The Dramatic Death Of The Spartan General, Pausanias


After the death of King Leonidas in the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) during the Greco-Persian Wars, the fallen king’s nephew, Pausanias, became the regent ruler of the Agiad Dynasty of Sparta. He went on to lead the Greek coalition land forces to victory against the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea one year later.

After that, Pausanias continued his exploits, landing troops in Cyprus and later seizing Byzantium from Persian control. Yet, during this time, rumor began to spread throughout Greece, painting Pausanias as an arrogant and tyrannical man who had no sense of humility and was planning to gain tremendous personal power. His supposed donation of a tripod to the Oracle of Delphi that was loftily inscribed with his own name was seen as one of many confirmations of his poor character. Even worse, Pausanias was charged with conspiring with Persia against the Greeks.

Whether the rumors were entirely true or not, the authorities back in Sparta were displeased with the negative image that Pausanias was acquiring. They had disliked his celebrity behavior after his victory in the Battle of Plataea, but now that there were charges of tyranny and treason involved, Sparta recalled its controversial general and had him give a defense against the accusations. After delivering his side of the story, Pausanias was found innocent, but just to be safe, he was stripped of his military command.

Pausanias returned to Byzantium in an unofficial capacity, where he supposedly began to adopt some aspects of Persian culture, including wearing Persian clothing. When Athens eventually forced him out of Byzantium, Pausanias fled to the city of Colonae (modern Kolonai) in the region of Troad, Anatolia. When the continued reports of collusion with Persia persisted, Sparta called Pausanias back home, once again, where he was acquitted of another charge of treason. Between 470-465 BCE, however, Pausanias was accused of supporting or inciting the Helot (serf laborers) Revolt, which threatened Sparta’s economy and social hierarchy. Commentators from that period had mixed assessments of Pausanias’ guilt. The father of history, Herodotus (490-425/420 BCE) doubted the validity of the accusations and generally presented Pausanias in a positive light. Herodotus’s most talented immediate successor, Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), on the other hand, never hinted at having any doubts about the proposed charges.

Whatever the truth, the accusations were convincing enough for the Spartan authorities to send a force to arrest Pausanias. The controversial general, however, saw his would-be captors, and fled to the acropolis of Sparta, where he took shelter in the temple of the Goddess of the Brazen House, a local place of worship to Athena. Rather than go into the temple in pursuit of Pausanias, the Spartans walled up the temple and deprived the man holed up inside of all food and water. The former war hero and the countrymen sent to arrest him continued their standoff for several more days, with neither side giving way. The starved Pausanias was only removed from the temple when he was on the verge of death, and, according to the legend, he died immediately after he was pulled from the sanctuary.

Interestingly, once news of the death of Pausanias spread throughout Greece, the lofty religious leadership at Delphi sided with the deceased general against Sparta. Delphi convinced Sparta to give Pausanias a hero’s funeral near the temple of the Goddess of the Brazen House and the oracle also announced that Sparta had unleashed a curse by sacrilegiously starving a man to death in sacred ground.

Written by C. Keith Hansely.

Picture attribution: (“Dying warrior” (Trojan styled), figure E-XI of the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 490-480 BC, cropped for social media, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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