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Posted on Oct 27, 2004 in War College

King Leonidas & the Spartans

By Steven McWilliams

"Here, obedient to their laws we lie”

In the historiography of Classicial Greece, the Spartans are usually portrayed in rather a negative light – variously described as “an armed camp”, “brutal”, “Culturally stagnant, economically stagnant, politically stagnant”. Certainly, a larger part of this is that most of the surviving accounts of life in Classical Greece come to us from the Athenians, Sparta’s chief rival, and the city-state against which Sparta fought several campaigns.

The Archaic Period (800-500BC) was the time in which the Greek culture evolved from tribal groups into more coherent sociopolitical units. This period saw the creation of their religious and mythological beliefs and their foundational history. Most significantly, the concept of the polis, or city-state, the political entity that would see Greece rise to preminence in the Eastern Mediterranean.


A defining event for Sparta was the Messenean War. Sparta was outgrowing their ability to feed the populace, so they crossed the Taygetus Mountains and annexed the territory of their neighbor, Messenia, who possessed a wealth of prime agricultural land. Surviving a handful of revolts by a narrow margin, the Spartans knew a dramatic change was the only chance for survival as a people – they in essence turned their city-state into a military state, albeit one they believed was a free society. Tributary states were designated helots, essentially serfs or tenant farmers.

Spartan society operated along a “survival of the fittest” doctrine – children not believed to be strong at birth, were put out in the wilderness to die. Five men, designated the ephorate, were the prime force in Spartan Government – leading the council, running the army and infant selection and had veto power over any council decision. General Spartan society was divided into three classes – the Spartiate, or native Spartan, who had full rights; the perioeci, or “dwellers around & about”, the tradesmen, merchants and the like. They also served the role of buffer between the Spartiate and the third tier of society, the helots.

At age seven, Spartan males entered a training school, where they learned toughness, discipline, endurance of pain (often severe) and survival skills. After thirteen years of school/training, they became a soldier. He married, but did not live with his wife. At the age of thirty, a Spartan male at last became an “equal”, and could live with his wife, though hecontinued to serve until age 60. Because they denied themselves luxuries and leisure activities.

This was the society that existed when the Persian King, Darius, marched on the Greek city-states. His defeat at Marathon, in 490 BC, ended his hopes of expanding his empire. In 480, Darius’ son Xerxes assembled a mighty army, estimated by some at five million, but more likely several hundred thousand, to march again on the Greek city-states and avenge his father’s defeat.

Leonidas was a king of Sparta, the seventeenth of the Agiad line. He succeeded, probably in 489 or 488 BC, his half-brother Cleomenes I, whose daughter Gorgo he married. Two 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, "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.

Bronze Bust of Leonidas

Bronze Bust of King Leonidas

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