Monday, November 27, 2006

Leonidas I

Leonidas (Λεωνίδας=Lion’s son) the first, one of the two Kings of Sparta, reigned from 488 to 480 BC. He was the 17th King of the Agiad line, son of Anaxandridas II and was born around 508 BC. According to legend his father’s bloodline descended from the mythical Hercules. Leonidas succeeded his half brother Cleomenes I, who was put to death by the Ephors (5-member council elected by the citizens every year), the Ephors however, claimed he committed suicide. Leonidas was married to Gorgo, daughter of Cleomenes.

In spring 480 BC the Persians crossed to Europe and moved towards Greece. At the initial war council, held at the Isthmus of Corinth, the Greek city-states, failed to reach an agreement on the defense strategy which they would follow. Moreover a number of city-states had secretly agreed with the Persians to appear neutral and refuse any aid to the cause. The allies were warned by Alexander I of Macedon (the north-most Greek Kingdom) about the intentions of the Persians and planned to dispatch a defense force at the vale of Tempe in Thessaly, however they did not trust the Thessalians (who later joined of the Persians anyway) and decided to abandon their positions.

While most Greek city-states were undecided on how to defend their land, Leonidas was ordered by the council of the Ephors to leave for Thermopylae with an expedition force of 300 Spartan equals. All men sent to Themopylae had sons to ensure the continuation of their bloodline.

Leonidas, obeying the laws of Sparta, marched in August 480 BC and arrived at the site of the Battle where he met an army of Greek allies not more that 6,000 or 7,000 strong. Most city-states had not sent any troops at all, or they had sent a lot less than they could afford. Being a professional soldier and an excellent tactician Leonidas predicted the outcome of the Battle for two reasons: (a) although the chosen battleground favored the smaller army, the Persian outnumbered the Greeks, at least 20 to 1 (possibly a lot more), and (b) the Asopos river pass which was leading directly behind the Greek line could be the “Achilles tendon” of the allied army (as it indeed happened).

Still Leonidas decided to stay and fight, he desperately asked re-enforcements, but his requests were ignored. When Xerxes offered him to become King of all Greeks once the Persians conquer Greece, Leonidas refused, and when Xerxes demanded from the Greeks to surrender their arms (weapons) Leonidas replied with the legendary “Μολών λαβέ” (“Molon lave”=come and get them).

During the first two days of the Battle the Greeks under Leonidas leadership defended their position successfully crashing continues waves of Persian assaults. They inflicted terrible losses to the Persians and enraged Xerxes. During the night of the second day, a local traitor, Ephialtes, led the Persians through the Asopos river pass, which was guarded by the Phocians. The Phocians under a shower of Persian arrows fled their position without a fight.
Leonidas was informed that he would soon be encircled and was offered a chance to retreat to the South. The Athenians, at that time fighting the naval Battle of Artemisium off the coast of Thermopylae, sent a trireme to evacuate Leonidas. In both cases the Spartan King bravely refused to leave his post.

He immediately ordered a battle council among the allies and asked them to leave the battleground and join the rest of the Greeks, preparing a defensive southwards at the Isthmus of Corinth (according to another version the other Greeks abandoned Leonidas and ran to save their lives). Of the 6,000 Greeks, only 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians remained. Leonidas also forced 400 Thebans to remain and fight for them, since Thebes was obliged to Sparta. The Thebans however, surrendered immediately to the Persians without a fight and their city joined Xerxes after the Battle. It is said that on the dawn of the third day, before the approach of the Persians, Leonidas urged his men to eat a full breakfast, because that night they would all dine in Hades (the Greek underworld).

The Persians soon encircled the Spartans and the Thespians. Leonidas was one of the first to die during this last stage of the battle, he charged towards the Persians and was fatally wounded. His men fought a desperate fight to retrieve his body. According to Herodotus, the Greeks “were fighting with daggers, if they had one, with their hands and their teeth” «μαχαίρησι, τοίσι αυτών ετύγχανον έτι περιέουσαι και χερσί και στόμασι». Two of Xerxes brothers were killed during the final stand of the Greeks and the Persians were so disheartened that they killed the last defenders with arrows.

When the body of Leonidas was recovered, Xerxes ordered the head to be cut off and the body crucified. He later regretted this act and returned the remains of Leonidas to the Spartans. Leonidas was then buried on the hill where his men took their last stand, together with his 300 braves. A stone lion was set to commemorate their sacrifice. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas body was moved to Sparta were he was buried with full honors. As Perikles later noted (not for Leonidas, but still quite fitting): «Ανδρών επιφανών πάσα γη τάφος» meaning: “To Great Mean all earth may be their grave”.

On top of the burial mound of the 300 Spartans, an Epitaph composed by Simonides engraved on a commemorative stone was placed. The epitaph said:

«Ώ ξείν, αγγέλειν Λακεδεμονίοις ότι τήδε
κείμεθα, τοίς κείνων ρήμασι πειθόμενοι»

Which could be translated as: “Oh stranger, announce to the Lacedomonians, that here we lie, obeying their word/laws”. A number of more loose translations have been recorded, this is probably my favorite:

“Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie”

Frank Miller in his graphic novel 300 uses the following:

“Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the history lesson. It is wonderful to read about the ancient Greeks and especially the Spartans to whom we owe so much. (A bonus is that it is written by a Greek.)

Since democracy was in its infancy, without Leonidas and his brave men, the course of western history would have been very different

Thanks for not expecting Frank Miller's graphic novel and therefore the movie to be historically accurate. It portrays the most important essence of this battle: honor and duty.

5:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It portrays the most important essence of this battle: honor and duty."

Yes indeed. If the movie inspires even a handful of young viewers to learn the history and strength of the Greeks, and thus the West, it will be a smashing success. As you noted, the history of the West would have been very different. No Golden Age, no Aristotle or Plato. No Herodotos, no Pericles, or Thucydides to tell us of him.

Without Leonidas, we'd be trapped to this day in the middle ages - under some despot.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello to all,
great job Mr Vetdino!!
I just moved to the States and
since i have a B.A in History i am
trying to educate some colleagues
of mine about Greece and greek culture.
As far as my greek compatriots
it is necessary to meka them understand that the movie is based on Frank Miller's 300 comic book and it IS NOT a true representation
of the actual battle that took place in August 480 B.C.
Other than that, it is so wonderful
movies like this one are being made about greek history and its people.
My only complaint to Hollywood is that they havent ever made a movie
about the Byzantine Empire and its 1000 years of history full of many areas of interest.
Thank you for your time.

Demetrios Vellianitis

3:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

Thumbs up, and keep it going!


4:55 PM  

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