Persians, Tyrrhenians and Lycians: Plutarch on brave women and effeminate men (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians, Tyrrhenians and Lycians: Plutarch on brave women and effeminate men (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 3, 2024,

Ancient author: Plutarch (early second century CE), Virtues of Women, aka Bravery of Women, excerpts involving non-Greek peoples (link).

Comments: In addressing Klea, Plutarch here compiles numerous stories of virtuous or brave women, including several included here that involve peoples beyond the Greeks. Some of these stories emphasize foreign gender-bending, as when Persian men behave effeminately (e.g. fleeing) and the women behave manly or bravely (remember that the Greek term for bravery is “manly”). Plutarch also uses the Celtic women to portray Celtic men as contentious.  So ostensible stories about women are used to reaffirm common Greek stereotypes about specific foreign peoples in some cases. Some of Plutarch’s stories also sketch out relations between Greek colonists and indigenous populations.

It is worth noting that Plutarch here adopts the view that Tyrrhenians (sometimes the equivalent of Etruscans) were in some way interchangeable with Pelasgians.

There are overlaps in a couple of these stories with Polyainos’ compilation about tricky “barbarian” peoples (link). So Polyainos uses the stories for a different purpose.


[Introduction and dedication to Klea]

[242e-f] Regarding the virtues of women, Klea, I do not hold the same opinion as Thucydides [Peloponessian War 2.45]. For he claims that the best woman is the one about whom there is the least talk among persons outside regarding either censure or commendation, feeling that the name of the good woman, like her person, should be shut up indoors and never go out. However, in my opinion Gorgias appears to have better taste in advising that not the physical shape but the fame of a woman should be known to many. Best of all seems the Roman custom, which publicly renders to women, as to men, a fitting commemoration after the end of their life. So when Leontis, that most excellent woman, died, I immediately had a long conversation with you which was not without some share of consolation drawn from the pursuit of wisdom (philosophia). Now, as you desired, I have also written out for you the remainder of what I would have said on the topic that man’s virtues and woman’s virtues are one and the same. [243] This includes a good deal of historical exposition, and it is not composed to give pleasure in its perusal. Yet, if in a convincing argument enjoyment is to be found also by reason of the very nature of the illustration, then the discussion is not devoid of an agreeableness which helps in the exposition, nor does it hesitate “To join / the Graces with the Muses, / a consorting most fair,” as Euripides says, and to pin its faith mostly to the love of beauty inherent to the soul.

If, conceivably, we asserted that painting done by men and women is the same, and exhibited paintings, done by women, of the sort that Apelles, or Zeuxis, or Nicomachos has left to us, would anybody reprehend us on the ground that we were aiming at giving gratification and allurement rather than at persuasion? I do not think so. Furthermore, if we should declare that the poetic or the prophetic skill is not one skill when practised by men and another when practised by women, but the same. Also, if we should put the poems of Sappho side by side with those of Anakreon, or the oracles of the Sibyls with those of Bakis, will anybody have the power justly to impugn the demonstration because these lead on the hearer, joyous and delighted, to have belief in it? No, you could not say that either. Actually, it is not possible to learn better the similarity and the difference between the virtues of men and of women from any other source than by putting lives beside lives and actions beside actions, like great works of art, and considering whether the magnificence of Semiramis has the same character and pattern as that of Sesostris, or the intelligence of Tanaquil the same as that of Servius the king, or the high spirit of Porcia the same as that of Brutus, or that of Pelopidas the same as Timokleia’s, when compared with due regard to the most important points of identity and influence. For the fact is that the virtues acquire certain other diversities, their own colouring as it were, due to varying natures, and they take on the likeness of the customs on which they are founded, and of the temperament of persons and their nurture and mode of living. For example, Achilles was brave in one way and Ajax in another; the wisdom of Odysseus was not like that of Nestor, and nor was Cato a just man in exactly the same way as Agesilaos. Nor was Eirene fond of her husband in the same way as Alkestis, nor Cornelia high-minded in the manner of Olympias. But, with all this, let us not postulate many different kinds of bravery, wisdom, and justice, if only the individual dissimilarities exclude no one of these from receiving its appropriate rating.

Those incidents which are so often recited, and those of which I assume that you, having kept company with books, surely have record and knowledge, I will pass over for the present, with this exception: if any tales worthy of perusal have escaped the attention of those who, before our time, have recorded the commonly published stories. Since, however, many deeds worthy of mention have been done by women both in association with other women and by themselves alone, it may not be a bad idea to set down first a brief account of the commonly known cases. . . [omitted first stories about Trojan women and Greek women of Phokis, Chios and Argos].

[Brave Persian women, with implication of cowardly Persian men]

[246] At the time when Cyrus induced the Persians to revolt against king Astyages and the Medes he was defeated in battle [cf. Polyaenus, Strategies 7.45 – link]. As the Persians were fleeing to the city, with the Median enemy not far from forcing their way in along with the Persians, the women ran out to meet them in front of the city and, lifting up their clothes, said, “Where are you rushing so quickly, you biggest cowards in the whole world? Surely you cannot, in your flight, slink in here from where you came.” The Persians, mortified at the sight and the words, chiding themselves for cowards, rallied and defeated the enemy by engaging them again.

As a result of this it became an established custom that, whenever the king rode into the city, each woman should receive a gold coin. The author of the law was Cyrus. But Ochos [Artaxerxes III], they say, being a mean man and the most greedy among the kings, would always make a detour around the city and not pass within, but would deprive the women of their reward. Alexander, however, entered the city twice, and gave all the women who were pregnant a double amount.

[Adjudicating Celtic women, with implications of contentious Celtic men]

Before the Celts crossed over the Alps and settled in that part of Italy which is now their home, a dire and persistent factional discord broke out among them which went on and on to the point of civil war. The women, however, put themselves between the armed forces and, taking up the controversies, arbitrated and decided them with such irreproachable fairness that a wondrous friendship of among everyone was brought about between both cities and households. As the result of this they continued to consult with the women in regard to war and peace, and to decide through them any disputed matters in their relations with their allies. Anyways, in their treaty with Hannibal they wrote the provision that, if the Celts complained against the Carthaginians, the governors and generals of the Carthaginians in Iberia [Spain] should be the judges, and if the Carthaginians complained against the Celts, the judges should be the Celtic women.

[Greek Melian women and the slaughter of Carians in the process of colonization]

The Melians, being in need of wide acres, put in charge of the colony to be sent forth Nymphaios, a young man and unusually handsome. The god bade them sail, and wherever they should lose their transports to settle in that place. It came about, as they put in at Caria and went ashore, that their ships were destroyed by a storm. The Carian inhabitants of Kryassos, whether pitying their sorry plight or fearing their boldness, bade them live near themselves, and gave them a portion of their land. Later, seeing their great expansion in a short time, they plotted to make away with them, after preparing a sumptuous banquet for the purpose. It happened that a Carian maiden was in love with Nymphaios, but nobody else was aware of this. Her name was Kaphene. As the plan was being put into operation, she could not suffer Nymphaios to be put to death, and so she disclosed to him the intention of her fellow-citizens. So, when the Cryassians came to invite them, Nymphaios said that it was not the custom for the Greeks to go to dinner without women. When the Carians heard this, they told them to bring the women too. On this understanding Nymphaios informed the Melians of what had been done, and told the men to go to the place unarmed in conventional attire, but that each of the woman should carry a sword in the fold of her garment and sit beside her husband or male relative. When, about the middle of the meal, the predetermined signal was given to the Carians, and the Greeks realized that the time had come, all the women at the same instant threw open the fold of their garments and the men, seizing their swords, attacked the barbarians and killed them all together. Then, taking possession of the land and razing that city, they built another, to which they gave the name of New Kryassos. Kaphene married Nymphaios and received the honour and gratitude merited by her valuable services. It is right and proper to admire both the silence and the courage of the women, and that not a single one of them among so many was led by timidity to turn coward even involuntarily [cf. Polyainos, Strategies 50].


[Tyrrhenian / Pelasgian women, mixed children, and another story of colonization]

When the Tyrrhenians [Etruscans] had gained possession of Lemnos and Imbros, they carried away forcibly from Brauron Athenian women, and those women had children. The Athenians expelled these from the islands because they were partially barbarian, and they put in at Tainaron and made themselves useful to the Spartans in the war with the Helots. For this they received citizenship and the right of intermarriage, but they were not considered worthy to hold office or to be members of the civic Council. This gave colour to the idea that some radical design was behind their coming together, and that they planned to disturb the established institutions. Accordingly the Spartans took them into custody and, shutting them up in prison, placed a strong guard over them, seeking to convict them by clear and certain proofs. The wives of the prisoners, coming to the prison, by means of many prayers and requests, were permitted by the guards to pass within just to greet and to speak to their husbands. When they had gone inside they told their husbands to change their clothing quickly, leaving their own for their wives. Then, putting on their wives’ clothes, they were to leave with their faces covered. After doing this, the women waited there and were prepared to face all terrors. But the guards were deceived and allowed the men to pass, supposing, of course, that they were women. Following this, they [the escaped semi-barbarian prisoners] seized the strongholds on mount Taygetos, incited the body of Helots to revolt, and gladly received them as an addition to their forces. The Spartans were thrown into a great state of fear and, sending messengers, made peace with them. The conditions of peace were that they should get back their wives, should receive money and ships to sail away. Once they found land and a city elsewhere, they were to be considered as colonists and kindred of the Spartans.

The Pelasgians [here identified with Tyrrhenians] did this, taking as their leaders Pollis, Delphos and Kratakdas, all Spartans. Some of them settled in Melos, but Pollis and his associates, with the great majority, sailed to Crete, testing the truth of the oracles. For an oracle had been given them that whenever they lost their goddess and their anchor they should cease from their wanderings and found a city in that place. So, when they had come to anchor off that part of Crete which is called the Chersonese, they experienced panic and confusion at night, by which they were so excited that they leaped aboard in utter disorder, leaving behind on land an ancient statue of Artemis which had been handed down to them from their ancestors. This statue had been originally brought to Lemnos from Brauron, and from Lemnos had been carried about with them in all their journeyings. But when at sea, as the confusion subsided, they missed this, and at the same time Pollis discovered that the fluke was gone from the anchor (for apparently it had been broken off as the anchor dragged in some rocky places, without anybody’s noticing its loss). Pollis declared that the god-given predictions were now fulfilled, and gave the signal to return. He took possession of the country, prevailed in many battles over those who ranged themselves against him, settled Lyktos, and took other cities under his control. Because of all this people regard them as related to the Athenians by descent on account of their mothers, and as colonists of the Spartans also [cf. Polyainos, Strategies 49].

[Lycian women and pirates]

The things they have said happened in Lycia sound like a myth, yet it has some supporting testimony in the tales that are told. Amisodaros, as they say, whom the Lycians call Isaras, arrived from the Lycian colony in the vicinity of Zeleia, bringing with him ships for engaging in sea-banditry. Chimarrhos, a warlike man who was bloodthirsty and brutal was in command of the ships. [248] He sailed in a vessel which had a lion as its figurehead at the prow, and a serpent at the stern. He did much evil to the Lycians, and it was not possible to sail at sea or even to live in the cities near the sea. Bellerophon killed this man, pursuing him with Pegasus as he was trying to escape. Bellerophon also drove out the Amazons, but met with no just treatment; in fact, Iobates was most unjust with him. Because of this, Bellerophon waded into the sea and he prayed to Poseidon that, as a requital against Iobates, the land might become sterile and unprofitable. At that point, he went back after his prayer and a wave arose and inundated the land. It was a fearful sight as the sea, following him, rose high in air and covered up the plain. The men sought out Bellerophon to check it, but when they could not prevail on him, the women, pulling up their garments, came to meet him; and when he, for shame, retreated towards the sea again, the wave also, it is said, went back with him.

Some, attempting to explain away the mythical element in this account, assert that he did not get the sea to move by imprecations, but that the most fertile part of the plain lies below the sea-level, and Bellerophon broke through the ridge extending along the shore, which kept the sea out. Then, as the ocean rushed in violently and covered up the plain, the men accomplished nothing by making their requests of him, but the women, flocking around him in a crowd, met with respect, and caused his anger to subside.

Still others assert that the Chimaira, as it was called, was nothing but a mountain facing the sun, and that it caused reflexions of sunlight, fierce and fiery in the summer time, and by these, striking all over the plain, the crops were dried up. They assert that Bellerophon, sensing this, cut away the smoothest part of the precipice which mostly sent back the reflexions. When, however, he met with no gratitude, in anger he turned to avenge himself upon the Lycians, but was prevailed upon by the women.

But the reason which Nymphis gives in the fourth book of his work about Herakleia is least mythical of all. He says that Bellerophon killed a wild boar which was making havoc of the stock and crops in the land of the Xanthians, but obtained no fitting reward. Then he addressed to Poseidon imprecations against the Xanthians, and the whole plain suddenly became glittering with a salt deposit and was completely ruined, since the soil had become saline. This lasted until Bellerophon, out of respect for the women who made requests of him, prayed to Poseidon to give up his anger. For this reason it was the custom for the Xanthians to bear names derived not from their fathers but from their mothers.

[Iberian women hide swords to defeat and escape the Carthaginians]

When Hannibal, the son of Barka, before making his campaign against the Romans, attacked a great city in Iberia [Spain] called Salmantika, at first the besieged were terrified, and they agreed to do what was ordered by giving him three hundred silver talents and three hundred hostages. But when he raised the siege, they changed their minds and did nothing of what they had agreed to do. So he returned and ordered his soldiers, with the promise of plunder, to attack the city. At this the barbarians were panic-stricken, and came to terms, agreeing that the free inhabitants should depart wearing just one civilian garment, and should leave behind weapons, property, slaves, and their city.

The women, thinking that the enemy would search each man as he came out, but would not touch the women, took swords, and hurried out with the men while hiding the swords. When all had come out, Hannibal set over them a guard of Masaisylian [subgroup of Numidians] soldiers in a place near the city, and kept them there under constraint. The rest of the soldiers rushed into the city in disorder and started plundering. As much plunder was being carried off, the Masaisylians could not bear to be merely spectators, [249] nor did they keep their mind on their watching. Instead, they were upset and started to move away as if to have their share of the spoils. At this point the women, calling upon the men, handed them the swords, and some of the women of themselves attacked their guards. One of them snatched away the spear of Banon the interpreter, and killed the man himself; but he happened to have on his breast-plate. Of the others, the men struck down some, defeated the rest, and forced a way out as a group, accompanied by the women. Hannibal, learning of this, sent in pursuit of them, and caught those who could not keep up. The others gained the mountains, and, for the time, escaped. Afterwards, however, they sent a petition to him, and were restored to their city, and received immunity and humane treatment [cf. Polyainos, Strategies 48] . . . [omitted stories of women at Miletos, Keos and Phokis and the story of Valeria and Cloelia and of Mikka and Megisto].

[Conclusion of examples of groups and turn to individual virtuous women]

[253] . . . Among the deeds, countless in number, done by women acting together these may suffice as examples. But cases of individual bravery I will put down as they come to me, not in any order, because I think that the record of the present subject does not at all require a chronological arrangement. . . [omitted examples of brave individual women].


Source of translation: F.C. Babbitt, Plutarch: Moralia, 5 vols., LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-1936), public domain (Babbitt passed away in 1935), adapted by Harland.

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