LEONIDAS

Died 480 B.C.

King of Sparta

Leonidas was the king of the Greek city-state* of Sparta from about 490 to 480 B.C. He succeeded his half-brother, Cleomenes I, who had no son to succeed him, and he married Cleomenes’ daughter, Gorgo. Leonidas is best remembered for his heroic leadership of Greek forces at Thermopylae against the invading Persian army led by Xerxes.

In 480 B.C., while the rest of Sparta was celebrating an annual festival, Leonidas marched to the mountain pass of Thermopylae with a select Spartan force of only 300 troops, his personal bodyguard. His goal was to secure the pass as part of a combined naval and land operation. Other troops joined Leonidas on the way, and the pass was successfully secured. However, Leonidas and his troops could hold off the Persian assault for only two days. At that point, Leonidas dismissed the main body of soldiers, who managed to escape, while he and his elite troops fiercely counterattacked the Persians. According to legend, there were so many Persian fighters that their arrows hid the sun. Despite the valor of the Spartans, Leonidas and all of his troops were killed.

The death of Leonidas was said to fulfill a Delphic oracle, which had predicted that unless a Spartan king was killed, Sparta would be captured and looted. Leonidas’s bravery at Thermopylae demonstrated that Sparta was committed to the defense of Greece, and it was commemorated in a famous poem by the Greek poet Simonides: “Leonidas the Spartan, in whose story/A wreath of famous virtue ever lives.” Many years after Leonidas’s death, his remains were brought back to Sparta for ceremonial reburial, and a shrine was established in his honor.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

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