The story of Spartan King Leonidas and the 300 at the Battle of Thermopylae in Ancient Greece
Two Kings... Beginnings
Leonidas, Spartan military king, whose stand against the invading Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece is one of the most enduring historical moments of heroism. His name in Greek (ΛΕΩΝΙΔΑΣ) can be roughly translated as "Lion's Son" or "Lion-like".
He was born around 540 B.C and was one of three sons of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta, who was believed to be a descendant of Hercules himself. His name has been raised to legendary and heroic status as a result of the events at the Battle of Thermopylae, one of the most famous battles of ancient history.
Around 21 years after the birth of Leonidas in 519 B.C, Xerxes son of Persian king Darius the Great, was born and later went on to become King Xerxes I of Persia himself in 485 B.C after the death of his father and go on to rule the mighty Persian Empire. Xerxes, whose name means "Ruler of Heroes", also known as Xerxes the Great, had to suppress revolts in Egypt and Babylon early on after his accession. Xerxes' father Darius the Great had previously made a failed attempt to conquer Greece at the Battle of Marathon, after swearing an oath to punish the mainland Greek city-states for supporting a revolt by the Ionian Greek cities against the Persian empire. He left the task to his son Xerxes and once the revolts in Egypt and Babylon had been suppressed, he made this task his next priority in expanding the greatest empire known at the time.
By 480 B.C, the expedition was planned and so in the Spring of that year soldiers from many nations that were part of the Persian empire such as Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Indians, Egyptians, Jews and Arabs to name a few, marched their way across the Hellespont toward the Northern Greek city-states of Thessaly and Macedonia. According to Herodotus, our main source of these events, the army and fleet under Xerxes' command was more than two million strong. Some of the smaller northern Greek city-states such as Thessaly and Argos sided with the might of the Persian army by offering the gift of "earth and water" at the request of Xerxes. The other city-states offered some resistance, however Xerxes was victorious in these encounters and continued his way along the coast, down toward central Greece, heading toward Athens.
King Xerxes at the Hellespont
The Battle of Thermopylae
The news of the arrival of the Persian Army spread throughout the Greek cities, but unfortunately for the Greeks, the Spartans who were considered to be the best warriors in all of Greece were holding a religious festival, which because of this according to Spartan law, military activity was strictly forbidden, as was the case at the Battle of Marathon. The truce of the Olympic Games was also preventing the Spartans from marching to a battle as an army, however, on this occasion it was decided that due to the urgency of the situation, a small group of Spartans would protect the small pass at Thermopylae under its king, Leonidas.
So Leonidas chose 300 Spartan men with living sons to continue family legacy, as he knew he would be going to certain death because of the overwhelming odds against him and headed off to meet King Xerxes and his army at Thermopylae.
A Spartan greeting
After refusing the offer made by one of Xerxes' ambassadors to "become friends of the Persian people" and lay down their weapons where Leonidas famously replied "ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ" (come and get them), the 300 Spartans, along with a small force from other Greek city-states held their ground at the pass of Thermopylae (translated as Hot Gates) in central Greece against the huge Persian army for 2 days, before a Greek traitor named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks and leaked information to the Persians about a hidden mountain path which led behind the Greek lines. On the 3rd day, when Leonidas found that the Greeks were being outflanked and surrounded, he ordered the Greek armies to retreat and decided that he would stay with his 300 faithful Spartan soldiers and defend the pass to the very end. A group of about 700 Thespians and 300 Thebans refused to leave Leonidas and his small army to die alone and stayed behind as well, vowing to die by the brave Spartan leaders’ side.
And so they did.
The Persians eventually managed to kill every one of those men that decided to make a stand, including King Leonidas, although they suffered massive casualties, completely disproportionate to the Spartans and other Greeks. The Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae gave their life and delayed the Persians considerably, which gave the other Greek cities the time and opportunity to organise a retreat in to southern Greece and a defence against the largest army assembled, now intent on conquering the rest of Greece and open the door to expand the Persian empire in to Europe.
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The Battle... The sacrifice
The Persians continue...
Following the victory at Thermopylae, the Persian army continued south. The city of Athens was evacuated to the small island of Salamis only days before the Persians marched into Athens, sacking and burning the city in late 480 B.C. There the Greek naval fleet prepared for a last stance against the might of the Persian army at what is known as... the Battle of Salamis.