Friday, October 1, 2010
Leonidas is arguably the most famous of all Spartans. There have been numerous works of art which depict him. He has been made the hero of a recent, popular film. There is even an entire line of chocolate confectionary named after him! But no serious biography has even been written, and what is best known about him and most often portrayed is his death. Leonidas is remembered for the commanding the Greek forces, which defended the Pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army that vastly outnumbered them. Because Persia was then an autocratic empire headed by a King, while the Greek forces at Thermopylae were sent by a coalition of democratic Greek city-states, Leonidas became the incarnation of Freedom fighting Tyranny. Leonidas is particularly remembered for refusing to surrender despite betrayal that made defeat absolutely certain. Thus he also came to symbolize the noblest form of military courage and self-sacrifice. Consequently, the events leading up to the three day battle and the death of Leonidas with 300 other Spartans at Thermopylae have been the focus of historians and artists of all media from Herodotus onward.
But Leonidas had lived perhaps as long as sixty years before that battle took place, and he had reigned for ten. It was those years preceding the final confrontation with Persia that made him the man he would be at Thermopylae. To the extent that we admire his defiant stand, learning more about his early life and tracing the development of his character is important. Arguably, understanding what made Leonidas the hero he was is a useful lesson for future generations.
Yet so very little is actually known about his early life, that historians have been discouraged from attempting a biography. Novelists, fortunately, enjoy more freedom, and what we do know about Leonidas’ early life is enticing. Leonidas was born into the senior of Sparta’s ruling families, but he was born to his mother late in her life and had two elder brothers. As a result, unlike most of Sparta’s kings, he attended the Spartan public school or agoge and underwent the harsh training of ordinary Spartans that has been the subject of so much fascinated – and often appalled - commentary. He married the daughter of his half-brother and predecessor, a sharp – not to say sharp-tongued – woman, who epitomized everything other Greeks abhorred and condemned about Spartan women. Most important, he was elected to lead a coalition of Greek forces against the Persians.
This latter fact has far too often been undervalued by historians. It is usually interpreted simply as a tribute to Sparta’s military reputation or her political position as the leading power of the age. This all too glibly overlooks the fact that Sparta had two kings and his co-monarch Leotychidas could have represented Sparta just as completely. Even more important, it ignores the fact that just two years after Leonidas’ death, the same coalition of forces preferred Athenian leadership to submitting to command by Leonidas’ successor Pausanias – and Pausanias had won the battle of Plataea! Sparta was not less powerful in 478 than she had been in 480, and her reputation at arms had never been greater. If simply being Spartan was all that mattered to the allies, the coalition would have asked Sparta to send King Leotychidas or another Spartan general to replace Pausanias, but they did not. In short, Leonidas was elected to lead the coalition, not simply because he was Spartan but because he enjoyed the trust of the coalition partners.
Combining the few known facts we have about Leonidas and his wife Gorgo, listening to the sayings attributed to them both, and knowing how Leonidas met his destiny at Thermopylae, I have written the Leonidas Trilogy. The three part biographical novel incorporates all that is known about Leonidas and Gorgo and their society. It interprets these facts and then interpolates from these facts to a reasonable hypothesis of what Leonidas and Gorgo’s CVs could have been. The characters that emerge are far greater than the historical input. Leonidas is consciously portrayed as the quintessential Spartan because that is what he has become in legend. Gorgo, likewise, epitomizes that which set Spartan women apart from their contemporaries – without robbing her of individual traits and personality. The two principals are surrounded by a large cast of secondary characters, each of which is unique and complex. The resulting tapestry is a seamless mixture of plot, character development and historical events against the backdrop of a fascinating and unique society.
Posted by Helena P. Schrader at 22:02