Leonidas of Sparta, A Heroic King

Leonidas of Sparta, A Heroic King, is the third of three novels by Helena Shrader on the life of Leonidas. The first, Leonidas, Boy of the Agoge portrayed the childhood and youth of the Agiad Prince as he is educated in Spartan fashion in the Agoge. The second book, Leonidas a Peerless Peer, tells of Leonidas’ years as a Spartan citizen and his participation in the military. This book tells of Leonidas’ rise to Kingship and his ultimate sacrifice along with 300 loyal Spartiates in the cause of Greek freedom from the invading Persians.
I have been an avid reader of historical fiction for fifty years, and I have never encountered a work as exciting, fascinating, satisfying and well-researched as Helena Shrader’s trilogy about Leonidas of Sparta.
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 send two volunteers to the Persian King Xerxes to expiate the deed with their lives. 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 at Thermopylae 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, King 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.

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