Tuesday, December 1, 2015
2,015 years ago, in Palestine, a man was born, who preached a new religion based on love of one’s fellow man. Dramatically, however, he not only preached this message of love, he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the rest of mankind in an unprecedented manner. This sacrifice, depicted in countless works of art and on crucifixes in churches around the world, has inspired awe and wonder for two thousand years.
By the time Christ was born, the ancient city and culture of Sparta was moribund. Yes, there was still an urban community on the site of the once great capital of Lacedaemon, but the inhabitants of this Sparta no longer lived by the laws nor fallowed the customs that that made ancient Sparta unique and great. And yet there is a bond between Sparta and Christianity in the form of Leonidas.
Leonidas lived roughly 500 years before the birth of Christ and did not benefit from his teachings or example. Yet, while working on my three-part biography of Leonidas of Sparta, I came to realize that Leonidas is important not as a historical personality but as a moral figure. It was Leonidas’ conscious decision to sacrifice himself for his fellow Greeks that made him such an appealing historical figure. Leonidas fascinates us not because he was a Spartan king, but because he was prepared to defy impossible odds for the sake of freedom.
Critical to the appeal of Leonidas is that he died fighting a defensive – not an aggressive – battle. Equally important is the fact that he faced death consciously; Leonidas knew he was going to die, but that did not deter or even dishearten him. Most important of all, Leonidas did not die, like Achilles or Hektor, for the sake of his own glory and even for honor, but for the lives and freedom of others.
Leonidas’ conscious decision to die in order to save Sparta from destruction was proto-Christian. His example is morally up-lifting, and his story inspirational. These, not a fascination with Ancient Sparta or Leonidas’ historical role, are what make his story worth telling and make his story worth reading.