As far as military leaders go, there is none more capable of reaching through the fabric of time to constantly inspire us than the Spartan King Leonidas. In 480 BC he marched with his 300 Spartans to the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae, and repelled a Persian invasion of two million men, slaying his foes by the thousands before he and his men were killed to the last, but in so doing rallying all of Greece together to repel their invaders.
What is lesser known about Leonidas is that he was not born to rule. That honour went to his half-brother Cleomenes, whose daughter Gorgo he would eventually marry. And as such, as opposed to either Cleomenes or his full-blood elder brother Doreius, Leonidas, whose name means “son of the lion”, was enrolled in the legendary military school, the Spartan Agoge. There, boys were trained from age seven to 29 with the single-minded purpose of producing the ultimate warrior society. It is of note that Sparta was the only Greek city without walls to repel invaders because collectively, the male citizens formed the unbreakable “walls of Sparta.”
It is implied that Leonidas’s exceptional performance in the Agoge made him the choice for king when his elder brother was eventually deposed for insanity. The legend goes that upon being named the leader of the city-state, someone said to him, “Except for being king you are not superior to us.” To which he retorted, “But were I not better than you I should not be king,” referring to his prowess as a military leader. Braggadocio aside, Leonidas proved his worth and ascended to the status of eternal legend, during the second Persian invasion of Greece.
It was a time when Sparta had a lot to make up for. During the first invasion of Greece by Darius I in 490 BC, the Athenians had sent a messenger to run the 140 miles to Sparta to beseech them for help. He was denied on the grounds that they were amidst a religious ceremony. The Athenians went on to victory and were glorified by all of Greece. Leonidas was not going to let that happen. Supposedly, before departing on what was clearly a suicide mission, his wife Gorgo told him, “Come back with your shield or on it,” which as far as badass things a wife can say to a husband before he leaves to face certain death, has got to rank at No.1.
To be exact, Leonidas’ force numbered 300 Spartans, 900 Hoplites (slaves subjugated by the Spartans) and several other allied Greek forces. It is believed the actual number of men he commanded was around 7,000. Which still pales in comparison to the close to two million commanded by Xerxes (historians feel this might be closer to 300,000). Nonetheless, when commanded by Xerxes to lay down his weapons and bow to his might, it is Leonidas’ retort, “Molon Labe” or “Come and take them!” that echoes in eternity.