The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor - review by Tom Holland

Tom Holland

Ladies First

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World

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Princeton University Press 519pp £19.95 order from our bookshop
 

In one of his more speculative essays, the Greek biographer Plutarch analysed the sources for the legendary Athenian hero Theseus. ‘My ambition’, he informed a Roman friend, ‘is to make sense of the fabulous and oblige it to submit to reason, so that it can then take on the form of history.’ Much in the life of his hero is accordingly dismissed as fantasy, but certain episodes are presumed to have had a basis in fact. Prominent among these was a war fought between the Athenians and an army of ferocious female warriors from the Black Sea named Amazons. Theseus, who only ever had to see a woman to abduct her, was supposed to have kidnapped one of them and brought her back home as his bride; the Amazons, outraged by this abduction, duly launched an attack on Athens. The resulting war was a very close-run thing, though the Athenians ended up victorious. The evidence for this, so Plutarch claimed, was that the Amazons were said to have pitched their camp within the city limits of Athens itself. ‘Clearly, then, it was no trivial business – nothing merely feminine.’

No one today believes that an army of female warriors really sailed from the Black Sea to attack Athens. If a historical basis for the legend has to be found, then it is likeliest to be a refraction of the invasions of Greece in the early fifth century BC by

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