The real life exploits of Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 warriors at Thermoplyae have given rise to the myth of the Spartan superhero – the supremely disciplined man of few words who had a body of steel, could endure any hardship and would fight to his last breath. Such men really did exist and chief among them was Leonidas, the Spartan king who defied the might of Persia, saving Greece from annihilation. In this week’s Biographics we discover the real life Leonidas.
Leonidas I was born around 540 BCE in the Greek city of Sparta. At that time Greece was made up of hundreds of city states, of which Athens and Sparta were the largest. Leonidas’ father, Anaxandrides, was the king of Sparta.
For the Greeks, warfare was the supreme statement of a citizen. It is what made a man and gave him the right to be a part of his city. Every Greek, in every city state was obliged to military service from the age of twenty until the age of forty-five. In order to prepare for that life, boys were put into a military training camp, known as the Agoge, from the age of seven.
There was only exception to this compulsory military training – the first-born son of the king of each city state. His upbringing would be focused on grooming him for the power that he would inherit on his father’s death. Leonidas, however, was the third son of Anaxandrides. His older half-brother, Cleomenes I was first in line to be the next king of Sparta. As a result, Leonidas spent his formative years learning how to become a Spartan warrior.
Between the age of seven and twelve, Leonidas underwent a training regimen, along with a group of other boys, under the supervision of a warden who was called the paidonomos, which literally translates to ‘herder of boys.’ This was a highly respected Spartan, drawn from the highest social class. His authority allowed him to punish any who misbehaved, and to this end he was accompanied by a whip wielding squad of youths who were ready to eagerly mete out his punishments.
As the system was designed to produce effective warriors, great emphasis was placed on a rough and tumble lifestyle. The boys were divided into bands and they chose as their leader the best fighter. Meanwhile the paidonomos would keep a close eye on their antics, meting out punishment to any who got out of line.
Spartan boys in the Agoge were not permitted to wear shoes. It was believed that leaping, jumping and running were accomplished more swiftly barefoot. The boys were also allowed just one cloak throughout the year. This was designed to force them to grow accustomed to sweltering summers and freezing winters, making do with what little covering they had.
Food for the boys was strictly rationed, on the belief that a lean, hungry man fights far more effectively than a fat, satiated one. Also, being able to go a long time without food would make for a better prepared warrior. Theft was severely punished – unless it involved the stealing of food. The logic behind this was that by learning to pilfer food the boys would be practicing the skills of foraging that would be needed when on military campaign.
As well as their training to become warriors, the boys were also taught to read and write. In fact, the Spartans gained a reputation as men of learning, who loved music, poetry and dance.
The age of twelve was a watershed year in the life of a young Spartan. He was now placed in a band of about a dozen of his peers, to live under the headship of one drawn from his ranks, the eiren, or prefect. The one chosen was the smartest, the most battle ready and cunning. Though there is no record that Leonidas was put in this position, it is quite likely that he, being the son of the king and given the future battle prowess that he displayed, did indeed serve as an eiren during his teen years.
The other boys had to give their absolute obedience to the eiren. They were to act as his servants, collecting firewood and fetching vegetables using their thieving skills.
Also, at the age of twelve, Spartan boys were taken under the wing of an erastes, or ‘admirer’, to receive a form of mentoring. Whereas in other Grecian city states this relationship was a sexual one, this was not the case in Sparta. Desire for the body rather than the soul of a boy was considered to be the height of shame.
At the age of eighteen, the Spartan youth became a melleiren, a title which means ‘nearly an eiren’. His military training was now stepped up as he came close to entering military service.
And so, by the age of twenty, Spartan society had molded Leonidas into an agile, battle-ready military machine, full of self-confidence, discipline and a killer instinct. He was ready to make his mark on the field of battle.
Leonidas had trained to be a hoplite warrior. Hoplites were experts in using the short iron sword and round shield and spear. They fought in tight phalanx formation in which they would approach the enemy with shield overheads to form a tortoise-shell like defence to the oncoming barrage of arrows.
Just as Leonidas was about to enter military service, news reached him that his father, the King, had died. His brother, Cleomenes I now inherited the throne. So, while one brother took on the mantle of supreme rulership over the city-sate, the other inherited the role that he had given his entire life to – that of a Spartan warrior.
The Spartans army was divided into age groups, spanning ten years. Within these divisions, the basic grouping of men was into mess groups of about fifteen men. It was with these men that Leonidas lived during his twenties. It was also around this time that Leonidas married the daughter of his half-brother Cleomones. She was named Gorgo and was by all accounts a beautiful and politically astute woman. After a few years, they had a son, who they named Cleombrotus.
By 490 BCE things were not going well for Leonidas’ older half-brother, Cleomones. Over the last three years, Grecian city states had, one by one, succumbed to the invading Persians. The capitulation of these powers was a source of outrage to the proud Spartan king and, in 491, he attempted to overthrow a neighbouring king who was about to concede to the Persians. But when their king’s plans to oust a duly appointed fellow king was revealed, the people of Sparta were not happy and Cleomones was forced to flee the city. He then set about gathering a formidable army in the surrounding territories. Wisely, the Spartans allowed him to return but, believing that their king had gone insane, had him thrown into chains. Apparently, this order was carried out on the directions of Leonidas.
Cleomones was placed under the guard of the Helot slave class. The imprisoned king managed to persuade one of his captors to lend him his dagger. With that he apparently committed an appalling sort of hari-kari, slicing himself into pieces from his feet upward.
When Cleomones had taken the throne thirty years previously, his half-brother Dorieus, who was older than Leonidas, was incensed that the throne had passed him by. Finding it impossible to remain in Sparta, he attempted to establish a colony in Africa. When this failed, he went to Sicily where he met an untimely death. So, it was that, on the death of Cleomones in 490, Leonidas was next in line for the throne.
The Persian Threat
Immediately upon ascending the throne, Leonidas was thrown into the heat of conflict. For years the Persians had been threatening Greece and now, the situation was at a critical point. Swift action was needed – and Leonidas proved to be the right man to deliver it.
The goal of the Persians was the absolute subjection of Greece. They already ruled over a number of Greek cities on the coast of Asia. The continued existence of other Greek city states was a beacon of light for those already engulfed by the Persians, making them dream of independence. This was not acceptable to Persian king Xerxes.
To crush all Grecian resistance, Xerxes has gathered together a massive force, consisting of 1207 warships, and as many as 1, 700,000 warriors. In stark contrast, the Greeks were badly disunited. Of more than one hundred city states, only 31 had agreed to stand and fight against the Persians. The kings of these 31 states met and swore an oath to fight the Persians and to punish any cities that went over to the Persian side. Still, with the key states of Thessaly and Boiotia supporting Persia, there was no active resistance to the invaders right down to the city of Athens.
The Spartans had taken on the mantle of leadership in the resistance. The city was recognized as being in a position of moral, political and, above all, military pre-eminence in all of Greece. Under Leonidas, the Spartans were absolutely determined to fight, to conquer or to die. The alliance with other resisting city-states allowed Leonidas to put around 60,000 men into the field.
King Xerxes of Persia believed that his overwhelming superiority in numbers would guarantee the victory. It was his strategy to keep his naval fleet and his infantry closely connected. The infantry thus marched along the shore and the Persians even dug a canal through Mount Athos to allow the ships to stay close when the army got inland.
By August 18th, 480, Xerxes had overrun Macedonia, and Thessaly. His army had now arrived at the place called Thermopylae, a narrow pass between Thessaly and the ocean.
Leonidas knew that he could never defeat the entire Persian army. But he believed that if he could inflict a devastating blow of such magnitude that it decimated a portion of that army, the psychological damage would be such that the Persians would withdraw. But not everyone was convinced that this strategy would work. Undermining Leonidas’ strategy was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, who was considered to have a hotline to the Gods of Greece. When the Spartans had approached the Oracle asking whether they should resist the Persians the reply that came back was . . .
Either the king of Sparta must die or the Spartans themselves must be conquered, for nothing can stand before the might of the Persian king.
Being asked why the best of men prefer a glorious death to an inglorious life, he said, “Because they believe the one to be Nature’s gift but the other to be within their own control.”
Each successive city state that approached the Oracle was likewise given a premonition of doom. Still, Leonidas was not deterred. He, and every Spartan warrior with him, would give his last breath to keep the Persians out of their beloved city-state.
Leonidas did want to meet the overwhelming Persian force on the open field. It was his intention to withdraw to the spot where the Peloponnesian Peninsula joins the land of Attica. This was a very narrow strip of land just a mile and a half long. Here he would set his men to building a defensive wall behind which they would fight Xerxes’ army.
The problem with this plan was that it left Athens completed without any protection. So, against his better judgement, Leonidas agreed to take a small force up to Thermopylae and to engage the Persians at the narrowest point of the pass. Here, the great military advantage of the Persians, the use if cavalry, would be negated.
Last Stand at Thermopylae
Leonidas decided that 300 Spartan warriors would be selected for the defence of Thermopylae – and they would be led by he himself. Why were just 300 chosen and why these particular 300? Firstly 300 was a manageable number for an elite taskforce. Secondly the figure 300 had strong symbolic and practical overtones in Sparta, as it was the fixed number of the regular royal bodyguard. The bodyguards were known as the hippeis meaning cavalrymen, though in fact they served as infantrymen in the dead center of the hoplite phalanx, where the commanding king would be stationed. The three hundred hippeis were especially selected in an intense completion from among men in the ten youngest adult citizen year-classes, aged between twenty and twenty-nine.
Leonidas’ Thermopylae advance guard of 300, however, was to be selected with one crucial additional criterion. Besides being exceptionally brave, skillful and patriotic, each of the chosen few must also have a living son. This would ensure that a son would be in place to carry on his father’s name. These heirs would then constitute an elite within an elite, bursting with pride to emulate the feat of their late fathers.
In addition to the three hundred Spartans, Leonidas took around 4,000 Peloponnesians and around a thousand non-combatant Helots.
It is clear that the Thermopylae 300 were to be, in effect, a suicide squad. The pass at Thermopylae had a flat plain in front of it, and that was where the Persians were encamped. The pass through the mountains to the sea was only six feet wide at points. At the point where the pass widened to fifty feet, the Spartans set about repairing an existing wall and making it a much more defensible location.
After Xerxe’s vast Persian forces arrived at the pass’ western end, a three of four days’ delay occurred before he launched his assault. In this pre battle pause, it is reported that Xerxes sent a message to Leonidas, demanding that he hand over his arms. The Spartan King replied in just two words – Molon Labe! “Come and get them yourself!”
It was also during this lull before the storm that Persian advance reconnaissance reported back to Xerxes the strange behavior they saw among the Spartans. Rather than being anxious of the coming attack, the Greek warriors appeared supremely at ease. They busied themselves with bathing, braiding one another’s hair and dancing. The Persians interpreted this as signs of fear induced madness until a traitorous Greek in their midst informed the king that the Spartans were not mad. What the Persian spies had seen were the actions of proud heroes preparing themselves for their final life and death struggle.
The person king first sent in the Medes, a force of about two thousand. But these forces proved no match for the Spartans. They wore neither helmets nor greaves and their shields were made of wickerwork. In the confined spaces of the pass, they were unable to take advantage of their superiority in numbers. When the Medes unleashed a hail of arrows on the defenders, in unison the Spartans lifted their shields overhead to form a defensive roof over their heads.
The Medes and the ranks of troops that followed them did the best they possibly could under the judgmental eye of their king. But it was not enough, and they suffered heavy losses. In fact, losses were so great that, on three occasions, Xerxes is said to have lept up in horror from his specially constructed throne, appalled at the carnage and slaughter of some of his best men.
From behind the protection of the refurbished Phaeacian wall Leonidas’ men resisted by fighting in relays. This clever tactic maximized the efficient output of their limited resources and energies. Leonidas also managed to pull off a series of feigned retreats followed by a sudden about turn, then a murderous onslaught on their overconfident and distorted pursuers.
Eventually, towards the end of daylight, Xerxes felt that he had no option but to send in his elite royal bodyguard, the ten thousand Immortals, under the command of Hydarnes. But, once again the attack was to no avail – and it came at the cost of serious casualties.
The gore and bloodshed that engorged the narrow mountain pass was overwhelming. The piles of quickly rotting corpses mounted, the flies swarmed and the stench was palpable. The battle raged into a second day, and still Xerxes was unable to make a breakthrough. By now some 20,000 Persians had fallen to the Greek resistance and the demoralizing effect on the remains of the Persian army was telling – why could they not turn back these few rebels?
Betrayal and Death
With his frustration at boiling point Xerxes finally received his break, not through his military superiority but by means of a traitor. Xerxes was approached by a Greek turn-coat by the name of Ephialtes from the city of Malis who was very familiar with the paths crossing the mountain range. He told the king of another path through the mountain that would allow the Persians to bypass the Greek defensive position. Ephialtes offered to escort as many as 10,000 Persian troops through that path by night and turn the flank of the Spartans.
When someone said, “Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun,” he said, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?”
The Spartans knew of the existence of this alternative route, but they didn’t know that Xerxes knew about it. Xerxes gave this special mission to members of the royal guard of Immortals, and led by Ephialtes, they set out in silence at nightfall, aided by a full moon. After a heroic climb through the Anopaea mountain range, up to 1,000 meters, they easily brushed off and bypassed the thousand Phaeacian guards posted by Leonidas. These troops were ill-prepared and were taken completely by surprise. Leonidas has long been blamed for not posting a stronger reinforcement of the Anopea path.
By the morning of day 3 of the conflict, the Persians had the Greeks outflanked. Leonidas was now in a pincer grip, caught from the rear as well as the front. It is at this point that Leonidas, having recognized the hopelessness of the situation, gathered his forces together and ordered all of the troops, except the Spartans, to make their escape. Their cities would need them to fight another day. But the Spartans were to make their last stand there at Thermopylae. All melted away, except for a group of about four hundred from Thesbes. When asked by the king why they, too, did not go, they replied that they have stayed because the Spartans have stayed. They would die with them.
The Greeks made their last stand mostly outside the Middle Gate wall, enabling them to close directly with the oncoming enemy. Leonidas showed himself a true Spartan by the words with which allegedly ordered his men to take their early morning meal before the final encounter . . .
This evening, we shall dine in Hades.
The Spartans sold their souls at a heavy cost. The Persian losses at the beginning of Day 3 were reportedly heavier even than those sustained on the previous two days. The Greeks, depleted though their numbers were, repeatedly drove the Persians back. Then, inevitably, the 10, 000 of the Persian Royal Guard of Immortals emerged from the rear.
Leonidas fought and died like a man possessed. When his word shattered after one too many death blows, he used his hands and mouth to inflict injury upon the enemy. The exact manner of his death is unrecorded, but we do know that, as soon as he fell, the Persians took hold of the body and tried to drag it away. Seeing this, the Spartans leapt on their king and attempted to pull him back. Four times the body of Leonidas was dragged away before the remnant of the Spartan defenders got full possession of it and formed a defensive circle around it.
Xerxes wrote to him, “It is possible for you, by not fighting against God but by ranging yourself on my side, to be the sole ruler of Greece.” But he wrote in reply, “If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”
In this position, with their spears and lances broken, their bodies battered and bloodied, and their dead king in their midst, the Spartans resorted to throwing rocks at the surrounding force of Persians. Finally, a massive hail of arrows was launched and the last Spartans were cut down.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the effectiveness of the heroic defense which Leonidas had affected against the Persians was the treatment of his corpse by Xerxes. The Spartan king was decapitated and his body was crucified. Xerxes then went about trying to hide the true number of casualties that his men had suffered. But the great defense by the Spartans could not be hidden from history. The deaths of Leonidas and his fellow Spartans greatly lifted Greek morale. And the vital period that the Spartans had held up the Persian advance gave time for the Athenian Greek fleet to wreak havoc on the Persian navy and eventually led to the defeat of the Persian threat. So, by giving his life so dearly at Thermopylae, Leonidas became the savior of his people.