The death of Leonidas

August 11, 480 BC
Thermopylae, Ancient Greece
Leonidas I (Λεωνίδας) is killed in a battle against Persian forces

Leonidas was approximately 60 years old when he gathered a group of 1,200 soldiers to stop the invading Persian forces. Of the 1,200 soldiers, 300 were Spartan hoplites (heavily armed foot soldiers) and 900 were helots (a subjugated group under Spartan rule whose status was between citizen and slave). Other Greek soldiers were placed under his command from various cities in the area, bringing his army to around 7,000 people.

By contrast, the Persian army lead by Xerxes I held between 70,000 to 300,000 troops (modern estimates) up to a staggering and likely exaggerated 2,000,000 (historic estimates).

When the two armies met, Xerxes waited four days, hoping the Greek forced would retreat without combat. When the Greeks still stood their ground on the fifth day, the Persians attacked. For two days, the Greeks held off the Persians, killing an estimated 10,000 including two of Xerxes’ brothers. On the seventh day, a Greek betrayer named Ephialtes showed the Persians a route that lead behind the Spartans. (Ephialtes believed he would be granted a reward by the Persian king but was left empty handed. He fled and a bounty was placed on his head. Although he was reportedly killed for an unrelated reason, the Spartans paid his killer regardless.)

Finding himself out-maneuvered, Leonidas released the Greek soldiers of their duty. With his 300 Spartans, 900 helots, 400 Thebans, and 700 Thespians, the army attempted to hold back the advance. The Thespians stayed willingly and were cut down with the Spartans and helots. The 400 Thebans were spared after surrendering without a fight.

Leonidas was killed in the battle on August 11. His surviving men fought back Persian forces four times to protect his body until they were killed as well. Once he had possession of Léonidas’ body, Xerxes ordered it to be beheaded, his head impaled on a spike, and his body crucified. Four decades after his death, Leonidas’ body was returned to the Spartans for burial.

Painting: Léonidas aux Thermopyles by Jacques-Louis David (1814)

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