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Leonidas I of Sparta earned his place in history with his death at the Pass of Thermopylae, defending democratic Greece against a crushing invasion by autocratic Persia.  His conscious – indeed cheerful – self-sacrifice for the sake of his civilization has captivated and inspired generations for nearly 2,500 years. Far less attention has been given to his life, however, largely because few hard facts – not even his date of birth – are known for sure.  And yet even the faint footprints left behind hint of a personality more intriguing than the stereotypic Spartan soldier suggested by a focus on Thermopylae alone.

The very circumstances of Leonidas' birth undoubtedly had an impact on his character.  Leonidas was the third son of King Anaxandridas, possibly a twin, and certainly one of four boys all born close together in age. The eldest of Anaxandridas' sons, however, was born to a second wife forced upon Anaxandridas because he refused to divorce his first wife although she appeared to be barren. Only after this second wife had given birth to a son, Cleomenes, did Anaxandridas' first and favorite wife produce three sons.

Some historians have assumed that Leonidas, a son of this first wife, was fed hatred of the "other woman" and her "bastard" with his mother's milk. Certainly his elder brother, Dorieus, expected to become king at his father's death. When the ephors selected Cleomenes instead, Dorieus refused to accept his half brother as king and instead twice left Sparta to set up colonies. This apparent rivalry between the sons of Anaxandridas' two wives combined with the fact that Leonidas was the immediate beneficiary of Cleomenes' death has led some historians to insinuate that Leonidas had a hand in Cleomenes' death.

While sibling rivalry – a potent and universal phenomenon going back to Cain and Abel –  might indeed have shaped Leonidas' character, there is more evidence that it was directed toward his elder full brother Dorieus rather than his elder half brother Cleomenes. We know for a fact that Leonidas did not accompany Dorieus on either of his expeditions, but instead remained in Sparta, accepting Cleomenes as his king.  Furthermore, Leonidas married Cleomenes' daughter.

Sibling rivalry between Dorieus and Leonidas might have turned Leonidas into a de facto ally of Cleomenes, and an amiable relationship with Cleomenes would in turn have enabled Leonidas to gain valuable experience in diplomacy, statecraft, and command at Cleomenes' court. Since Cleomenes reigned for 30 years and is judged by some historians to have been one of Sparta's greatest kings, such an apprenticeship would have been a major factor determining Leonidas' capabilities and reputation throughout the Greek world compatible with his later role and leader of the anti-Persian coalition. Thus the naked facts suggest that Leonidas and his elder half brother Cleomenes had at least a working relationship that did not end in fratricide.

But Leonidas' position as the third son shaped his life in another, arguably more important way. The heir apparent of a Spartan king was exempt from the harsh public education known as the agoge. Leonidas, as a third son, was not.  Thus while Cleomenes trained for kingship, Leonidas learned to endure hardship and pain, and literally stole food side by side with all the other Spartan boys of his generation. Such shared experiences either build strong ties of comradeship – or reveal weakness of character. The fact that Leonidas had no trouble finding volunteers to die with him tells us that Leonidas was well liked by his generation of Spartan citizens. His brother Dorieus, in contrast, couldn't convince more than a handful of young men to join him in the glorious – and by no means doomed – adventure of establishing a Spartan colony!

Leonidas' relationship with his wife is equally telling. Gorgo was the kind of woman abhorred in the rest of the Greek world – a woman with her own opinion and the audacity to voice it in public.  She enters history telling her father to send away an Ionian tyrant (Aristagoras) who came to ask for Spartan military assistance. But her most famous quote was in answer to an Athenian woman who wanted to know "why only Spartan women rule their men."  Gorgo replied: "Because only Spartan women make men."  With that she attested that Leonidas – like other Spartans – was man enough not fear the wit or independence of women.

Gorgo's exchange with the anonymous Athenian woman is intriguing for another reason: since Athenian women were not supposed to be seen (much less heard) in public and certainly were not taken traveling, the exchange almost certainly took place in Athens. This suggests that Leonidas was one of those rare Spartans who got beyond the borders of Lacedaemon and even out of the Peloponnese – before he went north to Thermopylae. Exposure to the outside world – at least other parts of Greece – would go a long way to explain why Leonidas cared about the rest of Greece, not just his own backyard as did most of his fellow countrymen.

It is even conceivable that Leonidas led the Spartan force that came – too late – to aid Athens at Marathon in 490 BC. The Spartan constitution at the time required her armies to be led by one of her kings, but in the summer of 490 BC Cleomenes was either in exile or had already gone mad, and Leotychidas was either in exile or disgrace. The Spartan delay in responding to Athens' desperate pleas for help might well have had less to do with the phase of the moon (the official excuse) than the fact that neither king was fit to lead an army – and Sparta was embarrassed to admit this!

In such circumstances, it is easy to imagine that the task of leading the army fell to Leonidas although he was not yet king. This might even explain why the ancient historians do not name the Spartan commander; Leonidas came, but he kept a low personal profile. This thesis would also help explain Leonidas' behavior ten years later.  The memory of coming too late to Marathon might have been the psychological factor that effectively drove him relentlessly to Thermopylae.  Rather than come too late again, he was prepared to march north with only 300 Spartans.

Leonidas had not been born the heir apparent, nor did he lust after that which was not his as his brother Dorieus had done.  When the Persian emperor Xerxes offered to make him king of all Greece, he replied: "If you understood what was honorable in life, you would avoid lusting after what belongs to others. For me it is better to die for Greece than be monarch of my nation."

Yet he was more than an ordinary Spartan ranker. Leonidas himself expressed this best when a man complained he was no better than the rest of them. "But were I not better than you," Leonidas answered, "I should not be king." This retort implied either a fanatical belief in the superiority of royal blood – inconceivable for a product of the Spartan agoge – or Leonidas' own ascension to the throne based on merit. If one remembers that several ancient sources claim Leonidas had a twin brother, it becomes plausible that at the time of Cleomenes' death Leonidas was chosen over his twin (Cleombrotus) because he enjoyed more respect among the Peers. Since both Leonidas and Cleombrotus were products of the agoge, this would further suggest that Leonidas had demonstrated superiority of character in the manner Sparta's entire constitution was designed to foster and reward.

Interestingly, however, Leonidas was not only revered by the men who knew him best, his peers, but evidently also by the wider Greek community, which was willing to elect him commander in chief of the anti Persian coalition.  While this was a primarily a tribute to Sparta's preeminence in military affairs, it should not be overlooked that Sparta had two kings: the Agiad Leonidas and the Eurypontid Leotychidas. It is significant that none of the chronicles record doubt or debate, let alone disagreement, about who would lead the allied Greek forces. This means Leonidas was credited by his contemporaries outside of Lacedaemon with the capability of rallying the frightened smaller Greek cities, retaining Athenian respect, and leading an effective military campaign against overwhelming odds.

But Leonidas had a double burden. On the one hand he was elected by the allies to organize and command an effective defense against the Persians, and on the other hand he had been warned by the Oracle of Delphi (with an exceptional clarity that reeks of bribery or pro-Persian sentiment) that:

Listen, O Spartans of the open plains:
Either Xerxes will sack your gracious town
And place your women and children in chains,
Or you will mourn a king of great renown.

Leonidas' response was to tell the ephors that he had "decided" to die – i.e., that he was prepared to die to spare Sparta's women and children slavery. This is what any honorable king would have done. What is striking about Leonidas is the cheerfulness and circumspection with which he did it.

Leonidas was no fanatic. He did not fling himself against the Persians on the first day like a berserker. Nor was he a zealot, dragging his men down with him in a bloodbath of defiant hatred. The fact that Leonidas took only volunteers with living sons with him to Thermopylae proves that Leonidas foresaw the possibility that they would all die, not that he expected or wanted them all to share his fate. He is quoted replying to a man complaining about how few men he brought to Thermopylae, with the words: "I'm certainly bringing plenty of men to meet their deaths." Because each life was valuable to him, 300 was a large number of men to risk. Taken together, Leonidas' attitude seems rather to foreshadow Shakespeare's Henry V (Act IV, Scene 3), where the Plantagenet says: "If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss, and if to live, the fewer men the greater share of honor."

Leonidas knew he had to die to satisfy the Gods and fulfill the oracle, but up until the last day, he hoped that at least some of his companions would be spared his personal fate. The chronicles record that when it was clear that the Spartans were trapped in the Persian pincer movement, Leonidas tried to send some men to safety.   "Wishing to save the youths, but knowing they would absolutely reject this, he gave each of them a dispatch and sent them to the ephors.  He wanted to save three of the mature men too, but they read his mind and refused to take the dispatches." (Plutarch, "Sayings of Spartans," Leonidas, 15.) Leonidas valued each and every one of his 300.

From the accounts, Leonidas was also a man with cool nerves and dry humor, who used his brain as well as his brawn in battle to achieve the best possible results – maximizing enemy losses, minimizing allied casualties, and holding his ground against overwhelming odds. And when it was clear that the Pass was no longer defensible, not only did his Spartan comrades stay with him "in obedience to their laws," but the Thespians too chose to die rather than depart. The Thespians had not been raised to this fate, and their sacrifice – more than that of the 300 – was a tribute to Leonidas' leadership.

Leonidas had "something" that commanded the respect of his contemporaries to an exceptional degree – more than Miltiades, Themistocles, or Pausanias.  Modern man may never know exactly what it was, but a contemporary work of art found in Sparta believed to portray Leonidas depicts him smiling. Whether the statue is truly a portrait of Leonidas or not, it reflects his spirit – and almost enables us to grasp something of his charisma across the centuries.

All of the above was originally written by Helena P. Schrader and printed in Squidoo
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Last updated September, 2012
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