The Story of a Mysterious Spartan Royal Son

A Little Known Son of Sparta

The main character in my book, The Wandering King, is a Spartan of the royal Agiad house named Euryanax. He also provides the name of the book, the first lines of which begin:

I am called Euryanax and I am a Spartan. In the Dorian tongue, ‘eury’ means wandering and ‘anax’ means king. The Wandering King. From my name comes my story.

Euryanax is based on a real person. He is briefly mentioned in Herodotus as the second-in-command of the allied Greek army at the decisive battle of Plataea which saw the defeat of the Persians and the end of the first great war between East and West.

Herodotus states in The History:

Pausanias chose as commander in addition to himself Euryanax the son of Dorieus, a man of the same house.

Herodotus mentions Euryanax again before the battle, but for the most part almost nothing is known about him other than he is the son of Dorieus, a member of the royal family, and he had an important leadership role at the historic battle of Plataea.

Euryanax’s Family: A Royal Mess

His father Dorieus was one of four sons of King Anaxandridas of Sparta, born in this order: Cleomenes, Dorieus, Leonidas and Kleombrotus. As Pausanias was the son of Kleombrotus, that made he and Euryanax cousins.

If Dorieus was older than Kleombrotus, how did Pausanias end up in the role of supreme commander and his cousin Euryanax as his second-in-command? As the more senior of the two cousins, why wasn’t Euryanax chosen by the Spartans to serve as ‘strategos’ at Plataea?

The laws of royal succession at Sparta are clear. The first in line, the heir to the throne, is the king’s first born son. If the king has no sons, the inheritance falls on his next oldest male relative.

Here’s where the succession among King Anaxandridas’ sons gets tricky. Early in Anaxandridas’ reign he was without children and as there were no other males in the Agiad house (which claimed descent from the mythical hero Herakles), the royal line was in danger of extinction. According to Herodotus, the Spartans thought Anaxandridas’ wife was barren, so the ephors, or overseers, who had power over the kings, demanded that Anaxandridas take a second wife to produce an heir.

Herodotus tells us Anaxandridas was happy with his first wife, so initially refused, but eventually succumbed to political pressure and ‘against all custom’ took a second wife who bore Cleomenes.

Here’s where the plot thickens. Shortly after Cleomenes’ birth, Anaxandridas’ first wife turns up pregnant and bears him three sons in a row: Dorieus, Leonidas and Kleombrotus. As Anaxandridas loved his first wife and was resentful at having been forced to take a second, it’s not hard to imagine that he probably favored Dorieus as his legitimate heir.

After King Anaxandridas’ death, Herodotus tells us:

Cleomenes, it is said, was not quite in his right mind, but on the verge of madness, while Dorieus was the first of all the Equals his age, and felt assured that he would obtain the kingdom by merit. However, when Anaxandridas died, the Spartans kept to the law and established the eldest, Cleomenes, upon the throne. Dorieus had imagined that he should be chosen and could not bear the thought of having such a man as Cleomenes rule over him, so he asked the Spartans to give him a body of men and left Sparta in order to found a colony without either inquiring of the oracle at Delphi to what land he should go to make a settlement, or doing any of the things which are usually done; but being vexed he sailed away with his ships to Libya.

Royal Sibling Rivalry

One of the oddities in Herodotus is his statement that Cleomenes was mad, which makes little sense as Herodotus reports a number of instances where Cleomenes acted quite brilliantly, such as trouncing Sparta’s chief Dorian rival in the Peloponnese, the Argives, at the battle of Sepeia (494 BC). Cleomenes beat them so soundly Argos would not be a factor in Greek politics for a generation. Historians think Herodotus’ comment about Cleomenes was the product of gathering the details for The History from sources unfriendly to Cleomenes, of which there were probably many.

Another interesting thing about the snippet from Herodotus above is Dorieus’ behavior. He stormed off to build his own city in Libya without ‘doing any of the things which are usually done’ like consulting the oracle. Dorieus either did not share the superstitions of his fellow Spartans or he was an impulsive fool. Considering what happens to him on his adventures, I prefer to believe the former. We also learn that Dorieus was ‘first’ of all the men his age, which considering the amount of training the Spartans went through as Greece’s only professional soldiers, we are given the portrait of a hot-headed, practical man with great combat skills.

While Cleomenes is on the throne, Dorieus spends years fighting overseas in Libya, Italy and Sicily, possibly winning one of the greatest battles of his age at Sybaris in Italy (511 BC), where his forces may have been outnumbered by as many as 8 to 1. Eventually Dorieus dies in Sicily (510 BC) in a battle against Persia’s allies Phoenicia and Carthage.

Cleomenes rules for thirty years (520 BC – 490 BC) leaving behind a daughter named Gorgo, but no sons. On Cleomenes’ death therefore the kingship falls to his next oldest male relative, his brother Leonidas. As Herodotus states Leonidas and Kleombrotus may have been twins, why was Leonidas chosen over Kleombrotus? More than likely it was because Leonidas married his niece Gorgo, giving him a better claim to the throne than his twin brother.

Leonidas dies fighting at Thermopylae (480 B.C.) leaving his son Pleistarchus as his heir, but as his son was just a child at the time of Plataea (479 B.C.), command of the army should have fallen to the last of Anaxandridas’ four sons, Kleombrotus, but Herodotus tells us Leonidas’ twin dies only months after him of unknown causes. With the male line of the Agiad house dwindling and their choices limited, the Spartans select Kleombrotus’ son Pausanias as regent till Pleistarchus comes of age.

Royal Cousins: Pausanias and Euryanax

Which meant Pausanias would lead the allied Greek army against Persia at Plataea. Why Pausanias? Dorieus’ son would have been more senior. Why wasn’t Euryanax selected?

As Dorieus was never king at Sparta, some historians postulate that his heirs were therefore excluded from the royal line of succession. One historian, Heinrich Stein, suggests that Dorieus may have forfeited his family’s rights to the succession by leaving Sparta, which could be further explained by Euryanax’s being overseas and failing to complete the Spartan educational system called the agoge. Stein says, perhaps Euryanax, for reasons unknown, simply surrendered his right to the throne.

Historian Reginald Walter Macan states,

Strange the jealous traditions which… make so little of the Herakleid captain Euryanax associated with Pausanias in the supreme command. Such an arrangement was not an infrequent device in Sparta for reinforcing or controlling the probable shortcomings of a youthful commander placed by conservative custom in a position which was likely to prove to be too much for him. Had we merely to choose between the probable merits of Pausanias and Euryanax, we might be sorely tempted to invest the older Herakleid with the laurels of Plataea; nor would the discreet and ungenerous silence in Sparta be difficult to explain, even if the disappearance of Euryanax from the scene were to suggest a domestic tragedy. But the transcendent abilities of Euryanax, son of Dorieus, are after all an unknown quantity, even if his association in the supreme command is pro tanto in his favor.

Macan’s comments are colored by the fact that after Plataea, Pausanias did not fare well as the allied commander. He was accused of taking bribes from the Persians, accidently killed the woman he loved and seems to have gone a bit mad himself. Ultimately Pausanias died by walling himself up inside one of Sparta’s temples where he starved himself to death rather than being put on trial for treason.

So it’s easy to see why Macan would prefer an unknown quantity like Euryanax, the son of a fighting general, over a man who was consorting with the enemy.


In this post, you’ve read all the background material I have on my main character Euryanax. It may not seem like a lot, but what I do have I find fascinating. Here is a man who but for a few twists of fate, might have been King of Sparta instead of his famous uncle Leonidas.

Something happened to Euryanax for him to lose his position in the line of royal succession. What? The possibilities are tantalizing. Conversely his years fighting Persia’s allies Phoenicia and Carthage with his father Dorieus must have made the Spartans realize he was the most experienced military commander they had, so they placed him in second-in-command to help counter balance Pausanias’ inexperience and possible incompetence. The Spartans snubbed him by not making him supreme commander, yet they included him in the command structure in a position of importance where he could help ensure the allied Greek army was victorious.

Factor in too, the meaning of Euryanax’s name, the ‘wandering king.’ Why was he given that name? Did his father Dorieus expect to set himself up as a king in Libya or Sicily and reasoned that one day his son would follow him as king? Or did his father’s men dub him with the nickname Euryanax because they spent years wandering all over the Mediterranean and they considered him and his father kings without a throne?

Could there have been elements within Sparta that believed that if the ephors had not meddled in Anaxandridas’ affairs, Cleomenes would have never been born and Dorieus would have been king and Euryanax his heir? If Cleomenes was deemed mad, isn’t it possible that some of the Spartans on the home front hoped that the son of Dorieus would one day return home and claim his throne?

For the answers to these questions, you’ll have to read the book. Stay tuned. When The Wandering King goes up on Amazon I’m going to offer it for free for five days. Those faithful readers who have been following my blog will get a chance to read Euryanax’s story with my compliments.


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