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Gorgo 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. Gorgo is noted as one of the few female historical figures actually named by Herodotus, and was known for her political judgement and wisdom. She is notable 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 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, 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. 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) and the accession of Leonidas I (at once his half-brother and his son-in-law).
Gorgo’s mother is unknown, but she was certainly Spartan since she was Leonidas’ Queen. Little about Gorgo’s childhood is known, although she was probably raised like other Spartan girls of noble family, well fed, encouraged in daily physical exercise, and educated, including literacy and numeracy. She would have learned to ride and drive chariots and have taken part in Sparta’s many festivals, dancing and singing in chorus.
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. Scholars have suggested, however, that Herodotus intentionally reduced Gorgo’s age at the time of this incident to make her father look particularly foolish. More likely, Herodotus underestimated her age simply because in other Greek cities girls were married at age 12 or 13 and so rarely in their father’s household as teenagers or adults. It is more probable, that Gorgo was closer to 18 or 19 at the time of this incident.
Presumably, after Cleomenes’s death, his only surviving child Gorgo became his sole heiress. She was apparently already married by 490 (in her early teens) to her half-uncle Leonidas I. 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.
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.
There are also indications that Gorgo travelled outside of Sparta, specifically to Athens. Virtually all of Leonidas’ reign was dominated by his efforts to form a coalition of Greek states willing to resist the impending Persian invasion. This entailed close coordination with the other main opponent of Persia, Athens. It is likely, therefore, that Leonidas travelled to Athens more than once. That Gorgo accompanied can be inferred from two quotes attributed to her by Plutarch. First, he records that “a stranger in a finely embroidered robe” made advances to Gorgo earning the rebuke that “he couldn’t even play a female role”. While a stranger might have been in Sparta, it is not very likely that he would risk making advances to a Spartan Queen in the midst of her highly armed and notoriously proud subjects. More to the point, however, Gorgo could only make a reference to the theater (playing a female role), if she had experienced it. Sparta is not believed to have had theater at this time, whereas it was already very popular in Athens. Even more explicit is the fact that Gorgo’s most famous quip about only Spartan women giving birth to men was, according to Plutarch, made in answer to “a woman from Attica”. Since women from Attica were not supposed to leave the women’s quarters of their own homes, it is inconceivable that a woman from Attica would have travelled to Sparta. Spartan women, on the other hand, drove chariots and travelled around Lacedaemon on their own, making it perfectly plausible that Gorgo travelled with her husband (and his bodyguard) on one or more of his trips to other Greek cities.
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”.
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When Dilios returned to tell the story of what happened, he ended up ostracized from Sparta. Later he returned, finding Gorgo to tell her the story of her husband. She asked what was different about him, he told him the gods had given him a gift to continue the story of Sparta.
She requested the same gift.