Herodotos on Kleomenes

History is not a fair realm; in fact it is populated with the words most conducive to the views of the victors, who have prevailed politically and militarily down through the ages. Herodotus (484-425 BC) has been called the ‘father of history’ and, perhaps, this is due to his Histories being the first of its kind. Born in Halicarnassus he wrote some fifty years after the events recorded involving Kleomenes. His History had the scope of a chronicle, but also the detail of a local history, and told the story of the Greeks and their beginnings. However, it is not perfect and being the primary ancient source for so many historical episodes it equally informs and frustrates many modern historians. Wallace and many of his peers wish to see beyond the moral judgements and sketchy historical accounts of Herodotus; which have become so influential over time. Kleomenes, on a purely quantitative level, within Herodotus’ Histories is portrayed as a substantial figure in late sixth and early fifth century Greek history. As one of the Sparta’s kings in the changing political landscape of the times, he dealt with the threat of the Persian Empire, and the alliances and military actions between the Greek city states. He wheels and deals and has become known as ‘the mad and bad Spartan king’. It is this reputation that this essay will examine in light of Herodotus’ judgement of Kleomenes.

Herodotos on Kleomenes

Kleomenes, who came to power around 519 BC and died in 489 BC, is first introduced in Book 5 of Herodotus’ Histories; and the reader is immediately informed that he holds power by royal birth rather than by merit.[1] Is this evidence of Herodotus’ antipathy toward non-democratically based governmental structures, as in the case of the kingdom of Sparta? Next, the reader is told by Herodotus that Kleomenes was, even before his ascension to the throne:

“not in his right mind, and really quite mad…”[2]

Clearly, there is early evidence for Wallace’s charge of ‘hostility’ in Herodotus’ account of Kleomenes, as he burdens him with the label of insanity at the outset. Herodotus, further, recounts to the reader that Kleomenes had a brother, who may have had greater right to the Spartan throne and infers that injustice clouded Kleomenes beginnings.[3] The theme of rulership by merit versus inheritance is raised, once again, by Herodotus; there clearly is an agenda here. Herodotus spent time in Athens as a feted adult and was a great proponent of their political system. However, Herodotus does not uniformly portray Kleomenes in a negative light, as seen by his account of his meeting with Aristagoras. In resisting the entreaties of Aristagoras, the despot of Miletos, Kleomenes is revealed to be politically wise. Herodotus goes on to declare the Spartan king far less credulous than the thirty thousand Athenians who believed in Aristagoras’ Persian ‘easy pickings’.[4] Aristagoras appealed to Kleomenes patriotic duty to free the Ionians in Miletos, Naxos and the other Ionian states, before trying to tempt him with the riches of conquering parts of the Persian Empire, and the frailty of the Persian soldiers. Kleomenes even resists a huge bribe, or covert payment, of some fifty talents; which if accepted would be strictly against Spartan custom.[5] The Athenians did send ships and forces, according to Herodotus, and this foray proved ultimately ineffective against the Persians and the Lydians; despite their early victory in Sardis.[6] Kleomenes is portrayed as a politically astute ruler through his decision to decline the opportunity presented by Aristagoras. Hecataeus of Miletus is considered to be a predecessor of Herodotus, as a historian, and possibly one of his sources; fragments of his work survive.

Herodotus casts another slur upon Kleomenes character when he recounts the gossip about Kleomenes:

“It was even said of Kleomenes that he regularly went to see Isagoras’ wife.”[7]

Presumably, these visits were not of any innocent nature but involved adulterous behaviour. Here we have the mad king, now, being saddled with the bad part of his epitaph. The fact that Isagoras would benefit from the military backing of Kleomenes during his dispute for Athenian power with the Alkmeonid Kleisthenes may have had something to do with his generous distribution of his wife’s charms to the Spartan king. Kleomenes would go on to banish seven hundred Athenian families, after succeeding in what W.G. Forrest calls a “diplomatic demarche”.[8] The Athenians would rise up against this excessive use of power and they would besiege Kleomenes in the Akropolis and force him into surrender. W.G. Forrest informs readers of his book, A History of Sparta, that Kleomenes was possibly the greatest user and abuser of religion.[9] Herodotus provides a number of examples of the Spartan king’s ambivalent attitude toward the gods and their oracles. One such example occurred during Kleomenes bid to take possession of the Akropolis, as he was entering the sanctuary of the goddess the priestess challenged him as a Lacedaimonian not to enter the temple. His response was:

“My Lady, he answered, I am not Dorian but an Achaen.”[10]

Lying to a priestess in a sacred temple, seemingly, did not faze Kleomenes. Nor did, attacking enemy forces whilst they were at breakfast and burning them alive in a sacred grove; as in the case of the Argives.[11] Ignace Hendriks determines that the most likely date for this military action to be 494 BC but a number of historians have plotted it to much earlier in Kleomenes reign around 510 BC.[12]Kleomenes in this instance, according to Herodotus, again used his keen intelligence to perceive that the Argive army, during a confrontation with Spartan forces at Hesipeia, were listening out for the instructions from the Lacedaimonian herald and doing likewise. So, Kleomenes instructed the herald to falsely declare that they were about to take breakfast, but in reality they attacked the breakfasting Argives and slew them.[13] Then, Herodotus reports that Kleomenes inveigled the remaining survivors, who were hiding in the sacred grove, to come out under the misapprehension that he had received ransom for their safe return. As they came out one by one they were slaughtered by the Spartans, when they awoke to this subterfuge, Kleomenes burnt them and the sacred grove by fire until they were all dead.[14] The Argives would, according to Herodotus, claim the unfortunate fate, that was to befall Kleomenes, was due to this sacrilege.[15]

That fate was, in the words of Herodotus:

“A disease of madness seized him (who had been before this somewhat insane)”[16]

Kleomenes was so violent, like some rabid animal he struck his staff into the faces of fellow Lacedaemonians until he was bound and forced into restraining stocks. There he managed to get a helot to give him a knife, he then proceeded to self-mutilate until he was dead. The image presented by Herodotus is bloody and chilling; and has condemned Kleomenes to the category of very mad kings in history. Forrest suspects that Kleomenes may have been a paranoid schizophrenic, due to the descriptions of his behaviour and his gory end.[17] The Spartans, Herodotus tells his readers, blamed his behaviour and madness on excessive drinking; something he learnt in the company of Scythians.[18] This sounds a touch too stereotypically Spartan in its condemnation of anything not in the austere tradition of their media image. Wallace in a more conspiratorial vein declares:

“many historians have suspected with reason that the story of his death conceals a murder which the ephors had both arranged and covered up.”[19]

Kleomenes had fled to Thessaly and then Arkadia, once his machinations involving the deposing of Demaratus had come to light. Ever the politician, he ‘made mischief’ whilst there, conspiring to organise Arkadian anti-Spartan groups.[20] Herodotus recounts that the Spartans fearing his influence brought him back as their king, with the same powers, despite his transgressions.[21] In light of this one can understand Wallace’s’ and other historians’ sceptical attitude toward Herodotus’ blasé acceptance of Kleomenes fate.

Was Herodotus not only ‘notoriously hostile’ toward Kleomenes in his historical account but also ‘unsatisfactory’? By this, it is meant that his reporting is somewhat shallow and according to Lawrence. A. Tritle, appears naïve. During Herodotus’ account of the Spartan campaign at Eleusis in 507 BC, when Kleomenes has mustered an allied Peloponnesian force to retake Athens, the reader is informed that this disintegrates. With the Korinthians leaving firstly, followed by Demaratus the other Spartan king and then the rest of Peloponnesian allied forces, leaving Kleomenes and his men alone to fight the Athenians.[22] Herodotus has the reader believe that these armies marched on Athens without having been briefed on the exact political situation, Tritle, in contrast makes a convincing argument that this would have been highly unlikely.[23] He sees the strategic value of Eleusis not being in Athenian hands as reason why the allied forces would have marched on Eleusis, and the internal divisions amongst the Athenians would have made the situation attractive. However, when they arrived and found Isagoras’ partisans dead and the Athenian forces well positioned and ready to fight they lost heart for the battle and withdrew.[24] David Yates sees the period of 519 to 506 as a period characterised by the “unchallenged authority of Kleomenes” among Sparta’s allies.[25] Could Herodotus’ later depiction of the Spartan king as ‘mad and bad’ be the historical denigration of a once powerful ruler? G. L. Cawkwell reads Herodotus’ intentions, in depicting Kleomenes as not openly declaring his hand at Eleusis, as the Spartan king’s desire to crush the demos of the Athenians.[26] Here, is further evidence of Herodotus’ pro-demos agenda in his Histories. Cawkwell agrees that Sparta’s allies would have been unlikely to entrust the command of their armies in a series of military actions early in the sixth century to a Spartan king who was barking mad.[27]

The departure of Demaratus from Eleusis would have serious consequences for the ongoing relationship between the two Spartan kings. Herodotus records that Kleomenes had crossed over to the island of Aegina to prosecute those who had declared obedience to the Persian emperor. Demaratus was back in Sparta making charges against Kleomenes for his actions in Aegina. Herodotus recounts that Kleomenes planned to depose Demaratus via the fact that he was not the true son of Ariston, so that he could install Leotychides. Further to this account, Kleomenes is recorded as corrupting the Pythian priestess Perialla through Cobin, an influential Delphian, to declare, as the Delphic oracle, that Demaratus was not the son of Ariston.[28] This decides his fate and Demaratus is deposed.[29] Cawkwell declares this matter to have occurred in 491 BC.[30] These corruptive machinations involving both the gods and the state portray Kleomenes in a very poor light from posterity’s viewpoint.

Thucydides famously inferred Herodotus’ account of history to be riddled with fables and a romanticised version of events in comparison with his own accounts of Greek history.[31] Herodotus attempted to link contemporary Greek history with the fabled past, as was the tradition in ancient times. He stated that he did not necessarily believe everything he was told but felt it his duty to include the ‘so called’ information just the same. When considering his account of Kleomenes, as has been done in the preceding paragraphs, it can be seen to justify the Wallace tags of “notoriously hostile’ and ‘unsatisfactory’. His breezy style may disguise intent on first reading of his account but there is evidence of anti-Spartan, or at least anti-tyrannical, systems of government. Kleomenes is clearly slandered as ‘insane’ right from the outset, and whether this was true or a later revisionism is impossible to tell from this distance. There are, also, examples of Kleomenes’ political wisdom and this may cast further doubt on the diagnosis of madness delivered by Herodotus. At the same time, he may have suffered from a progressive mental illness and this would fit with Herodotus’ account. I do understand the impetus among modern historians to lift the blanket of influence which lies upon many important parts of history in Herodotus’ name.

 ©Robert Hamilton








1              G. L. Cawkwell, ‘Cleomenes’, Mnemosyne, 46 (1993), pp 506-27.

2              ———, ‘Sparta and Her Allies in the Sixth Century’, The Classical Quarterly, 43 (1993), pp 364-76.

3              W.G Forrest, A History of Sparta (New York: Norton and Company, 1969).

4              Ignace H. M. Hendriks, ‘The Battle of Sepeia’, Mnemosyne, 33 (1980), pp 340-46.

5              Herodotus, ‘The Histories‘, ed. by A.D Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920).

6              Thucydides, ‘The Peloponnesian War’, ed. by E.P. Dutton (London: J. M. Dent).

7              Lawrence. A. Tritle, ‘Kleomenes at Eleusis’, Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, Bd 37 (1988), pp 457-60.

8              W. P Wallace, ‘Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots and Arkadia’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 74 (1954), pp 32-35.

9              David Yates, ‘The Archaic Treaties between the Spartans and Their Allies’, The Classical Quarterly, 55 (2005), pp 65-76.


[1] Herodotus, ‘The Histories, ed. by A.D Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920). 5. 39.1

[2] Ibid. 5. 42.1

[3] Ibid. 5. 42.1

[4] Ibid. 5. 97.1

[5] Ibid. 5. 49.1

[6] Ibid. 5. 100.1

[7] Ibid. 5. 70.1

[8] W.G Forrest, A History of Sparta,  (New York: Norton and Company, 1969). p 87

[9] Ibid. p 86

[10] Herodotus. 5. 72.3

[11] Ibid. 6. 76.1

[12] Ignace H. M. Hendriks, ‘The Battle of Sepeia’, Mnemosyne, 33 (1980). p 346

[13] Herodotus. 6. 78.1

[14] Ibid. 6. 79-80

[15] Ibid. 6. 84.1

[16] Ibid. 6. 75.1

[17] Forrest. p 93

[18] Herodotus. 6. 84.1

[19] W. P Wallace, ‘Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots and Arkadia’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 74 (1954). p 35

[20] Herodotus. 6. 74.1

[21] Ibid. 6. 75.1

[22] Ibid. 5. 75. 1-3

[23] Lawrence. A. Tritle, ‘Kleomenes at Eleusis’, Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, Bd 37 (1988). p 459

[24] Ibid. p 460

[25] David Yates, ‘The Archaic Treaties between the Spartans and Their Allies’, The Classical Quarterly, 55 (2005). p 68

[26] G. L. Cawkwell, ‘Sparta and Her Allies in the Sixth Century’, The Classical Quarterly, 43 (1993). p 367

[27] G. L. Cawkwell, ‘Cleomenes’, Mnemosyne, 46 (1993). p 509

[28] Herodotus. 6. 66.1

[29] Ibid. 6. 65.1

[30] Cawkwell. p 509

[31] Thucydides, ‘The Peloponnesian War’, ed. by E.P. Dutton (London: J. M. Dent). 1. 22.4