(Greek: Λεωνίδας - "Lion's son", "Lion-like")
was a king of Sparta, the 17th of the Agiad line, one of the sons
of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta, who was believed to be a descendant
of Heracles. He succeeded his half-brother Cleomenes I, probably
in 489 or 488 BC, and was married to Cleomenes' daughter, Gorgo.
His name was raised to a heroic and legendary status as a result
of the events in the Battle of Thermopylae.
In 480 the ephors sent Leonidas with the 300 men of an all-sire
unit (soldiers who had sons to carry on their bloodline) and 6700
allies to hold the pass of Thermopylae against the hundreds of
thousands of Persian soldiers who had invaded from the north of
Greece under Xerxes. Contemporary accounts claim Leonidas took
his small personal fighting unit because Spartan religious customs
forbade sending an army at that time of year. In addition, he was
deliberately going to his doom: an oracle had foretold that Sparta
could be saved only by the death of one of its kings, one of the
lineage of Hercules. Instead it seems likely that the ephors supported
the plan half-heartedly due to the festival of Carneia and their
policy of concentrating the Greek forces at the Isthmus of Corinth.
According to Herodotus, Leonidas' wife Gorgo asked him how she
could aid his mission. He responded "marry a good man, bear
good children, and live a good life."
Several episodes demonstrate the laconic matter-of-fact bravery
that famed Leonidas and the Spartans. On the first day of the siege
Xerxes demanded the Greeks surrender their arms. Leonidas replied "Come
and get them" ("Molon Labe"). This phrase has been
re-used by generals and politicians throughout history and often
repeated in popular culture. On the third day, the king exhorted
his men to eat a hearty breakfast, because that night they would
dine in Hades.
Leonidas' men repulsed the frontal attacks of the Persians for
the first two days, but when the Malian Ephialtes led the Persian
general Hydarnes by a mountain track to the rear of the Greeks,
Leonidas divided his army. The King himself remained in the pass
with his 300 Spartans and 400 Thebans, along with 700 Thespians
who refused to leave. Leonidas' intent was to delay the Persians,
sacrificing himself and his men.
The little Greek force, attacked from both sides, was cut down
to a man except for the Thebans, who surrendered. One theory is
that Leonidas sent the remainder of his men home to preserve troops
for future battles. The soldiers who stayed behind were to protect
their escape from the Persian cavalry.
Leonidas fell in the thickest of the fight, but the Spartans retrieved
his body and protected it until their final fall to enemy arrows.
Herodotus says that Leonidas' head was cut off by Xerxes' order
and his body crucified, due to his alleged hatred towards the Persian
King. This was considered sacrilege towards Leonidas, and unusual
action on Xerxes' part.
After the departure and defeat of the Persians, the Greeks collected
their dead and buried them on the hill. A stone lion was erected
to commemorate Leonidas. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas'
body was returned to Sparta where he was buried again with full
honors and funeral games were held every year in his memory. A
carved lion monument bearing the inscription below was dedicated
at his death site commemorating the sacrifice of him and his men:
"Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
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