Sayings of Leonidas

Quotations from the Greek hero Leonidas resound of bravery and a foreknowledge of his doom.  Leonidas (Mid 6th century–480 BCE) was the king of Sparta who led the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE). 

The Persian War was a 50 year series of conflicts between the Greeks and the Persians, for control of the Mediterranean. In 480 BCE, a key battle waged by the forces of Darius I's son Xerxes was fought at Thermopylae.  invaded Greece and were held off for seven long days by Leonidas and a small Greek soldiers including the famous 300 Spartans. 

Thanks to the 300 movies, many who would otherwise not be aware of him now know his name. Plutarch (c. 45–125 CE), the important biographer of Greek and Roman men, also wrote a book on sayings of famous Spartans (in Greek, with the Latin title "Apophthegmata Laconica").

Below you will find the quotations attributed by Plutarch to Leonidas, related to his going off to war against the Persians. As well as the sentiments, some of the actual lines may be familiar to you from the movies. The source for these quotations is the 1931 edition of the Loeb Classical Library on  Bill Thayer's Lacus Curtius site.

01
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Leonidas of Sparta Quotes

Leonidas King of Sparta
Leonidas King of Sparta. Clipart.com

Leonidas' wife Gorgo is said to have asked Leonidas, at the time when he was setting off to Thermopylae to fight the Persians if he had any instructions to give her. He replied:

"To marry good men and bear good children."

When the Ephors, a group of five men annually elected to the Spartan government asked Leonidas why he was taking so few men to Thermopylae, he said

"Too many for the enterprise on which we going."

And when the Ephors asked him if he would be willing to die to keep the barbarians from the gate, he replied:

"Nominally that, but actually I'm expecting to die for the Greeks."

02
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The Battle of Thermopylae

Reference Map of Attica
Reference Map of Attica, showing Thermopylae.

William R. Shepherd

When Leonidas arrived at Thermopylae he said to his comrades in arms,

"They say that the barbarian has come near and is coming on while we are wasting time. Truth, soon we shall either kill the barbarians or else we are bound to be killed ourselves."

When his soldiers complained that the barbarians were firing so many arrows at them that the sun was blocked out, Leonidas replied

"Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?"

Another commented fearfully that the barbarians were near, he said

"Then we also are near to them."

When a comrade asked, "Leonidas, are you here to take such a hazardous risk with so few men against so many?"

"If you men think that I rely on numbers, then all Greece is not sufficient, for it is but a small fraction of their numbers; but if on men's valor, then this number will do."

When another man remarked the same thing he said,

"In truth, I am taking many if they are all to be slain."

03
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Battlefield Discourse with Xerxes

Staircase, Palace of Xerxes, Persepolis (Iran)
Staircase, Palace of Xerxes, Persepolis (Iran).

Shirley Schermer

Xerxes wrote to Leonidas, saying, "It is possible for you, by not fighting against God but by ranging yourself on my side, to be the sole ruler of Greece." But he wrote in reply,

"If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others' possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race."

When Xerxes wrote again, demanding Leonidas hand over their arms, he wrote in reply,

"Come and take them."

04
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Engaging the Enemy

Battle of Thermopylae, Painted by Jacques Louis David in 1814. At the Louvre.
Battle of Thermopylae, Painted by Jacques Louis David in 1814. At the Louvre.

Wikimedia Commons

Leonidas wished to engage the enemy at once, but the other commanders, in answer to his proposal, said that he must wait for the rest of the allies.

"Why are not all present who intend to fight? Or do you not realize that the only men who fight against the enemy are those who respect and revere their kings."

He bade his soldiers:

Eat your breakfast as if you are to eat your dinner in the other world.

Being asked why the best of men prefer a glorious death to an inglorious life, he said,

"Because they believe the one to be Nature's gift but the other to be within their own control."

05
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The End of the Battle

Monument to King Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae
The monument to Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae commemorates the 480 B.C. battle in which relatively few Greeks from Sparta, led by King Leonidas, kept back the entire army of the Persians.

CIA World Factbook

Leonidas knew the battle was doomed: the oracle had warned him that either a king of the Spartans would die or their country would be overrun. Leonidas was not willing to let Sparta be wasted, so he stood fast. As the battle seemed lost, Leonidas sent the bulk of the army away, but was killed in the battle. 

Wishing to save the lives of the young men, and knowing full well that they would not submit to such treatment, Leonidas gave to each of them a secret dispatch and sent them to the Ephors. He conceived the desire to save also three of the grown men, but they understood his design, and would not submit to accepting the dispatches. One of them said, "I came with the army, not to carry messages, but to fight;" and the second, "I should be a better man if I stayed here"; and the third, "I will not be behind these, but first in the fight."