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Female Warriors in Greece, Rome and the Amazons


The female warrior role in ancient empires, such as Greece and Rome, is not near as well documented as the exploits of its male counterparts. However, these roles have made their stake within the annals of time. Although women continued the role of wife, mother, and caretaker; there remains a question as to what they did to enhance or hinder wartime issues. Women’s war roles vary considerably from culture to culture, including support troops, psychological war boosters, and peacemakers. The most precarious of the roles is that found in Greek goddesses. Nonetheless, the variations occur within a context that has led to myths about these roles. The most notable of these roles has been the foretold stories of the Amazons.

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The role of woman

For Greek society, each city-state maintained its unique view of the roles of women. However, most followed the fundamentals of either the Athenians or Spartans. Athenian women were divided into two categories: that of either a wife or nonwife. Wives were viewed as their producers and caretakers. Athenian men believed they had little to no other use. O’ Neal says, “The view of women in Athens in literature comes from the writings of males from the upper economic class…In Athens, for the most part, women were legal nonentities whom the Greek male excluded from any participation in the political or intellectual life of the city…According to one scholarly view, they were uneducated except for domestic training; they were virtually imprisoned in their own homes.” (117). They were expected to stay out of sight of the husband’s guests; otherwise, they were confined. Women might belong to cults, but these were very difficult to find. (Sutton, 143). Socializing on occasion with other women occurred at parties, but beyond that women were expected to remain invisible at home. The best wife, Athenians thought, was the one about whom the least was said.

Nonwives were divided into several categories depending on age, health, and luck. At the bottom were the women who lived in brothels. (Deacy and Villing, 21). Almost all were slaves and lived fairly miserable life. Between customers, it seems that many were expected to spin and weave to provide additional revenue for the brothel’s owner. The women on the streets were only slightly better off. The law limited the price they could charge and required that the same girl could not engage two men in a bidding war. (Sutton, 145). Concubines were women in a somewhat permanent relationship with one man. They could be considered the equivalent of Twentieth and Twenty-First-century mistresses. (O’ Neal, 118). While female slaves would engage in the desires of their masters’, it was normally considered bad to do so in a wife’s home, when opportunities outside of the home were plentiful.

Athena’s role

Although the wives and other categories of nonwives served no real wartime purposes, the next category was the exception. This category was known as the heteros, included call girls and courtesans. (Payton, 14). These women offered more than just a warm body, as many could sing or play a musical instrument. Others were talented, knowledgeable, and outspoken conversationalists. Veterans, as opposed to wives, knew about the world at large and were often quite entertaining. (O’Neal, 120). Veterans were often as important an ingredient to festive occasions as was the food and drink. Frequently, sex was taken for granted, but heteros went no further than light-hearted flirting. (Payton, 15). They were hired for their ability to entertain intellectually and their charges reflected these talents. Their wartime function was that of psychological war boosters. As the battles would subside or before the intense battle would commence, time could be spent with heteros to expend angst and clear the minds of soldiers.

Conversely, Spartan women developed much more of the traditional warrior role within society. They were educated along with the boys in both the arts and athletics. Pomeroy explains, “A girl’s education was considered on par with the males’, with staged battles part of the curriculum. Spartan women were expected to produce strong and healthy children as well as be loyal to the state. They were expected, in times of war, to overtake their husband’s property and guard it against invaders and revolts.” (92). Sparta highly encouraged this progression, in part so they could stand in place of the men at times of their absence. Women often took charge of the community, since such a significant emphasis was placed on Spartan men’s military duty. Women did not take place in this military duty; however, many were given military training basics and philosophy. (Hanson, 36). The Spartan belief was that women needed to know how to protect the home from invaders and also fight in the instance that the men are somehow overrun. Although they were still the caretakers and heir producers, Spartan women understood the sense of communal duty and believed themselves much better off than their Athenian counterparts.

Ironically, many women throughout Athens would not have even been seen in public, however, those of Sparta certainly seem to embody this dual role that Athena possesses. Athena, the Warrior Goddess, is believed to have come to the aid of Greeks in their wartime victories. Many ancient Greeks told of the fact that to avoid a prophecy; her father, Zeus, swallowed her mother. Athena’s mother then gave birth to her and nursed her until Athena broke through Zeus’s head. She sprung from her father’s head fully armed with his bolt and armor. Athena has been coveted by military leaders and Greek heroes alike. Deacy, Susan, and Alexandra Villing continue, “Athena expressed her displeasure of Pandaros starting the Trojan War, by letting loose an arrow, by helping the Greeks to victory…The Trojan Horse is said to have been Athena’s idea…She continued by trampling the Trojans by dealing a death blow to their god of war, Ares.” (239).

Aside from the warrior role, Athena plays many secondary roles within Greek society. The people of Athens argue that Athena even created their city by giving them the gift of an olive tree. (Deacy and Villing, 256). This tree allowed them to produce essential oils for personal consumption and trade, shelter, and tools. The account of Athens portrays Athena as the supporter of the common good. While providing her wartime leadership and skills, she also has a sense of community and looks to help all Greeks in need. This dual role is why so many of the other city-states of Greece not only paid homage to her but often considered her a protector. Spartan women have, arguably, portrayed the role of both the woman as mother and warrior more so than Athenians. (Pomeroy, 161). Perhaps this is why Spartans believed Athena was their protector and maintained a preference for them.

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The Greek goddesses were not the only women to be portrayed as women warriors. Amastris, the wife of tyrant Dionysius of Heraclea, established her city-state around 300 B.C. by conquering and uniting four settlements. After she was given to Craterus by Alexander the Great and he did not want her, she married Dionysius. (Grant, 232). Following his death, shortly after 300 B.C., she was given sole custody of the children and decided after other failed marriage arrangements to retire. She then began her quest to unite the four smaller communities of Seamus, Cyrus, Tim, and Croma. After her death, a drowning by her two sons, Tim regained its autonomy from Amastris; although the other cities stayed in the unified territory. (Grant, 319).

Moreover, many people know the infamous tales of the Greece Persian War. Nearing the end of the Fifth century, Athens and Greece were enthralled in a battle with the Persians at Thermopylae. They asked for troops and needed supplies from nearby Argos but were refused. The following years brought enough resentment that in the early Sixth Century, Argos was invaded by Sparta. Cleomenes, king of Sparta, killed all the males. Telessilla, a Fifth century BC warrior-poet, decided she would lead the females to the defense of Argos. Through war hymns, chants and leadership, she was able to rally a group of women to defend her city of Argos. Plutarch recounts the events of the siege in “Mulierum Virtutes”:

Females in defense of Argos

But when Cleomenes (I), king of the Spartans, having slain many Argives (but not by any means seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven [cf. Herodotus, VII.148] as some fabulous narrative have it), proceeded against the city, an impulsive daring, divinely inspired, came to the younger women to try, for their country’s sake, to hold off the enemy. Under the lead of Telesilla, they took up arms, and, taking their stand by the battlements, manned the walls all around, so that the enemy were amazed. The result was that they repulsed Cleomenes with great loss, and the other king, Demaratus, who managed to get inside, as Socrates says, and gained possession of the Pamphyliacum, they drove out. (Hanson, 126).

After defeating the Spartans, the Arians placed a statue of her at the entrance to the temple of Aphrodite at Argos.

In addition to these warrior roles which women sought in Greek society, women in Roman society were privy to much of the same opportunities. However, the dual responsibility of caretaker and heir provider remained. Perhaps the largest disparity in these roles is that in the education of children. Roman women took active roles in the political education of their children, especially males, and sought their advancement with unwavering allegiance. (Bauman, 212). This fascination with politics is conceivably the reason behind the military actions and coups led by Roman women throughout its history. Although Romans did not believe in allowing women to rule their states, they seemed to have many different views with their foreign territories. (Bauman, 113).

For example, Cartimandua was Queen of the Brigantes or Britain in the First Century AD. She ruled the lands for a little over twenty years. Cartimandua formed a strong alliance with Rome through military strategy and capturing one of the leaders of the British resistance, Caratacus. During her rule of the Brigantes, Rome was forced to send the IX Hispana to assist her from invasion. Cartimandua divorced her first husband and remarried only to find that her first husband fled the Brigantes and formed another army. Grant elaborates, “The first attack was unsuccessful since it was anticipated, however, the second attack was successful and Cartimandua was forced to flee the Brigantes in 69. The continuing unrest would finally force the Brigantes under the complete rule of Rome. As such, Rome took the Brigantes from the rebellious ruling houses circa 70.” (279).

Comparison examples

In comparison with previous Greek examples, women warriors within Roman rule also revolted. Boudica was the widow of King Prasutagus of the Iceni people. After his death, he left his kingdom to his two daughters, whom the Romans refused to recognize and subsequently raped. After this and other egregious actions, Boudica decided it was time to respond. She gathered the militia and under her command, they proceeded to sack three different Roman colonies: Colchester, London, and St. Albans. (Bauman, 277). An estimated seventy thousand people were killed during these sieges. (Grant, 347). Although the details have been argued, many scholars believed that she poisoned herself in the West Midlands upon witnessing her people massacred while trying to flee the better equipped and more disciplined Romans. (Sutton, 153).

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Undeniably, there is no legend of the woman warrior as well known or foretold as that of the Amazon. There are numerous accounts of their origins and exploits, however, many scholars have them originating from the areas around the Black Sea, near modern-day Turkey. (Edgerton, 16). This very important question of the identity of the Amazons still puzzles modern historians. The stories about this warrior class of women have extended from the somewhat bizarre to the downright sensational. Some people have said that ancient Amazons would cut or burn off the right breast so that the use of the bow and spear was much more effective. To maintain their population, the Amazons would visit neighboring tribes for procreation and then dispense of the males in various ways. (Edgerton, 28). The females were trained in all the aspects of Amazon’s life to include the art of warfare and tactics.

Their history of battles is as rich as that of any Greek or Roman city-state. They first appear in the Second century to invade Lycia and Lybia. (Edgerton, 45). The battles continue as Hercules is told to get the girdle of Hippolyte, an Amazon queen. Upon getting the cloth, Hercules and his friend, Theseus, take Hippolyte’s sister. (Edgerton, 47). “The capturing of Hippolyte’s girdle takes on great importance concerning the Amazons. Hippolyte possessed a golden girdle given to her by Ares (god of war), Some sources say that Hercules raped Hippolyte to take the girdle, but other sources say she gave it willfully. In either case, whether Hercules took it forcefully or not, the other Amazon’s retaliated against Hercules. Hercules battled with the Amazons until none were left, and within modern Greece, this event served to explain why there were no Amazons in the Black Sea region when the Greeks arrived at the area in 650 BC” (Ancient Greek Civilizations).

During the monumental battles of the Trojan Wars, the Amazons sided with the Trojans against the Greeks. However, Penthesilea, a famous Amazon queen during these wars, was killed by Achilles. Ancient Greek Civilizations:

During the Trojan War Achilles found Panthesilia, an Amazon. Achilles was another hero in Greek myth, the whose only weakness in battle was his heel (hence the term Achilles’ heel). In the myth, Achilles is represented as somewhat wild. At a very young age, he disobeyed his teacher, Chiron (a centaur), and becomes a general at age fifteen. He then lays siege to many cities throughout Greece. Panthesilia alternately was a great Amazon warrior, who accidentally killed Hippolyte, but received cleansing, and thus led a legion of Amazons into combat at Troy. The myth thus follows that Panthesilia’s legion and Achilles’ legion met in Troy and battle one another, but when Panthesilia is struck down and killed by Achilles, he follows the custom of claiming his enemy’s armor. After removing her armor he openly weeps over the beauty of the now-dead Panthesilia, and in some myths rapes her.

The Amazons are told of in other smaller instances throughout the later centuries. As with the death of Alexander the Great and the fall of the Roman Empire though, so to did the tales of Amazons fade over the centuries.

Popular culture has likened the Amazons to a more voluptuous and exotic female with a mysterious background. As a result, the Amazons are not thought of as a warrior class. Instead, they take on a sexual role for identity purposes. The warrior concept has faded away from this idea. However, the warrior woman is not gone from today’s society. Many women have enjoyed success in multinational military forces and they assumed numerous roles of leadership. The dual role of caretaker and warrior is ever-present today as well, especially in developed countries with larger and more advanced militaries.


Throughout history, whether by an innate sense of responsibility or social conditioning, women have displayed the common attributes of warriors. Despite having to often assume dual roles, women were able to affect the warrior attitudes. Greek society, depending on the city-state, held their women in very close check or allowed them to assume what amounted to a paramilitary role in the absence of men. Roman society, through education and political change, allowed women to gain political and military strength through several different means. This was especially true when it came to the overseas colonies. Both Greek and Roman societies, however, pale in comparison to the mythology of the Amazons. The Amazons were quintessential women warriors.

Works Cited

Ancient Greek Civilizations. 1999. Minnesota State University Mankato. Web.

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Bauman, Richard A. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 1992.

Deacy, Susan and Alexandra Villing. Athena in the Classical World. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Edgerton, Robert A. Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of War. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

Garland, Robert. “Mother and Child in the Greek World.” History Today. 36.3 (1986): 40-47.

Grant, Linda. Battle Cries and Lullabies, Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. De Pauw: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Hanson, Victor D. The Wars of the Ancient Greeks. Cassell: Sterling, 1999.

O’Neal, William J. “The Status of Women in Ancient Athens.” International Social Science Review. 68.3 (1993): 115-122.

Payton, James R. “Tale of Two Cultures: Understanding the historical and cultural context of the NT epistles.” Priscilla Papers. 16.1 (2002): 13-18.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women. Oxford: University Press, 2002.

Sutton, John S. “Weaving and Unweaving Public Woman: Contingencies of Oppositional Discourse.” Atlantic Journal of Communication. 14.3 (2006): 141-155.

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