Cleomenes III (ca. 260-219 B.C.), the king of Sparta from 235 to 219, passed important reforms, revived Sparta's power, and was utterly defeated by Macedon. A vivid personality and dashing leader, he unfortunately lacked vision in politics.
Cleomenes III was the son of King Leonidas of Sparta. He married Agiatis, the widow of Leonidas's murdered coruler Agis IV, and she influenced Cleomenes deeply in the direction of social change. Since Leonidas was an archconservative, Cleomenes's feelings must have been torn between conservatism and socialism, between father and wife. When Cleomenes succeeded Leonidas in 235 B.C., he inherited policies of conservatism and of the king's subordination to the ephors, or magistrates.
When the expansion of the Achaeans under Aratus made war inevitable in 229, the ephors authorized Cleomenes to defend the frontiers of Sparta. Not content with defense, he took the offensive with 5,000 men and in 228 forced an Achaean army of 20,000 to withdraw. Cleomenes's reputation soared. Ptolemy III, King of Egypt, now supported Cleomenes instead of Aratus. When Cleomenes hired mercenaries, the ephors scented danger, and after Cleomenes defeated the Achaeans in 227, King Archidamus was recalled to restore Sparta's dual kingship and check Cleomenes. But Archidamus was assassinated, and on winning a decisive victory over the Achaeans, Cleomenes left his citizen troops to occupy Arcadia, slipped back to Sparta with his mercenaries, and seized power. Killing four ephors and banishing 80 opponents, he named his brother successor to Archidamus's throne but from then on was sole military dictator.
Reforms in Sparta
Cleomenes at once introduced the reforms sponsored by Agis and frustrated by Leonidas. Though he may have believed in the socialist doctrines advocated by Agiatis and the Stoic philosopher Sphaerus, Cleomenes's immediate aim was to increase and improve the army. All debts and mortgages were canceled; all land was nationalized; and enough perioeci, or noncitizens who served in the forces, and aliens resident in Laconia were enfranchised to raise the number of male citizens to 4,000. Public land was divided into 4,000 equal lots, and each citizen received one. The 4,000 citizens were equipped in Macedonian style with long pikes, the messes (syssitia) were reestablished, and the young were educated in the traditional manner.
With his enlarged army Cleomenes won a decisive victory in Achaea in 226. He offered generous terms if Achaea would enter his revived Peloponnesian League under Spartan leadership. But Achaea opened negotiations with Macedon.
War against Macedon
In 225 city after city—even Argos—joined Cleomenes in the expectation that he would revolutionize their societies as well. The Peloponnesian League was almost complete as a military alliance when, in 224, Achaea accepted Macedon's terms, the cession of Corinth. By now Cleomenes held Corinth but not its fortress, Acrocorinth. The Macedonian king, Antigonus Doson, failed to pierce Cleomenes's defenses at the Isthmus, but his political position was precarious. He had neither spread the socialist revolution nor supported the wealthy; thus the revolutionaries acted on their own, while the wealthy decided to rely on Macedon to reinstate them to their former status of power.
A popular rising at Argos, in concert with Macedonian and Achaean troops, overwhelmed the Spartan garrison in Argos. Abandoning the Isthmus and Corinth, Cleomenes fought his way into Argos and had the upper hand when the Macedonian cavalry appeared. Routed, Cleomenes fled to Tegea, where he heard of Agiatis's death. Antigonus reinstated the wealthy, formed the Hellenic League, condemned Cleomenes as a revolutionary, and declared he had no quarrel with Sparta.
Cleomenes turned to Ptolemy III. In exchange for subsidies he sent his mother and children as hostages to Egypt. In 223 Antigonus captured Tegea, Orchomenus, and Mantinea, entrusting the last to the Achaeans, who sold the population into slavery. Cleomenes captured Megalopolis, but the people escaped. When he offered to return the city if the people would support him, they refused. He sacked Magalopolis, an act of temper which only confirmed his isolation. For the final campaign Cleomenes freed many helots, raising his army to 20,000 men.
In 222 the decisive battle was fought at Sellasia. With 30,000 men Antigonus attacked Cleomenes's prepared position. When his troops overbore the left flank, Cleomenes committed his center to the attack. Charging downhill, the Spartans drove back the Macedonian phalanx but failed to break its formation. Antigonus's forces completed a pincer movement, and the encircled Spartan army was almost annihilated.
Cleomenes escaped, advising Sparta to submit, and sailed to Egypt. Antigonus spared Sparta, but Cleomenes's hopes of return faded. When Ptolemy III died, Ptolemy IV was unsympathetic to the Spartans, and the refugees found themselves virtually interned at Alexandria. In 219 Cleomenes conceived a plan which was as courageous as it was impracticable. Tricking their guards, he and 12 others escaped armed into the streets of Alexandria, called on the people to rise against Ptolemy, and tried to capture the prison of the citadel. Failing, they killed one another, the last committing suicide over the King's body. Ptolemy executed the women and children and had the corpse of Cleomenes flayed and hung on a gibbet.
Further Reading on Cleomenes III
Ancient accounts of Cleomenes are in the writings of Plutarch and Polybius. A modern discussion is in J.B. Bury and others, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 7 (1928).