by Adrienne Mayor (monthly contributor)
Modern books and blogs about ancient Celtic warrior women include the story of “Chiomaca,” the wife of Ortiagon, a chieftain of the Gauls (Celts) in the second century BC in Asia Minor (now Turkey). The modern writers claim that Chiomaca “fought and bravely killed a Roman centurion in 186 BC.” But what is the true story?
If we go back to the original ancient accounts, we can set the record straight. First, we learn that this woman’s name was not Chiomaca but Chiomara. She was captured by the Romans in 189 BC (not 186 BC), after Gnaeus Manlius Vulso’s army defeated the Galatians, Greco-Gauls who had settled in Asia Minor. The ancient sources are Plutarch Bravery of Women, Polybius; Livy; Valerius Maximus; and Florus. According to the ancient accounts, Chiomara did not fight in the battle. She was captured along with other Galatian women and slaves. She was raped by a centurion. The centurion then demanded a ransom from Chiomara’s husband Ortiagon. Chiomara, who had been captured with her slave, was allowed to dispatch her slave with the demand for ransom. Ortiagon sent two Galatians to deliver the ransom. The centurion released Chiomara but insisted on embracing her. While his back was turned, either counting the gold or embracing her, Chiomara gave the Galatians a signal to kill the centurion. Chiomara then wrapped the Roman’s head in her robe and delivered it to her husband, saying “Only one man alive should have me.”
It is fascinating to trace how the false tales about Chiomara came to be perpetuated. No ancient Greek or Roman historian ever described Chiomara taking part in the battle, yet typical modern accounts state that in 186 BC the Gaulish soldiers retreated but “Chiomaca stood her ground and killed several Roman soldiers before she was captured [and] raped by a centurion. Later she escaped, found the officer, cut his head off, and presented it to her husband,” writes David Jones in Women Warriors: A History (Potomac Books, 1997, rpt. 2000, 2005), p. 148. Jones incorrectly cites his source as Norma Goodrich, Medieval Myths (1977). In fact, Jones found the story in Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s popular Encyclopedia of Amazons (Paragon House, 1991, p. 57). which states: “Chiomaca: A martial princess of the Gauls . . . captured . . . in 186 BC. . . . She refused to leave the battlefield but raged on with her few companions. When captured, she was raped by a centurion. She subsequently killed the centurion and chopped off his head which she delivered to her husband.” Salmonson’s source was Sarah Hale’s 1855 book, Women’s Record: or Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from Creation to A.D. 1854 (Harper & Bros., 1855, p. 30). In 1855, Sarah Hale spelled Chiomara’s name correctly but she said nothing about Chiomara taking part in the battle. Hale gave an embellished account of the delivery of the ransom. Hale says that the Galatians killed the centurion as he accepted the gold and but she claims it was Chiomara who cut off his head and presented it to her husband.
The truth is that the historical Chiomara did not participate in combat, nor did she behead the Roman centurion herself. But the ancient Greek and Latin sources do tell us that she was a brave and resourceful woman.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is the author of The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, nonfiction finalist 2009 National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014).