Women at War in the Classical World

Women at War in the Classical World

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I highly recommend this excellent examination of what war in the Classical world was like for women. Due to some of the subject matter, it's likely suitable for high-school age and up. Well written and easy to digest, this book covers famous and not-so-famous women warriors, leaders, civilians, and casualties of war primarily in Greece and Rome. It's uniquely focused on a population mostly left out of war accounts, with fascinating stories behind famous women in history.

Classical history tends to focus on the big-ticket war stories: Hannibal crossing the Alps, Alexander conquering Persia, Achilles and Hector’s final epic battle at Troy or Caesar defeating the Gauls. War has historically been a man’s world in the retelling, regardless of the role women played. And yet, throughout Greek and Roman history women are an integral part of war: Atalanta, Penthesilea, Cassandra, Andromache, Hippolyta, Gorgo, Artemisia, Zenobia, and Boudica, to name a few. Politically astute leaders, valiant warriors, casualties, Queens, prophetesses: women’s stories are mostly told in the threads and anecdotes that fill the gaps in classical sources. Paul Chrystal explores every aspect of women’s roles in conflicts in the ancient Mediterranean, in great and occasionally uncomfortable detail, in Women at War in the Classical World.

He begins with women out of legend: the women of the Trojan War. Referencing multiple texts, Chrystal covers the expected accounts of Amazon warriors fighting on Troy’s behalf (and their ultimate defeat), but he goes much further. He provides a visceral scene of what spectators on the wall would see every day, where the women stood above the fight to watch it unfold. He shows clearly how the war outside the walls would have changed everyone’s daily perspective, especially the women whose vantage point on the wall not only gave them the sights, but also all the terrible sounds and scents of battle. In Chrystal's analysis, The Iliad's women were not delicate flowers who hid inside and waited wringing their hands: their men were out on that field, and they faced their fate.

If it's true that women have mostly been erased from history, this book is a concerted effort to write some of them back in.

Classical sources seem to categorize women in four ways regarding war: mythical or unwomanly fighters, political leaders actively causing or participating in conflicts, war prizes/rape victims, and challenges to be conquered. Women at War in the Classical World covers all these categories in depth, as well as the more peripheral ways women were involved in or affected by conflict. Of course, there is a comprehensive commentary on the most famous women warriors of history, including a full chapter on the Amazons and a detailed account of Artemisia’s exploits for Xerxes. Chrystal, however, doesn’t limit himself to the recognizable names; he provides the reader with excellent blurbs on women who may have only been mentioned once or twice in the texts. He does the same for women considered to be opponents/villains over the vast period covered, including Zenobia, Boudica, and others who actively led soldiers against Greece and Rome. Interestingly, he also details the political power of women behind conflicts, ensuring the reader sees how women were involved in every aspect of war. If it's true that women have mostly been erased from history, this book is a concerted effort to write some of them back in.

What makes this book both difficult to read and exceptional as a historical resource is the author’s treatment of the third category of women. Rape and sexual slavery are so often glossed over in history unless it is a specific impetus for action by (or directly against) a man. I appreciated that throughout the text Chrystal is unafraid to look directly at the realities of war for women whether they are combatants or not. He baldly states exactly what Andromache, Hecuba, and the other women of Troy would have faced during the sack of their city if they were lucky (or unlucky) enough to stay alive. He discusses the social ramifications to women in the classical world after being raped, since they don’t own their own bodies, and how they both feared and expected to be sold into sexual slavery if they survived. Understanding the cultural implications of sexual assault for women in the Classical environment gives the reader a wider perspective on what war was really like for women, even if they were not fighting.

The subject matter of Women at War in the Classical World does not always make for easy reading. It is uncomfortably direct and does not offer euphemisms for the harsh realities of war, whether the woman in question is a combatant, an antagonist, a heroine, or collateral damage. The text is well written and engaging, with a nice variety of in-depth analysis and quick referential blurbs. There is sufficient detail to use Women at War in the Classical World as a reference on its own, and the extensive notes and bibliography point interested researchers to additional sources. The tone of his writing and balanced breadth of subjects makes this work appropriate for both scholar and enthusiast. Ultimately, Chrystal’s book gives the most well-rounded, human depiction of what war was like for women that I have ever seen. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Greek and Roman history.

Book Reviews

Paul Chrystal's Women at War in the Classical World is a useful overview of how women experienced warfare in the Classical World. He emphasizes that no matter where and when the warfare has occured, women were, and are, always involved. Chrystal primarily discusses the women involved in the wars and traditions of warfare of Greece and Rome, though he does address women of other ancient cultures in the introduction.

The book is usefully divided by time period and geographic location, with relatively short chapters focused on one topic or a few related topics. This makes it an effective introduction for students of the Classical World on a topic that is little handled in most textbooks of the period.

Beginning with Greek mythology and Homeric Epic, he shows that while women did not participate in the fighting of the Trojan war (with one exception), they are a vital part of it. It's not just that a woman is pointed to as the cause of the war itself, but women cause conflict within the Greek camp, act as narrators, and give the soldiers a reason to fight: in order to return to home and hearth. "Homer's women in the Iliad are clearly shown as appreciating the fact that their men are obliged to fight. The women never demand an end to the hostilities, unpalatable as those hostilities are." The position of women as narrators gives Chrystal the opportunity to introduce and explain the idea of teichoscopy, the narration from the walls, which is used across literature of the ancient world to give the point of view of non-combatants. Having addressed women as non-combatants, Chrystal dedicates a chapter to the Amazons, who served as almost anti-examples for the Greek world. The author then continues with women in plays, giving sketches of the women featured in Greek drama and comedy and how they interact with warfare.

Chrystal then moves on to Greek histories of warfare Herodotus, Diodorus, Thucydides, and Plutarch all make a point of discussing women's involvement in warfare. In some cases, foreign women are used as an example of how truly barbaric the "barbarians" were in other cases they are examples of how women have no choice but to take over as leaders when a man is unavailable or unable to do so. More often, though, both Greek and foreign women were simply fulfilling their usual roles as cooks and bakers, laundresses, and sexual partners in either the baggage train of the travelling army or in a city under siege. Even in these roles, it was not unusual for a woman to have to defend herself at risk of being captured or killed when her side lost.

Any discussion of women and warfare in the ancient world must include discussion of the Spartans Chrystal dedicates an entire chapter discussing Spartan women's lives as producers of warriors for the state. Spartan women, in his explanation, are different from all other Greek women in that their societal role is directly related to the state being at war: their day-to-day lives reflect not women who are dedicated to domestic activity (though that does take up some of their time) but women who dedicate their very bodies to the production of "strong babies for a strong army for a strong Sparta." Chrystal closes his section on women in Greek history with a chapter on the Macedonians, who had more similarities with Spartan women than with other Greeks. Their societal position and potential power, though not quite the cult-like dedication to the state, are closer to that of Spartan women, possibly because of societal and governmental traditions that allowed women some level of power.

The reader than comes to the literal and philosophical centerpiece of the book, a chapter entitled "Women as Victims of War." This serves as a transition, as explained in the epilogue: "The section on 'Women as Victims of War' is at the very heart of the book: it comes between women at war in Greece and women at war in Rome because it is pivotal to the history of warfare in both cultures." Here the author discusses the universality of women's experience with warfare an experience that is shared worldwide throughout human history. The stories told of women's experience are real events, and even though we are separated from them by thousands of years, they must be treated with seriousness and respect. In order to bring the point home, he enumerates the experiences of women with war and its effects:

"For women, more often than not, their war is not over when the war is over: wartime sexual and gender-based violence has a real, enduring impact on women's lives long after the fighting has stopped. Women suffer abject shame and widowhood they wait anxiously at home always expecting the worst of bad news they are left to grieve and mourn and to struggle on with their lives, often working their farms or businesses alone and bringing up young fatherless children where the husband-soldier is wounded they may have to spend their lives as carers, tending limbless or otherwise traumatized ex-servicemen, coping with all of the physical and psychological issues disabling injury brings if raped they are ostracized, rejected by husbands and families they submit to body shame and loss of personal esteem sometimes they are displaced - their cities and homes wrecked or requisitioned - forced to move on as penniless refugees, carted off to strange and inhospitable lands with foreign languages and customs where they may suffer more prejudice and sexual and gender-based violence. Just as often they are sold into slavery or become concubines, considered no better than just another bit of war booty."

The third part of the text focuses on Roman women, following roughly the same format as part one, beginning with mythology, then focusing on historical examples, then women involved in war in poetry and prose. This section is somewhat shorter on the generalities, as the experience of Roman women in an army's baggage train or in a city under siege was much the same as that of Greek women. Instead, Chrystal focuses on more specific examples of women's involvement, especially where it is divergent from the Greek experience. The issue of how a Roman soldier's wife interacted with her husband's involvement in warfare is one such divergent point. Those with a passing familiarity with Roman history might think of Antonia and Agrippina travelling with their husbands on campaign, something that would have been unthinkable to most Greeks, male or female. The question of whether a wife should or could accompany her husband to war was brought to debate more than once in the Roman Senate, and it was generally outlawed, though that law was not often enforced. For a time, soldiers were banned from being married while they were in service, though, again, this was only sporadically enforced many started families with local women while they were posted away from home.

Roman women at home also involved themselves in various war efforts, often with donations of money or other valuable items. Some women could act as unofficial advisors, Chrystal points to Servillia doing so for Brutus in the war after the assassination of Caesar. On the rare occasions when a Roman town found itself under siege, Roman women are said to have conducted themselves well, acting in defense of their homes. These activities are also discussed in the literature of the period, to which the author devotes the last few chapters of the Roman section.

The book ends with discussion of women involved in warfare and combat as entertainment, primarily looking at female gladiators, though there is also a short discussion of women's involvement in war as depicted in the visual arts.

Overall, Chrystal's book is an excellent introduction into the topic of women and their intersection with warfare in the ancient world. His extensive use of primary sources only adds to its value to the student. It could easily be integrated into a survey of either Greek or Roman history, offering a different perspective on the era.

Review: Women at War in the Classical World by Paul Chrystal

"Women at War in the Classical World" by Paul Chrystal is a compilation of anecdotes, gleaned from a variety of ancient sources, about the activities of women in societies directed by men engaged in martial activities. The book divides these anecdotes into subunits for the Greeks and Romans. From there it is further subdivided into chapters on women in legend and women in history. But I thought it suffered beyond that point because it lacked a topical framework to organize the various activities associated with the decisions to make war, the funding of warfare, the logistics to prepare for war, the military forces in the field, and finally the fate of victims of ancient conflict. Chrystal had anecdotes for each of these phases of ancient warfare but they were jumbled together so much that I felt like I was bumping along a Roman road in a crude oxcart with no suspension. There was no transitional phrases to give you a clue as to the relationship between one paragraph and the next so I found his narrative hard to follow.

At one point we jump from an anecdote about Hortensia's oratorical prowess to object to the Second Triumvirate's tax levy on wealthy women to the ostentatious behavior of Catiline's wife Sempronia and then to Porcia's rather extreme strategies to get Brutus to share his plans assassinate Caesar.

Although the tax levy issue could be categorized as eventually funding warfare, the behavior of Catiline's wife and Porcia, without any reference to warfare seem extraneous and irrelevant to the topic without some additional details. Furthermore, these brief summaries are not even presented in chronological order thereby jumbling the history so a development of behavioral patterns based on precedent cannot even be considered.

Chrystal's book provides a number of documented references to women in the classical world, which, in itself, constitutes a helpful resource. I just felt it could have been organized much better to focus the work on warfare and irrelevant anecdotes pruned.

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Women at War in the Ancient World

This month’s article is a chapter from Paul Chrystal’s highly-praised Women at War in the Classical World (Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, 2017).

Andromache, Astyanax and Hector in a touching scene from the Iliad. Astyanax, on Andromache's knee , reaches out to touch his father's helmet before his duel with Achilles (Apulian red-figure column-crater, ca. 370–360 BCE). Now in the Museo Nazionale of the Palazzo Jatta in Ruvo di Puglia (Bari)

It is often assumed, beginning with Hector in the Iliad, that conflict was the exclusive preserve of men in the battles and wars fought by the ancient Greeks and the Romans. After all, Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar are much more familiar to us than, for example, Fulvia who embroiled herself in the conflicts of Mark Antony, her husband, during the Perusine War, or Agrippina the Elder who interceded with the troubled legions in Germanicus’ campaigns in Germania. At least Cleopatra, Boudicca and the Amazon fighters are much better known. However, these military women are just four of many who took on exceptional and significant roles in the wars of the ancient Greeks and Romans, from Homer to the end of the Roman empire: in those 1200 or so years there is a large number of women who had a significant role in the causation, direction or conduct of wars and battles. Guile, military intelligence, diplomacy, tactical excellence, courage, atrocity and ferocity are just a few of the qualities exhibited amongst belligerent women in the Greek and Roman worlds. This may still surprise some readers today, but, when we observe that the vast majority of books and journals published even in recent years on Greek and Roman warfare ignore the role of women, then I remain unsurprised that they are surprised.

The female of the species, of course, features prominently in the Greek and Roman pantheons and in mythical representations of war: Andromache, Athena and the Amazons, for example she is present in epic poetry as Helen of Troy or Briseis, and in drama in the shape of the vengeful or victimised women of the tragedies, or as the ‘revolting’ women in the Lysistrata. In the real world, or what was imagined to be the real world, she populates the strange foreign countries described with some incredulity by, for example, Herodotus – take Queen Tomyris, Artemisia and Pheretima she emerges even as a poet warrior in Telesilla.

But behind the celebrities we know that the everyday women in the classical period who married soldiers – and there must have been countless thousands of them down the years – were typical army wives, forever providing the routine support that army wives have always provided – not least, in the extended absences of warrior husbands: if not holding the fort then holding the household, the oikos, together, running the farmstead, raising the children and schooling the next generation of soldiers. There were camp followers foraging for, selling and cooking rations, working the wool, making and repairing clothing, organising worship in the field, nursing casualties and burying the dead , selling sex. All of this was essential back-up for the soldiery but it was also indicative of a dire and determined need amongst women to assist, subsist and survive in a war-torn environment, or to exploit the system, working the black markets and profiting from war,often just to scrape the most basic living.

Such was the background activity which the women of Greece and Rome got on with, quietly and relentlessly over something like a millennium and a half that is characterised by virtual non-stop war. This was only part of the picture, though: given the relatively subdued profile of women generally in Greek and Roman societies and the social, civic and political unobtrusiveness they were encouraged to foster, it is important to know that women were not totally excluded from military strategy-making nor were they completely absent from combat situations in sieges and street-fighting women sometimes did their bit.

It is a law established for all time among all men that when a city is taken in war, the people and property of the inhabitants belong to the captors.

Xenophon, Cyrus 7, 5, 73

Wherever and whenever there is war there are victims. Many are male combatants but many more usually are civilians – non-combatants who include women among their number. Ancient Greece and Rome were no different. Women could, and did, participate in battle, but often they are left to pick up the pieces during and after war, sometimes literally. For women, more often than not, their war is not over when the war is over: wartime sexual and gender-based violence has a real, enduring impact on women’s lives long after the fighting has stopped. Women suffer abject shame and widowhood they wait anxiously at home, always expecting the worst of bad news when the shock of that bad news abates, they are left to grieve and mourn and to struggle on with their lives, often working their farms or businesses alone and bringing up young fatherless children where the husband-soldier is wounded they may have to spend their lives as carers, tending limbless or otherwise traumatised ex-servicemen, coping with all the physical and psychological issues disabling injury brings. If raped the women and girls are ostracised, rejected by husbands and families they submit to body shame and loss of personal esteem sometimes they are displaced – their cities and homes wrecked or requisitioned – forced to move on as penniless refugees, carted off to strange and inhospitable lands with foreign languages and customs where they may suffer more prejudice and sexual and gender-based violence just as often they are sold into slavery or become concubines, considered no better than just another bit of the war booty. Women and girls suffer unspeakable and abhorrent abuse – physical, sexual and psychological – they are raped, sometimes orally and anally they might be gang-raped or repeatedly raped over long periods of time. They may be plagued with sexually transmitted infections there is the possibility of unwanted pregnancies, the half-foreign offspring from which are a lifetime’s haunting reminder of the violence and trauma they endured. They endure ad hoc abortions with all the concomitant infections. They are tortured, horribly mutilated and murdered – sometimes in front of their husbands and children as they too await a similar fate.

Ancient history then tells us unequivocally that women are constant and persistent victims of war: my book shows how the experience of ancient Greek and Roman women, and of some of the foreigners they subdued, was no different from what went before and what has come after, with a relentless inevitability, predictability and monotony. This is what allowed the soldier, philosopher and historian Xenophon in the 4th century BCE to make that chilling, ghastly but true, statement quoted above, some 2,450 years ago with all its foul ramifications and consequences for women.

When dealing with reams of numbers and descriptions relating to atrocities and war crimes perpetrated some time ago, it is very easy to become blasé and blunted to the dreadful reality of these events – but these events were real, they were actual events which all deserve just as much horror and disgust which rightly attends all-too-similar events presented to us on our television screens almost nightly in 2017. For us, dealing with the classical era, it all started with the Trojan War – but it predates that, and continues rampant even to this day in 2017. For example, in Syria, there are today forty-seven or so active sieges currently affecting an estimated 1,099,475 people 1.

Jean Jacques François Lebarbier, A Spartan Woman Giving a Shield to Her Son, 1805 The subject of this painting is a Spartan woman bidding her husband farewell in the traditional manner, "Return carrying your shield or on it." All elements of the painting reinforce its message of civil duty. The children playing with the warrior's lance allude to Spartan military training, which began in infancy. The simplicity of the stone-walled interior underscores the austerity of Spartan existence, while the dog is both a symbol of fidelity and a reference to the famed dogs of Sparta. © The Portland Art Museum, Ohio

Philon of Byzantium

(ca. 280 BCE – ca. 220 BCE), also known as Philo Mechanicus, the Greek engineer and writer on mechanics, was, as his name suggests, an authority on mechanical engineering, including its application to warfare. In this, Philon was an important contemporary of Archimedes (287-212 BCE), in his military engineering work . Philon’s Mechanike Syntaxis or Compendium of Mechanics, comprises nine parts, three of which deal specifically with military matters. These are Belopoeica (βελοποιικά) – on artillery Parasceuastica (παρασκευαστικά) – preparation for sieges and Poliorcetica (πολιορκητικά) – on siegecraft. In amongst the information relating to deployment of war machines – such as catapults and other war engines, starving the inhabitants of the besieged town to submission or death, bribing collaborators to assist you, using poison recipes to kill the inhabitants, and employing cryptography to pass secret messages – there is interesting comment on the role of women in war, particularly their usefulness in defending sieges.

To Philon, the deployment of women was essential: ‘children, female slaves, women and girls’. 2 Thanks to him women had officially become part of the military, especially in their role as defenders of cities their participation in combat and warfare was now enshrined in an influential work of military strategy and tactics.

In ancient Greece war was clearly highly gendered: the Greek man’s ability to wage war for his polis was a requirement for citizenship, and citizenship was everything. Fighting for the polis was a badge of engagement with the local community. Given that women had little or no public role or profile in Greek society it comes as something of a surprise, perhaps, to learn that while women may have not been active in public life, they did play a very real part in war and military life in a range of activities – from feeding their troops to fighting the enemy, from hurling missiles to manufacturing armour. When and where it was required, women were ready and able to (wo)man the parapets, as it were, and help defend the polis for which their husbands, brothers and fathers were risking their lives. Indeed, not only were they ready to do this, but they were actually encouraged, if not required, to do so.

It is a short step from Philon’s military textbooks to stand-alone reference books or lists embedded in literary works: the catalogue. Catalogues and handbooks of one kind or another were common in the Graeco-Roman world, perhaps reflecting a desire for orderliness and categorisation. ‘Types’ of men and women feature prominently and include various war-related catalogues of armies in the Iliad and the Aeneid chthonic catalogues of women in the Odyssey and the Aeneid and Neanthes of Cyzicus’ ‘About Illustrious Men’ in the 3rd century BCE. Charon of Carthage compiled two collections four books long listing illustrious men and women in short biographies and anecdotes. Photius (codex 161) tells us about the 4th century CE sophist Sopatros and his twelve books, one of which extracts brave exploits of women by Artemon of Magnesia and another describes ‘women who achieved a distinguished name and great glory’. Theophrastus (frr 625-7) gives us a list of women who caused wars or destroyed houses.

By the end of the 5th century CE there was also no shortage of advice on how to prosecute a war or win a battle . Of the extant works of military strategy and warfare there was Aeneas Tacticus (fl. 4th century BCE), the Poliorketika or How to Survive under Siege Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BCE ), 19-42 of his Histories on military matters, especially camps, and author of the lost Tactica Julius Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum and Bellum Civile from the 1st century BCE Onasander (fl. 1st century CE ) a Greek philosopher and author of Strategikos, one of the most important treatises on ancient military matters with information not available in other works on Greek military tactics, especially concerning the use of the light infantry in battle Frontinus (late 1st century CE): Strategemata – a compendium of over 500 examples of military devices and ploys, intended by Frontinus as a sort of vade mecum for the military commander – the work is an appendix to his the Art of War, which has not survived Vegetius: De Re Militari (late 4th century CE) which covers training of soldiers, strategy, maintenance of supply lines and logistics, leadership and tactics including deception Zosimus’ Historia Nova (fl. 490s–510s) Polyaenus’ Strategemata divided into eight books and written in the second half of the 2nd century CE: the first six contain the stratagems of the most celebrated Greek generals, the seventh of those of foreign militarists, and the eighth of the Romans, and illustrious women. It is this last section which interests us along with Plutarch’s, Mulierum Virtutes, On the Bravery of Women compiled some 150 years earlier, and the anonymous, undatable Tractatus de Mulieribus, an obscure Greek work describing fourteen mainly valiant Greek and barbarian women.

Aeneas Tacticus is, of course, famous for telling us about the deception which involved arming women with pots and pans to make it seem to the enemy that they were additional defending troops. He also tells how Dionysius got over the problem of garrisoning a city by leaving behind a few men and marrying off some of the slaves to the daughters, wives and sisters of their masters so as to make them hostile to their masters and boost their loyalty to himself 3.

Frontinus describes another deception involving women in 179 BCE, or at least the illusion of women:

When the Voccaei were hard pressed by Sempronius Gracchus in a pitched battle, they surrounded their entire force with a ring of carts, which they had filled with their bravest warriors dressed in women’s clothes. Sempronius rose up with greater daring to attack the enemy, because he thought he was fighting against women, when those [men] in the carts attacked him and saw him off 4.

Brennus et sa part de butin – Brennus and his Share of the Spoils by Paul Jamin, 1873.

[The Anonymous] Tractatus de Mulieribus

[The Anonymous] Women Intelligent & Brave in War is a literal translation of this somewhat obscure catalogue of women: we do not know the author, when it was written, what genre it was intended to be in and what the real title was. It sometimes goes under Tractatus De Mulieribus Claris in Bello but Gunaikes en Polemikois Sunetai kai Andreiai may be nearer the mark, given that this what is in the manuscript. The first edition was published in 1789 (Heeren) in 1839 it appeared in Westermann’s Scriptores Rerum Mirabilium Graeci – a motley collection of works the last publication to date was an edition by Landi in 1895. Whatever the intended title, it is probably not quite accurate because, of the featured fourteen women included, two are not warrior women at all and some, for example Argeia and Lyde, do not exhibit any military qualities .

Deborah Gera has published the seminal work on the tract 5: she suggests a publication date some time in the late 2nd or early 1st century BCE as for putative authorship, she (contradicts this when she) nominates Pamphile of Epidaurus as a possibility (fl. 1st century CE). A prolific historian in the reign of Nero, Pamphile’s works include the thirty-three book Historical Commentaries, Epitome of Ctesias in three books, numerous epitomes of histories and other books including On Disputes and On Sex 6. The emperor Julian (r. 361- 363 CE) may have known the work as he mentions in a list of warring women Semiramis, Nitocris, Rhodogyne and Tomyris in exactly the same order as they appear in the Tractatus concidence? 7 Despite these difficulties, the Tractatus remains a valuable adjunct to Plutarch, Polyaenus and the other primary sources of women war warriors.

The fourteen women in the Tractatus are Semiramis Zarinaea Nitocris the Egyptian Nitocris the Babylonian Argeia Dido Atossa Rhodogune of Parthia Lyde Pheretime Thargelia Tomyris Artemisia I of Caria and Onomaris. They are all described in short, pithy thumbnail sketches.

Zarinaea, Nitocris of Egypt, Argeia, Theiosso (Dido), Atossa, Lyde and Thargelia are of particular interest because they do not feature in Plutarch or Polyaenus, although we do, of course, know them from other sources Onomaris is more interesting still as the Tractatus is the only surviving source for her.

Here are the women who do not feature in Polyaenus or Plutarch:

The Tractatus entry tells us how, when her husband and brother, Cydraeus, king of the Sacians, died, she married Mermerus, ruler of Parthia. Zarinaea fought in a battle against the Persians and was wounded she was pursued and caught by a Stryangaeus who spared her life. Mermerus later captured and killed him despite Zarinaea’s plea that he be spared. An indignant Zarinaea then released some prisoners with whom she conspired to kill Mermerus she then allied with the Persians. The author’s source is Ctesias (FGrH 688 F7)

Nitocris of Egypt

Nitocris, queen of Egypt, did not really exhibit military skills: however, she was something of a political schemer: the Tractatus tells us that she exacted revenge on her brother’s murderers by inviting them to an entertainment in a large hall and drowned them by diverting the river through the hall. She then ‘flung herself into a room full of ashes’. The source is Herodotus 2, 100. Nitocris is the first known woman ruler of Egypt.

Nitocris of Babylon

This Nitocris, however, was militarily adept and cunningly deceptive. She was, apparently, cleverer even than Semiramis, diverting the river running through her city in order to hamper the progress of any enemy incursions. She also built her tomb over the city gate to trick Darius who would expect to find treasures inside. All he got was an inscription berating him for his greed. Source is Herodotus 6, 52.

Argeia demonstrates no military skill. See Herodotus 6, 52.

Theiosso (Dido)

The Tractatus, after Timaeus , tells how Dido founded Carthage and later committed suicide. The source is Timaeus (FGrH 566 F82). We know from other sources, not least Virgil in Book 4 of the Aeneid, how she was a strong and able leader of her rich and prosperous country.

Atossa, according to Hellanicus, ‘was most warlike and brave in every deed’. More than that, though, she was brought up by her father, Ariaspes, as a man and inherited his kingdom she was the first queen to sport a tiara, and the first to wear trousers she could write and she introduced eunuchs to the world. Hallanicus is the source (FGrH 4 F 178a)

The Tractatus reveals no military activity, just an example of exemplary parenting of a very difficult child. See Xenophilus (FGrH 767 F1).

Thargelia of Milesia married Antiochus, king of the Thessalians when he died she ruled Thessally for thirty years, repelling a Persian invasion through diplomacy. Source is Aeschines fr. 21 Dittmar Hippias (FGrH 6 F3).

Onomaris was a distinguished Galatian, a Gaulish-Celtic tribe. She showed great leadership and military prowess. When her country was beset by ‘scarcity’ she took control of events because no man was willing to lead the Galatians to a new, more rewarding life elsewhere. In this respect she is reminiscent of Artemisia I who also came forward to take up power in the absence of any man . Onomaris pooled all the resources owned by her tribe, in order presumably to deter envy and superiority and to foster communal ownership, and led her people over the River Ister in a mass emigration she then defeated the locals there and ruled the new land. These events probably took place in the 4th or 3rd centuries BCE. Onomaris typifies the not unusual high social status of Celtic women, some of whom rose to prominence as leaders of men: Boudicca and Cartimandua are famous examples. Four out of Plutarch’s twenty-six women are Celts.

Woodcut illustration showing Artemisia II of Caria drinking the ashes of her husband Mausolus. It is hand-coloured in red, green, yellow and black, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474.

Ten of the fourteen Tractatus women are non-Greek, nine of the ten are from different countries while the four Greeks are each from different poleis they are all queens. The geographical diversity and regal status may suggest a deliberate decision to demonstrate the ubiquity of warrior women in the Mediterranean world and the relatively high number of queens who exerted independence and power. Most got to be where they were by dint of their being wives, mothers or widows of reigning or former kings none of the widows show a need or desire to remarry. They are their own women, women powerful now in their own right some go on to be more famous than their husbands, as in the case of Tomyris and Artemisia. They all hold on to their power tenaciously. Physical appearance is irrelevant to the author of the Tractatus: we know from other sources that some of the fourteen were beautiful, but our author focuses, by and large, on their military or political qualities. Guile and ingenuity are key weapons and stratagems in their world of war, part of the ‘intelligence’ alluded to in the work’s title which some of our women have in spades: Semiramis, Artemisia, the two Nitocrises, Dido and Atossa all use deception to good effect.

No Greek or Roman woman was ever conscripted into, press-ganged, volunteered or signed up for a place in the ranks of a Greek or Roman army. There was simply no place for women in the army or the navy. However, our survey of women at war in Greece and Rome clearly shows that women played a significant role in many aspects of battle and war in both cultures.

From the very start, Homer and the tragedians tell us how women were responsible for causing major conflict and how they interceded with male heroes in the resolution of the internecine wars and battles which followed the Trojan War. Homer was no doubt transmitting stories and legends embedded in cultures well established well before his day and the days he and others describe in the Homeric poems.

The farther we move from the centre of the two civilisations that were Greece and Rome, then the bigger, the more significant, was the role that women played in fighting or prosecuting wars and evolving foreign policies and strategies which led to war and peace. Amazonian, Persian, Macedonian, Egyptian and Germano-Celtic women all exhibit a pugnacity quite foreign, repugnant almost, to the established norm for female conduct in Greece and Rome. We see how women actively assist in the defence against sieges either as combatants or as munitions manufacturers. We see how they form a crucial part of the baggage train providing support in everything from sewing to sex, how in the late Republic and early Empire they loyally back their proscribed husbands and how they take on invading rapists and lead armies of men in battle. They feature prominently in the Greek and Roman pantheons endowed with martial responsibilities and as protagonists in epic and tragedy. They have leading roles in comedy and they drive love poets to the war of love as soldiers of love. Their images in martial settings feature prominently on Roman arches and columns and frequently on vases and they fight in the arena as gladiators and are themselves excited by male gladiators.

A book of this nature, with its many descriptions of the horrors of war, can easily inure the reader to the real terror, ghastliness and utter consternation incited by battle – the endless atrocities routinely perpetrated over the centuries become clichéd and lose their ability to shock and disgust. I implore the reader not to become blasé, or to let the events described here become commonplace. It is vitally important we remember that every single act of war or action in battle can have at least one devastating, life-destroying consequence – not just for the combatants but also for the non-combatants as well. Women, children and the elderly populations of fallen cities or subdued countries usually suffer terribly – physically, psychologically and socially – in every one of the military and bellicose actions described in this book, be they historical, legendary or mythical.

And that is why the section on ‘Women as Victims of War’ is at the very heart of the book: it comes between women at war in Greece and women at war in Rome because it is pivotal to the history of warfare in both cultures and because it is, sadly, usually glossed over or just absent from many of the many thousands of books and journal articles published on classical warfare in the last fifty or so years. That is why the book is dedicated to the many millions of women who have suffered in war – most often through no fault of their own – from Homeric Greece to the end of the Roman empire, but, more significantly, from the relatively recent Second World War and the countless conflicts since then, up to and including the utterly ineffable and desperate situation afflicting innocent girls, women and their families and homelands, in Syria and parts of the Middle East and Africa today.

War, as Homer said, may be man’s work, but it is, at same time, the enduring curse of many a woman and girl.

Extracted from Women at War in the Ancient World by Paul Chrystal, published March 2017 by Pen & Sword.

Review: ‘Women at War in the Classical World’, by Paul Chrystal


Paul Chrystal has written the first full length study of women and warfare in the Graeco Roman world. Although the conduct of war was generally monopolized by men, there were plenty of exceptions with women directly involved in its direction and even as combatants, Artemisia, Olympias, Cleopatra and Agrippina the Elder being famous examples. And both Greeks and Romans encountered women among their ‘barbarian’ enemies, such as Tomyris, Boudicca and Zenobia.
More commonly, of course, women were directly affected by war as non-combatant victims, of rape and enslavement as spoils of war and this makes up an important strand of the author’s discussion. The portrayal of female warriors and goddesses in classical mythology and literature, and the use of war to justify gender roles and hierarchies, are also considered. Overall it is a landmark survey of how war in the Classical world affected and was affected by women.

I was sent this book by the publisher in return for an honest review. My reviews are always honest, because as we all know I have no filter and tend to bluntness when I can be persuaded to speak at all.

I found this book a useful reminder of the universality of women as victims of war. Nothing ever changes. In the Illiad, the Trojan women knew what would happen when the Greeks won. Rape, and slavery, more rape. Humans as booty. It was a normal and expected part of warfare for women. The same theme runs through from Bronze Age Greece to late-Empire Rome, the time period covered by this book.

Women weren’t just victims of war, they fought. It was unusual for women to fight but it did happen. Those women were often vilified for it, even when they are mythologised, like the Amazons, Cleopatra VII, Boudicca or Zenobia. I am really not surprised that even two to four thousand years ago, men were scared of powerful women. Or women in general. Because glorifying the rape and murder of women and children who’s tribe you have defeated in battle (See Trajan’s Column) is really not the behaviour of someone with a healthy attitude to other human beings.

The book explores the representation of women at war in art and literature, as well as historical information. A discussion of women as gladiators is included, as is a discussion of Roman romantic/erotic poetry which describes the relationships between the poet and their love interest as a war.

The prose is readable and not overly academic but a passing knowledge of classical history is useful.

Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

British society found itself at war with more than just the Germans. There was a psychological war, too, with the changes in society and its values that total war (the mobilisation of the entire population and all their resources for the war effort) demanded.

Although it was against it until the actual declaration of war against Germany, the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies became ardently patriotic as soon as hostilities started. On 6 August 1914, two days after the declaration, the women’s suffrage newspaper Common Cause expressed the hope that:

Women acted as subtle and not so-subtle recruiters for the army. Admiral Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather, which encouraged women to hand a white feather to any young man who had not enlisted.

'Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon.'

Reading newspaper accounts of the outbreak of war in 1914, you will find many references to the militant Women’s Suffrage movement, which had been so opposed to the government just months before, now backing the war effort. Christobel Pankhurst made a series of speeches in favour of the war effort, encouraging young men to join the army and women to play their part, too.

Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon. When the distinguished Scottish medic, Dr Elsie Inglis offered to form a women’s ambulance unit, she was rebuffed at the War Office with the words, ‘My good lady, go home and sit still!’

Flora Sandes (1876-1955) couldn’t sit still, and joined a seven-woman ambulance unit in August 1914 that went to aid the Serbs, who were then allies of Britain and struggling against the Austrians. Sandes achieved recognition without disguise, but in a foreign army fighting for a foreign nation’s survival.

Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

The world wars of the 20th century caused immeasurable misery, but also offered a new freedom to many women. Take a look at how they adjusted to their new situation - on the Home Front and in the battlefields.

Women's role

Throughout history, the business of war has generally been the preserve of men. In the 20th century, however, the role of women in the armed forces began a process of transformation that is still happening to this day. Women now serve in an increasingly wide range of jobs, including positions as jet fighter pilots in the Royal Navy, RAF and US Air Force.

'So what is the situation today, and what went on in earlier eras?'

Despite this, there remains an over-riding public perception that women continue to be excluded from the combat arms of land forces, especially the infantry, armour and artillery, apart from in administrative roles. And people seem to forget that, for example, in the Red Army during World War Two, women served as tank crew, infantry, snipers and military police - although once the emergency was over, they reverted to the supporting arms.

Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

When the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged in March 1918 to form the Royal Air Force, a female branch, the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), was immediately created.

'. Britain’s existence had been threatened as never before . '

Here women worked as clerks, fitters, drivers, cooks and storekeepers. Overall, with official sanction, over 100,000 women served in the uniformed services during 1914-18. Nearly half were connected with nursing, and few were permitted anywhere near the fighting.

The experience of Dorothy Lawrence highlights the prevailing attitude of officialdom to women at the front in 1914-18. In her quest to report from the front, she travelled in disguise to the town of Albert, on the Somme. Here she survived 12 nights in the trenches, before her identity was discovered, and she gained a true picture of the conditions under which the soldiers were fighting. Her bestseller about her experiences reflected a popular post-war desire for social change in Britain.

The picture of the role of women in war altered dramatically in World War Two. Arguably Britain’s existence was threatened as never before, and in December 1941, reflecting the gravity of the situation, Churchill’s wartime government passed the National Service Act (No 2) which allowed the conscription of women.

This was further than any other unoccupied country had gone at this time in mobilising a nation’s labour resources, and further than the Germans could go, as Hitler had promised to keep his females at home, nurturing the little storm troopers of the future.

In Britain, it was initially single women and widows without children, aged between 19 and 30, who were called up. Later the age limit was pushed as far as 43 (or 50 for veterans of World War One). They went into a variety of vital war industries, the Women’s Land Army and the armed forces.

Watch the video: Women at War in the Classical World: Book Review