The ancient Hellenic writers were dedicated historians, but they often neglected to mention the achievements of ancient Hellenic women. Now it so happens that I am a woman and I quite like having a few female heroes to look up to, so I want to introduce you to them. Today: Gorgo, queen of Sparta.

I think pretty much all of you know who Gorgo was. In 2007, she was famously represented by Lena Headey (of Game of Thrones fame) in the Frank Miller classic '300'. Headey reprised her role in the 2014 sequel, '300: Rise of an Empire'. Needless to say, the movie got a few details incorrect.

Gorgo (Γοργώ) was the daughter and the only known child of Cleomenes I, King of Sparta (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, and the mother of a third. Her birth date is uncertain, but is most likely to have been between 518 and 508 BC, based on Herodotus' dating in his 'Histories' (5.51).

As a Spartan girl of nobility, Gorgo would have been brought up at court trained in singing, dancing, literature, and, especially, physical education. 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. Cleomenes followed her advice. Interestingly, Herodotus reports, Gorgo was present in the room with her father when Aristagoras arrived and, when Aristagoras asked the king to send the child away so they could talk privately, Cleomenes refused and told him to speak freely in front of her.

Scholars have suggested 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 Hellenic cities girls were married at age twelve or thirteen and so rarely in their father's household as teenagers or adults. It is more probable, that Gorgo was closer to eighteen or nineteen at the time of this incident.

In no other Hellenic 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, leading some people to quip that it was easier to bamboozle thirty thousand Athenian men than one Spartan girl.

In 490 BC, Cleomenes died and left no male heir to the throne. His half-brother Leonidas became king. Leonidas and Gorgo were already married by that time and so she became the queen of Sparta. It is during this period that Herodotus' other tale concerning her takes place (and which was the foundation of the movie 300). The Persians, under King Darius I, tried to invade Hellas in retaliation for Athens' aid to the Ionian Greeks in 490 BCE but were defeated at the Battle of Marathon.

When Darius died, his son Xerxes the Great swore to complete the work his father had begun and assembled the largest army ever put into the field up to that time. When Xerxes was preparing his war machine, a man named Demartus was living in the Persian city of Susa. Demartus had been co-ruler with Cleomenes until 491 BCE when Cleomenes had forced him into exile after a political dispute. Demartus became aware of Xerxes' plans for the military campaign to Hellas and wanted to warn the Spartans, but he did not know how. Susa was deep in the Persian Empire and any message being sent toward Hellas would most likely be apprehended by Persian officials before it reached the border. The only way he could find to get the message to them was to take a folding writing-tablet, scrape off the wax, and write about the king's decision on the bare wood of the tablet. Then he covered the message up again with melted wax so that during its journey the tablet would not arouse the suspicions of the guards on the route.

When the tablet reached Sparta and was brought to the king, no one knew what to do with it. While they were puzzling over why Demartus would have sent them a blank writing tablet and what it could possibly mean, Gorgo deduced that it was probably a message sent encoded. She suggested that they scrape off the wax and, when they did, they found his message about the Persian invasion. They then sent word to Athens and the other city-states, which enabled the Hellenes to prepare for war. It is also to Leonidas' credit, and that of the Spartan court, that they were not foolish enough to ignore a suggestion simply because it came from a woman.

When Leonidas marched out to die at Thermopylae (like in the movie), 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--hopefully because he had learned from Gorgo the importance of clever and loyal women.
We are not sure what happened to Gorgo after the battle at Thermopylae. She had at least one son by Leonidas I, Pleistarchus, co-King of Sparta from 480 BC to his death in 458 BC. Her son was a minor at his father's death so his uncle Cleombrotus (died 480 BC) and then his first cousin and heir Pausanias (480-479 BC) acted as his regent. Pleistarchus ruled with the other king of Sparta, Leotychidas II (and then his grandson Archidamus) until his death 459/458 BC.