The background of King Leonidas
Leonidas I was the most famous King of the city state of Sparta in Ancient Greece, best known for leading 300 of his warriors in a last stand against an overwhelming invading horde of Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.
Leonidas was the 17th king of the Agiad line, a ruling family that claimed to descend directly from the hero Heracles himself. His accession to the throne of Sparta was not straightforward: he was in fact the third son of his father, Anaxandrias II. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, who chronicled the lives of the Greek kings, his father and mother were uncle and niece, and the marriage initially failed to produce any children. King Anaxandrias was advised by his counsellors to put her aside and take another wife, as was common practice at the time for men whose wives were barren. The King said the lack of an heir was not his wife’s fault, so it was agreed that he could marry a second woman without casting the first aside. The new wife quickly bore a son, Cleomenes. One year later the first wife would also produce a son, Dorieus, followed by two more, Leonidas and Cleombrotus.
When King Anaxandrias died in 520 BC, his eldest son Cleomenes was chosen as heir. Dorieus, who Herodotus described as the finest young man of his generation, was furious that his half-brother, the son of his father’s second wife, was preferred over him and left Sparta. He is said to have travelled to Africa and then Sicily, where he was living when he died 10 years later.
Ironically, if Dorieus has not left Sparta, he would have become king after Cleomenes, as the king was deposed in 490 BC – reportedly on grounds of insanity – and had no sons to succeed him. The crown was passed to Leonidas, the next eldest surviving son of Anaxandrias, when he was around 50 years of age.
It is likely that Leonidas, like his brother Dorieus before him, had studied the “agoge” – the system of compulsory education, combat and hunting training that all young men, except the firstborn of the royal line, underwent in Sparta. As well as his royal blood (his parents were both from the Agiad line), Leonidas would have considered his agoge training an important symbol of his worthiness to be king. Before he succeeded to the throne, Leonidas had married Gorgo, daughter of Cleomenes – marrying his niece like his father did before him. Gorgo is one of the only women named in Herodotus’ histories and was famed for her wisdom and political astuteness. She bore Leonidas a son and heir, Pleistarchus.
When the second Persian invasion of Greece began in 480 BC, Leonidas was chosen to lead the combined Greek forces, both because of the Spartans’ reputation as a superior military kingdom, and because of his own prowess as a general. It is said that the king visited the Oracle at Delphi, which was consulted about important matters of state throughout Ancient Greece, and the Oracle delivered a grand verse that essentially told him that he must lay down his life to prevent his kingdom from being laid to waste by Persia.
War against the people of Hellas
In 480 BC, an endless stream of marching feet made its way from Asia Minor westward. This stream comprised Persians, Bactrians and Medes, men from the Caucasus and Arabia, men on horseback, camels and chariots, men from the mountains and the steppes, from the ancient cities and the sea, Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Assyrians, and contingents from places as far away as India, Ethiopia and Egypt.
All were called to war against the people of Hellas by the King of Persia Xerxes, the King of Kings, the son of Darius the Great, their god-appointed ruler and King of the World.
The Hellenic people had been given an ultimatum by Darius. Bend the knee and offer the King of Kings what is rightfully his earth and his water. Many had done so, but others, most importantly the two mightiest city states of Athens and Sparta, had refused. Sparta had even thrown the Persian envoys into a well to get their water and earth from down there. This had provoked the Persians. And so begins the story told by the father of historians, Herodotus. A story that would be told for over two thousand years.
The Greeks had won the first round against King Darius at the battle of Marathon, but Xerxes was determined to even the score. He would not bother to send more envoys; he would send his armies instead. Sitting on a throne made of white marble, Xerxes watched his host move to the Hellespont where a mighty bridge supported by ships would bring them to Hellas. At the head of the army marched his guard, the Immortals, with wreaths of victory on their heads. To bless this day, he threw a goblet into the sea, alongside a golden bowl and a Persian sword. The gods will be watching Xerxes’ great victory, for bridging the Asiatic and European worlds an army of three million men was on the march, at least according to Herodotus. Modern historians narrow that force down to a maximum of 250,000 men, and keeping them supplied was no mean feat.
While many northern Greek cities cooperated with the Persians, for fear of being destroyed, Athens and Sparta had made a pact with each other. The powerful triremes of Athens would challenge the Persian fleet, while Sparta would march out to meet the Persians in the field.
The Greeks wanted freedom, but the Spartans were not truly free men. They were bound to the law of their state. Only a small fraction of Sparta could call themselves real “Spartiates”. Those were the citizens of Sparta, the ones allowed to vote, who reigned over the Perioikos, the free neighbours, and the Helots, the servant class. The Spartiates were the warrior class, disciplined by a system of rules that set them apart from other men. They were not permitted to own silver or gold and weren’t allowed to trade or take a profession. Instead, they trained their whole lives to serve the state, a training which only the strong, the cunning and the tough could survive. Their bodies and minds were toughened by a life of military drills and athletics. By the time of Xerxes’ invasion, there were only 8,000 adult male Spartiates. They were few, but they were professionals. They wore their hair long and a proud scarlet coat, and were capable of carrying out the most complex military manoeuvres with ease.
It was already late July, and Autumn was not too far off, with the strong storms of the Mediterranean kicking in. Xerxes had to move if he wanted to keep up with his supply fleet. The Spartans went north to meet the Persians, but could only bring a portion of their forces, since the holy festival of Carneia was just around the corner which forbade the Spartan host to go to war. Only 300 Spartiates, led by their king Leonidas, were sent northwards. Each Spartiate was personally chosen by the King and had to have a living heir, since there was a good chance they were not coming back. They were accompanied by around 1,000 Perioikoi and Helots, and were soon joined by other allied contingents, mostly Thebans and Thespians. Around 3,000 men assembled at Thermopylae, the Hot Gates. Thermopylae got its name for being near sulphuric hot springs and was a narrow coastal passage that lay on the Persians’ route inland.
The Spartan way
In terms of technical warfare, the Spartans did not fight much differently than their fellow Greeks, but very much differently than the Persians. The Greeks favoured the shield wall of tightly packed, heavily armoured warriors, who were to stand as a single block, relying on weight and solidity of the formation. Their armour was extremely heavy, especially compared to the Persians. Corinthian bronze helmets covered the head fully and featured the characteristic T. Their composite leather breastplates and shoulder corselets were reinforced by metal scales and sheets. The large shield was covered with bronze, and known as the Hoplon, making the warrior a Hoplite. On it, the Spartans bore the Lambda Symbol, for Lacedaemon, the Greek name for Sparta. Armed with a six-foot spear and with a sword for close quarter combat, they were most formidable opponents.
While the Spartan right flank was guarded by the sea, the left was blocked by the steep slopes of Mount Kallidromos, and there was even an ancient wall guarding the pass. It was the perfect place for hoplite warfare.
Coming south from Macedonia, the first Persian scout who approached the Hot Gates told Xerxes of a group of half-naked men readying themselves for battle, and seemingly unbothered by the large host assembling in front of them. Xerxes wanted them swept aside and ordered a frontal attack because of a lack of tactical choices and patience.
The battle commences
On August 18, 480 BC, the battle began. The Persian host was used to battles in vast open areas or in mountains, where speed and agility brought the advantage. Much of the Persian force was only lightly armed with short spears, daggers and wicker shields. Their main weapon was the bow, not the sword. Some elite units wore leather armour or reinforced jerkins, but most wore no armour at all.
At first the Medes attacked, and promptly ran into a wall of gleaming bronze. It was a terrible slaughter as their weapons could not penetrate the shield wall. The Medes withdrew without making much of a dent in the Greek formation. Next were the men of Susa – proud warriors who fired a hail of arrows into the Hoplites before they charged over the dead bodies of the Medes. The men of Susa fared no better and broke like a wave against a rock. By the afternoon there was a second wall, this time it was made out of corpses.
Xerxes was losing his patience, but clearly this was no ordinary force he faced. He ordered the Immortals forward. The Spartans performed a feigned retreat, stopping and bracing only at the last moment when the enemy charged them. Then after the slaughter, they again pushed and advanced a short pace to tear into the enemy. The Spartans were made for this kind of battle. Xerxes, watching from this throne, is said to have sprung three times into the air out of anger, that even his beloved Immortals could not break the Greek lines. With heavy losses the attacks were called off for the night.
By now the Greek defiance had caused a traffic jam. The whole host was halted by the few thousand men in the narrow pass. The Spartans and their allies tended to their wounds. They too had casualties, but not many compared to the mass of corpses before them. The next morning Xerxes put more troops into the pass, promising rich rewards for success. It was another day of hard fighting, and the Greek line held fast. No hail of arrows and no frontal assault could break the defiant defenders.
It was close to nightfall that the Persians learned of the secret pass over Mount Kallidromos that would lead to the Spartan rear. This was of course not a “secret pass” at all. It was just a secret to the Persians, who like all invading forces throughout history lacked local knowledge. In Herodotus’ history, this “betrayal” would be attributed to a certain Ephialtes, probably a local who simply told them about it for money. Leonidas had positioned a small defence on the pass with men from Lamia. He certainly would have preferred his trusted Spartans in that position but could not afford to remove any from the main battle. And though the men of Lamia had just one job, to keep an eye out and warn the Spartan King in time if the Persians were coming, they messed it up and were unpleasantly surprised during the night. News that the Immortals were upon them reached Leonidas too late.
Their rear was in danger, and even if they fled, the Persian horsemen would pursue them. Xerxes reportedly offered to spare the Spartans’ lives if they gave up their arms, to which Leonidas replied “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” (come and take them). Leonidas offered his allies a withdrawal option, while his Spartans would hold the Persians off as long as possible. Many men chose to stay with the Spartan King, so their numbers were still around 1,200. Leonidas told the remaining men to have a good breakfast, because tonight they would dine with Hades, the King of the underworld.
How did Leonidas die?
With their lives now forfeited, they would go out to inflict as many casualties upon the enemy as possible. As the Immortals appeared behind them, Leonidas’ force formed a hedgehog of spears, and the Persians had to be whipped into battle out of fear of the Spartans. The final hours of the Spartans and their allies was a relentless battle. They killed and killed, driving the enemy against the mountain walls and down into the sea. They fought until their spears broke, their shields and helmets were dented, and their swords became blunt. At one point Leonidas was killed, and a savage battle over his body ensued. The Persians trying to claim his body as a trophy, and the Spartans desperately fought for the honour of their King. It is said that two of Xerxes’s brothers died in the attempt, before the Persians retrieved the body. (Leonidas was approximately 60 years old when he died, and he was succeeded by his son, Pleistarchus.)
The Spartans defended themselves to the very last soldier, until they overwhelmed by spears and arrows. There were no Spartan prisoners.
By midday of the third day, it was all over. Xerxes himself went down to inspect the battlefield. He cut off the head of Leonidas and impaled it on a spear for his army to see. The Spartans were mortal and could be killed, but their last stand had given the Persians a taste of what would come. Greece was not a pushover. The war was far from over and would be eventually decided at sea and the battlefield of Platea in Greek favour. But the last stand at Thermopylae was a symbol to the rest of Hellas, a rallying call, and a legend to stand through the centuries.
As for the Spartans and their bravery and might, after the war there would be a plaque at Thermopylae bearing the words: “Tell them in Lacedaemon, passerby: that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
If you prefer a visual representation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Sparta – The Battle of Thermopylae: