Origins of Sparta: Return of the Heracleidae

‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’

That is Tyrtaeus’s quiet invocation as he holds weathered palms up to the campfire. 

He is not alone. Spartan soldiers are gathered about the fire too, cooking rations, boiling water, sharpening blades. They all labour with quiet intensity, keeping their eyes upon their work. None dare look up. None dare look out at the hundreds of other campfires that twinkle out there on the other side of the plain. A fledgling constellation heralding the battle to come.

But at Tyrtaeus’s words, the soldiers turn to him with rapt attention. When the voice of Sparta speaks, all listen. 

He was a soldier once, like them – his shattered leg and missing eye speak to that profession. Now he is a poet, a singer so sage that he shares counsel with generals and kings.

‘They say it is the waiting that is worst,’ continues Tyrtaeus, his voice a creak, the branches of a great oak all swaying in the wind. ‘But we Spartans know what it is to wait.’

Tyrtaeus feels a hand on his shoulder, breath on his neck – a figure that none of the soldiers can see come to whisper in his ear. A sister of the Muses. 

Her words Tyrtaeus repeats, and the honeyed song of divinity bathes his voice until it carries clear, far beyond the campfire.

‘We Spartans know what it is to bide our time. To keep faith with destiny – ownership of all the Peloponnese, from isthmus to cape. That is the promise Zeus made to our forefather and his sons – a return for the Heracleidae, the children of Heracles.’

The Muses’s song for the Heracleidae opens with screaming and the spilling of blood. But it is not upon the battlefield. It is upon the birthing bed.

Zeus has sired a son with Alcmene, granddaughter of Perseus. He plans for this child, Heracles, to hold the great kingdoms of the Peloponnese in the palm of his hand. 

Hera, queen of the gods, plans otherwise. One of Zeus’s bastards hold such power? No, it is an insult she will not suffer. So she binds her husband to an oath – only the next of Perseus’s descendants to be born will seat the highest throne in the Peloponnese. 

It is a pledge Zeus should not have made. His talent for conception is legendary, but childbirth, that is Hera’s domain. She ties a knot in the threads of fate, forcing Alcmene to labour for days, to wait there in the worst of it. And all the while, Hera unspools the threads of another, Nicippe, till weak and premature, her child is born first: sickly Eurystheus, now heir to the gleaming throne. 

Heracles’s life is the candle that burns bright but brief.

His labours are legendary, but Hera’s enmity looms large over them all. Even after his death and his ascent to Olympus, her hostility remains. It is Heracles’s son who is its subject now.

Hyllus, the next to wear the hide of the Nemean lion. 

Driven out of the Peloponnese by sickly Eurystheus and his sons, Hyllus has made his home among the Dorians. He has even become a ruler in his own right. Indebted to Heracles, the king of the Dorians has gifted Hyllus a third of his kingdom and guardianship of his two sons, the Dorian princes Pamphylus and Dymas.

But it will never be enough for one who wears the lion’s hide. Hyllus’s birth right is to claim the Peloponnese. All of it.

His first attempt meets with disaster. Like a rain of arrows, a plague lays low his army before it can even cross the isthmus to the Peloponnese. When they burn the bodies, it is not charred flesh Hyllus smells, but lilies – Hera’s sacred flower.

The Queen of the Gods will frustrate any attempt to return. 

So Hyllus does not head south. Instead, with the Dorian princes as his companions, he dons the lion’s hide once more and heads north. To Delphi. To the oracle.

When they are ushered into her presence, the oracle is seated, as ever, upon her sacred tripod. Her hands are already slick with the blood of Hyllus’s sacrifice, a great white heifer. She cocks her head, turning her attention as if a figure that neither Hyllus nor the princes can see has come to whisper in her ear.

‘Three they are, three they stand,’ the oracle recounts, her voice a hiss, the reeds of a great salt marsh all swaying in the wind. ‘The tripod is stability. Security. Surety. If three crowns of the Peloponnese you desire – Argos, Messenia and Sparta – three more blooms must you wait.’

Hyllus nods then, grim but determined. Heracles waited a lifetime; his son can wait three years. And so, come the third spring, with Pamphylus and Dymas as his generals, Hyllus leads an army of Dorians into the Peloponnese.

But Hera – she laughs, a sudden thing that cuts like no bronze ever could. It is all Hyllus can hear as his blood soaks into the dirt and the mud, a gaping spear wound in his chest.

His army barely made it past the isthmus. And now the lion’s hide is sodden and spoiled.

That laughter comes to haunt each generation of the Heracleidae. Hyllus’s son hears it years later as his own army is smashed and routed upon the Peloponnese. He escapes, but Hera’s delight taunts him the rest of his short life. Then there is his son, Hyllus’s grandson – that campaign is longer, true, but it ends the same way. Fatal mirth: a gash to his leg festers, and in the fevered hallucinations that follow, every sound blurs into a woman’s cackle. 

But what of Delphi? Did the oracle lie? Was she mistaken?


You see, in Hyllus’s eagerness, he neglected the nature of prophecy: the truth as deathless gods see it is singular and severe – incomprehensible to mortal minds. So it must be robed – in rebus and riddle. Those blooms the oracle spoke of – they were not turns of the earth, but the Heracleidae themselves – three further generations till it is Heracles’s great great grandchildren who stand before the oracle’s sacred tripod once more.

‘Three they are. Three they stand,’ the oracle recounts. ‘Three blooms they have waited. Three crowns they will now have.’




Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast

Written by Andrew Hulse