isagoras. Cleomenes’ co-king, Demaratus, withdrew his support from the war, and the Corinthian troops in the coalition also abandoned the campaign. With the Corinthians and Demaratus’ Spartans absent, Cleomenes’ war to reinstate Isagoras was thwarted.

When the Ionian Greeks revolted against Persian rule in 499 BCE, they sought aid from mainland Greece. Athens aided the Ionian Revolt, at least until they mysteriously withdrew their aid mid-rebellion, yet Cleomenes refused to aid the resistance from the start. Instead, he made moves to ensure Sparta’s dominance in the Peloponnesus. Around 494 BCE, he led Sparta in an attack against its major Peloponnesian rival, Argos. He won a great victory, but followed it up with an atrocity. As the story goes, the Argive survivors from the battle between Argos and Sparta fled to a sacred forest. Cleomenes had a herald shout promises to the men hiding in the trees that their ransoms had been paid and that they would be shown mercy. It was a lie—any Argive who left the shelter of the trees was slaughtered. To make sure none of the remaining Argives that were hiding in the forest would survive, Cleomenes ordered firewood and tinder to be set ablaze all around the dense woods. It was only after he set the trees ablaze that he learned the forest was sacred to the patron deity of Argos. Recognizing the implications of that ill omen, the Spartans lost their will to continue the campaign and returned home.


  (Greek hoplite and Persian warrior fighting each other. C. 5th century BCE, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Although the sacrilege harmed his reputation, Cleomenes kept his position as king of Sparta and continued his scheming and maneuvering in Greece. By 491 BCE, Sparta and Athens finally allied together to defend Greece against Persia. Their first act was to intervene in the island of Aegina, where Aeginetan elites had sided with Persia. In this instance, however, Cleomenes and his co-king Demaratus could not come to an agreement on foreign policy. Instead of debating and conversing with Demaratus, Cleomenes moved to depose the co-king who had thwarted his plans on multiple occasions. He spread rumors that Demaratus was an illegitimate king and bribed the influential Oracle at Delphi to confirm the rumor. When the Oracle of Delphi upheld Cleomenes’ accusations, Demaratus was deposed and eventually found shelter in Persia. With Demaratus absent, Cleomenes succeeded in arresting the Aeginetan traitors. Yet, the king’s bribe was eventually discovered and Cleomenes, too, had to go into hiding. The exile, however, was brief because he was reinstated as king of Sparta before the end of the year.

Cleomenes, though back on the throne, did not enjoy his return to power for long. In either 491 or 490 BCE, he apparently became insane and committed suicide. Herodotus gave a vivid image of the king’s bloody and painful death—in The Histories, Cleomenes oddly began methodically cutting the flesh off his body in strips, starting from his legs and reaching his belly before he finally died. Interestingly, it seemed that each region of ancient Greece had their own theories as to why Cleomenes went insane and committed suicide.

Herodotus, himself, proposed that Cleomenes went insane simply from the guilt he felt after removing his co-king, Demaratus, from power in Sparta. Along with his own theory mentioned above, Herodotus recorded four other hypotheses that he heard in Argos, Sparta, Athens and Greece, in general. The Argives and Spartans apparently thought Cleomenes went insane after drinking too much pure, un-diluted wine with the Scythians. People from Argos had another theory that Cleomenes’ burning of their sacred forest in 494 contributed to his madness. Similarly, the Athenians theorized that Cleomenes was cursed with madness after desecrating lands sacred to Demeter and Persephone during a campaign against Eleusis. Most other Greeks, according to Herodotus, thought Cleomenes went insane because he had corrupted the Oracle of Delphi with his bribes when he schemed against Demaratus. Whatever the cause of Cleomenes’ madness and suicide, he was dead and Sparta needed a new king. Power passed to King Leonidas I, who would famously die at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top Picture attribution: (Greek Warrior kneeling with decladded sword – possibly Achilles, ca. 560 BC. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons). See full version below.




Leave a Reply