Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

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A sculpture believed to show Gorgo.

Gorgo (/ˈɡɔːrɡ/; Greek: Γοργώ [ɡorɡɔ͜ɔ́]; fl. 480 BC) was a Spartan woman and wife to King Leonidas I (r. 489-480 BC). She was the daughter and the only known child of Cleomenes I, Leonidas's half-brother and King of Sparta (r. 520–490 BC).[1] Gorgo was also the mother of King Pleistarchus, her only son with King Leonidas I.[2] She is notably one of the few female historical figures actually named by Herodotus, and is depicted in sources as intelligent and wise.[3][4] Her birth date is uncertain, but based on Herodotus' dating, it is most likely to have been between 518 and 508 BC.[citation needed]

Early life and education[edit]

According to Herodotus, Gorgo was the only child of King Cleomenes I of Sparta. The earliest anecdote of her life that he provides in The Histories comes when Aristagoras, seeking allies after the Ionian revolt, came to Sparta to try to convince Cleomenes to invade the Persian Empire. He cited the “disgrace” suffered by the Ionians in Anatolia and weaved further tales of the wealth and resources to be reaped from an empire as vast as Persia.[5] When he learned that the journey to Asia would take three months by sea, however, Cleomenes turned down Aristagoras’s proposal and told him to leave Sparta, telling him that such a journey was out of the question for the Lacedaemonians.[6] However, Aristagoras arrived at Cleomenes’s home that evening, now offering increasing bribes going as high as fifty talents of silver. It is here that Gorgo, eight or nine years old at this point according to Herodotus, stepped in and told her father to leave lest Aristagoras’s bribes corrupt him. Cleomenes listened to his daughter’s advice, removed himself, and Aristagoras left Sparta without being heard any further.[7]

Spartan women such as Gorgo were ultimately expected to produce strong Spartan offspring, and to that end partook in a physical education curriculum similar to their male peers.[8] As part of this curriculum, Gorgo would have learned sports such as running, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling.[9] Gorgo would not only have been taught these sports, but also competed against her peers in various contests. The belief was that if both parents were physically strong, their child would be as well.[8]

In addition to her physical education, Gorgo would have been educated in academic matters. As an elite woman, she would have been taught how to read and write. She would also have received an education in the arts, including music, dance, and poetry. The academic curriculum of Spartan woman was notably at least equivalent, if not superior, to that of Spartan males.[9] It is because of this physical and mental training that Plutarch attributes an anecdote to Gorgo in which a foreign woman notes that "You Spartan women are the only ones who rule their men." To which Gorgo replies, "Yes, we are the only ones that give birth to men."[10]

Marriage and reign[edit]

A bust believed to depict King Leonidas I, Gorgo's husband

After Cleomenes's death in 489 BC, Gorgo was left as his sole heiress. By 490, she was apparently already married to her half-uncle Leonidas I.[11] Despite being the daughter and wife of Spartan kings, Gorgo herself could not be considered a queen, as royal women in Sparta did not typically hold a special role in society. The title of "queen" being used to describe Greek women wouldn't appear until the late Hellenistic period. That said, Gorgo did hold a certain amount of authority and influence in Spartan politics.[9]

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 did not know what to do with the seemingly blank wax tablet, until Gorgo advised them to clear the wax off the tablet.[12] She is described by David Kahn in his book The Codebreakers as one of the first female cryptanalysts whose name has been recorded.[13]

Historian and novelist Helena P. Schrader speculates that in the time after the Battle of Marathon and leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas I would have travelled to other city-states to coordinate the Greek coalition, and that he brought Gorgo with him. It is here, Schrader postulates, that Gorgo would have had her famous exchange in which she told an Athenian woman that Spartan women were the only Greek women to “...give birth to men.”[14]

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".[15]


She had at least one son by Leonidas I, Pleistarchus, co-king of Sparta from 480 BC to his death in 458 BC.[2]

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).[16] After Pausanias fell into disfavor and was accused of plotting treason, Pleistarchus ruled with the other king of Sparta, Leotychidas II (and then his grandson Archidamus) until his death 459/458 BC.[17][18]

In popular culture[edit]

In the 1962 film The 300 Spartans,[19] Gorgo was portrayed by Greek actress and future politician Anna Synodinou.

In the novel Sacred Games, by Gary Corby,[20] Gorgo appears as a major character.

The character makes a minor appearance in the 1998 comic series 300 by Frank Miller, who was heavily inspired by the aforementioned film.[21] 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.[22] Headey reprised her role in the 2014 sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire.[23]

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.[24]

In the 2016 4X video game Civilization VI, Gorgo is one of the two leaders of the Greek civilization, the other being Pericles.[25][26] Gorgo is voiced by Angeliki Dimitrakopoulou, who speaks her native Doric Dialect of Ancient Greece.[27]


  1. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 5, chapter 48, section 1". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
  2. ^ a b Rahe, Paul Anthony (1994). Republics Ancient and Modern. UNC Press Books. p. 318. ISBN 978-0-8078-4473-1.
  3. ^ Herodotus (2007). The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 735–736. ISBN 978-0-307-53654-9. OCLC 464268448.
  4. ^ Lightman, Marjorie (2008). A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women. New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 148. ISBN 0816067104.
  5. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 5, chapter 49". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
  6. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 5, chapter 50". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
  7. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 5, chapter 51". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
  8. ^ a b "Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, chapter 1, section 4". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-02.
  9. ^ a b c Pomeroy, Sarah B. (2002). Spartan Women. Oxford University Press. pp. 4–19. ISBN 0-19-513066-9. OCLC 716513737.
  10. ^ "Plutarch, Lycurgus, chapter 14, section 4". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-02.
  11. ^ Lightman, Marjorie (2008). A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women. New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 148. ISBN 0816067104.
  12. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7, chapter 239". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
  13. ^ Kahn, David (1996). The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: Scribner. p. 82. ISBN 0-684-83130-9.
  14. ^ "Leonidas and Gorgo of Sparta - Spartan Queen Gorgo". sparta-leonidas-gorgo.com. Retrieved 2021-10-28.
  15. ^ Roberts, Andrew (1 November 2008). The Art of War: Great Commanders of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds 1600 BC - AD 1600. Quercus. p. 83.
  16. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 9, chapter 64". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-02.
  17. ^ Lendering, Jona (2006-03-31). "Eurypontids and Agiads". Livius.org. Retrieved 1 November 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  18. ^ "Lycurgus, Against Leocrates, section 128". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2021-11-01.
  19. ^ Nikoloutsos, Konstantinos P. (October 2013). Ancient Greek Women in Film. OUP Oxford. p. 261. ISBN 978-0-19-967892-1.
  20. ^ Corby, Gary (21 May 2013). Sacred Games. Soho Press. ISBN 978-1-61695-228-0.
  21. ^ Renger, Almut-Barbara; Solomon, Jon (13 November 2012). Ancient Worlds in Film and Television: Gender and Politics. BRILL. p. 71. ISBN 90-04-18320-5.
  22. ^ Santas, Constantine; Wilson, James M.; Colavito, Maria (21 March 2014). The Encyclopedia of Epic Films. Scarecrow Press. p. 499. ISBN 978-0-8108-8248-5.
  23. ^ Aperlo, Peter; Murro, Noam; Snyder, Zack (4 February 2014). 300: Rise of an Empire - The Art of the Film. Titan Books Limited. ISBN 978-1-78116-782-3.
  24. ^ Helena Schrader. "The Leonidas Trilogy website". Sparta-leonidas-gorgo.com. Retrieved 2011-07-24.
  25. ^ Official Sid Meier's youtube channel video of Gorgo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=syS-SFtr-44
  26. ^ Official Sid Meier's youtube channel video of Pericles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSCTlpEM9Vw
  27. ^ "Angeliki Dimitrakopoulou". IMDb. Retrieved 2020-12-03.

Further reading[edit]

  • Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. British Museum Press, London, 1995.
  • Sealey, Raphael. Women and Law in Classical Greece. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1990.
  • Schrader, Helena P., '"Scandalous" Spartan Women,' Sparta Reconsidered, [1]
  • 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, [2]
  • Schrader, Helena P., Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer. Wheatmark, Tucson, 2011.