Women and Warfare in the Ancient World: How Things are Progressing in the Field
by Jennifer Martinez Morales
Scholarship on women and war in the ancient world has progressed significantly since David Schaps seminal article ‘The Women of Greece in Wartime’. Today, we have Adrienne Mayor’s ‘The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World’, which has increased popular awareness of a different type of ancient woman. This ‘warrior’ woman is no longer secluded in the oikos, but incredibly visible. Although the usual sceptics still exist, the majority of scholars no longer uphold the vision that women are in the background of ancient wars. Perhaps this is due to the growing international interest on women and conflict or, less likely, in my view, the field simply progressed without anyone noticing.
But, as with any (new) discipline, there are some setbacks which deserve addressing. A student starting his/her studies now would, unfortunately, notice that the field has been stalemate for quite some time. One still sees the same women being investigated (tragic women, mythical women, Amazons). What makes ancient Greece and Rome so spectacular is the diversity of their populations, among countless other aspects. Where are the ordinary women of different statuses, cities, and backgrounds? Why are these women not included in our investigations?
This is what my doctoral research attempted to do in the context of ancient Greek history. By moving beyond mythical women and wars to investigate the wartime experiences of ordinary women in Classical Greece, it tried to give a voice to the unnamed and faceless women in our texts and art. It created a balance to existing studies on the disciplines of ancient warfare and gender studies — an enjoyable never-ending task. However, to create a balance one must first understand the opposite end of the spectrum, and recent research has analysed extraordinary women remarkably well. In the most recent, and only, edited collection on women and war, titled ‘Women and War in Antiquity’, we find essays on women such as the queens of Caria and the iconic late republican Fulvia.
One of the recurring ways of seeing women and warfare in the ancient world is as victims of war. But by only analysing ancient women as the victims, we leave out a remarkable wealth of experiences. We also overlook the complex human emotions involved in what was such a significant part of ancient life, i.e. warfare (loss, grief, happiness or shame when husbands return from war, among others). The women whose lives are under our microscope deserve better. The ancient wars we teach our students are equally complex and their development, not outcome, involves every individual. Voting, for example, was a democratic process, and men were the only participants in ancient Greek politics. But we know that women could have a say on whether they would be evacuated from their cities when conflict was imminent. As I argue in my research, wartime evacuations, which we take for granted in the ancient world, were not automatic. They were not straightforward as they involved the movement of households and valuables.
The state of the discipline is definitely moving forward, but one must not allow conformity to enter this field, or less we run the risk of separating further women from war and war from women.