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The Life of the Legendary King of Sparta, Leonidas

Leonidas became legend after fighting against the mighty Persian army at Thermopylae
Leonidas, the King of Sparta. Credit: Andy Hay, CC BY 2.0/ flickr

Leonidas, the legendary king of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, is best known for leading the 300 heroic Spartans against the vast Persian army and dying alongside them in the Battle of Thermopylae.

Even though Leonidas and the 300 Spartans died in the battle, it is regarded as one of the most heroic battles in history.

The Spartans sacrificed their lives to delay the advance of the Persian army and raised the morale of all Greeks so as to finally defeat the invaders a few months later. Leonidas’ name has become synonymous with bravery, absolute devotion to the homeland, and fearless might on the battlefield.

Born in Sparta, Died for Sparta

Born in Sparta, a city-state that relied on the might of its warriors rather than defensive walls and fortifications to protect itself, Leonidas was destined to become a warrior leader himself.

The fact that he inherited the Spartan throne was secondary. For Leonidas and the rest of the Spartans, titles were not especially significant. The ideals of courage, discipline, and bravery were much more highly valued

As a product of Sparta’s rigorous military training, he emerged not only as a formidable warrior but also as a leader whose decisions and actions would significantly influence the course of Greek history.

Leonidas was born around 540 BC and was the seventeenth in line in the royal Agiad dynasty of Sparta, a lineage that, legend has it, traced its roots to the mythical hero Heracles.

His father was King Anaxandridas II, a respected ruler in a society in which lineage and military prowess were paramount. According to Herodotus, Leonidas’ mother was unable to bear children for a long time, so Sparta’s ephors tried to convince King Anaxandridas II to set her aside and take another wife.

The king refused, claiming that his wife could bear children, whereupon the ephors agreed to allow him to take a second wife without setting aside his first. Leonidas was second to his older half-brother, Cleomenes I, who was the heir apparent. Yet, his royal upbringing didn’t mean that he would not grow up to be a warrior.

Like all Spartan boys, Leonidas was shaped by the rigorous and austere upbringing known as the Agoge. The Agoge (Greek: Αγωγή) was an education and training program focused on cultivating military techniques, survival skills, and social aptitude.

Beginning at the age of seven, Leonidas was removed from his family and placed in this communal education system. Here, he underwent intense physical training, learned survival skills in the wilderness, was taught how to fight in battle, learned combat tactics, and was imbued with values of discipline, endurance, and loyalty to his homeland.

A part of the Agoge was to instill the ethos of Spartan society, creating citizens who were strong, obedient, and ready to sacrifice for the greater good of their city-state.

Ascension to the Throne

When King Anaxandridas II died around 524 BC, Cleomenes succeeded to the throne. He was a successful king for Sparta and for Greece in general as he organized the resistance against the invading Persian King Darius.

However, a plot against him with the claim that he was insane, brought him to prison where he died, allegedly killing himself, in 490 BC.

Leonidas married Cleomenes’ daughter, Gorgo, sometime before he ascended to the throne in the same year.

Plutarch wrote about Leonidas, “When someone said to him: ‘Except for being king you are not at all superior to us,’ Leonidas replied: ‘But were I not better than you, I should not be king.'”

As king, Leonidas was in the middle of the Greco-Persian wars, as the Persian Empire was expanding and invading Greece. These wars, spanning from 499 BCE to 449 BCE, were rooted in the Persian Empire’s ambitions to expand westward, following their successful subjugation of the Greek cities in Asia Minor.

Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae

King Leonidas’ most significant involvement in the Persian Wars came during the second Persian invasion, led by King Xerxes I in 480 BC. Xerxes was the son of Darius, who was defeated by the Greeks in the Battle of Marathon.

Darius’ heir, Xerxes, wanted to avenge his father and started a massive campaign against Greece. The Greeks formed an alliance of city-states, known as the Hellenic League, spearheaded by Sparta and Athens.

As the massive Persian army was advancing in mainland Greece, the Greek city-states, under the banner of the Hellenic League, decided to block the advance of the Persian army at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae.

Seasoned general Leonidas was chosen to lead the Greek forces due to his military expertise. He spearheaded the defense of the narrow pass with a small force of select Spartans.

It is estimated that the Greek forces amounted to around seven thousand men, a figure that pales in comparison to the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, in the Persian army.

The narrow pass at Thermopylae balanced out the numerical advantage of the Persians, allowing the Greeks to use their superior heavy infantry tactics effectively. The fearless Leonidas and his Spartan hoplites had the training, discipline, and equipment ideal for close-quarters combat.

For two days, the Greek forces managed to repel the invaders. However, when a Greek traitor named Ephialtes informed Xerxes of a hidden mountain path that led behind the Greek lines, it was the beginning of the collapse.

The Persians outflanked the Greeks and killed them all. Leonidas himself was among the last to die, fighting valiantly until he was cut down by Xerxes’ guards.

Aftermath and Legend

The final stand of Leonidas and the Spartans was not a strategic enough move to win the battle. It was a sacrificial effort to delay the Persians and protect the retreating Greek forces.

Yet, the defeat at Thermopylae was crucial for it delayed the Persian advance and provided valuable time for the Greek city-states to prepare for further battles. Furthermore it boosted the morale of the allied Greeks against the overwhelming Persian forces.

The sacrifice of Leonidas for Sparta became a rallying point for all Greek city-states, symbolizing their commitment to defending their homeland. After all, when the Spartans were departing for war, they were sent off by their families with the phrase: “With it or on it,” (Greek: Ή τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς), meaning “return with your shield or on it.”

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