From its northernmost tip to the border with Asia, plenty of ancient European armies were happy to welcome women to their ranks. Traditionally, though, historians have agreed on one major exception to this rule: the Roman Empire, where the army and navy were – almost by definition – made up only of men.
According to a recent paper, that was a really poor decision on the Romans’ part – not least because they knew exactly how ferocious women could be on and off the battlefield.
“Women did not serve in the ancient, Roman army,” notes Valentine J. Belfiglio, Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences and Historical Studies at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, in the new paper. “However, those who were warriors were well known in the ancient world.”
Indeed, throughout the Roman Empire’s push for expansion, they often came into contact with fierce warrior queens: there was Boudica, the fiery-headed Iceni queen who led a revolt against the Romans in Britannia; Teuta, queen of the Ardiaei, who led her people against Rome in the Illyrian Wars of 229 BCE; and of course, Cleopatra, whose reign was fraught with conflicts both against and alongside the Romans.
But it’s the ordinary female fighters that deserve more recognition, Belfiglio argues. “Roman women were capable of close combat as well,” he points out: not only were they frequent competitors in gladiatorial shows, but they, like the women of the tribes fighting against the invading Romans, were known to take up arms in warfare – albeit in a non-official, unsanctioned capacity.
More than that, Roman women played an important tactical role as civilians on the home front too, providing morale and practical support for the male soldiers of the Imperial Army. “Women often cared for wounded soldiers in their homes whenever necessary,” Belfiglio points out. “There were women physicians, nurses, midwives, wet-nurses and other caregivers during every phase of Roman history.”
And while women may have been barred from becoming professional soldiers, those who bucked the tradition could be rewarded with fame and respect. There was Cloelia, for example: in 506 BCE, she freed herself and 20 other hostages from an Etruscan camp and swam them home through enemy spears. For her courage, the Romans erected “a bronze, equestrian statue, with the heroine seated upon it,” Belfiglio notes, “on the highest point along the Sacred Way.”
So too honored was Busa, a wealthy woman who aided the Roman fugitives from Hannibal’s wars against Rome. And the Carthaginian general would already have faced down women as well as men in his attempts to invade: “During the Second Punic War […] Hannibal laid siege to Petilia in Bruttium,” Belfiglio explains, where “women and men inhabitants fought valiantly, [and] burned his siege engines.”
But for ultimate proof that women could fight alongside men in armies, Roman soldiers would need look no further than their many, many enemies. From the Bracari tribe of what is now Portugal, whose “women bore arms with the men [and] died without uttering a cry,” according to the second-century Greco-Roman historian Appian of Alexandria, to the Teton women who, Plutarch recorded, “came out against the Romans, armed with swords and axes, and with horrible shrieking, fell upon their enemies and into the thick of the battle” at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae, the Romans were no strangers to facing female combatants.
And in at least one case, those female fighters became celebrated to the point that we still remember their myths today. “This study implies that there were women warriors called Amazons,” Belfiglio writes. “Evidence from burial sites, and the description of battles by ancient historians imply that they were not a separate tribe. It is likely they were athletic, female warriors from Scythia, Sarmatia, and other areas of the Caucuses who fought alongside their male counterparts.”
So, in summary: the idea that the Romans had no female warriors? It’s not exactly true. Women may have been banned legally from joining the army, but your average Roman soldier would have seen their fair share of female combatants – as well as women on the home front and encamped with the legions, caring for and supporting the soldiers in non-military ways.
“The important actions of women are often overlooked in articles and books about Roman military operations. This article is an effort to help correct this oversight,” Belfiglio writes.
“Today women serve in all branches and units of the U.S. military, including Special Forces,” he concludes. “Julius Caesar would be astonished.”
The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Research and Case Studies.