Amazons: Strabo on their customs and northern location (first century CE)

Ancient authors: Various authors discussed by Strabo, Geography 11.5.1-4 (link to Greek text and full English translation)

Comments: To a modern reader, the people known as the Amazons are clearly mythical figures, but to ancient authors they were often treated as a real, ancient people consisting only of women. In this passage, Strabo draws on several authors and discusses the customs of the Amazons. Strabo seems to agree with those who would place the original homeland of the Amazons between the Black Sea and the Caspian sea in the area of the Caucasus mountains (area of modern Georgia). This chararacterization of Amazons as a Pontic or even Scythian people seems to be the most common belief among Greek authors. The features of the Amazons are very much a deliberate inversion of what a Greek expects of a “normal” society, since there it is the women only who run everything and are excellent warriors. In light of this inversion, Strabo’s angst and lengthy objections aimed at affirming standard gender expectations seem somewhat misguided, but may come across as somewhat humourous to a modern reader nonetheless. For visual depictions of Amazons, go to this link.

Source of the translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, vol. 5 (LCL; Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1928), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.

Book 11

[Location, appearance and customs of the Amazons]

5 (1) The Amazons are also said to live in the mountains above Albania [Strabo was just covering Albanians in the previous passage]. Now Theophanes,​ who made the expedition with Pompey and was in the country of the Albanians, says that the Gelians and the Legians, who are Scythians, live between the Amazons and the Albanians, and that the Mermadalis river flows there, midway between these people and the Amazons.

But others, among whom are Metrodoros of Skepsis​ and Hypsikrates, who were also not unacquainted with the region in question, say that the Amazons live on the borders of the Gargarians in the northerly foothills of those parts of the Kaukasian [Caucasus] mountains which are called Keraunian. They say​ that the Amazons spend the rest of their time​ off to themselves, performing their numerous individual tasks, such as ploughing, planting, pasturing cattle, and particularly in training horses, though the bravest engage mostly in hunting on horseback and practise war-like exercises. They also say that the right breasts of all the Amazons are seared when they are infants, so that they can easily use their right arm for every needed purpose, and especially that of throwing the javelin. They say that they also use a bow, a battle-ax (sagaris​) and light shield, and make the skins of wild animals serve as helmets, clothing, and waist-bands. But that they have two special months in the spring in which they go up into the neighbouring mountain which separates them and the Gargarians. In keeping with an ancient custom, the Gargarians also go up there to offer sacrifice with the Amazons and also to have sexual intercourse with them for the sake of having children, doing this in secrecy and darkness, any Gargarian at random with any Amazon. After making them pregnant the Amazons send the Gargarians away. The girls who are born are kept by the Amazons themselves, but the boys are taken to the Gargarians to be raised. Each Gargarian to whom a child is brought adopts the child as his own, regarding the child as his son because of his uncertainty.

(2) The Mermodas​ [Mermadalis (?)] river dashes down from the mountains through the country of the Amazons and through Sirakene and the intervening desert and then empties into Lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov]. It is said that the Gargarians went up from Themiskyra into this region with the Amazons, then revolted from them and in company with some Thracians and Euboians who had wandered that far carried on war against them, and that they later ended the war against them and made a compact on the conditions mentioned above, that is, that they should have dealings with one another only in the matter of children, and that each people should live independent of the other in other respects.

[Strabo’s disbelief based on gender assumptions]

(3) A peculiar thing has happened in the case of the account we have of the Amazons. for our accounts of other peoples keep a distinction between the mythical and the historical elements. for the things that are ancient and false and monstrous are called myths, but history wishes for the truth, whether ancient or recent, and contains no monstrous element, or else only rarely. But as regards the Amazons, the same stories are told now as in early times, though they are marvellous and beyond belief. For instance, who could believe that an army of women or a city or a tribe could ever be organized without men, and not only be organized, but even make inroads upon the territory of other people. Who could believe that women could not only overpower the peoples near them to the extent of advancing as far as what is now Ionia, but even send an expedition across the sea as far as Attika? For this is the same as saying that the men of those times were women and that the women were men. Nevertheless, even at the present time these very stories are told about the Amazons, and they intensify the peculiarity mentioned above and our belief in the ancient accounts rather than those of the present time.

[Amazon foundations and legends associated with Alexander]

(4) At any rate, the founding of cities and the giving of names to them are attributed to the Amazons, as, for instance, Ephesos, Smyrna, Kyme and Myrine [all in western Asia Minor]. Tombs and other monuments are also attributed to them. Themiskyra and the plains around Thermodon and the mountains that lie above them are mentioned as having belonged to the Amazons by all writers. but they say that the Amazons were driven out of these places. Only a few writers make assertions as to where they are at the present time, but their assertions are without proof and beyond belief. For example, they say that Thalestria, queen of the Amazons, had sexual intercourse with Alexander in Hyrkania for the sake of having children; this assertion is not generally accepted.​ Indeed, of the numerous historians, those who care most for the truth do not make the assertion, nor do those who are most trustworthy mention any such thing, nor do those who tell the story agree in their statements. Kleitarchos​ says that Thalestria set out from the Kaspian Gates and Thermodon and visited Alexander. but the distance from the Kaspian country to Thermodon is more than six thousand stadia [about 946 kms].

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