Saturday, September 24, 2011
The common view of Sparta is of a society divided between the wealthy, politically privileged (albeit underfed, cowed yet brutal etc. etc.) Spartiates, and the oppressed, helpless, despised helots. As I have noted in earlier entries, this ignores the vitally important role of perioikoi, but today I wish focus on helot society, particularly the fact that it too was highly differentiated. Not all helots were equal – nor equally miserable.
Historical sources make reference to helots in a variety of positions. First and foremost, of course, the helots worked the land. But helots also played a – singularly undefined – role in the Spartan army. Helots accompanied the Spartan army to Plataea, for example, and they were ordered to set fire to the sacred wood after the battle of Sepeia. These army helots appear to be a collective body under the command of the king, not the individual attendants of Spartan rankers. But each Spartan hoplite did, apparently, also have a helot body servant to look after his kit and help him arm. We hear too of “Lacedaemonian” wet-nurses being highly valued, and finding service as far away as Athens, where such a nurse allegedly breast-fed the ultimate Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades. While not explicitly a helot, it is hard to imagine a Spartiate or even perioikoi woman taking a position that was usually held by a chattel slave. The same is true of hereditary “town-criers, flute-players and cooks” listed by Herodotus (The Histories:6:60). Because all these functions were important to the army, I have argued elsewhere that they were not despised professions, but it is unclear whether the jobs were filled by perioikoi or helots; either interpretation is possible. Last but not least, although not explicitly mentioned, implicit in a highly civilized society with a very tiny elite such as Sparta, were people doing all the menial tasks necessary to keep a developed but still non-mechanized society functioning. In short, helots most likely did all those tasks done by chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world. Someone in Lacedaemon built roads, dug ditches, cleaned latrines, quarried stones and extracted ore from mines etc., and I think it is safe to assume that these jobs were done by helots.
As we look closer at helot society, let’s remember that rural helots retained a substantial fixed portion (probably 50%) of the produce of that land they worked. Allegedly, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.” As long as there is only one male heir to each tenant, such a system is more or less sustainable indefinitely. Unfortunately, however, human demographics do not produce perfect replacement and even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England) families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs can rapidly reduce a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.
Stephen Hodkiinson in his excellent study Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000) traces the impact of inherence laws on the concentration of wealth in Spartiate society, but helots were not land-owners and could not buy or sell land. Rather, they were transferred with the land from one Spartiate owner to another. Still, the ancient historians tell us that some helots were wealthy enough by the end of the 5th century to buy their freedom. In short, the accumulation of wealth – albeit not land – was clearly possible even in helot society. Some helots were definitely richer than others. But how?
The key to understanding this is again demographics. Unlike chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, helots had family units. In consequence, the sexual relations and off-spring of helots were not controlled by their masters for their own purposes, but developed more naturally.
In Athens and elsewhere, the off-spring of slaves were unwanted extra mouths to feed (that also reduced the concentration and working life of a female slave) and so intercourse between slaves was prevented to the extent possible. The fact that it was not always possible to prevent slave women from getting pregnant would not have worried slave-owners unduly because in the ancient Greek world it was common to expose unwanted children – even of citizen children. The unwanted children of chattel slaves would therefore simply have been left to die. Athens did not suffer from a growing slave population because it could keep the slave population under control effectively by these methods and by selling off slaves who were superfluous on the international market. Unwanted Athenians slaves, therefore, could end up in Persia, Egypt or Italy.
In Lacedaemon, in contrast, Spartiates could not sell helots outside of Lacedaemon, and helots lived in family units. As everywhere else on earth where families exist, fathers would have taken pride in at least their male off-spring. Male children would have been nourished and raised to adulthood to the extent possible. Females would have received less attention, food and affection (if the evidence of societies across the globe is any guide), but enough girls would have survived to adulthood to ensure survival of the family. Barring catastrophes, populations grow over time. Thus we can hypothesize a growing helot population from the age of Lycurgus (whenever that was) to the classical period – that fateful age when the helot population outnumbered the Spartiate population many times over (though probably not more than serfs outnumbered noblemen in Medieval Europe, by the way.) This is an important dynamic that explains why the imbalance between Spartiate and helot populations was so much greater than the imbalance between the Athenian citizen and slave populations.
This simple demographic fact might also explain why helots, who could not acquire land as their Spartiate masters clearly did, would have effectively become poorer over the generations. After all, if all the descendants of the original helot tenant of a kleros were tied to the same plot of land, then a finite plot of land would have been required to sustain entire clans rather than just one nuclear family by the time two hundred years had passed. In short, each individual would have been much poorer than his ancestor. And while there may have been a general tendency toward impoverishment, it was clearly not the fate of all helots or there would have been no wealthy helots able to buy their freedom, and no one doing all the other jobs noted above.
Instead it appears that some form of voluntary or involuntary primogeniture evolved over timte that ensured that only one helot had the status of “tenant-in-chief” on each kleros. He might have many children and many sons, but he had only one “heir.” If there were no sons, then very likely a son-in-law became the “tenant-in-chief,” and if there were no surviving children at all, the kleros was “vacant” and the Spartan state had to find new tenants from a pool of available helots.
In the more common case of a man having more than one son, the non-heirs (most likely the younger sons) would have been forced to earn a living off the family farm. As the property of the Lacedaemonian state, of course, helots could not leave Lacedaemon, but to my knowledge there is no reason to think they could not hire themselves out within the boundaries of Lacedaemon.
Some younger sons would have been apprenticed to learn crafts scorned by the perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they would have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth.
Other young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, would have sought employment as laborers for the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites or agricultural day-laborers, going from estate to estate. Others would have worked for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers, bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government. Still other could have found employment in perioikoi factories and business - as miners, quarry workers, rowers, etc. etc..
Meanwhile, helot girls unable to find husbands would, like the daughters of the poor in every society across the globe over the last three thousand years, have found work as nursemaids and housemaids. They would have waited on the women and children of those better off than themselves, and made up the bulk of the household labor on Spartiate and perioikoi estates and homes.
In other words, helot society was more complex than Spartiate society. On the land there would have been at least three classes of helots. There would have been “tenants-in-chief” on the prosperous estates of wealthy (even royal) Spartiates, who retained a large portion of significant revenues from the fertile land. Such helots would probably have been able to build substantial dwellings and to hire household help and additional labor when necessary (harvest etc.) without dividing up the inheritance and so keeping it in tact. They would probably have lived better than many free men in other societies. (A good example of this pattern is the wealthy serfs of southwest England who built houses hardly distinguishable from the manors of the gentry.) At the same time there would have been helots on poor, run-down or marginal estates that -- like their Spartiate masters -- were constantly on the brink of failure. Conceivably, Spartiate masters living in fear of losing their citizenship or barely able to make agoge fees were harsh masters, constantly trying to squeeze more from the kleros or looking for ways to cheat the helots out of their share. Finally, at the bottom of rural society would have been the itinerant agricultural workers without homes of their own, who sold their labor by the day or hour,
But, as I pointed out above, helot society was not exclusively rural. Urban helots too would have been divided into different strata living very different life-styles. Those helots working hired laborers for the Spartan state and army, would have lived in barracks or in small rented rooms, and would have formed a kind of urban proletariat similar to poor craftsmen in Athens and elsewhere. However, there would also have been skilled craftsmen with workshops and stores. While some of these might have barely scraped by, living in miserable slums or dark attic rooms rented from their more prosperous neighbors, others – as anywhere on earth – would have had a talent for business and sales. Exceptional craftsmen would have been able to charge more for their goods or found other ways to make money. These would have been able to afford apprentices and even slaves of their own. The more succuessful they became, the easier it would be for them to accumulate wealth by investing and lending. Such men, like the privileged “tenants-in-chief” on the land, would have lived in comparative luxury and would later be in the position to buy their freedom.
In short, in addition to the oppressed, abused and miserable helots familiar to every student of Sparta, there were also large numbers of comparatively well-off helots, who enjoyed considerable freedom, a reasonable standard of living for their age, and were far from discontented with their lot in life. These helots were what enabled the Spartan state to function so well throughout the archaic period.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Yes, once again Ms Schrader has kept me up WAY past my bedtime for "just one more chapter." Rarely in historical fiction does this happen for me. I will hit a boring spot in a book and easily put it down until next time. Not so with the second book of this Leonidas trilogy "Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer." She had a tough job to outshine herself after the first part of this 3 part series, " A Boy of the Agoge" yet the author met the challenge with gusto.
All the main players of ancient Sparta are back, and some new ones add to the story without becoming confusing. Gorgo comes into her teenage years with timeless problems we can relate to. Leonidas becomes a man we would all desire to have in our lives as the ultimate compassionate alpha male. And the folks who surround these 2 ancient royal players have their own stories told too. Not a boring one in the bunch either. It's like a soap opera set in antiquity!
Now that I have plowed my way through this second book I once again cannot wait until the 3rd and final book comes out next year! If you even have a vague interest in what life may have been like for Leonidas, or the Spartan people at this time and place in history, you will dig this book.
William Styron, author of The Confessions of Nat Turner once commented that a historical novelist did best when given "thin rations". This book takes those scant rations available from the historical record and extrapolates them, using common sense as well as classical sources, to construct what life may have been like for Leonidas I. There are some interesting inconsistencies with the historical records -- for instance, it is not known if Cleombrotus was Leonidas' twin or younger brother, yet the series paints him quite convincingly as Leonidas' elder twin -- but on the whole, it provides a very interesting look at the dynamics of an unusual society.
Sparta is often treated by modern scholars as a nation of simple brutes, but records do not hold with this -- if the training of youths was simply a matter of testing them until they broke, Greek leaders from all over the peninsula would not have competed to send their sons to the agoge for whatever periods they could. Like military schools of today, Sparta's educational programme was much more clearly devoted to military *and* practical learning, but the relative dearth of universal military training during this period means that its military nature is over-emphasised. Moreover, the fact that attendance at the Spartan agoge meant for some préstige among other Greeks strongly implies that it was seen as a specialist school that was a great honour for youths inclined to eventually rise to rôles of command in their own city-state's military.
The examination of what Spartan adult life was like is an interesting view of comparison and contrast. In the era before supertankers and jet aircraft, military engagements were by necessity no more than half the year, before mud and rain made it impossible to manoeuvre effectively, and, even more importantly, avoid disease decimating the ranks (a killer that was more likely than death by battle wound up through the Second World War), and therefore, even though Spartans were certainly careful to keep themselves in training year round and maintain constant operational readiness, they also had personal, civilian lives that were just as important to them, if not more so. As any tactician can tell you, the most motivated fighter is one who fights to defend a society he feels is integral to his life. Were Sparta a brutal place dedicated to warfare and only warfare, there would be no society to defend.
In this book, it is interesting to see the evolution of Queen Gorgo from girlhood to womanhood, even though most of it is conjecture based on what *is* known of the training of Spartan women. This book is also surprisingly engaging for the middle part of a trilogy, traditionally a time when *any* storytelling lags. The agoge is notorious, and Leonidas' death is equally well-known, but this period could have been fairly dull, yet it is as engaging as the first book in this series. I recommend it strongly.
Saturday, September 10, 2011
As a novelist, I have given considerable thought to what the Spartans in the Age of Leonidas might have looked like, as well as how they would have groomed themselves and dressed. From comments and correspondence, I gather that this is a topic of interest to many of my readers as well, so I thought it might be worth some joint speculation.
In terms of physical build, I have not heard of any archeological evidence based on skeletons, but would welcome any information you may have heard or read about. In the absence of such forensic evidence, I am dependent on a mixture of ancient sources, modern experience and common sense.
Both Plutarch and – more importantly - Xenophon stress that Spartan youth (i.e. during the critical years of physical development and growth) were not allowed to eat “too much.” Xenophon speaks of “just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. [Lycurgus'] view was that boys under this kind of regime would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer, when so ordered; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. [Lycurgus] also considered that a diet which produced slim bodies did more to make them grow tall than one in which the food filled them out.” (Spartan Society:2)
Plutarch, the less reliable source, writes: “The aim of providing [Spartan boys in the agoge] with only sparse fare is that they should be driven to make up its deficiencies by resort to daring and villainy. While this is the main purpose of their scanty diet, a subsidiary one is claimed to be the development of their physique, helping them in particular to grow tall. When people over-eat, their breathing is labored, thus producing a broad, squat frame. In contrast, if breath suffers from only slight delay and difficulty and has an easy ascent, the body is enabled to develop freely and comfortably. Good looks are produced in the same way. For where lean, spare features respond to articulation, the sheer weight of obese, over-fed ones make them resist it.” (Lycurgus:17).
It is startling the way Xenophon’s explanation of why the Spartans restricted the diet of youth to the necessary is focused on virtues very useful to an effective army in the field, while Plutarch’s speculation is more about cheating and “villainy.” Indeed, if one follows Plutarch’s reasoning, Spartan youth didn’t suffer any deprivation at all because they simply stole what they didn’t get in their official rations and the clever and better they were at theft, the fatter they would have become, defeating any “secondary” aim of improving the physique.
Notable, however, is despite the different explanations of why the Spartans instituted a regime of sparse rations for youth, both authors suggest that it produced “tall” and (in Plutarch’s case) handsome men. To my knowledge, however, too little food in fact stunts growth, not the reverse. Clearly the ancient commentators postulated a causal effect where there was none, but such a thesis would presumably have been based on two known facts: that Spartan youth ate less than their Athenian etc. equivalents and Spartans were, on average, taller than their enemies.
(The modern observer should take careful note of the fact that if Spartans were apparently on average taller than other Greeks, they probably did not suffer any real deprivation as children. Whatever “short” rations were common in the agoge, they were not so short that growth was in any way stunted since even if some youth may have been adept at theft, most would not have been.)
Returning to the theme of physical appearance, however, we clearly have a reasonable indication that Spartans were on average notably taller than most of their contemporaries. Since the ancient explanation (they received too little to eat as children) is implausible, we need to look for other possible explanations that would make the thesis (Spartans were generally taller) credible. Here the experience of modern Japan might be a useful corollary. As long as the Japanese diet was dependent almost exclusively on fish for protein, the Japanese were notoriously short; the introduction of meat led to the average height in Japan skyrocketing by roughly a foot in just two generations. If we remember that fish was the preferred food in Athens and the most readily available protein for all the island Greeks, while Spartans were envied for their rich pastures and game-filled forests, I think it is fair to postulate that the Spartan diet was more meat- heavy than that of their major rivals. It is reasonable, therefore, to picture Spartans as unusually tall by contemporary standards.
It would be wrong to conclude, however, that they were broader as well as taller than their contemporaries. On the contrary, the ancient commentators stress that Spartans were slim, something they attributed to the fixed rations at the syssitia. Yet men who are too tall and too thin would have been incapable of marching long distances or fighting exceptionally well in a phalanx. So we are talking about lean, not skinny, men.
While it might be tempting to picture a Spartan in his prime looking something like a linebacker, I would caution that Sparta’s military successes were not solely a function of Spartan troops being able to push harder, but also march more rapidly (and move at night) and to cover difficult terrain. Likewise the emphasis on hunting, particularly for men in the reserves, suggests to me that Spartans were not excessively “top heavy,” but rather lithe and fleet of foot as well as broad shouldered and strong-armed. In conclusion, I postulate that Spartans had an all-round athletic build developed over decades of physical activity from sports and hunting to military drill and combined with a healthy, but protein-heavy diet that made them tough and lean but not stocky.
Turning to grooming, let me start by dismissing modern artistic depictions of Spartans that show them as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging to their shoulders alà Richard Hook’s illustrations in Osprey’s The Spartan Army. Likewise, I reject descriptions such as those of Otto Lendle, who describes Spartans as stinking, filthy and slovenly. These images contradict the historical record and existing archeological evidence.
Herodotus, for example, makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae, and no one would be tempted to stress the beauty of Spartans as Plutarch does if they had been repugnant for their lack of grooming and hygiene. More important, a statue fragment found in the heart of Sparta and dating from the early fifth century (commonly – or affectionately – referred to as Leonidas) shows a man with a clipped beard and neat hair. Earlier archaic artwork unanimously shows men with short beards and long, but very neat, “locks” of hair. (Note, for example, the hoplites on the magnificent frieze of the Siphnian Treasure at Delphi dating from Leonidas’ lifetime, the Krater of Vix also from this period, and the figurines of known Laconian origin now displayed in the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin or pictured in Conrad Stibbe’s Das Andere Sparta.)
In addition to these sources, the admittedly dubious Plutarch claims Spartan men took particular care of their hair especially in the face of danger, and refers to an alleged quote from Lycurgus that long hair was preferred because it rendered a handsome man better looking, and an ugly one more frightening.
Whether the locks depicted in ancient sculpture were in fact braided or plaited is not possible to tell from the stylized nature of the evidence. However, it is physically impossible to keep long hair in neat, orderly strands when engaged in sports and other strenuous activities unless it is carefully confined in some way. Thus, practical modern experience suggests that Spartan men did braid their hair, something that is consistent with – though not definitely proved -- by the archeological evidence.
Braiding has the added advantage of being something that can be done quickly and alone if necessary, or done elaborately with help. Thus it could have been a means for men to express individual taste and personality within the rigid limits of the Spartan prohibitions against displaying wealth in dress or personal ornament. I personally like to think of conservative, “old-fashioned” men just braiding their hair to keep it out of their faces, while the “dandies” of Spartan society inventively braided their hair at diagonals or in crossing patterns etc. – as in Africa today. This gave a man a great deal of freedom for individual expression – all without breaking any taboos about the use of jewelry or other ornaments.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
The second book in the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer, is available for purchase on amazon in both trade paperback and Kindle formats. Gorgo plays an important role in this book, which describes her childhood as well as Leonidas' years as a "young man," serving in the Spartan Army. That's why I'd like to devote this entry to Gorgo.
The most remarkable thing about Gorgo, wife of King Leonidas I of Sparta, is that we know anything about her at all. Herodotus and other ancient Greek historians are far more likely to mention Persian queens than the wives of Greeks – not because Persian women were more powerful than their Greek counterparts but because Persians had several wives and so it was sometimes useful to record by which of them a certain Persian prince had been born. Since Greeks had only one legitimate wife, there was no need for such clarification when it came to prominent Greek citizens. Even the names of Sparta's Queens are rarely mentioned. We do not know, for example, the names of either Leonidas’ mother or his step-mother, the “second wife” who caused all the trouble in the Agiad family in the second half of the 6th Century BC.
The near complete absence of Greek women in ancient history (as opposed to Greek mythology and drama) is a function of the fact that ancient historians were predominantly Athenian males from the Classical or Hellenistic Periods. Athenians of these periods did not think women should be seen - much less heard – in public. Women had no public role and so no business in politics or history. As Pericles said in one of his most famous speeches, “the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about, whether they are praising you or criticizing you.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2:46.) Gorgo was by that standard a hopeless piece of scandal.
The first time she is recorded opening her mouth, she was already interfering in the affairs of state. She told her father to send away the powerful tyrant Aristagoras, who requested Spartan military aid for his planned rebellion against Persia. Gorgo’s father, King Cleomenes, had already told Aristagoras that his proposal was “improper” and asked him to leave Sparta, but Aristagoras then started to offer Cleomenes bribes. As these became ever larger, Cleomenes appeared to be weakening until his daughter intervened, saying: “Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you.”
Gorgo allegedly offered this advice at the tender age of “eight or nine.” Even if, as there is good reason to believe, Herodotus exaggerated her youth to make her father seem foolish, it would be hardly less remarkable if a maiden of 18 or 19 did what Gorgo did. In no other Greek city but Sparta would a female of any age have been allowed to be present much less heard and heeded at a meeting between Heads of State.
Gorgo’s advice was all the more remarkable because it was good. It was Athenian aid for the Ionian revolt that brought the wrath of Persia down on mainland Greece. This led some people to quip that it was easier to bamboozle thirty thousand Athenian men than one Spartan girl. Ironically, had the Athenian Assembly been as wise as Gorgo, then Gorgo might not have been widowed twenty years later by the Battle of Thermopylae.
Perhaps the fact that she was genuinely and exceptionally bright explains why as a wife too she was consulted and her opinions respected. This is evidenced by the incident in which a blank wax tablet was sent to Sparta from the exiled king Demaratus then at the Persian court. “No one,” according to Herodotus, “was able to guess the secret until… 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….(Herodotus, The Histories, 7:239.)
There is little doubt that Gorgo was clever, but what else do we know about her?
It is probably safe to say that Gorgo was not particularly pretty. Had she been, it would have been mentioned by somebody. The beauty of other Spartan women, notably Helen and Demaratus’ mother, is legendary or at least recorded. Some people have suggested Gorgo was ugly based on her name which conjures up the mythical Gorgon, a female beast with snakes for hair so hideous that all who looked at her turned to stone. But this seems to be taking things too far in the other direction. It is hard to imagine a truly ugly woman being so well-loved by either her father or her husband – or so well adjusted and self-confident. Furthermore, we are told that men “made advances” to her, which also seems inconsistent with an unattractive woman. Gorgo was probably simply “ordinary,” and so her looks were not worthy of comment.
Whatever her looks, Gorgo was the quintessential Spartan woman in spirit. She was educated, self-confident, out-spoken and involved in the body politic. She was neither vain nor materialistic. She showed Spartan scorn of affectation when she thought Aristagoras had no hands because he let a slave dress him, and when she accused an elegantly dressed man of not being able “to play even a female role.”
This second quote is again very telling because it suggests Gorgo was familiar with theatre – something an Athenian woman would almost certainly not have been. Athenian women, as we have seen above, were not supposed to be seen or talked about. It was a disgrace for them to be seen even standing in the doorways of their houses much less at the market place. How then should they have been tolerated in the crowds that attended Athenian theater? While it is just possible to imagine them (veiled and heavily escorted by their male relatives) attending tragedies, the sexual explicitness of Athenian comedies is utterly unimaginable if respectable Athenian women were expected to be in the audience. Gorgo’s reference to “playing a female role,” however, makes it very clear that she had seen plays performed.
There is even a chance that she saw these plays performed in Athens. We know that Leonidas’ short reign began with the Persian invasion that led to the Battle of Marathon and ended with the Persian invasion that crushed him and his 300 at Thermopylae before continuing on to burn Athens to the ground. In short, Leonidas’ entire reign was dominated by the Persian threat and the need for the Greek city-states to unite against the common enemy. It is therefore reasonable to postulate that Leonidas spent a good deal of his time lobbying for support in the other important cities especially Athens. The very fact that he was elected the commander of the coalition forces including nominal command of the Athenian fleet suggests that leaders in other cities were familiar with – and trusted - him. It is not fanciful to hypothesize that on at least one of his trips to Athens, he took Gorgo with him.
The evidence that Gorgo traveled to Athens is further corroborated by her most famous quote. An Athenian woman is said to have asked her why “only Spartan women rule their men.” Since it is inconceivable that an Athenian woman would have traveled to Sparta, the only place where such an exchange could have taken place was in Athens itself.
The thought of Gorgo in Athens is rather like 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. As Gorgo’s response makes clear, the willingness of Spartan men not to discount good advice just because it came out of the mouth of a woman is what made Spartan men more manly – at least in Gorgo’s eyes! Understandably, perhaps, Spartan men, who measured their virility on the battlefield more than in the debates of the Assembly as in Athens, were less worried by the words of women.
But we should not picture Gorgo as a shrew. Gorgo’s role was that of advisor, companion and lover. She is not depicted telling Leonidas off (as she did her father), but rather helping him solve the mystery of the apparently blank wax tablet and obliquely bragging about his masculinity. And while other Spartan queens (notably Helen) are accused of adultery, Gorgo is portrayed rejecting unwanted advances. She was the mother of at least one child by Leonidas, his son and heir, Pleistarchos, and there is no reason to believe this was their only child. The fact that Pleistarchos was still very young at his father’s death suggests the opposite: that there had been elder children who died or had all been female.
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.
Gorgo plays a major role in the second book of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer, now available for purchase on amazon or directly from the publisher, Wheatmark.