The image of the warrior woman has become more and more pervasive in Hollywood
over the past two decades, until now it is commonplace for a hit action movie to star a female protagonist or, at the very least, a tough female sidekick to the male hero. Many people view these portrayals as a purely modern fiction, a product of the feminist movement combined with male fantasy. Particularly when presented in a historical setting rather than science fiction or pure fantasy, this image is often treated as a pleasant invention at best and unforgivable revisionism at worst. Is there any truth to the image of women fighting on ancient and medieval battlefields?
The Greeks didn’t just leave us records of the Amazons; they had their own fighting women. Around 300 BC, Amastris conquered four settlements to create her own city-state, named for herself. Several Spartan princesses, including Arachidamia, even led groups of female troops into battle in the 3rd century BC. The wife of Roman Emperor Lucius Vitellius, named Triaria, accompanied him into battle dressed as a knight. There is also widespread evidence for the existence of female gladiators in the ancient Roman arena. Roman forces were badly beaten by the armies of Queen Septimia Zenobia, which she led on horseback wearing full armor.
The Romans had previously encountered resistance in the form of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, who in Celtic Britain drove the Roman forces almost entirely off the island, including burning London. The Celts at one point attempted to bar the participation of women in combat by passing an edict against it in 590 AD. The women refused to comply, and the edict proved unenforceable. Women in positions of military power were so common in Celtic lands that captives brought to Rome at first assumed the Emperor’s wife was the ruler.
In other lands, women were also prominent on the battlefield. Warrior queens and regiments of women warriors have fought in wars in Africa, Asia, and South America. The Amazon River, in Brazil, was so named because European explorers there found matriarchal tribes of women warriors. Samurai women in Japan were trained in the use of weapons. While they were primarily tasked with defending their lands while their male relatives were away, samurai women were also known to lead charges on the battlefield when necessary. In medieval Europe, noble women were often similarly trained to defend their lands when their husbands were away, and like their Samurai counterparts, sometimes took a more active role in warfare. Swashbuckling adventurers like Christina of Sweden, and Mlle. Aubigny Maupin, were not unheard of during the 17th century.
While it would be an error to assert that women fought in large numbers on all historical battlefields, the above examples are by no means unique exceptions. There are written accounts and archaeological findings of many women throughout the ages who have gone to war, often disguised as men. Caught up in modern arguments about the role of women in combat, it seems to be easy to overlook the historical reality that women have been fighting in (and leading) armies throughout history. Hollywood’s portrayals of such women may be embellished and overly modernized, but their presence in history is very real.
For more detailed historical information, I highly recommend The Warrior Queens by Antonia Fraser, Women Warlords by Tim Newark, and The Encyclopedia of Amazons by Jessica A. Salmonson.