The Stoic Philosopher and the Spartan Revolution   


Imagine having once been a Stoic philosophy teacher at a really posh school for elite pupils.  You’ve written and thought about an ideal and virtuous way of life for decades.  Now, you get a request from one of your former students, now the king of Sparta, to come back to his country to redesign and revolutionize his governmental, educational, and cultural system to reflect your Stoic principles and your way of life.  You now have the chance to turn the utopian political teachings of your mentor, the Stoic Zeno of Citium, into reality in a once-great country with an ancient reputation for courage and honor.    

Imagine being a young, widowed queen, having lost your husband to the rich, corrupt oligarchs of your country who decided your husband’s ideas of justice and egalitarianism went against their power and privileges.  They had him murdered, and then married you off to one of their sons.  You now have the chance, however, of influencing your new, powerful husband, the new king of Sparta, with those ideas that will revolutionize and reinvigorate your home country, influence and encourage people far outside your borders, while avenging yourself against those decrepit powerful men who sought to destroy your life and your family.  

Imagine inheriting the throne and being a young, bold ruler- but accepting that a true ruler isn’t a person who adheres to the status quo and keeps his handlers rich and privileged due to the hardship and poverty of the populace.  You would rather use your power to live up to your own Stoic principles and return your country to its former glory.  You look for help from your old mentor and your dynamic wife, of course, but there’s something else: You know there is no way to make this happen without causing a tremendous upheaval in your own country and completely upsetting the balance of power throughout the international system.  You’re going to have to give up much of your wealth, your privileged lifestyle, and maybe even your life for a chance to live up to the Stoic virtues of justice and courage and to improve the lives of your subjects.  Even more, enemies within your borders and the great political and military powers will come after you.  There’s no way you’re going to do this without shedding blood- at home and abroad. 

Such were the events of Hellenistic Sparta in the 3rd century BC.  The Stoic philosopher, Sphaerus, had lectured the young prince of Sparta in philosophy and, presumably, the cosmopolitan Stoic philosophy he had learned from the first Stoics, including Zeno and Cleanthes.  He seems to have left Sparta while Chrysippus was in charge of the school, whether due mainly to job opportunities as a lecturer or to differences with Chrysippus, we don’t know.  What we do know is that the early Stoics were quite critical of the society and education of their time, and they imagined that a world of truly wise people would have no need for social classes, money, lawcourts, and divisive social conventions.  They would have seen all people, regardless of their ethnic origins, as eligible members of a cosmic community, where only someone’s moral character virtues mattered.  

Meanwhile, a young reformer king of Sparta, Agis, was killed for attempting to return Sparta to its glory days of the Classical age by abolishing debts and redistributing wealth.  By his time, Sparta’s citizen body had been reduced to very few, since poverty was grounds for losing citizenship.  Many Spartans found themselves as ex-citizens, and poor sons of ex-citizens, most of them burdened with debt (since taking on debt was the only way to keep one’s citizenship), and still compelled to fight Sparta’s wars to make the rich and powerful richer and more powerful.  What the new king wanted was a return to the Sparta of old, where the idea (true or not) of equal citizens trained together for war and shared in Sparta’s power and privileges. Agis’ mother and his grandmother, tough Spartan ladies in their own right, and among the wealthiest people in Sparta, gave up their property and wealth to Agis’ cause.  The first part caught on, since even some of the rich had debts they wanted to forget about, but the latter part faltered, and his enemies took the opportunity to conspire against him.  The young idealistic king, his mother, and his grandmother were then killed by the nobles and the members of the other royal family (Sparta had traditionally had two kings, preserving a balance of power).  His queen, Agiatis, survived the coup, but was married off to the son of the other, conspiring king.  While this would have kept a less dynamic woman from attempting anything that might get her in mortal danger again, she saw her chance to partner with her new spouse- and discuss all those plans Agis had designed to return Sparta to a society of equal warrior-citizens, competing for bravery and temperance rather than wealth and power.   

Kleomenes, the son of the conspirator, and Agiatis’ new husband, became the next king of Sparta.  But he was also a student of Stoicism and, to the shock of the oligarchs and plutocrats who engineered his ascension and who opposed any type of change, he chose to continue with the reforms, and even went further. Making his mercenaries, some foreigners, and eventually even peasants into full citizens.  He knew, however, that he would make enemies at home and abroad, and that he had to show strength as well as thoughtfulness.  He developed a solid reputation for military prowess in the field of combat.  On his return from a campaign, he stationed his political rivals in garrisons far from the city of Sparta.  With his wife’s encouragement, he and his followers slaughtered some of his political opponents and exiled many others.  He became the quintessential Stoic Spartan: striving to be wise, brave, just, and temperate while developing his city-state once again into a first rate military machine.       

To set about reforming or, rather, revolutionizing, Sparta, he needed help.  Certainly he had followers, some less scrupulous than others, who would, and did, kill for a chance at breaking the oppressive power of the greedy oligarchs.  His wife had been the intimate, literally, of the idealistic young reformer king who preceded him, and she was able to influence him and contribute to his political machinations.  If behind every good man is a good woman, then behind these two successive good Spartans was a tough and smart Spartan queen, able to have her husbands love and respect her, and listen to her on the topics of politics and economics.  Only a Stoic at the height of his moral progression and acceptance of fate wouldn’t see her death, which occurred a few years hence, as a terrible loss to her country and to humankind.  Perhaps just as importantly, for Kleomenes and for Sparta, was the assistance of the Stoic Sphaerus.  In order to get the Spartans, whose citizen body was now vastly increased due to the redistribution of wealth and status, to become something like what Zeno had preached to be an ideal city-state, he had to make his reforms look as Spartan as possible.  Every innovation seems to have been passed on as a restoration of the ancient laws of the legendary Spartan law-giver, Lycurgus.  Every part of the new Stoic public education system was made to seem a return to the ancient agoge, the Spartan military school for all future citizen-soldiers.  Every new Stoic reform was made to be a return to the way things were when Sparta first became a regional power, back in the archaic age of history.  Things only a Stoic would say about who should be a Spartan and who shouldn’t were put into the mouth of the legendary Spartan Lycurgus.  When a few complained that too many non-Spartans of different ethnicity and of dubious social status were being made full citizens capable of defending their new country, Lycurgus was made to have said: “I would rather have a good foreigner than a bad Spartan.”  Sparta was being Stoicized, just as the Stoic philosophy had been influenced by the legendary Spartan bravery and temperance. 

None of this happened in a vacuum, of course.  Such a revolutionary new Sparta, with men happy to fight for more than just to increase the wealth of their social betters, fought enemies valiantly for control of the territory of the Peloponnese.  He found a powerful backer in the Egyptian king Ptolemy, who saw Sparta as a counterweight to the regional powers of Greece and to Egypt’s great rival, Macedon.   Even more, the poor and disenfranchised subjects of other city-states in Greece looked up to the Stoic Spartan king as an avenging hero, hoping his revolution would spread to their countries as well,  and bring a chance at a better life.  These leaders found themselves scared for their own status, seeing what had happened to the oligarchs of Sparta, and found themselves allied against the upstart young king.  But nothing is ever that simple.  Sparta found allies within all the major cities of the region, but revolutionizing them the way he did Sparta would have been a different story.  And this is where Spartan role ethics collides with international politics.   

What works under certain conditions, in one’s home territory, isn’t what necessarily works in other places.  The Stoic king of Sparta was a political realist as well as a cosmopolitan.  Having stable allies is more important than spreading Stoic reforms, at least under the conditions he was facing.  Kleomenes, if he ever even intended to spread his reforms to other places, didn’t; and while this led to fewer enemies from the ruling classes of those places in the short run, in led to lukewarm receptions for his Spartans in the long run, since the masses no longer expected their avenging hero to come rescue them from their own rulers.  After a string of impressive victories by his updated and invigorated troops, his enemies put aside their considerable jostling for power to oppose the rising power of Sparta.  The regional power, the Achaean League, joined their archenemy, one of the great powers of Greece, Macedon.  This juggernaut now joined to smash Kleomenes and his Spartan army.  But even in decline, Kleomenes showed himself to be both a Stoic and a Spartan.     

He destroyed a major city, Megalopolis, in his retreat back to defend the Spartan homeland.  He took it by force, and surely admirable defenders were killed in the process.  Certainly, he gave the inhabitants, most of whom were able to evacuate to safety, every opportunity to join his forces against the incoming Macedonians.  When they refused, our sources tell us he destroyed the city with such savagery that it seemed unlikely anyone could ever inhabit it again.1  At any rate, the tide had changed for Kleomenes.  His biggest backer, Ptolemy, cut his losses, and refused to more money to aid the Spartans against the Achaean-Macedonian alliance.  Sparta was short on men and resources.  Politically speaking, the international system was now the realm of mighty rich kingdoms and leagues of Greek states, not any upstart lone city-state, no matter how glorious its past or how virtuous its citizen-soldiers.  Despite a well-defended position near Sparta at the town of Sellassia, after a grueling battle the Spartans lost, losing most of their soldiers, both original and newly-promoted, to Macedonian and Achaean iron.   

And here is where Kleomenes, it seems, chooses to be a Stoic rather than a Spartan.  He could have fought to the end, losing his own life with that of his soldiers. Since at least the time of King Leonidas at Thermopylae against overwhelming odds, Sparta had a reputation for losing kings in battle- fighting until the end on their feet, and in the case of one particularly tough but injured king who could no longer stand, fighting to the death on their knees.   In the case of Kleomenes defeat here at Sellassia, one of his comrades committed suicide after failing to persuade Kleomenes to join him in death.  But Kleomenes, in a quite un-Spartan move, decided to escape and live, probably hoping to launch another campaign against his foes while in exile at Egypt.  A cynic (or a typical Spartan) might accuse Kleomenes of cowardice, but Kleomenes had fought in wars and in sieges for over a decade, and it would be unfair to label him a ‘trembler’ (in the Spartan parlance) unduly (though only the sages are truly courageous, for a Stoic).  Yet, as a commander of men and, more importantly, a Stoic, he knew that life should not be thrown away for worrying about what social conventions are or because of fear of men’s opinions.  Life is an indifferent to a Stoic, as is death, though the former is typically preferred to the latter, and the proverbial wise person would only kill himself with a good reason to do so.  If he can still benefit his country, his appropriate actions are to stay, to live, and, if necessary, to fight.  He died by his own hand, incidentally, when his luck ran out in Egypt during a failed revolt there.   

Sphaerus the Stoic seems to have come out of it all rather well.  Many of his Stoic educational and sociopolitical reforms seemed to have lasted in Sparta well into the Roman era.  We have anecdotes about him in Egypt, perhaps he went on an embassy there with Kleomenes to seek patronage against the Greek powers, or perhaps he fled there with Kleomenes after the latter’s defeat at Sellassia.  He wrote several books about political philosophy, and about the Spartan system in particular.  Whatever his successes or his failures, the only ones which truly matter to a Stoic are our moral ones, since those alone, not the respective consequences, can give us either a flourishing life or misery.  Here we have a Stoic who found that a true utopia of a Stoic cosmopolis needs be put into effect in the real world, not just on paper.  He strove, with his dynamic and bold pupil, Kleomenes, to make people who were neither Stoics nor Spartans into both.  He helped many who were poor and outcast find a way to be incorporated as full citizens, regardless of their place of birth or conditions of birth; he helped educate them (the fact that it was a military academy aside), and give them a home in a society now remade, and once again known for its legendary toughness, moderation, and frugality.  In a word, he did his part to treat others, regardless of wealth or social station, as members of a cosmic community, but acted, necessarily, from within the minor community he chose, at least for a while, to make his home: Hellenistic Sparta.  There’s nothing more Stoic than that.   

[1] This brings us to a point about the Stoic equality of errors. All mistakes are morally the same, for the Stoics, and all appropriate actions are appropriate equally. To kick a bird’s nest unjustly, for example, is the moral equivalent of destroying a city.  And, if something is appropriate, then it is appropriate even if it results in suffering and death.  The Stoic has to be brutally honest here: If it is done with malice, anger, or fear, firebombing a city to get their government to surrender is every bit the same, morally speaking, as kicking a nest or a terrorist placing a bomb in a bar frequented by government troops.  Some consequences, of course, are more or less preferred than others.   

About the author

Leonidas Konstantakos

Add comment