Women were always infiltrating armies, sometimes as women, sometimes as men. Currently, the American armed forces welcome them under their own names and gender but don't quite know what to do with them. A long-standing wrangle continues in undertones: Should they be allowed into actual combat, or stay at headquarters to answer the phones?
A recent Speaker of the House of Representatives declared that women are by nature unsuited to combat, since if they stayed too long in the trenches they'd develop diseases peculiar to the female organs, and if it came to hand-to-hand combat, they wouldn't have the upper-body strength to wrestle the foe to the ground.
He was rather a pudgy sort of Speaker who had managed not to go to war personally, but you could see his shining vision of it, war as a man's world, test of muscular strength, endurance, and courage, authenticator of manly skills, path to glory. No place for womenfolk. Suppose they heard bad language or, worse, learned to use it? Suppose they got killed or, worse, killed someone? Women have been known to kill in personal matters or, like mother bears, in defense of the den and cubs, but to have them leave home and go out to kill strangers, for impersonal reasons of state, is strangely repulsive. How would you feel if your mother did something like that? Women on the battlefield are there to nurse the wounds, not to cause them.
The whole subject is distasteful and people tiptoe around it, talking nonsense. The few women who insist on training for combat jobs report harassment at all levels, and their gentlemen comrades never invite them to come along for a drink after work and never forget their smallest error.
Women are supposed to be less aggressive than men, and for the most part they do start out that way. Mothers watching a hatch of siblings can see that the girls are more likely to wheedle, negotiate, or weep, while the boys snatch and kick shins. What men experience as a fine, invigorating adrenaline rush, women feel as fear, and react prudently; what men see as a challenge, women see as a chance to get hurt. The difference may be only skin deep, though, and reversible. A few victories early in life, or a basically combative nature, a noble cause or a homeland to protect, and women march into battle. After Waterloo, one soldier wrote, "Many females were found amongst the slain." In the sixteenth century a Danish women's unit led by the widow Kenau Hasselaer fought the Spanish army "with great endurance and bravery at the siege of Haarlem." As a commissioned officer in the Irish Citizens' Army, one Constance Markievwicz led the rebels into battle in the 1916 Easter Rising, and in 1973 the Cumann na mbann, an all-girl terrorist combat unit, was formed under the IRA. In World War II the Russian sniper Tania Chernova killed two dozen Germans with great relish, blew up the German headquarters, and killed an SS agent in a hand-to-hand scuffle.
Mostly, though, they slipped through unnoticed. Nobody can count the women warriors, because unless they were rich and well-connected they went in disguise, chopping their hair short and slipping off to the Crusades without saying goodbye. Sometimes they were discovered. More often, probably, they weren't.
Here and there we catch a glimpse of women important enough to go to war under their own names, though it's rarely more than a glimpse, as if the historians averted their eyes politely from a spectacle so unseemly. Some of them are dismissed as mythical.
The Amazon River was named by the sixteenth-century explorer Francisco de Orellana, who said the fierce Tapuyan women there fought side by side with their men. The myth of the warrior Amazons, if it is a myth, has been wonderfully durable. Skeptical historians claim that originally it was part of a funny story about a topsy-turvy world where everything was backwards, like whistling women and crowing hens, but the tale took root and grew.
In Greek mythology, the Amazons cut off their daughters' right breasts so they wouldn't interfere with the bowstring. In the Iliad, they live in Phrygia and Lycia, where Priam meets them. One story goes that their queen, Penthesileia, brought a regiment of her warriors from Thrace to help Priam, and got killed by Achilles. In the story of Hercules, one of his labors was to get his hands on their queen's girdle, after which he easily conquered them.
The Scythians called them Oeorpata, "man-killers." It was said that they mated with men of other peoples, kept the daughters, and sent the sons back to their fathers, having no use for them. It was said that Alexander the Great was plagued by an Amazon who wanted to have a child by him.
Amazons invaded Greece itself. According to the highly unreliable historian Herodotus, the Greeks defeated them at the river Thermodon and took as many prisoners on board their ship as they could possibly squeeze in. Once at sea, the prisoners killed off their captors but, not knowing the first thing about ships, blew ashore at Cremni on Lake Maeotis. They landed, and seized themselves a herd of horses, and rode off in search of plunder.
The local Scythians were so impressed they decided they wanted children mothered by these fierce females. Craftily, they picked a detachment of handsome young men and sent them off to camp near the Amazons, with instructions not to fight but to run away when attacked. And every day they moved their camp a little closer. Presently the inevitable happened, friendships were struck up, and the two camps merged in amity. Herodotus says the men were quite unable to learn the Amazon language, but the women quickly picked up theirs.
The Scythian suitors begged their ladies to come home with them, where they had property, and settle down to a respectable married life. "The Amazons replied, 'We and the women of your nation could never live together; our ways are too much at variance. We are riders; our business is with the bow and the spear, and we know nothing of women's work; but in your country no woman has anything to do with such things-your women stay at home in their wagons occupied with feminine tasks, and never go out to hunt or for any other purpose. We could not possibly agree.'"
After further debate, it was decided that the Scythian men would go home and pack up as much of their possessions as they could carry, and come back, abandoning their home commitments and casting their lot with their ferocious brides. The women said that since they'd done so much damage to the populace where they were, they'd have to settle elsewhere. So they traveled east for three days and then north for three more, and claimed the land they found. Here, the women kept to their old ways, hunting and fighting, either with or without their menfolk, wearing men's clothes, and making their own laws. (We aren't told who changed diapers and washed dishes, but we can guess.) One of their stricter laws "forbids a girl to marry until she has killed an enemy in battle; some of their women, unable to fulfil this condition, grow old and die unmarried."
Naturally the whole story has to be fiction, though as of this writing, archaeologists are still trying to figure out why the Scythian women were buried with quite such heavy-duty armor and weaponry; they think perhaps it had some abstract ceremonial significance. Still, for mythical creatures, Amazons certainly hoodwinked a number of influential people and picked up a lot of convincing details on their travels through history.
The Romans were fanatically methodical and organized and wrote everything down, which would be a blessing for the historian if they hadn't written such outrageous lies about their own nobleness and their enemies' sliminess, and shredded all records to the contrary. The smear job they did on Cleopatra is a fine example and still convinces most people, with a little help from art and Hollywood.
The Cleopatra we inherited from Roman propagandists is the ultimate siren, eyes made up like a raccoon, as in the 1917 Theda Bara movie, dressed in diaphanous scarves or, in romantic nineteenth-century paintings, nothing but an asp. She is pure sexual temptation, forever famous as poor, infatuated Antony's downfall. Contemporary Romans claimed Antony was only one of thousands of lovers; they said she was "the wickedest woman in the world," utterly degenerate, sexually insatiable, and a physical wreck from making love to her slaves all day and drinking herself sick all night. (Being Romans, they assumed this is what any unsupervised woman would do.)
Among the upper classes in Rome, women were used like markers in a card game. Whenever an alliance went sour and a new friendship replaced it, which was once a month or so, all parties concerned were expected to divorce their current wives, who were relatives of their former allies, and marry the sisters and daughters of their new friends. Sometimes there were tears and lamentations, sometimes rejoicing, or the odd case of suspected poisoning, but mostly people did as they were told. Out in the hinterlands beyond Rome, though, Romans occasionally stubbed their toe on a woman outside the system who did whatever she pleased, and it made them nervous.
Cleopatra was born in 69 b.c., third child of Ptolemy XII, and her early years were instructive. Her father, called the Flute Player, was quite useless; his subjects paid no attention to him, and he kept having to go to Rome to borrow money to put down rebellions. Probably he took Cleopatra along, when she was twelve. In any event, she early absorbed the fact that Rome's friendship was the top priority of the day, and that paying cash for Roman protection was emptying the treasury, and perhaps there was a less expensive way to their hearts. She also learned not to trust her immediate family an inch.
While the Flute Player was off begging in Rome, his oldest daughter grabbed the throne, and then somehow got assassinated, and the second daughter grabbed it, so her father had to bring some Roman help and execute her. This left Cleopatra as the eldest, and not much got past her. Somehow she found herself an education, something her family had never been interested in; the Arab historian Al-Masudi, unaffected by Roman propaganda, called her "a princess well versed in the sciences, disposed to the study of philosophy." Plutarch says she spoke nine or ten languages, including the language of her Egyptian subjects, which no other Ptolemy had ever condescended to learn. (They were Macedonian Greeks and proud of it.)
When she was eighteen the Flute Player died and left Egypt to her and her ten-year-old brother and fianc?, Ptolemy XIII. Little Ptolemy was under the thumb of an ambitious court eunuch named Potinus, who started ordering everyone around, took control of the army, and drove young Cleo clear out of town.
Rome was the traditional place to look for help, and happily Rome showed up on the doorstep, in the person of Julius Caesar, who'd sailed to Alexandria hoping to collect some of the Flute Player's debts. Cleopatra needed a word with him. She had herself wrapped up in some bedding and delivered to Caesar as merchandise, under the nose of Potinus's guards.
Caesar was charmed by her wit and resourcefulness, and presently quite undone by the pleasure of her company. (George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra gives us a version that would have pleased the most slanderous Roman historian, with a wise and fatherly Caesar and a very young and silly little queen, but this is absurd. She was merry company, it's said, but never silly. You could get killed being silly.) Using her best blandishments, she persuaded Rome's most powerful leader to kill Potinus, bring the rebellious army into line, and patch things up with her brother to cement her position.
All of which he did, at considerable effort and expense. Shortly thereafter, Ptolemy XIII, smartly dressed in heavy golden armor, was found drowned in the Nile. (Perhaps his foot slipped on the bank or something.) So Caesar married her to her surviving brother, Ptolemy XIV, who was only twelve and easily ignored, and there was our heroine in the driver's seat and pregnant with Caesar's only child, a wise career move. (Caesar, with a stern and warlike image to maintain, never publicly confessed to fatherhood, but he didn't deny it either.)
She called the baby Caesarion and took him to Rome, where they were Caesar's guests, and fabulous parties were thrown, and the besotted leader indiscreetly put up a golden statue of her in the temple, causing a scandal that fueled the plots against him.
Alas, he wasn't so besotted as to name Caesarion his heir. Instead he picked his great-nephew Octavius, of whom we shall hear more later. Cleo took the baby back to Alexandria where, shortly thereafter, yet another family tragedy struck and her husband-brother met an untimely end. No one seems quite sure what ailed him.
She named the baby co-ruler and settled down to run the country.
Poets and playwrights ignore the following years, since there was no famous lover involved, nor, apparently, even a casual bedmate. Certainly the records we inherited from Rome wouldn't tell us she was just and wise and shrewd and the first of her line to be loved and admired by her subjects. Here and there the voice of a non-Roman historian creeps in, though, and we learn that she'd inherited a bankrupt and rebellious kingdom and turned it into the richest state in the Mediterranean, and even traditionally quarrelsome Alexandria lived in peace and harmony. Her aqueducts and other engineering projects were praised; grain was distributed free to the poor in times of hunger; her foreign alliances held firm; the budget was balanced. It was said, in countries far from Rome, that she was a messiah sent to free the world from Roman rule and establish a golden age of peace and plenty.
This is not Hollywood's Cleopatra, or history's either: a ruler ahead of her time, negotiating profitable trade deals, meeting with ambassadors, and adjusting taxes to relieve the poor. After the trouble with Potinus, it's reasonable to suppose she trusted no prime ministers and burned the midnight oil alone. If we had the uncensored records, she might stand shoulder to shoulder with Elizabeth I in the history books, instead of lolling in asses' milk and dying for love.
So prosperous had she made her country that presently another Roman leader came to call, looking for money so he could invade Parthia.
Excerpted from They Went Whistling by Barbara Holland. Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Holland. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.