Gorgo’s third little brother died, too. It was late autumn. The winter solstice was approaching, and the weather had turned bleak. Her mother’s laments merged with the howling of the winds coming down off Taygetos, and Gorgo’s father escaped by going hunting in Messenia. Gorgo tried to play with her elder brother, Agis, but they quarreled (as they often did). So as soon as the rain stopped, Gorgo ran away.
She did not intend to stay away forever. She planned to come home as soon as she heard her father was back. Meanwhile, she took a sack of food to keep her for a day or two and headed for Amyclae. She wanted to go first to the great Temple of Apollo and bring the God her most precious possession, a pretty stone a stranger had given her. She thought she would talk to the God and convince him to stop killing her baby brothers so her mother wouldn’t be so unhappy. When her mother was unhappy, her father stayed away, and then they were all unhappy.
When she reached the southern outskirts of the city, she was distracted by a flogging. One of the boys from the agoge was down in the sandpits about to be flogged for some transgression. Not being in a particular hurry, Gorgo joined the spectators. As usual, the crowd consisted mostly of the other boys in the miscreant’s own herd and any other herd that happened to be passing by, along with a sprinkling of idle citizens and the odd stranger. You rarely saw perioikoi or helots at the floggings, because they generally had business to attend to when passing through Sparta, and the floggings were too common to interest them. The boys and citizens watched because they knew each other and were supposed to take an active interest in who had done what and how well they stood up to their punishment. The strangers, however, came to gawk, because the concept of flogging citizens’ children in public was unique to Sparta and widely abhorred in the rest of the world.
The boy who was to be flogged was at that awkward age between “little boy” and youth. He was clearly older than Gorgo herself by several years, but it was hard to tell if he had passed his fox time already or was just on the brink of it. He was shaved, of course, and skinny and dirty and, this being the end of the year, his chiton and himation were in very ragged condition.
Gorgo had never seen Spartan boys his age look any other way, and she was not offended by his appearance. She calmly found a place on the surrounding wall to sit, folded up her cloak as a cushion, and settled down with her feet dangling. Taking an apple from her sack, she sat swinging her legs, waiting for the entertainment to begin.
It was a moment or two before she realized that the men behind her were strangers and they were talking about her. They spoke Greek with a funny accent, and one of them said in disgusted outrage, “Why, that’s a girl!”
“Probably just some slave girl,” an evidently older man answered.
“With a purple himation?” the younger man countered, scandalized.
Gorgo looked down at her cushion, feeling a little ashamed of herself. She had taken her best himation because it was the warmest and softest and she liked it best, but now that the stranger drew attention to it, she felt a little guilty, too. It was dyed with the most expensive dyes and had a gold border. She knew her mother would scold her if she tore it, lost it, or got it too dirty.
At once she felt a hand roughly shake her shoulder. “Girl! Where did you get that cloak? You stole it, didn’t you?”
“Why should I steal it?” Gorgo asked back angrily, looking up at the strangers with her brows drawn together in indignation. They were dressed like perioikoi women, in bright-colored chitons with fancy embroidered borders and short himations of equally gaudy design. They smelt of musk oil. But the worst thing about them was that the younger man was fat. Gorgo had never seen a fat young man before, at least not that she could remember. The youth who had noticed her, however, was too young to grow a beard but apparently old enough to carry a sword, because he did—and he was all white flab. Gorgo gazed at him in horror—to match his own, as he realized that she was not only a girl, but a girl who stared him straight in the eye.
“How did a stray like you come by such a fine cloak, then?” the young man demanded.
“It was given to me!” Gorgo answered truthfully.
“A little whore, are you, then? With patrons who give you pretty things?” the youth sneered. “Let me see your wares!”
“We don’t have whores in Sparta!” Gorgo told the stranger indignantly, full of innocent conviction.
“What? No whores? Father, what am I to do for entertainment tonight?”
“Stop demeaning yourself by chattering with slave girls. The flogging is about to begin,” his father answered sternly.
Gorgo, too, turned her attention back to the sandpits where the boy, now stripped naked, was taking up his position, with his back to the audience and his hands firmly grasping the bar between the stands. Two of the mastigophoroi, assistants to the headmaster of the agoge, waited at the ready, with canes cut from river reeds in their hands.
A woman from the crowd—Gorgo guessed it was the miscreant’s mother—asked what the boy had done wrong. She was told that he had used a citizen’s horse without his permission and then—and this was the real crime—on returning it had not seen that it was properly walked out or watered. Gorgo was indignant. Why even she, at eight, knew better than to do that! In fact, the only reason she hadn’t taken Shadow with her on this adventure was because she had been afraid she wouldn’t be able to take care of her properly while she was away from home. She directed her attention to the boy in the pits with a sense of witnessing the administration of justice.
The boy braced himself, and except for an inevitable twitch and lifting of the neck and head, he withstood the first blows steadfastly.
“Look at her!” the stranger whispered behind her. “She looks like she’s enjoying this!”
Gorgo stiffened, realizing she was being talked about again.
“Aren’t you?” the father answered. “Admirable discipline these Spartans have. Admirable.”
“But look at the girl! It’s unnatural for a girl to watch something like this! No girl should witness a boy getting humiliated!”
“It’s more unnatural for those matrons over there!” his father countered.
“To them he’s just a boy,” the youth replied unconcerned, still obsessed with Gorgo. “But this girl is younger than he is. How will she respect him after seeing this?”
Gorgo was grateful to hear an elderly woman intervene. “That depends on how he bears himself. If the boy bears up well, he gains in reputation, and if he does not he is shamed, as he should be. That is exactly why our girls should watch—so they can choose husbands worthy of them!”
“Choose their husbands? You let brainless girls choose their husbands?” The youth found this idea so ridiculous, he burst out laughing.
“Our girls aren’t brainless,” came the dry retort, but the youth and his father were both laughing too hard to hear it.
Gorgo couldn’t take it anymore, however. She jumped down from the wall, grabbed her himation, and fled.
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