King Leonidas: The true story about the Spartan warrior

By: Ashley Man

The warrior king was depicted as a brave hero in the Hollywood film ‘300’

The setting is 499 BCE and the Greek empire is facing threats from its Persian neighbors. The two powers would soon embark on a bloody war lasting half a century. At the time, Greece consisted of several city-states that were vulnerable to invasion from the strong Persian empire. 

One of the key city-states was Sparta which was ruled by the Agiad dynasty. Believed to be the descendants of Hercules himself, this royal house was filled with strong men exhibiting superior war prowess. Young Leonidas was born into this family and would go on to use his military skills to defend Sparta and Greece from Persian invaders.    

Early life and the Persian War

Much of what is known about his life comes from the Greek historian Herodotus whose accounts of the Greco-Persian Wars shined an admirable and courageous light on King Leonidas.

Believed to be born roughly 530 BCE, he was the son of King Anaxandrides who died just 10 years after his birth. He was not his firstborn son and was therefore not raised to take political charge. Leonidas, in true Spartan fashion, was physically and mentally trained to be a Hoplite warrior.

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Hoplite warriors were armed with equipment consisting of an 8-foot spear, round shield, and a short iron sword. They were trained to form a phalanx which was a mass rectangular military formation where the warriors stood closely in rows next to each other. While this barrier was strong and heavy at the frontlines, it failed to adequately protect the warriors if attacked from the side or behind. Spartans were also taught to never show weakness or surrender.

Leonidas was trained and experienced in this military tactic so when his brother died a mysterious death, he ascended to power as a ruler of Sparta. From around 490 BCE and for the next 10 years, Leonidas and another king were in control of the city-state while the war broke out between the two empires.

The Battle of Thermopylae and subsequent defeat

In 480 BCE Xerxes I planned to invade Greece and King Leonidas was chosen to protect the narrow passage of Thermopylae. This key location was necessary for the Persians to penetrate in order to invade the rest of the empire.

Leonidas took 300 Spartan warriors who endured the same rigorous and brutal training as he did and went to Thermopylae to meet the attackers. Although there were only 300 Spartans, the small army was joined by 7,000 other Greek warriors. Warriors from various Greek city-states came to aid in the protection of Thermopylae along with King Leonidas’s Spartan troops.

“King Leonidas and his 300 member royal guard fought Persian leader Xerxes I’s much larger army at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.”

The military tactics the Greeks possessed was able to keep the Persians at bay for a whole two days. However, on the third day Xerxes I and his army of over 80,000 men overpowered the much smaller Greek army.

Although King Leonidas and his men were greatly outnumbered, they all fought until death. Surrendering was out of the question for these Spartan warriors and their bravery gave rise to hero cults around Greece for years to come.

Statues were built to honor the brave Leonidas and he became a symbol of bravery and determination. Even though he brought along more than the 300 Spartan warriors to the Battle of Thermopylae, he still went into battle knowing the odds were starkly against him.

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