black figure amphora

A scene from the Trojan War: as two hoplites clash, Paris (left), in Trojan dress, flees the battlefield.  Detail of an Attic black-figure amphora, attributed to the Hattatt Painter; ca. 540-520 BCE.  Now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Telamonian Ajax, protected by Hermes (left) and Athena (right), carries the body of the fallen Achilles off the battlefield.  Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, attributed to the Antimenes Painter; ca. 520-510 BCE.  Now in the Louvre. 

Achilles battles Memnon, with their respective mothers, Thetis and Eos (Dawn), flanking them.  Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, name-vase of the Painter of Munich 1410; ca. 510 BCE.  Found at Vulci; now in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.

Dionysus, holding a kantharos, with his son Oenopion.  Detail from an Attic black-figure amphora, signed by the painter-potter Exekias; ca. 540-530 BCE.  Found at Vulci; now in the British Museum.  Photo credit:  © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

I have a tutorial to give on the Amazons tomorrow, and I am very excited and gleeful, because of Wonder Woman, but there is one drawback, which is that I haven’t yet seen the film (hoping to go this weekend), and I really, really want to be able to talk about the film’s representation of Amazons, because the tutorial is effectively looking at their portrayal in Archaic Period Greece, and it would be nice to be able to talk about any common trends and any major differences. I mean, the vase paintings we’re looking at are so interesting because Penthesilea is not obviously eroticised in the way that Amazons are in later fifth century art - the only way you can tell she’s a woman is because of her skin tone and her name written beside her.

Achilles killing Penthesilea, black-figure Attic amphora by Exekias, c. 540 B.C.. 

I mean, yes, she’s dressed differently from Achilles, yes, she has the white skin tone used for women, but she’s armoured, she’s in practical clothes, and she’s clearly as much a warrior as she is a woman, if not more so. 

Compare the red-figure hydria below:

Achilles and Penthesilea, Attic red-figure hydria by the Berlin Painter, c. 500 B.C..

Penthesilea has breasts and is wearing an outfit that looks less like armour and more like a short chiton. I suppose it may be less woman and more eastern or Persian that is behind her outfit - the Phrygian cap, for instance, and archers tended to be light-armoured, but the bow is also scorned as a coward’s weapon in the world of the hoplite phalanx, because it allows a weaker opponent to pick off a stronger man at a distance - but you can see her nipples, so she’s definitely not armoured. She’s also not being given warrior status equal to that of Achilles (yes, he’s nude, except for helmet and greaves, but that’s heroic; it’s also I suppose homoerotically heroic, this being Greece and all).

Then there’s this Amazonomachy:

Amazonomachy, red-figure lekythos by Eretria Painter, c. 420 B.C..

You can see how the Amazons continue to have an oriental theme, as they wear trousers (true sign of a barbarian and an effeminate degenerate; real men wear skirts), use bows and carry lunate pelta shields. (Note that the Amazon with the lunate shield also carries a pair of spears, which means she is equipped like a Thracian.) By the Roman period, lunate shields have come to be associated with the Amazons (Virgil Aeneid 1.490). Also, the Amazons are bare-headed, unlike the Greek spearman. Yes, they’re warriors, but they are explicitly female warriors, and very much othered by their Persian outfits.

Then here’s a sarcophagus relief:

Amazonomachy, sarcophagus relief, Salonica, c. 180 B.C..

Here we have the bare head, the short chiton, the lunate shield and an axe, another weapon associated with the Amazons. But the nude warrior is grasping the Amazon by her hair to pull her off her horse (helmets prevent violent death by stabbing, wear them) - and lo and behold, the Amazon’s right breast is exposed. By this point, the iconography of the Amazons really, really wants you to know that they are women, ok, who happen to be warriors as well, but don’t forget that they’re women.

And, sure, Spartan girls wore short chitons with the right breast exposed when they competed in athletics, so the Amazons are also drawing on imagery of Greek girls - but Thomas Scanlon argues that the Heraian and Spartan races were part of girls’ transition into adulthood, so the races and their associated clothing are also to an extent eroticised, marking the change from girl to young woman. Anyway, the Amazons are now very explicitly women, and titillating, transgressive women at that, dressed like young athletic women on the cusp of marriageable age, but behaving like men and fighting battles. 

And stepping aside briefly from the iconography of the Amazons there’s that bit in Lysias 2, the funeral oration for the auxiliaries at Corinth, which goes into detail on the Amazons, where he calls them the daughters of Ares and says they were the first to ride horses, and dwells on the antitheses and paradoxes of their existence - ἐνομίζοντο δὲ διὰ τὴν εὐψυχίαν μᾶλλον ἄνδρες ἢ διὰ τὴν φύσιν γυναῖκες “they were considered men for their courage rather than women for their form” (2.4) - until he can happily return them to their proper place, courtesy of their defeat by the Athenians - τυχοῦσαι δ᾽ ἀγαθῶν ἀνδρῶν ὁμοίας ἐκτήσαντο τὰς ψυχὰς τῇ φύσει, καὶ ἐναντίαν τὴν δόξαν τῆς προτέρας λαβοῦσαι μᾶλλον ἐκ τῶν κινδύνων ἢ ἐκ τῶν σωμάτων ἔδοξαν εἶναι γυναῖκες “But encountering brave men, they found their spirits to be like their bodies, and, achieving the opposite reputation from their previous one, through their peril rather than their bodies they were considered to be women” (2.5). And so in the context of the funeral oration, the Athenian men restored the natural order of things, and the Amazons were made women once more.

And then we have these awesome Amazons, who are once again warriors as much as they are women:

And do I get to teach a tutorial on this tomorrow? Yes, yes, I do, and I am so very excited. There is so, so much to talk about with this topic, and it should all be so very fun.  

Heracles battles the three-bodied monster Geryon, whose cattle he has come to steal as part of his Twelve Labors.  Side B of an Attic black-figure amphora, name-vase of the Painter of Munich 1379; ca. 540 BCE.  Found at Vulci; now in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.