Leonidas is the best known king and general of Sparta. We all know the story, few of us understand the history behind it. Even historians, up to their knees in the history of the wars between Greece and Persia, can tells much of who Leonidas was. Our greatest sources are Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus, all of whom gives, at best, a couple of paragraphs on the elusive king of Sparta. Interestingly, the geographers Strabo and Pausanias confirm the existence of Leonidas, at least as to his part on the defense of Thermopylae, by giving us eye witness accounts of the place at which he died. One could consider this archeological evidence, and therefore assert Leonidas’ existence should not be questioned. It is to the character of Leonidas we suffer most, for we know very little of it. There are some statements attributed to him by Plutarch in his Apophthegmata Laconica (51.2, is where this statement is located); today we will look at one of those statements and try to gather some meaning from it.
Ἀγαθὸν γαμεῖν καὶ ἀγαθὰ τίκτειν.
(To) marry a good man and have good children.
Casarte con un buen hombre y tener buenos hijos.
The statement is a response to his wife Gorgo, according to Plutarch. In this example, Gorgo came up to Leonidas before he left for Thermopylae and asked him what she was to do if he died; the king of Sparta replied in that statement. It is no secret that Spartan culture is a complex one, and also quite removed from all other cultures in regards to beliefs and understanding of the world. The great works of Paul Cartledge may help us understand how this culture was different from all others. However, in the ancient world, Spartan culture was admired for its frugality and resourcefulness. Believe it or not, Ancient Greece had a different culture for every city-state (polis) that existed in the land. Women in Sparta were considered to have more freedom than in virtually any other city state. If we take this thought by Leonidas as accurate, we must then make assumptions about spartan culture from it as well. What I have found is that Sparta was a family-based culture which respected women. Here is why.
In order to understand how Spartan culture differed from the rest of the city states one must first know that they were Dorian men. Dorians came into Greece later on, becoming part of the culture rather than existing before hand, according to the archeological record. The Aeolians (part of them were the Achaeans of Agamemnon and Menelaus) and Ionians (Athenians and Coastal Turks) had shared the land with the Spartans for some seven hundred years when Leonidas’ statements had been made. The Spartans, for their part, had conquered the aeolian helots of Messenia. The culture of Sparta was one forged in war for this very reason. After the cultural breakdown of the 12th century BCE, each polis had been left to its own devices, giving rise to a strong concentration of power amongst local groups sorted by tribes and families. By the 8th century, as Sparta attempted to conquer the messenians, they were not much different than any other city state, seeking to make a place for itself after four hundred years of dark ages.
At that time, at the crux of their cultural change, appeared the figured of Tyrtaeus and Lycurgus. The former gave spartans courage in war, the second established an unalterable code of laws. It is in these two things that spartiates realized their need to serve the state, man or woman. Dying for the state became the greatest honor in Spartan society, while in many other polis cultures service for the city was a more honorable curse, not death, such as in Athens. Other cities such as Corinth focused on economic growth, while Thebes focused on agricultural prowess. All cities, however, admired or hated Sparta because their women were free to do much more than in any other polis, they were fed better and had the right to own land and control over their children – to the point of taking their lives if necessary, according to Plutarch. In this system of strong women and men, only those who died for the city were buried with a headstone. While for men that meant to die in combat, for women it meant dying in giving birth to the sons of Sparta.
Based on this understanding of the culture and the differences that set it apart from all others, Gorgo knows exactly what her duty is; so why would she ask Leonidas to tell her? The reason is simple: Leonidas was the exemplar of Spartans, leaving the city, the center of his universe, for the defense of a pass quite far away that would guarantee the safety of the city proper. It is likely that husband and wife were not alone when they spoke to each other, and that Leonidas statement was as much an order as it was a bit of good advice. Also, Leonidas spoke for the 300 men he took with him. He was answering not only his wife, but those of the men he was taking to an uncertain future. It was the duty of the man of Sparta to defend the city and die, if needed, in the struggle. Equally, it was the duty of women to bear children for the polis and, if necessary, die in the struggle as well. Both deaths were considered equally honorable to the Spartans as a whole, and it was the reason why they respected and admired their women, giving them rights and freedoms that other Greek poleis saw as too-much.
Modern historians will say that it is not true equality to expect women to die in birth and men to die in combat, and they would be right. But Sparta believed in a division of labor that was admired and respected in the ancient world, and created a system of government that outlasted even the Democracy of the Athenians. When Athens had completely given up its autonomy to the Romans, the latter were still visiting Sparta to observe the ‘strange’ customs still prevalent there; men who trained for combat and women who feared no man. The Spartan family was thus the core of the city; a city focused on the training of boys for war and women to give birth. Leonidas told Gorgo he was going off to do his civic duty; he was implying that those staying behind should take to doing their duty as well.