Women and War in Antiquity ed. by Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith (review)
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Reviewed by
Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Alison Keith, eds. Women and War in Antiquity. Johns Hopkins University Press. vii, 348. $55.00

In the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, women participated in warfare both passively – as spectators watching from the city walls, as commentators and narrative focalizers, as wives and mistresses awaiting the return of their men from battle, as captives or captives-to-be, as metaphors for their cities – and actively, as military leaders, strategists, and combatants. This attractive volume originates in a 2009 conference sponsored by the European Network on Gender Studies in Antiquity (EuGeStA), with contributors from France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Britain, Canada, and the United States. It is the contention of the authors of the sixteen short papers in English collected here that the neglect of the role of women in ancient warfare is only partly the fault of Greek and Latin male authors. Modern commentators, who either refuse to credit the realities underlying stock literary scenes or, in the case of the Greeks, impose a strict binary paradigm (women in the domestic sphere, men in the public sphere) upon ancient texts of every period share the blame. In keeping with the book's agenda of liberating Greek and Roman women from the strictures of approaches that oversimplify the relationship between women and war, several ancient literary genres and their reception histories are subjected to deconstruction and reinterpretation: these include Homeric epic, Athenian tragedy, Classical Greek and imperial Roman historiography, Latin epic, Latin elegy, and late antique panegyric.

The reader who looks beyond the slight, valedictory contributions by François Lissarrague, Louise Bruit Zaidman, and Stella Georgoudi will find more substantive and rewarding essays on Greek material by Marella Nappi ("Women and War in the Iliad"), Pierre Ducrey ("War in the Feminine in Ancient Greece"), and Pascal Payen ("Women's Wars, Censored Wars?"). Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet's essay on "the warrior queens of Caria" in particular fills a real need in the era of 300: Rise of an Empire. The Carian queen Artemisia, hero of the Persian Wars, and her successors need to be viewed as legitimate military leaders and extricated from the Classical Greek literary matrix that reduces them to tropes of inversion, analogous to the monstrous and unnatural Amazons.

The Amazon paradigm reemerges, both explicitly and implicitly, in Latin literature. In a lively and bracing essay, Alison Sharrock surveys Roman epic poetry's war on women, concluding that "Vergil's complexity and sensitivity to the possibility of awarding space to the professional woman in her own right is never matched throughout the rest of ancient poetry, where the pitfalls of tokenism and objectification – from which even Vergil cannot entirely escape – threaten to overwhelm the characterization of women soldiers." Stéphane Benoist offers some diffuse but compelling reflections on "the impossibility of female imperium" in imperial [End Page 159] Roman historiography: just as exemplary warlike women (such as Cloelia, Dido, and Boudicca) are paired with male tyrants by way of contrast, the powerful, martially active women of the emperor's family inevitably hold up a mirror to male failure to rule effectively. Beneath the obvious metaphor of love as a battlefield in Roman elegy, Alison Keith detects an implicit subtext: the Greek-named mistresses of poets such as Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid represent "both the products and the proponents of the Roman imperial project," whose triumphs generate the luxuries in which they indulge.

Though clearly intended for an audience familiar with the Greek and Latin literary works discussed, Women & War in Antiquity offers a highly readable and timely collection of essays with full English translations of all sources quoted, as well as a unified bibliography to facilitate further exploration.

Catherine M. Keesling
Department of Classics, Georgetown University
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