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).
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
- Philon, Poliorcetica C31
- Aeneas Tacticus 40, 2 and 4
- Frontinus, Strategemata 7, 33
- Gera, D.L. (1997) Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus De Mulieribus (Leiden)
- Suda, Pamphile
- Julian, Orations 3, 127a-c
Extracted from Women at War in the Ancient World by Paul Chrystal, published March 2017 by Pen & Sword.