Chilonis was a Spartan ruler who married a prince and gave birth to a future king – but she was also a soldier and warrior in her own right and a crucial part of the battle to secure Sparta against her husband’s efforts to claim the throne for his own. This assault on Sparta occurred in 272 BC, and ultimately led to Chilonis breaking free of her abusive husband , who was forced into exile after his efforts to conquer the throne failed.
Background and marriage
Chilonis was the daughter of Leotychidas, a noble of the family of the Eurypontids. She carried the title of princess within Sparta, and was a strong and beautiful woman. She caught the eye of Cleonymus, a old nobleman from the Agiads who would have been king of Sparta after his father but who was allegedly rejected due to his violent, unstable and tyrannical ways.
Instead, the crown passed to Areus I, a nephew of Cleonymus – and the old man bore a grudge against his relative and his clansmen as a result. This bitterness deepened when Cleonymus discovered his young and beautiful second wife had been unfaithful to him. Chilonis’ lover was Acrotatus – the son of Areus and heir to the Spartan throne.
Attack on Sparta
According to the history books, Cleonymus became aware of the affair in around 272 BC and he left Sparta to seek counsel from his associate Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. Cleonymus had a plan to take his revenge against his wife’s lover’s family, for the dual betrayals to his crown and marriage. He wanted Pyrrhus to attack the Spartans and seize the throne, placing Cleonymus himself in power. Pyrrhus also had a plan – to double-cross the disgraced royal and seize control of the Peloponnese region as part of his own empire.
The attack was planned while Sparta was weak. King Areus I was away with much of the Spartan army in Gortyn, leaving the civilians, mainly women and a skeleton army to hold off invaders. However, neither man accounted for the strength and determination of the Spartan women, who were encouraged to be physically strong and fit so they could produce strong soldiers for the army. The women trained hard and had combat and battlefield skills, and often served in armies when called upon.
They were able to hold off the attackers for weeks while a message was sent to Areus in Gortyn, and he and his army could return to defeat the Epirusian invaders. Pyrrhus soon retreated, taking his army to Argos to defend in another attack. Meanwhile, Cleonymus was either killed during the battle, exiled from the kingdom or chose to flee – he is never mentioned again in the history books, and the crown passed to Acrotatus in 265 BC.
Chilonis and Acrotatus
Chilonis and her lover played key roles in the battle against Pyrrhus and his armies. It was Chilonis who rallied the women to resist the invading armies, and the Spartan princess had a clear message to send to her estranged husband as she fought. According to the biographer Plutarch, the young beauty tied a noose around her own neck, which she wore during the battle. Rather than submit to her abusive and oppressive husband in the event of capture or defeat, Chilonis planned to take her own life.
Meanwhile, her lover Acrotatus stepped up to fight for his future kingdom in his father’s absence. The young man led the remaining Spartan soldiers and the women volunteer army into a fierce battle to repel the incoming forces. Their efforts were successful, keeping the attack at bay and keeping casualties to a minimum while waiting for reinforcements to arrive.
Both Acrotatus and Chilonis survived the battle, and with Cleonymus out of the picture, the pair were able to continue their relationship. The pair had a son, who they named Areus in honour of his grandfather. Acrotatus II assumed the throne in 265 BC after the death of his father, and ruled for just three years. Chilonis’ son Areus II became the next ruler of Sparta. It is not known when Chilonis died, but she is thought to have reached old age with her husband.
As far back as we have history, we have tales of women expected to submit to their husbands unconditionally. We also have tales of women who challenged that view and took back control – such as with the story of Chilonis, who took to the battlefield in order to stand up to her abusive partner. The Spartans were ahead of their time in promoting women as strong and capable, and Chilonis was part of a community of women allowed to fight, compete and even rule like men. Chilonis’ competence on the battlefield helped to secure a defeat of her husband’s army.
Lead image: statuette of female athlete, presumably from Sparta, via BBC History