The above painting was created by Benjamin West (c. 1738–1820), a painter who was born and raised in Britain’s North American colonies, but relocated and lived in England before and after the American Revolution. The scene he painted here takes inspiration from a dramatic power struggle that occurred in Sparta in the 3rd century BCE. Sitting down and wearing a distressed demeanor is Cleombrotus II, who became a co-king to the revolutionary Spartan ruler, King Agis IV (r. 244/243-241 BCE). Cleombrotus II had come to power by replacing Agis’ former co-king, Leonidas II, who was a staunch opposer of the ideas proposed by his revolutionary colleague. Cleombrotus’ involvement in the ousting of old Leonidas was quite a scandalous affair, for he was married to the deposed king’s daughter. As is hinted by the painting, fate did not turn out well for Agis IV and Cleombrotus II. By 241 BCE, many influential Spartans had come to regret their support for Agis’ regime, and Leonidas II was recalled from exile. Seizing control, Leonidas had his former co-ruler, Agis IV executed. As for Cleombrotus, Leonidas faced a tougher decision—after all, Cleombrotus was married to Chilonis, the daughter of Leonidas II. While the old king considered the sentencing, he faced an onslaught of pleas for mercy from his daughter and grandchildren. The biographer, Plutarch (50-120), described the scene:
“She [Leonidas’ daughter] changed sides with them and was seen sitting as a suppliant beside her husband, with her arms flung around him and her children at her feet, one on either side. Everyone was astonished and moved to tears at the woman’s goodness and devotion….Chilonis laid her face on Cleombrotus’ head and turned her gaze towards those present, her eyes blinded and melted by grief” (Parallel Lives, Life of Agis IV, 17-18).
Chilonis succeeded in her task and convinced her father, Leonidas II, to show mercy. Instead of execution, Cleombrotus was sentenced to exile. For more on the reign and attempted revolution of King Agis IV, read our article HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Life of Agis by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.