Age of Heroes
Eldest half brother of King Kleomenes
According to Herodotus, Leonidas’ mother was his father’s niece and had been barren for so long that the ephors, the five annually elected administrators of the Spartan constitution, tried to prevail upon King Anaxandridas to set aside his wife and take another. Anaxandridas refused, claiming his wife was blameless, whereupon the ephors agreed to allow him to take a second wife without setting aside his first. This second wife, a descendent of Chilon the Wise, promptly bore a son, Cleomenes. However, one year after Cleomenes’ birth, Anaxandridas’ first wife also gave birth to a son, Dorieus. Leonidas was the second son of Anaxandridas’ first wife, and either the elder brother or twin of Cleombrotus. Because Leonidas was not heir to the throne, he was not exempt from attending the agoge, the public school that the sons of all Spartans had to complete in order to qualify for citizenship. Leonidas was thus one of the few Spartan kings to have ever undergone the notoriously harsh training of Spartan youth.
Anaxandridas died in 520 BC, and Cleomenes succeeded to the throne sometime between then and 516 BC. Dorieus was so outraged that the Spartans had preferred his half-brother over himself that he found it impossible to remain in Sparta. He made one unsuccessful attempt to set up a colony in Africa and, when this failed, sought his fortune in Sicily, where after initial successes he was killed. Leonidas’ relationship with his bitterly antagonistic elder brothers is unknown, but he married Cleomenes’ daughter, Gorgo, sometime before coming to the throne in 490 BC.
Leonidas was clearly heir to the Agiad throne and a full citizen at the time of the Battle of Sepeia against Argos (c. 494 BC). Likewise, he was a full citizen when the Persians sought submission from Sparta and met with vehement rejection in or around 492/491 BC. His elder brother the king had already been deposed on grounds of purported insanity, and had fled into exile when Athens sought assistance against the Persian invasion that ended at Marathon (490 BC).
Plutarch has recorded the following: “When someone said to him: ‘Except for being king you are not at all superior to us,’ Leonidas son of Anaxandridas and brother of Cleomenes replied: ‘But were I not better than you, I should not be king.’”As the product of the agoge, Leonidas is unlikely to have been referring to his royal blood alone but rather suggesting that he had, like his brother Dorieus, proven superior capability in the competitive environment of Spartan training and society, and that he believed this made him qualified to rule.
Leonidas was chosen to lead the combined Greek forces determined to resist the Persian invasion in 481 BC. This election of Leonidas to lead the defense of Greece against Xerxes’ invasion led to Leonidas’ death in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.