- Women and War in Antiquity ed. by Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith
In 2013, the U.S. military officially lifted a ban on women in combat, forcing the gradual integration of women into all combat roles in all branches of the military. The directive, issued under the Obama administration and overseen by then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, reflects public acknowledgement of what have been the actual conditions for women in the military: servicewomen have for some time been in combat situations which ideological blind spots made it difficult to recognize. Three years since the lifting of the ban, the first women are now set to deploy in active combat and we can assume that a bit of the distance between the way women are imagined as [End Page 584] operating in war and the realities of their participation in warfare has been bridged. In light of these circumstances, the volume Women and War in Antiquity makes a timely entrance into a much larger conversation about how women (as citizens, soldiers, kin, and lovers) relate to the project of war and how we might arrive at new perspectives on that relationship, or at least challenge the dominant view of women’s roles in warfare offered by male authored discourses.
The essays, assembled and edited by Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith, emerge from a symposium on women and war in the Greco-Roman world, coinciding with the launch of the European Network on Gender Studies in Antiquity (EuGesta). As war is strongly coded masculine and traditionally positioned in opposition to the feminine, the topic provides numerous avenues for understanding constructions, inversions, and breakdowns of gender roles in the ancient Mediterranean. While the contributions to the volume differ in the nature of their sources (historical, material, literary) and in the degree to which those sources challenge the “conventional masculine view” (5) of war, they concur in arguing that women are central to the project of ancient warfare. The collection as a whole attempts to balance those essays offering an historian’s approach to evidence with those of the literary critic, a distinction more practical than real since all the women who circulate in the texts discussed are constructed by literary conventions. Thus Judith Hallett’s intriguing study of the historical woman Fulvia, grounded in careful assemblage of insulting (and it seems poetically inspired) anecdotes about her, keeps company with studies interrogating how mythical heroines on and off the battlefield subvert or confirm generic norms governing elegiac, epic, or tragic discourses. The editors have also opted to include more material on Roman discourses of women and war than Greek, a reasonable effort to correct a tendency of earlier scholarship to privilege Greek material over Roman.
The combined essays demonstrate a wide range of roles available to women with respect to war. Their role as victims perhaps goes without saying, but the implications of that role for offering a challenge to positive evaluations of war as a venue for heroic exploits are explored in thoughtful essays focusing on Homeric epic (Rousseau, Nappi, and Fuhrer, who also deals with Horace and Statius), as well as Greek and Roman tragedy (Zaidman, Fabre-Serris). Yet women are also revealed as war’s beneficiaries: Keith demonstrates as much in her study of the elegiac courtesan’s enjoyment of the spoils of conquest, while also stressing that the same courtesan, as former war captive, may be viewed as a product of military exploits. So too women are represented as war’s critics (a role often linked to their experience as victims) and its advocates, occasionally within the same text: for the latter, note the essays of Bessone, Zaidman, and Harich-Schwarzbauer, who examines the feminized and personified nations pleading for war in Claudian’s panegyric epic. Women also emerge as active combat participants in formulations of Rome’s origins, as evidenced by Sharrock’s contribution treating [End Page 585] Vergil’s Camilla, among other epic heroines; woman as warrior is also found in historical anecdotes from the Greek world beginning in the early...