WOMEN AT WAR IN THE CLASSICAL WORLD

Paul Chrystal

Pen and Sword Military (2017) h/b 249pp £25.00 (ISBN 9781473856608)

Proclaiming this to be ‘the first single-author book to address and analyse the role of women in classical warfare,’ C. writes that he aims ‘to trace and analyse the direct, as well as indirect, involvement of women in the war machines of Greece and Rome, and to demonstrate the important part women played in classical military history, both as participants in war and battle, and as agents of conflict and victims of war’. Its potential to be an important, valuable, ground-breaking volume is, therefore, huge, especially as C. will draw on a wide range of evidence from mythology, literature, philosophy, history, and the visual arts. Indeed, the breadth of material covered is impressive: following an introduction embracing not just the Neolithic genocide at Schletz but Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tales of Gwendolen and Cordelia, Parts One (Greece) and Three (Rome) take us from ‘Goddesses and War in Greek Mythology’ to ‘Military Tendencies in Women in Seneca’s Troades’ by way of Amazons, Spartan and Macedonian Women, Homeric epic, Greek drama and Roman love poetry, while nestling between them Part Two considers ‘Women as Victims of War’.

In some respects these twenty pages of the introduction are the most successful, an isolated example of relatively contextualized evaluation. Elsewhere, however, despite the book’s aims, analysis is in short supply. Instead, while many pages contain dense historical narrative, for the most part, C. presents little more than an often disjointed—and occasionally eccentrically ordered—catalogue of classical women, whose style and content might often seem to resemble (sometimes uncannily) those of an online encyclopaedia. Chapters on literature contain few insights (those on Greek tragedy and comedy are little more than plot synopses), and many anecdotes, generally considered dubious, are presented as fact. More worrying are the throwaway muddles and inaccuracies, for example: Lysias, the ‘fifth-century Attic orator’; ‘female chariot races’ at the Olympic Games; not to mention Herodotus (who did not survive the 5th C BC) describing Artemisia II (reigned 353–351 BC) as ‘wondrous’.

While some of this might be put down to sloppy copy-editing, the general tenor of the book is disappointing, and a volume, which should have been so welcome, must be handled with the greatest care. This is unfortunate, as it is nicely illustrated, and, especially when drawing parallels with modern conflicts such as Syria, suggests its author’s passion for the subject.

David Stuttard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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