04 March 2013

Women in Warfare: the Strategems

by Heather Domin

Polyenus was a Greek orator best known for his book Stratagems of War, in which he collected tales and tactics of famous warriors for the edification of his emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The resulting work comprised eight volumes spanning from mythical times to his present day, containing about 1/3 useful strategy and 2/3 apocryphal anecdotes. (Research wasn't exactly crucial to historical writing in those days.) The second half of Book Eight is entitled simply Women — in it are stories of female commanders, spunky queens, bad-ass barbarians, tragic heroines, and other ladies with "manly spirit" in times of war.  

a young Spartan woman
(source: Wiki Commons)
Now, just so we don't paint too progressive a portrait of our writer, one of his examples is Porcia, the wife of Brutus, who is praised because she came up with an extra clever (and extra gross) way of killing herself after her husband's disgrace. Most likely, Polyenus only included a section on women for entertainment and/or amusement. But with a list this long, at least some of his tales are likely to be based on fact, and a few are substantiated by other sources. The best legends are always grown from a kernel of truth.

So I thought I'd start us off with a small sample, sort of an appetizer tray for the in-depth articles my co-contributors will bring you throughout the month. I chose five stories I think have a decent chance of being true, but as a wise literary scholar once said, you don't have to take my word for it. There are plenty of books out there if you'd like to learn more; Warrior Queens by Antonia Fraser and Warrior Women by Jeanine Davis-Kimball are the first two that spring to mind.

Queen Amage of the Sarmatians demanded the Scythian king stop pillaging one of her territories. When she was answered with derision, she gathered her posse, rode all night to the capital, killed the palace guards, and assassinated the king and his entire court. Another version says she killed the king after challenging him to a one-on-one duel. 

When her city was facing war, the king decided to send the women into hiding for their safety. Princess Archidamis said eff that and personally led the women into battle. They dug trenches, carried ammunition, tended wounds, and fought bravely alongside their men, helping to drive off the enemy and save their city.

a female Sarmatian soldier
(source not credited)
General Artemisia, one of Xerxes' finest naval commanders, was renowned for her victories at sea. At the Battle of Salamis she outfought all the other Persian captains, leading to Xerxes' famous quote "My men have become women and my women have become men".

The half-sister of Alexander the Great was pretty great herself. A trained soldier famous for her military skill, she led her armies into battle against many enemies and trained her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but both were assassinated after Alexander's death.

After her city was defeated in battle, leaving most of the men dead, a young commoner named Telesilla called together all the women and led a defense of the city walls that worked so well, the enemy was forced to give up its invasion and leave the town. Oh yeah, and the enemy was Sparta. 

If you'd like to read the whole list, Stratagems of War is translated online in its entirety at several Classics archives and libraries. If you're a military history buff like me, you'll enjoy the entire series; if not, at least give the last book a try. There's enough material on women in ancient warfare to spawn dozens of historical novels.

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin. Her next two novels are due in 2013. She's been a reviewing member of the Historical Novel Society since 2007 and a contributor at Unusual Historicals since 2011.