Leonidas I (ca. 530 BC-480 BC) was a Spartan king immortalized in Greek literature and legend because of his heroic last stand against Persian invaders.
Leonidas is a legend without a biographer. Almost nothing is known of his life. The exact date of his birth is as unknown as the particulars of his childhood. Even the spectacular events surrounding his epic struggle in 480 B.C. are shrouded in mystery and open to controversy. The chief source is the famous Greek historian, Herodotus, but even here Leonidas is given relatively scant attention, and modern scholars have been forced to critically reexamine each of Herodotus's sentences to reconstruct more telling and at times more accurate detail.
Leonidas was born on Spartan territory in the Peloponnesian Peninsula in southern Greece probably between the years 530-500 B.C. He was the son of the Spartan king Anaxandrides and was descended from the Greek cult hero Heracles. However, during his youth and early manhood, Leonidas could not have expected to become king because of a peculiar set of circumstances.
When Anaxandrides' first wife did not conceive during the early years of the marriage, Spartan elders compelled him to take a second wife (contrary to Spartan custom). The firstborn—and only—child of Anaxandrides' second union was a male, Cleomenes, who became heir to the throne. In the meantime, the first wife conceived three sons; Dorieus, Leonidas, and Cleombrotus, respectively.
The fates were ironical. Cleomenes was psychologically impaired and possibly mentally handicapped, while Dorieus, who would have been heir apparent under more normal circumstances, excelled in "manly quality." Nevertheless, when Anaxandrides died, Cleomenes mounted the throne. Unable to live under his brother's rule, Dorieus set sail for distant lands and embarked on a series of adventures, resulting in his death.
When Cleomenes himself died, probably in 487 B.C., he left no male issue. The line of succession suddenly fell on Leonidas who had married Cleomenes' daughter and, consequently, his own half-niece. Leonidas was only one of Sparta's kings; customarily, this Greek city-state had two. During Cleomenes' reign, the second king had been Demaratus, but they had engaged in a feud and Demaratus had deserted to the Persian Empire. Leotychides succeeded Demaratus. Thus, Leonidas ruled, according to Spartan tradition, in partnership.
According to custom, Leonidas assumed an important position in the priesthood of his state, but his most significant role was as commander of the Spartan army. In matters of war, a Spartan king was expected to be the "first in the march and the last to retreat." In his youth and early manhood, Leonidas would have received very strenuous physical conditioning, along with many years of military training, to hone his warrior's skills to the peak of martial perfection. This was the mandatory agenda of the Spartan male and a regimen which would last, in varying and lessening degrees of severity and discipline, until age 60.
The product of this conditioning was the finest warrior and army in ancient Greece and most probably the world. The Spartan heavy warrior or hoplite carried a long, thrusting spear; a short, stabbing sword; and a dagger. His defensive accoutrements included a bronze, crested helmet; a large, round shield; and sometimes a breastplate and leggreaves ("armor"). Traditionally, the Spartan hoplite wore a bright red cloak which was considered the most manly of colors.
These warriors fought grouped together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a tactical unit called a phalanx. Presenting a forest of spears and shields, the phalanx may be likened, not too unreasonably, as the "tank" of the ancient world. From the front, the phalanx was well-nigh unstoppable, but it was vulnerable in the flanks and rear. In order to limit their vulnerability, the Spartans deployed more lightly-armed javelin troops. In this form of infantry warfare, the Spartans were unequalled. There is no evidence that they employed archers or slingers. Nor did they employ cavalry in significant numbers, for the terrain of Greece is such as to limit the utility of mounted action. Naval matters were, for the most part, left to Sparta's allies.
Despite his impressive war machinery, Leonidas might have been recorded as no more than a name on the scroll of Sparta's kings had it not been for the epic events of 480 B.C. which thrust him center stage. King Xerxes and his Persian Empire invaded Greece.
The roots of the Greco-Persian conflict had begun 20 years previously when several small ethnic-Greek states in Asia Minor rebelled against Persian rule. Many Greek states including Athens supported their rebellious cousins, and through skill and good fortune the Greeks managed to defeat King Darius's Persian army at Marathon in 490 B.C.
Ten years later, Darius's son and Persia's king, Xerxes, determined to settle the Greek problem once and for all. As he assembled his mighty army, which even modern scholarship concedes may have totaled 25 million, he dispatched a fifth column of spies and diplomats to demand the submission of the Greeks. This army was well-stocked with cavalry and had at its core the 10,000-man elite body known as the Immortals. A powerful navy significantly larger than anything the Greeks could muster anchored the seaward flank of the army as it marched. The Persian force was centralized and ably led; its only flaw, perhaps, was the preponderance of ethnic units subject to the Empire who might be counted on to fight with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
The immensity of the Persian threat compelled Athens and Sparta to set aside former rivalries and work together. Athens, with her mighty fleet, placed herself under Spartan command. Feuding was endemic among the Greek states, however, and would disrupt Greek ability to react, especially in the first months. In particular, Greek indecision about holding the strategic Pass of Tempe resulted in its early abandonment to the Persians. As Xerxes crossed the Hellespont from Asia Minor, several of the northern Greek states began to defect.
Within the Spartan Council of Elders there was much debate over which of two basic strategies was best. Most dear to the Spartan heart was a stout defense of the Corinth Isthmus, the chokepoint that led into the Peloponnesian Peninsula. But this act would have surrendered northern and central Greece and thereby greatly reduced the chance for a more united stand. The second option was to block the Persian advance at the Pass of Thermopylae.
Thermopylae, so named because of its hot springs (thermeμ in Greek means heat), controlled the vital coast road into central Greece. To the east was the Island of Euboea, the north of which could be used to block the advance of a hostile fleet and thereby protect the right flank of a Greek army at Thermopylae even as the inland mountains served to protect the left.
At length, the preponderance of Spartan opinion elected to send an advance guard to the Pass to be followed by a larger army when the religious festival of Karneia was over. Leonidas selected 300 citizen warriors, a customary number when embarking on a special mission, but he only chose among the best who had sons so that no family line would become extinct through the death of the father. In all, 4,000 troops from the Peloponnesian states accompanied Leonidas north in that fateful August of 480 B.C.
While en route to Thermopylae, Leonidas was joined by 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, 1,000 Phocians, and 1,000 Locrians so that his small army totaled about 7,000. Simultaneously, the allied Greek state navy took position at Artemision at the northern end of Euboea Island. Evidence suggests that many Greeks considered these measures sufficient and that no major action would occur before a larger force could be dispatched to reinforce Leonidas.
Having reached Thermopylae, scouts and informants revealed the immensity of the approaching Persian army. Leonidas held a council at which several Greek contingents expressed an interest in retreating to Corinth. The Phocians and Locrians argued vehemently for holding the Pass, probably because their lands would be the first ravaged by the invader. Leonidas decided to stand and fight. At the same time, he sent messengers to several cities to ask for help.
The Pass of Thermopylae ran west to east, mountains rose sharply to the left or southern side, and the Aegean Sea washed the right or northern side. Leonidas set his main position in the center and began rebuilding the old Phocian wall which had been the scene of many an ancient martial drama. His disposition was well-chosen, for the Persian army would have to disrupt their formations to enter the mouth of the Pass and once inside would have to face the Greeks on more equal terms. The wall itself could serve as a defense, or as a rallying point for a counterattack.
Leonidas seems to have learned about the "Achilles heel" of Thermopylae only after arriving in the Pass. A circuitous mountain route existed, known as the Anapaea Path, by which an enterprising enemy might enter in the rear of Thermopylae, trapping the defenders inside. During a council, the Phocians volunteered to defend this path as they were used to the local terrain and local area. Leonidas accepted.
In the meantime, one of King Xerxes' scouts rode into the pass. As an act of defiance, the Spartans, aware of the scout, continued to play athletic games and leisurely dressed their hair for battle. Unmolested, the scout reported to Xerxes. The Persian King immediately called on the exiled Spartan king, Demaratus, for advice. Demaratus explained the Persians were facing the flower of the Greeks.
Xerxes delayed four days after this reconnaissance to enjoin battle. During this period, he probably waited for his logistics train to arrive and coordinated strategic plans with his navy. On the fifth day, he attacked.
Xerxes' Mede and Cissian divisions moved in first, fighting inside the Pass for several hours. These units were mauled by the better armed and more skillful Greeks. During the second half of the day, Xerxes called on his elite guard, the Immortals, led by the able Hydarnes. Once inside Thermopylae, however, they could not make their superior numbers felt. Time and again the Greeks drove them back and the Persian King was said to have leapt from his throne out of concern thrice that day.
During the course of the second day's battles, the Persians fared no better. Herodotus relates that the Greek territorial units fought in rotation to relieve each other, and that some units feigned retreat in order to draw out the enemy, then suddenly turned and counterattacked their disordered pursuers.
On that second day, however, the Persian King received an extraordinary windfall. A local Greek by the name of Ephialtes offered to guide the Persians over the Anapaea Path for a reward. That evening, Hydarnes and his Immortals entered the mountainous forest of oak trees near the Asopus River and climbed to the summit where they caught the Phocian Greeks off guard. Pelting the Phocians with arrows, the Immortals bypassed them and continued along the path, the end of which would place them at the village of Alpenoi at the eastern end of Thermopylae directly at Leonidas's rear.
On the final, fatal dawn, Leonidas heard from scout runners that they would soon be surrounded. He called a council and once again the opinion was divided. Leonidas declared it would be dishonorable for the Spartans to retreat. The leader of the Thespians, Demophilus, said it would be dishonorable to desert the Spartans. Nevertheless, the other Greek contingents withdrew except for the Thebans, whom Herodotus claimed were forced to stay by Leonidas because they were suspected of dealings with the Persians. As they ate their last meal, Leonidas is reputed to have said: "Eat hearty, lads, for today we dine in Hades."
Mid-morning of the third day, fresh Persian waves came into the Pass. Realizing they would soon be hit by Hydarnes' Immortals from the rear, Leonidas advanced past the Phocian wall into a wider part of the Pass in order to more fully deploy and inflict maximum damage on the enemy while there was still time.
According to Herodotus, the Persians had to drive their leading regiments on with whips against Leonidas's hoplites. Ranks and files were trampled to death by their comrades and many were driven into the sea to drown.
[T]he Greeks, knowing that their own death was coming to them from the men who had circled the mountain, put forth their very utmost strength against the barbarians; they fought in a frenzy, with no regard to their lives.
Most of the hoplites had their spears broken in these intense encounters. In order to encourage his troops, Xerxes had sent two of his brothers into the fray to lead by example. Both of them were killed. At this point Leonidas fell, fighting no doubt, from the front rank in the tradition of a Spartan king. Immediately, a struggle ensued over possession of his body. After pushing back four Persian attacks, the Greeks successfully claimed their King's remains.
At this juncture the Immortals were seen inside Thermopylae and closing. Herodotus claimed that the bravest Greek warrior left was Dieneces, who had said at the start of the campaign that if the Persians darkened the sky with arrows he would be pleased to fight in the shade. If not Dieneces, it is certain that some Spartan notable bore, or ordered warriors to bear, Leonidas's body to the hill overlooking the wall that was to be the place of the last stand. As the Spartans and Thespians took their positions, the Thebans deserted to the Persians, who were deploying their regiments to fully surround the last of the Greeks.
In that spot the Greeks defended themselves with daggers—those who had any left—yes, and with their hands and teeth, and the barbarians buried them in missiles.
The remains of the Greeks were eventually buried at or near the hillock of the last stand. It is possible the body of Leonidas was never found. It is certain he was beheaded and the head impaled by the Persians as an example. In ancient times a lion statue was erected to Leonidas and three inscriptions were placed at the scene of battle, two of which are worthy of note: "Here is the place they fought, four thousand from Peloponesus, And here, on the other side, three hundred ten thousands against." And as a specific tribute to the 300 Spartans who gave their culture devotion's full measure: "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to words we lie."
In the 1930s, archaeological excavations unearthed hundreds of Persian arrowheads at the hill of the last stand. The lion statue and inscriptions were gone, but in 1992 a statue of a Greek hoplite stands, spear upraised, against Xerxes' order for the Greeks to surrender their weapons. The inscription reads: "Come and get them."
In the months after Thermopylae, the Persian navy was defeated at Salamis and thei mighty army at Plataea. After the battle of Plataea, the nephew of Leonidas, one Pausanius, was urged by a warrior to dismember the body of the Persian commander in the fashion done to his uncle. Pausanius replied:
For Leonidas, whom you bid me avenge, I tell you he has been greatly avenged; he has found great honor in these countless souls here—both he himself and the others who died at Thermopylae.
Further Reading on Leonidas I
Burn, A. R. Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, c. 546-478 B.C. Duckworth, 1984.
Herodotus. The History. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Hignett, C. Xerxes' Invasion of Greece. Oxford University Press, 1963.
Lazenby, J. F. The Spartan Army. Aris and Phillips, 1985.
Bury, J. B. A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great. Macmillan, 1917.
Connolly, Peter. Greece and Rome at War. Macdonald Pheobus, 1981.
Hooker, J. F. The Ancient Spartans. J. M. Dent, 1980.
Michell, H. Sparta. Cambridge University Press, 1964.
Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. St. Martin's Press, 1980.