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Gorgo of Sparta

Daughter, Wife, and Mother of Spartan Kings

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Gorgo was the only daughter of King Cleomenes I of Sparta (520-490). She was also his heir. Sparta had a pair of hereditary kings. One of the two ruling familes was the Agiad. This was the family to which Gorgo belonged.

Cleomenes may have committed suicide and is considered unstable, but he helped Sparta achieve prominence beyond the Peloponnese.

Sparta may have given rights to women that were rare among the Hellenes, but being heir didn't mean Gorgo could be Cleomenes' successor.

Herodotus, in 5.48, names Gorgo as Cleomenes' heir:

"In this manner Dorieos ended his life: but if he had endured to be a subject of Cleomenes and had remained in Sparta, he would have been king of Lacedemon; for Cleomenes reigned no very long time, and died leaving no son to succeed him but a daughter only, whose name was Gorgo."

When King Cleomenes, his successor was his half-brother Leonidas. Gorgo had married him in the late 490s, when she was in her late teens.

Gorgo was the mother of another Agiad king, Pleistarchus.

Importance of Gorgo

Being an heir or patrouchas would have made Gorgo noteworthy, but Herodotus shows that she was also a wise young woman.

Wisdom of Gorgo

Gorgo warned her father against a foreign diplomat, Aristagoras of Miletus, who was trying to persuade Cleomenes to support an Ionian revolt against the Persians. When words failed, he offered a large bribe. Gorgo warned her father to send Aristagoras away lest he corrupt him.

Cleomenes accordingly having so said went away to his house: but Aristagoras took the suppliant's branch and went to the house of Cleomenes; and having entered in as a suppliant, he bade Cleomenes send away the child and listen to him; for the daughter of Cleomenes was standing by him, whose name was Gorgo, and this as it chanced was his only child, being of the age now of eight or nine years. Cleomenes however bade him say that which he desired to say, and not to stop on account of the child. Then Aristagoras proceeded to promise him money, beginning with ten talents, if he would accomplish for him that for which he was asking; and when Cleomenes refused, Aristagoras went on increasing the sums of money offered, until at last he had promised fifty talents, and at that moment the child cried out: "Father, the stranger will do thee hurt,[38] if thou do not leave him and go." Cleomenes, then, pleased by the counsel of the child, departed into another room, and Aristagoras went away from Sparta altogether, and had no opportunity of explaining any further about the way up from the sea to the residence of the king.
Herodotus 5.51

The most impressive feat ascribed to Gorgo was understanding that there was a secret message and locating it beneath a blank wax tablet. The message warned the Spartans of an imminent threat posed by the Persians.

I will return now to that point of my narrative where it remained unfinished. The Lacedemonians had been informed before all others that the king was preparing an expedition against Hellas; and thus it happened that they sent to the Oracle at Delphi, where that reply was given them which I reported shortly before this. And they got this information in a strange manner; for Demaratos the son of Ariston after he had fled for refuge to the Medes was not friendly to the Lacedemonians, as I am of opinion and as likelihood suggests supporting my opinion; but it is open to any man to make conjecture whether he did this thing which follows in a friendly spirit or in malicious triumph over them. When Xerxes had resolved to make a campaign against Hellas, Demaratos, being in Susa and having been informed of this, had a desire to report it to the Lacedemonians. Now in no other way was he able to signify it, for there was danger that he should be discovered, but he contrived thus, that is to say, he took a folding tablet and scraped off the wax which was upon it, and then he wrote the design of the king upon the wood of the tablet, and having done so he melted the wax and poured it over the writing, so that the tablet (being carried without writing upon it) might not cause any trouble to be given by the keepers of the road. Then when it had arrived at Lacedemon, the Lacedemonians were not able to make conjecture of the matter; until at last, as I am informed, Gorgo, the daughter of Cleomenes and wife of Leonidas, suggested a plan of which she had herself thought, bidding them scrape the wax and they would find writing upon the wood; and doing as she said they found the writing and read it, and after that they sent notice to the other Hellenes. These things are said to have come to pass in this manner.
Herodotus 7.239ff

Source:

Carledge, Paul, The Spartans. New York: 2003. Vintage Books.

More on Sparta

The Mythological Gorgo

There is an earlier Gorgo, one in Greek mythology, mentioned in both the Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod, Pindar, Euripides, Vergil, and Ovid, and other ancient sources. This Gorgo, alone or with her siblings, in the Underworld or Libya, or elsewhere, is associated with the snake-tressed, powerful, frightening Medusa, who is the only mortal among the Gorgones.

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