Friday, May 27, 2016


Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, Alison Keith, Women and War in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 341. ISBN 9781421417622. $55.00.

Reviewed by Erika L. Weiberg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (

Version at BMCR home site


The papers collected in this volume originated in a symposium on women and war in antiquity at Université Charles de Gaulle – Lille 3 in 2009, as part of the launch of EuGeStA, the European Network on Gender Studies in Antiquity. The symposium endeavored to spark a conversation among specialists in the literature, history, and material culture of ancient Greece and Rome. This conversation is reflected in the volume's split between largely literary essays (Part I) and largely historical ones (Part II). Material culture receives rather short shrift. With essays on topics ranging from Homer to Claudian, the editors of the volume achieve their goal of presenting a "panorama" of ancient depictions of the relationship between women and war (p. 2).

As is typical with collections of essays, the methodologies employed by the contributors vary. Nonetheless, certain trends dominate. Many essays respond, either explicitly or implicitly, to the work of Nicole Loraux, who took an anthropological approach to war and gender in ancient Greece.1 Several of the contributors attempt to complicate Loraux's conclusions by looking beyond women's experiences as victims of war, describing instead women's active participation and collaboration.2 Alison Sharrock, in her essay on "Warrior Women in Roman Epic" calls this approach a "releasing" feminist reading, as opposed to a "resisting" feminist reading (pp. 174-175, n. 1). The result of such an approach is a collection of essays that emphasizes female agency in the typically male endeavor of war, rather than female passive suffering and victimization by war.

I will not discuss each essay in the volume, but will survey a selection of the conclusions reached by different contributors. The first two essays, by Philippe Rousseau and Marella Nappi, discuss women in the Homeric epics. Rousseau argues that Hector's famous remark to Andromache to attend to her loom because "war will be men's business" (Il. 6.492) is not a prescription for women in general to leave the tactics of war to men, but rather Hector's muted admission that the course of the particular battle he is waging against the Greeks is predetermined and hopeless. He also claims that the two "quotations" of these lines in the Odyssey (1.356-359, 21.350-353), which replace "war" with "speech" and the "bow," rely on their audience's knowledge of the original lines in the Iliad. Although I was not convinced that Hector's statement in the Iliad is not generalizing, I found fruitful Rousseau's treatment of the intertextual relationship between these passages.

Rousseau's close reading is contextualized by Nappi's more wide-ranging discussion of a female discourse of war in the Iliad. She argues that women participate in the war narrative of the epic by giving advice, pointing out the horrors of war, and predicting future atrocities. Men's deeds are balanced by women's words. Her analyses, however, are sometimes muddled by misleading translations from Greek into English (e.g. "epidemic war" for πολέμου…ἐπιδημίου, Il. 9.64).

In the only chapter focused on material evidence (Chapter 4), François Lissarrague discusses Attic vase painting, arguing that Greek artists riffed on the type scene of Thetis presenting arms to Achilles in ways that complicated or brought into question gender categories. His examples—depictions of the Amazons, of Eriphyle, and of Achilles on Scyros—contribute to our understanding of artists' adaptations of episodes from Greek mythology, but his discussion does not take into account functionality, medium, or context: he presents vases from archaic Greece alongside fourth-century CE mosaics from Spain. Analyses of the images he treats in historical and archaeological context would have made his conclusions more compelling.

In Chapter 6, Jacqueline Fabre-Serris analyzes Seneca's depiction in his Troades of the female captives of the Trojan War attempting to control their emotions, despite great losses. She argues, by reviewing Seneca's attitudes toward women in his Consolations to Marcia and Helvia, that he viewed women as particularly susceptible to pain and grief, and thus inferior to men. She then applies these observations to Seneca's characterization of Andromache, who attempts to control her emotions but whose body betrays her, and of Polyxena, whose stoic control elicits admiring comparison with men. Fabre-Serris' conclusions about gender in Seneca's philosophy and poetry would have been strengthened by reference to Amanda Wilcox's nuanced article on gender in the Consolations.3

Chapter 8, by Alison Keith, offers an important perspective on women and war in ancient Rome that is not featured in the other essays in the volume. She argues that the elegiac puella encourages Roman militarism because she benefits from the gifts acquired by her soldier-lovers while on campaign abroad. At the same time, Keith shows that the puella is a product of Roman imperialism, since these high-class courtesans were the sexual spoils of Roman conquest in Greece. This contribution reaches beyond the elegiac topos of militia amoris to reveal the realities of Roman courtesans' positions as both beneficiaries and products of war.

Alison Sharrock presents Camilla in Chapter 9 as "a metaphor for professional women," or at least as a character who breaks the stereotype of the Amazon, both feared and desired by men. She argues that Vergil is the only Roman author who presents a complex and sensitive portrait of a woman warrior, although he also plays with the representation of Camilla as an Amazon. I found Sharrock's revision of Camilla as a professional woman soldier thought-provoking, if not always convincing.

The second half of the volume focuses on "women and war in historical context." The first three essays in this section (Chapters 10-12) survey examples of female participation in warfare in ancient Greece. They aim to present a more complex portrait of women's activities during wartime. Stella Georgoudi, for example, in Chapter 11, argues against Nicole Loraux's theory that female participation in warfare is always portrayed as an inversion of the norm; she highlights, instead, examples of women's participation in war and in religious rituals as collaboration or cooperation with men's efforts.

In Chapter 13, Violaine Sebillote Cuchet also argues against overly simplistic interpretations of warrior women in ancient historiography. She focuses on three case studies—Artemisia I, Artemisia II, and Ada I—and wisely reminds us that we should not view all women in the ancient world through the lens of gendered rhetoric from fifth- and fourth-century Athens. She mentions portrayals of Artemisia I, for example, as a successful military commander and ruler (in the Πρεσβευτικός attributed to Hippocrates, Pausanias, and Polyaenus' De mulieribus), and argues that the Athenians in Herodotus' version of the story overemphasized the importance of her sex. While I found Sebillote Cuchet's essay mostly persuasive, I am not so certain that Herodotus intended to single out the Athenians as fools in this respect, as she argues, in order to please Greeks from other cities (p. 243).

Judith Hallett's discussion in Chapter 14 of Fulvia as a warrior woman disparaged by her contemporaries emphasizes the influences of elegiac and epigrammatic Roman literary conventions on her portrayal by later historians and biographers. She argues that the epigram about Fulvia that Martial attributes to Octavian, in addition to the inscribed sling-bullets from the siege of Perusia and Cicero's Philippics, by turns cast Fulvia as a powerful domina, drawing on tropes from Roman elegy, and as a sexually aggressive and disgusting woman, like those mocked in Catullan invective. Hallett thus raises the important question of the degree to which historical reality and literary fiction intersect.

An essay on women and war in Claudian's epics by Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer (Chapter 16) closes the volume. Harich-Schwarzbauer focuses on how Claudian reworks earlier epic depictions of women's roles to fit the constraints of his panegyric genre. She highlights women's duties at home during wartime in her discussion of the Laus Serenae, arguing that war increases the influence of a woman like Serena, wife of the general Stilicho, at court. She contrasts Claudian's praise of Serena with his depiction of the losers' wives, who are mostly concerned with their loss of status and wealth. She concludes with a discussion of female figures who instigate war (e.g. the goddesses Roma and Africa), whose influence on male decision-making Claudian downplays because of his panegyric agenda. Harich-Schwarzbauer's chapter effectively concludes the volume with a sweeping overview of Claudian's poetry in addition to the different roles that women can play during war.

The essays in this volume open up important but neglected topics for further inquiry, and will be valuable for literary and military historians alike. In addition, the international perspectives represented will challenge scholars to venture beyond traditional interpretations and methodologies, especially regarding the study of gender in antiquity. I commend the editors for their arrangement of the essays within the volume; though few, perhaps, will read the book cover to cover as I did, I appreciated the way in which the essays were arranged so as to speak to one another. In each of the essays I would have liked to see more engagement with the relationship between women in ancient and modern conflicts. The introduction mentions that the symposium included a dramatic presentation of modern women's writings on war; such comparisons help make the case for the continued relevance of classics in our war-torn contemporary world. I noticed some typos in the body of the text and several omissions and mistakes in the bibliography (e.g. Wyke 2002 is cited by several contributors and in the introduction, but does not appear in the bibliography; Loraux's Les enfants d'Athéna is not the same as The Invention of Athens; Zeitlin 1986 should be Zeitlin 1990; among others). The indices (locorum, nominum, and rerum) are thorough and helpful.


1.   Reflections on women and war in ancient Greece can be found throughout Nicole Loraux's scholarship. See, for example, "Le lit, la guerre," L'Homme 21 (1), 1981: 37-67, Les experiences de Tirésias: Le féminin et l'homme grec, Paris, 1989, Les mères en deuil, Paris, 1990, among others.
2.   For this approach, see especially Chapters 2, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14.
3.   A. Wilcox, "Exemplary Grief: Gender and Virtue in Seneca's Consolations to Women," Helios 33 (1), 2006: 73-100.

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