Created by Cait Meyer, Katheryn Sweetman, and Nikki Gonzalez
In Herodotus’ histories, the Spartan King, Leonidas is said to be a descendant of the god, Heracles. Whether this is true or not, there is no denying that Leonidas is one of the most renowned figures of the Greek world. Leonidas was brought to mainstream popularity with the highly glamorized Zack Snyder film 300, but did the film do the Spartan King justice? The film does not accurately represent Leonidas as a leader and what he contributed to the benefit of the Greek city-states during the Persian War. From his upbringing as a young Spartan soldier, to his martyrdom at the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas is the Spartan mirage personified. This Spartan mirage would come in handy for the Greeks in order to triumph over Xerxes’ Persian army. By reviewing his life, from his training within the agoge, to becoming king, his accomplishments, and his sacrifice at the Battle of Thermopylae, we will be able to comprehend what makes Leonidas such an iconic figure in Greek history.
The Spartan education system was different from that of Athens. They placed heavy emphasis on physical education for their young males. At the age of 7, if as infants were deemed fit, Spartan boys were expected leave their homes and undergo years of a harsh military regimine. Because Spartans believed their agoge system to be a means of making powerful warriors, these boys were taught how to survive in the wilderness, steal, and fight. The right of passage into manhood would be for one of these soldiers in training to murder a Helot. Spartans held top physical strength above anything else, and encouraged flogging and humiliation as means to motivate the boys to strengthen themselves, emotionally and physically.
(Spartan agoge system)
Leonidas was the son of King Anaxandridas II, and had two elder brother, Cleomenes and Dorieus. Because of the importance of proving oneself as a true Spartan male, Leonidas had a lot on his shoulders proving his worth to the men in his family. Because he was the youngest of three males, Leonidas had to undergo the rigorous training within the agoge system due to the fact that he was not a direct heir to the throne. Leonidas’ father and brothers would eventually die, propelling him to the throne, making him one of the first Spartan Kings to train within the agoge.
Leonidas and the Spartans propelled themselves into myth with their actions at the battle of Thermopylae, where they fought for three days’ despite being vastly outnumbered by the Persians. When Xerxes offered to let the Greeks surrender and lay down their arms, Leonidas’ responded with ‘come and get them’. The battle was going great with the Spartans using their disorganized retreat tactic before attacking the Persians in phalanx formation, the battle may have even swung in favor of the Greeks, if Ephialtes hadn’t communicated to the Persians, the phalanx’s weakness, the southern flank. Leonidas knew that by attacking the southern flank, the Persians could avoid a majority of the Greek forces, so he stationed Phokian troops at the flank to protect it. Unfortunately for Leonidas, the Phokian troops abandoned their post after realizing they were the main target of the renewed Persian assault, allowing the Persians to utilize a mountain path and position themselves behind the majority of the Greek forces. Shortly before their only means of retreat was amputated completely, Leonidas ordered the majority of the Greek forces to retreat while he stayed behind. Leonidas rallied the remaining members of the Spartan 300, 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians in an attempt to slow the Persians and let the remaining Greeks retreat. Leonidas repositioned his troops to the widest part of the pass to allow for all of his troops to be in use at once, and in the fighting that followed, Leonidas was killed. After their king fell, the Spartans fought with renewed vigor to recover their slain king. Much of the events that followed his death are disputed but one thing we do know according to Herodotus is that the Oracle at Delphi was right in her prediction, “either Spartan or one of her king would fall”.
Leonidas is known as an important character in Spartan history due to his actions at the Battle of Thermopylae. Part of the Spartan Practices included the king of Sparta being the first to arrive at the battlefield and the last to leave. Leonidas during a council of the leaders of several great states before the battle decided that he and his warriors would stay and fight so that the other Greek forces could retreat to Corinth, and so that the Pass at Thermopylae could be protected from the Persian army. He planned to position his army at the center of the terrain and built up the Phocian wall so that the Persian army would have to break up their formation to reach the Greeks. He also received help from the Thespians since they were familiar with the terrain and brought the warrior count to about 1000 men. Leonidas’s plan worked so well that it took the Persians five days to finally attack, and the Greeks advantage could have been successful had they not been betrayed by Ephialtes who guided the Persians to the rear of Leonidas’s army. Scout runners soon informed Leonidas that they were to be surrounded by the Persians, but instead of retreating he decided that the Spartans should so the honorable thing of staying. The Spartans classic battle lineup consisted of a heavily protected and close front, so the unexpected attack gave the Persians a great advantage.
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