Why Study Classics?

In some archaeological digs in Eurasia, as many as thirty-seven per cent of the graves contain the bones and weapons of horsewomen who fought alongside men. PHOTOGRAPH BY ERICH LESSING / ART RESOURCE

In some archaeological digs in Eurasia, as many as thirty-seven per cent of the graves contain the bones and weapons of horsewomen who fought alongside men. PHOTOGRAPH BY ERICH LESSING / ART RESOURCE

For every question why like this one, there must be many answers. We post enough on the topic to have some guesses. James, one day, may tell us his. For anyone who likes a good story, part of the answer must be simply that. But there may be more; for now let this post on the New Yorker‘s website speak for itself:

The Real Amazons


Here’s a story, told by Herodotus, about the fierce female warriors known as Amazons. Many thousands of years ago, a group of Greek raiders ventured into what is now northern Turkey. Travelling across the steppe, they came across a group of warrior women. The Greeks kidnapped them, locked them in the holds of their ships, and set sail for home. But the Amazons escaped. They recovered their weapons and killed their captors. Because they were horsewomen, and didn’t know how to sail, the ships drifted far off course. Eventually, though, they landed in the Crimea. The Amazons went ashore and stole some horses. They started marauding, gathering loot, and building up their strength.

Nearby, there happened to be a settlement of Scythians. Most Scythians were nomadic, horse-riding people of the steppe. But these were Royal Scythians—wealthy traders who had settled in towns. To avoid being raided, the Royal Scythians sent out scouts, who discovered that the strange marauders were Amazons. The Scythians found this intriguing. They had planned to send soldiers to kill the marauders; instead, they assembled a party of nice young men. Life in town was luxurious, but it lacked a certain something: the Royal Scythian women mostly stayed indoors, doing chores and feeling bored. Maybe a few fearless, untamed Amazons could spice things up. The band of bachelors travelled out onto the steppe and found the horsewomen. They set up camp and hung around until, one afternoon, one of them encountered a single Amazon, walking alone. “Wordlessly he made advances and she responded,” Adrienne Mayor writes, in “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.” “They made love in the grass. Afterward, the Amazon gestured to indicate that he should return the next day to the same spot—and to bring a friend. She made it clear that she would bring a friend too.”

Soon, the Amazons and the Scythians consolidated their camps, and the young men extended a proposal: Why not come back and live with them? They had money, houses, and parents—surely settled life would be better than life on the steppe. The Amazons, incredulous, made a proposal in return: Why not leave town behind and live as they did: riding, raiding, and sleeping under the stars, living as they did? The men packed their things. Herodotus reports that the Sarmatians, the people descended from that union, created a society characterized by gender equality, in which men and women led the same sort of life. It’s a story, Mayor points out, in which the “answer to the question of who will be dominated and tamed is no one.”

The natural question, when you’re faced with a story like this, is: How true is it? In “Amazons,” Mayor—a classicist, based at Stanford, who is by all accounts the world’s leading expert on ancient female fighters—argues that, even if it is not literally true in all its particulars, it is still broadly true. The evidence, she writes, points to the fact that there really were Amazons: in some archaeological digs in Eurasia, as many as thirty-seven per cent of the graves contain the bones and weapons of horsewomen who fought alongside men. (“Arrows, used for hunting and battle, are the most common weapons buried with women, but swords, daggers, spears, armor, shields, and sling stones are also found,” Mayor writes.) These were the women the Greeks encountered on their expeditions around the Black Sea; they inspired similar stories among travellers from ancient Persia, Egypt, China, and other places. In Greece, they were objects of romantic fascination. Their societies, in which both men and women were able to embody the martial virtues, provided a counterpoint to Greek society, in which only men could be valorous. Greek stories about Amazons, Mayor argues, expressed the ancient Greek’s yearning for gender equality.

Mayor doesn’t teach; she is a full-time scholar and researcher in the Classics department at Stanford, where she studies the folklore, myth, and science of the ancient world. (Her 2010 biography of Mithradates, the “Poison King,” who tried to take over Rome, and who inspired fear as a deadly toxicologist, was a finalist for the National Book Award.) “The Amazons,” Mayor told me, has been in the works for decades. “As a kid, I was a tomboy,” she said. “I played with toy cowboys and Indians and soldiers, and noticed there weren’t any girls. Then, as a college student at the University of Minnesota, during the Vietnam War, I got interested in military history; I just thought that stories from wartime have the very best of human behavior and the very worst. I got permission to take R.O.T.C. classes (back then, there weren’t any girls allowed). Then I took classes in ancient Greek and Roman history. I was fascinated by the war stories about Amazons. In 1990, I proposed an article about Amazons to Military History Quarterly, and it was turned down. So I searched around, found a male co-author, and had the guy propose the same article, and it was accepted.” It’s a pleasant coincidence that a critical mass of evidence about the historical Amazons has coalesced at the same time that our culture, in characters such as Katniss Everdeen, is settling into  an Amazon moment

Read the whole post here.

3 thoughts on “Why Study Classics?

  1. Pingback: Speaking Of Greece | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Classics On The Upswing | Raxa Collective

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