What was the importance of King Leonidas of Sparta?
Leonidas I of Sparta is a significant figure in the Persian Wars, a series of intermittent conflicts between the Hellenic states and the Persian Empire which lasted nearly half a century. The wars began when the Persians seized control of the Greek colonies in Ionia in 499 BCE. The Ionians revolted against Persian rule, and for a time (with the help of the Athenian military) they were successful in pushing the Persians out of their territory. The Persians finally smashed the uprising in 494 BCE and regained control of Ionia.
The ruler of Persia, Darius I, was determined to punish Athens for its involvement in the uprising. He decided to invade mainland Greece and make it part of the Persian Empire to nullify any future Greek threat. The first Persian invasion of Greece began in 492 BCE. The Persians subjugated many of the city-states and sent ambassadors to the rest, instructing the Greeks to submit or be destroyed. Athens and Sparta both refused to submit to Persia, so Darius sent a force against them. The Athenians bore the brunt of the invasion but managed to beat the Persians back at the Battle of Marathon in 490—a victory so decisive that the Persian forces withdrew from Greece, ending the first invasion.
Ten years later, in 480 BCE, the Persian ruler Xerxes I (son of Darius) attempted to invade Greece a second time. The Greek city-states formed a military alliance and chose Leonidas of Sparta to lead it. This second invasion occurred on multiple fronts, so the Greek army and navy had to coordinate a response to block the Persian advance: the navy, led by the general Themistocles, would block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium, while the army, led by Leonidas, would hold the Persians off at the mountain pass of Thermopylae. Leonidas took a force of about 7,000 Greeks to Thermopylae and there faced down the vastly superior Persian forces, which the historian Herodotus numbered at more than one million men (whether or not this is true, the Greeks were outnumbered by a significant margin).
Leonidas and his men held Thermopylae for seven days against the Persian attack. The nature of the mountain pass meant that the Persian forces could only advance incrementally, so although the Greek army was much smaller, they did not have to handle the entire Persian force at once. Unfortunately, a Greek named Ephialtes defected to the Persian side and revealed to the Persians a way to get around the mountain pass. The Persians poured over the mountain and surrounded Leonidas's army, trapping the Greeks in the narrow pass.
Leonidas called a council of leaders together to determine what should be done; some of the Greeks argued that they should withdraw while they still could, but Leonidas stated that he and his Spartans would remain to fight the Persians off. In the end, about 1,500 Greeks decided to remain at Thermopylae and do what damage they could, although all knew that remaining meant a fight to the death. This contingent formed a sort of rearguard to protect the rest of the Greek army as it withdrew from the battle. Leonidas and his men held the pass for as long as they could but were finally overwhelmed by the Persians. Every Greek soldier who remained at Thermopylae died.
The news of this disaster made it to Artemisium, where Themistocles and his navy were trying to hold the Persians back at sea. In light of the appalling defeat at Thermopylae, the Greek navy withdrew from battle to regroup and consider their options. The Persians overran much of mainland Greece in the coming months. However, the example of Leonidas, and the "last stand" his forces made at Thermopylae, galvanized Greek resistance to the Persians. They ultimately expelled the Persians from Greece in 479 BCE.
It is important to understand the context in which Leonidas made his famous stand at Thermopylae, because it makes his sacrifice much more significant. Greece was at war with an enormous empire and had been fighting the Persians on and off for more than a decade. The decision to try and "hold the line" against the second Persian invasion involved great risk to the forces confronting Persia's might. The Greeks knew there would be heavy casualties from any engagement. When Leonidas was surrounded in the mountain pass, he knew there was no possibility of success; all he could hope to accomplish was delaying the Persians a little while longer. When he and his men decided to remain, they knew exactly what they were in for, but they remained regardless. That selfless sacrifice not only galvanized the Greeks at the time, but has resounded down the corridors of history as an exemplar of pure patriotism which is held up to this day.
King Leonidas of Sparta is one of the most important figures of Spartan history and is an important figure in Greek history as well. Leonidas and his hand picked 300 held off the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae. In 480 BCE, Xerxes I of Persia sent an army of 150,000 troops with ships to supply them against the Greeks. The Greeks were greatly outnumbered and out supplied. Leonidas was leading the combined Greek land forces. He realized that the best spot to defend Greece was the narrow pass of Thermopylae. He sent the majority of the Greeks off to the back part of the mountains and he and 300 Spartans prepared to hold the pass against the Persians. They were successful at holding off the Persians for two full days, killing thousands upon thousands of Persian soldiers. The delay allowed the Athenians to flee Athens and hide, so that when the Persians finally took Athens, they took an empty city. Leonidas' brave stance inspired the Greeks and enabled them to stand against Persia. This paved the way for the development of Greek culture and government which in turn paved the way for the development of European culture. Thus King Leonidas remains a significant figure in Greek and, truly, in world history.