Spartan Woman

A bronze statue, likely of a Spartan woman. c. 500 BCE. (British Museum).

Gorgo was the Queen of Sparta and wife to Leonidas I, the king who led his 300 Spartan soldiers (along with over 6000 Greek soldiers) to the battle of Thermopylae. She was the only known child of King Cleomenes (her husband’s half-brother) and while her mother is unknown, she was certainly from Sparta as Gorgo rose to become Queen of Sparta in her own right; a title that could not be held by anyone except a true Spartan woman. Her name is a derivative from the Greek word ‘Gorgon’ meaning terrifying, and with the legacy that Queen Gorgo left, we can only assume that this was relatively true. While we are uncertain as to her year of birthday, it can be safely dated to between 518 and 508 BCE.

Gorgo is one of the only females mentioned repeatedly by name by Herodotus in his Histories at various important events in her lifetime, showing that she was afforded a respect that many women of the same time period were not granted.

Spartan women of nobility held a much more satisfying quality of life than their Athenian counterparts, and would have been encouraged to enhance themselves. Queen Gorgo would have been raised as any other child; well fed, highly educated in both literacy and numeracy, taught to drive a chariot independently, encouraged to participate in daily exercise and training as well as participate in all the annual festivals and choruses. They were also able to own their own land as well as get divorced. Being the daughter of Cleomenes, she was afforded an even greater sense of power than other Spartan women. Herodotus, in his Histories, writes that Gorgo was present at a meeting when she was a child between Cleomenes and Aristagoras, the leader of Miletus, where he was attempting to persuade Sparta to involve themselves in the Ionian revolts against the Persian rule. Her age in this meeting has been disputed by Classicists, who estimate she was closer to the age of 18 at the time. He writes that at the end of the meeting she exclaimed “Father, the stranger will corrupt you, unless you leave him and go away.”

Gorgo is most noted for her actions during her marriage to her half-uncle Leonidas I. They had one child together, Pleistarchus, who went on to reign as the King of Sparta between 480 – 458BCE following his father’s death at the battle of Thermopylae.

According to Herodotus, during her reign as Queen a message was sent to the Spartan court from a man in exile in Persia, warning Leonidas that Xerxes was planning to invade. The message was sent on a wooden tablet that had been covered in wax in order to disguise the message underneath. Herodotus writes that it was the actions of Gorgo that informed the King and his advisors to remove the wax from the tablet in order to reveal the message.

During their reign, Queen Gorgo was well travelled. It is evident in classical literature that both she and Leonidas made trips to Athens in order to strengthen the relationship between the Greek states, a luxury that was not afforded to other Greek women. She is noted for a conversation recorded by Plutarch in Moralia, with a woman from Attica where she was asked, “Why is it that you Spartan women are the only women that lord it over your men?” to which she replied, “Because we are the only women that are mothers of men.” Attican women were not permitted to travel so it is likely that this exchange occurred in Athens rather than Sparta, showing that Gorgo had in fact travelled with her husband.

These exchanges that we see in ancient Greek literature not only show her to be smart as these male historians write of her keeping up with–and in some cases educating–Spartan men; but they also show that she was present in Leonidas’ council meetings and was allowed to give advice. It is because of this that she has gone down in history as outspoken and eager to get involved in matters that would not concern other women.

Gorgo has been most recently depicted by Lena Headey in the 2006 film 300, as well as the 2014 sequel 300: Rise of an Empire.

Overall I think Queen Gorgo is a fascinating female figure in ancient Greek history. She represented a race of women who were seen as stronger and much more independent than their Athenian counterparts. Her inclusion in works by Herodotus and Plutarch show that she was particularly well respected, something that was unfortunately unusual for a woman in a classical culture. She was the father of King Cleomenes, the wife of King Leonidas, and the mother of King Pleistarchus, showing that she was truly a royal Spartan woman who has gone down in history as being a force to be reckoned with.

-Devon Allen
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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