Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Review: Women at War in the Classical World by Paul Chrystal

 © 2020 by Mary Harrsch

"Women at War in the Classical World" by Paul Chrystal is a compilation of anecdotes, gleaned from a variety of ancient sources, about the activities of women in societies directed by men engaged in martial activities. The book divides these anecdotes into subunits for the Greeks and Romans.  From there it is further subdivided into chapters on women in legend and women in history. But I thought it suffered beyond that point because it lacked a topical framework to organize the various activities associated with the decisions to make war, the funding of warfare, the logistics to prepare for war, the military forces in the field, and finally the fate of victims of ancient conflict.  Chrystal had anecdotes for each of these phases of ancient warfare but they were jumbled together so much that I felt like I was bumping along a Roman road in a crude oxcart with no suspension.  There was no transitional phrases to give you a clue as to the relationship between one paragraph and the next so I found his narrative hard to follow.

At one point we jump from an anecdote about Hortensia's oratorical prowess to object to the Second Triumvirate's tax levy on wealthy women to the ostentatious behavior of Catiline's wife Sempronia and then to Porcia's rather extreme strategies to get Brutus to share his plans assassinate Caesar.

Although the tax levy issue could be categorized as eventually funding warfare, the behavior of Catiline's wife and Porcia, without any reference to warfare seem extraneous and irrelevant to the topic without some additional details. Furthermore, these brief summaries are not even presented in chronological order thereby jumbling the history so a development of behavioral patterns based on precedent cannot even be considered. 

Chrystal's book provides a number of documented references to women in the classical world, which, in itself, constitutes a helpful resource.  I just felt it could have been organized much better to focus the work on warfare and irrelevant anecdotes pruned.

Overall, I found my expectation of the contents based on the book's title simply wasn't met. Chrystal's decision to document the activities of ancient women in a martial society as revealed by a variety of ancient sources was not a comprehensive analysis of how these activities supported and encompassed the prosecution of ancient warfare which is what I had anticipated.

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