Amazons: Greek artistic depictions of a female warrior people (fourth century BCE to second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Amazons: Greek artistic depictions of a female warrior people (fourth century BCE to second century CE),' Last modified October 13, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7908.

Information and descriptions: The images are: “Terracotta volute-krater” vase depicting Amazons in battle, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (ca. 450 BCE from Attica; h. 63.5 cm; inv. 07.286.84); frieze depicting Amazons fighting from the tomb of Mausolos at Halikarnassos, with close-ups (ca. 350 BCE; British Museum); statue of a wounded Amazon (with a bleeding wound under the right arm) from Rome, likely based on an Ephesian model (ca. 150 CE; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, inv. 1568); relief of an Amazon with a shield in battle (second century CE; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, inv. 2016); and, less than lifesized statue of a dead Amazon (Naples Archeological Museum, on which go to this link).

Comments: As Strabo’s passage on Amazons shows (link), ancient authors often took very seriously the notion that there was in fact an all-female warrior society, and most placed this people in the north, particularly east of the Black Sea. In general, Amazons were considered a sub-set of Scythians or Sarmatians. Ethnographic writing about the Scythians similarly emphasizes the violent character of northern peoples and stresses that even the Scythian women were warriors, which aligns well with the depiction of Amazons engaged in battle. Furthermore, many Greek ethnographic descriptions of Scythian society emphasize the reversal of common Greek gender roles and expectations (see other examples of passages on Scythians on this site).

These artistic depictions of Amazons present the stereotypical Amazon of Greek art (also imitated within Roman art) as a fierce warrior, often with a bow and arrow or a spear or javelin and a shield and sometimes on horseback. They are consistently depicted wearing a short, pleated tunic (chiton or peplos) made of light fabric (coming down above the knee) with a belt and sometimes with one breast or both breasts exposed particularly as pictured in or after battle. Although some of the legends have the Amazons cauterizing or removing the right breast in order to improve movement for fighting and archery (link to Strabo’s discussion), that is not consistent in artistic depictions.

Source: Photos by Harland (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), except for the dead Amazon from the Naples museum, which is a photo by “virtusincertus” (all licenced under CC BY 2.0). All photos of public domain works in the Met are in the public domain.

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