Daughter of a king of Sparta, wife of a king of Sparta, mother of a king of Sparta, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Gorgo is that we know much about her at all considering the near complete absence of women in classical Greek history. Even queens are rarely mentioned in the works of Herodotus, Xenophon and Thucydides. Not surprising, for most of the ancient Greek historians were Athenians, and Athenians held that women should not be seen – much less heard – in public. As Pericles supposedly said in one of his speeches: “The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about, whether they are praising you or criticizing you.” Gorgo, by that view, was a stunning aberration.
Born around 513 BC, Gorgo was the only child of the Agiad king of Sparta, Cleomenes. Besides ruling Sparta with an iron fist, he pursued an often unscrupulous foreign policy, crushing Argos, intervening in Athenian affairs, helping forge the Peloponnesian League. Gorgo learned a lot from her darling dad. Virtually nothing is known of her childhood; she was likely plain (or mention of her “beauty” would have found its way into the “histories”) but clever, as when she advised her father not to trust Aristagoras of Miletus who was seeking support for an Ionian revolt against the Persians. She was no doubt raised and schooled as were other Spartan girls of noble lineage: taught literacy and numeracy, dancing and singing, to ride bareback and to drive a chariot, encouraged to strenuous exercise daily (including wrestling and gymnastics in the nude).
Whatever her other attributes, Gorgo was the quintessential Spartan woman, self-confident and outspoken. Neither vain nor materialistic, if Herodotus’ tales are to be believed (and that’s a stretch, as he was more given to hearsay than fact), she showed Spartan scorn at affectation, once thinking that a visitor to court had no hands because he had slaves dress him. According to another story, a grown Gorgo accused an elegantly dressed visitor of not being able to “play even a female role” among true Spartan women.
It appears that Gorgo was married to Leonidas I, her half-uncle, by 490 BC when her father died. Sparta was unique in that it had two kings, serving simultaneously. Although both technically had equal power, when Leonidas came to the throne, succeeding Cleomenes in the Agiad dynasty, Gorgo managed to elevate her husband over the other king Leotychidas in terms of influence and decision-making. As queen of a militaristic city-state, her “cleverness” served Sparta in good stead numerous times. Prior to the Persian invasion of Greece in 480, the exile Demaratus sent a warning to Sparta about Xerxes’ plans; to conceal the message, he had it engraved on a piece of wood and then covered with wax. When it arrived, neither the kings nor the five ephors (advisors to the kings elected by the citizens) knew what to make of the seemingly blank slab, until Gorgo advised Leonidas to clear the wax from the wood. There are several instances mentioned in the histories in which she is present in council giving advice to the kings or assembly.
It is unknown whether the proud queen gave Leonidas more than one child – his son Pleistarchus I – but given her schedule before Leonidas marched away to die at Thermopylae, it is perfectly understandable if she didn’t. And, while other Spartan queens had been accused of adultery (notably Helen), Gorgo is repeatedly portrayed as virtuously rejecting unwanted advances. But then, she is famously cited as having stated that only Spartan women produced real men … so maybe no one else was worthy. According to the later historian Plutarch, aware that his death was inevitable when the 300 Spartans marched north, Gorgo asked her husband what he wanted her to do. Leonidas told her “to marry a good man … bear good children.” There is no record that she followed his advice.
It is likely that, both before and after the Persians invaded, Gorgo travelled throughout Greece helping Leonidas rally the Greek city-states to a common defense. Virtually all of Leonidas’ reign was dominated by Sparta’s efforts to forge a coalition, especially an alliance with Athens, the leading maritime power. Gorgo in Athens must have been a sensation; after all, in Athens it was considered scandalous for a woman – married or not – to be seen in public … and Gorgo was driving a chariot through the streets. Even more scandalous if while riding about she wore traditional Spartan female attire, consisting of a short, thin skirt and tunic with arms and legs bare, while Athenian women wore heavy clothing that concealed everything save face, feet and hands. Spartan women at the time enjoyed a status and respect unknown by their gender in the rest of Greece, and no doubt Leonidas and Gorgo made the most of that in their negotiations, alternating shock with charm.
Upon the slaughter of the 300 at Thermopylae, Gorgo’s son became king, with first his uncle and then his cousin acting as regent until Pleistarchus assumed the crown himself in 478 BC. Although it is likely that she continued to offer advice to him and the ephors of Sparta through the rest of the Persian war, with her husband’s death, Gorgo disappears from the recitations of Greek historians. There is no record of her own demise.