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Leonidas I of Sparta, the hero of Thermopylae, is probably the most famous of all Spartans. His wife, Gorgo, is the most quoted of all Spartan women. Yet very little is known about their lives.


Leonidas was the third son of the Agiad king Anaxandridas II, who reigned from roughly 560-520 AD.  He must have been born late in his father's life because his father, happily married to his sister's daughter, had to be reprimanded by the ephors for failing to assure the survival of his line.  Midway through his reign he was still without children, and the ephors ordered Anaxandridas to divorce his wife and marry a woman who would bear him sons. According to Herodotus, Anaxandridas replied that he would do neither, since his wife was "blameless" and that the ephors' suggestion was "improper."  Eventually the ephors made a second proposal that – contrary to Spartan law and custom – Anaxandridas would be allowed to take a second wife, whose children would be recognized as legitimate heirs, while his first wife could "continue in all the privileges she now enjoys." (See Herodotus, V:40).  Anaxandridas consented to this proposal, and the ephors then selected a young woman for him.  She was a descendant of Chilon the Wise, but otherwise nameless in history.

In due time, this second wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Cleomenes.  But to the wonderment of the Spartans, shortly after Cleomenes was born, Anaxandridas' first wife – who had been barren so long – announced that she too was pregnant.  So great was the suspicion that this was a trick that the ephors insisted on being physically present at the delivery, but to their amazement, she did give birth to a son, who was called Dorieus.  Thereafter the accounts differ. Some sources claim Dorieus was the first of triplets, with Leonidas and Cleombrotus being born immediately afterwards.  Other sources say that Anaxandridas' first wife became pregnant again twice, once with Leonidas and then again with Cleombrotus, or that the latter were twins.  It is fair to say that after the birth of Cleomenes and Dorieus, no one was particularly interested in the latter sons and so the recording was careless.  The only thing certain is that Leonidas and Cleombrotus were born after both Cleomenes and Dorieus – possibly several years later.

Because Cleomenes was the firstborn son, he was exempt from the agoge, but all three of the other sons attended it, undergoing the same upbringing as common Spartiates.  Dorieus proved to be the "finest of his generation" and convinced himself that in consequence, when his father died, the Spartans would make him king rather than his elder brother Cleomenes, who was already showing signs of mental instability.  Anaxandridas died when Cleomenes was roughly 20 years old and Dorieus a year younger.  Cleomenes was at once recognized as king by the Spartan Council and Assembly. This so angered Dorieus that he could not endure serving under his half brother and just a few years later (ca. 517) he left Sparta with a small group of followers to set up a colony in Africa.  When the colonists were driven away by the Carthaginians, Dorieus returned to Sparta but only long enough to raise new capital and support for another colonial adventure, this time on Sicily.  There he died, probably in about 510.  Neither Leonidas nor Cleombrotus supported Dorieus in either of his adventures and both remained in Sparta.

Meanwhile, Cleomenes had embarked upon a colorful political career that included two sieges of the Acropolis in Athens, war with Argos, and the bribing of the Oracle of Delphi to enable the removal of his co-regent Demaratus.  Cleomenes' rule involved many unpredictable twists and turns and was controversial in his own time.  He made bitter enemies at home and alienated allies abroad, causing constitutional changes to limit the rights of the kings and turning the Peloponnesian League into a more powerful and democratic body, because the allies refused to follow his lead blindly after being tricked once too often.  No source, however, reports Leonidas' role in, or his opinion of, his brother's often risky and unpopular campaigns and policies.  This seems surprising, if he had indeed been seen as the heir apparent by his contemporaries.  One explanation of the disinterest in Leonidas' early manhood may be that Cleomenes had a living son who was his heir apparent, and Leonidas was therefore just an "ordinary citizen."  It is fair to assume, however, that given the bitterness between Cleomenes and Dorieus (and no doubt their respective mothers), Leonidas was more likely to be a critic than a supporter of Cleomenes' behavior and policies.

LeonidasWhile it seems highly likely that Cleomenes had a son, history records only a daughter, a girl named Gorgo.  The name, which according to some commentators means Gorgon (a mythical female creature with snakes for hair so hideous that those who looked at her turned to stone), suggests her father did not find her very pretty at birth, the date of which is unknown.  Others, however, point out that the word simply means something like "loud-voiced" or "roaring."  Very likely it comes from the same root from which we get the word Gorge – implying throat, as in gorget, disgorge, etc.   That Gorgo was a loud, roaring baby seems wholly fitting.  At all events, Gorgo made a precocious entry into history.  Herodotus claims that when Aristagoras of Miletus came to beg Spartan help for an Ionian revolt against the Persians, Gorgo was present.  Aristagoras showed Cleomenes a map of the Persian empire, trying to fire Cleomenes' greed for conquering vast riches, but on learning that the Persian capital was a three-month march from the sea, Cleomenes declared: "Your proposal to take Lacedaemonians a three month's journey from the sea is a highly improper one."  Cleomenes then walked out on Aristagoras to go home.  As Herodotus tells the story: Aristagoras followed him, beseeching Cleomenes to listen to him "and send the child away" because his "only daughter," Gorgo, was with him. Cleomenes agreed to listen, but pointedly refused to send his daughter away. Aristagoras then proceeded to attempt to bribe Cleomenes until "the little girl suddenly exclaimed: ‘Father, you had better send this man away, or the stranger will corrupt you.'" (Herodotus, V:51)

There is no exact dating of this embassy, but Gorgo's age is given as "eight or nine."   Although some commentators suggest that Herododus exaggerated her youth to make Cleomenes look bad, it is significant that regardless of her age, her father insisted on her staying to listen to a foreign ambassador, that she was not afraid to speak up in front of a strange man, and that her father was not ashamed to take her advice.  These factors suggest that whether Cleomenes thought she was ugly or not, he valued her as a person.  This exchange corroborates other evidence about the status of women in Sparta.  In no other Greek city is it conceivable that even a full-grown woman would have been present, much less have spoken, in the presence of an ambassador.

Rejected by Sparta, Aristagoras went to Athens and received the support he wanted.  This in turn provoked Persian anger, and thereafter the ancient world moved toward confrontation between the vast empire of the "Great King" and the fiercely independent collection of democratic city-states on the Greek peninsula.

Leonidas' role throughout this period is unrecorded.  As a citizen of Sparta, he would have taken part in the various campaigns initiated by his aggressive older brother.  Most significantly, he would have taken part in the campaign against Sparta's arch-rival and hereditary enemy, Argos.  Here, although the Spartans won a crushing defeat over the Argive army, Cleomenes blemished the victory by slaughtering apparently hundreds of Argive soldiers who had taken refuge in a "sacred" wood, thereby displeasing many of Sparta's more pious citizens.  Cleomenes displeased other citizens by failing to follow up his victory in the field by capturing the city of Argos itself.  There is no way of knowing what side of this issue Leonidas took in the subsequent public debate, but it is probable that he distinguished himself militarily.  Otherwise, it is not credible that he would have been entrusted with the sole command of the entire allied Greek army just a few years later.  Furthermore, his command at Thermopylae, which is meticulously recorded, shows both that he understood warfare better than most and that he commanded the devoted loyalty of his troops.  These are not qualities even Spartans were born with.  Neither of his elder brothers possessed them.  He most probably would have learned them campaigning under Cleomenes.

Given his subsequent actions, it is safe to say that Leonidas probably supported the majority of citizens who, shortly after the defeat of Argos, rejected Persian demands for submission to the "Great King."  As is well recorded, "the Spartans" threw the ambassadors down a well and told them to get all the earth and water they wanted there.  This does not sound like the ephors or the Council gave orders, but rather as if an angry Assembly took matters into their own hands. (The Spartans also later regretted this act so much that two citizens volunteered to go to Persia to be killed in reprisal, but that is a different story.)

Leonidas would by this time have been in the prime of life.  The oldest estimates put him at 42, but he could have been as much as 10 years younger.  He would have been at an age where it was a disgrace not to be married: i.e., he would have been fined, prohibited from attending certain festivals, and possibly publicly ridiculed (allegedly women even dragged bachelors around an altar by their hair).  Nothing suggests this was the case.  In all probability he was married.  The question is to whom?  It is not inconceivable that he was already married to his niece Gorgo, if one allows for her age at the time of the encounter with Aristogoras to have been closer to eleven than eight.  Alternatively, Leonidas was married to another woman who died (in childbed?), leaving him free to marry Gorgo later.

Spartan womanBy now, however, Cleomenes' insanity was becoming more evident and his actions more reckless.  There had never been any love lost between Cleomenes and his co-regent, Demaratus, but Cleomenes became embittered enough to decide to eliminate him.  He first talked Demaratus, a distant male relative, into swearing that Demaratus was a bastard, and then bribed the oracle at Delphi into confirming this assertion when, as Cleomenes knew they would, the Spartans asked Delphi for guidance.  The result was that Demaratus lost his throne and became an ordinary citizen, while his heir, Leotychidas, became the Eurypontid king.  Leotychidas was not satisfied with his success, but insisted on humiliating the former king in public, causing him to go into exile and take refuge in the Persian court at a time when Greek-Persian hostility was steadily mounting.

Cleomenes' role in the affair, however, rapidly came to light and he was exiled.  Cleomenes chose not to follow Demaratus to Persia, but stayed closer to home in neighboring Arcadia.  Here he tried to entice the Arcadians into attacking Sparta.  Cleomenes was credited with enough persuasive powers for the Spartans to decide he was more dangerous abroad than at home, and he was invited to return to Sparta.  His erratic behavior had become so obvious and offensive, however, that – according to Herodotus – "his relatives" put him in the stocks.  These relatives could have been none other than his only surviving child, Gorgo and/or his half-brothers Cleombrotus and Leonidas.  It is even conceivable that the entire "invitation" back to Sparta was engineered by the astute and loyal Gorgo, who may have been intent on preventing her father from causing more trouble for Sparta.  She may have induced the Assembly, Council, and ephors into inviting her father back by promising that she would "take care of him" once he was home.  She may have underestimated how difficult her father would be to control and discovered that she needed the help of greater force – i.e., the help of her uncles.  It is almost certain that by this time, 491, Leonidas and Gorgo were married.

Marriages between uncles and nieces were very common in the Spartan royal families.  Leonidas' own mother had been his father's niece.  The fact that Leonidas was Cleomenes' heir probably made it all the more convenient and politically expedient for Leonidas to marry Cleomenes' daughter.  Had Gorgo married another man and had a son by him, she might have insisted that her son took precedence over Leonidas, and her husband might have attempted to rule as regent for his minor son.  By marrying Leonidas, all such constitutional crises were neatly avoided.  Whether Cleomenes or Leonidas was behind the idea is unknown, but given the rivalry and bitterness between the two branches of the family, it hardly seems likely that Cleomenes would have favored it.  On the contrary, Cleomenes seemed far more fascinated with the exotic and liked to entertain foreigners and to travel.  It would have been more in character for him to try to buy outside support for his various policies by marrying Gorgo to someone he thought useful.  If that were the case, the initiative for the marriage to Leonidas might have come from the remarkable Gorgo herself.  But clearly it was to Leonidas' advantage, and so the most reasonable explanation is that he proposed the marriage to ensure his succession.  This would also explain a late marriage, as he would have had to wait until Gorgo reached a marriageable age of 18.

In any case, Cleomenes did not submit gracefully to the indignation of being put in the stocks.  According to Herodotus, he bullied a helot into giving him a knife, and with this started cutting his legs in strips and then his thighs, and finally when he reached his belly he died – presumably from loss of blood. Some modern commentators find this story incredulous and hypothesize foul play on the part of those who had the most to benefit – i.e., Leonidas himself.  In fact, however, self-mutilation is a common feature of paranoid schizophrenia, and Cleomenes’ behavior throughout his reign is consistent with schizophrenia.  Furthermore, it is very difficult to see why Leonidas would suddenly turn fratricidal after a lifetime of loyalty, and even harder to imagine the outspoken Gorgo standing idly by while her husband killed her father.

Meanwhile, the Persians under the "Great King" Darius had sent a fleet of "six hundred triremes," with countless transports filled with horses and provisions, to attack Athens and Eretria.  The commanders had orders to reduce both Greek city-states to slavery and bring the slaves before the "Great King."  On their way they destroyed a series of smaller cities, enslaving their populations as well.  Athens, seeing the juggernaut coming, sent to Sparta for aid.  "The Spartans" – not more closely identified by Herodotus – agreed to send troops, but declared they could not march "before the full moon." This lack of decisiveness, usually taken as a sign of Sparta's invariable piousness, may rather have reflected an internal power struggle.

LeonidasLeotychidas, the Eurypontid king, was in disgrace. In fact, the Spartans were so angry with him that they had turned him over to the wrath of the Aeginetans. While he escaped with his life, he was definitely persona non grata in Sparta at this time.  Cleomenes was dead.  Why wasn't Leonidas the recognized Agiad king?  Why couldn't he lead an army to assist Athens – as he did 10 years later?  One possibility is that Leonidas and Cleombrotus were indeed twins, and that the latter chose to challenge Leonidas' right to the throne on Cleomenes' death.  Cleombrotus might have argued that Gorgo was the daughter of a madman and would bring unhealthy blood into the royal line.  Or, were Leonidas still childless – possibly despite having had two wives – Cleombrotus might have presented himself as the better candidate because he already had a son in his teens.  A hint at such a power struggle is found in one of the few recorded quotes of Leonidas that does not refer to the defense at Thermopylae.  He is said to have been taunted with the words: "Except for being king, you are not at all superior to us." To which Leonidas replied: "But were I not better than you, I should not be king."  Change but the one word "us" at the end of the taunt to "me," and one has an exchange between twin brothers.

All history records, however, is that 2000 Spartan troops left Sparta at the full moon, and despite the remarkable feat of covering 120 miles in three days, they reached Athens after the Battle of Marathon had been won by Athens and Plataea.

In typical Spartan fashion, the Spartans – most probably commanded by Leonidas, whether he was recognized as king yet or not – insisted on seeing the Persian dead and the battlefield. From his battlefield inspection and from interviewing as many participants as possible, Leonidas undoubtedly learned a great deal of valuable information that would be of use to him ten years later.

While the immediate threat to Greece had been repelled, the ire of the Persian kings remained ,and after the death of Darius in 486, his son Xerxes appears to have become obsessed with the idea of humiliating the Greeks.  To this end he set about raising the largest armed expedition the world had ever known.  The force was drawn from all his various subject lands and composed of 100,000's of troops and thousands of ships.

The former Eurypontid king Demaratus, still in the Persian king's court, felt compelled to warn his former countrymen about the coming invasion.  He feared he would be executed if his new master learned he was warning his former subjects.  He therefore wrote a message on the wood under the wax of a writing tablet. Because the messages were usually written in the wax, the tablet appeared to be blank.  According to Herodotus, when the wax tablet arrived at its destination, no one knew what to make of it – until Gorgo suggested they scrape away the wax and look underneath.  This anecdote underscores Gorgo's reputation for intelligence and also indicates that she was still very much, now with her husband rather than her father, involved in affairs of state.

Not long afterwards, the Persians were ready to launch their invasion, and they sent to the various Greek cities demanding they accept the Great King as their overlord or – so they implied – face certain destruction. Only Sparta and Athens were not again asked to make a choice; Xerxes was determined to destroy them both for the humiliation his father's ambassadors had received at Spartan hands and for Marathon. 

The Persian demands divided the rest of the Greek city-states into two camps: those willing to pay tribute to the Persians to retain their lives, and those who preferred to oppose the Persian claims even at the price of their lives.  While usually portrayed as a fight for liberty and democracy, it is not really clear to what degree the Persian king would have forced the Greeks to abandon their traditional forms of government.  But clearly those opposing the Persians thought that they would be placed under unbearable burdens of taxation and no longer free to pursue their own interests.  Those that chose to reject the Persian demands met at Corinth to plan a joint defense.  They represented only about one-third of the Greek city-states. Although Athens was the largest and richest of the cities represented, had started the conflict with Persia by supporting the Ionian revolt, and had shown military prowess at Marathon, still the Spartans were elected the leaders of the alliance.  That said, it was obvious that land and naval forces would have to work together, and Athens controlled the largest fleet. Despite a nominal Spartan commander, effective control of the naval forces was ceded to Athens.  After an attempt to hold a position far to the north proved impractical, the defensive alliance agreed to oppose the Persians at Thermopylae by land and Artemisium by sea. 

Thus the stage was set for Leonidas to make his mark in history. There are various theories on why he marched north with so small a contingent. Officially, the Spartans were sending only an advance guard and the full army would follow after the end of the Karneia.  While this excuse seems flimsy, it should be noted in Sparta's defense that many other Greeks also delayed sending troops because the Olympics were in progress and they wanted to see them to an end first.

According to Herodotus, the 300 Spartans were to "encourage the other confederates to fight and prevent them from going over to the enemy." Given the large number of allied troops from the areas closer to Thermopylae – i.e. who were defending their own homes – possibly Sparta really thought 300 Spartiates (supported, remember, by maybe as many as a thousand perioikoi auxiliaries and hundreds of helot attendants) would provide sufficient "stiffening" of the line to make it unnecessary to send more.  Leonidas himself is said to have answered the rebuke of other Greeks decrying his small number of troops: "If you think that I should rely on numbers, then not even the whole of Greece is enough, since it is a small fraction of [the Persian] horde; but if am to rely on courage, then even this number is quite adequate."

Some modern historians suspect that the Spartans did not want to send a large force north of the Isthmus because they thought it was pointless and they expected to need the troops to defend their own homes later. Conceivably opinions were divided and Leonidas had to act on his own. The fact that he took exactly 300 Spartiates suggests a Spartan king with the 300 "Knights," or Guard, an elite force whose duty was to protect the kings in battle. But the contemporary accounts stress that Leonidas hand-picked his force (from volunteers) and took only men who already had sons.  This requirement does not, as some suggest, imply that Leonidas expected all his men to die with him.  Leonidas simply realized that some of his men would certainly die in such an unequal fight, and ― since he could not know who it would be ― wanted no man with him, who had no heir. With respect to his own fate, he was in no doubt however. The Spartans had received an oracle from Delphi that said: "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.” Leonidas accepted that he would be that king. His last words to Gorgo as he departed Sparta were: “Marry a good man and bear good children.”

What happened at Thermopylae is accounted in literally thousands of accounts and does not need repetition here. Instead, allow me to quote Leonidas' own words in response to the Persian king's offer to make him king of all Greece: "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 to be monarch of the people of my race."  When Xerxes demanded he give up his arms, he said simply: "Come and take them."  Xerxes did, but to Leonidas – not the victor – went the laurels of the hero.  Even in defeat, Leonidas became a symbol of the defense of Democracy against tyranny, and a reminder of the need for sacrifice in order to win that victory.


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Text varies on this site between British and American English spelling.   Most research was done in Europe and compiled for British English publications.   Interviews and reviews reflect both American and British English, as Helena Schrader is a leading authority on this subject in the US and Europe.

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