31st Jan 2015

King Leonidas and Queen Gorgo of Sparta

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

Gorgo was known for her independence and wisdom even in her youth, when she advised her father against aiding a rebellion of Anatolian Greeks against the Persian Empire. Considering how incredibly sexist the northern Greeks in Athens, Corinth, etc. were, the story about her circulated because it blew their minds.

[…] [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.

There is one quote, however, that truly demonstrates what kind of person he was, and what kind of relationship he and Gorgo had.

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.

On a side note, Sparta was nothing like it’s commonly depicted. (Surprise, surprise! 300isn’t historically accurate!) I won’t go as far as to say that conventional wisdom on Sparta all comes from propagandistic Athenian historians, but I wouldn’t be that wrong if I did. Notice how in all the busts, including of Leonidas, they’re smiling? It was conventional in Spartan sculpture to depict people smiling, and in fact Sparta had a shrine and monuments to Gelos, the god of laughter.

The early Spartans (before their decline and conquest) were known for their public schools, their devotion to the law and the community, their poetry, their music, their dance, their philosophy, and their fierce women, not just their military prowess. Their brevity and wit were so great that Spartan sayings were repeated throughout Greece. They had an elected council and a public assembly generations before Athens was democratic. Spartan women were more involved in the economy than Spartan men. Spartan society was one of the most economically flat societies in the Greek world. They even went around deposing dictators and aiding democratic governments.

This puts it best:

The Spartan [philosopher and politician] Chilon was according to ancient tradition also a contemporary of the fable-writer Aesop. According to legend, Chilon told the former slave that Zeus’ job was to “humiliate the mighty and rise up the humble.”

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Full marriage equality makes sense, but the criticisms of it don’t.

This photo set was originally from here, but was modified by me to include consanguinamory.
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Film: “The Unspeakable Act”

One of the funny things about being in love with your brother is that you can say almost anything you want about him, to anyone you want, because no-one wants to go there. People will bend over backwards to put the blandest possible interpretation on whatever you say.

お兄ちゃんに恋しているについて面白い事は、彼について何とでも誰にでも言ってもいい。誰もあの事について臨みたがっていないのわよ。言ったなんか為に一番淡々たる解釈してみる、あの人は。

The Unspeakable Act (「言うに言われぬ仕業」)
One of the most hipster movies I’ve ever seen, but dryly funny. Also, a pretty good psychological character study, except for the whole “it’s an expression of narcissism” implication. (Watch it here.)
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