Leonidas (~-540 - 480 BC)

Leonidas Leonidas was a King of Sparta who was the leader at the famous Battle of Thermopylae against the Persians.

He was probably born around 540 BC and was the third son of the King of Sparta Kleomenes I. He may have had a marriage around 510 BC, but this is disputed and the wife’s name is unknown. Around 490 BC, he married Gorgo, who was the daughter of his half – brother, Kleomenes II; it was common for the royalty to marry relatives, in order to keep the blood line pure. Leonidas and Gorgo had a son named Pleistarchus. In 488 BC, Leonidas became King of Sparta, despite being the third son; Kleomenes II was sent to exile and later died in a prison cell in Sparta, while his other brother Dorieas had died in Sicily during a battle.

During the Persian Wars, Leonidas became the leader of the allied Greek army, and successfully managed to keep them all united despite their earlier rivalries and differences. His superiority and highly strategic thinking was evident on the battleground of Thermopylae, because of the very smart way he chose to deploy his troops. Moreover, he showed considerable courage when the Persian leader, Xerxes, sent an envoy asking to hand in their weapons and surrender; Leonidas simply said “Come and get them”, challenging Xerxes into a battle to prove his value. King Leonidas eventually died at the battle of Thermopylae and became a symbol of patriotic sacrifice; initially, Leonidas along with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians managed to repel the thousands of the Persian troops. However, a treasonous Greek, Ephialtes, went to Xerxes and showed him a secret passage, so that the Persian army would surround the Greeks. As a result, the Greek army was eventually slaughtered.

The sacrifice of Leonidas and his soldiers became a symbol ever since, and the ancient Greeks created a monument at the spot he had fallen. An inscription was also placed on the monument saying “Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemons that we lie here, having honoured their laws”. After the battle, a stone lion was also placed there, so that everyone may remember the name of the fallen king. Leonidas’ remains were returned to Sparta for burial in 440 BC.

During the Hellenistic period, the Spartans founded a temple called Leonidaeon, and had a yearly celebration, the Leonidaea. When Sparta’s power declined, the celebration also ceased to exist, but was later revived during the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Trajan’s move was clearly political, as during that period, there was a war between Rome and Parthans, the descendants of Persians; thus, he wanted to remind everyone of the heroic stance of the Greeks during the Persian Wars.

In modern times, a monumental tomb has been inaugurated in the city of Sparta, as well as a statue at the battlefield of Thermopylae; a brass statue of the Spartan king stands in the place he fell and the phrase “Come and get them” is inscribed underneath.

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