by Adrienne Mayor (Regular Contributor)
What did Plato have to say about Amazons? The great philosopher might seem an unlikely commentator on the fierce, barbarian warrior women. How could Amazons or warlike females figure in the great thinker’s rigorous dialectical dialogues on politics, justice, love, virtue, education, metaphysics, and laws?
In fact, there is evidence that Plato (b. 428 or 424 BC) devoted some thought to women’s roles in ideal states. Published after his death in 348 BC, Plato’s Laws features a remarkably admiring perspective on Amazons and their real-life counterparts, the horsewomen archers of the steppe tribes around the Black Sea. In the Laws dialogue, an Athenian, a Spartan, and a Cretan debate the best ways to raise citizens in an ideal state well prepared for both peace and war.
Plato’s Athenian suggests that at age six, boys “should have lessons in horse riding, archery, javelin-throwing, and slinging–and the girls, too, may attend the lessons, especially in the use of the weapons.” Notably, these activities are not the military skills of Greek hoplite warriors. Instead, these skills mimic the expertise of mounted nomad archers of Scythia-Sarmatia, the territory stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia. By Plato’s time, Scythia was notorious for warlike women who rode to battle alongside the men. Plato and his readers would have been familiar with vivid descriptions of Scytho-Sarmatians’ customs by Herodotus (484-425 BC).
In his surprising proposal that Greeks should take up a Scythian lifestyle, Plato specifies that foreigner teachers would be imported to instruct the children to ride and shoot arrows in wide-open spaces created for the purpose. (Laws 7.794c-795d)
It is fitting, says Plato, that “girls must be trained in precisely the same way as the boys” in athletics, riding horses, and wielding weapons. In an emergency, then, women “tough enough to imitate Sarmatian women” could “take up bows and arrows like Amazons, and join the men” in battle against enemies. This radical departure from traditional Greek gender roles is not only justified by the ancient stories of Amazons. Plato declares that we “now know for certain that there are countless numbers of women . . . around the Black Sea who ride horses and use the bow and other weapons” just like the men. In their culture, he notes, “men and women have an equal duty to cultivate these skills.” Together, the men and women pursue “a common purpose and throw all their energies into the same activities.”
Plato argues that these sorts of mutual cooperation and equal training are essential to a society’s success. Indeed, any state that does otherwise is “stupid,” because without women’s participation “a state develops only half its potential” when at the same cost and effort it could “double its achievement.” Plato likens this all-inclusive, egalitarian approach to the famous Scythian ability to shoot arrows with either the right or left hand. Such ambidexterity is crucial in fighting with bows and spears, and “every boy and girl should grow up versatile in the use of both hands.”
The example of Scythian women, says Plato, proves that it is possible and advantageous for a state to decide that “in education and everything else, females should be on the same footing as males and follow the same way of life as the men.” Indeed, it would be a “staggering blunder” for a society to “deny women this kind of partnership with men.” (Laws 7.804c-806c)
About the author: A research scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University, Adrienne Mayor is the author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014) and The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.