Leonidas and his "300" Spartan Soldiers

Saturday night... it was a special night for me and my son. It has been more than a month that my son discussed with me about the movie "300" of Frank Miller. A pleasant surprise for me as this movie is referred at one of the more glorious moments of the Greek history. The film describes the Battle of Leonidas and his 300 Saptans with the hundreds of thousands (millions according to some of the ancient historians) of soldiers of the Persian king Xerxes.

This great story of the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of our country is a history lesson that every Greek takes from the very early years of the elementary school.

We are a small nation, half of it living in our small country and half of us spread around the globe. Millions of Greeks, men and women have offer their life and they have irrigated with their blood the Greek tree of freedom.

At our long history in this planet we have spread our civilization around earth but at the wars that we have forced to take part we have lost great heroes. This history is our legacy and in order to keep it we have to transfer it at the new generations. I like when I talk about mythology and history with my children. Every time I have something to add and I have to admit that the new generation even though it absorbs many influences from the TV and internet garbage is getting more intelligent than ever.

I must to admit that I felt very proud as a mother talking about Leonidas and the film that was expected shortly. For me Leonidas and the story of the "300" is part of the education and training that a Greek boy or girl must have in order to be a good citizen.

I arranged to reserve the best tickets at the most expensive movie theater in Greece. I wanted to offer a special night to my son and I succeeded. We watched the film at the Golden Class and we had a very emotional night. The film was amazing even the scenes that were totally at the author's imagination. At some battle scenes the Spartans were too violant and showed a barbarian behavior. It is not written in any book that Spartans used to kill the enemy's soldiers who captured from them. They were a military nation but with ethics and rules of a civilized country.

“300” is a ferocious retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army. Facing insurmountable odds, their valor and sacrifice inspire all of Greece to unite against their Persian enemy, drawing a line in the sand for democracy.

Inspired by the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller, creator of “Sin City,” “300” is an epic adventure about passion, courage, freedom and sacrifice embodied by the Spartan warriors who fought one of the greatest battles in history. Co-written and directed by Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead”), the film brings Miller's acclaimed graphic novel to life by combining live action with virtual backgrounds that capture his distinct vision of this ancient historic tale.

Mysterious. Fierce. Formidable. Spartans are among the most enigmatic cultures in history. Taught never to retreat, never to surrender, they are the perfect warriors. “The Spartans remain a mystery to everybody,” says Frank Miller, who wrote the graphic novel 300 which inspired the film. “They are arguably unique in that they are completely a battle culture, absolutely dedicated to warfare. They have a code of honor on what it means to be Spartan, and out of that arises a heroic class like the world has never seen before.”

Co-writer/director Zack Snyder adds, “Spartans live for battle. They love it,” he says. “They fight as one, creating a phalanx in which each warrior's shield protects the man beside him. It's an awesome and intimidating sight, even for the masses of Persians. Though the Spartans face insurmountable odds in terms of numbers, a true Spartan warrior is always willing to die for freedom—they consider it a ‘beautiful death.' They define themselves by sacrifice and freedom.”

Walking through the underbrush of Thermopylae had a profound effect on Miller. “It's a place where great and glorious things happened,” he describes. “We are talking about the crucible, the epicenter of the battle for everything that we have, for everything that is Western civilization. There's a reason why we are as free as we are, and a lot of it begins with the story of 300 young men holding a very narrow pass long enough to inspire the rest of Greece.”

I believe that it will be interesting to place in this blog this great story as it is presented by the ancient Greek authors and add something more at the real image of the Spartan warriors.

The "official" history of Sparta begins with the Dorian invasions, where the Peloponnesus is settled by Greek tribes coming from the north, submitting or displacing the older Achaean Greek inhabitants. The Mycenaean Sparta of Menelaus described in Homer's Iliad was an older Greek civilization, whose link to Hellenic or Classical Sparta was only by name and location. What is widely known today as " ancient Sparta ", refers to state and culture that were formed in Sparta by the Dorian Greeks, some eighty years after the Trojan War.

It did not take long for Sparta to submit all cities in the region of Laconia and turn it into its Kingdom. In the 7th century she also incorporated Messenia.

Sparta, by the 5th century BC, was the most powerful nation in all of Greece. Unlike many of the Greek city-states it had only one colony, and most of its power came from alliances with other regions. Sparta was not an empire: no tribute was paid except in times of war. What Sparta essentially formed was a league, and they chose their allies strategically. For example, Sparta favoured Corinth because of its naval fleet. The allies would vow to have the same friends and enemies, follow Sparta wherever they led, and not go to war unless all the allies were in consensus. The league's governmental structure was an oligarchy ran by aristocrats; it met in Corinth and was led by Sparta. The Congress, as it was called, consisted of representatives from each of the allied city states who each held one vote.

Sparta was, above all, a militarist state, and emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Shortly after birth, the mother of the child bathed it in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the elders of the tribe by the child's father. The elders then decided whether it was to be reared or not. If found defective or weak, the baby was left on the wild slopes of Mt Taygetos. In this way the Spartans attempted the maintenance of high physical standards in their population. From the earliest days of the Spartan citizen, the claim on his life by the state was absolute and strictly enforced.

Until the age of seven, boys were educated at home and were taught to fight their fears as well as general superstition by their nurses, who were prized in Greece. Their official training was then undertaken by the state in the agoge system and supervised by the paidonomos, an official appointed for that purpose. This training consisted for the most part in physical exercises, such as dancing, gymnastics, and ball-games. The Dorians were the first to practice nudity in athletics, as well as oiling the body during exercise to enhance its beauty, a costly practice which broke with the customary frugality of the Spartans. According to Plato this practice was introduced from Crete to Sparta, and then to the rest of Greece.

Training in music and literature occupied a subordinate position. The tireless emphasis on physical training gave Spartans the reputation for being “ laconic ”, economical with words, a word derived from the name of their homeland of Laconia. Education was also extended to girls, in the belief that strong and intelligent mothers would produce strong and intelligent children. Thus modern day historians, with the corroboration of ancient writers, tend to conclude that Spartan women were among the most educated in the ancient Greek world. Both sexes exercised nude and because of this a strong emphasis was placed on the physical fitness of men as well as women. Despite their physical fitness, women could not compete in the Olympic Games, according to the Olympic rules (they competed in the Heraea Games instead). However, there have been a number of Spartan princesses who led female troops. There were also contests to see who could take the most severe flogging, an ordeal known as diamastigosis .

It was customary in Sparta that before the males would go off to war, their wives or another female of some significance would present them with their shield and say: "he tan, he epi tas" (Ή τάν ή Επί τας) , which translates to "With this, or upon this." The idea was that a Spartan could only return to Sparta in one of two ways, victorious or dead. If a Spartan hoplite were to return to Sparta alive and without his shield, it was assumed that he threw his shield at the enemy in an effort to flee; an act punishable by death or banishment. It is interesting to note that a soldier losing his helm, breastplate or greaves (leg armor) was not similarly punished, as these items were personal pieces of armor designed to protect one soldier. However the shield not only protected the individual soldier but in the tightly packed Spartan Phalanx was also instrumental in protecting the soldier to his left from harm. Thus the shield was symbolic of the individual soldier's subordination to his unit, his integral part in its success, and his solemn responsibility to his comrades in arms - messmates and friends, often close blood relations, it could not be lost.

Leonidas ( Greek : Λεωνίδας - "Lion's son", "Lion-like") was a king of Sparta , the 17th of the Agiad line, one of the sons of King Anaxandridas II of Sparta, who was believed by the Spartans to be a descendant of Heracles. He succeeded his half-brother Cleomenes I, probably in 489 or 488 BC, and was married to Cleomenes' daughter, Gorgo. His name was raised to a heroic and legendary status as a result of the events in the Battle of Thermopyles.

In 480 the ephors sent Leonidas with the 300 men of an all-sire unit (soldiers who had sons to carry on their bloodline) and 6700 allies to hold the pass of Thermopyles against the hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers who had invaded from the north of Greece under Xerxes. According to contemporary accounts Leonidas took only a small force comprised by his personal fighting unit, because Sparta 's religious customs did not allow to send out an army at this time of the year. In addition, he was deliberately going to his doom: an oracle had foretold that Sparta could be saved only by the death of one of its kings, one of the lineage of Hercules. Instead it seems likely that the ephors supported the plan half-heartedly due to the festival of Carneia and their policy of concentrating the Greek forces at the Isthmus of Corinth.

Herodotus writes that Leonidas was idolised by his men. He was convinced that he was going to certain death, and that his forces were not adequate for a victory. He selected only men who had fathered sons that were old enough to take over the family responsibilities. Plutarch mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that after encouraging her husband before his departure for the battlefield, Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas I asked him what she should do on his departure. To this Leonidas replied:
Marry a good man, and have good children .

Several anecdotes demonstrate the laconic matter-of-fact bravery that Leonidas and the Spartans were famed for even in the ancient world. On the first day of the siege, when Xerxes demanded the Greeks surrender their arms, Leonidas is said to have replied Μολών Λαβέ ("Come and get them"). And on the third day, the king is reputed to have exhorted his men to eat a hearty breakfast, because that night they would dine in Hades.

Leonidas' men repulsed the frontal attacks of the Persians for the first two days, but when the Malian Ephialtes led the Persian general Hydarns by a mountain track to the rear of the Greeks, Leonidas divided his army. The King himself remained in the pass with his 300 Spartans and 400 Thebans, along with 700 Thespians who refused to leave. Leonidas' intent was to delay the Persians, sacrificing himself and his men.

The little Greek force, attacked from both sides, was cut down to a man except for the Thebans, who surrendered. Another theory is that Leonidas sent the remainder of the army home in an effort to preserve troops for the main battles of the war. The soldiers who stayed behind were to cover their escape so the Persian cavalry would not overrun the rear of the escaping troops.

Leonidas fell in the thickest of the fight, but the Spartans managed to retrieve his body and protect it until their final fall to enemy arrows. Herodotus says that Leonidas' head was cut off by Xerxes' order and his body crucified, due to his alleged hatred towards the Spartan King. This was considered sacrilege towards Leonidas, and unusual action on Xerxes' part. Immediately after he ordered the desecration of Leonidas' body; however, Xerxes felt remorse and, forty years later, Leonidas' corpse was returned to the Spartans.

He was buried with full honours, including a very un-Spartan display of wailing and mourning (Spartans normally accepted death in battle as a matter of course and disapproved of outward grieving, but the oracle at Delphi had ordered this along with the sacrifice of a Spartan king to preserve Sparta).

On a side note, two of the Spartans who were present at Thermopylae survived the conflict on the third day. One, Aristodemus, suffered an eye injury and was sent behind the lines and was taken back to Sparta with the retreating allies by order of the King. His companion, Eurytus, turned back despite having a similar infection which rendered him blind and died in the battle. Aristodemus redeemed himself through fighting with suicidal recklessness at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C., and returned home with his honor restored thereafter. A second Spartan, Pantites, was sent by Leonidas to attempt to raise support in Thessaly but returned to Thermopylae only after the battle's conclusion.

The Persians succeeded in taking the pass but sustained heavy losses, extremely disproportionate to those of the Greeks. The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable time to prepare for a naval battle that would come to determine the outcome of the war. The subsequent Greek victory in the Battle of Salamis left much of the Persian navy destroyed. Xerxes was forced to flee to Asia and left his army in Greece under Mardonius, who was to meet the Greeks in battle for one last time. The Spartans and other Greek allies assembled at full strength and decisively defeated the Persians in the Battle of Plataea, putting an end to the Greco-Persian War and with that, Persian expansion into Europe.

The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment and good use of terrain to maximize an army's potential, as well as a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds. The heroic sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians has captured the minds of many throughout the ages and has given birth to many cultural references as a result.

The sacrifice of the 300 of Leonidas at Thermopyles has been the inspiration of a great poem of one of the most important Greek poets. This poem has the title "Thermopylae" and has been written by Contantinos Cavafis.
I copy here this poem in a free english tranlation and I am sure you'll like it.


Honour to those who in their lives
have defined and guard their Thermopylae.
Never stirring from duty;
just and upright in all their deeds,
yet with pity and compassion too;
generous when they are rich, and when
they are poor, again a little generous,
again helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hatred for those who lie.

And more honor is due to them
when they foresee (and many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will finally appear,
and that the Medes in the end will go through.

Constantinos P. Cavafis (1903)

How many times you have face the need to fight? Life is a war... a battle... a stuggle and we have to learn how to fight in order to survive. As the poem says the most honor goes to those who even they know that they will be betrayed by the Ephialtes (the difficulties that will come) and the Medes (another word for Persians) are going to win they still insist to stuggle.

The modern monument in Thermopyles

A carved lion monument bearing the inscription below was dedicated at his death site commemorating the sacrifice of him and his men:

Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

(Greek: Ώ ξειν', aγγέλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ότι τήδε κείμεθα, τοις κοίνων ρήμασι πειθόμενοι )
epitaph at Thermopyles (Simonides 's epigram)

Additionally, there is a modern monument at the site, called the "Leonidas Monument" in honor of the Spartan king. It reads simply: "Μολών λαβέ" ("Come and get them ").
This monument is easily accessed as it is on the main national road of Greece. Whatever you have the luck to pass from Thermopyles you have to stop and visit this monument. Offer the great honor to this hero, the king of Sparta, Leonidas and his soldiers who stayed and died fighting at the ultimate battle for the freedom.

Talk to your kids about Leonidas. inculcate them the ideal of the sacrifice for freedom and love for their mother country.

Not only you can talk to them, or have them imagine Leonida’s and the brave 300’s, rather, you can re-play, re-live and dress like the 300 Men (see www.historicalclothingrealm.com/official-replicas-300-movie.html).

Make them warriors of freedom in order to secure the world's peace.

Don't forget Leonidas and his brave 300 Spartans.


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