Gorgo

by Kiko Matsing


Bronze figure of a running girl (perhaps Spartan?)
Archaic Greek (520-500 BC), British Museum

from Herodotus, The History, 4.49-51
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)

But Aristagoras, the prince of Miletus, came to Sparta while Cleomenes held the power. And Aristagoras came to speech with him (according to the Lacedaemonian account) having in his hand a bronze tablet with the whole map of the world engraved upon it, and all the sea, and all the rivers. So Aristagoras came to speech with the king and said: “Cleomenes, be not amazed at the eagerness of my coming here. The circumstances are these: that the children of the Ionians should be slaves instead of free men is the greatest of reproaches to ourselves, and, of all the rest of men, especially to you, inasmuch as you are the leaders of Greece. Now, by the Greek gods, rescue from slavery the Ionians, for they are of your blood. It is easy for you to compass the matter. The foreigners are not men of valor, and you, in war, are in the foremost ranks of mankind for bravery. Their fighting is with bows and short spears. They wear trousers when they go to battle and peaked caps on their heads. So easy are they for the beating. What is more, these men that live on that continent have an abundance of good things such as not all other men together have–beginning with gold, and then silver, and bronze, and dyed raiment, and beasts of burden, and slaves. You may have of these all your heart’s desire. They live, too, next to one another, as I can show you: here are the Lydians, right next to the Ionians, living in a fertile land, and they have much silver among them.” As he spoke, he pointed to these places on the map of the earth that he carried around, engraved on his tablet. “And here, next to the Lydians,” said Aristagoras, “are the Phrygians, to the east, with more flocks than any people on earth that I know and with greater crops. Next to the Phrygians are the Cappadocians, whom we call Syrians. On their borders are the Cilicians, whose land comes down to the sea right here, where the island of Cyprus lies. Fifty talents are what they contribute to the Great King yearly. Next the Cilicians are the Armenians, here–they, too, are rich in herds–and next the Armenians are the Matieni, who live in this country. Next them is the Cissian land, and in it, by this river, the Choaspes, is Susa, where the Great King has his lodging and where his treasure houses are. Capture that city and you may well boast that you rival Zeus in wealth. But here you are fighting for land that is neither large nor fertile but of small bounds. Ought you to risk such a fight? It is against the Messenians, who are as good men as you, and Arcadians and Argives, who have no possessions of gold or silver, the lust for which has led many a man to fight and die. You have the chance of an easy empire over all Asia; will you choose something else?” That was what Aristagoras said, and Cleomenes answered him, “My friend from Miletus, I postpone my answer until the day after tomorrow.”

That was as far as they went, then. When the day appointed for the answer came and they met at the place arranged, Cleomenes asked Aristagoras how many days’ journey it was from the Ionian sea to where the Great King was. In everything else Aristagoras was very clever and had tricked Cleomenes successfully, but here he tripped up. He ought not to have told the truth if he wanted to bring the Spartans into Asia. However, he did tell it, saying that the journey from the sea up to Susa was a matter of three months. Cleomenes cut off all the rest of the story that Aristagoras was set to give him about the journey and said, “My friend from Miletus, away with you from Sparta before the sun sets! There is no argument of such eloquence that you can use on the Lacedaemonians if you want to bring them three months’ journey from the sea.”

With these words Cleomenes went to his house; but Aristagoras, taking on himself the signs of a suppliant, went to Cleomenes’ house and entered and sat down there as a suppliant, begging Cleomenes to hear him. He asked the king to send away his daughter (whose name was Gorgo), for the girl was standing beside her father. She was his only child and was perhaps eight or nine years old. Cleomenes bade him say whatever he liked and not to hold back because of the child. Then Aristagoras began with an opening promise of ten talents if the king would do what he asked. As Cleomenes refused, Aristagoras raised his bids, little by little, till he made an offer of fifty talents. At this the child cried out and said, “Father, this stranger will corrupt you if you do not take yourself away.” Cleomenes was delighted by his daughter’s advice and went into another room, and Aristagoras left Sparta altogether and never got another chance to give any more information about the journey from Ionia inland to the dwelling of the Great King.

Marginal Notes:

Aristagoras was an opportunist and snake oil salesman. Here he tries to convince Cleomenes to come to the Ionians’ aid against Persian invaders with smooth talk about the value of kinship and tempting dreams of empire–of rich distant lands ripe for Sparta’s easy picking. But before this, Aristagoras went before the Persians to recruit their aid against Naxos and the Cyclades, with ambitions of being their ruler. When the expedition turned sour, he switched sides and here, before the court of Cleomenes, presents himself as champion of the cause of Ionian (and thereby Greek) liberty.

What he failed to consider was Sparta’s deep conservatism. They will not venture far from hearth and home–not even for a get-rich-quick imperial scheme. Here is how H.A.L. Fisher describes the Spartans’ moderate disposition (against the more venturesome Athenians):

A deliberate prudence was the mark of the Spartan, a vivacious and enterprising audacity of the Athenian character. The Spartan loved his home, the Athenian sought adventure far and wide in foreign lands. All the oligarchical parties in the Greek cities looked to conservative Sparta as their natural leader and the principal prop and support of the aristocratic cause. To the democrats, on the other hand…, Athens stood out, not indeed as the champion of liberty, but as the exponent of equality at home…

(A History of Europe, 1935, p.35)

Gorgo was the voice of Spartan prudence in this episode. She saw through Aristagoras’ used-car salesman’s tenacity of slowly sweetening the deal until her father caved in, and so abruptly puts a stop to it. What is surprising (and bad ass) was the self-possession of this young girl, unafraid to let her voice be heard at the king’s court. While Spartan men were solely dedicated to war, women were left to govern the household, the estate, and the economy. Hence Cleomenes’ delight at his daughter’s display of good sense.