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How Did Leonidas Become King?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Leonidas may be the most famous of the Spartan kings, but do you know how he actually ended up on the throne? In this lesson, we'll explore a generation-long succession crisis and see how Leonidas became Sparta's king.

Leonidas of Sparta

Of the many Spartan kings, none may be quite as famous as Leonidas. At the Battle of Thermopylae, this warring monarch led a much smaller band of Spartans against a massive Persian army. They lost the battle, but proved to be a far more formidable foe than the Persians expected and gave the other Greek cities time to rally their forces and defeat the invasion. It's a great story, but one that almost didn't happen. Leonidas, as it turns out, was never meant to be king.

Leonidas is remembered for leading his Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae
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Spartan Succession Crisis

A lot of what we know about Leonidas' life comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, who was born just after Leonidas died. According to Herodotus, Sparta went through something of a crisis in the mid-6th century BCE because their king and queen failed to produce an heir. Anaxandrides was King of Sparta at the time, and his wife could not have children.

In any monarchy, a succession crisis is a big deal. In Sparta, however, it was seen as practically catastrophic. The issue was that the Spartan royal line could trace its lineage all the way back to Eurysthenes, the mythical founder of Sparta and heir of Hercules himself. So, the failure of Anaxandrides to have a child would mean the death of a semi-divine royal line and the Spartans' link to their founder.

The ephors (senior magistrates) of Sparta insisted that Anaxandrides divorce his wife and take a new one. He refused to submit her to this shame, however, and instead reached a compromise where he would accept a new wife but still keep his first one. Anaxandrides married and his new wife gave birth to a son, Cleomenes. Then the unexpected happened. Anaxandrides' first wife became pregnant. She gave birth to Dorieus. A few years later, she also gave birth to two more sons, Leonidas and Cleombrotus. As Leonidas and Cleombrotus were never meant to be kings, they were considered average citizens and underwent the rigorous and brutal military schooling of Spartan youths called the agoge. Dorieus did as well since technically only the oldest son was exempt.

Being the third son, Leonidas went through the full military schooling expected of any Spartan youth
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Leonidas and Royal Succession

Leonidas was the third son of the Spartan king. He was technically in the line of succession, but way down it. Basically, both of his older brothers would have to die without heirs of their own in order for Leonidas to become king. So, what happened?

Anaxandrides' two oldest sons fought with each other constantly. One was the first-born male, while the other was the second son but first born of the king's principal wife. Cleomenes is characterized as having been foolish and somewhat insane. Dorieus was clever, intellectual and brave. Many people thought that Dorieus would make a perfect king. Dorieus was one of them and believed he would be king someday.

When Anaxandrides died, however, the Spartan councils surprised everyone by declaring Cleomenes as the new king. He was, after all, the eldest brother and therefore the rightful heir. Dorieus couldn't stand the thought of being a subject of Cleomenes so he took a handful of Spartans as colonists and left. Herodotus states that he did this without asking the Oracle at Delphi where he should go or undertaking any of the traditional rituals. In anger and frustration, he simply left, attempted to found a colony in Libya, failed, and later died in a military campaign in Sicily. Dorieus had been removed from the line of succession.

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