Statue of King Leonidas located at Thermopylae - Image courtesy of Vasilis Linidis
The bust of 'King Leonidas'
The image above of what is known as the bust of 'King Leonidas' has been renounced by historians and archaeologists who suggest that it was either a hero or mythical god. Located in Sparta in 1926 during an excavation by the British School at Athens, a Greek workman identified the bust as Leonidas. However, the bust of this warrior depicted was part of a complete statue that was part of a group of other statues. The dating of the statue is prior to 480 B.C., therefore, it was created before the heroic death of King Leonidas at Thermopylae.
According to Professor Paul Cartledge who is the leading authority on matters relative to Sparta, King Leonidas 'was probably born in about 540 B.C.' This would mean that the Spartan king would have been in his fifties or perhaps as old as sixty when he died at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
Therefore, if the aforementioned age of Leonidas is correct, Hollywood has perpetuated the myth that King Leonidas was in his late thirties to forties which can be evidenced by the images below.
Very little is known about this most famous of Spartan kings prior to his heroic death along with his royal bodyguard. The following book relative to King Leonidas will be of interest, especially to grade students, since it contains quite a bit of information which is much more accurate than that depicted in '300'.
Tomb of King Leonidas located in Sparta
Different view of the tomb of King Leonidas
The Spartans that died during the Battle of Thermopylae were buried where they fell as was King Leonidas, however, the custom for Spartan kings was that they were returned home to Sparta for burial. It was approximately 40 years after the battle that the Spartans retrieved the body of King Leonidas, or so they thought.
It would have been practically impossible to identify the remains of the most famous of Sparta's kings since the body would have been in a state of decomposition which would have rendered identification as highly improbable. Therefore, the remains which were identified by the locals may or may not have been that of Leonidas, however, the tomb which contains the remains of one of the heroes of Thermopylae still remains to this day in Sparta as can be seen from the images above.
Jacques Louis David's 'Leonidas at Thermopylae' - The Louvre
Perhaps the most famous rendition of King Leonidas is
the Jacques-Louis David masterpiece entitled 'Leonidas at Thermopylae'
which the French artist started in 1800 and which he finally completed
in 1814. As can be seen below, the preliminary sketch that was used shows some
subtle differences that David made before the final rendition.
Cartledge in his book 'Thermopylae -The Battle that Changed the World'
wrote that a printed note that accompanied this painting stated:
king of Sparta, seated on a rock in the midst of his three hundred
heroes, reflects, rather moved, on the near and inevitable death of his
friends. At Leonidas's feet, in the shade, there is wife's brother,
Agis, who, after putting down the crown of flowers he had worn during
the sacrifice, is about to place his helmet on his head; with his eyes
on the general, he awaits his orders. Next to him, at the sound of the
trumpet two young men run to take their weapons that are hanging from
the branches of trees. Further away, one of his officers, a devotee of
the cult of Hercules, whose arms and outfit he wears, rallies his
troops into battle formation. He is followed by the high priest, who
calls on Hercules to grant them victory. He points his finger at the
sky. Further back the army parades.
Of interest, in the upper left hand corner, one of the 300 Spartans is carving Simonides epitaph with the hilt of his sword and in the bottom left hand corner, the Spartan Eurytus who suffered an eye inflammation was led into battle by his helot where he died on the last day with his fellow Spartiates.
David's 'Leonidas at Thermopylae' - Courtesy of MOMA
Hollywood's portrayal of King Leonidas of Sparta
In 1962, 20th Century Fox released the movie 'The 300 Spartans' which starred Richard Egan as King Leonidas. In March/April 2007, the Warner Bros. movie based on Frank Miller's '300' comic book series debuted, starring Scottish actor Gerard Butler who assumed the role of the Spartan king who led the united Greek forces at Thermopylae.
Richard Egan as King Leonidas in 'The 300 Spartans'
Gerry Butler as King Leonidas in Frank Miller's '300'
'The 300 Spartans' (c) 20th Century Fox
Richard Egan as King Leonidas in 'The 300 Spartans' (c) 20th Century Fox