Review: Women & War in Antiquity, edited by Jacqueline Fabre-Serris & Alison Keith

by Kristin A. Masters

“War is men’s work.” The paraphrase of Hector’s famous speech to his wife in Iliad VI was the definitive statement of the rigid gender roles in antiquity; until recently, few scholars dared to bypass the famous Homeric aphorism and examine the impact of women on warfare. With few noted exceptions, women were seen as the victims or spoils of war, but their contributions to warfare were seen only in terms of the males that shouldered the “true cost” of battle. But to shut out half of humanity from one of the most common occurrences of history and to deny their role and involvement is absurd. The following book seeks to address this topic; asking not the question, “What was the impact of war on women?” but rather, “What was the impact of women on war?”

Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith’s volume, Women & War in Antiquity, provides meaningful contributions to the advancement of this question. Whereas the premise of this book is bold, the scope is equally impressive; articles range in chronology from Homer and the mythohistoric Trojan origins of the classical world to the fall of Christian Rome. The book represents the full scope of literary genres, including surprising insights into elegiac poetry; it also explores several interdisciplinary fields, often interweaving philology with archaeology and art history. Equal emphasis is placed on Greek and Roman culture in this volume, but the otherness of foreign women is also analyzed to contrast with the target culture’s gender norms.

The articles within this work explore each topic beyond dichotomies and inversions; each author analyzes the varied, complex role of women in their particular sphere of involvement.

The volume scarcely mentions the mythical Amazons; rather, it delves further into Greco-Roman culture to explore various roles that women undertook in times of crisis. Noncombatant displays of valor range from the everyday woman who sacrifices her hair for bowstrings and her roof tiles to defend her home from foreign invaders, to the sexually charged voyeurism of maidens watching the battle from the city walls. It explores women who removed their cultus in solidarity of their menfolk’s donning armor, as well as women using the lamentation of their future victimization to persuade their kin to either fight or refrain from battle. It shows the sexualization of political figures such as Fulvia and Zenobia, and the degradations that these women faced for transgressing the bounds of their gender norms, in contrast to the praise and fame of the mythical dux femina facti Camilla, who is described with no mention of her assigned gender role.

Even “traditional” depictions of gender roles and archetypes were further analyzed to reveal their transformations when used as a platform for various ancient author’s viewpoints; whether these women warriors were sexualized or stigmatized, they were often defined in relationship to compliment, counterbalance or usurp the role of the author’s ideal man.

Overall, Women &War in Antiquity is a well-written, thoroughly researched volume. It is a thoughtful contribution to the discussion of women’s impact on war, and succeeds in perpetuating the dialog about such an important, underappreciated topic.

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