Amazons Women in Ancient Greece and Rome
Amazons: • The female warriors of Greek mythology appear in the earliest epic literature (7th century BCE), and in visual art beginning in the 6th century BCE. • They are portrayed as an all-female group, rather than women warriors within a mixed society • They are both allies and enemies of conventional male heroes – • but many male heroes (Herakles, Theseus, and Achilles, e.g.) have noteworthy battles and/or love affairs with Amazons Amazons: a “paradoxical mixture of youthful attractiveness and a danger that must be suppressed.” (Fantham)
Were the Amazons Real? Is there independent archeological evidence of Amazons? Not of groups of women living exclusively of men; all communities for which archeological remains have been found are of mixed gender, across human history. (Some religious groups, e.g. convents or monasteries, may have burials where only adults of one gender are found; this is not true of any prehistoric remains.) Is there evidence that women participated in war and government in societies contemporary with the ancient Greeks? The Greeks tend to put Amazons as far away as possible – in Scythia (on the Black Sea), or in Ethiopia in Africa. So, there were not Amazon groups living anywhere easily accessible to Greeks; they were thought of as living in distant, even mythic, lands (Ethiopia). Nobody could prove they didn’t exist, but we have no contemporary historical records of anyone ever seeing one.
Historical Amazons? “You see, although I was already convinced by some ancient stories I have heard, I now know for sure that there are pretty well countless numbers of women, generally called Sarmatians, around the Black Sea, who not only ride horses, but use the bow and other weapons. There, men and women have an equal duty to cultivate these skills, so cultivate them equally they do.” (Plato, Laws) “Fifty ancient burial mounds near the town of Pokrovka, Russia, near the Kazakhstan border, have yielded skeletons of women buried with weapons, suggesting the Greek tales may have had some basis in fact.” (Archeology Magazine) Reconstruction of the costume of a warrior-priestess
Nomads known as the Sauromatians buried their dead here beginning ca. 600 B.C.; according to Herodotus the Sauromatians were descendants of the Amazons and the Scythians, who lived north of the Sea of Azov. After ca. 400 B.C. the Pokrovka mounds were reused by the Sarmatians, another nomadic tribe possibly related to the Sauromatians. In general, females were buried with a wider variety and larger quantity of artifacts than males, and seven female graves contained iron swords or daggers, bronze arrowheads, and whetstones to sharpen the weapons. (Archeology Magazine) Grave goods, including arrowheads and a sword, buried with a female
Some scholars have argued that weapons found in female burials served a purely ritual purpose, but the bones tell a different story. The bowed leg bones of one 13- or 14-year-old girl attest a life on horseback, and a bent arrowhead found in the body cavity of another woman suggested that she had been killed in battle. The Pokrovka women cannot have been the Amazons of Greek myth--who were said to have lived far to the west--but they may have been one of many similar nomadic tribes who occupied the Eurasian steppes in the Early Iron Age. (Archeology Magazine) Female warrior burial in situ
How did Greeks describe the Amazons? Although the real women warriors they might have encountered lived and worked with men who also practiced war, the Greeks invented the Amazons as an all-female group. They created different “ethnologies” to describe how Amazons bore and raised children, and managed to live without men. They situated them far away, to the East or North or South. They put them in contact with many major heroes, either as lovers or as enemies defeated in war – or, more commonly, both. Almost all visual art with Amazons shows them in defeat – often looking sensuous at the same time. Wounded Amazon, original c. 425 BCE, made for the Sanctuary of Artemis, Ephesus.
Exotic Amazons Most early vase paintings of Amazons show them in conventional male clothing. Here Herakles (identified by his lionskin), heroically nude, attacks an Amazon who is dressed in traditional hoplite garb.
Other representations show Amazons in the long pants and pointy caps associated with Persians, the Eastern Empire that was the powerful enemy of Greece from 490 BCE onwards. The Greeks thought of the Persians as slavish (since they were subjects of a king, not citizens of a polis) and effeminate. Naturally, they dressed in form-concealing pants rather than manly tunics; their aversion to nudity was gendered as feminine by Greek culture. An Amazon in Persian clothes worships at an altar (in a pose often seen of Greeks worshipping)
Amazons were thought of as horsewomen, and in some accounts (e.g. Herodotus) were portrayed as nomads. Here an Amazon is shown taming a horse with reigns and a stick. The view of Amazons as nomadic horsewomen fits the evidence of historical warrior women.
Amazons are sometimes shown with exotic weaponry, such as crescent-shaped shields (seemingly impractical but probably historical, for some peoples). The moon is evoked by the crescent. This Amazon fights with a (probably double-headed) axe, a weapon associated with ancient history (e.g. the axes of the archery contest in the Odyssey) and with ritual use (especially in Crete, where the labyrinth is the house of the double-ax, or labrys).
Amazons are usually shown in a favorable light in early Greek art Here an Amazon (dressed in Hoplite armor) carries a wounded companion from the battlefield Men might also be portrayed in such a scene
Mythical Amazon Realms (Near the Black Sea; also Libya and Ethiopia) “The edge of the oikoumene (inhabited world) is literally and metaphorically the frontier between civilization and savagery” (W. Tyrell)
Ethnologies • Herodotus (mid-late 5th century BCE): • Amazons and Scythian men meet and do battle • but then a few pair off for “other pursuits,” resulting in peace and desire for an alliance • “We could not live with your women: our customs are quite different from theirs . . . But if you truly wish to have us as your wives and will conduct yourselves with strict justice toward us, get your inheritance and come back to us, and let us live together by ourselves.” • Amazons can learn Scythian language, not vice-versa • husbands bring “dowry” • new society is formed (representing real ethnography?) • Amazons are beautiful, noble warriors • “love (or sex) conquers all” – note, no hint of homosexuality • women will not get along
Diodorus Siculus (1st century CE): • Amazons live with men in an inversion of normal sex-roles • women are rulers and fighters, men “like married women in our own society” look after home and children and obey their wives • female infants have their right breast seared off (to improve bow use & other fighting) (“a-mazon” means “without a breast” – but all visual examples show them with two.) • boys’ legs and arms are mutilated to make them unfit for war • Amazons have a large military empire • but are finally defeated by Herakles, who “thought that it would ill accord with his resolve to be the benefactor of the whole of mankind if he should allow any race to be under the rule of women.” (quoted by Blundell)
Heroes and Amazons Many Greek heroes battle Amazons. In this temple metope, Herakles prepares to kill an Amazon.
Achilles and Penthesileia The Amazons came to Troy to assist the Trojans (though the Trojan king, Priam, had fought Amazons in his youth). Penthesileia and Achilles met in single combat. At the moment he killed her, their eyes met and he realized too late that here was the only woman he could ever love. What ideas of men, women and love underlie this story?
Herakles vs. the Amazons Herakles was Greece’s most universal hero – he went everywhere, did everything, and was worshipped and commemorated all over Greece. One of his famous Twelve Labors was to bring back the girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyte (or Antiope). Although Hippolyte was willing to turn it over without a fight, something went wrong and a battle erupted. Heracles’ fight with the Amazons is a prominent feature of Greek art. Herakles conquers an Amazon, from the Athenian Treasury at Delphi
Herakles and the Amazons Herakles prepares to kill a fleeing Amazon, named Andromache. Note the gestures.
Theseus and Antiope (or Hippolyta) Metope from the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi, c. 480 BCE
Theseus killed Antiope when she attacked the wedding party when he married Phaedra • The Amazons attacked Athens to get Antiope back, and she was killed by Theseus in that battle • She was accidentally killed by an Amazon, Molpadia Theseus went on an expedition against the Amazons on the Black Sea, either with Herakles or with his friend Perithoos. He either captured the Queen, Antiope -- or she fell in love with him and betrayed her city to run off with him. The different versions continue: Theseus conquers an Amazon: Athenian Treasury at Delphi
Amazons in Athens: Almost all stories of Amazons set them far away, at the borders of civilization. This Athenian story is one of the very few that show the Amazons attacking a Greek country, rather than experiencing raids or conquests by Greeks, or fighting in far off locales such as Troy. The Amazons reached the Areopagus (hill of Ares on the Acropolis) and Theseus either defeated them or made a treaty with them. Antiope was the mother of Hippolytus, who was devoted to Artemis and rejected sex and love (appropriate son for an Amazon)! Hippolytus was cursed by Theseus through Aphrodite’s manipulations – when Phaedra falsely accused him of rape.
Amazons and the City of Athens “[The Amazons] were considered men for their high courage, rather than women for their sex; for they seemed to outdo men in their spirit more than to be at a disadvantage in their form. . . [But after they tried to conquer Athens,] having met with valiant men, they came to possess spirits suitable to their own nature . . .and by their disasters rather than their bodies they were deemed to be women. And so those women, by their unjust greed for others’ land, justly lost their own.” Lysias, Funeral Oration, 4th c. BCE • Theseus was the dominant hero of the city of Athens • His exploits were used to explain the unity of the the area around Athens (Attica) under the power of Athens • His exploits were often used in a symbolic way in Athenian political discourse • defeat of Amazons showed Athenian superiority over (feminized, foreign-ized) enemies of the current day.
Four Really Scary (and Related) Things (And the Mythic Battles to Conquer Them) Chaos: usually represented by Giants, fought by gods Nature:represented by the crazed, uncivilized, part-animal Centaurs, usually fought by Lapiths
Barbarians (especially the East), represented by Persians or Trojans, fought by Greeks And last but not least – Women, represented by Amazons, fought by Greeks
Amazonomachy Many Greek temples and public monuments show Amazonomachies (Battles with Amazons), sometimes in conjunction with others of the “Four Big Battles” shown above. What do Amazonomachies show about the Greek view of Amazons? Temple of Apollo Epikourios - Bassae: Amazonomachy, ca. 425-420 B.C.
Amazonomachy Although there are scenes of Greeks in defeat, there are many more of Amazons getting the worst of it. Here, one Amazon pleads for mercy while another defends her. The Amazons are wearing male “street clothes” rather than military gear. On the other hand, men didn’t exactly go into battle nude, either. Heroic artistic convention takes on a sensuous element.
Amazonomachy Here a Greek seizes an Amazon by her hair – shorthand evocation of the glorious defeat of an enemy city (i.e. dragging off the women into slavery). Another Amazon defends a fallen comrade.
Amazonomachy In this frieze, the Amazons are distinguished by Phrygian caps, but are otherwise similar to the ones in the Bassae frieze Again, one Amazon pleads for mercy as a Greek draws back his sword to kill her. Pleading for mercy appears more often in Amazon conflicts than in other kinds. It was usually seen as a feminine or at least non-combatant gesture; perhaps in defeat the Amazons “revert” to expected feminine behavior.
Here an Amazon seems to be at an advantage, but the seemingly subdued Greek is preparing to strike
A Greek pushes an Amazon back; his physical force is vitally portrayed. The Amazon’s off-balance position is emphasized by her clothing, which falls away to reveal her body – female and male nudity still carried very different cultural meanings.
Late Hellenistic & Roman Amazons By the 2nd century CE, Greek and Roman writers were beginning to adopt a more favorable view of Amazons. Perhaps because of the extensive multi-culturalism of the time, or because women’s role in public life, both business and civic, was much more pronounced, the Amazons did not seem threatening to order and decency. In this modern world, mythological re-writes (such as Lysias’ version of the Athenian defeat of Amazons) did not draw on a shared politico-religious history and were not as meaningful. Amazons were favorably exoticized.
Plutarch’s Life of Theseus (1st c. CE) • Historian, who considers many different versions • No real political agenda • A view of the Theseus episode that sounds very different from the classical Athenian version • On Antiope: • Plutarch dismisses the story that Antiope was a war-prize given to Theseus; argues that Theseus took her prisoner. • Argues that Theseus had to use deceit; “the Amazons, being naturally lovers of men, [did not avoid Theseus] when he landed on their coasts [but] sent him presents to his ship.” Theseus invited Antiope aboard and kidnapped her.
Plutarch’s Life of Theseus (1st c. CE) On board ship, a young man fell in love with Antiope. She rejected his advances kindly, but he committed suicide The Amazons came over land to get Antiope back; Plutarch argues that after 4 months and defeats on both sides, a truce was reached (despite differing accounts) “Nor is it to be wondered at, that in events of such antiquity, history should be disordered.” Plutarch mentions burial sites of Amazons in Athens, Megara, and Calchis – local traditions incorporate Amazons into local history
The Alexander Romance (4th c. CE) Many historians record that Alexander met with a troop of Amazons led by Queen Thalestris Arrian reports that the Medes sent Alexander a troop of 100 women who were known as Amazons – Alexander sent them away, fearing his men would treat them disrespectfully but said he would come visit them someday and impregnate their queen. (Arrian says the more trustworthy sources reject this story.) The Alexander Romance dates from the 2nd-4th centuries CE and ranges from military adventures to surreal under sea and outer space explorations.
The Alexander Romance (4th c. CE) We are on the other side of the river Amazon, but we live on an island. The perimeter of our land is a river with no starting point, whose circuit takes a year to travel . . . There is a single road into our land. We virgins who live here total 270,000. There is nothing male among us: our men live on the other side of the river and graze the land. Every year we keep a festival and make a horse sacrifice to Zeus, Poseidon, Hephaistos and Ares, which lasts for 30 days. All of us who wish to end our virginity stay with the men.
The Alexander Romance (4th c. CE) But they send all the female children they bear across to us when they reach the age of seven. When an enemy attacks, 120,000 of us ride out on horseback, while the rest guard the island, the men drawn up and following us. Anyone who is wounded in the war receives adoration from our proud hearts . . . if she dies, her next of kin receive a large sum of money. So we compete for reputation. If we defeat the enemy or they just run away, a terrible disgrace stays with them for all time. But if they defeat us, they will be in a situation of having defeated women.
The Alexander Romance (4th c. CE) (Alexander writes respectfully asking for tribute and hostages: “We will give each person you send a stater of gold a month as maintenance; after a year, they will return . . .” The Amazons agree.) “We give you permission to come and see our country.” (The Amazons send tribute of 100 talents of gold and hostages of 500 women to stay for a year.) “But if any of them loses her virginity to a foreigner, she shall stay with you.” “We accept allegiance to you . . . we have heard of your exceptional qualities and your bravery.” “We are people who dwell beside the world, but you have come to us as our master.”
The Alexander Romance (4th c. CE) (Alexander writes to his mother Olympias) The river Thermodon . . .is a large river that cannot be crossed and is full of animals. It flows out onto a flat and fertile land inhabited by the Amazons, women of exceptional height, noted for their attractiveness and strength, wearing bright clothes. They used silver weapons and axes – they did not have iron or bronze. They were drawn up with intelligence and ingenuity.
Sarcophagus relief of pitched battle, with Achilles in the center holding the slain Penthesileia. 3rd century CE