Ancient Ladies of War

The vision of heavily armed men has become so heavily associated with the art of war that at this point it has become a cliché. So much so that, despite the many evidence throughout history of many female fighters, strategists and leaders, the association between women and war are still mostly seen as somewhat of a novelty even to this day. Stories of ancient female warriors are relegated to legends and folklores with minimal historical accounts attached to their lives, which leads to doubts on whether these women actually existed. Some of them are so fantastical and unrealistic that one would be forgiven to be inclined to immediately dismiss them. The lives and exploits of notable warrior women in history such as Artemisia I of Caria, Boudicca, or Joan of Arc are mostly considered examples of exceptional personal valor instead of reflections of the societies in which they lived.

File:Red figure pelike, Amazon, warrior, 440-430 BC, AM Syracuse, 121428.jpg
Attic red figure pelike by the Polygnotos Painter, 440-430 BC. A battle between a Greek warrior and an Amazon. The signature of the Painter is above the head of the warrior. Found in Gela, Sicily.

Chronicles of the ancient wars in Japan, much like those of ancient Greece and Rome, present many different kinds of male warriors such as the tragic hero, the warrior-courtier, the traitor, the coward and many others. On the other hand, women’s roles in these tales are slight and set far from the battlefields. There is the tragic heroine, or the loyal wife, who kills herself at the death of her husband or lover, the grieving mother who grooms her son to avenge his father’s death, the merciful woman who encourages a warrior chieftain to empathize, against his better judgment, and dissuade him from slaughtering his enemy’s children who later grow up to kill him, and the seductress who diverts the warrior from his task with her feminine wiles – all intriguing roles, of course, but they are stereotypes which realistically would apply to only very few women.

Nakano Takeko shrine in Japan

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2 Replies to “Ancient Ladies of War”

  1. Quick question. Is Plutarch’s account trustworthy? Romans were very misogynistic. Being called “effeminate” was a common slur in their macho culture. Behaving in any way “like a woman” was almost regarded as a criminal offense for Roman men, at least according to their litterature. Relying on women for war was also seen as a weakness. Suetonius obviously disparages Nero when he writes the latter recruited a legion of “Amazons” by the end of his reign to defend his throne. In that regard, wouldn’t the female German warriors be a poor reflection on the Germans as a whole? The facts may have been exagerated to show how feeble the Germans were as men according to Roman cultural values–and to further insist on the fact that it was the right thing to subjugate the Germans. Should we consider this possibility to nuance Plutarch’s account? Do we have any other written sources about the female German warriors and their display of bravery?


  2. When one remembers Joan of Arc leading French troops into battle against the English, and Boudicca destroying Roman cities in England, wanting revenge. One forgets how powerful many female warriors have been in the past.


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