The ancient times were the times of great heroes and great kings.
We’ve already talked about many awesome heroes (from both myth and history).
Now it is time to talk about the greatest kings.
Throughout the years many kings have tested themselves as the leaders of their people, but rare were the ones that stood out as exceptional.
These kings (rulers, emperors, leaders, and so on) have defined the era in which they were present. They have shown the path to their people and led them to glory.
Today we will be talking about some of the most famous leaders that the world has ever seen, leaders whose legacies will never be forgotten.
King Leonidas of Sparta.
Symbol of courage and freedom.
Whoever said that one heroic deed can’t make someone a legend was very wrong.
King Leonidas was born, in a dynasty which claimed descent from the Hercules himself. He was the third son of King Anaxandridas.
Because Leonidas was not heir to the throne, he was not exempt from attending the agoge, where he underwent a harsh training with his Spartan brothers. Leonidas was thus one of the few Spartan kings to have ever undergone the notoriously harsh training of Spartan youth.
After Anaxandridas’s death, Leonidas’s eldest brother Cleomenes succeeded the throne. Leonidas was heir to the Agiad throne and a full citizen at the time of the Battle of Sepeia against Argos (494 BC). However, King Cleomenes succumbed to insanity and there was a need for the new king to take over. And in the year 490 BC, not long after the battle of Marathon, Leonidas became the king of Sparta.
When Persians launched their second invasion of Greece, Leonidas was chosen to lead the allied forces.
Leonidas with his 300 Spartan brothers, joined by warriors from other Greek city-states, formed an army of 7,000 strong.
They faced a Persian army who had invaded from the north of Greece under Xerxes I.
Xerxes’s army was humongous. Herodotus stated that this army consisted of over two million men, though modern scholars estimate that it was from 70,000 to 300,000.
Regardless, Persian forces were overwhelming, compared to the Greeks.
However, what Greeks had in this battle is something that no amount of warriors could replace – the battle genius, Leonidas.
They took their stand at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. The place where quantity is nothing and quality is everything.
For four days Xerxes waited for Greeks to disperse. They did not.
On the 5th day, Persians ordered Greeks to surrender their weapons. Greek response was very simple and yet legendary (this sentence is inscribed on the monument of Leonidas in Thermopylae).
They said, “Come and get them!”
Leonidas and the Greeks repulsed the Persians’ frontal attacks for the fifth and sixth days, killing roughly 10,000 of the enemy troops. They even succeeded to hold back the Persian elite unit, the legendary Immortals, and two of Xerxes‘ brothers Abrocomes and Hyperanthes died in battle.
On the seventh day, a Greek traitor named Ephialtes led the Persian general Hydarnes by a mountain track to the rear of the Greeks.
Then came the ultimate act of defiance.
Leonidas sent away all Greek troops and remained in the pass with his 300 Spartans, 900 Helots, and 700 Thespians, who refused to leave.
All of them knew what destiny awaits them. They all knew death was at their doorstep. Surrendering and asking mercy from Xerxes is what most people would do. But, no. Not them. Not Spartans and not their brave Greek brothers. Not the bold king Leonidas.
Instead, they chose glorious death, and they created a moment that would inspire the entire Greece to ultimately prevail against the overwhelming odds.
Persians attacked from both sides and all Greeks were killed.
Leonidas was killed in the middle of the fight, but the Spartans retrieved his body after driving back the Persians four times and protected it. However, after they fell to the last man, the body did fall into Persian hands.
It was said (by Herodotus) that Leonidas‘ head was afterward cut off by Xerxes‘ order and his body crucified. This was considered sacrilegious, so you can imagine how much Leonidas got under Xerxes’s skin.
Leonidas’s act of bravery is almost unimaginable. Facing certain death, and still not backing down from his own beliefs is something to be amazed by. More than two Millennia passed, yet his legend remains and it will grow forever.
There were many great rulers in the history of Rome.
Octavian August, Marcus Aurelius, Tiberius and many more.
However, the most famous of them all remains Gaius Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar was a Roman politician, general, and notable author of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.
A descendant of Trojan prince Aeneas, he hailed from Roman aristocrats, but his family was far from rich. At around the time of his father’s death, Caesar made a concerted effort to side with the country’s nobility.
His marriage to Cornelia, the daughter of a noble, had drawn the ire of Rome’s dictator, Sulla, who ordered the young Roman to divorce his wife or risk losing his property. Caesar refused and found escape in the military, serving first in the province of Asia and then in Cilicia.
Following the death of Sulla, Caesar got captured by pirates. However, by using his brilliant strategical mind, he escaped from the imprisonment of the pirates and even captured and executed them.
Caesar was cultivating his political partnership with Pompey, a former lieutenant under Sulla, who’d switched sides following the dictator’s death, and with Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Roman history, a Roman general and politician who’d served valiantly during Sulla’s rule.
Over the years Pompey and Crassus had come to be intense rivals. But once again Caesar displayed his abilities as a negotiator, earning the trust of both men and convincing them they’d be better suited as allies instead of enemies.
This partnership among the three men came to be known as the First Triumvirate.
For Caesar, this political alliance and the power it gave him was the perfect springboard to greater domination.
Not long after, Caesar secured the governorship of Gaul (now France and Belgium), allowing him to build a bigger military and begin the kind of campaigns that would cement his status as one of Rome’s all-time great leaders.
The First Triumvirate dominated the Roman political scene for several years.
However, that all changed, after the death of Crassus.
Through a series of events, Caesar eventually went to war against Pompey, who was jealous of his political partner’s power and prestige.
Pompey and his troops were no match for Caesar and his military campaign.
By the end of 48 BC, Caesar had pushed his enemies out of Italy and pursued Pompey into Egypt, where he was eventually killed. There, Caesar aligned himself with Cleopatra, with whom he had a son, Caesarion.
Upon his return to Rome, Caesar was made dictator for life and hailed as the Father of his Country.
He would serve just a year’s term before his assassination, but in that short period, Caesar greatly transformed the empire.
He relieved debt and reformed the Senate by increasing its size and opening it up so that it better represented Romans as a whole. He reformed the Roman calendar and reorganized how local government was constructed. In addition, he resurrected two city-states, Carthage and Corinth, which had been destroyed by his predecessors, and he granted citizenship to a number of foreigners.
But Caesar was also careful to solidify his power and rule. He stuffed the Senate with allies and required the same body to grant him honors and titles. He was allowed to speak first at Assembly meetings, and Roman coins bore his face.
Caesar’s reforms greatly enhanced his standing with Rome’s lower- and middle-class populations.
But his popularity with the Senate was another matter. Envy and concern over Caesar’s increasing power led to angst among a number of politicians who saw in him an aspiring king.
Caesar’s wish to include his former Roman enemies in the government helped spell his downfall.
Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus were both former enemies who’d joined the Senate. Together, the two of them led the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March (the 15th), 44 BC.
Caesar quickly became a martyr in the new Roman Empire, and just two years after his death he became the first Roman figure to be deified. The Senate also gave him the title “The Divine Julius“.
We can only guess to which new heights he would have brought the Roman Empire if he wasn’t assassinated.
However, what he accomplished during his lifetime puts him on a level of his own as one of the greatest leaders and generals to have ever walked the face of the Earth.
Though not the greatest of the Persian kings, Xerxes is definitely the most famous of them all.
He ruled one of the greatest Empires that the world has ever seen and was seen as godlike by his people.
In the modern world’s depiction of ancient history, Xerxes is depicted as an evil, power hungry megalomaniac.
However, that is mostly done because Greeks are protagonists of those stories, so their enemies must be evil.
But, when you look at the facts, Xerxes’s motives aren’t that much different from any other king and conqueror.
Let’s learn a bit more about him, more than what we are usually told.
Xerxes was born to Darius I and Atossa (daughter of one of the greatest rulers of all time – Cyrus the Great). While Darius was preparing for another war against Greece, a revolt spurred in Egypt in 486 BC due to heavy taxes and the deportation of craftsmen to build the royal palaces at Susa and Persepolis.
When Darius decided to leave (487-486 BC), Darius prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam and appointed Xerxes, his eldest son by Atossa, as his successor. However, Darius could not lead the campaign due to his failing health and died in October 486 BC at the age of 64.
After a very short conflict over the throne, Xerxes was crowned and succeeded his father in October–December 486 BC when he was about 36 years old.
Almost immediately, Xerxes crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon that had broken out the year before and appointed his brother Achaemenes as satrap over Egypt.
Darius I was trying to expand the empire that he got from Cyrus the Great and make it bigger than it ever was. However, he suffered a defeat at the hands of the Greeks. Darius died while in the process of preparing a second army to invade the Greek mainland, leaving to his son the task of punishing the Athenians, Naxians, and Eretrians for their interference in the Ionian Revolt, the burning of Sardis, and their victory over the Persians at Marathon. Revenge for his father’s defeat was definitely one of the main reasons that Xerxes went to a full-scale war against Greeks.
Xerxes’s successfully built a bridge over Hellespont and set out in the spring of 480 BC from Sardis with a fleet and army which Herodotus estimated was roughly one million strong along with 10,000 elite warriors named the Persian Immortals. Again, the more recent estimates place the Persian force at around 60,000 combatants, but no matter which number is accurate, the fact is that Xerxes commanded an absolutely massive army.
At the aforementioned Battle of Thermopylae, a small force of Greek warriors, led by bold King Leonidas of Sparta, resisted the much larger Persian forces but they were ultimately defeated.
After Thermopylae, Athens was captured. Most of the Athenians had abandoned the city and fled to the island of Salamis before Xerxes arrived. Xerxes burnt the city; leaving an archaeologically attested destruction layer, known as the Perserschutt.
The Persians thus gained control of all of mainland Greece to the north of the Isthmus of Corinth.
One of the biggest mistakes that Xerxes ever made was getting induced by the message of Themistocles. to attack the Greek fleet under unfavorable conditions, rather than sending a part of his ships to the Peloponnesus and awaiting the dissolution of the Greek armies.
The Battle of Salamis was won by the Greek fleet, after which Xerxes set up a winter camp in Thessaly.
According to Herodotus, fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes decided to retreat back to Asia, taking the greater part of the army with him. Another cause of the retreat might have been continued unrest in Babylon, which, being a key province of the Achaemenid Empire, required the king’s own attention.
He left behind a contingent in Greece to finish the campaign under Mardonius, who according to Herodotus had suggested the retreat in the first place. This force was defeated the following year at Plataea by the combined forces of the Greek city states, ending the Persian offensive on Greece for good.
After the military blunders in Greece, Xerxes returned to Persia and oversaw the completion of the many construction projects left unfinished by his father at Susa and Persepolis. He oversaw the building of the Gate of All Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, which are the largest and most imposing structures of the palace. He oversaw the completion of the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury, all started by Darius, as well as having his own palace built which was twice the size of his father’s.
His taste in architecture was similar to that of Darius, though on an even more gigantic scale. He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace at Susa.
In August 465 BC, Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court, assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres.
Artabanus put his seven sons in key positions and had a plan to dethrone the Achaemenids.
Artabanus then accused the Crown Prince Darius, Xerxes’s eldest son, of the murder and persuaded another of Xerxes’s sons, Artaxerxes, to avenge the patricide by killing Darius. However, after Artaxerxes discovered the murder, he killed Artabanus and his sons.
In the end, Xerxes is one of those kings who had a very turbulent Kingship. Though he is the most famous for suffering great losses at the hands of Greeks, he has done lots of amazing things and created some of the most beautiful structures that the world has ever seen. Regardless of the way we depict him, he has left an undeniable trace on the World.
In order for a city, country, or an empire to become great, it must have great leaders to point them in the right direction.
The awesomeness of these ancient civilizations is an indicator that there were lots of phenomenal leaders that brought them to these heights.
In Champions of Gods, all of these awesome legends will take their rightful place as the leaders of your armies and with their help, you will be able to have huge conquests and create the greatest Empire of all time.