King Leonidas: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson goes over the life of a legendary king, that of King Leonidas. You may have heard of him if you are familiar with the brave 300 Spartans who died fighting off a massive Persian army.

King Leonidas

What would you do if you were a leader of a city-state and an important oracle told you that, in the face of a massive Persian invasion, either your city and people must fall or its leader must? Well, King Leonidas decided that he was going to fall for the greater good of his people. Let's find out more about this brave and legendary man.

Early Life

Leonidas was born sometime around 530-540 BCE in what was then a Greek city-state known as Sparta. He was of the royal Agiad house. His grandfather was King Leon and his father was King Anaxandrides. And if you are to believe an ancient legend, he was a descendent of the mythical Hercules.

Leonidas was never supposed to be king, though. See, he had two older brothers, Cleomenes and Doreius, who were ahead of him in the line of succession. He also had another brother, Kleombrotus, who may have even been his twin but it's unclear if that's true or not.

Regardless, a twist of fate put Leonidas on the throne. First, Doreius died while away at war in Sicily. Then, Cleomenes died under mysterious and violent circumstances, possibly as a result of suicide. And since Leonidas married Cleomenes' daughter, Gorgo, he was next in line to the throne.

When Anaxandrides died around 490 BCE, Leonidas was proclaimed king.

Later Life

In 480 BCE, Xerxes I of Persia invaded Greece with a massive ground and naval force. Although the many Greek city-states often warred with one another, many of them came together to fight off a common invader, especially the Persians. They had defeated them 10 years earlier in the Battle of Marathon, when Xerxes' father, Darius, invaded Greece. Now, it was time to fight again.

About 80,000 Persian warriors and their allies were marching into Greece. The Greeks could only muster around 7,000 men on land. Of these 7,000 Greek troops, only 300 were Spartans. At this time, the Spartans were known to be the best Greek warriors and they had around 8,000 hoplites (foot soldiers). However, they only sent 300 because they technically shouldn't have been fighting at all, as their sacred Karneia festival was going on. The Spartans, by custom, couldn't fight until the festival was over.

Leonidas at Thermopylae.
Leonidas at Thermopylae

Nonetheless, 300 of the finest Spartan hoplite warriors were selected to join the Greek fighting force, probably because they wanted the rest of the Greek city-states to see they were participating despite their festivities. But the only Spartans allowed to go were those with male heirs, as it was already assumed to be a highly dangerous, if not suicidal, mission to fight such a massive Persian force.

King Leonidas, about 60 years old at the time, was tasked with leading the combined Greek force against the Persian land force. The Greeks knew that the Persians would have to move their army through a narrow pass sandwiched between mountains on one side, and the sea on the other. The location is known as Thermopylae. This is where the Greeks would make their stand against the 80,000 strong Persian enemy.

As Xerxes approached, he was full of confidence in his victory over such a small Greek army. He sent a messenger, telling Leonidas and his army to lay down their arms. Leonidas replied molon labe, or 'come and get them.'

So Xerxes came and for two full days threw everything he had at Leonidas, who fought from the front. The Greeks didn't budge and inflicted heavy losses on the Persians. Xerxes realized he couldn't do much under such circumstances, but he had a bit of luck and treachery on his side. A Greek shepherd told the Persians about a path through the mountains that would allow the Persians to bypass the narrow pass at Thermopylae and attack the Greeks from the back as well.

When Leonidas found out he was betrayed, he realized the game was up. He sent all but the 300 Spartans, as well as the Thespians and Thebans, away to regroup and fight another day while the remaining Greeks would delay the Persians for as long as possible to buy the Greeks time.

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