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Spartan General Pausanias: A Traitor or Just Unpopular?

Sparta Pausanias
The Death of Spartan General Pausanias. Credit: Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History, 1882/Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Known as The Regent, Spartan general Pausanias lived a life that encapsulated the harsh realities of the Ancient Greek city-state. A nephew of the great Leonidas, he ended up being killed by his own people for allegedly betraying Sparta.

He was born to his high-ranking father, Cleombrotus, and mother, Theano, and reigned from 479 to 478 BC; he died in ignominy in 477 BC.

Succeeding his father, Cleombrotus, who, in turn, succeeded King Leonidas I, Pausanias was born into a family of great prestige in the military society of Sparta.

In 479 BC, as a leader of the Hellenic League’s combined land forces, Pausanias won a pivotal victory in the Battle of Plataea, which ended the Second Persian invasion of Greece.

Almost all of what is known about his life is thanks to the historian Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, as well as Diodorus’ Bibliotheca historica and a smattering of other classical sources.

As a son of the regent Cleombrotus and a nephew of the warrior king, Leonidas I, whose epic stand against the invading Persians went down in history at the Battle of Thermopylae, Pausanias was a scion of the Spartan royal house of the Agiads.

Pausanias, the great general of Sparta, led a life full of turmoil. His death as a traitor was grim. Credit: Ward—The Illustrated history of the world/Public Domain

After Leonidas’ heroic death, while the king’s son, Pleistarchus, was still a minor, Pausanias served as regent of Sparta. He was also the father of Pleistoanax, who later became king of Sparta in his own right. Pausanias’ other sons were Cleomenes and Nasteria.

Pausanias was a leader of the Hellenic League, which had been created to resist the Persian invasion. He led the Greeks to victory over the Persians and Persian allies led by Mardonius at the Battle of Plataea in Boeotia,in 479 BC, the final land battle of the second Persian invasion of Greece.

Pausanias print
A print of Pausanias from the 18th century. Public Domain

Pausanias was at the head of forces from the city-states of Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and Megara while the forces fighting for the Persian Empire of Xerxes I were allied with Boeotians, Thessalians, and Macedonians in this decisive battle.

Some historians believe him to have used both strategic and tactical skills in delaying the engagement until the point where Spartan arms and discipline could have maximum impact.

The historian Herodotus declared that “Pausanias, the son of Cleombrotus and grandson of Anaxandridas, won the most glorious victory of any known to us” as a result of his actions there.

After the victories at Plataea and the Battle of Mycale, the Spartans lost interest in liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor until it became clear that Athens would dominate the League in Sparta’s absence. Sparta then sent Pausanias back to command the Greek military.

Fortunes turn for General Pausanias of Sparta

In 478 BC, the brilliant general was accused of conspiring with the Persians and was recalled to Sparta. One allegation against him was that after capturing Cyprus and Byzantium, he had released some of the prisoners of war who were friends and relatives of the king of Persia.

In his defense, Pausanias argued that the prisoners had simply escaped.

Another allegation was that Pausanias sent a letter via Gongylos of Eretria to Xerxes. The historian Diodorus has general Artabazos I of Phrygia acting as a mediator in this scenario.

The letter ostensibly said that Pausanias wished to help Xerxes and bring Sparta, with the rest of Greece, under Persian control. In return, he wished to marry Xerxes’ daughter, Amytis. 

After Xerxes purportedly replied, agreeing to his plans, Pausanias started to adopt Persian customs and dress like a Persian aristocrat, according to the charges made at the time.

Pausanias was acquitted of the charges, however, due to a lack of evidence, but nevertheless left Sparta on his own accord, sailing away in a trireme from the town of Hermione.

Spartan General Pausanias: A traitor—or just unpopular?

According to Thucydides and Plutarch, Athenians and many Hellenic League allies were displeased with Pausanias because of his arrogance and high-handedness. Whether or not the charges brought against him were solely because of his haughty attitude is impossible to determine.

In any event, in 477 BC, the Spartans recalled Pausanias once again, ostensibly for his services. He went to Kolonai in the Troad before returning to Sparta.

Upon arrival in Sparta, the ephors imprisoned—but later released—Pausanias. Initially, nobody had enough evidence to convict Pausanias of disloyalty, even though some helots reported that Pausanias had offered them their freedom if they joined in revolt against the state.

Later on, one of the messengers Pausanias used to communicate with Persians provided written evidence—a letter stating Pausanias’ intentions—to Spartan ephors.

Diodorus adds further detail to Thucydides’ account of the fateful encounter. After the ephors were loath to believe the letter provided by the messenger, the messenger then offered to produce Pausanias’ acknowledgement in person.

“Unworthy of being a Spartan, you are not my son”

In the letter, Pausanias—or whomever actually wrote it—asked the Persians to kill the messenger. The messenger and the ephors went to the Temple of Poseidon at Tainaron at the tip of the Mani peninsula. The Ephors concealed themselves in a tent at the shrine, and the messenger waited for Pausanias.

When the general arrived, the messenger confronted him, asking why the letter ordered the killing of whomever delivered the letter. Pausanias apologized and, recognizing that he had made a mistake, asked the messenger for forgiveness. Pausanias then offered gifts to the messenger as a sop. The Ephors overheard the conversation, which they understood to be a damning one, from their nearby tent.

In his defense, Herodotus notes that Athenians were hostile to Pausanias and wished him removed from Greek command. Athenians were similarly hostile to Pausanias’ Athenian counterpart Themistocles, publicly ostracizing this other great general as a threat to democracy there.

A. R. Burn speculates that Spartans were becoming concerned with Pausanias’ innovatory views on freeing the Helots, a slave class who were subjugated by the Spartans.

According to the historians Thucydides, Diodorus, and Polyaenus, pursued by the ephors and realizing all was lost—regardless of whether he was truly guilty—Pausanias took refuge in the temple of Athena “of the Brazen House” (Χαλκίοικος, Chalkioikos), located in the acropolis of Sparta.

His mother, Theano, immediately went to the temple and laid a brick at the door, declaring: “Unworthy to be a Spartan, you are not my son.”

Following his mother’s Spartan example, the citizens of the city-state blocked the doorway of the temple with bricks, thereby forcing Pausanias to die of starvation.

After his body was turned over to relatives for burial, however, the divinity, through the Oracle of Delphi showed displeasure at the violation of the sanctity of suppliants in her place of worship.

The oracle said that Athena demanded the return of the suppliant. Unable to carry out the injunction of the goddess, the Spartans then erected two bronze statues of Pausanias at the temple of Athena as an appeasement.

In conclusion, it will never be known if Pausanias did in fact betray the city-state of Sparta to Xerxes. If he did indeed betray Sparta, was it because he faced such opposition from his own people that he gave up trying to work within the system?

In any event, his death was a perfect representation of the almost unimaginable harshness of military discipline in the Ancient Greek city-state.

This tragic figure from Greek history was portrayed in the play called Pausanias, the betrayer of his country: A tragedy acted at the Theatre Royal by His Majesties’ servants, by Richard Norton and Thomas Southerne. He also features in Henry Purcell’s great musical work “Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country.”

For those who like to learn a bit about Greek history by playing video games, Pausanias is also a character in 2018’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.

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