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The Virtue of Selflessness: Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae


The great Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch asked, “Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the warrior who loses his helmet or spear but punish with death the warrior who loses his shield?” His answer, “Because helmet and spear are carried for the protection of the individual alone, but the shield protects every man in the line.” Using this example from the Spartans of ancient Greece, one of the greatest warrior societies ever to walk the earth, Plutarch reveals the ultimate virtue of the warrior: selflessness. As former U.S. Marine and author Steven Pressfield writes in The Warrior Ethos, the true warrior knows in his heart that, “The group comes before the individual.” From the time of spears and shields to the modern age of bombs and bullets, the virtue of selflessness has always flowed through the veins of the true warrior.

For the true warrior, selflessness means standing together with your comrades through it all, no matter how profound the danger or the risk of death. In the late summer of 480 B.C., the Spartan king Leonidas and his soldiers epitomized this principle at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Facing an invading Persian army numbering around 100,000 men or more under king Xerxes, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans led a coalition of some 6,000 troops assembled from the city-states of Greece. Located between the mountains of central Greece and the sea, the Spartan king chose to defend the pass of Thermopylae, also known as the “Hot Gates” because of nearby sulfur springs. Although fighting in this narrow space along the coast would make it difficult for the Persians to utilize their superior numbers, they had to go through it in order to enter mainland Greece.

A statue of a Spartan hoplite warrior dating back to the 5th century B.C. and located at the Archaeological Museum of Sparta. Known as “Leonidas," this statue is thought to depict the legendary Spartan king who stared down the Persians at Thermopylae. (Photo Credit: Archaeological Museum of Sparta/

Despite their strong position, the odds against the Greeks were still overwhelming. As Pressfield writes, “Leonidas knew that to defend Thermopylae was certain death.” Despite this grave reality, Leonidas and his men understood that the survival of Greece depended on their willingness to stand and fight. It was up to them to buy time for their other Greek allies to organize and prepare their forces for the coming storm. The defenders of Thermopylae would not back down.

After arriving at the pass, the Persian king waited four days, hoping that the sight of his massive army would send the Greeks running. Leonidas and his troops, however, held their ground. Xerxes then sent envoys. The Greeks were told that if they lay down their arms and surrender, they would be spared. In response, Leonidas issued a two-word reply: “Molon Labe,“ translating to, “Come and take them.” The Persian horde did come, but after two days of brutal fighting, they could not overcome Leonidas and his determined defenders.

Leonidas and the Spartans engaged in fierce fighting at Thermopylae. (Photo Credit: Giuseppe Rava)

After the second day of battle, a local Greek resident named Ephialtes came to king Xerxes. Hoping for a reward, he revealed a path that led behind Leonidas’s army. At dawn the next day, it quickly became clear to the Greeks that their position was no longer tenable. Surrounded by the Persians, Leonidas ordered the bulk of the Greek troops under his command to withdraw. Leading the survivors from his original force of 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans, Leonidas and this band of warriors would make a final stand and protect the retreat.

On that final morning, Pressfield writes that the remaining Spartans “turned to one of their leaders, the warrior Dienekes, and asked him what thoughts they should hold in their minds in this final hour to keep their courage strong.” Spoken like a true warrior, Dienekes told them, “Fight for this alone: the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him.”

Spartans standing together at the Battle of Thermopylae. (Photo Credit:

The Spartans and their fellow Greeks stood together and fought on until the very end. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in The Histories, “they resisted to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with their hands and teeth. . . .” In the end, Leonidas and his Spartans fell to the last man along with most of their Greek allies. Of the original 300, only the warrior Aristodemus survived after he “was withdrawn at the last minute because an eye inflammation had rendered him temporarily blind.” The Persians found the body of Leonidas and Xerxes ordered his men to behead the defiant Spartan king and mount it on a stake on the battlefield. Despite this grave insult unbefitting of such a great warrior, the valiant stand of Leonidas and his men would not soon be forgotten.

Inspired by the heroic sacrifices of Leonidas and his faithful fighters at Thermopylae, other Greeks rallied together and carried on the fight against the Persians. Although many Greek states bowed down to the Persians and the historic city of Athens was sacked, the tide soon turned. At the Battle of Salamis in September 480 B.C., the Greek fleet won a resounding victory over the Persians in one of the greatest naval contests of the ancient world. In August 479 B.C., a Greek army led by Pausanias, a nephew of Leonidas and regent to his underage son and heir, Pleistarchus, won another decisive clash against the Persians at the Battle of Plataea. The defeat at Plataea was the final nail in the coffin for the Persian invasion, shattering Xerxes’s hopes of conquering Greece.

Spartans locked in combat with Persian soldiers at the Battle of Plataea in August 479 B.C., a clash in which Aristodemus, the only surviving Spartan from the struggle at Thermopylae, distinguished himself through his gallantry in action. (Photo Credit:

As exemplified by the Spartans at Thermopylae, the true warrior never hesitates in performing his duty. He understands that, “The group comes before the individual,” and stands together with his brothers in arms, fighting with them and for them until the very end. Nearly 2,499 years later, the legacy of Leonidas and his Spartans, along with their Greek allies who fought at Thermopylae, endures. The virtue of selflessness that they embodied has persisted in select individuals through the ages and remains the central tenet in the life of the true warrior throughout every corner of the world.


Ancient History Encyclopedia: Plataea.

Ancient History Encyclopedia: Thermopylae. Leonidas.

The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield.

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