Great Grandfather

I haven’t written about my great great grandparents for a while. I would like to tell about the common stories told around their dinner table, but no one recorded them, so they ate lost to history. I know that some of them lived in challenging times, in challenging places. But without recorded history it’s just a good guess. So I suppose I will have to settle for those ancestors that actually made the history books, or a combination of history books and Wikipedia.

So let me tell you about my 52nd great grandfather. Kind of an interesting guy, lots written about him from widely different sources, so you can parse together a certain truth. There have even been a few movies! My 52nd great grandmother has also found history kindly, and portrayed by an accomplished actor. She even gets a great quote to remember her by… “Come back with your shield, or on it!”.

Yes, my 52nd great grandfather is none other than Leonidas, King of Sparta.

Well, why not! He had kids, and his kids had kids. Someone gets to be related eventually.

I don’t think we get to know the Queen’s name in the movie, but apparently it was Gorgo, and they had one son, his name was Pleistarchus, not a name that rolls off your tongue. By the way, he grew up to be no slouch himself. He was very active in Greek politics and wars, and found himself on the winning side due to his skills.

Eventually he met a young lady from the island of Thera, the famous one that blew-up in pre-history. Removed from the mainland they were on the edge of civilization for centuries. They eventually embraced the Roman culture, even while Alexander was making his run for history. For the most part they stay rooted on Thera and kept their family records like good Roman citizens.

I’ve alway said that genealogy can really be trusted if you can get into royal records. They were fanatics about accurate family history and employed court scribes to write it all down. The other fanatic group was the Romans. So if you are lucky to find a lowly count or Duke, then ride the information until some barbarian royalty marries into a Roman family, then you have decades of records. In this case a Greek family that embraced the practice of Roman culture.

So Pleistarchus’s son lived on Thera and took a Greek/Roman name, Aulus Plotius Leonides. Kind of a nod to his grandfather.

They apparently stayed on the island for about seven generations, then moved to Rome itself for a couple of generations, finally they moved to the edges of the Roman Empire in France. They became a minor royal family in Brittany for seven of eight generations, and began moving up in power and wealth, though talent and marriages.

The big improvement is when they married into the House of Butgundy around 1000. Everybody wanted to marry into the Burgundian’s, the Mauvoisins, the Bethencourts, the Bracquemont, the Grainvilles, the Meluns, and the Hammerstein.

The Hammersteins are important because it was a family going in the wrong direction, not richer and more powerful, but poorer and not “land owners”. Sometime in the 1400s there was a great movement to trim the royal families. There were too many of them, seeking privileges without the ability to pay taxes. The wiser families married into the richer commoners. Ha! Some of my German peasants married ex-royalty… So I get to claim a micro connection to Leonidas!

Do I trust the information? The Roman and European lines have been checked and triple checked for generations. The poor agerman fathers have had records digitized by Ancestry.com and that is vastly improved from a few years ago when the data was barely on microfilm. I still don’t know where my grandfather died, he left and just disappeared, so nothing is absolutely known, just a pretty good guess for recent history, but better when it got written down.

So, back to Leonidas, what do we know? Well, he appears to be a badass. He led a core group of personally chosen Spartans, he gathered 300 men for the battle. Not necessarily the best fighters, but older and courageous. He made it attractive for other men from other cities to join him at Thermopylae, “the Hot Gates”. At the start of the battle he had maybe 5 or 6 thousand Greeks, fighting against 200 to 300 thousand Persians. The battlefield was narrow so very few men fought at one time. The Greeks created mounds of dead Persians. He delayed the Persian army for maybe a week, giving the main Greek army time to organize. He didn’t come back from the battle, not even on his shield. It is written that the survivors tried to bring his body back, but the Persians wouldn’t allow it, and then mutilated Leonidas. His head was put on a stake, and his body was crucified at the battle site.

In 1955 a statue was erected at Thermopylae with the words: “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” (“Come and take them”). This was Leonidas’ answer to the Persian demand to drop your weapons. Yep, badass, was my 52nd great grandfather.

Leonidas, King of Sparta

Death: 19 September 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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