To be a woman in the Trojan war was not a particularly cheerful position to be in. One way or another, they all ended up as slaves of the victorious Greek army. Throughout the ages, authors have told the heart-wrenching story of the women of Troy, from Euripides in his world-famous play The Trojan Women (first performed in Athens in 415 BC), through Jean-Paul Sartre’s stage adaptation of 1965, to British novelists Natalie Haynes and Pat Barker in A Thousand Ships (2019) and The Women of Troy (2021).
However, there are also other women in and around Troy. Women who were not victims but who had the opportunity, training and skill to fight for their freedom and their survival.
The Warrior Women of Troy
Homer doesn’t make too much mention of these warrior women, but another ancient author does: Quintus of Smyrna. This poet, possibly living in that city of Asia Minor – which also claimed to be Homer’s birth-place – in the third century AD, wrote a cycle of poems called the Posthomerica (“What happened after Homer”). The cycle tell of the events following Hector’s death at the end of the Iliad, and chart the subsequent fall of Troy.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were once part of a wider cycle of poems narrating the entire story of the ten-year Trojan war, which is usually called the Epic Cycle. Unfortunately, many of these poems have been permanently lost.
The Forgotten Story of Penthesilea
One of those lost poems is the Aithiopis. It takes up the closing threads of the Iliad: Hector, champion of the Trojans, is dead, and all seems lost for the city. But just then, a new hero appears on the horizon, one that may save the city and the people who live in it from their fate of death, enslavement and destruction. According to an ancient commentator, there circulated a version of the Iliad that announced this saviour in two additional lines at the very end of the poem: “Such were the funeral games of Hector. And now there came the Amazon, / the great-hearted daughter of man-slaying Ares.“ Here is a woman coming to save the Trojans – Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons.
Ancient Greek art and legends are filled with these fierce female warriors called Amazons. In Greek legend, it seems as if no male hero is truly a hero until he has met one of these warrior women: Heracles kills the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta and takes her war belt, Theseus goes into battle against the Amazon queen Orithyia after kidnapping her sister Antiope, and Achilles has to face Penthesilea outside the gates of Troy.
Penthesilea is the most popular of the Amazon warriors in ancient art: her battle with Achilles featured on countless vases, paintings and mosaics. The Aithiopis told the story of this battle before it was lost, surviving only in summaries, even by the time of Quintus of Smyrna.
So Quintus sat down to recover it, to write afresh the story of Penthesilea and her fellow Amazon warriors, and to pass it down to us.
The Warrior Queen and her Female Fighters
The narrative of Quintus’ Posthomerica opens with the image of a city in despair:
The Trojans stayed inside the city of Priam,
Fearing the force of Aiacus’ dauntless grandson.
Over and around them hovered pain and sorrow,
As though already Troy on fire was groaning (1.3–4, 16–17)
The Trojans may well know what awaits them when the Greek army takes the city: there was no Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no criminal offence known as crimes against humanity or genocide, and rape and enslavement were not considered war crimes. The Ancient Greeks routinely committed what we would think of as atrocities when they sacked a city, such as killing all men and enslaving all women and children, as the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460–400 BC) makes clear.
However, help is on the way, Quintus tells us:
Just then from the river Thermodon’s broad-flowing waters
Came Penthesilea clothed in godlike beauty. (1.18–19)
This heroine arrives on “glittering steeds” (1.49) with “twelve companions, noble maidens all”, who are “eager for war and brutal combat” (1.33–4).
As Penthesilea arrives in Troy, so Quintus tells us, the Trojans, “running from everywhere, were astounded at the sight / Of the tireless war god’s daughter in her long greaves” (1:54–6). No, surprise, because “her smile was ravishing, and from beneath her brows / Her love-enkindling eyes like sunbeams flashed” (1.58–9).
An Inspiring Woman
Penthesilea does not disappoint the Trojans. In the morning, she rises to fight the Greek army on the battlefield full of energy and confidence: “The heart of Penthesileia was filled with courage, / As from her bed she leapt and over her shoulders placed / Her armour finely wrought, the war god’s gift. / … She shone like a flash of lightning shot from Olympus / Down to earth by the never-tiring force of Zeus (1.139–54)”.
It is significant that Penthesilea possesses divine armour (similar to Achilles on the Greek side), and that it is described with the same level of loving detail as the armour and weaponry of the male Greek heroes. In every respect, Penthesilea is described in Quintus’ poem as the equal of, and with the same stylistic devices as, the male hero of heroes, Achilles. According to Adrienne Mayor, this is true for female warriors in most ancient writing: “Amazons were consistently depicted as admirable, athletic, beautiful, sexually desirable, valiant women who embodied the same traits that distinguished heroic Greek males”.
And it is not only the Greek men on the battlefield who realise that they are facing an inspiring heroine. Quintus tells us that the Trojan women were inspired by Penthesilea and her fellow fighters – particularly one of them: a Trojan woman by the name of Hippodamia. “With brave and eager heart,” Hippodamia uses “bold words” (1.406–7) to rouse the women who admire “from afar that woman’s warlike work” (1.403). It is indeed a speech well worth listening to:
‘‘Friends, let the hearts within your breasts be brave …
We are not far removed from the strength of men.
The vigour that there is in them is also in us.
Eyes and knees are the same, and everything is alike.
The light and the liquid air are common to us all.
Our food is the same. So what advantage is given to men
By heaven? Let us then not shrink from battle.’’ (1.409–10, 414–19)
Hippodamia’s speech is successful: She rouses the women of Troy to take action: “So the women of Troy in haste to join the fray / Urged each other on. They cast aside their wool / And baskets, putting their hands to instruments of pain” (1.444–6).
An Unhappy Ending
In the hands of a writer such as Quintus of Smyrna, living within the patriarchal society of Ancient Greece, such a story does not end well: Penthesilea is killed by Achilles – although he bitterly regrets it. While still on the battlefield, he takes off her helmet and falls in love with her, wishing he could have married her and taken her back home to Phthia, as so do many other Grecians (1.669–74). The women of Troy end up staying inside the city, stopped by “prudent Theano” who reminds them that they have never been in battle before, whereas the Amazons have been trained for warfare (1.449–76).
But Penthesilea is mourned throughout the city. Priam sends for her body so that he may bury her in the citadel with royal honours. Achilles and the Greeks willingly give her up, having taken great care to preserve her integrity and ensure that none of her armour or weapons be stripped or taken away. What a contrast to the treatment that the body of Hector received at Achilles’ hands, which was stripped of all armour, then dragged through the dirt, and would have been dismembered, if not for divine protection.
So Penthesilea is buried in Troy, after restoring hope to the city and inspiring Hippodamia and her fellow Trojan women to action, encouraging them to speak up, to suggest common action. Thanks to Penthesilea, the women of Troy together decided for a moment to take their fate into their own hands. If we consider the tale through the eyes of a modern reader, it seems that Penthesilea not only gave the women of Troy a voice, she also gave to agency, her example enabling them to strive for a common goal.
The Historical Reality
While the Iliad and the Epic Cycle are of course legendary tales, warrior women like Penthesilea and her comrades did exist in historical reality. As Adrienne Mayor has shown in her groundbreaking study The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World (2016), women warriors were a common feature of nomad life in Scythia in Antiquity. Archaeologists have found that anything from every fifth to every third grave in Scythian cemeteries contain the bones of warrior women.
These women were buried with the horses they rode into battle or took out to hunt, together with their bows and arrows, their battle-axes (an invention credited to Penthesilea by Ancient Greek writers), their mirrors (used for communicating on the steppes), their jewellery and their war belts. They lived as part of nomadic or semi-nomadic communities from the seventh century BC to the sixth century AD on a territory stretching from the Himalaya and Altai mountains in modern-day China to the Black Sea in modern Georgia – and from there, it is not too far a ride to what is today believed to be the location of the historical city of Troy on the north-western coast of Turkey.
In the oral tradition of those countries that now cover the territory of Ancient Greek Scythia, stories of women warriors are widespread and told with relish. In those stories, women often face men in combat – and it is just as often that the woman comes out on top, not the man. From the Lady Amezan, who accidentally kills the man she loves in battle and then stabs herself, through the warrior queen Nushaba, who meets Alexander the Great, to Queen Semiramis, who according to Herodotus ruled all of Asia and may or may not have constructed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – stories of heroines abound, both historical and mythical, preserved to this day in the storytelling traditions that stretch from Georgia over the Caucasus to China, leaving their traces even in Ancient Greek poems such as the Iliad.
What and whom we remember matters. The stories we tell each other of our past define who we think we are today, and what we believe we can be in the future. They are what makes up our cultural memory, and our cultural memory in turn defines our collective identity, as the theorists and historians Jan and Aleida Assmann have shown.
Simone de Beauvoir, one of the founders of modern feminism, wrote in The Second Sex that women have no history of their own. Brilliant as she was, she may have been wrong in this one regard. Women do have a history, a past to call their own: we do have heroines, in myth, in legend, in history. All we need to do is remember them.
Christine Lehnen is a novelist and researcher at the University of Manchester. She is currently working both critically and creatively on a rewriting of the story of Penthesilea.
Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons (Princeton UP, 2014) is the first book to turn to if you are interested in these mythohistorical warrior women; her article for Antigone on Plato’s take on the Amazons can be read here. There is also an excellent podcast episode entitled “The Real Amazons” by National Geographic, as well as a hilarious account of the story of Penthesilea by Natalie Haynes. Barry Cunliffe has recently published The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppes. Euripides’ Trojan Women has been translated countless times; I am using the translation by Alan Shapiro, published in 2009 with an introduction by Peter Burian. As for Quintus’s Posthomerica, I have quoted from the translation by Alan James.
If you would like to read some of the stories and oral traditions about warrior women from what used to be Scythian territory, I wholeheartedly recommend The Nart Sagas as edited, translated and annotated by John Colarusso. They are well worth the read, and Corusso’s footnotes and explications are a treasure trove.
We are very fortunate that two British writers have recently set out to retell Ancient Greek myth with humour, style and grace: Stephen Fry does so in Myth, Heroes and Troy. Natalie Haynes, who also stands up for the Classics on BBC Radio 4, has recently published Pandora’s Jar, giving the spotlight to the women of Greek myth. Should you be interested in what women writers have been doing with Homer over the past couple of centuries, Fiona Cox and Elena Theodorakopoulos have edited the excellent collection Homer’s Daughters: Women’s Responses to Homer in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. There is also a wonderfully accessible version of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in extracts published in the “Vintage Feminism” series of Vintage Classics (London, 2015).
Last but not least, for an easily accessible scholarly introduction to cultural memory, I recommend Astrid Erll’s Memory in Culture (2011), translated by Sarah B. Young. As seminal as it is brief is Jan Assmann’s article “Communicative and Cultural Memory” (2008). Aleida Assmann has raised some very pertinent questions, and given equally engaging answers, to what is happening at the current moment to how we look at and make use of the past to shape the present and our hopes for the future in Is Time Out of Joint? On the Rise and Fall of the Modern Time Regime (2020), also translated by Sarah B. Young.