Spartan Gorgo went down in history not only because she was the wife of King Leonidas, the hero of the story of 300 Spartans. She was the only woman in Sparta who was the daughter, wife, and mother of the king.
In addition, she played an important role in the politics of the state, she was one of the very few women who was honored with a mention by Herodotus himself in his Nine Books of History. Also, the only one he quoted. So what was she like, the true Spartan queen, named after the three Gorgon sisters and one of the first feminists in history?
The girl who from childhood twisted men as she wanted
Gorgo was born in Sparta. The exact date of birth is unknown. Herodotus writes that this was sometime between 518 and 508 BC. She ascended the throne around 520 BC. It is worth noting here that since the reform of Lycurgus in the 8th century BC, the Spartan monarchy has been a diarchy, dual power. In it, one of the kings belonged to the Agiad dynasty (Dorian origin), and the other to the Eurypontids (Achaean origin).
This duality symbolized two twin brothers, descendants of Hercules. This practice was designed to provide a certain political balance. There was a ban on inter-dynastic marriages. This system collapsed in the 3rd century when Cleomenes III married Agiatis, the widow of his colleague in the diarchy. After the subordination of Sparta to Macedonia, all the reforms of Cleomenes were canceled, and a new order was established.
In the 5th century BC, Cleomenes I came to power. Herodotus writes that he had only one daughter named Gorgo. Her character is well illustrated by one funny story. Once Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, a Hellenic city in Asia Minor, came to visit Cleomenes. He came to ask for help. The fact is that the Persians put his cousin Histieo on the throne. When the latter left for the court of Darius I as an adviser, Aristagoras seized power.
At that time, the Cycladic island of Naxos rebelled against the rule of the Persians, they asked for military assistance from Aristagoras. He took control of the island. An attempt to make an alliance with Darius’ brother, Artaphernes, failed. He was too afraid to anger a powerful relative.
Shortly thereafter, the Persian Empire decided that Aristagoras had gone too far and needed to be taught a lesson. He went to all the surrounding cities to seek help. First, he arrived in Sparta to Cleomenes. This is where Gorgo appears in the story.
Aristagoras tried very hard to convince the king of Sparta that it would not be difficult at all to win and conquer the entire coast of Anatolia. He tempted Cleomenes with fabulous riches that could eventually be obtained. The Spartan ruler was not particularly inclined to accept the proposed plan.
Among other things, he was incredibly embarrassed by the difficulties in moving to the goal. Cleomenes believed that it would be difficult for the army to fight after such a difficult road. He rejected all of Aristagoras’ proposals. However, the Milesian did not give up and came to the king’s house, holding an olive branch in his hands. He begged him to listen. Before that, the ruler of Miletus asked the little daughter of Cleomenes to leave so that they could talk. The king of Sparta refused, and the girl remained. Aristagoras began to offer a lot of gold. When the sum reached the fantastic fifty talents, Gorgo (as Herodotus wrote) exclaimed: “Father, if you do not leave, this stranger will corrupt you”.
It should be noted here that one talent is more than 20 kilograms. Cleomenes listened to the words of his daughter. Aristagoras then went to Athens and Euboea, where his requests were heeded and a flotilla was equipped to help him. It turned out to be easier to convince an assembly of thousands of Athenians than one Spartan king, especially when he is led by a daughter.
The life of women in Sparta
Maybe the women of Sparta cannot be called feminists in the word’s full sense, but their lives were very different from the lives of women of other nations and other Greeks. They had a lot of freedom. They received an excellent education. Girls were not in danger of being killed, as were some male babies. They were cherished, splendidly fed from childhood because their fate is to grow up healthy, endure and give birth to many strong sons.
Girls who belonged to high society also studied literacy, music, dance, and studied art. All the girls, although they were not sent to the barracks, but they had to receive compulsory physical education. They were taught wrestling, horseback riding, discus throwing, and spear throwing. Women took part in the Olympic Games.
Gorgo was the daughter of the king, her education was the best. Plutarch, in his book “Parallel Lives”, dedicated to Lycurgus, told another episode from the life of this extraordinary woman. One day, a foreign ambassador asked King Leonid (Gorgo’s husband): “Why are you, Lacedaemonians (Spartans), the only ones who really know how to rule people?” The queen, in response to this question, said: “Because our women are the only ones who give birth to real men.” This dialogue supposedly took place between the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. This was the time of the most violent confrontation between the Greeks and Persians. By this time, Gorgo was married to Leonid.
Leonidas was the fourth son of King Anaxandridas II. He was Cleomenes’ half-brother and, by extension, Gorgo’s uncle. In addition, he was older by almost forty years. The reign of Leonid was not destined to be long. He ascended the throne thanks to his wife. Cleomenes had no heirs. The struggle for the throne unfolded with another brother of both named Demaratus. The latter entered into an agreement with the Persian king. Cleomenes created a conspiracy against him, as a result of which he committed suicide. Some thought that the king had gone mad, while others believed that he was helped to go to the other world. The throne was taken by Leonid, who had every right to it. To get the latest stories, install our app here.
At this time, Darius I dies. He was knocked down by a defeat in the Battle of Marathon. According to some reports, he was killed by an arrow there, according to others, he was wounded. Now the battle for the royal throne unfolded between his sons Xerxes and Artabazanes. Demaratus actively supported the first and was not mistaken. It was he who eventually became the king, the powerful ruler of an entire empire.
Demaratus eventually became a close person to the new sovereign. The latter decided to avenge his father and for his humiliation. The fact is that he sent heralds to the king of Sparta demanding to obey, but Leonid boldly rejected all the demands, and executed the messengers. History says that he then said the sacramental: “Come and take it!”
Campaign of the Persian king Xerxes
Xerxes began to prepare for the campaign. Demaratus tried his best to talk him out of it. He even warned the Spartans about the plans of the king of the Persians. The Greek was afraid of being exposed and came up with a cunning plan. He wrote the message on a wooden tablet and then filled it with wax. This seemingly empty tablet Demaratus passed with a messenger to Sparta.
No one there could understand why he handed over this useless item. Gorgo guessed to scrape off the top layer of wax, and a valuable message was revealed to them. She could not even imagine then that this message was a harbinger of her imminent widowhood. Leonid decided to go with several hundred soldiers to the pass of Thermopylae. It was the perfect place to stop the enemy by minimizing their numerical superiority.
Fulfillment of prophecy
At the news of the approach of the army of Xerxes, the Greek city-states were seized with an all-consuming horror. Many were quick to give up. The most authoritative oracle from the temple of Apollo at Delphi prophesied that the troops would be defeated. Meanwhile, the Spartan women were giving their husbands a solemn parting word: “Come back with your shield or on it.” Despite the fact that the best, brave warriors accompanied Leonid, despite all the cunning plan with the gorge, Gorgo knew that her husband’s chances of returning, if not a winner, but at least alive, were practically equal to zero.
Saying goodbye, she asked him what she should do if the terrible omen came true. Leonid was not naive. He, too, was well aware that he would no longer return to his native Sparta. Plutarch writes that his answer was: “Marry a good man,
Leonid and Gorgo had a little son. At the time of the Battle of Thermopylae, the boy was 7 years old. According to some sources, 300 Spartans accompanied Leonidas, according to others – 700. These were the most selective warriors. In addition to them, 700 Thespian soldiers joined the army, 400 Thebans, Locrians, and Phocians sent about 1000 people. In total, in the army of Leonidas, when he set up his camp at Thermopylae, there were 7200 soldiers. When the Greeks saw the size of the Persian army, they lost heart. Some retreated immediately. Leonid was determined to go to the end.
The king of the Persians knew that he was opposed by a small detachment. When he sent scouts to see what they were doing, he was quite surprised. The scouts said that some had fun, running races with each other, someone was combing their long hair. Xerxes found this extremely amusing. He decided that this was very stupid and unworthy of warriors. Demaratus, who accompanied him, said: “These people have come here to fight not for life, but for death. They are preparing for a hot battle. It is their custom that whenever they go to fight to the death, they adorn their heads. Know, king, if you defeat these people and those who remained in Sparta, then not a single people in the world will dare to raise a hand against you.”
The next day showed the king of the Persians that Demaratus was right. The Persian army not only did not advance a single step, they lost almost seven thousand people killed. The Spartans, standing in close ranks, beat off one enemy attack after another. A traitor helped the cause – a Malian named Ephialtes. He showed the Persians a secret passage that led through the mountain around Thermopylae. So two tens of thousands of Persians ended up in the rear of the Greeks. Leonidas was informed that the Persians were going around. He immediately ordered the main forces to retreat. There were not enough warriors to be able to repel an attack from two sides at the same time. All units except the Spartan retreated. Leonid stayed. He had to fight and die. The king of Sparta knew what he was doing. At Thermopylae, almost two thousand soldiers remained with him. To get the latest stories, install our app here.
They gave a worthy last fight. Leonid died in the first hours of this hot battle. In total, during the battle of Thermopylae, the Persians lost about 20 thousand soldiers. According to a number of historians, about 12,000 Spartans and their allies opposed the Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae. There were a little more than 200 thousand Persians. Maybe not 300 Spartans, but quite impressive and more than worthy. Moreover, the bulk left the battlefield, many surrendered.
Fate of Gorgo
The strong woman Gorgo was left a widow. The young son became king. The regent was first his uncle Cleombrotus and then his cousin Pausanias. At the age of 20, Leonid’s son died (close family ties apparently affected his heredity).
The fate of Gorgo herself is unknown. Only historical texts remain that demonstrate the tough nature of women. She was laconic but concise. When she criticized her father for his addiction to wine, she said that the more people drink, the more helpless they are. On another occasion, rejecting a dress offered by a stranger, she says: “Get out of here! You are not worthy to do what women do!” Gorgo wasn’t a terrible character, as one might assume, knowing what her name means. Three mythological gorgon sisters: Medusa, Steno, and Euryale. They became embittered after Poseidon dishonored Medusa. On their heads were snakes instead of hair, and their eyes exuded rage. History lost track of Queen Gorgo after the death of her husband, but it is worth remembering. Aristotle attributed to her the saying “with a shield or on a shield”, and Herodotus called it “a great woman”. To get the latest stories, install our app here.