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King Leonidas of Sparta (reigned c. 490 – 480 B.C.)



CIRCA 1986: Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Leonidas at Thermopylae. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

De Agostini/Getty Images


Name: Leonidas I (Λεωνίδας)
Dates: Mid 6th century B.C. - 480
Father: (Agiad) King Anaxandridas of Sparta
Occupation: (Agiad) Spartan King

Leonidas was a 5th century B.C. Spartan military king who bravely led a small force of Greeks -- mostly Spartan (the famous 300), but also Thespians and Thebans -- against the much larger Persian army of Xerxes, at the pass of Thermopylae, in 480 B.C. during the Persian Wars. In his book on the Persian Wars, Greco-Persian Wars [it's the same war, but with a less biased name, since 'Persian', as opposed to 'Greco-Persian' marks the Persians as the enemy], Peter Green suggests only the Thebans and Thespians accompanied Leonidas into battle because they were the only other Greeks who volunteered.

According to Herodotus, Leonidas had been warned by the Delphic oracle that either Sparta would be destroyed or their king would lose his life. Leonidas chose the second alternative.

In The Delphic oracle, its responses and operations, with a catalogue of responses, Joseph Eddy Fontenrose says that the 481/480 B.C. oracle is not genuine, but is said to have been: "People of Sparta, either your city is destroyed by the Persians or it is not, and Lakedaimon will mourn a dead king of the Heraklid line. For the might of bulls and lions will not stay the enemy in battle; he has Zeus' might. And I say that he will not stop until he has destroyed one of these two."

All the Spartans and Thespians died, including Leonidas, whose corpse the Persians mangled. Herodotus says the Thebans, who had never wanted to be there, surrendered when Leonidas was killed.

Leonidas was the half-brother of the late King Cleomenes I of Sparta. After Cleomenes' probable suicide, Leonidas was made king because Cleomenes had died without a son or another, closer male relative to reign as his successor. There was another tie: Leonidas was also married to Cleomenes' only child and heir, the wise Gorgo. Herodotus says this was part of the reason he became king. Sparta had two hereditary kings at a time. One group was the Agiad and the other, the Eurypontid. As kings from the Agiad line, both Cleomenes and Leonidas claimed Heracles (Hercules) as ancestor.



In his Moralia, Plutarch quotes Leonidas as saying:

" 1. Leonidas, the son of Anaxandridas and the brother of Cleomenes, in answer to a man who remarked, 'Except for your being king, you are no different from the rest of us," said, "But if I were no better than you others, I should not be king.'"


"10 Xerxes wrote to him, 'It is possible for you, by not fighting against God but by ranging yourself on my side, to be the sole ruler of Greece.' But he wrote in reply, 'If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others' possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.'"

"11 When Xerxes wrote again, 'Hand over your arms,' he wrote in reply, 'Come and take them.'"



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