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Women of History: Gorgo, Queen of Sparta
Daughter of a king, wife of a king, mother of a king: Queen Gorgo of Sparta was a singular personality in the history of ancient Greece. Her wisdom and political acumen made her a highly respected queen and the subject of numerous anecdotes in Herodotus’ Histories.
Gorgo was born between 518 and 508 BC, and was the only child of King Cleomenes. Her name is a derivation of "Gorgos," meaning "terrifying," after which were named the mythical Gorgons, three sisters whose ugliness was so spectacular that any who looked upon them would be turned to stone. The implication, of course, is that Gorgo was not a particularly pretty woman, but Herodotus does not remark upon her appearance one way or another.
Daughter of a King
Sparta was ruled by two kings, descendants from the Agiad and Eurypontid noble families. Cleomenes was of the Agiad line, the eldest son of Anaxandrides II by his second wife, and had three half-brothers. One of these was Leonidas, who would become the husband of Gorgo and the hero of Thermopylae.
Cleomenes was an accomplished military leader and was unusually involved in political developments outside of Sparta, whose rulers and citizens were generally not interested in life outside the Peloponnesus. In 499, a man named Aristagoras, ruler of the Greek Ionian city of Miletus, came to Sparta to invite Cleomenes to take part in a planned Greek revolt against Persia. Cleomenes was skeptical of taking part in such a distant campaign, however, and when Aristagoras confessed that it would be a three-month march from the Ionian coast - not to mention the time it would take to sail across the Aegean Sea - Cleomenes curtly ordered the Milesian to leave Sparta by nightfall.
Aristagoras persisted, however, and followed Cleomenes to his home. It is here that Gorgo enters the historical record. Herodotus relates that Gorgo, a child of eight or nine, was by her father's side when Aristagoras offered the king money - ten talents - to join in the revolt. Cleomenes again refused, but as Aristagoras increased the offer, the king's resolve began to waver. When Aristagoras reached an offer of fifty talents, Gorgo stepped forward and said to Cleomenes, "Father, you had better go away, or this stranger will corrupt you." Cleomenes accepted the rebuke of his daughter, and Sparta did not enter into the Ionian Revolt.
Wife of a King
Cleomenes’ reign was marked by a number of controversies: military meddling in the government of Athens; a war against Argos in which he burned a sacred grove and slaughtered Argives who had surrendered to him; and bribing of the Delphic oracle in order to banish his co-monarch, Demaratus. In his later years he seems to have gone mad; Herodotus states that he attacked citizens in the streets, and was eventually confined to the stocks. There he committed suicide in grisly fashion: convincing a slave to give him a knife, he then stripped skin from his shins, thighs, hips and sides, until he reached his belly and finally died.
It is believed that by the time of Cleomenes’ death around 490 BC, Gorgo was already married to Leonidas, her half-uncle. As a Spartan girl, she would have been trained in physical education, singing, dancing, and poetry, in a less brutal but similar program that the Spartan boys received. Spartan women enjoyed an unusual status in the Greek world. Greek women were confined to their homes, seldom received any formal education, and had few rights. A Spartan woman, by contrast, was able to move about her country freely, to own and inherit property, and to initiate divorce. While they did not have a voting voice, they were highly respected by their men, and Gorgo was known to give advice to the Spartan council on at least one occasion.
The Ionian Revolt begun by Aristagoras had failed, and the Persian king Darius was determined to seek revenge against the upstart Greeks. The exiled Spartan king Demaratus, who had sought refuge at the Persian court, learned of Darius’ plans and conspired to send a warning to Sparta. Correspondence at the time was written upon wax tablets. To evade spying Persian eyes, Demaratus carved his warning message directly into the wood, then covered it over with wax. Upon receiving this apparently blank message, the Spartan council was flummoxed. It was Gorgo who deduced what Demartus had done and told them to scrape off the wax, revealing the message beneath.
Leonidas devoted much of his reign to forging and strengthening alliances between the Greek cities in anticipation of this invasion. That he visited Athens and took Gorgo with him is evident in other anecdotes related by Herodotus. In her most famous remark, she is asked by a “woman from Attica” why only Spartan women, of all the women in the world, are able to rule men. Gorgo replied that “Only Spartan women give birth to real men.”
When Leonidas and his 300 struck out for Thermopylae, both he and Gorgo knew he would not return. Gorgo asked her husband what she should do. He told her simply to “Marry a good man and have many children.”
Mother of a King
Gorgo and Leonidas had at least one son, Pleistarchus. A minor at the time of his father’s death at Thermopylae, his cousin Pausanius acted as regent for the boy, and was integral in organizing the final Greek land victory over the Persian forces at the battle of Plataea in 479. Pausanius fell into disfavor and was accused of treason in 478, and Pleistarchus then ruled in his own right until his death in 459/458.
Gorgo’s date of death is not recorded, and it is not known if she was influential during her son’s reign. Pleistarchus seems not to have left an heir. Pleistoanax, son of the disgraced Pausanius, became king after Pleistarchus’ death.
While little is known of the specifics of Gorgo's life and reign, it can be inferred from the numerous quotes and anecdotes recorded by Herodotus that she was an intelligent and wise queen. Gorgo exemplified the virtues held dear not only by Sparta but by all the Greeks, most of whom regarded the strict Spartan lifestyle with great respect and admiration. As such, she retains a unique and worthy place in Greek history, not only as the wife of Sparta's most celebrated king, but in her own right as its most notable queen.