In Sparta, one's forbidden lineage was through one's mother. Half-siblings who only shared a father were allowed to marry. Surprisingly, despite the fame of King Leonidas through 300, most people don't realize that Gorgo was the daughter of Leonidas' half-brother, the previous king. Indeed, Leonidas was himself the result of an uncle-niece marriage.
|Spartan bust of King Leonidas|
[...] [A]t about the age of [eighteen or nineteen] years old, she advised her father Cleomenes not to trust [...] 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.Spartan women were notorious for their independence and intelligence, and given that Gorgo traveled with Leonidas frequently, the rest of Greece had plenty of opportunity to see that in action.
Gorgo was the kind of woman abhorred in the rest of the Greek world – a woman with her own opinion and the audacity to voice it in public. [...] [H]her most famous quote was in answer to an Athenian woman who wanted to know "why only Spartan women rule their men." Gorgo replied: "Because only Spartan women make men." With that she attested that Leonidas – like other Spartans – was man enough not fear the wit or independence of women.
|Spartan bust of Queen Gorgo|
The thought of Gorgo in Athens is rather like that of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court. She must have been a sensation – and one imagines Leonidas, with his dry sense of humor, enjoying every minute of it! For example, note that the Athenian woman asked why only Spartan women "ruled" their men, implying that Gorgo had been seen giving Leonidas advice – and he had been seen to accept it, just as Cleomenes had done before him.Regardless of his famous death in battle at Thermopylae, during his life Leonidas was better known as a statesman. He spent his entire reign rallying support from all the Greek cities to form a military union against Persia. He also demonstrated a very Spartan distaste for self-aggrandizement and the hunger for personal power.
When the Persian emperor Xerxes offered to make him king of all Greece, he replied: "If you understood what was honorable in life, you would avoid lusting after what belongs to others. For me it is better to die for Greece than be monarch of my nation."Also, Leonidas wasn't a fool. He didn't stand and fight at Thermoplyae against impossible odds out of some blind sense of heroism. He did it because he believed the gods demanded he give his life in exchange for Sparta's safety. So said the Delphic oracle.
But Leonidas had a double burden. On the one hand he was elected by the allies to organize and command an effective defense against the Persians, and on the other hand he had been warned by the Oracle of Delphi [...] that:
Listen, O Spartans of the open plains:
Either Xerxes will sack your gracious town
And place your women and children in chains,
Or you will mourn a king of great renown.
When Leonidas marched out to die at Thermopylae, Gorgo asked him for instructions. His answer was a final compliment to her. He said: "Marry a good man and have good children." Not sons, children. Leonidas wanted Gorgo not to mourn him but to be happy, and he valued daughters as much as sons – probably because he had learned from Gorgo the importance of clever and loyal women.