The Thinking 

Tacitus on Women and War

February 1, 2013


A Valkyrie from Arthur Rackham's The Ring

EVEN the unusually war-like women of Germanic history and myth did not participate in battle as the fellow combatants of men. The Valkyrie of Norse myth chose heroes from the battlefield, designating who would live or die, and carried their slain bodies to Valhalla. The Valkyries honored heroes, they didn’t become heroes themselves.

In 98 A.D., the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the real women of Germania’s tribes who accompanied men to the battlefield. They were there to encourage men, not to fight with them, an idea which would presumably have seemed preposterous given that women were much more desirable as hostages and could be easily overpowered. From Tacitus’s Germania:

A specially powerful incitement to valor is that the squadrons and divisions are not made up at random by the mustering of chance-comers, but are each composed of men of one family or clan. Close by them, too, are their nearest and dearest, so that they can hear the shrieks of their women-folk and the wailing of their children. These are the witnesses whom each man reverences most highly, whose praise he most desires. It is to their mothers and wives that they go to have their wounds treated, and the women are not afraid to count and compare the gashes. They also carry supplies of food to the combatants and encourage them.

It stands on record that armies already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by the women, pleading heroically with their men, thrusting forward their bared bosoms, and making them realize the imminent prospect of enslavement — a fate which the Germans fear more desperately for their women than for themselves. Indeed, you can secure a surer hold on these nations if you compel them to include among a consignment of hostages some girls of noble family. More than this, they believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy; and so they do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies. In the reign of the emperor Vespasian we saw Veleda [a seeress who helped lead a revolt against Rome] long honored by many Germans as a divinity; and even earlier they showed similar reverence for Aurinia [another seeress] and a number of others — a reverence untainted by servile flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses.

—- Comments —

James P. writes:

In Men, Women, and War, noted military historian Martin van Creveld makes exactly that point — throughout history, women have played a major role in warfare through cheering on their men, promising them rewards for valor, and by demanding protection from enemy males. Creveld argues that war would be “inconceivable” and “pointless” without this type of female support. He is also opposed to women in combat  — which may well be a reason the book cannot be found in Google Books! He regards the feminization of Western militaries as a sign these countries are no longer serious about war.

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