Whilst reflecting on how to go about writing this article, I realized that there are a variety of ways to approach this interesting topic. As the title has indicated, I have opted for a literary approach, focusing on some Classical sources, the narratives of Alexander the Great, and the medieval Alexander Romances.
One of the earliest references to the existence of a race of warrior women called the Amazons can be found in Homer’s Iliad. In Book 6 of that epic, the Greek hero, Diomedes comes face to face with a Lycian captain, Glaucus, the son of Hippolochus. Diomedes proceeds to ask Glaucus of his lineage. Accordingly, Glaucus gives an account of his ancestors, one of them being Bellerophon. It is through this character that Homer makes a reference to the Amazons, as he wrote: “Then for a third test he brought the Amazons down, a match for men in war.”
Although Homer does not mention the Amazons as allies of the Trojans, this idea was picked up by later writers. For instance, in Virgil’s Aeneid, “The Amazons were there in their thousands with their crescent shields and their leader Penthesilea in the middle of her army, ablaze with passion for war. There, showing her naked breast supported by a band of gold, was the warrior maiden, daring to clash with men in battle.”
From the realm of Greek epic, the Amazons were transported to that of history in Herodous’ Histories. In Book 4, Herodotus wrote about the origins of the Sauromatae, a nomadic tribe living around the Balkans. According to him, this tribe was the result of a union between the Amazons and the Scythians. Herodotus supports this claim by claiming that “And ever since then Sauromatian women have kept to their original way of life (i.e. the Amazonian way of life): they go out hunting on horseback with or without their husbands, they go to war, and they wear the same clothes as the men do.”. Furthermore, Herodotus also mentions that “The Sauromatae speak Scythian, but ungrammatically, as they always have done, because the Amazons never learnt it properly.”
A detail from a 3rd century CE Roman sarcophagus showing the amazon Penthesilea and the Greek hero Achilles in a scene from the Trojan War. Photo source: Wikimedia
Although the Amazons are frequently depicted as a motif on Athenian vases and other forms of artwork, their next literary appearance can be found in the narratives of Alexander the Great. In Quintus Rufus Curtius’ History of Alexander the Great of Macedon, Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, and Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, a meeting between the Queen of the Amazons, Thalestris, and Alexander the Great is mentioned. These three narratives are similar, as all claimed that Thalestris visited Alexander for the purpose of begetting a child, a desire that is granted by Alexander. Slight differences, however, can be picked out in these narratives. In Curtius’ account for instance, the pseudo-ethnology of the Amazonian race is expanded upon, while Justin attempted to tie up the loose ends of the story.
The fictional encounter, especially Curtius’ version of it, is later adopted by the Medieval Christian and Islamic Alexander Romances. In these literary works, the Amazons are once again transformed. For instance, in the Christian versions, the sexual element is completely removed from the story, and a reversal of roles can also be seen. As for the Islamic Romances, Alexander visits the Amazons not as a conqueror, but as a seeker of knowledge. Hence, while the idea of the Amazons being warrior women is still prevalent in the literature on Alexander the Great during the Middle Ages, certain aspects are changed in order to suit the tastes of the audience.
By studying the literature, one is able to say that the Amazons were important enough to be retained by generations of writers for such a long period of time. What inspired them to do so would altogether be another question, and the reasons for Homer to introduce the Amazons in the Iliad would certainly be different from that of the Alexander Romances. Even today, echoes of these warrior women can still be heard in our society, if we look hard enough, and I believe they’ll be here to stay for a long time to come.
Featured image: The female fighters of the Amazons. Photo source.
- Herodotus, The Histories, [Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
- Homer, The Iliad, [Fagles, R. (trans.), 1990, Homer’s Iliad. London: Penguin.]
- Archpresbyter Leo, Historia de preliis, the recension, [Pritchard, R. T. (trans.), 1992. The History of Alexander’s Battles (Historia de preliis – The Version). Toronto, Ontario: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.]
- Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History, [Welles, C. B. (trans.), 1963. Diodorus of Sicily’s Library of History, Vol. VIII. London: William Heinemann Ltd.]
- Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, [Davis, D. (trans.), 2004. Sunset of Empire: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol. III. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers.]
- Marcus Junianus Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, [Yardley, J. C. (trans.), 1994. Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Atlanta: Scholars Press.]
- Quintus Rufus Curtius, History of Alexander the Great of Macedon, [Rolfe, J. C. (trans.), 1946. Quintus Rufus Curtius' History of Alexander the Great of Macedon, Vol. II. London: William Heinemann Ltd.]
- Virgil, The Aeneid, [West, D. (trans.),1990. Virgil’s Aeneid. London: Penguin.]