Women and War in Roman Epic

Elina Pyy, Women and War in Roman Epic, The Language of Classical Literature 33 (Leiden: Brill, 2020). 9789004434905.

Reviewed by Andrew McClellan, San Diego State University, amcclellan@sdsu.edu.

It’s refreshing to see more and more scholars tackle big issues systematically across a range of authors/texts, as Pyy does here in her excellent Women and War in Roman Epic. Not that studies of individual authors or texts will ever lose their value, of course, but the broad view over the epic landscape provides synoptic and diachronic insights only achievable through this sort of holistic approach.

The book reads Rome’s martial epics (Virgil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Bellum Civile, Valerius Flaccus’s Argonautica, Statius’s Thebaid and Achilleid [not “martial” in any obvious sense], and Silius Italicus’s Punica) through the lens of Kristevan subjectivity, following, in this way, important earlier studies by Antony Augoustakis[1] and Mairéad McAuley,[2] which cover some similar terrain. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Fasti get sidelined as not technically martial (what is the Metamorphoses, anyway?) and for his wonky narrative structure (3). And while Ovid has loads to say vis-à-vis gender roles/experiences (etc.), even in the context of military affairs and martial set pieces, I can’t really knock this decision, since I made the same one in my own book on Roman war epic a few years ago.

The aim, in nuce, is to interrogate gender roles and dynamics in these epics and to push back against the long tradition of binary, gender-focused readings of them. The result of Pyy’s analyses is a muddying of the waters regarding gender roles rather than neat, tidy categorizations. This, in and of itself, is important. The fluidity of gender is quite striking when viewed through the wide-angle lens on display here, and the study greatly advances our knowledge and understanding of the gender dynamics in the poems. I enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it.

The book’s structural trajectory works chronologically (from the seeds of war to its grim conclusion), which generally dovetails with a character’s proximity to war (from behind palatial walls to the dirt and blood of the battlefield). After a programmatic introduction, Chapter 2 explores gender dynamics at the outset of war with particular attention to the role of women as instigators behind the scenes. Pyy argues there are two general categories most women fall under: the passive (sometimes victimized) casus belli characters (e.g., Lavinia, Lucan’s Julia, Statius’s Argia) and the active warmonger-women/divine agitators (e.g., the Furies, Dido, Cleopatra, Amata). Amata alone is granted slight reprieve here as warmonger since her furor, present but latent, is only ultimately activated by the furor-ious rage of Allecto: “Allecto’s intervention…transforms Amata’s anger from reasonable and righteous anger into uncontrollable bodily frenzy” (59). But surely Dido deserves similar consideration, as her behavior is at least in part also a product of (Venus/Amor’s) direct divine intervention; her “failing in her male role as a monarch” (48) is a failure cruelly foisted upon her by divine forces. The chapter ends with an excellent discussion of Turnus and Statius’s Oedipus as gender-fluid counterparts to warmongering queens.

Building upon these observations of gender fluidity among agitators of war, Pyy argues in Chapter 3 that the gender dynamics of emotions at the outset of war are equally slippery and ambiguous. Of particular interest here is the resort to semiotic modes of expression by characters gripped by fear, grief, and other forms of emotional distress and loss (averbal groans, pregnant silences, etc.). Scholarship has typically viewed this as the behavior and purview of women in epic. But as Pyy details (extensively), male characters are equally subject to these sorts of unbridled semiotic communicative outbursts. The chapter contains powerful discussions of victimized female bodies (including bodies of personified cities “raped” by imperial male invaders), the gender-bending focalizing of teichoscopic women like Valerius Flaccus’s Medea, and the “maternal” distress linking mothers (Virgil’s Venus; Statius’s Thetis and Atalanta) and fathers (Statius’s Creon and Valerius’s Pelias). The failure of these characters to effectuate any meaningful change regarding their children’s fates precipitates their narrative marginalization. This last point is overstated for Creon, whose misery spawns his funeral abnegation for Polynices and his army, an act that singularly necessitates the final book of the Thebaid and Theseus’s military intervention.

Chapter 4 examines women subsumed by/into the phallogocentric ideology of epic. These “manly matrons” cast aside the inherent “weakness” of their sex, accept the patriarchal societal structure unflinchingly (becoming “exemplary” figures in the process) and, satisfied with their status as almost-men, end up marginalized by that same patriarchal structure. These are women familiar to the Roman historiographic tradition, but Pyy shows they seep into the epic canon too. The most telling cases are, in fact, historical women dressed up in epic colors: Lucan’s Cornelia and Marcia (wife of Cato); Silius’s Imilce and Marcia (wife of Regulus). Pyy argues convincingly that these women are only articulable as halves of a whole with their male partners, their femininity jettisoned in favor of propping up the system of patriarchal power.

Chapter 5 challenges the basic assumption that the male body is a weapon of destruction while the female body is a means of production. This is, in many ways, the chapter we’ve been waiting for (it’s also the longest chapter in the book), as women finally make their appearance on the battlefield as “warrior maidens” and warrior men fail their/our expectations as instruments of war. Some old chestnuts appear here (e.g., the Trojans are “effeminate” according to the burly Latins/Rutulians; Capuan enervation and sloth softens the manly core of Hannibal’s Carthaginians; the “defloration” of Camilla, Euryalus, and Parthenopaeus in death, etc.), but there are also provocative takes on a number of well-worn scenes too. Thus the discussion of Camilla and Asbyte (our two main figures in Roman epic for the warrior maiden) yields this striking juxtaposition: “Whereas Camilla is able to renounce her womanhood to such a point that she seems like a man in a female body, Silius’ Asbyte appears more like a woman in drag—her performance fails to ‘convince’ the external narrator and the omnipotent male gaze of the reader, who views her primarily as a woman mimicking the male deeds of war” (216).

Chapter 6 shifts the book’s focus to the end of war in these poems and the role of women as failed delayers/enders of war, mediators, and advocates for peace. Unlike their tragic and historiographic ancestors (e.g., the pregnant Sabine women ending hostilities between their rapacious/rapist impregnators and vengeance-seeking fathers), epic women are resoundingly unsuccessful in their efforts and prove better instigators of war than peacemakers. The stars of the chapter are Amata, Julia, and Statius’s Venus, Antigone, and Jocasta (the last of these women receives excellent scrutiny; see 243–67).

The final chapter ends appropriately with the deaths of some famous epic women (chiefly Creusa, Dido, Cleopatra, Amata, and Jocasta). Though death, naturally, marginalizes these women in these epics, a few of them also claim a certain power from it by dictating its terms. There are some good observations in here: Dido’s determinacy to die on her own terms differentiates her from Creusa and may also be inspired by—and function as a challenge to—Aeneas’s own narrative of Creusa’s empire-justifying demise; Cleopatra is rightly an alter ego for Dido and Amata.

The book closes with a swift, summative conclusion. The general index is full and useful. I’d have liked an index locorum, too. The bibliography is reasonably complete up to about 2018. Alison Sharrock’s “Warrior Women in Roman Epic”[3] might have been useful. I spotted only very few (and very minor) typos. And the writing overall is stylish and eminently readable. This is a strong book that will be essential reading for scholars and students of Roman epic, particularly the ever-growing coterie of Flavian epic devotees.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (1–21)
2. Origins of War (22–70)
3. Victims of War: Gendered Dynamics of Suffering (71–129)
4. “Playing Supermen”: The Manly Matrons of Roman Epic (130–62)
5. Means of Production or Weapons of Destruction? Gender and Violence in Roman War Epic (163–231)
6. Sabine Successors? The Failure of Female Mediation (232–66)
7. Dynamics of Death (267–99)
8. Conclusion (300–307)


[1] Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning Female Power in Flavian Epic (Oxford, 2010).

[2] Reproducing Rome: Motherhood in Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, and Statius (Oxford, 2016).

[3] In Women and War in Antiquity, ed. J. Fabre-Serris and A. Keith (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 157–78.


1. I wonder how a character like Erichtho in Lucan’s De bello civili fits into this fascinating picture you’ve painted. Sure, she’s a witch, and imbued with all that witchy baggage, but she’s also an agent of war through her spellcasting on the eve of Pharsalus, an alter ego of Caesar (more so, I’d suggest, than Cleopatra), and, weirdly, a “maternal” figure of sorts in her exchanges and relationship with the revivified corpse-soldier.

Lucan’s Erichtho is an extremely complex and fascinating figure, and many elements related to gender, violence and war that I discussed in the book are certainly present in her character. Hence, it might have been justifiable to discuss Erichtho in Chapter 2 as one of the warmongering women of the epic tradition. The main reason I decided to not do so was her particularity: Erichtho does not really compare to any of the other mortal women in the epic–to her, war is neither political nor personal, it is simply a way of gaining more bodies for her experiments. Another possible point of comparison for the figure of Erichtho are of course the Furies. However, whereas the Furies are an instrument of the gods and wreck violence on earth on their behalf, Erichtho is a strikingly independent character. She is marginalized to the point where she is neither human nor divine and certainly takes no orders from either direction. Moreover, I consider it important that although she wields great power over the natural world, she does not bring about the Civil War–doesn’t even try, as she openly admits that these kinds of events are beyond her power. The necromancy that she performs for Sextus Pompeius is merely a prophetic act–with the help of the resurrected corpse, Erichtho is able to foresee the war. However, she does not cause it (or even want it for any other reason than the supply of corpses). I find Lucan’s Erichtho a fascinating character but a one that escapes definitions and does not fit neatly in the categories that I structured the book around.

2. What importance might Ovid’s Metamorphoses have for the themes explored in your book? The poem is not devoid of militaristic set pieces, after all. The teichoscopic Scylla in Metamorphoses 8 comes to mind immediately, as does Caenis/Caeneus in book 12 (etc.).

The Metamorphoses is full of parallels to the stories discussed in the Aeneid, the Pharsalia, the Thebaid, the Punica and the Argonautica. Ovid’s hexameter poetry certainly belongs in the same intertextual tradition as the war-centred epics of the Principate–and actually, so does his elegiac poetry. For example, the relictatopos that is pervasive in war-centred epic and that I discussed on a couple of occasions in my book is greatly indebted to Ovid’s elegiac poetry, and often the poets seem to deliberately call to mind the Ovidian model. Nevertheless, as I pointed out in Chapter 1, the differences in the narrative structure (which seem to be a very conscious choice on Ovid’s part) clearly set his poetry apart from the chronological and teleological narrative tradition of Graeco-Roman war epic. This is why I decided (with a few important exceptions) to limit the discussion of Ovid to the footnotes in my book, and to carry him along as a point of comparison rather than as a full-blooded member of the literary genre examined. Having said this, I must add that reading the Metamorphoses side by side to Virgil, Lucan, Statius, Silius Italicus and Valerius Flaccus has been genuinely useful, and that the role that it has played in my understanding of war epic as a genre has been much bigger than it might seem.

3. This might be a bit of an unfair question (and I wouldn’t expect much more than a speculative response), but how far do these themes reach beyond epic? You include some valuable discussion of Roman historiography in several places, typically as a juxtaposition to events in epic. Could more be said about gender roles and experiences in historiography? Or biography? What about Seneca’s tragedies and Petronius’s Satyricon? These seem like obvious places to start looking/thinking (McAuley has done some work on Seneca tragicus, of course).

While working on this book, one of the most surprising discoveries was how different the epic poets’ views of the role, the influence, and the power of women in military matters really were, compared to the many familiar exemplary stories from Roman historiography. The epic women really seem to be at their most successful when agitating war and destruction, not when pleading for peace. Because this was a theme that was relevant to so many chapters of my book, and because rewriting the exemplary tradition seemed to be such a deliberate choice by the Roman poets, it felt natural that historiography should be the primary comparative genre to be discussed throughout the book. This obviously does not mean that there might not have been many others. Seneca’s tragedies are certainly another source group that can shed light on the characters of epic women; I briefly discussed Seneca’s Medea as a model for Statius’ Polyxo in Chapter 5, and in Chapter 6, Seneca’s Phoenissae as a background for Statius’s Jocasta and Antigone. On this latter occasion, the merge of historiography, tragedy, and epic is particularly intriguing, as one can observe Livy’s Sabine women behind both Seneca’s and Statius’s [d]versions of mediating women. In hindsight, another example that could have been included is Seneca’s Octavia who, as a high-minded noble woman devoted to virtue and unterrified by death, is a clear parallel to the aristocratic wives discussed in Chapter 4.

Thanks for your response to these questions, and for your work on this important subject!

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