The Spartan king, Archidamus II, ruled from about 469-427 BCE and was the reigning Eurypontid monarch of Sparta at the start of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE). From the surviving ancient sources, Archidamus II was said to have married twice and each bride gave birth to a future king of Sparta.
According to the surviving ancient sources, Sparta had a cold and calculating view of children. The Greek-Roman historian, Plutarch (c. 50-120), to whom we owe much of our knowledge on Sparta, wrote that the ancient Spartans basically practiced a eugenics system. Based on his impressive library of texts and his access to now lost Spartan archives, Plutarch concluded that extramarital affairs were condoned, and sometimes even encouraged, if superior children were produced. In addition to this, Plutarch wrote that newborn Spartans were brought before elders in a grisly ceremony called the lesche, where the infants underwent judgment to determine if they were worthy of joining the Spartan community. If the judgment was unfavorable, the child would then allegedly be abandoned at Apothetae, “the place of rejection,” said to have been located near Mount Taygetus.
Spartan royalty, like all royal families, saw producing children as vital to their dynasty’s survival. With Sparta’s calculated view of children, the Spartan kings were not only expected to produce a great quantity of children; these princes and princesses also were expected to be of great quality, too. Therefore, the Spartan society and especially the ephors, an elected council that shared power with the kings, would sometimes scrutinize the royal marriages for potential genetic problems.
The first bride of King Archidamus II was a woman named Lampido. The ephors seemed to have no problem with the match, and Archidamus’ successor, King Agis II (r. 427-400 BCE), was born from their union. Later on, Archidamus II married again, this time to Eupolia. Whereas the ephors had no qualms with the king’s first marriage, they immediately voiced protest over the second. The issue was apparently that Eupolia was a short woman. Plutarch wrote down a quote about this incident that he attributed to the ephors, yet it is uncertain if the passage was copied from an archive or invented for literary effect. According to Plutarch, the ephors criticized Eupolia’s short stature and argued that “She will bear us kinglets instead of kings” (Plutarch, Life of Agesilaus, ch. 2). When Archidamus persisted in the marriage, the ephors decided to let it slide, and settled with imposing a fine on the king. After all, the ephors could rest assured that Agis was the heir and any son of Eupolia would likely not become king.
The ephors must have grumbled to themselves when Eupolia gave birth to her son, Agesilaus, around 445 BCE. According to Plutarch’s sources, Agesilaus was short like his mother and also had a slightly lame leg. He was raised like any other Spartan grunt, taught to be an obedient soldier. Yet, despite his short size and his malformed leg, Agesilaus showed great military skill and won over influential friends to his cause. After the death of King Agis II in 400 BCE, Agesilaus’ friends accused the heir to the throne, Leotychidas (son of Agis II), with the charge of not being fathered by the late king. With Leotychidas discredited, the crown passed to the man who was never meant to be king—Agesilaus II (r. 400-360 BCE).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Photo of the decoration on an Attic red-figure vase depicting Eurynome, Himeros, Hippodamia, Eros, Iaso, and Asteria. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.