Writing: When History Should Have Been Her Story, Or Getting It Right From The Gorgo

January 31, 2015



“History is a lie!”

This is the catchphrase of the ongoing television series Da Vinci’s Demons, loosely based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Even though we might not agree with this, much of history is based on what people wrote about it, and the further back you in time you go, the more sparse the evidence and the less confident we are about the veracity of what has come down to us as “history.”

Indeed, Herodotus, the greatest historian of the ancient world, is called both “the Father of History” and “the Father of Lies.” Even though he went to great pains to demonstrate his impartiality, some have accused him of being biased.  Plutarch, another great historian who lived some four hundred years after Herodotus, accused him of being “philobarbaros”, or “barbarian-lover,” a code word for being  pro-Persian, while more modern readers see his narrative as largely one-sided and pro-Greek.

Herodotus does try to show us events from different perspectives and his stories are usually thoughtful as well as thought-provoking. However, what Herodotus was trying to do was to tell a good story, not necessarily an unbiased one – at least to our modern sensibilities.

His narrative of the Greek wars is generally one-sidedly pro-Greek and though Herodotus relates the stories of many interesting women, their role in most of his stories is rather peripheral. And yet the victory that the Greeks win over the Persians appears almost as inevitable as it is impossible. An invasion of over two million Persian-led troops is defeated by a small force of seemingly disorganised and bickering Greeks. Herodotus brilliantly describes the battles and campaigns but fails to answer the simple question: “How did the Greeks do it?” King Leonidas of Sparta, the man who could have led this victory, dies early on in the campaign. Themistocles of Athens appears more than a trickster than a strategist; and even though he scores the spectacular naval victory over the Persians at Salamis, the war continues. Reading through this confused narrative, I have often wondered how the Greeks actually won a war that they were more likely to lose.

The answer comes in-between the lines in the person of Gorgo, Leonidas’ wife. She is described by Herodotus in various parts of his narrative as a precocious young woman who is wise beyond her years. While still young, she stops her father from making a political blunder of incalculable proportions. In her teens, she deciphers a secret message that none of the men in Sparta can untangle. Her intellect is clearly head and shoulders above the men, but since she was a woman, Herodotus probably did not consider her role in the war that significant.

And if you were a woman, even a queen, in Sparta at the time, you did not play an overt role. Though women in Sparta had more rights and privileges than their sisters elsewhere in Greece, the theatres of war and politics were reserved for men. So if a woman had to play her role in both, it would have been a covert one – and none was more astute and insightful more than Queen Gorgo.  If there were a Greek leader who could have devised a strategy for beating the Persians and seeing it through, in my mind, there is no other candidate than her.

But Gorgo was living in dangerous times, and the Persian invasion was not only threat she lived through. Her father, King Cleomenes of Sparta, died under mysterious circumstances – though Herodotus brushes it off as suicide. There is simmering unrest among the Helots, the slave population of Sparta, explodes into a bloody uprising, within only two decades of the Persian invasion, that nearly destroys Sparta itself. And as soon as the Persians leave Greece, the Greeks start to turn on one another and series of events begin to unfold that will ultimately cause Athens and Sparta, the two champions of the Greek resistance against the Persians, to fight each other in bloody conflicts called the Peloponnesian Wars.  In the novel, The Queen of Sparta, we see the beginning of these turbulent events through Gorgo’s eyes and try to understand what a person in her position might have done under the circumstances.

History might not be a complete lie, but it is not whole truth either.  We have to continue to search for that.


The Queen Of Sparta is TS Chaudhry’s first novel.