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Today, we will shift your focus to the legendary King of Sparta Leonidas, who is considered one of the greatest Greek heroes of all time.
King Leonidas may be familiar to some people already. A 2006 film named, '300' depicted the life and times of King Leonidas, with Scottish actor Gerard Butler portraying the role of the Spartan military leader.
Sparta was once a glorious city in ancient Greece. It was one of the two foremost Greek cities during the Classical Age of Greece. The other Greek city was Athens, which is the present-day capital of the modern nation of Greece.
The real Leonidas died when he was about sixty years old. Due to brutal military training, known as agoge in Greek which he was subjected to from a very young age, Leonidas was in good health at the time of the Persian invasion. Most contemporary representations of Leonidas show him as a lean, athletic man with a full-bearded face. Despite being the king, he was required to train every single day. In the Greek city of Sparta, where he grew up, only the king's firstborn son was exempt from compulsory military training.
Leonidas was the third-born son of Anaxandridas II and had to leave the house as a young boy for a long period of military training. This early initiation into fighting and training turned him into one of the fiercest men of his time. When he became king, the powerful Ephors (Spartan magistrates) anointed him as the Commander of the Spartan Forces.
Most of what we know about Leonidas comes from the writings of two Greek historians, Herodotus and Plutarch. Their works are the closest we can go to unearth the life of Leonidas. Other than that, oral traditions have also preserved the brave tales of Leonidas and his men during the Persian invasion.
If you have collected most of your information about King Leonidas from the movie, '300', then we are afraid to tell you that it is not enough to get a good understanding of the historical character. The movie only shows events that led to the Battle of Thermopylae and its immediate aftermath.
Before the war with Persia started, ancient Greece was in turmoil with inner squabbles between warring city-states. It was only due to the fear of the advancing Persian force under King Xerxes that various stakeholders decided to keep their differences aside and unite against a common foe. The result was the formation of the Corinthian League. The league made Leonidas the commander of the Greek troops.
Upon receiving the command of the Greek forces, Leonidas was not free to assemble his forces. Local Greek laws prohibited Spartans from waging war during the Festival of Carneia. Since it was the month of August and the festival was underway, the council of Sparta denied Leonidas a substantial force for the upcoming war against Persians. Knowing very well the size of the Persian army, Leonidas was convinced that a battle against Persian invaders would amount to the death of all his soldiers. This was when he took the call of not choosing any man who did not have a living son to continue the family line. The legend of King Leonidas and his brave 300 begins at this point.
King Leonidas attained immortality in his last battle at Thermopylae. This was a mountainous region through which Persians sought to enter central Greece from Thessaly. Persians were marching from the east and had conquered vast terrains of the Greek mainland. The first true challenge that the Persians faced was at the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae. This was the gateway to central Greece. At discussions that led to the formation of the Corinthian League, King Leonidas had the choice of either defending the Isthmus of Corinth or the narrow pass at Thermopylae. Defending the Isthmus would have been favorable to the Spartans, but Leonidas chose otherwise and kept the interests of the entire Greek populace ahead of his people.
After joining the Corinthian League, King Leonidas began marching towards the mountain pass at Thermopylae sometime in August 480 B.C. The Corinthian League was formed by different Greek cities to protect the Greek mainland from Persian forces and prevent the chances of Persian rule.
It is interesting to note that Sparta, like several other city-states of ancient Greece, had a system of dual monarchy existing at this time. In Sparta, two renowned houses had their individual representatives on the throne. During Leonidas's time, the co-ruler was Leotychidas, who belonged to the Eurypontidian House. Leonidas hailed from the Agiad Dynasty.
Sometime around 487-489 B.C., Cleomenes I was found guilty of plotting against his co-ruler Demaratus. Once his plot was exposed, he was forced to flee Sparta. But soon, he amassed an army and returned home to take back the throne by force. It was then that Leonidas and his younger brother Cleombrotus captured and imprisoned Cleomenes. With both his elder brothers out of the picture, Leonidas ascended the Spartan throne in around 490-589 B.C. The new Spartan king was immediately tasked with building the defenses of his territory.
The Persians were regrouping at this time, after their defeat at the naval Battle of Marathon of 490 B.C. The Persian Army, under King Darius I, had tried hard to subdue the Greeks in Marathon. But the united Greek forces managed to hold and destroy the invading Persian Army. It is important to understand that the Persian Army at this time was the largest known army in the world. The Kings of Persia ruled over vast tracts of land, stretching from the Aegean Sea to the west all the way to Punjab (India) and to the east. This massive empire had almost limitless resources. It is no wonder then that both Darius I and later his son and successor, Xerxes I, could assemble terrifyingly large armies within just 10 years.
While King Leonidas was leading the defense of the Hot Gates at Thermopylae, another naval battle was underway a little further away. This was the Battle of Artemisium that was fought on the sea between King Xerxes's navy and the United Greek Navy under the command of the Athenian politician, Themistocles. The sequel to the movie, '300' deals with this important naval battle. It is titled, '300: Rise of An Empire', and begins where its predecessor had ended. You can always watch both movies to get a visual picture of King Leonidas' life.
Leonidas was born probably in the year 540 B.C. in the city-state of Sparta. His exact year of birth remains contested because of the death of authentic sources. He was the third son of King Anaxandridas II. His mother's name has been lost from the pages of time. Leonidas's father had to wed twice after his first wife had been unable to produce a son for a long time. It was Anaxandridas's second wife who gave him his first son, Cleomenes. Surprisingly, within a year of Cleomenes's birth, Anaxandridas's first wife gave birth to a son named Dorieus. And after that, two more sons were also born to her. They were Leonidas and his possible twin brother Cleombrotus.
Being the third son of Anaxandridas II, he was not likely to ever inherit his father's crown. However, fate had its plans for him. When Anaxandridas II died, he was succeeded by Leonidas's elder half-brother Cleomenes I. As soon as Cleomenes became the Spartan King, trouble broke out between him and his younger half-brother Dorieus. Seeing no possible way to dislodge his half-brother from power, Dorieus decided to leave Sparta and go elsewhere to find his fortune. There are conflicting views about the fate of Dorieus.
Most historians agree that he was most likely killed in Sicily during one of his expeditions. Cleomenes, on the other hand, had the issue of having no male heir. So he made Leonidas his heir and successor. On top of that, Leonidas married the daughter of Cleomenes, thus cementing his claim to the throne further. You may be surprised to know that Leonidas married his niece. But in ancient Greece, as well as in other ancient cultures, marriages within the same family were commonplace. This was done mainly to preserve the family bloodline.
The Battle of Thermopylae was fought on a terrain that was guarded by high hills on one side and the sea on the other. When the Greek army took position on the ground, the narrow passageway towards the mountains was behind them, the Aegean sea to their right, and the hills to their left. This gave the Spartan Army and the allied forces a valuable advantage over the Persians.
At first, Persian King Xerxes offered Leonidas the option to surrender his armies. When Leonidas refused the offer of Xerxes, he made a sterner demand. This time around, Xerxes asked Leonidas and his soldiers to give up their armor and weapons to the Persians. Leonidas's reply has become a talk of legend ever since. King Leonidas told his counterpart Xerxes that if he wanted their armor and weapons, he would have to, 'come and take them'.
In modern Greece, if you visit the site of Thermopylae, you will find a statue of a lion on the place where dead Spartan soldiers were buried after the battle. On the platform of that statue, these same words of Leonidas are engraved. You may be wondering why the Greek government erected the statue of a lion? The name Leonidas translates into someone who resembles a lion.
Leonidas and his forces began the battle strongly, inflicting heavy casualties on the Persian cavalry on the first day. Xerxes could not believe that such a small force of Greek regulars had the strength to overcome such high odds. The Persian army was no less than 300000 in number. Compared to Leonidas's army of 7000. On the second day of the battle, the Persians met with a string of disasters. It is said that Xerxes rose from the place where he was seated three times that day in despair and disbelief. He even lost two of his brothers on the battlefield that day. The Persian king was at wit's end in formulating a response to the Greek force. Xerxes then sent the core of his army, his elite force known as the Immortals, to take on the Greek force. To the horror of Xerxes, they too were routed by the Spartans and their auxiliary forces. It seemed that Xerxes was fated to lose the battle.
But something terrible happened on the night of the second day. A Greek man named Aphialtes decided to change his allegiance and go over to the Persians'camp. It was Aphialtes who informed the Persians of the presence of a secret passage that could bypass the Persian army from Leonidas's forces and lead them out behind the Greek camp. The dawn of the third day brought the news that the Persians had managed to surround Greek troops from behind. In his final war council meeting, the king of the Spartans commanded a major part of the Greek army to fall back and return to their homes. Only the Spartans and the Phocians remained for the final showdown. Some sources also talk about the Thebans being present on the final day along with the Spartans and the Phocians.
Leonidas lost the battle on the morning of the third day when the Persians attacked them from all sides. His body was taken away by the Persians and beheaded. The surviving Spartans did, however, manage to retrieve his mortal remains much later. Leonidas's heroic sacrifice in the last stand of the Spartans against the Persians has been used to portray lessons in pride and patriotism. Here was a man who was willing to sacrifice everything for his home and country.
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