Leonidas (Λεωνίδας) - "son of lion" - was a king of ancient Sparta, the seventeenth of the Agiad line.
Leonidas was most likely born ca. 540 BC, the third son of King Anaxandridas II. He succeeded his half-brother Cleomenes I ca. 489 BC. At about that time, he married Cleomenes' daughter Gorgo who was less than half his age. It is possible Leonidas was married before, as Spartans looked down on men who completed their 35th year without having married and having had children.
In 480 he was sent with the 300 men of his royal bodyguard and about 7000 allies to hold the pass of Thermopylae against the army of Xerxes of Persia. (see Battle of Thermopylae). The small size of the force was, according to a contemporary story, due to the fact that he was deliberately going to his doom, an oracle having foretold that Sparta could be saved only by the death of one of its kings: in reality it seems rather that the ephors supported the scheme half-heartedly, due to the festival of Carneia and having a policy being of concentrating the Greek forces at the Isthmus.
Several anecdotes demonstrate the laconic matter-of-fact bravery that Leonidas and the Spartans were famed for even in the ancient world. On the first day of the siege, when Xerxes demanded the Greeks surrender their arms, Leonidas is said to have replied Molon Labe ("Come and get them"). And on the third day, the king is reputed to have exhorted his men to eat a hearty breakfast, because that night they would dine in Hades.
Leonidas' men repulsed the frontal attacks of the Persians for the first two days, but when the Malian Ephialtes led the Persian general Hydarnes by a mountain track to the rear of the Greeks, Leonidas divided his army, himself remaining in the pass with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans.
Perhaps he hoped to surround Hydarnes' force: if so, the movement failed, and the little Greek army, attacked from both sides, was cut down to a man save the Thebans, who are said to have surrendered. Another theory was that Leonidas sent the remainder of the army home in an effort to preserve troops for the main battles of the war. The soldiers who stayed behind were to cover their escape so the Persian cavalry would not overrun the rear of the escaping troops.
Leonidas fell in the thickest of the fight; the Spartans retrieved his body, but after they fell to the last man, the body did fall into Persian hands. It was said (by Herodotus) that Leonidas' head was afterwards cut off by Xerxes' order and his body crucified.
He was buried with full honours, including a very un-Spartan display of wailing and mourning (Spartans normally accepted death in battle as a matter of course and disapproved of outward grieving, but the oracle at Delphi had ordered this along with the sacrifice of a Spartan king to preserve Sparta which is why Leonidas did not retreat). A carved lion monument bearing the inscription below was dedicated at his death site commemorating the sacrifice of him and his men:
- Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
- That here, obedient to their laws, we lie. –– epitaph at Thermopylae (Simonides's epigram)
Our knowledge of the circumstances are too slight to enable us to judge Leonidas' strategy, but his heroism and devotion secured him an almost unique place in the imagination not only of his own time but also of succeeding times.
The life of Leonidas is dramatically told in graphic novel form by author and artist Frank Miller in his 1998 book "300". Miller had previously used the Battle of Thermopylae as a strategic inspiration for his character Dwight McCarthy in Sin City: The Big Fat Kill. Miller has mentioned that the 1962 film The 300 Spartans made a big impression on him as a child.
The story has also been written into a novel by Steven Pressfield called "Gates of Fire", which is rumored to be being made into a movie in the next couple of years.
|Agiad King of Sparta