Did Amazons roam Ancient Rome?

Adrienne Mayor

The story of Camilla, the legendary warrior woman of Virgil’s Aeneid, raises intriguing questions. Why did Virgil include an Amazon-like woman in his epic poem about the founding of Rome? Was Camilla Virgil’s invention? Or was her story based on a lost Italian legend?

Virgil’s audience knew about Amazons of Greek mythology. Homer called them “the equals of men” (Iliad 3.188-89, 6.186) in courage and combat. The greatest Greek heroes of myth – Hercules, Theseus, and Achilles – had proved their valor by overcoming the formidable Amazon queens Hippolyte, Antiope, and Penthesilea. One of the most exciting episodes in the Trojan War cycle describes how the valiant warrior queen Penthesilea and her twelve Amazons came to aid the Trojans. Virgil describes Penthesilea early in his epic:

ducit Amazonidum lunatis agmina peltis
Penthesilea furens, mediisque in milibus ardet,
aurea subnectens exsertae cingula mammae,
bellatrix, audetque viris concurrere virgo.

Raging Penthesilea leads the battle-line of the Amazons with crescent-shaped shields, and she burns amidst the thousands, a warrioress fastening the gold belt beneath her exposed breast, and the maiden dares to fight with men.

He calls her a bellatrix, a warrioress who “dares to fight with men”. The Amazons fought and died fearlessly on the battlefield at Troy. Penthesilea herself was killed in single combat with the Greek hero Achilles. And her appearance foreshadows Camilla, first introduced in Aeneid 7 (803–17).

Camilla catches the son of Aunus, illustration after Bartolomeo Pinelli from Alfred Church’s Stories From Virgil (Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, London, 1879).

Contemporary Romans also knew that Athenians, in their own foundation legend, celebrated their glorious victory over powerful Amazons in a mythic battle that tested the mettle of the young city and its founder Theseus. In Virgil’s grand epic about Rome’s founding, then, it seems fitting that the city’s own heroic founder, Aeneas, would also triumph over an Amazon.

The ancient Trojan War legend is key to understanding Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas and his followers are survivors of the Trojan War who sail to Italy to make a new life. Their conquests consolidated the land and overcame the indigenous Italian peoples who would be absorbed into the new Roman world. Traditions about Trojans in Italy had arisen several centuries before Virgil started writing the Aeneid in the early 20s BC. The idea that some Trojan refugees sailed to Italy can be traced to Alexandra, a long poem composed in about 250 BC by the Greek poet Lycophron of Chalcis. It recounts the fates of those who escaped from Troy after its destruction by the Greeks.

An amazon with battle-axe, 4th-cent. AD mosaic from Daphne, Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey).

Lycophron also tells how a young Amazon named Clete (“Woman Called Upon”, “Helper”) had been left behind in the Amazons’ stronghold on the Black Sea while Penthesilea went to fight for Troy. When Penthesilea did not return, Clete and other young Amazons set out by sea to search for their lost queen. Swept away by storms, they were shipwrecked on the toe of Italy. There they named the place after their leader Clete (Cleite in Bruttium), and she and her descendants ruled the region. The seaside town Caulonia (now in Calabria) was named after Clete’s son Caulon.

Virgil relied on the body of legends about Trojan survivors described by Lycophron for the tale of Aeneas and his fellow Trojans. Virgil’s familiarity with the tradition that some Amazons had settled in Italy around the same time that Aeneas and his Trojans arrived provides another compelling reason why he included Amazon-like women in the Aeneid.

Camilla at war, Giacomo del Pó, c.1700 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, USA).

Historical accounts of real female fighters were also well known to Virgil and his Roman audience. Cyrus the Great of Persia (c.590–529 BC) had famously died trying to defeat Tomyris, the warrior queen of the Massagetae, as recounted by Herodotus (1.201–14). The Romans also admired the romance of King Mithradates and the horsewoman-archer Hypsicratea in the latter years of the Mithradatic Wars (89–63 BC). And everyone in Rome remembered that Pompey had displayed a troop of captive “Amazons” from the Caucasus in his Triumph of 61 BC. Just a generation later, while Virgil was writing the Aeneid, the notorious one-eyed Nubian warrior-queen Amanirenas defeated Augustus’ Roman forces in 25–24 BC.

All these historical female fighters would have primed the Romans to expect an exciting Amazon episode in the Aeneid. In Virgil’s epic, Camilla is a warrior maiden of the Volscian tribe (located just south of Rome) fighting on the side of the indigenous Italians against Aeneas and the Trojans, the forefathers of the Romans. She allies with Turnus, the leader of the Rutuli tribe, based in Ardea just to the west.

The environs of Latium: settlemens in red are Volscian.

Like Penthesilea, Camilla is described as a bellatrix. She fights with savage passion and slays many Trojan warriors, “exulting like an Amazon” (exsultat Amazon, 11.648). She accepts the challenge to fight the (unnamed) son of Aunus. Camilla ruthlessly kills this youthful warrior in cold blood. In her magnificent and ferocious beauty, so vital yet doomed, she seems to represent the untamed vigor and nobility of the indigenous Italians, who are inevitably fated to be overcome yet incorporated into the new Roman world.

Ultimately, like all valiant Amazon fighters of myth, Camilla loses her life. Notably, she does not die by the hand of Aeneas, the hero, but is slain in a sneak attack by an unimportant figure. The Etruscan warrior Arruns stalks Camilla and hurls his spear while she is distracted. This unfair ambush brings up complicated issues. For some scholars, the manner of death seems anticlimactic. Perhaps – but it makes Camilla’s demise, after such heroic actions, doubly tragic, because she is denied the chance of face-to-face combat with Arruns. It recalls the pathetic death of Achilles, felled by an arrow in the back of his ankle, shot from afar by the unheroic Paris (Iliad 22.359-60).

Camilla slaying the son of Aunus, Wenceslaus Hollar, 1654.

Arruns is able to kill Camilla because she is momentarily distracted from her lust for warfare by her lust for spoils. Her fall is sometimes attributed to a feminine vanity, a weakness for glittering riches. But many mythic male heroes succumb to a similar desire for trophies and treasure: the male warriors Nisus and Euryalus in Aeneid 9 (176–449) end up dead because of the sheen of their stolen booty. The lesson of Camilla might instead be Virgil’s warning against material excess in the new imperial era.

Camilla’s dying words are gallant and fierce. Her Amazon companions gather to mourn the loss of their leader. Virgil gives them interesting names: Larina means “protector”; Tulla “supporter”; Acca “mother”; and Tarpeia “funeral urn”. To avenge Camilla’s death, her patron goddess Diana (the Roman Artemis) sends the Nymph-archer Opis (“sight/vengeance/help”) to kill Arruns.

The death of Camilla, Bob Thompson, 1964 (Detroit Institute of Arrts, MI, USA).

Many scholars have wondered whether there were Roman or Italian oral traditions about Camilla or someone like her. Was Virgil perhaps drawing on unwritten Volscian legends, now lost? Or did he invent Camilla, modeling her on Penthesilea? No legends about Camilla are known before the Aeneid, but it is plausible that there were ancient Etruscan, Volscian, Ligurian, Rutulian, or other Italian folktales about Camilla or women like her. Prominent Romans of Virgil’s day – including his patron, the Emperor Augustus – were proud of their Volscian heritage; folktales about their ancestors may have circulated orally in Rome.

It is striking that Virgil gives Camilla a charming childhood legend. Her upbringing has a fairytale quality that combines familiar folk motifs and themes – but it also contains some unique details. Some of these hint that the poet was drawing on lost Italian tales about a young woman who was raised to be a warrior.

Metabus and baby Camilla, Francesco Xanto Avelli, c.1530 (private collection).

Consider Camilla’s father, the Volscian king Metabus, who was driven into exile. Escaping from his enemies with his infant daughter, he runs into an obstacle, the raging river Amasenus. Virgil may have chosen this river (near ancient Privernum) because “Amasenus” sounds a bit like “Amazon”. Metabus hurriedly comes up with a risky idea and prays that it will work. He lashes the baby girl to his spear and throws it across to the other bank; then he swims across and retrieves his precious daughter in the grass. This strange exploit is not a known folklore motif. Could it be based on some real event that became legendary?

In his prayer, Camilla’s father promises to dedicate his daughter to the goddess of the hunt, Diana. Like many other mythic heroes, Camilla was raised in the wilderness, nursed by a wild animal. The Romans would of course recall that a she-wolf had nursed Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Here, Virgil chooses a wild horse to provide Camilla’s nourishment. Notably, this detail alludes to the mare’s milk that nourished the steppe nomad tribes, whose women were the models for mythic Amazons.

Metanus and the young Camilla, Francesco Massimiliano Laboureur, 1820 (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary).

As a girl, Camilla outruns the wind and flies over wheat so lightly that she never bends a stalk. She could even dash over the waves of the sea without getting her feet wet. She also rejects traditional marriage. The rich poetic imagery deployed (Aeneid 7.803ff.) gives Camilla a mythic nymph-like quality. But it also brings to mind the Greek wild-girl Atalanta, a runner and huntress companion of Diana/Artemis, who was exposed as a baby in the forest and nursed by a mother bear. Camilla, in turn, was raised to be a huntress among the shepherds.

Also like Atalanta – and like the nomad girls of the steppes – Camilla learns to ride, throw a javelin, and shoot a bow at a very early age. It is interesting that Virgil even describes her performing a Parthian shot (spicula converso fugientia dirigit arcu, “firing her flying shafts from behind her,” 11.654). This was the famous nomad horsewomen’s feat of shooting arrows backwards at enemies while galloping away. Many Etruscan bronze artifacts made in Italy show Amazon horsewomen executing Parthian shots.

The death of Camilla, Gaspare Landi, 1809 (private collection).

There were multiple reasons for Virgil to decide to pit his great Roman heroes against brave women-warriors. Inspired by both myth and history, his audience could well anticipate a band of Amazons to appear in a rousing story of Rome’s victory over an array of powerful enemies. Amazons were deeply admired as noble heroines even as they evoked ambivalent emotions. In the mythic world of Greece and Rome, Amazons die young and beautiful. This is often read as just another example of ancient misogyny. But Amazons were dangerous ‘others’ – and in patriotic mythologies of warrior cultures like Greece and Rome, every foe must be strong and fearsome – in other words, worthy of fighting and defeating. Otherwise, male heroes would earn no glory.

It was natural, therefore, that Virgil would give Camilla a brave heart and honorable death in battle, even as Aeneas ultimately triumphs for Rome. Though defeated, Camilla serves as an exemplary heroine whose robust native roots from the old Italy will invigorate the new Roman era.

Adrienne Mayor is a historian of ancient science and a classical folklorist at Stanford University. She is the author of The Amazons (2014) and Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws (forthcoming 2022). Her earlier Antigone article on Plato and the Amazons can be read here.

Further Reading

W. Philip Basson, “Vergil’s Camilla: A Paradoxical Character,” Proceedings of the Classical Society of South Africa 29 (1986) 1:57-68

Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (Princeton UP, 2014).

Adrienne Mayor, “Imagining the Captive Amazon in Myth, Art, and History,” in K. Moser & A.C. Sukla (eds.), Imagination and Art: Explorations in Contemporary Theory, (Brill, Leiden, 2020) 83–110.