Sparta, Sparta, Sparta! The name set the bar for heroism for all time.
This king of Sparta (whose name means “Son of the Lion”) was sent by his countrymen to maintain the pass of Thermopylae against the vast invading army of the Persian king Xerxes in 480 b.c. Three hundred Spartan warriors marched with him, expecting the rest of their allies to follow at the conclusion of the Olympic games, which were taking place simultaneously.
Meanwhile, he was joined by six thousand troops—his forces now seven thousand strong as they reached the pass. By holding this narrow passage between the mountains and the sea, Leonidas was acting to protect the nearby Greek fleet from being outflanked in combat. He and his men faced the Persian hordes, which numbered anywhere from the 250,000 modern scholars have calculated to the 1.7 million the Greek historian Herodotus claimed.
For two days Xerxes suffered heavy losses without breaking Leonidas’ resistance. Then a local man, Ephialtes, led Xerxes to a path through the mountains, and a hand-picked force of “Persian Immortals” attacked the Greeks from the rear. Leonidas at once informed the fleet, dismissed all but 1,400 men—700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and his own 300 Spartans—and prepared to die, declaring that he and his Spartans would not abandon their post.
Then, with the handful of troops under his command, he charged the myriads of Persian soldiers. Leonidas fell in the thickest of the fight. “And now there arose,” Herodotus records, “a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body.”
At the end, the Greeks were left with only a tiny hillock on which to fight. Here “they defended themselves to the last,” Herodotus said, “such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians . . . overwhelmed and buried the remnant left beneath showers of missile weapons.”
The Persians killed every Spartan and Thespian, but the Thebans laid down their arms and surrendered. Afterwards, Xerxes ordered that Leonidas be beheaded and his body crucified. But no such ignominy could mar his image. His heroism and selfless devotion to the flame that was Greece—the greater cause and glory more precious than life itself—had secured him a singular place in history, and in the imagination of his own and succeeding generations.
By his superlative discipline and sense of timing, the Greek fleet was able to retreat and later defeat the Persians in a sea battle. A monument in the shape of a lion was erected on the spot where the 300 had taken their last stand. A stanza immortalizing them reads,
“Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”