Ancient History & Civilisation

Amazons:
Warriors who loved their freedom—& their boobs

It’s surprising to learn how many places in the world claim to have been founded by the Amazons of old. To name a few: Ephesus, Sinope, Cyme, Amasia, Themiscrya, Mytilene, Smyrna, Priene, Pitana, and Thyatira. One gets a vicarious, atavistic thrill of delight at the thought of women warriors strong and savvy enough to fight their way from the Black Sea and onto the acropolis of Athens. Or going mano a mano with Trojan warriors.

Herodotus, one of few historians of old to do extensive field research, spent time in Scythian country around the Black Sea. His detailed account describes a legendary time when Greek forces (in retaliation for a brazen Amazon raid on Athens) went to the south shores of the Black Sea and battled the Amazons at the Thermodon River. The Greeks won and jammed their female prisoners aboard their three ships. In midstream the intrepid gals managed to free themselves, then massacred the Greeks. Now what? they asked each other, none of them being sailors. Luckily the ship drifted to shore in Scythian country, where the women grabbed up the dead guys’ weapons, disembarked, and quickly stole horses.

Delightfully soon, a battle with local Scythians ensued, which went so badly for the locals that they laid down their arms, then opened their arms to the Amazons. Joining forces in the most intimate way, the Scythians and their newfound mates produced a batch of children, which the men got to babysit. Amazon women did the breast-feeding, however—and they possessed the female equipment to feed twins if needed. As ancient Greek art clearly shows, the “one breasted” Amazon myth is ancient malarkey, as is the etymology of the word.

Calling themselves the Sauromatians, they roamed a huge area of present-day Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And, according to Herodotus, the younger generations of Amazons maintained their ancient traditions of hunting, plundering, and not marrying until each had killed an enemy. Herodotus’s account had the ring of truth but still fell in the realm of legend, it was thought until recently.

In Adrienne Mayor’s book The Poison King, however, she describes the year of 66–65 B.C., when the very real King Mithradates VI toyed with Roman general Pompey for months—then led him right into an ambush laid by his tribal allies of the Caucasus. As she writes,

While the Romans were celebrating Saturnalia, a jolly winter holiday of role reversals and heavy drinking, the Iberi, Albanoi, and allied bands ambushed the camp. The skirmishes were described by Appian, Plutarch, Strabo, and Cassius Dio. The barbarians numbered 60,000 on foot and 12,000 mounted. To the Romans, these tall handsome people appeared “wretchedly armed, wearing the skin of wild beasts.” They were formidable guerrilla fighters who attacked, then took cover in the forest.

Pompey methodically set the forest on fire, to drive them out. After the battle, stripping the nearly 9,000 dead bodies, the Romans discovered many women warriors with typical Amazon weapons and clothing, exactly as depicted on Greek vase paintings. Their wounds showed that their bravery matched that of the men. Female fighters were also found among the thousands of captives. According to Strabo, Amazons inhabited these mountains and the steppes beyond. In detailing the Amazon lifestyle, Strabo stated that his information came from the writings (now lost) of Mithradates’ old friend, the philosopher Metrodorus, and from someone by the name of Hypsicrates who was ‘quite familiar’ with this region.

“Hypsicrates” quite possibly may have been Hypsicratea, the female fighter and last lover of Mithradates, who fought alongside the king during the last six years of his life—and was perfectly capable of taking on a male persona. (Read more about her elsewhere in the book.)

As late as A.D. 350, a Roman historian called Ammianus Marcellinus asserted that Amazons still lived between the Don River and the Caspian Sea. After that came more than a millennium of silence.

Then in the 1950s Russian archaeologists found the first of many Sauromatian burial sites in this area of vast steppes and mountainous terrain. A large percentage of these graves contained female bodies buried with high-status grave goods, including arrowheads, armor, horse gear, and weapons, dating from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C.

Additional archaeological finds later showed that the Sauromatians gave way to another people called the Sarmatians, who thrived from the fourth to the second centuries B.C. Again, their burial sites contained many females with richer artifacts of greater variety than those of the males. Although the contents of some graves included more feminine items, such as spindles and bronze mirrors, a significant percentage of Sarmatian women were clearly warriors as well. Besides iron swords, daggers, and whetstones in their graves, researchers found skeletons with bowed legbones (indicating an active life on horseback); hunting trophies, such as a boar’s tusk; and evidence of death in battle.

Historians have argued that the Greeks invented the Amazons as a way to explain the struggle between early matriarchal cultures and the victorious Dorian invaders. But there was no need for fantasy. Groups or clans of Amazons—fierce, independent, and able to handle both male and female roles with ease— spread across a huge swath of wild Eurasian terrain and thrived for centuries.

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Modern archaeology continues to amass more evidence that the once-mythical Amazons thrived for centuries as female warriors across the wild terrain of Eurasia.

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