King Cleomenes III (r. 235-222 BCE) was a powerful ruler of Sparta who tried to revive his country’s reputation as a military powerhouse in Greece. He increased his own personal influence by ruthlessly oppressing the checks against his power, such as the ephors, who usually shared power with the Spartan kings. In addition he initiated significant social and military reform. Socially, Cleomenes wanted to steer his kingdom back into the ways of their no-nonsense, strictly militant past. Militarily, he had adopted the innovations in warfare introduced by Macedonia, including the use of longer spears and improved infantry formations.
Sparta, with its revamped military and a competent king in command, quickly began to wreck havoc on its Peloponnese neighbors. Cleomones’ major rival in the region was the Achaean League, headed by a skilled commander named Aratus of Sicyon. Starting around 229 BCE, King Cleomenes led such a successful campaign against the Achaean League that Aratus of Sicyon took the drastic step of placing his people under the protection of Macedonia in 225 or 224 BCE. As Macedonian troops poured into the Peloponnese, Cleomenes III soon found that he could not pacify his newly conquered land and fight the invaders at the same time. The Macedonian king, Antigonus III, pressed the Spartans back all the way to their native region of Laconia and finally dealt Cleomenes’ army a fatal blow at the 222 BCE Battle of Sellasia. Following the disastrous defeat at Sellasia, Cleomenes III fled to Egypt and Macedonia occupied Sparta.
Ptolemy III, the king of Egypt, gave the fugitive Spartan ruler a warm welcome and allegedly promised to finance a future bid for Cleomenes III to reclaim Sparta. Yet, Ptolemy III died in 221 BCE. The next king of Egypt, Ptolemy IV, reportedly tried to invite Cleomenes III into his circle of advisors. Nevertheless, the powerful people in the Ptolemaic king’s inner circle considered Cleomenes to be a threat to their power and they eventually convinced Ptolemy IV to place the Spartan king under house arrest in Alexandria.
Cleomenes III, however, was not one to be restrained, and he had been eager to return home ever since he learned that the Macedonian king, Antigonus III, had died in 221 BCE. Nevertheless, the Ptolemaic government had little intention of releasing the Spartan king. When it became apparent to Cleomenes that he was truly a captive, he decided to break free.
In 219 BCE, Cleomenes III made his move. According to the account of the biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), the first step of Cleomenes’ plan was to confuse the sentries who guarded his house. To do this, Cleomenes called on the friends he had made in the time before being arrested to spread rumors around Alexandria that the Spartan prisoner was to be released. To supplement the rumors, Cleomenes also had cheerful gifts sent to his home, containing congratulations on his imminent release and also wine…lots of wine. The Spartan king graciously shared his wine with the guards around his house, and one day when the guards had indulged too much in the offered drink, a disguised Cleomenes and thirteen companions slipped away unnoticed into the streets of Alexandria.
At this point, Cleomenes’ ambition and arrogance apparently sealed his doom. Why sneak off to the docks and sail home to Sparta when he could capture Alexandria, the jewel of Ptolemaic Egypt. The latter option must have been more appealing to Cleomenes III, for instead of silently sneaking out of the city, the Spartan king and his companions reportedly decided to run like madmen through the streets of Alexandria while shouting for the locals to revolt and reclaim their freedom. The locals, however, wanted nothing to do with the rampaging Spartans and ducked inside their homes.
With the popular uprising plan foiled, Cleomenes decided to enact plan B—a prison riot. According to Plutarch, Cleomenes and his thirteen loyal companions charged for a citadel in Alexandria where prisoners were kept. They were apparently met en route to the fortification by the commander of the city guard, who was reportedly riding on a chariot through the streets. In the first major brawl of the prison-break, Cleomenes and his loyal followers pulled the commander of the guard from his chariot and slaughtered the whole patrol. After that successful skirmish, Cleomenes rushed over to the citadel, eager to free the army of prisoners locked inside. Upon his arrival, however, Cleomenes was quickly reminded that the citadel was a formidable fortress, and the wardens of the prison rudely thwarted the Spartan king’s plan by simply closing the gate.
After the failure of the popular uprising and the prison revolt, Cleomenes eventually accepted that he was defeated. In the end, the Spartan king and his thirteen companions allegedly committed suicide before the full force of the city garrison arrived. When Ptolemy IV heard of this chaotic event, he did not react well. According to Plutarch, the body of Cleomenes III was suspended in a leather bag and the Spartan king’s children, mother and acquaintances were executed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of a Greek terracotta Storage Jar with Two Warriors. Object Number 86.AE.78, c. 500-480 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- On Sparta (Life of Cleomenes), excerpted from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.