- Paperback: 584 pages
- Publisher: Wheatmark (October 15, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1604948302
- ISBN-13: 978-1604948301
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 42 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #872,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King Paperback – October 15, 2012
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From the Author
This is the third book in the Leonidas trilogy, a biographical novel in three parts, dedicated to reconstructing and depicting the life of Sparta's most famous king. Leonidas is legendary for this defiant defense of the Pass of Thermopylae, with just three hundred Spartans and roughly six thousand other allies, against a vastly superior invading force in 480 BC. The first book in the trilogy, A Boy of the Agoge, dealt with Leonidas' boyhood, and A Peerless Peer looked at Leonidas as an ordinary Spartan ranker. In this final book of the series, I turn to Leonidas' years of greatest influence. It describes him as a diplomat as well as a soldier, and above all as a king.
I realize that fans of the film 300 may find it hard to think of Leonidas as a diplomat. In the Hollywood cartoon, Leonidas is portrayed as the brutal antithesis of a diplomat: he personally throws a Persian ambassador down a well. But there is no more historical evidence that Leonidas committed this crime than that Xerxes was a monster. The historical record, foggy and imprecise as it is, suggests that far from being a tactless brute, Leonidas was a savvy diplomat. But Leonidas' accomplishments as king were probably even more significant, if harder to document. It is clear from looking at Spartan history from the Messenian wars to Sparta's dismal and ignominious end under Rome that Leonidas' reign was a turning point. Archaic Sparta not only saw the establishment of a new, revolutionary form of government (arguably the first democracy in history), but also a significant flourish of the art and trade. Sparta's most significant monuments were built in the Archaic age, and her most famous poets lived then too. In contrast, Sparta in the Classical Period is characterized by artistic stagnation and a dramatic end to Sparta's competitiveness in trade and manufacturing. In this period, Spartans disdained all forms of luxury, and by inference, art itself. In short, Spartan society underwent a radical, indeed revolutionary, change in the mid-fifth century BC, immediately after Leonidas' death. Leonidas was the last of the archaic kings not just in terms of timing, but in terms of policy. During Leonidas' lifetime Sparta took an active interest in world affairs, and led an international coalition opposing Persia. Even more significant is the possibility that Leonidas' domestic policies were tolerant and liberal.
As in the earlier two books in this series, I have made maximum use of the available ancient sources, relying as much as possible on Herodotus and the sayings attributed to Leonidas and his wife Gorgo by Plutarch and other ancient scholars. This book also reflects extensive secondary research on ancient Sparta as well as a dozen trips to Greece to visit Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Delphi, Argos, Messenia, Olympia and Thermopylae. Over the years this research has led me to an understanding of Spartan society that stands in sharp contrast to the often simplified, sometimes fantasized portrayals found in other works. Sparta was a complex and far from static society, and readers interested in a systematic discussion of my interpretation of Spartan society should refer to my essays on Sparta on my website Sparta Reconsidered and my blog of the same name.
About the Author
Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg, which she earned with a ground-breaking biography of General Friedrich Olbricht, the mastermind behind the Valkyrie Plot against Hitler. Helena has done extensive research on ancient Sparta, and combines her research with common-sense to create a refreshingly unorthodox portrayal of Spartan society.
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The reign of Leonidas and the events of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC form the subject matter and a mix of historical and fictional characters bring this dramatic period to life. Dr. Schrader's prose is pleasingly vigorous and sturdy, her dialogue relaxed, and her background research impeccable. While many liberties are taken to fill in the gaps of what ancient historians and modern scholars tell us about Sparta at this time in order to construct a rounded novel and populate it with suitable characters, nothing feels forced or artificial to me. And as someone who has studied Spartan history and society for decades, I can find very little to nit-pick here (apart from the description of the Thermopylae battlefield in one respect: I do not know where any recorded or geological evidence attests to a "cliff" on the seaward side of the pass); on the contrary, this book encompasses a wealth of detail and accuracy yet in a naturalistic and brisk style that is remarkable. Even the conjectural leaps are carefully considered and presented, and indeed offer much food for thought for even academic historians. Dr. Schrader's website offers a number of essays and discussions on various aspects of Sparta that have obviously informed this book, as have her travels to the locations mentioned and her keen observations of ancient Greek life and thought.
Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in Spartan history, often centered around the battle for Thermopylae (which naturally forms the vivid denouement of A Heroic King), with new nonfiction books and documentaries as well as cheesy and dishonest efforts such as the deplorable "300" and the grossly overrated, disturbing, tiresome, and crypto-fascist (in my opinion) Steven Pressfield novel Gates of Fire, which cannot hold a candle to this book. Readers looking for an engaging and informed recreation of life in Sparta at the beginning of the classical era and how this remote city-state came to lead the defense of the West can ask for no better novel.
In this third book of the series Shrader portrays Leonidas in his mature years, his marriage to his niece Gorgo, his travels to Athens and other places and his rise to become one of the two Kings of Sparta. She recounts the events of the ill-omened Persian embassy to Sparta, in which the Persian ambassadors demand that the Spartan give them earth and water as a sign of submission. The Spartans respond by throwing the Ambassadors in a deep well, telling them that they will find all the earth and water they need there. The Spartans realize that they have offended the gods by this act and a few years later they sent two volunteers to the Persian King Xerxes to expiate the deed with their live. Xerxes rejects the offering, warning that the Spartan debt to him remains unpaid.
Xerxes plans a massive invasion of Greece with one million troops. The fate of Western civilization hangs in the balance. The Athenians, under Themistocles, have built a fleet of triremes to counter the Persian fleet, but it is up to King Leonidas, his bodyguard of 300 Spartans, and 6000 allied troops to hold the narrow pass at Thermopylae so that the rest of the Spartans and their allies can mobilize. The prophesy from Delphi states that in the coming conflict Sparta will either mourn one of its Kings, or it will be destroyed.
After a day of battle a herald is sent from the Persian King to Leonidas: “The Great King Xerxes, son of Darius, offers to King Leonidas, son of Anaxandridas , of Sparta the following: If he give up this pointless resistance against the forces of Civilization and the true God Ahuramazda, if he takes the hand outstretched in friendship by his most gracious Majesty, the merciful and generous Great King, if he puts his arms in the service of His Magnificence, the Joy of Ahuramazda, joining the invincible multitude of a thousand nations, then Xerxes, King of Kings, will make Leonidas, son of Anaxandridas, Kng of all Greece.”
Who would reject an offer like that?
Leonidas’ reply: “Tell your master that if he understood honor, he would not lust after what does not belong to him. I, Leonidas of Sparta, would rather die for the freedom of Greece than rule it in subjugation!”
The Spartans and their allies successfully held the pass for two days, but a Phocian traitor revealed a goat track to the Persians, over which the Immortals, an elite Persian unit, could cross and attack the Greeks on their unprotected flank. When it became clear that their cause was lost, Leonidas sent the bulk of the allies away, determined to hold the pass long enough to allow them to escape.
The Persian King sent another herald: “The Great King offers you your naked lives, if you surrender your arms.”
Leonidas replied: “Come and take them!”
In the ensuing battle Leonidas and all but one of his remaining men are slain. After Leonidas falls his compatriots try desperately to shield his body, but in the end Xerxes obtains it and mounts Leonidas’ head on a stake.
Leonidas’ sacrifice is not in vain, however. It buys the Greeks time and ultimately the Persians are defeated on land by Leonidas’ nephew Pausanias, and at sea by the Athenian Themistocles.
Shrader has a gift for making her characters vivid and human, and she is a consummate story-teller. She ranks high in my pantheon of great historical fiction authors.