Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Walter Duvall Penrose, Jr., Postcolonial Amazons: Female Masculinity and Courage in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xv, 317. ISBN 9780199533374. $95.00.

Reviewed by David Braund, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site


This sparky study of Amazons will find its audience among those concerned with issues of gender and sexuality. Such readers may welcome its conversational style and habitual presentation of more-or-less remote possibilities in the form of unanswered questions. There is something attractive in the avoidance of closure perhaps. However, bouncing questions can also be misleading. Faced, for example, with the overwhelming evidence that Amazons were taken to be sexually interested in men and not women, our author asks: "Could … representations of Amazons loving other Amazons have once existed?" (p.86). Maybe some did, and maybe none did. Either way, it is the strong direction of the evidence available that needs to be treated.

The book is not without virtues. Key texts and images are gathered. There is a welcome concern with the chronology of the various texts and images that we have about Amazons. The stated aim of getting out of Athens tends to imply also a welcome acknowledgment of the importance of place as well as time. However, Athens is a focus of our knowledge and might have been given more thought, nonetheless: the notion (p.102) that Lysias has confused Amazons and Scythians is not only groundless, but seems to imply a failure to grasp the key importance of Amazons to Athenians. Postcolonialism is rather elusive here, but seems in this study to centre upon data drawn from outside Greek culture. There is a general suggestion that Greek culture has somehow imported its Amazons from a world beyond, wherein there were real warrior women. In search of real Amazons we are taken to regions north of the Black Sea, deep into Central Asia and sometimes into Asia Minor to boot, but without any sense of profound engagement with those regions. This is all very fine, perhaps, but there are so many problems in this fearless conspectus that I found it hard to retain faith in what the author had to say about matters in which I am not expert (notably Sanskrit). We are told that this book is a revised and expanded doctoral dissertation (p. vi, where explanation of the title also leaves me no wiser). That and the imprimatur of OUP indicates serious research, but at times I had the sense that I was dealing with something else.

Here there is space to highlight only key problems. First, we need to have a much sharper idea of what "warrior women" might be, for (as the book allows early on) there are plenty of fighting women to be found in Greek history, including the old lady said to have killed Pyrrhus with a well-aimed tile (cf. p. 60). The more searching Greek authors (Strabo, Procopius etc.) are not interested in that kind of warrior woman, but in the larger claim that there was a whole community of warrior women. Meanwhile, we have at least progressed beyond old arguments about capacity, for it is easy enough also to point to women active in fighting roles in modern armies and guerrilla groupings, as well as in military and/or ceremonial roles as bodyguards and the like. It is important to be clear about the object of the quest for "real" Amazons before launching claims that archaeology has found some. This book prefers to throw together a mass of material, without seriously engaging with any of it.

Archaeology has not found Amazons—at least not in the innocent sense that this book evidently means. "Soviet" archaeologists are to the fore, though it is some thirty years since the fall of the USSR. In these more recent years there has been increased interest among archaeologists of these expansive regions in the deposit of weapons in burials involving females. However, we should be clear that the possible connection of such burials with Amazons of any kind is very much a niche concern. The principal serious studies of this issue are those of a single scholar (E. E. Fialko), whose works do not appear in the bibliography of this book. At the same time, as any serious archaeologist knows, a mass of questions and uncertainties surrounds the possible relationship between grave-goods and the lifetime experience of the deceased. Among the further host of more specific issues for women of "Scythia" (a term about which this study is notably imprecise) are abiding problems about the past sexing of skeletons, joint or collective burials and the many possible meanings of any weapons deposited (cf. Herodotus, Lucian etc. on the religious evocations of the sword in Scythian culture). To find a "real" Amazon archaeologically is no small task, especially if we mean a woman who is part of a whole society of such women. Archaeology of other kinds is similarly unsafe here (notably pp. 102-4),

My dreary concerns of this kind may seem unsympathetic towards the adventurous spirit of this book. Instead of piling up objections to the many claims floated, let us cut to the chase. If we suppose that Greeks really did take their Amazons from distant parts (presumably very early in large part, since they are visible at the outset of archaic Greece), we are left to wonder whether that would affect the complex function(s) of Amazons in the course of the many Greek and Roman centuries that followed. Attempts to locate the actual Troy of Homer's Iliad have not in my view made a difference to readings of the poem, whether ancient or modern. It is true that modern culture wants to know whether Amazons really existed (in the most simple sense), for many different reasons, but there is something rather Victorian about such a quest for the simple truth of complex myths, especially when diffusionism is the proffered answer. Our author needs to show why Amazon origins matter, if they indeed do. Of course that is not to deny that Greek ideas about Amazons were affected by contact with other societies (the point is routinely made with regard to Persians), but this is Greek application of Amazon myth in the construction of non-Greeks, not merely the Greek discovery of Amazons among them. Finally a word on "female masculinity": a straw poll of females who happened to cross my path leads me to suspect that the term is not universally popular.

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