Research Ramblings: Sparta and Her Two Kings, Part 2

The setting of my work in progress is ancient Sparta, whose people left an indelible mark on Western history. Even their Greek contemporaries thought the Spartans singular in their ways, and thousands of years later, we’re still naming school mascots after them.

For most Americans, the word “Spartan” conjures up images of King Leonidas and his 300 warriors fighting to the bitter death. While this is an iconic moment for Sparta, what makes this ancient city-state unique goes beyond that one battle, which is why learning about it is so fun.

As mentioned in Part 1 on this topic, the Spartans had a dyarchy. So that might beg the question, why? We’ll probably never know for sure, but the Spartans did have an account of the origin of the two royal lines. Herodotus records it in Book 6 of his Histories, and the story goes something like this:

King Aristodemos, who established the Spartan state, had twin sons. After he died, the people were all set to follow custom and crown the older twin king. But they had a problem. The boys were identical, and they couldn’t tell them apart. So they asked the mother, but she said she couldn’t tell either. However, she actually could. According to Herodotus she told the lie because she wanted both twins to be kings if possible.

So what to do?

The Spartans did what all Greeks do when they’re stuck with a dilemma. They went to the Oracle at Delphi. And the Oracle’ answer was: regard both children as kings but give the senior brother greater honor.


Seriously, if I was one of those Spartans, I’d be yelling at the Oracle, “If we knew that, we wouldn’t be here!”

So the gods weren’t providing any clarity, but fortunately, a clever man from Messenia offered some advice. He suggested they watch the mother carefully to observe the order in which she bathed and fed her children. His reasoning was that if she consistently attended one first that she could tell them apart. On the other hand, if she alternated randomly, she couldn’t tell them apart, and they’d have to try something else.

The Spartans followed his advice. Sure enough the mother (who didn’t know why she was being watched) was consistently bathing and feeding one son first – giving him higher honor, so to speak. So the Spartans finally had their older twin, and for some reason, even though the Oracle wasn’t all that helpful, they felt they should abide by its advice to make both boys kings.

The older boy got named Eurysthenes and established the senior Agiad Royal House (which oddly wasn’t named after him but his son Agis). The younger twin, Procles, established the junior Eurypontid Royal House (named after his descendant Eurypon). And Herodotus notes that even though they were brothers, they disagreed with each other throughout their entire lives, and their descendants pretty much followed in that pattern.

To prove this point, here’s the short version of Herodotus’ account of King Cleomenes and King Demaratus:

King Cleomenes goes out of town to take care of business. While he’s away, his co-king Demaratus badmouths him. King Cleomenes gets ticked off and gets King Demaratus ousted from the Eurypontid throne on the grounds of illegitimacy. Demaratus then skips town to hook up with the Persians. Years later, when Cleomenes’ successor Leonidas and his 300 head off to Thermopylae, Demaratus is at the Persian king’s side offering military advice.

Talk about not getting along…


3 responses to “Research Ramblings: Sparta and Her Two Kings, Part 2

  1. Wow. That takes family rivalry a bit far. And here most people thought the Italians and Greeks were so family-centric. I guess the Spartans really were in a world of their own, huh? Thanks for sharing this. I knew practically no Spartan history beyond the 300 story, so this was good. I love history. Saw you on Cat’s site and wanted to say hello. Glad I did. Have I mentioned I love history? LOL

    • thx so much for dropping by! i’ll be posting some more about the spartan kings around the end of the week, and i hope u find that interesting also. btw, i noticed on ur blog that u’re researching chinese history. that’s very cool stuff, tho unfortunately most of the Asian history i know i’ve gotten from reading manga . yes, i’m horrible.

  2. Pingback: Research Ramblings: Sparta and Her Two Kings, Part 3 | Keeping It In Canon …mostly

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