sparta reconsidered

Cleomenes I - Sparta's Mad King

Herodotus tells us that King Cleomenes I of Sparta (c. 520-490) went mad and committed suicide in a gruesome manner. In fact, he claims that Cleomenes “began to mutilate himself, beginning on his shins. He sliced his flesh into strips, working upwards to his thighs, and from them to his hips and sides, until he reached his belly, and while he was cutting that into strips he died.” (The Histories, 6:75). This is an exceptionally graphic description, which in itself suggests an exceptionally well-informed source. Nothing about this description is vague, mysterious, imprecise or contradictory – as one would expect if it were simply speculation, hear-say, or a planted fabrication following what modern historians like to portray as fratricide/patricide “under mysterious circumstances” leading to a “cover up.” (See my earlier blog entry from May 13, 2011 on “Leonidas the Murderer?” also Paul Cartledge “The Spartans,” pp. 97-100.)

Modern historians appear to have two problems with Cleomenes’ suicide. First, such a gruesome death seems aberrant and alienating and so it’s more comfortable to assume Herodotus's description was just an exaggeration or fabrication than to accept that it accurately describes the event. This is understandable, but not sufficient reason to dismiss such an explicit and detailed description. Second, Herodotus’ explanations (punishment for sacrilege and excessive drinking) do not satisfy modern understandings of mental illness.

For this reason I would like to take a closer look at what modern science says about one form of mental illness that – as W.G. Forrest pointed out in his A History of Sparta – in many ways explains Cleomenes behavior throughout his life, namely paranoid schizophrenia. Let’s start with what schizophrenia is not. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website “schizophrenia isn't split personality or multiple personality. The word ‘schizophrenia’ does mean ‘split mind,’ but it refers to a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking.” Furthermore, schizophrenia is “a chronic condition, requiring lifelong treatment. “

The Mayo clinic goes also provides a list of symptoms, most – if not all -- of which uncannily describe aspects/incidents of King Cleomenes life and reign. These are:
• Auditory hallucinations;
• Delusions “such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you”
• Anxiety
• Anger
• Emotional distance
• Violence
• Argumentativeness
• Self-important or condescending manner
• Suicidal thoughts or behavior

Of these symptoms, Cleomenes clearly demonstrated violence (his massacre of surrendered Argives after the Battle of Speia, anger (attacking anyone who failed to show him respect), self-important or condescending manner (bribing the Pythia at Delphi), argumentativeness (repeated clashes with his co-regents and fellow citizens), and – most important – suicidal behavior. Delusions “such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you” would explain his consistent hostility to Demaratus. And while we have no historical record of “auditory hallucinations,” Cleomenes is on record claiming to have received “signs” from the statue of Hera at a temple during his campaign against Argos. According to Herodotus (Histories, 6:82): “When…he attempted to get a favorable sign by offering a sacrifice at the temple of Hera, a flame shot out from the breast of the goddess’ statue, and he knew from this with absolute certainty that he could not capture Argos.” Since no one else was present at this sacrifice, Cleomenes might simply have been lying (in which case he was certainly showing a “self-important and condescending manner” to the ephors of Sparta.) But it is also possible, if we accept that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, that he honestly believed he had seen this flame. Schizophrenics, psychiatrists agree, often cannot distinguish between what they imagine and what is real.

Of the known symptoms for this severe, lifelong illness, the only two for which we have no direct historical evidence in King Cleomenes are “anxiety” and “emotional distance.” Yet, nothing in his known behavior is inconsistent with these traits either. Indeed, as a novelist, it would be easy to weave these character traits into a portrayal of a man with his historical track record.

Furthermore, Herodotus himself describes Cleomenes at the end of his life as “quite mad.” Herodotus makes it clear that he is not relying on a single source for this assertion. On the contrary, he goes out of his way to provide various explanations of the Spartan king's madness – all of which underline the fact that Cleomenes had a widespread reputation for madness that extended far beyond the borders of Sparta to Athens and Argos and elsewhere in Greece. It hardly seems plausible that so many other Hellenes – including enemies of Sparta - would have considered Cleomenes mad without justification. It is even less likely that they would accept the official version of his death without question, if they had not found it plausible. This suggests that Cleomenes’ behavior during his lifetime had given rise to doubts about his sanity long before he took his life in such a grim manner.

I would also like to note, before looking more closely at the suicide itself, that paranoid schizophrenia usually first appears in a person’s late teens and worsens with time. Again this is consistent with what we know about Cleomenes. He came to the throne as a young man, possibly not yet twenty, and at first seems to have been a vigorous and popular leader. But with time, one incident after another revealed erratic, overweening, and violent behavior. He freed Athens of a tyrant and then tried to restore tyranny. He invaded Argos and then refused to destroy it. He forced Demaratus into exile and then promptly started fighting with Leotychidas. He fled to Arcadia and started to stir up rebellion, and then meekly returned to Sparta. There appears little coherent policy in this, and even his alleged anti-Persian stand is questionable. He notoriously did not support the Ionian Revolt, and it was “the Spartans” – not her kings – who threw the Persian ambassadors in a well. His intrigues on Aegina could have a hundred other explanations, including delusions about Demaratus’ ambitions, that had nothing to do with staunch opposition to Persia.

But let’s return to the issue of self-mutilation which modern historians find so implausible that they prefer to interpret it as a “hushed up” murder by a man who, at the time he allegedly committed/ordered this fratricide/patricide, had been a loyal subject of Cleomenes for thirty years. In fact, self-mutilation – particularly with knives – is a well-documented, psychological disorder. The Mayo Clinic has the following to say about self-mutilation: “Self-injury is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It's not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.”

Note that in Herodotus’ account, Cleomenes – a Spartan King – had just been ordered confined to the stocks for attacking citizens. For a king, any king, this would certainly have produced “intense anger and frustration.” The fact that the intention as not suicidal does not make Cleomenes suicide implausible, because as the Mayo clinic notes, “with self-injury comes the possibility of inflicting serious and even fatal injuries.”

The evidence of both ancient sources and modern psychology overwhelmingly support the thesis that Cleomenes I of Sparta was indeed “quite mad,” most probably with an advanced stage of paranoid schizophrenia at the time of his death. There is no need to postulate murder to explain his death – thereby slandering not only his heir and successor, Leonidas, but his only surviving child, Gorgo, as well.

Note: I have had the misfortune to encounter paranoid schizophrenia within my close circle. This first hand experience with the mental illness reinforces my firm conviction that Cleomenes was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.