The Famous Spartan Leaders
Sparta was one of two great empires that dominated classical Greek history. The Spartans and the Athenians fought numerous wars in order to decide which of them could be the true power of ancient Greece. Ultimately the Athenians actually won but more often than not the Spartans were victorious. A martial culture unlike any others, Spartan warriors were feared by all who knew them. Why? Because they would molded from a young age to be the ultimate warriors – children unable to handle their brutal training program were simply left to die. But Spartan leaders were also great military strategists, being known for their offensive phalanx. Through this Sparta built a vast alliance of smaller Greek states. For a long time, none of their rivals stood a chance.
Unlike other Greek states, Sparta remained a kingdom long after their society grew wealthy. And even more uniquely, Sparta had two kings serving at the same time. With so many kings and generals, many Spartan leaders achieved great fame for their personal achievements. After death they were worshipped as almost mythic heroes, similar to how Julius Caesar was. Today we look at some of the most famous Spartan leaders. Leaders who helped shape Spartan, Greek, and human history.
Lysander was not a king but admiral who commanded the entire Spartan fleet. This was quite a responsibility, given how much emphasis Greek states put on naval power at the time. Born to a slave mother, Lysander grew up poor and humble. But somehow he rose through the ranks of Sparta’s navy, reaching the position of master of ships. At the time Sparta and Athens were fighting a brutal war over which state would be the true power in Greece. Commanding the Spartan side in the last major naval engagement of the war, he oversaw the destruction of 160 of Athens’ 180 ships. Such an immense loss was too great to overcome and Sparta was able to claim victory, ending the war. After the war, Lysander was the effective ruler of Athens, setting up a puppet government who did what he said.
9: Gorgo, Queen of Sparta
Do not assume all famous Spartan leaders of repute were men. Gorgo was queen of Sparta, wife of Leonidas, the legendary Spartan king do fought at Thermopylae. While her husband was away fighting Persia, she used her political capital to sure up support for him. Known for the wisdom and shrewdness, she famously hid sensitive messages by covering wooden tablets in wax. Persians intercepting the tablets would simply find them blank, unknowing the message was under the layer of wax. A foreigner once asker her “why can Spartan women rule over men when no other woman can?”. Her response was fitting for her character “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men”.
8: Clearchus of Sparta
Clearchus of Sparta did not fight for Sparta. He was a mercenary warrior in the service of Persia. To be precise he was under the employment of Cyrus the Younger, son of the Persian emperor. He initially ruled the city of Byzantium at the will of his Spartan overlords. But unable to control the local population, was forced to flee into Persian territory. Cyrus immediately realized his talents and put him to use. He sent emissaries with a vast sum of money for Clearchus, requesting his sword. Cyrus was planning to overthrow his brother and claim the Persian throne for himself, and knew this would require good military commanders. Considered an outlaw by his Spartan people, Clearchus entered into Persian service.
Cyrus had a legendary army of ten thousand men, which Clearchus commanded the right flank of. Together they took control of various Persian territories, claiming much loot along the way. But eventually Cyrus died in battle. This made Clearchus commander of the army but his fellow generals soon betrayed him. At the emperor’s request Clearchus of Sparta was publicly executed.
7: Agesilaus II
Many consider Agesilaus II to be the most important ruler in Spartan history! That is saying a lot given the caliber of Sparta’s kings during the time. During his reign Sparta was not yet a great power, needing to use diplomacy more often than warfare. But he was a great warrior. Leading a force of just 30 Spartans, he invaded Asia minor. Having such a small force, he made use of guerilla warfare techniques, which at the time were revolutionary. But his absence destabilized Sparta and the city was almost captured by an enemy. Agesilaus did not learn his lesson as he soon left for Egypt with another tiny force. Before returning to Greece he would be dead. He became one of the most famous Spartan leaders through his close friendship with the historian Xenophon. Xenophon wrote a comprehensive account of this period, which unsurprisingly featured his friend heavily.
6: Xanthippus of Carthage
Xanthippus of Carthage might sound like the name of a Carthaginian, but no. He was a Spartan general who acted as a mercenary for Carthage, rather than remaining in the service of Sparta. It was during the first Punic war when Carthage dominated the Mediterranean sea and Rome was still young. He led the Carthaginian army in battle against Rome, seeing a lot of success. Xanthippus trained the army of Carthage to be more like that of Sparta. And so the martial tradition of Sparta rubbed off on this African empire. It worked, with Carthage actually capturing the Roman consul in battle. But the tide of history was too great for one man to change, and Rome eventually won the war.
People often forget about Xanthippus when listing famous Spartan leaders but he deserves his spot in history. No one knows for sure what happened to Xanthippus of Carthage next. Some say he was captured and killed by the Romans. Others that he died at sea, thrown overboard by his disappointed employers. I like the theory that he returned to Sparta with great wealth and fame.
5: Cleomenes III
Cleomenes III was by no means a successful leader, ultimately failing in his goals. But he certainly was famous in the Greek world. Born a prince, he aimed to reform Sparta on becoming king. He nationalized all Spartan land and redistributed it equally among the citizens of Sparta. That was just one of his reforms but it speaks to the scale of his ambition. With all this going on he took Sparta to war with a league of other Greek states. The problem was that Sparta was past it’s prime at this point, and Macedonia was among their enemies in the war. Macedonia was on the rise, and so Cleomenes eventually lost the war. Fleeing to Egypt, he achieved safety from his friend the ruler of Egypt. But when a rebellion took off there he panicked and took his own life. That was the end of Cleomenes III.
Lycurgus was like the Spartan version of Draco (legendary lawmaker of Athens). He was the lawmaker who shifted Spartan society towards strict military order. To a society where all life revolved around martial conflict and training. Each of his legislative reforms promoted the 3 solid virtues of Spartan like. Those virtues are austerity, equality, and military superiority. He is arguably the single biggest reason Sparta was so different to other ancient Greek states. That’s a big achievement for just one man. So after his death he went down as one of the most famous Greek leaders, named by historians like Herodotus. This resulted in him becoming something of a partially mythical figure, with very little known about his life.
3: Pausanias The Regent
Pausanias was a great general during the Persian invasion of Greece. To fight the invasion off, Sparta Athens and many other Greek states joined forces. Pausanias was given control of their collective land army. As their commander he led the Greeks to a massive victory in 479 BC when he crushed the Persians in battle. The battle was so crushing it effectively destroyed the entire Persian army and ended their invasion. Pausanias unsurprisingly was hailed as a war hero after the battle, similar to how other famous Spartan leaders were. But then it all went wrong. Despite being the ruler of Sparta at the time, he was accused of betraying the state. With no evidence, his enemies said Pausanias had conspired with Persia during the war. For this alleged crime he was trapped inside a temple and starved to death by his own people.
Menelaus was king of Sparta during the Trojan war, a conflict waged against the city of Troy by the Greeks. The war began when Menelaus’ wife Helen was kidnapped by the prince of Troy. As any good king would, Menelaus went to war in order to take back his wife. The story of this war was recorded by Homer, who claimed Menelaus first attempted diplomacy. But when this failed he raised an army of thousands and a fleet of countless ships.
Blockading the city of Troy and her allies, the majority of the war was a siege. A siege that only ended with the advent of the Trojan horse. Menelaus was among the men hiding inside the horse, opening the city gates for his forces to destroy Troy. And so Menelaus was successful in claiming victory and his wife Helen once again. It is thanks to Homer he would become one of the most famous Spartan leaders of all.
1: Leonidas I
Leonidas, by far the most famous of all Spartan leaders and there’s a good reason for this. He was the Spartan king who led just 300 of his best warriors to their death at the battle of Thermopylae. At the time Persia was expanding it’s empire, looking to invade Greece and subjugate it’s people. Many Greek states and kingdoms agreed to be part of the Persian empire, but the Spartans were different. Under the rule of Leonidas I they refused to make peace with Persia and effectively went to war. He knew that leading such a small force would almost certainly result in their deaths. But he also knew a valiant effort by them could delay the Persian invasion of Greece for just long enough for the Greek people to unite. So he and his 300 warriors died a heroes death.