Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

Gorgo (Greek: Γοργώ) (fl. 480 BC) was the daughter and the only 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. Gorgo is noted as one of the few female historical figures actually named by Herodotus, and for her political acumen and wisdom. She is unique for being the daughter of a King of Sparta, the wife of another king of Sparta, and the mother of a third king of Sparta. Her birth date is uncertain, but is almost certain to have been between 510 and 506 BC, based on Herodotus dating (Histories, 5:51).


Family background

Her father Cleomenes was the eldest-born son of the previous Agiad king, Anaxandridas II, and succeeded his father at his death; however, he had three paternal half-brothers, of whom the second, Dorieus, would cause him some trouble. 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.

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 subsequently became pregnant, and eventually gave birth to three sons, including Leonidas I.[1] This version is however not supported by other sources, which imply that Cleomenes was either born by the king's first marriage or by a non-marital alliance. In either case, there appears to have been some tension between the eldest son and his half-brothers, resolved only by the former's death (or murder)[2] and the accession of Leonidas I (at once his half-brother and his son-in-law).

Gorgo's mother is unknown, but she was probably Spartan by birth. Both Xenophon and Plutarch (in his Life of Lycurgus, the law-giver for Sparta) mention that Spartan society was concerned with blood purity, with avoidance of intermarriage with the rest of the population (the helots and others, possibly of Achaean stock), and with marriages of heiresses.

Little about Gorgo's childhood is known, although she was probably raised like other Spartan girls of noble family, encouraged in daily physical exercise to strengthen her body, and reared to be married off to an older Spartan husband who would see little of her.[3] According to Herodotus's Histories, at about the age of eight to nine years old, she advised her father Cleomenes not to trust Aristagoras of Miletus, a foreign diplomat trying to induce Cleomenes to support an Ionian revolt against Persians. "Father, you had better have this man go away, or the stranger will corrupt you." Cleomenes followed her advice.

Cleomenes was, however, slowly going mad. His foreign policy, which had always been aggressive, became increasingly erratic. Consistent with a long tradition of deposing tyrants throughout the 6th Century BC, Sparta in the reign of Cleomenes had driven the Athenian tyrant Hippias out of Attica, paving the way for radical democratic reforms. Two years later, however, Cleomenes abruptly changed sides and sided with the Athenian aristocrat Isagoras to drive the leader of the democratic faction, Kleisthenes, out of Athens. When Cleomenes then tried to impose a less democratic constitution on the Athenians, however, they revolted and forced Cleomenes to withdraw. Cleomenes then tried to lead a new attack on Athens with the aid of Sparta's allies in the Peloponnese. On learning Cleomenes' intentions, however, the allies refused to continue with the campaign and Cleomenes' co-monarch, the Eurypontid King Demaratus, threw his authority behind the allies, also refusing to advance on Athens. The campaign had to be called off. This fiasco resulted in a restructuring of Sparta's relations with her allies in the Peloponnese. Henceforth, every city state had an equal vote and no aggressive action could be undertaken by the Peloponnesian League unless a majority of its members voted in favour - a serious blow to Sparta's prestige, if not her power. [4]

Cleomenes next outraged the ancient world and humiliated Sparta by bribing the Oracle at Delphi to declare his co-monarch King Demaratus illegitimate. Before the bribery was discovered, Demaratus was deposed and defected to the Persian camp, yet another serious setback for Sparta. [4]

Cleomenes then started a war with Sparta's arch-rival Argos. Although he won a stunning victory in which the bulk of the Argive army was destroyed, he failed to follow up on this victory by taking the city itself. Instead, he burned a sacred woods and personally slaughtered those Argives who surrendered to him in good faith. On his return to Sparta he was tried for treason by the ephors, but talked his way out of the charges by saying he had received bad "signs" from the Gods. [4]

Cleomenes erratic behaviour became even more acute in the years following. He attacked citizens on the streets and fled the city when he feared sanctions from the Assembly. Abroad he tried to stir up rebellion against Sparta and this frightened the Spartans into begging him to return. Still his irrational behaviour continued until the Spartans were provoked into confining him in the stocks. Here he came to a gruesome end. According to Herodotus, he talked a helot into giving him a knife and then "Cleomenes began to mutilate himself, beginning on his shins. He sliced his flesh into strips, working upwards to his thighs, and from them to his hips and sides, until he reached his belly, and while he was cutting that into strips he died." [5]

According to Herodotus "Most people in Greece say that [Cleomenes' madness] was punishment for having corrupted the Priestess at Delphi...The Athenians, however, put it down to his devastating the sacred land of Demeter and Persephone, when he marched to Eleusis; while the Argives maintain that was a punishment for his sacrilege when, after a battle, he fetched the Argive fugitives from the holy ground of Argos and cut them to pieces...." The Spartans themselves, on the other hand, blamed Cleomenes' madness on the fact that he drank his wine "neat," i.e. undiluted. [6]

Some modern historians are not satisfied with these explanations for Cleomenes' death and prefer to see a sinister plot to murder Cleomenes instigated by none other than the hero of Thermoplylae, Cleomenes' half-brother, son-in-law and successor, Leonidas I. [7] However, as W.G. Forrest points out, modern psychiatry shows that "the details of [Cleomenes] final self-mutilation are in fact consistent with a paranoid schizophrenic suicide; moreover... [schizophrenia] can for long be combined with an apparent near-normalcy, even cleverness, revealing itself only in a degree of violence, ruthlessness and an inability to get along with people (Kleomenes provides illustrations of all three in plenty)." [8]

Marriage and reign

Presumably, after Cleomenes's death, his only child Gorgo became his sole heiress. She was apparently already married in the late 490s (in her early teens) to her half-uncle Leonidas I.[9] Leonidas and 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.

Gorgo's most significant role came during the aftermath of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), when her husband Leonidas I was killed in battle along with 299 Spartans and many other Greeks. According to Herodotus's Histories, a message from Demaratus arrived at Sparta after the Battle of Thermopylae; it was a warning that Greece was going to be invaded by Xerxes. In order to pass enemy lines without suspicion, the message was written on a wooden tablet and then covered with wax. The Spartan generals did not know what to do with the seemingly blank, wax-covered wooden writing tablet. It was Queen Gorgo who 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.[10]

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 (d 480 BC) and then his first cousin and heir Pausanias (r. 480-479 BC) acted as his regent. It was Pausanias who was the architect of the narrow Greek victory at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC)[11][citation needed]. When Pausanias fell into disfavor and was accused of plotting treason, Leonidas's son Pleistarchus ruled alone from 478 BC to his death 459/458 BC.[12]

Historical mentions

Sections where she is present at court or in council and gives advice to the king or the elders. This either indicates 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

Queen Gorgo was portrayed by Greek actress Anna Synodinou, who later became a politician in her home country, in the 1962 film The 300 Spartans.

In the 2007 motion picture 300, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, English actress Lena Headey plays Gorgo. Unlike the graphic novel, this adaptation gives her a more important role in the events surrounding the war with Persia; she is the one killing the traitor in the Spartans' midst.

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 boyhood in the infamous Spartan agoge, but books two and three will give prominence to Gorgo too.[13]


Online Sources For Queen Gorgo and Family


Sparta had a system of dual kings, from two rival but related houses, descended allegedly from twin sons of an early king of Sparta.[14]


  1. ^ "Spartan Women in Herodotos". Web.archive.org. 2009-10-27. http://web.archive.org/web/20091027062540/http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/7849/herodotos.html. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  2. ^ "Odd Spartan 'Facts'". Web.archive.org. 2009-10-27. http://web.archive.org/web/20091027062449/http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/7849/spfacts.html. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  3. ^ For more on the life of Spartan women, see Plutarch, Gorgo and The Women of Sparta
  4. ^ a b c Nigel Kennell, "Spartans: A New History," 2010, see also A.H.M. Jones, "Sparta," 1967, W.G. Forrest, "A History of Sparta 950 - 192 B.C.", 1968.
  5. ^ Herodotus, 6:75
  6. ^ Herodotus 6:75, 6:84
  7. ^ See Paul Cartledge, "The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece,"2004, and/or Ernle Bradford, "Thermopylae: The Battle for the West," 1993
  8. ^ Forrest, p. 93
  9. ^ "Gorgo of Sparta". Ancienthistory.about.com. 2011-07-07. http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/spartarulers/a/Gorgo.htm. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  10. ^ "Herodotus ''History'' [Translated into English]". Ancienthistory.about.com. 2010-06-15. http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_herodotus_7_12.htm. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  11. ^ See Herodotus; The Histories Book 9, and Thucydides; History of the Peloponnesian WarBook I.126-139
  12. ^ Jona Lendering (2006-03-31). "Eurypontids and Agiads". Livius.org. http://www.livius.org/so-st/sparta/agiads_and_eurypontids.html. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  13. ^ Helena Schrader. "''The Leonidas Trilogy'' website". Sparta-leonidas-gorgo.com. http://sparta-leonidas-gorgo.com. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  14. ^ Jona Lendering (2006-03-31). "Eurypontids and Agiads". Livius.org. http://www.livius.org/so-st/sparta/agiads_and_eurypontids.html. Retrieved 2011-07-24. 

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Pomeroy, Sarah. Spartan Women. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • 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]

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