6.20.2008

Women and War

I've mentioned in passing some odd reactions I've had to a woman writing a biography of a general. But what about women as warriors? This is by no means a modern phenomenon, and women have had a long history of raising and leading armies to fight for their rights. Setting aside mythical warriors such as the Amazons, I can think of a dozen off the top of my head. This is a selection of the more interesting ones.

Artemisia I of Caria was on the Persian side at the Battle of Salamis. When the Spartans built the Persian Stoa in their Agora to commemorate the defeated Persian commanders, her portrait was included amongst them. Herodotus wrote of her (7.99):
There is no reason for me to mention any of the other commanders, except for Artemisia. I consider her to be a particular object of admiration because she was a woman who played a part in the war against Greece. ... The ships she brought had the best reputation in the whole fleet, next to the ones from Sidon, and of all the allies she gave the king the best advice.


Artemisia II of Caria, was widowed by Mausolus, but she continued as Satrap of Caria. The Rhodians, perhaps thinking that a woman made an easy target, tried to capture her capital Halicarnassus. They sailed into the Eastern Harbour; she had been in the Western Harbour, followed them into it, and defeated them.





Alexander the Great was, like the name says, a great general. His half-sister Cynane was also famed for her military knowledge. According to Polyaenus:

Cynane, the daughter of Philip was famous for her military knowledge: she conducted armies, and in the field charged at the head of them. In an engagement with the Illyrians, she with her own hand slew Caeria their queen; and with great slaughter defeated the Illyrian army.
Polyaenus is our source for a number of other female warriors, though some, such as Semiramis, may be mythical. The Parthian-born Rhodogune led an army as the widow of Demetrius II Nicator.

Cratesipolis held Sicyon for Cassander after the death of her husband; she put down a rebellion, and crucified about 30 of their leaders to make her point (314 BC). Demetrius Poliorketes (also not a bad general), seems to have liked her for different reasons, and his biography contains this rather amusing moral [Plutarch, 9.3]:
But on learning that Cratesipolis, who had been the wife of Polyperchon's son Alexander, was tarrying at Patrae, and would be very glad to make him a visit (and she was a famous beauty), he left his forces in the territory of Megara and set forth, taking a few light-armed attendants with him. And turning aside from these also, he pitched his tent apart, that the woman might pay her visit to him unobserved. Some of his enemies learned of this, and made a sudden descent upon him. Then, in a fright, he donned a shabby cloak and ran for his life and got away, narrowly escaping a most shameful capture in consequence of his rash ardour. His tent, together with his belongings, was carried off by his enemies.

Demetrius' mother Stratonice was active in a siege or two in Phrygia, and so perhaps it was understandable that he liked strong women.

Laodice I and Berenice Syra were two widows of Antiochus II Theos, who each rasied an army to try to place her son on the Seleucid throne of Syria. Laodice won and Seleucus II Callinicus became king. It put all those murdering cheerleaders' moms into perspective.

The Battle of Raphia (aka Battle of Gaza, 217 BC) was fought between the armies of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria. What makes it a little unusual is that a woman rode at the head of the army - princess Arsinoe III of Egypt, who later married Ptolemy IV Philopater. When the army seemed in danger of being routed, she rode out and rallied them.

Her namesake Arsinoe IV managed to get an army to fight her sister Cleopatra VII (left), and was marched in Caesar's triumph. I'm not going to even go into Cleopatra as female warrior; she made some pretty poor tactical decisions, and she lost, but is otherwise the post-child for the genre.



I've never quite managed to work out the various Ethiopian Queens during the Roman period - several seem to have been called Meroe, and one fought Augustus.

The coins of Zenobia name her Augusta and Regina. They could also have called her imperator, for she wielded imperium, and used her armies to conquer great chunks of the Roman Empire including Egypt. She came to rule Palmyra after death of Odaenathus, as regent for her son. She is said to have ridden like a Amazon, and walked besides her men as they marched. Aurelian finally defeated her, and brought her to Rome to march in his triumph (AD 270). Unlike male enemy generals, her life was spared. She retired to a villa in Tivoli, married twice more, and bore more children - because of the similarity in names, there has been some speculation that St. Zenobius might have had her as an ancestor. [image]

Albia Dominica was another widow forced to lead an army. The Byzantine army had been fighting the Goths at Adrianople (AD 378). The Emperor Valens perished during the battle, and his army was pretty much decimated (in the modern usage of almost the entire army being killed, rather than the original Roman meaning of one in ten). The Goths marched on towards Constantinople, which clearly needed to work out a way to defend itself against them. The Empress rose to the occasion, recruited an army and fought off the Germans. She managed to hold the city until reinforcements arrived, and prevented the Fall of Constantinople.

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