August 4, 2023 | Kyle Climans

Terrifying Facts About Leonidas, Sparta's Warrior King

He's the most legendary warrior king in history. With his 300 brave Spartans behind him, King Leonidas stood against the mighty invading Xerxes and stopped him in his tracks. The story has been told and retold countless times, but how much of what we've heard is true? It turns out, there's a lot more to the ruthless Leonidas than what we saw on screen. Read on to discover the dark history of this ruthless Spartan king.

1. He Was Descended From Hercules

Leonidas came from the legendary line of Agiad kings. Reaching back centuries, Leonidas and his family claimed to be descended from the mythological Heracles. Those are some big shoes to fill, but from his brutal rise to power to his violent end, Leonidas made sure he did his heroic ancestor proud.

king leonidas

2. He Was Almost Never Born

It's a miracle that Leonidas was ever even born. For years, his father, Anaxandridas, and mother, whose name is lost to history, failed to produce a child. Eventually, the lack of an heir began making the Spartan elites nervous. The ephors, the powerful council of officials who helped rule Sparta, demanded that Anaxandridas leave Leonidas's mother and take a new wife. This would have changed Greek history as we know it, but Anaxandridas had a better idea...

Leonidas facts Wikimedia Commons

3. His Dad Was a Player

Anaxadridas decided to have his cake and eat it too. He deeply loved his first wife, but he knew the ephors could be dangerous enemies, so he came up with a compromise. He took a second wife...but stayed married to Leonidas's mother! This pacified the twitchy ephors—but it quickly caused some serious problems in the Spartan court.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

4. From No Sons To Too Many

Almost as soon as Anaxadridas took his second wife, she bore him a son, Cleomenes. The Sparta finally had an heir, and the ephors let up on Anaxandridas, but the upper echelons of Spartan society rarely stayed calm for long. Not long after Cleomenes's birth, Anaxadridas's first wife finally gave birth to a son: Dorieus. Suddenly, there were too many heirs to go around—and in a place as ruthless as Sparta, there was no way this was going to end well.

Leonidas facts Flickr, Vassilis

5. He Was Third in Line...At First

By the time that Leonidas was born, he was technically third in line to take the throne. That may seem like a ways off, but this is Sparta we're talking about—few Spartan men lived to old age, and so it should come as no surprise that both of Leonidas's brothers met a grim fate.

Leonidas facts 300 (2006), Warner Bros.

6. Not Everyone Accepted His Half-Brother

When Anaxandridas perished, his eldest son, Leonidas's half-brother Cleomenes, took the throne—but not everyone was happy about that. Dorieus, the first-born son of Anaxandridas's first wife, felt that he should rule Sparta. Unfortunately, he was about to learn that not everyone agreed with him...

Leonidas factsWikimedia Commons

7. His Older Brother Met A Dark End

The people of Sparta near-unanimously supported Cleomenes as king, and it made Dorieus absolutely furious. Spurned by his own people, the hot-headed Dorieus left Sparta in disgust—but only failure and death awaited him outside of his homeland. He tried to start his own colony in Africa, but was eventually forced to abandon it. He then tried to set up shop in Sicily, but he crossed the wrong person and was slain.

That left Leonidas with only one older brother, King Cleomenes—but he wouldn't have to wait long before Cleomenes met a similarly dark end.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

8. Two Kings are Better Than One

For most of its history, Sparta actually had two kings at any given time. So, when Cleomenes was king, he ruled alongside a man named Demaratus—but the two were bitter enemies, and their feud provided the perfect chance for Leonidas to take what was his.

Xerxes I factsShutterstock

9. The Mad King Cleomenes

Like his brother, Cleomenes was a fierce warrior king, and his rule saw Sparta grow into a powerful and feared city-state—but soon, his life took a dark turn. After he was caught plotting against his co-king, Demaratus, the Spartans exiled Cleomenes. He quickly began amassing an army to retake his throne by force if necessary. The Spartans knew a civil conflict could tear them apart, so they allowed Cleomenes to return.

But once they laid eyes on him, they couldn't believe the man he'd become...

Leonidas facts 300 (2006), Warner Bros.

10. He Betrayed His Own Flesh and Blood

According to historical sources, Cleomenes was utterly insane by the time he returned to his homeland. He couldn't be allowed to bring Sparta to ruin—so Leonidas, his own brother, cruelly betrayed him. Almost as soon as Cleomenes was back, Leonidas ordered his men to throw his brother in prison. Who knows if it was the insanity or heartbreak at the betrayal, but Cleomenes took his own life soon after.

Leonidas facts 300 (2006), Warner Bros.

11. He Was Just a Little Arrogant

Leonidas took his place as king after Cleomenes's demise—something he clearly believed was his right. In one famous story, someone tried to bring him down a peg by sneering, "Except for being king you are not at all superior to us". Leonidas, however, was having none of it. In a clap back for the ages, Leonidas responded, "But were I not better than you, I should not be king".

The guy had confidence, I'll give him that—and he was going to need every ounce of it for what was coming next.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

12. He Could Back Up His Big Mouth

Sure, Leonidas had something of a superiority complex—but at least he had the receipts to back it up. While the first-born sons of Spartan kings were exempt for the agoge, the brutal Spartan training program, Leonidas was not so lucky. He spent his childhood fighting for his life alongside the rest of the Spartan boys, and he had thrived. When he finally took the throne, he was one of the deadliest men alive—something the Persians would have to learn the hard way.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

13. The Other Greeks Feared and Respected Him

The legend of Leonidas had already started to grow by the time Xerxes marched his massive army into Greece. When the leaders of the Greek city-states gathered to decide who would lead their forces against the Persians, they unanimously selected Leonidas. Soon after, their faith in him would be rewarded—at one of the most legendary battles in history.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

14. He Knew He Was Doomed

Leonidas accepted command of the Greek forces even after a dark prophecy from the mysterious Oracle at Delphi predicted his certain doom. The Oracle's grim words presented an ultimatum: If the Persians invaded, either the city of Sparta would be laid to waste, or the Spartans would mourn a fallen king. For the Greeks, the Oracle was a direct line to the Gods, and they took her words extremely seriously.

Maybe other men would have wavered, but Leonidas did not fear death. He marched off to face the Persians—and see the Oracle's prophecy come true.

Greek Gods factsPixabay

15. He Ensured His Homeland's Future

According to the historian Herodotus, the Oracle's prophecy might be part of the reason why Leonidas brought so few men to face Xerxes at the Thermopylae. Leonidas knew that he was marching his men to their certain doom, so he made a difficult choice to ensure that the Spartan bloodline continued on: he only selected men who had living sons to carry on their name.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

16. Bad Timing, Xerxes

Xerxes marched his men into Greece at a really inconvenient for Leonidas and the Spartans. He arrived during the Carneia, an extremely sacred religious festival. The Carneia was so important, in fact, that Spartan law forbade all combat during the festival—you know it was important if it made even the Spartans stop fighting.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

17. Only the Best

Festival or no, the ephors realized that Xerxes's army was not something they could ignore. In an unprecedented move, they allowed Leonidas to leave the Carneia early and take an advance guard to hold Xerxes off: the 300 Spartans. But, contrary to what most stories will have you believe, there was much more to Leonidas's army than that.

Leonidas facts

18. The 300* Spartans

Leonidas really did march out of Sparta with 300 of his finest warriors...but most stories leave out the 900 helots (Spartan slaves) they brought with them. Add in the other Greeks who joined them, Leonidas's army actually consisted of as many as 7,000 men in total. But hey, I get it, 300 sounds way cooler...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

19. That's One Way To Shame Your Allies

While Leonidas commanded a much larger force than we've been led to believe, it was still absolutely tiny in the face of Xerxes's mighty army. We've gone over why Leonidas brought so few men—but some historians believe there's another reason the warrior king left so many good fighters behind: He figured if the other Greeks saw him confidently marching his minuscule army against Xerxes, they would be shamed into joining the resistance.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

20. He Ignored His Fellow Spartans

At Thermopylae, Leonidas fought for all of the Greeks—but if some Spartans had had their way, he wouldn't have been there at all. Sparta is located on the Peloponnese, a large peninsula that's connected to the mainland only by the narrow Isthmus of Corinth. Many Spartans thought that Leonidas should set up his defenses at the Isthmus, leaving the rest of Greece to the wolves.

This idea terrified the other Greek cities that would have been left undefended, but in a shocking move, Leonidas ignored his comrades and agreed to defend Thermopylae.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

21. The Hot Gates

Thermopylae is a mountain pass in central Greece. Its name translates as "Hot Gates," and it's the perfect place for a small force to hold off a large army. Unfortunately, it has one fatal flaw—a small, treacherous path that leads around the main pass. Locals warned Leonidas about the path, so he left a group of 1,000 Phocian warriors to guard it.

His entire plan rested on those men—but, as he would learn on his last day on earth, his faith in them was misplaced.

Leonidas factsWikimedia Commons

22. Xerxes Didn't Want to Fight

While stories paint Xerxes as a cruel, bloodthirsty tyrant, the Persian king at least tried to go the diplomatic route—and to be honest, his terms sound pretty fair. The Greeks would still have their freedom, they would simply need to take the title "Friends of the Persian People". Xerxes even offered them the chance to settle on land that was far more fertile than what they possessed.

If you ask me, that sounds like a sweetheart deal—but Leonidas was cut from a different cloth. When he heard Xerxes's offer, his response was, quite literally, legendary.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

23. He Really Said That

Leonidas refused Xerxes's offer of friendship, so Xerxes gave him a second offer: He sent Leonidas a simple message: "Hand over your arms". Leonidas's response was just as laconic: "Come and take them".

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

24. He Really Said That Too

300 is filled with cool, quotable one-liners from Leonidas—and it's remarkable how many of them actually come from historical sources. For instance, there's the story that one of Leonidas's men complained that the Persians had so many archers, their arrows would make it impossible to see the sun. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Leonidas actually responded, "Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?"

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

25. His Army Stood No Chance

While several different ancient sources claimed that Xerxes's horde numbered in the millions, modern historians are a little more conservative. It's far more likely the Persian force was somewhere between 70,000 to 300,000 men. That still means that, even at the lowest estimate, the Greeks were outnumbered by 10 to 1. Thermopylae should have been an utter slaughter—a forgettable blip that wouldn't even make the history books.

But Leonidas made sure that the battle would be remembered for all time.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

26. An Ant has No Quarrel With a Boot

By all accounts, Xerxes really didn't feel like bothering with the Greeks and their piddling defense force. After first offering them "friendship," then telling them to give up their weapons, he waited for a full four days in the hopes that Leonidas would come to his senses and flee. Obviously, Xerxes didn't know the kind of man Leonidas was—but when he finally decided to attack, he learned that the hard way.

Xerxes I factsFlickr, A.Davey

27. He Knew Exactly Where To Be

Leonidas didn't just choose the Hot Gates because they had a cool name. The spot where he set up his men had the ocean on one side and sheer, impassable cliffs on the others. The only way forward was straight through the Greek army—and on the fifth day, that's exactly where Xerxes sent his tools.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

28. "Cut To Ribbons"

One can only imagine that the Persian army felt rather confident as they stared down the diminutive Greek defense force—but that confidence did not last long. According to the historian Ctesias, the first wave of Persians sent in was "cut to ribbons," while the Greeks only lost two on three men in return.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

29. Xerxes Had a Front Row Seat to the Carnage

Xerxes sent wave after wave of men against Leonidas's formation—and watched in horror as each one was cut to pieces. He'd set up a throne in viewing range of the battle, and sources say that he leaped out of his seat three times as his men were decimated in front of him. His regular forces were clearly not working, but Xerxes had an ace up his sleeve...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

30. The "Very Mortals"

The Immortals were the most feared group of warriors in Xerxes's army. They represented the very best that the massive Persian empire had to offer. After his regular fighters failed, Xerxes unleashed the Immortals on Leonidas—and the Spartans fought them off with ease. The Immortals were lethal, but they were no match for the Greeks.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

31. Xerxes Probably Would Have Quit...

The Persian King endured this slaughter for two full days. By the end of the second day, 10,000 of his men, including his own two brothers, lay dead on the battlefield. If this had continued for much longer, maybe Xerxes would have abandoned his invasion—but then, a single Greek man wandered into the Persian camp and whispered into the king's ear...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

32. Betrayed

The Greek who had entered Xerxes's camp was a Malian named Ephialtes, and there's a reason his name came to mean "nightmare" in Greek soon after. Though 300 made him out to be a deformed outcast Spartan, in reality, his motivation was much simpler: greed. Ephialtes assumed the Persians would make him rich if he betrayed his homeland, and he did just that...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

33. Behind Enemy Lines

Ephialtes told Xerxes about the secret path through the mountains, and he personally led the Persian forces behind Leonidas and his men. But don't worry, Leonidas left that group of Phocian warriors to protect their flank right? Well, let's just say, that didn't exactly go as planned...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

34. You Had ONE Job!

When the Phocians saw the Persian army approaching through the hidden path, they quickly formed into a defensive position. They assumed the bloodthirsty Persians would throw themselves against their shields—but the Phocians made a fatal error. In forming their huddle, they left the path to Leonidas completely clear. The Persian army shot a couple stray arrows towards the Phocians...then just kept on marching towards the main Greek force. Whoops.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

35. He Sent His Allies Home, But Stayed to Die

Leonidas learned he'd been outflanked at dawn on the seventh day. He called an emergency war council and made a shocking decision: he sent the vast majority of the Greek forces home. Though Leonidas and the other Spartans would never retreat, he realized that their cause was lost, and that the remaining Greeks were better off living to fight another day.

But not Leonidas. He knew death was certain, but he and his men stayed anyway, following the Spartan maxim, "Come back with your shield...or on it".

Leonidas facts 300 (2006), Warner Bros.

36. The 700 Thespians

So this is where the legendary story of the 300 Spartans standing alone against a massive Persian army comes from, right? Nope. Even after Leonidas told the rest of the Greeks to stay home, the men from Thespia were similarly unafraid. They refused to abandon the Spartans, and 700 of them stood alongside Leonidas when their chilling fate came later that day...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

37. He Sacrificed Himself for the Greeks

Leonidas's last stand wasn't just a matter of honor and pride. By staying to fight the Persian cavalry, Leonidas and his men sacrificed themselves so that the remaining Greek forces would have time to escape. Many of the men who escaped Thermopylae would be there when the Greeks finally repelled Xerxes once and for all.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

38. Some of the Greeks Came to Their Senses

Like the Thespians, a force of 400 Thebans also stayed behind to face the Persians—but they weren't quite as proud as their allies. While every last Spartan and Thespian was cut down in the Persians' final assault, the Thebans said, "Screw this!" and surrendered.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

39. It's All in the Family

Leonidas comes from a family tree so twisted that it puts the Lannisters to shame. His father was King Anaxandridas II of Sparta. No ancient source recorded his mother's name, but we know one disturbing fact about her: She was Anaxandridas's niece! As if that wasn't bad enough, when it came time for Leonidas to find a wife, he would take dark inspiration from his father’s depraved inclinations...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

40. He Married His Brother's Daughter

While Leonidas's older brothers Cleomenes and Dorieus utterly hated each other, no historical source mentions how Leonidas himself felt about his kin. He couldn't have hated Cleomenes that much though: he married Cleomenes's daughter, the beautiful Gorgo! That's right, just like his daddy, Leonidas married his own niece.

Lena Headey facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

41. Xerxes Took Out His Rage on Leonidas's Body

Leonidas finally met his end during the final Persian assault, shot down by Persian archers. Once the king had fallen, the two sides began feverishly fighting to claim his body. The Spartans, in a valiant final effort, managed to take possession of their king's body—but it was all for naught. Eventually, every last remaining Spartan joined Leonidas, and the Persians got their hands on the king's remains.

The Persian soldiers immediately brought Leonidas's body before Xerxes, who had a disturbing plan for it. For Leonidas, death was only the beginning...

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

42. He's Already Dead...

Persian custom stated that the remains of enemy leaders should be honored—but Xerxes was not feeling generous when he laid eyes on Leonidas's body. He had just spent two days watching this man's tiny army kill swathes of his men, and he was utterly furious. In an act of sacrilege, Xerxes ordered his men to cut off Leonidas's head and mount it on a stake. Then, as if that weren't enough, he had the body crucified.

Leonidas facts300 (2006), Warner Bros.

43. He Came Back On His Shield

Xerxes tried his best to humiliate and disrespect Leonidas's remains, but he couldn't stop the Spartan king's legend from growing. Almost as soon as Leonidas had fallen, Sparta began worshipping him as a hero. His legacy was such that the Spartans actually managed to bring his remains back home a full 40 years after the battle, where they buried him with full honors.

The Cult of Leonidas persisted for centuries after his passing.

Leonidas factsFlickr, Andy Hay

44. A Laconic Memorial

You can actually visit Thermopylae today, and if you do, you'll find a statue of a lion standing where Leonidas made his last stand. The stone beast bears a simple inscription: the Greek words ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ—"Come and take them".

Leonidas factsFlickr, miriam.mollerus

Source: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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