Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

Gorgo was the daughter of one Spartan King, wife to another, and mother to a third. But what she was really famous for was her deep wisdom, which she used to advise the kings of Sparta, beginning at the tender age of 8.

Her father was King Cleomenes. Cleomenes was once visited by a dodgy foreigner called Aristagoras, who proposed Sparta join in a very dubious project. After Cleomenes refused, this is what happened:
Aristagoras followed Cleomenes with an olive branch in his hand, like a suppliant, and besought Cleomenes to listen and send away his only child, Gorgo, a little girl of 8 or 9, who happened to be standing by her father's side. Cleomenes told Aristogoras to say what he wished and not to mind the child.

Aristagoras began with an offer of 10 talents, to be paid to Cleomenes if he consented. Cleomenes shook his head, and Aristagoras gradually increased his offer. When he went as high as 50 talents, the little girl exclaimed, "Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you." Cleomenes appreciated his daughter's warning.
The proposal the 8 year old Gorgo had just advised her father against was a Spartan invasion of Persia. High politics indeed, and Gorgo was listening in, and learning, from a very young age.

There seems to be a tradition by the way of Spartan Kings playing with their kids while conducting affairs of state. For remorseless killers they were pretty good family men.

Gorgo was the only child of Cleomenes. Because of this, when he died (in very odd circumstances, but I'll leave that for another post), Gorgo was in the extremely unusual position of being the female heir to a Spartan throne. She inherited because she was already married, to a chap called Leonidas. Leonidas became King.

Yes, that Leonidas, the one who would later lead the 300 at Thermopylae. Leonidas was in fact Gorgo's father's half-brother, making this obviously a dynastic marriage, yet by all accounts it was also a very happy one. Gorgo became a one-woman brains trust backing the Spartan leadership, and Leonidas became the second king in a row to take her advice.

There was living in Susa at the time Xerxes decided to attack Greece, an exiled Spartan called Demaratus. Demaratus wanted to send a warning to the Spartans, but knew any message sent by him would be read (no doubt by the Eyes and Ears of the King). So Demaratus scraped all the wax off a wax tablet (which is what people back then used to send letters) and scratched his warning into the backing board of the tablet. Then he reapplied the wax and sent an apparently blank tablet to Sparta.

The Spartans were totally confused when a blank tablet arrived from Persia, sent by a man they'd exiled. No one had any idea what it meant, until they took it to Queen Gorgo, who by this time had a thorough reputation for being the smartest person in Sparta.

Gorgo looked at it, deduced there was a message beneath the wax, and had it scraped off, and thus the Greeks had warning of the coming war and time to mobilise. The Spartans sent word to Athens, where Themistocles had spent the last 10 years preparing for this moment, and his plan went into action. (It's certain that Themistocles and Gorgo met and spoke after the war, and that must have been one fascinating conversation.)

Gorgo knew perfectly well, when Leonidas led the mission to Thermopylae, that her husband wouldn't be coming back. She famously asked him what she should do, and he replied, "Marry well and bear children, and live a good life."

It's not known if she followed the advice, but she'd already borne Leonidas a son, Pleistarchus, who assumed the kingship when he came of age. With Leonidas and Gorgo for parents it must have been a tough act to follow, but he did a reasonable job.

Gorgo totally bought into the Spartan ethic. She was once asked by an (obviously frustrated) woman from Attica why the Spartan women were the only ones who could rule men. Gorgo replied, "Because we are the only ones who give birth to real men."

Gorgo is one of the very few women mentioned by name in the Greek histories, and one of even fewer to have had direct influence in politics. The only woman to compare with her in the Classical age is Aspasia, who followed in the next generation.

27 comments:

Loretta Ross said...

Thanks for another very interesting post! I've linked to it on a girl-power blog I've been trying (off and on, when I have time) to get started for my great-nieces and great-great-nieces. :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Why the heck haven't I heard of Gorgo before? She sounds almost as awesome as Hatshepsut!

I've always felt back for ancient Greek women, but a little better for their Spartan cousins. Life as a woman back then was just lame.

Jade said...

What a great post! The Spartans have long intrigued me. I think it stems from some classical history that I did at Uni.

I must confess that 300 is one of my favourite films though. I watched it the other night. That be some really nice, ahem, acting!

Amalia T. said...

My favorite part of this post is this: "For remorseless killers they were pretty good family men."

Wasn't the Spartan throne usually inherited through the female line? I know when I was researching Helen (Non-Dorian Sparta, I know) it seemed that part of the reason that Meneleus was so determined to get her back was because he had no claim to the Spartan throne without Helen as his wife--and certainly Helen had brothers who might have inherited the throne, and didn't. Did that change in Dorian Sparta?

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Loretta! Do you want to advertise the link here?

Having two girls myself I try to make sure they're trained to control their own lives. It's interesting how hard that is to do.

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, I thought of you and Hatshepsut as I wrote this. There are parallels.

You can check out Gorgo in Herodotus and Plutarch.

The difference with Hatshepsut is, Gorgo was content to rule from behind the throne. Yet the quote from Plutarch at the end of my post shows people knew perfectly well she was running things.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jade, yep, the Spartans were weird and cool. I've neglected them in my posts because there's so much else to talk about, but I'm starting to fix that.

I'm afraid classics departments often play party games spotting all the errors in 300, but one thing it gets right is the relationship between Leonidas and Gorgo.

Jade said...

Does that mean that 300 didn't accurately portray the hotness of Spartan men or did they get that right too? Sigh.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, it's unclear.

In the bronze age it does seem like the throne was matriarchal descent, Menelaos being the best example like you say.

By Doric times it went to next male in line, as long as there was one, but this is complicated by the daughters of kings frequently being married off to relatives who would have been in line anyway, such as Gorgo marrying her half-uncle.

So maybe they were having their bets both ways?

Gary Corby said...

Jade, Spartan men were indeed hot, but not, of course, as hot as modern Australian men.

If any of them had tried fighting with bare chests as per 300, they would have been dead within minutes, so you may need to rearrange your fantasies to include some chest armour. Sorry about that.

For totally fit, well-muscled naked men, you should try the ancient Olympics.

Jade said...

Chest armour is for sissies!

Gary Corby said...

You're right. I never wear any, myself.

Amalia T. said...

You know-- the arguments about 300 being inaccurate strike me as totally missing the point of that movie. Shouldn't we Classics folks just be glad to have some renewed interest? (I loved it. errors and all. But I love comic book movies :)

Gary-- it would certainly make it difficult to argue against the legitimacy of the next king if he was both the man next in line to the throne, AND married to the daughter of the previous king.

Gary Corby said...

I've got a love-hate relationship with 300. I can appreciate the comic book style, and yes, it's nice how they sexed up the whole thing.

They get the phalanx just perfect when they show the Spartans closing ranks behind their shields, and then they break ranks to fight as individuals. No! Aarrggh! Instant death!

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, you're right. But they didn't do brother-sister marriages, so if there was a legit son & a legit daughter, then it went to the son. If no son, then whichever close male relative married the daughter got the gig.

Amalia T. said...

Haha. I had the same response to the break in their formation, as well as the fact that they came out from the pass so far. BUT, it was a movie about style, not about historical accuracy or strategy, and it had a LOT of style!

Matthew Delman said...

Amalia and Gary --

It's funny how you mention the lack of tactical smarts in 300, as my wife and I were commenting on the lack of believability in fantasy battles while watching The Two Towers and Return of the King this weekend.

Fantastic versus historical record isn't the best comparison, but I was watching the battle sequence of Helm's Deep thinking "wait a minute that's a poorly defended fortress if I ever saw one."

But hey let's face it ... proper tactics don't make for good movie-making. Ah well.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Matt, I think it's as much a question of lack of personal experience. There are some fantastic move scenes for WW2 and later, but before that it becomes problematic.

If movie directors took advice from someone with a strong knowledge of general military strategy through the ages you'd probably get a much better result.

TrishaleighKC said...

How interesting. I love her quote about giving birth to real men. She reminds me of Berenice, in Roman history. Not exactly Roman, but their historians unable to tell certain stories without mentioning her name. Nice!

CKHB said...

I am about to email you "The Fifteen Minute 300"...

Loretta Ross said...

Do you want to advertise the link here?

Thanks Gary! :) It's http://whatgirlscando.blogspot.com/ It's just a baby blog at this point, as I haven't had much time to work on it. If anyone has any suggestions for it, I'm all ears.

Regarding The Two Towers and Return of the King, I watched them both over Christmas and I know what you mean. For the record, the defense of Gondor, in particular, wasn't really faithful to the book. I kept thinking though (keeping in mind that I know nothing about warfare) that they could have done better. They know they're going to be besieged. They know where the enemy is going to be standing. Could they not, in advance, pour out a grid of something like tar? Let the enemy get in place and then fire in flaming arrows? Would that work?

Gary Corby said...

Carrie, your 15 minute 300 is freaking hilarious!

You should get your friend to post it! I'd offer to do it myself, except I know at least one school is reading this blog.

I have an article on pottery porn which I need to censor for the same reason.

Nice blog, Loretta. I hope you keep working on it!

DeadlyAccurate said...

The thing with the movie 300 is that it's the one-eyed man's tale used to rally the troops. If you rewatch from the beginning, you'll see he starts to tell the story to his soldiers, then it fades into the story itself. It's his heroic tall tale. That's why the heroes are so tough and brave and noble, the villains are so depraved, and Xerxes is about ten feet tall. It's never intended to be factual.

Gary Corby said...

You're right Carla. The whole thing is a comic book with moving pictures.

It's built into the DNA of historical writers that they go looking for errors, even when it's not appropriate.

Yamile said...

What an incredible woman! I wish there were some like her nowadays.

Gary Corby said...

I'm sure there are women like her alive right now, Yamile, but they're well hidden. Gorgo was a rare combination of talent + birthright. It's hard to think of a current world leader to match her.

Yamile said...

If you do find her, send her to Argentina to replace our current president :-)