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Greeks, Amazons, and Archaeology

By James F. Vedder

The legends of the Amazons and their battles with the Greeks were popular subjects of ancient Greek art. Images of lone Amazons, of combat between an Amazon and a Greek hero, of general battle scenes, and occasionally of more amicable meetings appear in vase painting, sculpture, and other forms of art. The earliest representation known was made about 700 BCE [Schefold 1966, pp. 24-25, plate 7b]. The subjects appeared frequently in the fifth century BCE, eventually rivaling the popularity of depictions of centaurs [Encyclopedia Britannica (1957)].

Did Amazons really exist? Many modern writers deem them to be mythical beings as are the satyrs and centaurs. Others believe them to be symbols of the Persian or other peoples menacing the Greek borders and colonies. Still others believe that they may have been members of matriarchal societies of the Bronze Age.

Extant ancient written records, surviving in full, in fragments, or in reference by others, also relate tales of the Amazons. Homer, the eighth century BCE Greek poet [Taplin 1986; duBois 1982, p. 33], tells in the Iliad of the arrival of the Amazons to aid in the defense of Troy besieged by the Greeks. Other ancient writers mention Queen Penthesilea, who led her band of female warriors to aid King Priam of Troy. After her companions have been slain, she fights on valiantly, dispatching many Greeks until Achilles with a single mighty thrust of his sword kills her and her horse. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus, the Greek historian born in Halicarnassus, wrote of the Sauromatae. These nomadic people lived east of the Don river before, during, and after his lifetime. One practice occurring in his time that seemed to impress Herodotus was the participation of the women in battle alongside the men.

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