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When did King Leonidas live?

In honor of day #300 of my Daily Doodles (which is a HUGE accomplishment for me, only 66 days left!) I've chosen to feature a figure that a super cool guy said if he could meet any historical person, he would choose the famous Spartan king, Leonidas.

It should be noted, almost everything that is known about Leonidas comes from the work of the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 B.C.).

Leonidas was born in 530 B.C. He was a son of the Spartan king Anaxandrides (died c. 520 B.C.). Leonidas became king in 490 B.C. when his older half-brother Cleomenes I (also a son of Anaxandrides) died under violent (and slightly mysterious) circumstances without having produced a male heir.

Leonidas was both a military as well as a political leader. Like all male Spartan citizens, Leonidas had been trained mentally and physically since childhood in preparation to become a hoplite warrior. Hoplites were armed with a round shield, spear and iron short sword. In battle, they used a formation called a phalanx, in which rows of hoplites stood directly next to each other so that their shields overlapped with one another. During a frontal attack, this wall of shields provided significant protection to the warriors behind it. If the phalanx broke or if the enemy attacked from the side or the rear, however, the formation became vulnerable. It was this fatal weakness to the otherwise formidable phalanx formation that proved to be Leonidas’ undoing against an invading Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

Ancient Greece was made up of several hundred city-states, of which Athens and Sparta were the largest and most powerful. Although these many city-states vied with one another for control of land and resources, they would band together to defend themselves from foreign invasion. Twice at the beginning of the fifth century B.C., Persia attempted such an invasion. In 490 B.C. the Persian king Darius I (550-486 B.C.) instigated the initial attempt as part of the First Persian War, but Greek forces combined and turned back the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. Ten years later, during the Second Persian War, one of Darius’ sons, Xerxes I (c. 519-465 B.C.), launched another invasion against Greece.

Under Xerxes I, the Persian army moved south through Greece. The Persians needed to go through the coastal pass of Thermopylae (also known as the “Hot Gates,” because of nearby sulfur springs). In the late summer of 480 B.C., Leonidas led an army of 6,000 to 7,000 Greeks from many city-states, including 300 Spartans, in an attempt to prevent the Persians from passing through Thermopylae.

Leonidas established his army at Thermopylae, expecting the narrow pass to funnel the Persian army toward his own force. For two days, the Greeks withstood the determined attacks of their far more numerous enemy. Leonidas’ plan worked well at first, but he was unaware of a local Greek who told Xerxes about a mountain route to the West and led the Persian army across it. Once this was discovered, Leonidas told most of the army to retreat with an army of Spartans, Thespians and Thebans remaining to fight the Persians even though it was futile.

Leonidas’ sacrifice, along with that of his Spartan hoplites, did not prevent the Persians from moving down the Greek coast into Boeotia. However, in September 480 B.C., the Athenian navy defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, after which the Persians returned home. Nonetheless, Leonidas’ action demonstrated Sparta’s willingness to sacrifice itself for the protection of the Greek region.

Leonidas had ruled over Sparta for a decade until his death at the Battle of Thermopylae against the Persian army in 480 B.C. Although Leonidas lost the battle, his death at Thermopylae was seen as a heroic sacrifice because he sent most of his army away when he realized that the Persians had outmaneuvered him. Three hundred of his fellow Spartans stayed with him to fight (and ultimately perish).

Leonidas achieved lasting fame for his personal sacrifice. Hero cults were an established custom in ancient Greece from the eighth century B.C. onward. Dead heroes were worshipped, usually near their burial site, as intermediaries to the gods. Forty years after the battle, Sparta retrieved what were believed to be Leonidas’ remains and a shrine was built in his honor.

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