The Curse of Women
Paul Chrystal, Women at War in the Classical World (Pen & Sword, 2017)
Paul Chrystal’s ambition in Women at War in the Classical World is to redress the balance between men and women in ancient warfare by restoring women to their rightful place. He does this by broadening our understanding of war and examining context and background while mining the literary and historical sources. While all Chrystal’s arrows might not hit their targets, he certainly gives military history students something to think about.
Chrystal brings us into the Classical period by way of a tour of women and warfare in the earlier civilisations of Egypt, Assyria, and the Biblical world. He enters Greece through mythology, where we find goddesses heavily involved in war, but the first real Greek women involved in warfare appear in Homer, though still not as warriors – one that tries, Epipole, is stoned to death when discovered. Other seeds are planted, however, such as women as instigators, narrators, advisors, wives of warriors, camp followers, and victims. Spartan women, Chrystal notes, took their role as non-combatant influencers to the extreme. Chrystal makes a brief pitstop for the legendary Amazon women warriors, even if we know very little about them, then works his way through Greek plays. Of the great Greek historians, Thucydides all but ignores women while Herodotus mentions 375, though he had an agenda for doing so. Chrystal reminds us that to the Greeks “women and war simply did not mix”, making his survey a harder sell in the process. Nevertheless, he finds some women who did take part in combat even if many of them were in sieges. Hellenistic women, he adds, had more freedom therefore they took a greater role in military decision making.
A very short but important Part II is an essay on women as victims of war, with rape a particular and horrific consequence of defeat. Part III is reserved for women in Roman warfare. Chrystal begins with the legends but is soon into historical figures and groups. Women, he finds, travelled with the Roman army, donated to the treasury for military purposes, and fought in sieges, but some played prominent roles in decision making. Chrystal also lists some prominent women that Rome fought against, including Cleopatra VII and Boudica. Roman Epic fiction and love poetry also included women, as did the fields of arts and entertainment, including gladiators.
Chrystal concludes his work with the Homeric axiom that war is “the curse of many a woman”. He certainly amasses enough evidence to satisfy that argument. Chrystal’s book is crammed with interesting anecdotes and vignettes gleaned from the sources, perhaps too much so with the inclusion of some women having only a tenuous connection with warfare. Women at War in the Classical World lacks also flow, partly because it gets caught between narrative and thematic structures, and in parts it feels inside-out with probable footnote material incorporated into the main text. This is not helped by listing named women within the chapters. I also question the use of mythology and fiction as useful categories of historical understanding, but I can see why Chrystal included them. Those quibbles aside, Women at War in the Classical World is a thought-provoking book and well worth reading to broaden our understanding of classical warfare.