Sparta & women’s empowerment: Queen Gorgo

Throughout human history (sadly up until the 20th century) women have been denied fundamental rights. The right to gain property, the right to vote, reproductive rights, the right to speak, etc, etc.

There are very few exceptions. One of the most famous ones: the ancient city-state of Sparta.

Spartan women received education, they trained in sports, were free to share their opinion (even on military matters), were legally able to own property, and were raised from young girls to become strong women. This liberty and equality that women enjoyed in Sparta, was admired -even envied- by the rest of the Greeks.

According to Plutarch, once an Athenian woman asked the Spartan Queen, Gorgo ,

‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?’

Gorgo replied:

‘Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men!’

 

Gorgo was married to the legendary King Leonidas and she was the daughter of King Cleomenes I. She was allowed by her father to attend important meetings even when Gorgo was just a 9-year old girl.

Gorgo

Imaginary portrayal of Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

There’s a famous incident when one of the most powerful rulers of the Mediterranean, Aristagoras of Miletus, visited Sparta on a diplomatic mission. During this very important meeting, King Cleomenes allowed his daughter Gorgo to sit next to him. Aristagoras, shocked, requested Cleomenes to send Gorgo out of the room before he began talking to him; but Cleomenes told him to say on, and not mind the girl.

So Aristagoras began with a promise of a huge amount of money if the king would grant him his request and when Cleomenes shook his head, Aristagoras continued to raise his offer till it reached five times the original amount! Then Gorgo spoke:

‘Father,’ she said, ‘get up and go, or the stranger will certainly corrupt thee.’ Then Cleomenes, pleased at the warning of his child, withdrew and went into another room. Aristagoras after this, quit Sparta for good.

running girl 5

Found in Sparta: bronze figure of a running girl wearing a short tunic (British Museum)

Fatherhood

A few months ago the US President was photographed crawling on the floor of the Oval Office, playing with a baby. This was seen as inappropriate by many as the Head of State isn’t supposed to be seen on his knees, especially inside the White house.

Obama and baby

[Pete Souza / White House]

Let me remind you of a short story from Ancient Greece. It involves a great king of the 4th c.BC

Agesilaus, the feared and respected leader of mighty Sparta, was famous for being very loving and affectionate with his kids. When his children were very young he used to play with them, doing ‘stupid’ things, rolling on the floor and generally behaving in a non-serious, non-‘kingly’ fashion; even in public.

fath

A father helping his kid on a swing

One day, while playing with his children out on his front yard, he was pretending to be a horse that his kids would ride. One of his friends saw him. He was shocked to see a Spartan king on his knees!

Agesilaus told his friend: “Please don’t judge me before you become a father too.”

 

Spartan officer

Spartan king [art-girona]

Women Warriors vs. The mighty Spartans! [The Telesilla incident]

Detail of a Painting of Hestia  by Howard David Johnson
Hestia (detail) Howard David Johnson

Back in the summer of 495 B.C a victorious Spartan army marches against the defenseless city of Argos. A few hours earlier that army annihilated the army of Argos. Now, the Spartan king Kleomenes leads his hoplites against the city which is empty of troops. They think it’s all over. It was. The army of Argos was wiped out. The Spartans; they just have to walk into the city.

Spartan phalanx
Spartan phalanx

The women of Argos think differently. Led by the poetess Telesilla they gather all arms they could find in the city and take up battle positions on the walls!

Telesilla manages to raise the moral of the women of Argos and now the wives and daughters of the soldiers of Argos decide that the war is not over yet…

Telesilla was one of the most famous poetesses of the Peloponnesus. As a young girl she always looked thin and weak. Definitely not the hero type. This didn’t stop her from grabbing shield & sword, putting a helmet on and facing the war machine of the ancient times: the mighty Spartans!

When Kleomenes reached the walls of Argos he noticed that all battle stations were manned… by women!

The king -after hesitating for a moment- decided to march away.

  • If the Spartans were victorious this wouldn’t exactly be a celebration of their military honor.
  • If they failed to take the city then the shame would be too much to bare.The only solution was to retreat.
View of Argos from the top of the theatre
View of Argos from the top of the theater

And thus Argos was miraculously saved!

Gathering Almond Blossoms John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
Gathering Almond Blossoms
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)