Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David
Central statue of the Leonidas monument at Thermopylae
Leonidas miniature model. Courtesy of DL Cooper Studios
Leonidas (Λεωνίδας Leōnidas, died 9 August 480 BC) was a hero-king of Sparta, the 17th of the Agiad line, one of the sons of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta, who was believed in mythology to be a descendant of Heracles, possessing much of the latter's strength and bravery. He is notable for his leadership at the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leonidas is a legend without a biographer. Almost nothing is known of his life. The exact date of his birth is as unknown as the particulars of his childhood. Even the spectacular events surrounding his epic struggle in 480 B.C. are shrouded in mystery and open to controversy. The chief source is the famous Greek historian, Herodotus, but even here Leonidas is given relatively scant attention, and modern scholars have been forced to critically reexamine each of Herodotus's sentences to reconstruct more telling and at times more accurate detail.
Leonidas was born on Spartan territory in the Peloponnesian Peninsula in southern Greece probably between the years 530-500 B.C. He was the son of the Spartan king Anaxandrides and was descended from the Greek cult hero Heracles. However, during his youth and early manhood, Leonidas could not have expected to become king because of a peculiar set of circumstances.
There are heroes, and there are super-heroes, just as there are warriors, and super-warriors. These elite of the elite hold a place in history in the Hall of the Immortals, bridging the gap between mortal man and superman, between mortal man and the Gods. Some seem to change the course of history almost single-handedly; while for others it may be a display of courage, poised between myth and destiny, of which legends are made.
One such legend, which remains a model of heroism for people everywhere, was the great battle at Thermopylae, which took place in the year 480 BC. The man of the hour was Leonidas of Sparta, a selfless warrior-hero, a strategist king and fearless commander.
The Spartans are renowned to this day for their expert fighting skills and warrior prowess. Only the strong survived in the disciplined Spartan armies. Trained only for battle, a young soldier knew but one home -- his barracks, one family -- his unit. Physical training was the chief occupation, and each man's day was spent in exercise or on the drill-ground.
From the age of seven, Spartan boys no longer lived at home, but were brought up by the state. Training was often harsh, but effective, and each youth learned unwavering and absolute devotion to his country and his folk. Aside from combat training, they learned to swim, run, jump, wrestle and box, and, above all, to dance. For in Greece, rhythmical movement was considered good training, not for the body alone, but also for the character. War songs were chanted by bands of boys in a musical drill. Every Spartan was expected to be able to sing; great stress was laid on the cultivation of memory, and all learned by heart the ballads of their patriot-poet Tyrtaeus.
By the age of twenty, each cadet became a fully-fledged warrior. On his thirtieth birthday, a Spartan was invested with the remainder of his civic rights and duties. Thenceforth he attended the Appela, the assembly of the people, and could vote on measures proposed by the two kings or by the Ephoroi, Sparta's five-man judiciary. At this time he was also allowed to marry and to establish his own household, although still bound to dine in common with his peers.
Girls were also given rigorous physical training, so that they might become the mothers of healthy children. The Spartans practiced an uncompromising eugenics programme. New-born babies were raised only if healthy and perfectly formed, so as not to be a burden on the state, and to ensure genetic upbreeding.
Women in Sparta were accounted the most beautiful in all of Hellas, while at the same time they were known to be as tough in spirit as the men. It was common for mothers to order their warrior sons as they went off to battle: "Come back with your shield, or on it."
The men were encouraged rigorously to procreate. Just as cowardice was recognized as most despicable and abhorrent, so likewise was chastity among men. Celibacy was a crime, and street gangs of women were known on occasion to beat up bachelors. "Sparta was hardly famous for chaste women," commented Euripides. However, aside from their procreative responsibilities, the Spartans were recognized as the freest people in all of Greece. The citizens themselves were called 'the equals', and in theory all were equal in both war and government.
According to Herodotus, Leonidas' mother was his father's niece and had been barren for so long that the ephors, the five annually elected administrators of the Spartan constitution, tried to prevail upon King Anaxandridas to set aside his wife and take another. Anaxandridas refused, claiming his wife was blameless, whereupon the ephors agreed to allow him to take a second wife without setting aside his first. This second wife, a descendent of Chilon the Wise, promptly bore a son, Cleomenes. However, one year after Cleomenes' birth, Anaxandridas' first wife also gave birth to a son, Dorieus. Leonidas was the third son of Anaxandridas' first wife, and either the elder brother or twin of Cleombrotus. Because Leonidas was not heir to the throne, he was not exempt from attending the agoge, the public school that the sons of all Spartans had to complete in order to qualify for citizenship. Leonidas was thus one of the few Spartan kings to have ever undergone the notoriously harsh training of Spartan youth.
Cleomenes I succeeded to his father's throne somewhere between 520 and 516 BC. Dorieus was so outraged that the Spartans had preferred his half-brother over himself that he found it impossible to remain in Sparta. He made one unsuccessful attempt to set up a colony in Africa and, when this failed, sought his fortune in Sicily, where after initial successes he was killed. Leonidas' relationship with his bitterly antagonistic elder brothers is unknown, but he married Cleomenes' daughter, Gorgo sometime before coming to the throne in 490 BC.
Leonidas was clearly heir to the Agiad throne and a full citizen at the time of the Battle of Sepeia against Argos (c. 494 BC). Likewise, he was a full citizen when the Persians sought submission from Sparta and met with vehement rejection in or around 492/491 BC. His brother had already gone mad and fled into exile when Athens sought assistance against the Persian invasion that ended at Marathon (490 BC).
Plutarch has recorded the following: "When someone said to him: 'Except for being king you are not at all superior to us,' Leonidas son of Anaxandridas and brother of Cleomenes replied: 'But were I not better than you, I should not be king.'" As the product of the agoge, Leonidas is unlikely to have been referring to his royal blood alone but rather suggesting that he had, like his brother Dorieus, proven superior capability in the competitive environment of Spartan training and society, and that he believed this made him qualified to rule.
Leonidas was elected to lead the combined Greek forces determined to resist the Persian invasion in 481. This was not simply a tribute to Sparta's military prowess: The probability that the coalition wanted Leonidas personally for his capability as a military leader is underlined by the fact that just two years after his death, the coalition preferred Athenian leadership to the leadership of either Leotychidas or Leonidas' successor (as regent for his still under-aged son) Pausanias. The rejection of Leotychidas and Pausanias was not a reflection on Spartan arms. Sparta's military reputation had never stood in higher regard. Nor was Sparta less powerful in 478 than it had been in 481.
The states of Ancient Greece and the Persian Empire were separated by the Aegean Sea. By 500 BC, the Persians, led by King Darius, began to thrust westward, taking many of the cities which formed the outposts of Greek civilization. The conquered Ionian Greeks revolted in 499, and Athens and Eretria sent help. But Darius stamped out the uprising by 490 BC and, by 481 his son Xerxes had succeeded to his throne and was busy amassing a vast army to invade Greece proper.
The Greeks held a superb defensive position at the Pass of Thermopylae ("Hot Gates" -- so named for its thermal springs). Flanked by mountains, the pass narrowed at one point to a path just fifty feet wide. Leonidas, the Spartan King, who had command over the whole Greek army, held the pass with about 7,000 troops. They included his own royal guard, all the fathers of sons, chosen so that even if a guardsman fell his name and his blood would live on.
The studied fearlessness of the Spartans was illustrated by the reply one of them made when told that the Persian army was so vast that the arrows of its archers would darken the sky: "So much the better, we can fight in the shade."
From a neighboring hill, seated on a throne of gold, Xerxes watched his men pour into the pass. At first, one of his scouts reported back that he had seen vain Greek soldiers bathing and preening themselves on the eve of battle. Xerxes laughed at this news, but a Greek in his service heard it and understood: The warriors were Spartans, ritualistically preparing to die. "Oh King!" he exclaimed, "Now are you face to face with the most valiant men in Hellas."
Confident in their abilities, the Spartans had no fear of confrontation with anyone, regardless of how vast an army approached. Xerxes felt certain that the sheer weight of numbers of his men would force the Spartans to decamp. He let four days pass with this notion. On the fifth day he concluded that his opponents must indeed be obstinate fools, and sent forth his men with orders to capture them and bring them to his presence alive.
The attack proved both costly and futile. With his regular troops being butchered, Xerxes was forced to dispatch his best fighters, the 'Immortals'. Again, however, the Spartans outfought the Persians. A written account from the Greek historian Herodotus records that: "The Spartans' remarkable handling of the battle, too, showed the superiority of their tactics. Often they would feign flight and then, when the noisy rabble pursued, they would swing round and slaughter them in heaps. Three times, it is said, Xerxes leapt from his throne in terror for his army."
The next day proved no better for the Persian hordes, whose casualties littered the field. As evening fell on the second day of battle, Xerxes was at a loss as to how the iron grip of the Spartans on the pass could be broken. A Greek traitor came to his aid, informing him of a mountain top trail by way of which the Persians could outflank their hardy enemies.
Leonidas learned of this treachery in time to send away most of his men and all his allies. Then he swung his remaining force of 300 guardsmen against the enemy, with undaunted courage and grim determination worthy of their Gods.
Facing overwhelming numbers, the Spartans fell back, forming a compact body on a hillock. Herodotus would later recall this final stand: "They fought with their swords, if they had them, but if not, with their hands and teeth."
Leonidas fell fighting bravely, and a fierce struggle raged over the body of the Spartan king. Four times the Persian advance was repulsed with heavy losses, including two of Xerxes' brothers, until the Spartans were overwhelmed by the arrows they had mocked a few days before.
Xerxes himself did not set foot on the battlefield until it was all over, but he knew that he had just seen the most extraordinary fighting men in the world. Viewing the carnage before him, he turned to the Greek, Demaratus: "Now tell me, how many men of the Lacedaimon remain, and are they all such warriors as these fallen men?"
"Sire," replied Demaratus, "there are many men and towns in Lacedaemon. But I will tell you what you really want to know: Sparta alone boasts 8,000 men. All of them are the equals of the men who fought here."
Xerxes had the body of Leonidas beheaded and crucified. But such an example was wasted on the remaining Spartans, only heightening their avenging anger. Indeed, only a few months later, they caught up with Xerxes and, in the climactic Battle of Plataea, drove the Persian horde forever from Hellenic soil.
History would repeat itself at Thermopylae, during World War Two. This time the British held the pass, only to be outflanked and overwhelmed by the Germans.
The place remains, however, best known for the earlier clash of arms. Following the defeat of Leonidas the Spartan, the Greeks built a monument to mark the spot where the heroes died. Upon it were carved no lofty words of praise, no boasts or laments, but one simple, concise verse:
Go tell the Spartans, passer-by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.