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Legendary warriors: Lenonidas and the 300 Spartans

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Leonidas, one of the most celebrated king of Sparta, was a member of the Agids family of Sparta during the 1Vth century B.C. and he was born around 540 B.C. The first few years of his life are unknown as we only know that he was the son of Anaxandridas11 and that after the death of his three older brothers, Dorius, Cleombrotus and Cleomenes 1st, he took the throne around -489 till -480 for a total of nine years. He was married to Gorgo (the daughter of Clemones 1st) and had one son named Pleistarhos which eventually succeeded him after his death at the battle of Thermopyles in -480. Later his body was moved to back to Sparta where a magnificent mausoleum was erected and consecrated to him while the Leonidas feasts were instituted. That tomb, to the north of modern Sparta, is the only monument preserved from the ancient agora.

The movie entitled “300” featuring Gerard Butler as King Leonidas was fairly accurate with the depiction of Xerxes as a very tall man because a royal cubit of that time is assumed to be more than 20 inches or 52 cm making Xerxes almost 8 feet tall or 243 m. But the difference ends here when it pertains to Xerxes because the “300” Xerxes was clean shaved through and through while the real Xerxes is almost always portrayed with a beard and headdress just like the one below. As for King Leonidas, he is portrayed like what Spartans raised men wore and looked like.

The battle of Thermopylae, a small passage of about 39 feet or 10 meters wide, remains etched in the memories and the lives of the Greeks to this day and presents the Greek spirit to the maximum. It all started when Xerxes 1st or Xerxes the Great, son of Darius the Great, decided to try to invade again Greece (after his father failed to) in -480-479 B.C after assembling his forces and war materials for four years prior to the invasion.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, puts down the troops of Xerxes in the 2,000,000 number but in reality that army probably only counted 250,000 men. Leonidas, who was named the commander in chief of the defense against Xerxes counted 300 Spartans among approximately 7,000 men from different allied Greek city-states. In fact, the Greeks were prepared ahead of the invasion by a secret message sent from an exiled Spartan king named Demarate who just happened to be residing at the court of King Xerxes when this one decided to plot the Greek invasion. Leonidas’ mission was to slow down the advance of the Persians in order to leave enough time to the remaining Greek cities to constitue a bigger army behind him.

Xerxes, seeing the small contingent of the Greek advance army, starts to ponder asking himself: are they fools or what to stand before my huge army. So he stages a halt for four days in the hopes that the Greeks will retreat before him. But at the beginning of the fifth day, the war starts on the 18th August -480. Leonidas chooses hoplites from Thespiae for the beginning of the hostilities. Approximately 700 hoplites divided on 18 rows wait for the first onslaught of the Persian Medes. Xerxes is watching not far away waiting for the Greek blood to flow. The shock between the two armies is terrible but rapidly turns to the advantage of the Greeks who are much better armed and prepared. The Medes are dispersed. Xerxes, then tells his archers to let go a volley of arrows but the Greek’s strong bronze shield is no match while the Medes wicker shield are fragile. After the volley of arrows, the Greeks just have to stand up again and finish off the Medes.

Herodotus continues his story then by stating that Xerxes then ordered the Scythes to take over but these again do not better. To Heorodotus this means that Xerxes had a lot of men but little real soldiers. In the late afternoon of the 18th of August -480, the Spartans replace the Thespians. In front of these Xerxes sends his own personal guards the “Immortals” numbering about 10,000 men. The Immortals simply try to rush agains the Greeks but fall on the spears of the Greeks who are disposed in eight rows of which the first three simply plough through and kill a lot of them. At the end of the first day, both sides count their deads. The Greeks only lost about one hundred Thespians and twenty Spartans compared to the Persians whose losses number almost probably 1000 and more. But the bodies of the Persians will come in handy.

On the 19th of August -480, while the sun is slowly rising, Leonidas aligns the units of Thebans, Corinthians and Mycenaens which did not fight the day prior. These succeed each other facing the vagues of the onslaught of the Persian army. The Persian army still crashes against the iron wall of the Greeks withouth breaching through. Again at the end of the day, the Greeks lost about 1000 men while the Persians have already lost about 10,000. Hope starts to invade Leonidas. While his goal was to simply halt the advance of the Persians, could he perhaps win the war by himself? He knows that the Persian army is starting to despair and to run out of food.

But in the middle of the night, Xerxes will benefit from the help of an unexpected kind. A certain Ephialtes, for unknown reasons, decides to betray the Greeks and gives Xerxes some precious information: that there is a small path that goes around the pass and would give Xerxes the advantage of taking Leonidas’ men from the back. Rapidly Xerxes expedites a large contingent of Persians to follow Ephialtes through the moutain. Leonidas’ sentinels alert him and he realizes that the war is about to end in his disfavour. There is only one thing left to do: to die with honor and have his name inscribed in legends.

Leonidas then sends back all his troops and only keeps his own Spartan army. At dawn on the 20th of August -480, the final stage of the war starts. The Greeks are soon completely surrounded and crushed by the Persians. Xerxes proudly parades among the corpses without any respect and honor.

One might think that Leonidas’ last move might be in vain because even though him and his army managed to kill a lot of Persians, it was almost like a drop of water in the ocean. A lot of Persians remained. But what Leonidas did was to give hope to the Greeks by showing them that Xerxes’ army was not invincible. The Spartans’ training and honor is what did it. Whereas other city states rely on their citizens and slaves to form ranks, Sparta made the art of war its reason for living. Spartiates realized that soldiers must remain in the rank, protect their comrades and never open up a breach between their shields, obey blindly to the orders of their commander et be cohesive as a group rather than individuals: these were the key to the success of the Spartans and that fact changed everything.

What do you think?

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Written by HistoryGal

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    • Sometimes I also wish I could do some time travel, not so much to see battles but just to witness how people lived in different eras. Thank you so much for dropping in, reading, writing such a wonderful comment and up voting my little history lesson…

    • Yes Leonidas and Xerxes were quite the kings and generals. The battle of Thermopylae was also one of the greatest battle between Greeks (mainly Sparta) and the cosmopolitan Persians. That is probably the reason why such films as the ” 300 ” with Gerard Butler were made… Thank you for visiting, reading, writing such a nce comment and your up vote…

    • Today is Canada Day here on the 1st of July. A day off to celebrate just like your 4th of July (at least I presume you are American). Thank you for visiting, reading, commenting and Up voting. Have a grand day yourself…

    • I have to agree with you Alex although the fact that Herodotus might have exaggerated the numbers is also credible. Do not forget he wrote for the Greeks and not for the Persians so he was inclined to put the Greeks in their best light whether they won or not. At least that is how I feel. Still a very big thank you for your comment, your reading and viewing and up vote as always.

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