Macedonian Amazons and The Woman Warrior in Tomb II, Vergina

IMG00047-20091117-1627 I’ve been sort of working on a book about Women and War in the ancient world (well I wrote half, took a break, and I'm playing with it again as my agent will be thrilled to hear). The number of literary sources that mentions queens fighting is surprisingly large, but the archaeological record is poor. 

I’ve already mentioned the finds in the Egyptian tomb of Ahhotep I. There are Scythian women buried with arms, but we know too little about these, and they fall outside the focus of my book. The same for the Gaulish women found buried with chariots – several were excavated at Vix, including the ‘princess’ buried with the famous Vix Crater. There is a Syrian tomb that appears to have belonged to a woman warrior Hamrath, but it has been destroyed and the contents long looted.

The best material evidence for a woman warrior thus comes from Tomb II at Vergina in Macedonia – although the tomb itself belonged to a man. The man is key to identifying her, and his identity has been disputed in recent years. When the tomb was first excavated by Manolis Andronikos in 1977, because it was by far the most impressive of the three tombs he excavated at this cemetery near the Macedonian capital of Aigai and it was clearly royal, he assigned it to Phillip II. The preserved skull would seem to tally with the literary sources describing the king as having lost an eye. We know that the tomb could not have belonged to his son Alexander the Great, since all the literary sources are clear that he was interred in Alexandria by Ptolemy I. 

Behind the stucco Doric facade is a large vaulted structure divided into an antechamber and a larger burial chamber by a wall. Inside the burial chamber, closed off by doors, were the remains of a man and his accompanying funerary accessories – in the antechamber were the remains of a woman, and some extremely elaborate arms and armour. This shows clearly that the woman had either trained for war, or been involved in a war – which doesn’t particularly help in her identification, given how many Macedonia royal women fit this description. One other feature of interest is that the plaster onto which the hunting frieze had been painted on the outside was still wet when the tomb was covered over with earth, and so was damaged; this suggests a greater hurry to bury the deceased than normal. Our knowledge of Macedonian tombs and their dating has also been refined thanks to the discovery of many more by Prof Andronikos and his colleagues.

Luckily looters never got their grubby little paws on this tomb, so the grave goods and cremated human remains are intact. A gold larynx in the main chamber contained the remains of a man, another in the antechamber those of a woman. Both were accompanied by large amounts of grave goods, but the addition of the woman’s remains in the antechamber are unusual, since this is where grave goods were normally piled up. The way her own grave goods and armour were piled up in front of the main chamber’s door, partly blocking it, suggests that she was interred almost as an afterthought.

portrait_heads Small ivory heads, which once decorated a kline, or dining couch whose wood has disintegrated, were found. These were identified as portraits of Phillip, his friends, and Alexander, and seen as supporting the identification of the tomb’s occupant. 

Scholarly opinion is divided, with Greek archaeologists largely seeing Tomb II as containing Phillip II, and American scholars someone else, usually Phillip III Arrhidaeus.

For a whole host of reasons I won't get into now, I think it is the tomb of Philip II - and would like to point out that Arrhidaeus was buried with his wife and her mother according to our sources.

Philips II's women were ... complicated.

Philip II of Macedon made a series of marriages to women from neighbouring lands, many of whom were also warriors. This changed the role of women both in Macedonian society, and as the Macedonians conquered the world, of women in the empires they created in their wake. After Alexander the Great’s death, this culminated in what Duris of Samos called ‘the first war fought between women, as his mother Olympias and his sister Cynane's daughter Adea Eurydice raised armies did battle for the throne. In their wake came a whole host of Hellenistic queens who likewise used arms to enforce their territorial claims, concluding with Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

The legacy of Xerxes' admiral Artemisia of Halicarnassus in Caria would reach into the fourth century. Her name-sake Artemisia II of Caria fought the Rhodians. Artemisia’s sister Ada later battled their brother Pixodarus for Caria, and then the Persians. When Alexander swept through the region in 334 as he conquered the world, Ada was still holding out in the fortress of Alinda against the Persians. They came to an arrangement whereby she adopted him, and he appointed her his Satrap of Caria. As Alexander’s Satrap, Ada besieged and took Myndus, a fortress on the coast north of Halicarnassus; given that the city had previously withheld Alexander’s siege of it, this was a considerable accomplishment.

After Alexander’s death the lands he had conquered were split amongst his successors, known as the Diadochi. These generals would carve out empires for themselves in Macedon, Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria, and fought a succession of wars to increase their domains. Alexander the Great’s sister Cynane had fought alongside their father Philip II of Macedon, and defeated an Illyrian army. She had been trained in war by her mother Audata-Eurydice, and in turn trained her daughter Adea-Eurydice to fight. After Alexander’s death, she once again took up arms, hired mercenaries, and marched at the head of an army from Macedon into Asia, to fight for the throne. As a result, Adea-Eurydice married Philip III, and became queen of Macedon. Cynane died in battle. Audata-Eurydice was one of several martial women Philip II had married. A tomb excavated at Vergina believed to be that of Philip II contained in addition the remains of a woman, who is assumed to have been one of his wives. What made the find particularly unusual is that she was buried with greaves, a Scythian style quiver, and arrows. Since we know that several of Philips’s wives were martially inclined, these would support the identification of the tomb as his, and suggest that the inhumed wife was the Scythian princess he had married. 

The primary role of the ruler after Alexander can be seen as being a martial leader – whether to gain more land or merely to defend it, fighting off those who were trying to take if off them. By extension the supporting role of the queen could veer into a martial one when necessary. Although they are now studied as Greeks, the Macedon that these Diadochi had sprung from was on the fringes of the Greek world, and had produced a string of strong women. Resilient women continued to be a feature of the Hellenistic kingdoms that they carved out, often fighting for their rights, and sometimes leading armies. These women usually defended cities against sieges – Cratesipolis and Stratonice – but others charged into battle at the heads of their armies to defend their lands.

If Alexander was the ideal to be imitated by Hellenistic kings, then his widow Roxanne’s fate served as a warning to their queens – she had not fought for her rights nor those of her son, and her passivity had cost them both their lives. The submissive woman might have been praised in Periclean Athens, where inheritances did not have to be fought for, but in the new world order she was only guaranteed to lose out. Later queens realized that to place their sons on the throne, they might first have to sit in the saddle themselves, and several raised armies to fight for their rights of succession. 

Apologies for the slightly disjointed text but ... I know the interest in Macedonian royal tombs is running high and ... oh be grateful I spared you the lengthy discussion of which of Philip II's wives it could be in the tomb!

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