Childhood & Early Life
If ‘The Histories’ by Herodotus is to be believed, Leonidas, born in 540 BC, was the middle son of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta and his first wife, who was also his niece.
King Anaxandridas II and his first wife did not have any children for many years. Going against the counsel of the ‘ephors’, the council of five annually elected leaders of the Spartan constitution, to take a second wife and set aside the first, Anaxandridas asserted that his wife was blameless. He was eventually placated by being allowed to marry a second time without annulling the previous marriage.
Cleomenes was Anaxandridas’ first born son through his second wife. But a year later, his first wife too bore him a son, Dorieus, and would go on to give birth to two more, Leonidas and Cleombrotus.
Being third in the succession line, Leonidas had to go through the agoge to earn full citizenship (homoios). The Spartans were a militaristic society; they considered giving life for the state as a virtue and the duty of every individual. His training to become a hoplite warrior must have garnered respect of his fellow countrymen.
In 519 BC, Cleomenes was made king. Dorieus, believing himself to be more worthy, could not accept living under Cleomenes’ reign and went to North Africa to establish a colony there. It is unknown whether Leonidas’ supported either of his brothers’ claims or not.
Leonidas married Cleomenes’ daughter Gorgo, following the tradition of avunculate marriages like his parents before him. By the time of the ‘Battle of Sepeia’ against Argos in 494 BC, he had already been named Cleomenes’ heir as the latter didn’t have a male issue.
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Accession & Reign
After the violent and mysterious death of his half-brother, Leonidas ascended to the Agiad throne in 490 BC. Sparta historically was ruled by two families, the Agiads and Eurypontids, who believed they had descended from the twins Eurysthenes and Procles, respectively, the great-great-great grandsons of the mythical hero Heracles. During Leonidas’ reign, the Eurypontid king of Sparta was Leotychidas.
His reign did not go unquestioned. Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch wrote about one such incident. When told that he was not better than everyone else save from being the king, Leonidas had promptly replied, “But were I not better than you, I should not be king.” This answer was not a boisterous statement about his birthright but an assertion that, having endured the training of agoge, he was more than qualified to rule Sparta.
Leonidas’ Sparta, alongside Athens, was the largest and most powerful city-state in the classical Greece. While there were a lot of in-fighting among the city-states, they always managed to produce a united front to an invading force.
After Athens had provided support to the Ionian rebels in their fight against the Persian rule, Darius I, the emperor of Persia attacked Athens, but was turned back by a combined Greek force in 490 BC at the ‘Battle of Marathon’. This came to be known as the ‘First Persian War’. In spring 480 BC, Darius’ son, Xerxes launched the second invasion to subjugate entire Greece. Leonidas was chosen to lead the allied Greek resistance.
When the request to join the ‘Corinthian League’ arrived at Sparta, the Oracle at Delphi was consulted. The Oracle prophesied that either Sparta would fall, or the city would lose a king. According to Herodotus, Leonidas deduced that he would not survive the war against the ostensibly impossible odds, so he picked men with living sons to accompany him.
He led 300 of his royal bodyguards, the ‘Hippeis’, towards the narrow pathway of Thermopylae, where on one side, was the Kallídhromon massif, and on the other, the almost vertical cliff by the Gulf of Maliakós. On route, they were joined by 1,000 Arcadians, 700 Thespians, 400 Corinthians, and other groups. Leonidas elected to defend ‘The Middle Gate’, the narrowest part of the pass.
He received and refused the offers made by Persians. Xerxes’ personal message of "Hand over your arms" to him was famously replied to with “Come and take them". Four days later, in August or September of 480 BC, the fighting began.
The ‘Battle of Thermopylae’ transpired simultaneously with the naval ‘Battle of Artemisium’, where the Greek forces were led by the Athenian politician Themistocles.
On the first day of the battle, Leonidas positioned his men with their backs to the Phocian wall. Persian archers proved ineffective against the bronze armours, helmets, and shields of the Greeks. The 10,000 Medes and Cissians units, who were sent after, were virtually butchered by the well-organised Greek forces fighting in tight phalanx formation.
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The Greeks were even more successful on the second day and inflicted heavy losses on the Persian infantry. Leonidas marshalled his troops brilliantly, keeping contingents for each city and rotating contingents in and out of battle in regular intervals to avoid fatigue.
At dawn of the third day, Leonidas was informed that a Trachinian named Ephialtes had shown the Persians a mountain path around Thermopylae, and now the Greeks were encircled by 20,000 enemy soldiers.
Most of Leonidas’ army either fled or were sent away by him, except for the contingents from Sparta, Helots, and Thespians who chose to stay. Leonidas rallied them for a courageous last stand, but attacked from both sides, they all perished. However, the Spartans retrieved his body, fending off Persian advances four times.
There is some controversy surrounding the fate of the 400 Thebans in the Spartan army; some sources state that they sacrificed their lives in the battle, while others claim that the Thebans surrendered to King Xerxes without a fight.
Despite the defeat at Thermopylae, the bravery and sacrifice of Leonidas and his men inspired the Greeks to eventually win a decisive victory against Persians at the naval ‘Battle of Salamis’ in September 480 BC. The Greek culture, as a result, would get to flourish uninterrupted.