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.
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…
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.
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.
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 upon his father’s death. 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.
6. Not Everyone Accepted His Half-Brother
When Anaxandridas died, 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…
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 killed.
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.
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.
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 war 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…
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.
11. He Was Just a Little Arrogant
Leonidas took his place as king after Cleomenes’s death—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.
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.
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.
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 dead 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.
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 soldiers who had living sons to carry on their name.
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 warfare during the festival—you know it was important if it made even the Spartans stop fighting.
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.
18. The 300* Spartans
Leonidas really did march out of Sparta with 300 of his finest soldiers…but most stories leave out the 900 helots (Spartan slaves) they brought with them. Add in the other Greek soldiers 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…
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 soldiers behind: He figured if the other Greeks saw him confidently marching his minuscule army against Xerxes, they would be shamed into joining the resistance.
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.
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 soldiers 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.
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.
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.”
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 soldiers 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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
30. The “Very Mortals”
The Immortals were the most feared group of soldiers in Xerxes’s army. They represented the very best that the massive Persian empire had to offer. After his regular troops 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.
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…
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…
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 soldiers to protect their flank right? Well, let’s just say, that didn’t exactly go as planned…
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 was dead, the two sides began feverishly fighting to claim his corpse. 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…
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.
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 was dead, 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 death.
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.”