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The female experience of war in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greek warfare women took hardly any part in the conflicts and were mostly restricted to the role of passive non-combatant. Considering this, it is indeed strange that the Greek pantheon contains at least two women warriors, namely Athena and Artemis. Even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, is sometimes depicted carrying arms, whereas the representation of Victory always takes the form of a woman.

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Goddess Athena takes part in a battle. Black-figure krater, 3rd quarter of the 6th century BCE. Santorini, Archaeological Museum of Thera.

 

Art and literature

Mythology and theology notwithstanding, Greek art and literature never portray mortal women fighting. They are shown either saying farewell to men leaving for war, or watching a battle worrying about its outcome (and therefore their own) or even taking part in funerary rituals.

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Behind a city’s walls, among warriors hurtling stones to the enemy, a woman seems to be crying out in despair. Funerary monument, known as the Nereids’ Monument. City of Xanthus, Lycia, 400 BCE. London, British Museum. Source: Cartledge, P. (ed), Ancient Greece, Cambridge Illustrated History.

 

They are sometimes portrayed as the reason for a conflict (Helen), others as spoils of war (Briseis, Trojan women). Rarely, they may also be sacrificed (Iphigenia) for the success of a campaign.

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Three Greeks hold Polyxene, daughter of the Trojan king Priam, while Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, sacrifices her on top of his father’s grave. Black-figure amphora, 570-560 BCE, London, British Museum.

 

In each of those appearances, women are observers of events whose unfolding they are unable to influence in any way. There are no scenes whatsoever of women fighting, with the rare exception of scenes showing the sacking of a city, where they may appear defending themselves with household items.

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A Trojan woman defends herself during the sacking of Troy. Red-figure vase, 480-475 BCE, Naples, Italy, Archaeological Museum.

 

Amazons

Amazons are the only women who are ever shown bearing arms and fighting, both in art and literature. However, being fictional and cast as fundamentally different from what ancient Greeks considered ‘natural’ and ‘normal’, the Amazons function as a symbol of what is ‘different’, ‘alien’ and therefore threatening.

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Greek warrior defeats an Amazon. Red-figure vase, 440 BCE, Athens, National Archaeological Museum.

 

Historical works

Besides art and literature, historical texts are another source of information on the role of women in ancient Greek warfare. At a first glance they seem to confirm the stereotypes: there is no mention of women bearing arms, fighting or taking part in battles.

Yet a more careful look, assisted by a non-traditional approach, reveals that women sometimes played an important part in some military conflicts. Naturally, when approaching sources from a modern viewpoint on women’s issues, there is always the risk that we may interpret the ancient text in ways its author never meant. Having taken this into account, it seems beyond doubt that in some cases women behaved in untraditional ways, participating actively in the conflicts of their city-states.

 

Encouraging and boosting morale

Sparta

It is generally accepted (by ancient authors and modern researchers) that Spartan women enjoyed more freedom than their counterparts in other Greek cities. It is said that they had the power to influence the behavior of their male relatives by means of their words and behavior. When the latter departed for war, it was their wives or mothers who bade them farewell urging them to either bring their shield back as winners or be carried in it dead (rather than coming back alive, but defeated).

It is said that after Sparta’s defeat in the battle of Lefktra (371 BCE) the women and mothers of the fallen carried themselves proudly, smiling, while the women relatives of the survivors were subdued as in mourning. Yet even the women of Sparta had no direct influence over matters of war.

Crete

Doric Crete had a long military tradition. We know that each city’s women were responsible for preparing the meals shared by the warriors in the special halls reserved for their gatherings. The women had the privilege of handing out the meals to the warriors, which they did according to each one’s achievements in battle.

 

Defending their cities

Macedonia

When the Talautians, an Illyrian tribe, attacked Macedonia, king Argaius I ordered the maidens of the city to dress up as Mainads (women followers of god Dionysus) and to appear descending from a nearby mountain. In his book Strategems, Polyainus says that when the Illyrians saw the maidens (whose faces were obscured by the wreaths of ivy they wore on their heads) shaking their staffs like spears, they thought they were a host of men and ran, leaving their arms and provisions.

The book was written about 9 centuries after the event (2nd century CE), so it is likely that the event described is mythical rather than real, possibly associated with the cult of Dionysus. Nevertheless, describing women actively taking part in a battle is a notable exception in Greek literature.

However, the practice of arming women in order to give a false impression to the enemy seems to have been more than a myth. Aeneas Tacticus, in the 4th century BCE, mentions that the defenders of Sinope had used the same ruse to give the impression that the city was manned by more men than it actually had.

Plataea

In 431 BCE, the Thebans, invited by the anti-democratic party of Plataea, invaded the city at night. In the beginning, the element of surprise seemed to favor the attackers, but soon the Plataeans regrouped and counterattacked. Historian Thucidides mentions that the women took an important part in the battle: they climbed on the rooftops and, with mighty war cries they hurled roof tiles at the enemy. The result was a complete defeat for the Thebans, most of whom were killed.

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A reveler returns home, banging at the door with his staff. On the other side a woman waits, carrying a lamp. Roof tiles, meticulously drawn above the door, indicate that this takes place at a house. Red-figure vase, 5th century BCE, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

In 429 BCE,  the army of the Peloponnesian league and the Thebans laid siege to Plataea. The Plataeans managed to evacuate the non-combatants to Athens, but 110 women remained in the city to cook for its defenders. When the city fell, in 427, all the men were killed, while the women were sold as slaves.

Corfu

Thucydides also informs us that during the local civil war in the city of Korkyra, in Corfu, between the aristocratic and democratic parties, the city’s women took part in the conflict by hurling roof tiles to their opponents from the rooftops. This fact seems to amaze the ancient historian who mentions that the women fought ‘despite their nature’.

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Bidding farewell to a departing warrior. Red-figure vase, 450-440 BCE. Athens, Goulandri Museum of Cycladic Art.

 

Argos

Being about 1m (3.2 ft) long, 45 cm (1.5 ft) wide and weighing at least 15 kg (33 lb), ancient Greek roof tiles made formidable projectiles. Their use continued well into Hellenistic times, and their effectiveness was such that Philo of Byzantium recommends their use as a standard defensive technique. The death of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, by a roof tile thrown at him by a woman during a night-time raid in the city of Argos, proves the point. 

 

Campaigns

Towards the end of the classic era, Xenophon describes, in his book Anabasis, the ordeal of 10,000 Greek mercenaries trying to make their way home through the hostile Persian Empire. They were accompanied by women (most of whom had been captured during the first part of the campaign) all the way to the Black Sea. Xenophon hardly ever mentions the women, yet two events stand out: in the first, during the crossing of the river Kendrites, in what is now Kurdistan, women encouraged the men with fierce war whoops against the locals who tried to stop them. Later, during a dinner with Paflagonian emissaries, women were employed to intimidate these potential enemies: a woman performed a war dance, the Pyrrhic, bearing arms. Stunned, the guests asked whether Greek women fought, only to receive the answer that they did and that it was them who had defeated the Persian king Artaxerxes in the battle of Kunaxa.

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Naked woman performing the Pyrrhic dance. Red-figure vase from the city of Thespies, 440-430 BCE. Thebes, Archaeological Museum.

 

It is impossible to generalize from these excerpts and conclude that the hundreds or perhaps thousands of women who travelled with the 10,000 Greeks were all respected or treated as equals. Yet these incidents reveal that there were exceptions in the participation of women at war.

 

Mercenary armies

In Hellenistic times, women accompanied the armies as part of their baggage trains. Not all of these women were prostitutes or entertainers (even though these also followed armies and were essential in maintaining morale). Most of the women accompanying the warriors were their wives, who, according to contemporary descriptions, followed their men where their job took them, along with their children. Although there is no mention of these women taking part in battles, their presence was extremely important, as proven by the fact that on more than one occasion, the army would refuse to march unless their families came along. In the 3rd century BCE, in a contract between King Eumenes I, of Pergamon, and the mercenaries he was about to employ, there is special mention for the financial compensation of their families.

In one case (and perhaps others) the presence of these women and children determined the outcome of a battle. This happened during the conflict between Eumenes of Cardia, who was defending the legal heirs of Alexander the Great, and Antigonus the One-Eyed. In the battle of Gabiene, in 316 BCE, the army of Antigonus managed to capture the baggage train of Eumenes. The battle was still undecided when the veterans in Eumenes’s army (who had fought with Alexander and were called Silver-Shields) asked for their families back; Antigonus demanded they turn Eumenes to him, which they promptly did. This decided the outcome of the battle and, as a result, the fate of Alexander’s line and empire.

 

Honored dead

Although historians fail to mention the fact, archaeological evidence reveals that it was possible for women to take part in defending their city and die for it. In a central spot of the ancient city of Messene, a burial monument was found whose placement makes it obvious that it was built in honor of persons enjoying great respect. The monument bears 10 names, four of which are women’s. The monument is probably connected to the wars fought by the Messenians in the 3rd century BCE, against the invading Spartans, under King Naves, and Macedonians, under Philip V. The women must have fallen defending their city and were recognized by their it, receiving the same honors as their male co-combatants.

 

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Monument of fallen warriors near the Asclepium of Messene. The names of the honored dead are inscribed on the upper row of stones. Archaeological site of Messene, 3rd century BCE.

 

Ancient Greek art and literature may focus on presenting women in the traditional roles of supporting their men at war or suffering as victims of warfare, yet it is obvious that their role in armed conflicts were much more complex and multi-faceted.

Obviously, in case of war, the women mostly suffered, either as widows, orphans or mothers who had lost sons, or as refugees, with all the hardships that entails, or, finally, as war booty, at the disposal of their captors.

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Prokleides and his wife Archippe bid farewell to their son Procles, who died in battle. When the parents died and were interred at the same spot, their names were also inscribed on the monument. Funerary monument, 350-325 BCE, Athens, National Archaeological Museum.

 

Yet women’s contribution often transcended their traditional roles and, when called upon, did much more than succor and provide for their men. When the occasion rose, women could and did fight, using any means at their disposal; they did so with passion and were often so successful as to receive recognition by the strict patriarchal societies of an ancient Greek city. In some cities, such as Argos and Tegea, their deeds became almost legendary and formed a part of the stories that shaped their respective cities’ ‘national’ identities.

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