Roman Interpretations of the Amazons through Literature and Art

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by Erin W. Leal
published on 22 March 2012

Modern historians and classicists have studied the ancient Greeks’ use of Amazon mythology extensively and exhaustively. Their analysis of the Amazon in literature and artwork has contributed to a better understanding of Greek society, culture, and the mindset of those ancient people. Next to nothing, however, has been written about the ancient Romans’ use of the legends of the Amazons and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn about why Amazons appear as they do in the literature and artwork of Imperial Rome. This study draws primarily on my analysis of extant literature and art from the beginning of the reign of Augustus in 27 BCE to the end of reign of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE.

Following the chaos and disharmony of the Roman Republic’s Civil Wars, the Amazon was a popular character in the Imperial age of Rome and was used to discuss the creation of identity for the Roman people, though that identity changed over time. The extant sources discussing Amazon imagery survive mostly in two types. The documents are comprised of the literature of Virgil, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Curtius, Plutarch, Arrian, and Pausanius, all written from around 9 CE until 180 CE, which advocated the greatness of the Roman Empire and also the persona of the Emperor. Public and privately displayed artwork also used the Amazon imagery for statues, pediment reliefs, sarcophagi, mosaics, pottery, and jewelry. The Amazon in Roman literature and art is the Trojan ally, the warrior goddess, the native Latin, the warmongering Celt, the proud Sarmatian, the hedonistic and passionate Thracian warrior queen, the subdued Asian city, and the worthy Roman foe. Amazons appear as part of a changing imperial program in which military and political achievement is intertwined with social identity, public memory, and the imperial ideology of that particular time.

Chapter One explores the origins of the Amazon myth, how it was implemented in Greek society, and modern interpretations of the Hellenic use. Chapter Two analyzes how Amazon mythology was used by Romans during the reign of Augustus as part of a literary and artistic vehicle that, like their Greek predecessors, the Romans used to unite their people against a commonly-held enemy. Chapter Three delves into how Romans used Amazons as personifications of both nature and religion. Chapter Four follows how Romans use encounters with Amazons as indicators of larger societal characteristics, both positive and negative.

This thesis analyzes these sources based on time period, thematic repetitions and devices, homage of more ancient sources, contemporary events, location of images, and the style of the Amazon representations in an attempt to discern why the Amazon imagery was used instead of another mythic figure and what possible result the author/creator might be trying to generate. A close examination of these sources suggests that there are trends in the use of the Amazon mythology that reflect the broader interests and contemporary problems of the Roman Empire.

Master’s Thesis, San Diego State University, 2010



Written by , linked by Jan van der Crabben, published 22 March 2012. Source URL: http://sdsu-dspace.calstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10211.10/523/Leal_Erin.pdf?sequence....

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