Leonidas was the Agiad king of Sparta from 490 BC until his death at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. His heroic stand against impossible odds became a legend not just in Sparta but across Greece; his death galvanized what was a shaky Greek alliance against the Persian invasion.
For all his fame and heroism, little is actually known about Leonidas. Indeed, this is a characteristic which is not peculiar to him, but also applies generally to Sparta in the period of his lifetime. Leonidas was born the third son of King Anaxandridas of the Agiad dynasty, which claimed descent from Hercules. Being the third son, Leonidas was not expected to inherit the kingship, and so he was raised in the traditional Spartan fashion and attended the agoge. Of his youth little is known, but there is speculation that he excelled in the agoge and was a natural leader. Presumably, he joined a mess and served as a hoplite.
Leonidas’ rise to the kingship was unexpected. His two older brothers, Cleomenes and Dorieus, met their deaths before they could leave heirs. It is said that Cleomenes was mad and took his own life after being imprisoned. Dorieus had died fighting in Italy, where he had gone to establish a Spartan colony. Leonidas married his half-brother Cleomenes’ daughter, Gorgo, and she became a queen of Sparta.
Such as it was, Leonidas upbringing probably inculcated a strong sense of civic duty in him. Of course that was a purpose of the agoge, but it may have rid him of a selfishness which other kings had in their character. Whatever his vices were, they have disappeared in the sands of time. He also had a care and concern for his men which was not always the case with other kings. Despite having been raised not to rule, but in the same manner as any other Spartiate, Leonidas was not self-effacing. Plutarch attributes the following exchange to Leonidas and a Spartiate: “Except for your being king, you are no different from the rest of us,” said [the Spartiate], “But if I were no better than you others, I should not be king” [returned Leonidas]. Here was a man who knew his measure amongst men.
Persia was already at war with the Greeks when Leonidas became king, and so the ‘Persian Problem’ would have been on his political agenda from early on. The year 490 BC saw the Persians defeated at Marathon by a force led by the Athenians. The Spartans arrived too late for the battle. When the Persians again invaded in 480 BC, they came by land and by sea and in very large numbers. The two leading Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta were rivals and distrustful of each other, yet many saw that they needed to cooperate if the massive Persian invasion was to be defeated. Others thought to either make a separate peace with the Emperor Xerxes, and so leave the remaining city standing alone, or to make a defense more suitable to Sparta without regard for the vulnerability of Athens, which lay first in the way of the Persian army. Judging by his actions, Leonidas convictions lay firmly in keeping a united front between all the Greeks who opposed Xerxes. And the Spartan king was chosen to lead the land defence of the Greeks.
It is not known whether Leonidas knew the numbers or strength of the Persians, but Herodotus relates how prior warning of the invasion had reached Greece by the hand of Demaratus, a Spartan exile at the Persian Imperial court. What must have been clear was that a large force was coming; a force which by its sheer numbers would need steady resupply of food, water and materials. Cutting Persian supply lines by defeating their navy became a central strategy of the Greeks, yet they needed to buy time to organize militarily and evacuate Athens. The issue of time was further complicated for the Greeks because they were about to celebrate holidays: for Sparta, the Carneia, and for others the Olympic holiday. Buying time for this strategy must have been a consideration for Leonidas.
Tactics were another consideration. Given the size of the Persian army, the Greeks were not prepared to meet them in open terrain where Xerxes could use his numerical advantage and his cavalry in full. Thus fighting a delaying action, or even inflicting a psychological defeat at the narrow pass of Thermopylae was an opportunity that Leonidas likely felt compelled to seize. But the Persian army was advancing and would not wait for the Greeks at Thermopylae. Time was of the essence. Furthermore, the risk of total defeat and annihilation of the small Greek force was very real, and indeed likely. Leonidas had tough decisions to make; decisions which offer insight on the Spartan king.
Leonidas picked three hundred Spartans to lead to Thermopylae, although Herodotus tells us that he could have taken more. He also picked only those who were fathers of living sons. His reasoning here seems apparent: he considered it likely that none might return and so picked only those with offspring to secure their lineage. He may also have refused to take more Spartan hoplites on the grounds that he needed a minimal or indeed symbolic force, which if it were to be vanquished, would not lose more men than necessary. Indeed, this reasoning seems to be the same as the one that led him to order the retreat of most of the troops once defeat was imminent on the third day. Herodotus states that the Greeks were of the mind that a small force could hold the pass until the holidays were over and then ample reinforcements could be sent. It turned out that this assessment was very wrong, and perhaps it was even wishful thinking on behalf of some Greeks.
Did Leonidas himself, the leader of the allied Greeks, have to go on such a dangerous mission? Leaving aside considerations related to the Spartan mentality, there were pragmatic reasons for Leonidas to lead the force himself. Given the shakiness of the Greek alliance, and more specifically, Athenian doubts about the willingness of Sparta to commit to fighting for the liberty of Athens, it was incumbent on Leonidas to cement the alliance by committing Spartans to action before the Persians reached Athens. From a narrow Spartan point-of-view it made more tactical sense to defend the isthmus of the Peloponnese which lies far to the west of Athens, but such a decision would have been taken as a betrayal by the Athenians as it offered them no protection at all. So in the eyes of Leonidas, the Spartans, or rather some Spartans, had to go to Thermopylae. And who would lead besides Leonidas? It is not known whether there was an alternative high-ranking Spartan willing to go, or even whether Leonidas was willing to delegate such a sensitive task.
Plutarch makes it clear that the king knew that he would probably never see his wife, Gorgo, again. When she asked him what instructions he had for her, his parting words to her were to marry good men and have good children. Likewise his response to the Spartan elders, the ephors, who said he was bringing to few men with him: “too many for the enterprise on which we are going.”
Whatever illusions the other Greeks may have held, Herodotus reports that after their arrival at Thermopylae and learning the true numbers of the Persians, they were appalled. Realizing they were too few, some sought to retreat. Again, Leonidas demonstrated the cold-blooded resolution with which he had embarked on the enterprise, and spoke for remaining. And yet, he still cared for his men and did not treat them as cannon-fodder. When it was remarked to him that the Greeks were too few, he responded: “in truth I am taking many if they are all to be slain.”
The first two days of fighting were a dramatic success for the Greeks who inflicted heavy casualties on the Persian forces in the narrow confines of the pass. In all likelihood the credit for the excellent tactics they deployed belongs to the Spartan king. He remained defiant despite entreaties and threats from Xerxes to stand down and surrender. In this context a few one-liners were ascribed to Leonidas by Plutarch of which perhaps the most succinct was [to Xerxes demand that the Greeks hand over their arms]: “come and get them.”
Yet the Greeks were betrayed and all was lost once they realized they were almost encircled by the Persians. In a few hours the atmosphere in the camp must have turned from confident to desperate. Once again when the stakes were highest, Leonidas showed himself to be a leader of the highest calibre, duty-bound to Sparta, to his men, to the alliance and Greece. There could be no question of retreat for the Spartans in his mind; such was the Spartan creed; it was what they expected of themselves and of one another. Still he tried to save a few from the imminent death that awaited them by giving them dispatches to take to the ephors. Some left while others saw through him and refused to abandon their fellows.
Other Greeks left,or were permitted to go by Leonidas, as Herodotus writes. When it became clear that the battle was lost, it made sense to save as many soldiers as could be saved. In this way, they could fight another day against the Persians, and those who remained could delay the Persian advance long enough that the others might make their escape. In what must certainly be the ultimate testament to the quality of leadership that Leonidas displayed, the Thespian contingent, who were free to leave, determined that they would stay with the Spartans to the last. In contrast the Theban contingent, whose city’s loyalty to the alliance remained in doubt, were made to stay by Leonidas. Perhaps he wished their deaths to be a statement for Greek unity, and the decision certainly stands out as remarkably cold-blooded.
As for himself, the Spartan king must surely have felt that the hands of the gods had put him in this position and that his choice was clear. Prior to the departure from Sparta, Herodotus relates, the king had received the prophecy of the Pythoness oracle. It held simply that either Sparta would fall or one of its kings would die. Here is the complete verse:
O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon! Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus, Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles. He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions, Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is nought that shall stay him, Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.
Leonidas accepted that morning that he was the king of the prophecy, and that his sacrifice could save his city and change the course of history. For a Spartan, there could be no finer death.
The Spartans and Thespians fought bravely till the end. When Leonidas fell, the Persians tried to take his body; four times the Greeks recovered him. When it was all over, Xerxes had Leonidas body decapitated and crucified, for the king had in his bold defiance aroused such a petulant anger in the emperor. It was an insult that Sparta would remember and avenge in due course at the battle of Plataea. At Thermopylae to this day stands a shrine erected by the Greeks in the kings honor.