What did Plato have to say about Amazons? It is an unexpected question. The great Athenian philosopher might seem an unlikely commentator on the fierce, barbarian warrior women of Greek mythology. How could Amazons or warlike females figure in the great thinker’s rigorous dialectical dialogues on politics, justice, love, virtue, education, laws, and metaphysics?
In fact, there is evidence that Plato (c. 428–348 BC) devoted some thought to women’s roles in ideal states. Published after his death, Plato’s Laws features a remarkably admiring perspective on Amazons of myth and their real-life counterparts, the horsewomen-archers of nomadic steppe tribes around the Black Sea.
In this last dialogue of Plato, an unnamed Athenian, Spartan, and Cretan debate the best ways to raise citizens in an ideal state to be well prepared for both peace and war. Plato’s Athenian notes that the Spartan system only goes halfway in equality: girls participate in strenuous athletics but do not share in military service (7.805e–806c). The Athenian suggests that at age six, boys “should have lessons in horse riding, archery, javelin-throwing, and slinging – and the girls, too, may attend the lessons, especially in the use of the weapons.” On religious and public occasions, both should be “always equipped with arms and horses” (794c, 796c).
Notably, these training activities are not the military skills of traditional Greek hoplite warriors, who fought on foot with shields and swords. Instead, these skills mimic the expertise of mounted nomad archers of Scythia-Sarmatia, the vast territory stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia, inhabited by nomads adept in riding and archery. By Plato’s time, Scythia was notorious for warlike women who rode to battle alongside the men.
In his surprising proposal that Greeks should take up a Scythian lifestyle, Plato specifies that foreign teachers should be imported and paid to instruct the children to ride and shoot arrows in wide-open spaces created for the purpose (7.804c–805b). Plato states that “girls must be trained in precisely the same things as the boys” – in athletics, horse riding, and wielding weapons. As he points out, in an emergency Greek women should “dare to imitate Sarmatian women” by “handling a bow with skill, like the Amazons” and joining the men in battle against enemies.
This radical departure from traditional Greek male and female roles is justified by more than the ancient stories of Amazons. Plato in fact declares (805e), “I now know for certain that there are countless myriads of women (whom they call Sarmatians) around the Black Sea who have to ride horses and use the bow and other weapons just like the men.” In their culture, Plato notes, it is an equal duty for men and women to cultivate these skills. Together, the men and women pursue “the same activities with one accord and with all their might”. Although Plato does not mention his source, his readers would have been familiar with the vivid accounts of the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), describing the Scytho-Sarmatians’ egalitarian customs and the women’s equestrian and battle skills.
Plato argues that these sorts of mutual cooperation and equal training of men and women are essential to a society’s success. Indeed, any state that does otherwise commits an “astounding blunder”, says the philosopher, because without women’s participation “a half state instead of one twice the size” arises from the same cost and effort (805a–b). In this same section of Book 7 of the Laws (794d–795d), Plato likens this all-inclusive, doubling approach to the famous Scythian archers’ ability to shoot arrows with either the right or left hand. Such ambidexterity is crucial in fighting with bows and spears, so every boy and girl should grow up versatile in the use of both hands. The example of Scythian women, says Plato, proves that it is possible and advantageous for a state to decide that “in education and everything else females should share very much with men” (805c–d).
Millennia before modern archaeologists and classical historians accepted the reality of Amazon-like women warriors among ancient Scythians and their relationship to Amazons of Greek myth, Plato not only recognized the link and understood the logic of their lifestyle, but used it to justify having both men and women serve as soldiers in the ideal state. The philosopher challenged his fellow Athenians – and us – with a thought experiment: if Scythian women can fight like men, why not Greek women?
Adrienne Mayor is a historian of ancient science and a cultural folklorist at Stanford University.
I have written in detail on women trained for war in The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (Princeton UP, 2014). For a shorter introduction, see my “Amazons” entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. On the Scythian lifestyle more broadly, see Herodotus Book 4 (available online here), and Barry Cunliffe, The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe (Oxford UP, 2019). Notably, the arresting idea of how sex equality might play out in Greek society was explored in Athenian theater; see for example Aristophanes’ plays Lysistrata (411 BC) and Ecclesiazusae (The Assemblywomen, c. 392 BC).