Great Commanders coin series is back with the heroic king of the Spartan 300. Leonidas

It’s been a while since the Mint of Poland debuted its new Commanders series of 2oz silver coins and we’re finally at the point where a second issue joins the club. Released at last years World Money Fair in Berlin, Spartacus was a fine looking coin with a quite superb obverse featuring a map showing the rebel gladiators rampage across the Roman Empire’s heartland.

That style is back with this new issue. Taking another great leader of the ancient world, the Spartan king Leonidas, it depicts him in full battle attire with his army behind him, and a few Persian warriors in front. It’s a great scene of coming carnage and definitely takes some inspiration from the aesthetic of Frank Millers film, 300. While the renders how bright red colouring, the finished coin is claimed to have red-gold gilding, which should look a little more subtle in reality.

The obverse is as brilliant as ever and an absolute favourite of ours. An object example in how to customise an effigy-adorned coin face, it again carries a map relevant to the subject. In this case, a look at the Pass of Thermopylae and the surrounding area in which this legendary battle unfolded takes pride of place.

Antique-finished, rimless, ultra-high-relief, and two ounces in weight, this is the classic format that the Mint of Poland has almost made their own with an avalanche of different series, all of a high quality. Great Commanders fits in well, and is one of the few to take on actual historical figures rather than the more common delve into mythology. A cool subject, depicted with an amazing level of dense detail, is always going to strike a chord with collectors in this genre. A mintage of 999 pieces is the norm, of course, and the coin comes boxed with a certificate of authenticity. The primary distributor is Mennica Gdanska (Mint of Gdansk), although expect availability to be wider and worldwide.

LEONIDAS AND THERMOPYLAE

Herodotus in his Histories describes the family lineage of Leonidas which could be traced back 20 generations to the mythical hero Hercules. Leonidas’ father was the Spartan king Anaxandrides, himself the son of King Leon. Anaxandrides, however, had some problems in producing an heir after his first wife proved barren. The Spartan Ephors and Elders, to protect the royal lineage, forced Anaxandrides to take a second wife. She did give birth to a son, Cleomenes, but in a strange twist Anaxandrides’ first wife announced she was also now pregnant and another son, Dorieus, was born. Then, shortly after, the first wife again gave birth sometime in the 540’s BCE to Leonidas and Kleombrotus, some saying the latter were twins.

As Leonidas had two older brothers it seemed unlikely he would represent the royal House of Agiad and become one of the two Spartan kings. However, he did just that following the death of Doreius on campaign in Sicily and the mysterious suicide (put down to bad drinking habits) of Cleomenes, who left no heir. Leonidas was married to Gorgo, Cleomene’s daughter, and the death of her father meant Leonidas became king, sometime around 490 BCE.

Leonidas would have been in his sixties by the time of Thermopylae and undoubtedly an experienced military commander, although we know nothing of his previous commands. Following Xerxes’ proposed land invasion of mainland Greece in 480 BCE Leonidas was selected to lead a small contingent of Spartan hoplites – some 300 hand-picked men with male heirs – to defend the pass of Thermopylae and hold the invading force until more troops could be mustered. The Spartans at this time were involved in the sacred Karneia festival and so, theoretically, could not go to war until it was over. Sparta could well have fielded up to 8,000 hoplites but not during the Karneia. The 300 Spartans were joined by troops form various other city-states to make up a force of up to 7,000 men, woefully inadequate to halt Xerxes’ army of 80,000.

Thermopylae, 150 km north of Athens, was an excellent choice as the point to defend Greece, as there mountains rolled down into the sea leaving only a narrow pass along the coast. Nevertheless, Xerxes was so confident of success that he sent a messenger to Leonidas to ask for the Greeks to surrender and lay down their arms. The Spartan king’s laconic reply was ‘molōn labe’ – come and get them.

With Leonidas leading from the front and the hoplites fighting in their tight phalanx formation, they took full advantage of their superior armour and weapons and managed to hold the vast Persian army for two days. However, betrayed by a local shepherd who told the Persians of a mountain path which would allow them to get behind the Greek lines, things looked grim for the defenders. Leonidas ordered the bulk of his force to withdraw and kept with him only the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans in order to make a last stand and provide a rear-guard action.

Ultimately, though, the Greek forces were wiped out to a man and Apollo’s oracle at Delphi had been proved right when she had stated that either Sparta or one of her kings must fall. After the battle Xerxes demanded that Leonidas’ head be put on a stake for public display, a highly dishonourable act and against all rules of warfare at that time. Cartwright, M. (2013, May 12). Leonidas I of Sparta. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Leonidas_I/

SPECIFICATION
DENOMINATION $5 NZD(Niue)
COMPOSITION 0.999 silver
WEIGHT 62.2 grams
DIMENSIONS 50.0 mm
FINISH Antique
MODIFICATIONS High-relief, red gilding
MINTAGE 999
BOX / C.O.A. Yes / Yes
MINT OF POLAND