Whether or not you’re an ancient history buff, we all know about the famous Battle of Thermopylae, where a small army of Greek soldiers held off the Persian King Xerxes and his massive host for several days. Their leader was the Spartan king Leonidas I, immortalized in various literature and poems, as well as the film 300. Now, most would assume that a man like Leonidas I is only memorable for his heroic last stand. And while many would say that’s true, the life of King Leonidas was so much more than just that Battle at Thermopylae. His life has been overshadowed by the lore of the Battle of Thermopylae, so allow us to shed that cloak of myth to reveal the facts about his role in ancient history. Here are 25 audacious facts about King Leonidas.
25. With Great Power Comes Great Distribution of Power
Leonidas wasn’t the only ruler of Sparta! The Spartan political system was run by two men who served as co-kings at the same time. They didn’t have to be from the same dynasties either. Moreover, there was also the parallel power held by the ephors. These men were elected officials who even held some sway over the co-kings.
24. What About Us??!
Contrary to the myths about Thermopylae, Leonidas I and his 300 Spartan warriors were accompanied by many other Greeks. United in their desire to keep the Persian King Xerxes out of Greece, the size of the Greek forces at Thermopylae in 480 BC was estimated to be between 3,000 and 7,000 soldiers. That’s at least 2,700 more soldiers than usually get praised!
While historian Herodotus claimed that the Persian army numbered in the millions, it’s far more likely that there were between 70,000 and 300,000 in their military force.
23. Does That Make Him the Lion King?
Leonidas’s name translates from the ancient Greek language to mean “son of the lion.” It’s safe to say that his dad had a bit of an ego—more on him later, by the way.
22. Famous Lineage
Leonidas was the 17th king in the line of Agiad kings. This dynasty claimed to be descended from the Greek hero Heracles—that’s Hercules for you Disney fans out there.
21. Well, This Took a Turn…
Leonidas’s father was King Anaxandridas of Sparta and we sadly don’t know the name of his mother. However, we do know that Leonidas’s mother wasn’t just Anaxandridas’ wife. She was also his niece, according to Herodotus. We can see where George R.R. Martin gets his inspiration from…
20. Wait, You’re Not Trolling?
Under Leonidas’s overall command, the allied Greek army was said to hold off the Persian army for over a week at Thermopylae. To be fair, the first four days consisted of the Persian army sitting around waiting for the Greeks to stop joking around and just surrender. Safe to say the Greeks defied such expectations!
19. Date of Death
If the historical records can be believed, Leonidas died on August 11, 480 BC.
18. He was a Senior Frigging Citizen?!
Despite what 300 would have you believe, Leonidas was not a man in his prime when he marched off to fight at Thermopylae.
According to the sources, Leonidas was around 60 years old! Most men his age nowadays are busy getting over their mid-life crises and considering where they’ll retire!
17. Original Cast
While most of you know that Leonidas was played by Gerard “This is SPARTA” Butler, he was hardly the first man to play that role on film. Leonidas was portrayed by American actor Richard Egan in the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. That early film was actually what inspired Frank Miller to make 300 in the first place. If you grew up with old Disney films, you might remember Egan from Pollyanna—he played Dr. Edmond Chilton.
16. It was a Great Decade
By the time of Leonidas’s death, he had ruled Sparta as King for less than 10 years, starting around 489 BC and ending in 480 BC.
15. Always With the Zingers
According to the historian Plutarch, Leonidas was once told: “Except for being king you are not at all superior to us.” Leonidas, ever the one for witty comebacks, was said to have replied, “But were I not better than you, I should not be king.”
Speaking of the co-kings of Sparta, Leonidas’s co-ruler was named Leotychidas. He would rule the Spartansper after Leonidas’s death and would join the Greek efforts to bring war to the Persians’ home territory. One of the more notable engagements in which Leotychidas fought was the Battle of Mycale.
13. Get Out While You Can
Why Leonidas famously sent away most of his allies when the Persians encircled Thermopylae is actually a debated topic to this day. One accepted theory, pushed by Herodotus, is that Leonidas was trying to save as many Greek soldiers as he could from the inevitable massacre by the Persians. He, meanwhile, would form a vanguard that would give the retreating Greeks, including the Thespians and Thebans, a chance to get away and fight another day.
Another theory is that Leonidas simply wanted the Spartans to have the glory of fighting to the death. If that latter theory is true, Leonidas must have been very irritated when the Thespians and Thebans stuck around as well!
12. I Wasn’t That Short!
In 1955, the Greeks erected a bronze statue in Leonidas’s likeness at Thermopylae. No doubt he’d have been wondering what took them so long.
11. Awkward Family Tree
Speaking of Leonidas’s parents, there was actually a succession crisis before Leonidas was born. Anaxandridas’ first marriage was childless for so long that the ephors urged the king to cast aside his niece/wife and take another spouse. Anaxandridas, however, refused to dump his wife/niece (we really can’t stress that double relationship enough).
The ephors relented and let Anaxandridas take a second wife, who bore him a son (Cleomenes) as they hoped. Ironically, though, Anaxandridas’ first wife would then go on to bear her king three sons. Leonidas was the second of those sons; his older brother was Dorieus, and his younger brother was Cleombrotus.
10. Missed Opportunity
As can be imagined, Leonidas’s older brother and older half-brother quarreled furiously for the throne when their father died. Cleomenes, the oldest son, became king, which caused Leonidas’s full brother, Dorieus, to leave Sparta in the ultimate rage-quit. Dorieus would seek his fortune elsewhere, forming colonies in Africa and Sicily.
Sadly, Dorieus would come to a violent end, like so many Spartan men, but the really ironic thing was that if he’d stayed in Sparta, he would likely have become king. Cleomenes would die without any sons, and since Dorieus was away, it was Leonidas who became king.
9. Worship Him
In honor of their king, Sparta established a hero cult for Leonidas I. The cult endured until the second century AD. One could argue that it was briefly resurrected when 300 was released in theatres!
8. Badass Comeback
If you’ve seen 300, you might remember how the Greeks are ordered by a messenger sent by the Persians to give up their weapons, whereupon Leonidas answers “Come and get them!” Don’t give too much credit to the movie writers; that exchange is said to have actually happened at the real Battle of Thermopylae, at least according to Plutarch.
Leonidas’s laconic reply was also engraved into a plaque that rests under his statue at Thermopylae.
7. Got Your Back, Bro
Leonidas’s younger brother, Cleombrotus, served as regent of Sparta for one year after Leonidas’s death. Since Leonidas’s son was too young to rule, Cleombrotus was also tutor to his nephew.
Serving as commander of the Spartan troops after the Battle of Thermopylae, Cleombrotus was involved in fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth. Cleombrotus would die shortly after he returned to Sparta, only to be replaced by his son, Pausanias, who would lead the Spartan troops at the Battle of Plataea.
6. Smooth Succession
Leonidas was eventually succeeded by his son, Pleistarchus. After a period of time where a regent ruled Sparta in his name, Pleistarchus would reign as king from 480 BC to 458 BC. For those of you not counting, that’s a full 12 years longer than his father’s reign.
5. Awkward Truth Bomb
Excluding their allies, Leonidas and the Spartan warriors weren’t even the only Spartans who arrived at the Battle of Thermopylae. What few people mention is the fact that these 300 Spartans were said to have brought 900 helots (slaves). Interesting how Frank Miller forgot to include that fact!
It’s hard to say that Leonidas was fighting for freedom when he and his men were being served by hundreds of slaves who were presumably forced to die alongside their 300 masters.
4. How Unfortunate
Leonidas’s death was predicted by the Oracle of Delphi, if the historians can be believed. When word came that King Xerxes’ massive military force was setting out for Greece, the Spartans consulted the Oracle to figure out what to do. The Oracle warned them that either the Spartans mourn a dead king, or the city would be ravaged by the Persians.
Assuming Leonidas believed the Oracle to be the divine teller of fate, he must have known he wasn’t coming back alive, yet he marched anyway.
3. Talk About Overkill
According to Herodotus, after the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas’s body was cruelly desecrated by the Persians. His head was severed from his body, which was then crucified. No doubt Robb Stark would sympathize with a fate like that!
2. Keeping it in the Family
In keeping with his father’s propensity for incest, Leonidas’s wife, Gorgo, was also the daughter of his half-brother, King Cleomenes.
1. That was Cold-Blooded!
To make Leonidas and Gorgo’s wedding even more awkward, keep in mind that they only got married after Cleomenes had been deposed and imprisoned on the grounds that he’d fought against his co-king. Leonidas was fully involved in the imprisonment of his half-brother, who was also declared to be insane.
According to the histories, Cleomenes would later be found dead in his cell. His death was reported as “suicide by self-mutilation.” It seems pretty suspicious if you ask us. This makes us only imagine whether Leonidas proposed to Gorgo before or after she found out about her dad’s death—which again, Leonidas may or may not have been involved with.