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Historical Facts About King Leonidas I of Sparta

Leonidas I was without doubt the most influential and valorous of the Spartans. This Buzzle article features some interesting facts about the life and times of one of the greatest Spartan rulers of all time.
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Fact about King Leonidas I of Sparta
Plutarch, in one of his works records, "When someone said to him: 'Except for being king you are not at all superior to us,' Leonidas son of Anaxandridas II and brother of Cleomenes replied: 'But were I not better than you, I should not be king.'"
Arguably, one of the most famous citizens of Sparta (or Lacedaemon), a prominent ancient Greek city-state, was its king Leonidas I, who ruled between 489 BCE and 480 BCE. The legend of a man who chose to die for his people, rather than surrender before the enemy, is still popular throughout Greece, and King Leonidas I is even now revered as a war hero. One of the favorite subjects of novelists and filmmakers, Leonidas I symbolizes the noblest forms of valor, military courage, and fearlessness. But he is most revered for the heroic quality that he displayed when he realized that he had been betrayed during the war by one of his own men―he decided to fight on and sacrifice his life for his subjects, and this self-sacrifice gave him an almost divine status in Spartan society, albeit posthumously.

Leonidas I Facts

Leonidas I
Leonidas I

Most of the historical references to Leonidas I that we have today, come from the writings of Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian who lived between 484 BCE and 425 BCE, and of Plutarch, another Greek historian and biographer, who lived from 46 CE to 120 CE. Both have written extensively on the king's life and military courage, and have given dramatic descriptions of his demise. Let us delve into some of the interesting facts about the life and times of Leonidas I, in this Buzzle write-up.

Birth and Lineage

Leonidas I was born in Sparta in 540 BCE, and was the third son of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta and his first wife.

He belonged to the Agiad dynasty of Sparta, the rulers of which claimed to be from the bloodline of Heracles (Roman: Hercules), the demigod and mortal son of Zeus, the King of Olympian Gods.

Anaxandridas II's first wife, who was also his niece, could not conceive for a long time after their marriage. Owing to this, the five ephors, city-state administrators, who were elected annually in Sparta, tried to convince their king to abandon his first wife and remarry, in order to get an heir.

However, Anaxandridas II loved his first wife and refused to abandon her. The ephors agreed to this, and it was finally decided that the king would take a second wife, while keeping the first one.

Anaxandridas II's second wife is known to have been a direct descendant of one of the seven wise men of ancient Greece, Chilon of Sparta. Soon after the marriage, she bore a son who was named Cleomenes.

Cleomenes was only one year old when the king's first wife also gave birth to her first son, Dorieus.

Leonidas I was the second son of Anaxandridas II's first wife, born after Dorieus. Herodotus tells us that Leonidas I also had a twin brother named Cleombrotus. However, certain other ancient Greek accounts mention that Cleombrotus was the elder brother of Leonidas I, thus making the latter, the fourth issue of Anaxandridas II, instead of third.

Early Life and Coronation

Because Leonidas I was not the heir apparent to the throne (his elder half-brother Cleomenes was), he had to attend the Agōgē, a public school that all the young boys in Sparta had to compulsorily attend, with an exception of the firstborn sons of the ruling families.

Like all the other Spartan boys, even Lenoidas I had to complete the harsh and rigorous training that was imparted at the Agōgē, in order to qualify as a Spartan citizen, which he did successfully. Thus, Leonidas I was one of the very few rulers of Sparta who had undergone the tough training course at the Agōgē.

In 520 BCE, Anaxandridas II breathed his last, after which Cleomenes became the King of Sparta, and ruled the city-state up to 490 BCE, when he died as well.

Ideally, Cleomenes should have been succeeded by Dorieus, who was elder than Leonidas. However, the latter left Sparta after Cleomenes was enthroned (as he was unhappy about it), and went to Africa where his attempts to set up a colony went in vain. Thereafter, he went to Sicily, where he was initially successful in seeking fortune, but soon died in a bloody battle with Carthaginians and Segestans.

The next in line to the Spartan throne was Leonidas I, who promptly assumed power in 490 BCE. Even before he came to power, Leonidas I's military prowess was well-known throughout the Greek world. In 494 BCE, as a citizen of Sparta, he had participated in the Battle of Sepeia that was fought between Sparta and Argos. Moreover, even during the First Persian War (492/491 BCE) when the Greeks (Athenians) sought help from the Spartans, it was Leonidas I who led the Spartan army as an efficient general.

So, Leonidas I's claim on the Spartan throne was not only because he was the heir apparent at that time, but it was also justified as he possessed superior military skills that an ideal ruler should have. Therefore, his crowning made the patriotic citizens of Sparta very happy, and the warrior in Leonidas was respected and admired all over ancient Greece.

Leonidas I and the Battle of Thermopylae

Leonidas painting
Leonidas at Thermopylae, an 1814 painting by Jacques-Louis David

The Battle of Thermopylae was a three-day long battle fought in August or September of 480 BCE, between an alliance of the Greek-city states and the Persian empire. The Greek alliance was led by Leonidas I, whereas the Persians were led by the Achaemenid ruler, Xerxes I.

This battle was the most important event in Leonidas I's career and life. He was killed in the battle, and the Greeks lost it at the end; however, all the legendary glory that Leonidas I has achieved is owing to the remarkable role that he played in the battle.

At the time the Persian army reached Thermopylae (literally meaning "the hot gates"), the Spartans were celebrating their national festival of Carnea which completely prohibited any kind of military activities. However, considering the gravity of the situation, the Spartan ephors concluded that a military expedition against the Persians was the need of the hour, as their progress on the Greek mainland had to be controlled.

So, when the generals of Athens and other Greek city-states went to King Leonidas for help, and with a request that the king become the leader of the Greek alliance, the Spartans instantly agreed and King Leonidas instantly set out with a contingent of 300 Spartan hoplites towards Thermopylae.

The plan was to go on adding more soldiers from the other Greek city-states to the army, as the brigade marched further. So, by the time they reached the pass of Thermopylae, the total strength of the Greek army was about some 7,000 men.

Nevertheless, this was still fewer than that of the Persians who, according to Herodotus, had over one million fighters. Recent research has, however, shown that the Persians had fewer soldiers in their contingent (between 100,000 and 150,000), than what has been mentioned by Greek historian, though it was still a much larger army than that of the Greeks.

For four long days, Xerxes I waited patiently on the boundary of Thermopylae but did not attack. He thought the Greeks would disperse on their own; however, this did not happen. The Greeks refused to budge, and stationed themselves right near the pass of Thermopylae.

On the fifth day, it was the Persian king who lost patience, and finally he launched an attack on the Greek army from the front. The battle had begun and by the end of the first two days, about 2,500 Greek men and over 20,000 Persians lost their lives. Amongst the Persians who died were also two of Xerxes I's brothers, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes.

Though the Greek army had lost a considerable number of their soldiers during the first two days, things were not going as bad for the Greeks, considering the substantial loss of life on the other side as well. But just then, something happened that changed the entire fate of the battle. The Greeks had a traitor in their army, whom they could not identify until they were betrayed.

On the seventh day (third since they had actually started to fight), the Persian general Hydarnes was helped by a Greek traitor named Ephialtes of Trachis. Ephialtes took the general and some of the latter's men through a remote mountain track that opened up at the rear of the Greek army.

The Persians had attacked the Greeks from the rear as well, and with that, the former were at an advantage of having trapped the latter from both sides. At this point, defeat became almost apparent to the Greeks, but Leonidas I took an unexpected and what may be called the most vital decision of his life.

Leonidas I refused to leave his ground and surrender before the enemy; rather, he chose to sacrifice his life for his motherland. All the Spartan men, as also the Thespians, decided not to leave their leader, and continued fighting with the king. In his treatise Histories, Herodotus mentions that the Persians slayed all the Greek men who stayed back with Leonidas I, and also killed the Spartan king in the end.

Leonidas I had convinced all the other Greek men to go away from the battlefield, as he wanted to save as many troops as possible for future battles. Whether they could escape the large Persian army who had attacked from both sides is obscure; however, we know that Leonidas I was killed in the battle, and the Thebans chose to surrender before the enemy.

Herodotus also mentions that after Leonidas I died, Xerxes I wanted to have his head chopped of, in order to put it on a stake. The Persian ruler also wanted to have the martyr's body crucified. However, Xerxes I could, reportedly, never fulfill his ambition as the mighty Spartans managed to retrieve their hero's corpse from the battlefield, and protected it to the core.

From then on, Leonidas I's status was elevated in Sparta, in particular, and Greece, in general. He began to be looked upon as a venerable hero, rather than merely a king. Several historical accounts tell us that a hero cult developed around the king soon after his unfortunate death. The cult is known to have survived in Sparta until about 1st century CE.

Leonidas I in Popular Culture

Thermopylae statue
Bronze statue of Leonidas I at Thermopylae
Sparta statue
Statue of Leonidas at Sparta

As mentioned before, Leonidas I has always been a popular subject with writers, poets, painters, and filmmakers alike. The painting Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814) by the French painter, Jacques-Louis David (pictured above), testifies the Spartan hero's popularity in popular culture.

In 2007, a feature film based on the Leonidas I's life, 300, was released and it earned several accolades. There are also several other movies inspired by the character of Leonidas I that include The 300 Spartans (1962), and the two spoofs viz., United 300 (2007) and Meet the Spartans (2008).

Moreover, recently a three-part biographical novel series on the hero, written by Helena P. Schrader was published. The titles include Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge, Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer, and Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King.

In 1955, a monument in honor of the hero was erected at Thermopylae. It is a bronze statue with an inscription on the plinth that reads, "ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ" ("Come and take"), a supposed reply of the Spartans to the Persians who asked them to surrender during the Battle of Thermopylae.

Another statue in honor of the king was also erected in Sparta in 1968, bearing the same inscription.

There is absolutely no doubt as to why Leonidas I was worshiped by the ancient Spartans. After his death, the Greek military alliance ceased to look up to Sparta for an able leadership; instead they turned to Athens. This shows how powerful and influential Leonidas I was during those days. With his unparalleled might and valor, he has truly been an inspirational figure for all the generations that followed him, and will continue to do so even in the future.
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Published: March 15, 2014
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Grttt article.. Very informative... - KD [March 18, 2014]