Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Marble hoplite statue, thought to be Leonidas, 5th c. BCE, Archæological Museum of Sparta.
Leonidas – meaning Lion Like - is a name that resonates with many.
Leonidas was born in about 530 BCE, in Sparta, which was at the time a strictly controlled militarised society with a structured social system. He was brought up within Sparta’s unique educational system of the agōgē which had practices and training dedicated to the development of elite warriors. These practices included vigorous military drills, weapons training, athletics and hunting. Endurance and competitive games were important because most were group activities, demanding loyalty to and sacrifice for the collective. The ultimate purpose of the agōgē was to produce elite soldiers who would put the interests and preservation of Sparta above any of their own desires, even their lives.
The hoplite (soldier) of the day fought the enemy face to face with a round bronze shield, spear, iron short sword (xiphos) and a vicious hacking weapon in the form of a thick, curved iron sword (kopis). His other defence in battle was the phalanx, which meant that his shield overlapped with that of the soldier next to him in a tight line. This wall of shields was excellent protection unless an attack came from the flanks or rear.
Most of our knowledge of Leonidas comes from Herodotus, known variously as ‘father of history’ or ‘father of lies’, who was born in 484 BCE and whose life was contemporaneous with many of the events he describes. He drew from a variety of sources and from people he met in his travels through Greece and Asia Minor. While we discount his assertions about the gods’ involvement in mortal affairs, we can draw a parallel with Homer, who also dramatises historical information in particular ways. (The germ of truth in the Odyssey, however, led Heinrich Schliemann to North-western Turkey, where he excavated what is generally thought to be the site of the ancient city of Troy.)
So, even if we take Herodotus with rather a large pinch of salt, we must credit his account of the Greco-Persian Wars. Archaeological finds have repeatedly confirmed his version of events. Thucydides, writing later, did not question the account, but claimed he added folk tales and mythic material to add interest. So what? Was Odysseus’ ship almost crushed by two gigantic rocks? Was there a Cyclops? No. But what Schliemann found on ‘the ringing plains of windy Troy’ was real enough.
The ancient world, not unlike our own, was riven by conflicting national interests. In those days, Greece was not as we know it today but composed of many city states, of which Sparta and Athens were the most powerful. While they were rivals in many spheres, they banded together when there was an external threat. In the fifth century BCE, this was presented by Persia, against whom Sparta and Athens fought twice, once, victoriously at Marathon against King Darius, the second time against King Xerxes by land and at sea.
Xerxes wanted to reach Attica, then controlled by Athens. To do so, he needed to march south through the coastal pass of Thermopylae – known as the ‘Hot Gates’ because of sulphur springs nearby. Leonidas led an army drawn from different city states, accompanied, we are told, by 300 Spartans, in an endeavour to stop the Persians’ passage. His plan was to funnel the Persians through Thermopylae and into his waiting phalanxes. All would have worked as planned, but for a local Greek, who, perhaps suborned by the Persians, led them by another route which allowed them to surround and attack Leonidas’ warriors on the flank and from behind, thus negating the defensive strength of the phalanx. Leonidas ordered a retreat of the Peloponnesians of whom he was leader in order to save their lives.
Leonidas and his famed 300 remained, along with some Thebans and Thespians, to fight the far larger Persian force. The agōgē philosophy was that the ultimate dishonour lay in retreat or surrender, and the greatest glory was to die on the battlefield in service to Sparta. Apparently, Xerxes offered to spare the lives of the remaining men if they laid down their arms. Plutarch records Leonidas replying, ‘Come and take them’ (μολὼν λαβέ) – the words which adorn the plinth of his statue at Thermopylae. All were slaughtered, including Leonidas.
Perhaps now, more than ever, human beings need examples heroism for the common good. Leonidas’ heroic sacrifice is beyond dispute; a hero cult honouring him survived at Sparta until the second century CE. While he could not prevent the Persians moving towards Athens, Leonidas’ model of courage has led him to be revered as a hero to this day.