Book review

WONDER Woman, as all fans of DC Comics know, is supposed to be a Princess of the Amazons. No, not the indigenous people of the Brazilian rainforests, but the race of warrior women famous in Greek mythology. According to DC Comics mythology, she was given her superhuman powers by the Greek gods.

The film starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in cinemas now. So York historian Paul Chrystal's new book about the real warrior women of the ancient world is perfectly timed.

Paul, an inveterate collector of old photos and postcards, is best known for his photographic books of local history.

But he studied Latin and Greek at university, and the classics have always been one of his passions.

Women at War in the Classical World is a scholarly, carefully-indexed account of, well, the part women played in war in ancient Greece and Rome.

There's a section on the Greek goddesses - such as fiery, intelligent Athena, and Hera, wife of Zeus - who, in Greek myth, played a major part in the wars of men. There are chapters on the women in Homer - from Helen of Troy, whose face famously launched a thousand ships, to Briseis and Chryseis, Trojan women captured by the Greeks in The Iliad and treated as the spoils of wear. And there are chapters on the role women played in war in Roman times.

But, perhaps most significantly, given the release of Wonder Woman, there's also a section on the Amazons - the 'best known female wagers of war in classical history and mythology', as Paul puts it.

So who were they? Well, we don't really know: they're at lest semi-mythical. But according to various ancient Greek historians and writers, from Herodotus to Hippocrates, they were warrior women from the grasslands of central Asia. Hippocrates left this description: "In Europe is a Scythian race (ie from the central Eurasian steppes)...Their women, when they are still virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin on horseback, and fight with their enemies.. They do not surrender their virginity until they have killed at lest three of their enemies..."

Oh, and one other thing. According to various sources - including Hippocrates, the classical Greek doctor famed as the originator of the 'Hippocratic oath', they only had one breast. They cut off their right breasts so they could more easily shoot arrows from horseback.

Not Wonder Woman though. Who's have thought it, a Hollywood blockbuster playing fast and loose with the facts?

  • Women at War in the Classical World by Paul Chrystal (Pen and Sword, £25)