Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David. 1814.

King Leonidas of Sparta and the Legendary Battle of the 300 at Thermopylae

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Zack Snyder’s 2007 fantasy historical film, 300, has probably made the Battle of Thermopylae one of the most famous battles of the ancient world. It may be pointed out, though, that the film has more fantasy than history in it. Most people would be aware that the leader of the Greeks during the battle was Leonidas of Sparta. Yet, how much do we actually know about King Leonidas, and what happened during the Battle of Thermopylae?  

According to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Leonidas was the son of King Alexandridas and his first wife, an unnamed woman who was also the king’s niece. Leonidas, however, was not the first child, as his father’s second wife bore a son, Cleomenes. Soon after this, Alexandridas’ first wife bore a son as well, Dorieus, who was Leonidas’ elder brother. After Dorieus was born, she was pregnant with Leonidas, and he was followed by Cleombrotus, although Herodotus suggests that there was an account stating that Leonidas and Cleombrotus were twins.

Leonidas’ ascension to the throne of Sparta in 489 BC was, as described by Herodotus, ‘a result of an unforeseeable situation’. As the third son of Alexandridas, Leonidas’ chances of succeeding the throne were rather slim, and he had no designs on the kingship. Upon the death of Alexandridas, the Spartan throne went to Cleomenes. The new king, however, died without a male heir. Additionally, Dorieus lost his life on an expedition in Sicily. This meant that Leonidas was the eldest surviving son of Alexandridas, and he was the best person to succeed his bother. Moreover, Leonidas had married Cleomenes’ daughter, Gorgo.

Leonidas I of Sparta.

Leonidas I of Sparta. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Persian Invasions

The new king Leonidas did not have an easy task ahead of him. Several years earlier, the Persians under king Darius I had invaded Greece, primarily in order to punish the city-states of Athens and Eretria, who had supported the cities of Ionia during their revolt against Persian rule. The invasion ended with the decisive Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, but it was not long before Darius began raising a huge new army with which he intended to return with full force. The threat of another Persian invasion threw the Greek states into alliance though many were still technically at war with each other.

Relief depicting the Battle of Marathon.

Relief depicting the Battle of Marathon. ( Military-history.org)

Darius was unable to launch an offensive in Greece immediately because of rebellions in other sectors of his empire and in 486 BC, while he was quelling these, he was killed in battle. His son, Xerxes, ascended to the throne. Determined to avenge his father’s defeat, Xerxes began to muster forces to once again invade Greece. By 480 BC, Xerxes had built up an enormous army of some one hundred and fifty thousand men and a navy of six hundred ships.  He was now ready. In late August or early September of 480 BC, Xerxes launched his offensive upon Greece in what is now known as the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Battle of Thermopylae is the most famous battle of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece and one of the most famous battles in European ancient history.  Unlike other battles, however, it was not a victory for the Greeks, but a defeat. Its fame is derived from being one of the most courageous last stands by the vastly outnumbered defending army of Greek city states led by King Leonidas of Sparta against the invading Persians under King Xerxes.

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It took place in a narrow pass between the mountains of central Greece and the sea, called Thermopylae. This was a strategic move on the part of the Greeks. The narrowness of the pass negated the advantage the Persians had in numbers.

The site of the battle today: the road to the right is built on reclaimed land and approximates the 480 BC shoreline.

The site of the battle today: the road to the right is built on reclaimed land and approximates the 480 BC shoreline. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Although the 300 Spartans were the most famous combatants on the Greek side, they were not the only Greeks present at the battle. One has to bear in mind that the Spartans had other Greek allies with them, including the Thespians, Thebans, soldiers from Mycaene and other Greek states. Herodotus gives the actual number of Peloponnesians at the battle alone as 3,100 or 4,000, and a grand total of over 5,000 Greeks. Modern estimates, however, suggest that the Greek forces numbered at around 20,000, which included the helots, retainers, and auxiliaries.  The number of invading Persians is disputed at being between two hundred thousand to two and a half millions soldiers, though it is most likely closer to the former.  

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