Gorgo and The Women of Sparta


Gorgo was a Queen of Sparta. She was the daughter of Kleomenes and the wife of Leonidas, who died at the Battle of Thermopylae. She is the best known Spartan woman as she appears numerous times throughout Herodotos. Her role in The Histories is unique and she is seen in an active role in the Spartan political arena.
When she is a young child (eight or nine years old), she advises her father to not trust Aristagoras: ‘Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you. (Herodotos)’ Kleomenes follows her advice. She makes one more appearance in Herodotos when a message from Demaratos reaches Sparta: ‘When the message reached its destination, no one was able to guess the secret until, as I understand, Cleomenes’ daughter, Gorgo, who was the wife of Leonidas, divined it and told the others that, if they scraped the wax off, they would find something written on the wood underneath. This was done; the message was revealed and read, and afterwards passed on to the other Greeks.’

Plutarch also included her in his section of the sayings of Spartan women. Here they are:
'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.'
'On her husband Leonidas' departure for Thermopylae, while urging him to show himself worthy of Sparta, she asked what she should do. He said: 'Marry a good man and bear good children.'

The Women of Sparta

The women of Sparta were certainly the center of attention in the ancient world and received praise and criticism from Herodotos, Thucydides, Xenophon, Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch and many others.

The two qualities these women are noted for are their supposed freedom and respect, which mainly stemmed from the reforms of Lykourgos as noted primarily by Plutarch:

'In order to the good education of their youth (which, as I said before, he thought the most important and noblest work of a lawgiver), he went so far back as to take into consideration their very conception and birth, by regulating their marriages. For Aristotle is wrong in saying, that, after he had tried all ways to reduce the women to more modesty and sobriety, he was at last forced to leave them as they were, because that in the absence of their husbands, who spent the best part of their lives in the wars, their wives, whom they were obliged to leave absolute mistresses at home, took great liberties and assumed the superiority; and were treated with overmuch respect and called by the title of lady or queen. The truth is, he took in their case, also, all the care that was possible; he ordered the maidens to exercise themselves with wrestling, running, throwing, the quoit, and casting the dart, to the end that the fruit they conceived might, in strong and healthy bodies, take firmer root and find better growth, and withal that they, with this greater vigour, might be the more able to undergo the pains of child-bearing. And to the end he might take away their overgreat tenderness and fear of exposure to the air, and all acquired womanishness, he ordered that the young women should go naked in the processions, as well as the young men, and dance, too, in that condition, at certain solemn feasts, singing certain songs, whilst the young men stood around, seeing and hearing them. On these occasions they now and then made, by jests, a befitting reflection upon those who had misbehaved themselves in the wars; and again sang encomiums upon those who had done any gallant action, and by these means inspired the younger sort with an emulation of their glory. Those that were thus commended went away proud, elated, and gratified with their honour among the maidens; and those who were rallied were as sensibly touched with it as if they had been formally reprimanded; and so much the more, because the kings and the elders, as well as the rest of the city, saw and heard all that passed. Nor was there anything shameful in this nakedness of the young women; modesty attended them, and all wantonness was excluded. It taught them simplicity and a care for good health, and gave them some taste of higher feelings, admitted as they thus were to the field of noble action and glory. Hence it was natural for them to think and speak as Gorgo, for example, the wife of Leonidas, is said to have done, when 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."

These public processions of the maidens, and their appearing naked in their exercises and dancings, were incitements to marriage, operating upon the young with the rigour and certainty, as Plato says, of love, if not of mathematics. But besides all this, to promote it yet more effectually, those who continued bachelors were in a degree disfranchised by law; for they were excluded from the sight those public processions in which the young men and maidens danced naked, and, in winter-time, the officers compelled them to march naked themselves round the marketplace, singing as they went a certain song to their own disgrace, that they justly suffered this punishment for disobeying the laws. Moreover, they were denied that respect and observance which the younger men paid their elders; and no man, for example, found fault with what was said to Dercyllidas, though so eminent a commander; upon whose approach one day, a young man, instead of rising, retained his seat, remarking, "No child of yours will make room for me."

In their marriages, the husband carried off his bride by a sort of force; nor were their brides ever small and of tender years, but in their full bloom and ripeness. After this, she who superintended the wedding comes and clips the hair of the bride close round her head, dresses her up in man's clothes, and leaves her upon a mattress in the dark; afterwards comes the bridegroom, in his everyday clothes, sober and composed, as having supped at the common table, and, entering privately into the room where the bride lies, unties her virgin zone, and takes her to himself; and, after staying some time together, he returns composedly to his own apartment, to sleep as usual with the other young men. And so he continues to do, spending his days, and, indeed, his nights, with them, visiting his bride in fear and shame, and with circumspection, when he thought he should not be observed she, also, on her part, using her wit to help and find favourable opportunities for their meeting, when company was out of the way. In this manner they lived a long time, insomuch that they sometimes had children by their wives before ever they saw their faces by daylight. Their interviews, being thus difficult and rare, served not only for continual exercise of their self-control, but brought them together with their bodies healthy and vigorous, and their affections fresh and lively, unsated and undulled by easy access and long continuance with each other; while their partings were always early enough to leave behind unextinguished in each of them some remaining fire of longing and mutual delight. After guarding marriage with this modesty and reserve, he was equally careful to banish empty and womanish jealousy. For this object, excluding all licentious disorders, he made it, nevertheless, honourable for men to give the use of their wives to those whom they should think fit, that so they might have children by them; ridiculing those in whose opinion such favours are so unfit for participation as to fight and shed blood and go to war about it. Lycurgus allowed a man who was advanced in years and had a young wife to recommend some virtuous and approved young man, that she might have a child by him, who might inherit the good qualities of the father, and be a son to himself. On the other side, an honest man who had love for a married woman upon account of her modesty and the well-favouredness of her children, might, without formality, beg her company of her husband, that he might raise, as it were, from this plot of good ground, worthy and well-allied children for himself. And indeed, Lycurgus was of a persuasion that children were not so much the property of their parents as of the whole commonwealth, and, therefore, would not have his citizens begot by the first-comers, but by the best men that could be found; the laws of other nations seemed to him very absurd and inconsistent, where people would be so solicitous for their dogs and horses as to exert interest and to pay money to procure fine breeding, and yet kept their wives shut up, to be made mothers only by themselves, who might be foolish, infirm, or diseased; as if it were not apparent that children of a bad breed would prove their bad qualities first upon those who kept and were rearing them, and well-born children, in like manner, their good qualities. These regulations, founded on natural and social grounds, were certainly so far from that scandalous liberty which was afterwards charged upon their women, that they knew not what adultery meant. It is told, for instance, of Geradas, a very ancient Spartan, that, being asked by a stranger what punishment their law had appointed for adulterers, he answered, "There are no adulterers in our country." "But," replied the stranger, "suppose there were?" "Then," answered he, "the offender would have to give the plaintiff a bull with a neck so long as that he might drink from the top of Taygetus of the Eurotas river below it." The man, surprised at this, said, "Why, 'tis impossible to find such a bull." Geradas smilingly replied, "'Tis as possible as to find an adulterer in Sparta." So much I had to say of their marriages.'

We can see many of these qualities in Alkman's Partheneia, which gives the modern world a rare glimpse into Spartan non-military activity. The women of Sparta were permitted to exercise nude, which supposedly added to their infamous beauty (fresh complexion). They participated in the footraces at Olympia in honour of Hera and wore their legendary short kiton (Pausanias 5.16.2).

However, not only was physical training permitted, but the Spartan women were also involved in mental matters and some believe that they were literate. In fact, there is mention of two female poets: Megalostrata and Cleitagora (Aristophanes). In addition, the male writers commented on the fact that many Spartan women were Pythagoreans and they took pride in their education (Plato).

Alkman's work also illustrates the relationship between the women of Sparta, which was similar to the man-boy relationship of Athens. This bond was sexual and educational.

According to Aristotle, they at one point in the fourth century BCE owned 2/5 of the estates in Lakonia. These women are also said to have owned racehorses and they did in fact drive chariots in some religious festivals. They were the first to own victorious racehorses at Panhellenic festivals.

However, we must keep in mind that these women were given these 'freedoms' for one reason: eugenics. Xenophon himself realized this and commented on it in his works. The Spartans valued motherhood highly and in fact, there will only two ways a Spartan would receive their name on a gravestone: death in battle or death in childbirth. These women were also forced to take on these responsibilities as there husbands and sons spent most of their adult life in military training. In addition, we can never be positive about these women as the works in which they are mentioned are hardly objective. Aristotle who felt that the Spartan women were somewhat to blame for the fall of Sparta called the city-state a gunokratia. These women with their financial position, training and prominent position were drastically different than the women of Athens and became their natural counterpart.

The Sayings of Spartan Women

Archileonis: 'Some Amphipolitans came to Sparta and visited Archileonis, the mother of Brasidas, after her son's death. She asked if her son had died nobly, in a manner worthy of Sparta. As they heaped praise on him and declared that in his exploits he was the best of all the Spartans, she said: 'Strangers, my son was indeed noble and brave, but Sparta has many better men than he.'

Gyrtias: 'Once her grandson Acrotatus was brought home from some boys' combat badly battered and seemingly dead, and both her family and friends were sobbing, Gyrtias said: 'Won't you keep quiet? He's shown what kind of blood he has in him,' and she added that brave men should not be howled over but should be under medical care.'

Damatria: 'After hearing her son was a coward and unworthy of her, Damatria killed him when he made his appearance. This is the epigram about her: 'Damatrius who broke the laws was killed by his mother-She a Spartan lady, he a Spartan youth.'

Unnamed epigram: 'Away to the darkness, cowardly offspring, where out of hatred / Eurotas does not flow even for timorous deer. / Useless pup, worthless portion, away to Hell. / Away! This son unworthy of Sparta was not mine at all.'

Unnamed: 'Another woman, as she was sending her lame son up the battlefield, said: 'Son, with each step you take bear courage in mind.'

Unnamed: 'Another woman, as she was handing her son his shield and giving him some encouragement, said: 'Son, either with this or on this.'

Unnamed: 'When asked what dowry she was giving the man marrying her, a poor girl said: 'My father's common sense.'

The above can be found in Plutarch's Spartan sayings.

WELL-KNOWN SPARTAN WOMEN: Helen, Gorgo, Damatria, Lampito(Aristophanic creation)