Women and war in ancient Greece
Ancient Greece was divided into smaller city-states, and the role of women varied from city to city. For example, women in Sparta generally had more rights and higher status than women in Athens. However, all of Greece seems to have agreed that violence and war just wasn’t for women. You could have Amazons and goddesses fight in mythology. But regular Greek women? Not a chance.
At the same time, wars were getting gradually more brutal in Greece. Earlier, in the Archaic period, a war could mean that the armies of two cities met at an agreed-upon location and battled it out until whatever dispute they had was solved. Later, with conflicts like the Peloponnesian war in the 5th century BC, the city-states started using whatever methods they could to crush their enemies. That included invading cities and often enslaving or killing the inhabitants.
And this is where things just didn't add up to me before. Could women, children and slaves really stay away from the hostilities, like they were expected to, when their whole community and very existence was threatened? Did they just sit and do nothing when their city was invaded, hoping that the soldiers would save them from slavery, sexual violence and/or death?
There are several accounts from ancient historians that show that the answer to those questions often was “no”. When the situation got desperate, the whole community seems to have taken part in defending itself. But what can you do against heavily armed soldiers when you have neither the weapons, the armor or the training to match them? Well, you can throw roof tiles.
Roof tiles: rain protection and skullcrusher
Roof tiles have been used for thousands of year and covered the roofs of many ancient cities to prevent fires. That they also could be used as projectiles when things got tough was probably not something they thought about when installing them. That was more of a bonus.
One of the earliest examples of roof tiles being used in this manner is described by the ancient historian Thucydides. He writes how soldiers from Thebes managed to sneak into the city of Plataea, early on in the Peloponnesian war. They hoped the city would surrender when they realized the soldiers were already inside. Instead, the townsfolk blocked the streets, trapping the Thebians. Then the women and children bombarded them with roof tiles and rocks while the men fought in the streets. The Thebians quickly abandoned their plan for conquest and focused solely on getting out of the city alive. Very few of them actually did.
You see this pattern several times through the centuries. If you ever invade a city during ancient times, roof tiles will come flying at you. In the earliest sources, the authors are often shocked that women could be so violent. They write that it’s “against their nature” or find it kind of amusing that “the strongest can be defeated by the weakest” when trained soldiers had to retreat under a barrage of roof tiles. Later on, the sources seems to be more used to the fact that people will defend themselves when pushed into desperate situations, regardless of gender.
Interestingly enough, later sources that mention these incidents also start to use more gender-neutral terms to describe the roof tile throwers. Words like “the people” or “a mob” instead of “women”. There could be several reasons for this. One could be that the nature of cities themselves changed. Earlier, if you were an adult man in a city, you were by definition part of the army there. Meaning you'd be on the ground fighting the enemy. Later, we start to see professional armies and more men in cities that aren’t soldiers. Meaning they would join the other civilians on the roofs to pelt invaders during these incidents.
A mother's lethal love
The most famous victim of a thrown roof tile is probably king Pyrrhus of Epirus. The man who the expression “Pyrrhic victory” was coined after - when your victory was so bad you might as well have lost. In the year 272 BC, he tried to take the city of Argos. The plan seemed good in theory. A traitor would open the gates at night and Pyrrhus’ army would sneak in, surprising the defenders. According to the historian Plutarch, things instead quickly descended into chaos, with wild street fighting, soldiers that didn’t know what to do and elephants that were running amok in the packed streets.
As Pyrrhus tried to get control of the situation, he was wounded by an enemy soldier. He turned to cut down his assailant, but didn’t know that this particular soldier’s mother was watching from a nearby roof. When she saw that her son was in danger, she picked up a heavy roof tile and tossed it at the king. It hit him straight in the neck and either killed him immediately or knocked him unconscious, and he fell off his horse. If he died or not doesn’t make much difference as his head was cut off a minute or so later when the soldiers on the ground realized who was now lying motionless on the ground before them.
And that is how the odd combination motherly love and roof tiles changed the course of history. It’s also a nice example of how women (and roof tiles) have had a larger impact on history than you might get the impression of when reading through many history books.
As mentioned, the two stories here come from the ancient historians Thucydides and Plutarch. If you want to know more about this subject, a good place to start is the article Roof Tiles and Urban Violence In the Ancient World by William D. Barry that is easy to find online. There you'll find a list of incidents like these mentioned in ancient sources.
Check out some more of my Warrior Rabbits of History!
Always Wear Your Helmet. In the opening of The Lord of the Rings, Hugo Weaving has his off. I know why, you don't pay for a face and then cover it, but the Pyrrus story is all I can think about when I watch that. And when I see pictures of American soldiers with the chin straps to their helmets unbuckled, my inner sergeant wants to start shouting at them!
Haha, that's very true! I think Pyrrhus actually did wear his helmet, but the roof tile hit him just below it. When I first read Plutarch's description, I thought it said that Pyrrhus took off his helmet. But reading it again, I think he just removed some kind of ornament on the helmet that would make him more recognizable.
Heck, you need that approach with anything happening now. Amazing what selective editing can do to a news broadcast. However, I think Pyrrus died just as described. I just threw in the father of lies thing because it was too good to ignore. Since Pyrrus, first cousin of Alexander, knew his way around a battlefield I doubt he had his helmet off. Helmets help but they don't confer invulnerability. Hannibal once rated Pyrrus as one of the great generals, and he should know.
The whole story sounds pretty plausible to me - though Plutarch probably took artistic liberties with all the details is my guess. I also agree that Pyrrhus was a smart guy when it came to war, so he probably didn't take his helmet off unless forced to for some reason.
Like Alexander, we have very little first hand info on his life. There is no telling what was lost over millennia, and I think that we only know of Pyrrus through anecdotes and references in the surviving histories. It is also possible that his death was so described as a historical irony, or that may be a garbled version of what happened. He may have been struck with the tile after he was killed, and eyewitnesses turned in the usual overheated stories. Whatever happened I think it says volumes about his character that he was in the heat of the battle, no doubt in front. Fighting in cities is fraught with problems, even Epaminondas, when he had Sparta in his grasp, was content with freeing the helots and moving on, I imagine he knew that he had demonstrated that Sparta was no longer a power to worry about. He could have wiped the city out, and they sure had it coming.
Yeah, it's kind of frustrating that we will never know the truth about most things in history. All we can do is look at the few sources we have and try to figure out if they sound plausible. My thought with Pyrrhus is that maybe he was killed or knocked down by a random roof tile while a larger group of citizens were pelting the invaders. And it just makes it a better story to establish that emotional connection and have it be someone's mother saving her son from the king.