Gorgo, Queen of Sparta
Gorgo (//; Greek: Γοργώ [ɡorɡɔ͜ɔ́]; fl. 480 BC) was a Queen of Sparta. She was the daughter and the only known child of Cleomenes I, King of Sparta (r. 520–490 BC) during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. She was the wife of King Leonidas I, Cleomenes' half-brother, who fought and died in the Battle of Thermopylae. It is said by Herodotus that King Leonidas descended from Hercules. Gorgo was also the mother of King Pleistarchus, her only son with co-King Leonidas I. She is also noted as one of the few female historical figures actually named by Herodotus, and was known for her political judgment and wisdom. Her birth date is uncertain, but based on Herodotus' dating, it is most likely to have been between 518 and 508 BC (Histories 5.51).
Her father, Cleomenes, was the eldest-born son of the previous Agiad king, Anaxandridas II. He succeeded his father at his death; however, he had three paternal half-brothers, of whom the eldest, Dorieus, would eventually cause him trouble; challenging the decision of Cleomenes being successor, which was later over-ruled. The other two half-brothers were Leonidas I and Cleombrotus. All four were sons of Anaxandridas II, one of the dual kings of Sparta of the Agiad house.[a]
According to one version (Herodotus's Histories, 5.4), Gorgo's grandfather Anaxandridas II was long married without children and was advised to remarry (i.e. take a second wife) which he did. His second wife gave birth to the future Cleomenes I who was thus his eldest son; however, his first wife also became pregnant, and eventually had three sons, including Leonidas I, Gorgo's future husband. Other versions imply that Cleomenes was either born by the king's first marriage or by a non-marital alliance. Most historians favor Herodotus because he is the earliest source. In either case, there appears to have been some tension between the eldest son and his half-brothers. This tension was only resolved by Cleomenes' death, supposedly through suicide or murder, and the accession of Leonidas I (Cleomenes' half-brother and son-in-law).
Marriage and reign
Looking forward to Cleomenes' death (489 BC), his only surviving child Gorgo became his sole heiress. She was apparently already married by 490 to her half-uncle Leonidas I in an avunculate marriage. King Leonidas and Queen Gorgo would have at least one child, a son, Pleistarchus, co-king of Sparta from 480 BC to his death in 459 BC/458 BC.
Arguably, Gorgo's most significant role occurred prior to the Persian invasion of 480 BC. According to Herodotus's Histories, Demaratus, then in exile at the Persian court, sent a warning to Sparta about Xerxes's pending invasion. In order to prevent the message from being intercepted by the Persians or their vassal states, the message was written on a wooden tablet and then covered with wax. "The Spartans", presumably the ephors, Gerousia or the kings, did not know what to do with the seemingly blank wax-tablet, until Queen Gorgo advised them to clear the wax off the tablet. She is described by David Kahn in his book The Codebreakers as one of the first female cryptanalysts whose name has been recorded.
According to Plutarch, before the Battle of Thermopylae, knowing that her husband's death in battle was inevitable, she asked him what to do. Leonidas replied "marry a good man who will treat you well, bear him children, and live a good life".
She had at least one son by Leonidas I, Pleistarchus, co-King of Sparta from 480 BC to his death in 458 BC.
Her son was a minor at his father's death, so his uncle Cleombrotus (died 480 BC) and his first cousin and heir Pausanias (r. 480–479 BC) acted as his regent and tutor. It was Pausanias who was the architect of the combined Greek victory at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). After Pausanias fell into disfavor and was accused of plotting treason, Leonidas's son Pleistarchus ruled with the other king of Sparta, Leotychidas II (and then his grandson Archidamus) until his death 459/458 BC.
There are sections where she is present at court or in council and gives advice to the king or the elders. Two events in Herodotus show Gorgo give council to her father Cleomenes I and the Spartans. Herodotus says that Gorgo, aged around eight years old, managed to stop her father, Cleomenes I, being bribed by Aristagoras of Miletus to help out in the Ionian Revolt. The second event that Gorgo aided Sparta was when the Spartans were sent a tablet by Demaratus, who was at the time in Susa, that was hiding a secret message. To which Herodotus says Gorgo was the only person to uncover the hidden message and instructed the Spartans to “scrape the wax away” to find the secret message. This indicates either that Gorgo was highly thought of by Herodotus, who often left out the names of the female figures he included in his books, or that as the wife of Leonidas I, her actions and counsel were all the more noteworthy.
Plutarch quotes Queen Gorgo as follows: "When asked by a woman from Attica, 'Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?', she said: 'Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.'" Another version has this as, "...some foreign lady, as it would seem, told her that the women of Lacedaemon were the only women in the world who could rule men; 'With good reason,' she said, 'for we are the only women who bring forth men.'" (Plutarch's Lives: Lycurgus)
In popular culture
The character makes a minor appearance in the 1998 comic series 300 by Frank Miller, who was heavily inspired by the aforementioned film. In the 2006 motion picture adaptation of the comic, 300, English actress Lena Headey plays Gorgo. In this version, she is more politically involved and has a prominent role in the events preceding and during the war with Persia. Headey reprised her role in the 2014 sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire.
Helena P. Schrader has published the first book in a three-part biographical novel on Leonidas and Gorgo. The first book, Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge, focuses on Leonidas's boyhood in the notorious Spartan agoge, but books two and three will give prominence to Gorgo too.
In the strategic video game Civilization VI, Gorgo is one of the two leaders of Greece, alongside Pericles. Gorgo is voiced by Angeliki Dimitrakopoulou, who speaks her native Doric Dialect of Ancient Greece.
- Sparta had a system of dual kings, from two rival but related houses, descended allegedly from twin sons of an early king of Sparta.
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- See Herodotus The Histories Book 9 (all), and Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War I.126–139
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- Helena Schrader. "''The Leonidas Trilogy'' website". Sparta-leonidas-gorgo.com. Retrieved 2011-07-24.
- Official Sid Meier's youtube channel video of Gorgo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syS-SFtr-44
- Official Sid Meier's youtube channel video of Pericles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSCTlpEM9Vw
- "Angeliki Dimitrakopoulou". IMDb. Retrieved 2020-12-03.
- A Profile of Gorgo from a website.
- Herodotus's Histories Book VII "Polymnia" where Gorgo is mentioned in Section 239 (7.239) advising the Spartan elders after Thermopylae.
- For a number of essays on Leonidas and Gorgo visit Helena Schrader's website Sparta-Leonidas-Gorgo
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- Pomeroy, Sarah. Spartan Women. Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Schrader, Helena P., '"Scandalous" Spartan Women,' Sparta Reconsidered, 
- Schrader, Helena P., "Scenes from a Spartan Marriage," Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol.6, #1.
- Schrader, Helena P., "The Bride of Leonidas," the Leonidas Trilogy, 
- Schrader, Helena P., Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer. Wheatmark, Tucson, 2011.
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