FILM: RAN (1985)


Ran is a Japanese-French war film/period tragedy directed, edited, and co-written by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear and the legends surrounding daimyō Mōri Motonari. The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord who abdicates for his three sons—with disastrous results.


Akira Kurosawa first conceived of the idea for the film that would become Ran (Japanese for “chaos” or “discord”) in the early 1970s, when he read about Mōri Motonari (1497–1571), a powerful daimyō in the Chūgoku region of Japan who is remembered as one of the greatest warlords of the Sengoku period (mid-16th century). Though a brilliant diplomat and strategist, Motonari is best known for an event that probably never happened: the “lesson of the three arrows,” a parable that Motonari illustrated by giving each of his three sons an arrow to break. He then gave them three arrows bundled together and pointed out that although one may be easily broken, three bundled together are impossible to break. Motonari actually had nine sons (two of whom died in childhood) but most prominent of them were the three sons the parable concerns: Mōri Takamoto (1523–1563), Kikkawa Motoharu (1530–1586), and Kobayakawa Takakage (1533–1597). Formulating a scenario that could generate real drama, Kurosawa imagined trouble among the three brothers rather than unity and reasonableness. As he later told an interviewer, “What might their story be like, I wondered, if the sons had not been so good? It was only after I was well into writing the script about these imaginary unfilial sons of the Mōri clan that the similarities to [Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy, King] Lear occurred to me. Since the story is set in medieval Japan, the protagonist’s children had to be men; to divide a realm among daughters would have been unthinkable” (Grilli, 2008, p. 126). Kurosawa and two co-writers—Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide—had a draft of a screenplay completed by 1975, but Kurosawa would not be able to arrange financing for an expensive, large-scale epic set in medieval Japan for another seven years. In the meantime, he painted storyboards of every shot in Ran and made Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980), the latter of which he described as a “dress rehearsal” for Ran. In 1982 Kurosawa finally secured funding for Ran from two sources: Japanese producer Masatoshi Hara (Herald Ace Productions) and French producer Serge Silberman (Greenwich Film Productions). After the box office success of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), Silberman was able to put up most of the money needed to back Ran, which ended up costing ¥2.4 billion (i.e., $12 million), the most expensive Japanese film produced up to that time. Kurosawa cast Tatsuya Nakadai (who played the dual lead roles in Kagemusha) as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord based on Mōri Motonari who decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons. Prior to production, several hundred elaborate costumes had to be created by hand, an arduous process that took two years to complete. Pre-production also involved extensive location scouting and set construction, for example, a castle destroyed in the middle of the movie had to be specially built on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to be burned down.


Akira Kurosawa was 75 years old when he directed Ran (June 1984–February 1985) and was nearly blind when the initial photography started. He required assistance in order to frame his shots, and his assistants used hundreds of his storyboard paintings as templates to construct and film scenes. Almost the entire film is done in long shot, with only a handful of close-ups. An enormous undertaking, Ran used some 1,400 extras, 1,400 suits of armor (designed by Kurosawa himself), and 200 horses, some of them imported from the United States. Over his long career, Kurosawa worked with the same crew of technicians and assistants. Toward the end of the shoot, Kurosawa lost two of his old stalwarts. In January 1985, Fumio Yamoguchi, the sound recordist on nearly all of Kurosawa’s films since 1949, and Ryu Kuze, action coordinator on many of them, died within a few days of each other. A month later (1 February 1985), Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, Yôko Yaguchi, also died. Kurosawa halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.

Plot Summary

[Act I] Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a powerful warlord near the end of his life, decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). The oldest son, Taro, is bequeathed the sought-after First Castle and is named commander of the Ichimonji clan. Jiro and Saburo are given the Second and Third Castles, respectively. Hidetora retains his title of Great Lord, and the two younger sons are expected to rally behind Taro. Saburo calls his father a fool, stating that he can’t expect loyalty from sons who grew up watching their father use the most cruel, heartless methods for power and domination. Hidetora is threatened by his son, but his servant, Tango (Masayuki Yui), defends Saburo. Hidetora responds by exiling both men. Nobuhiro Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), a visiting warlord, sees Saburo’s fervor and forthrightness and asks him to wed his daughter. [Act II] After Hidetora divides his remaining lands between Jiro and Saburo, Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), encourages Taro to gain control of the entire clan. Emboldened, Taro tells Hidetora to give up his title of Great Lord. Hidetora, now betrayed by two sons, runs to Jiro’s castle only to discover that Jiro plans to use him in his own scheme for power and influence. Unsure of where to go, Hidetora and his company depart from Jiro’s castle. Tango finds his father and informs Hidetora of Taro’s new decree: anyone who assists Hidetora will be sentenced to death. Hidetora flees to Saburo’s castle, which was left empty when Saburo went into exile. [Act III] Hidetora and his samurais are attacked by Taro’s and Jiro’s forces. In the ensuing battle, almost all of Hidetora’s men are killed and the Third Castle is set on fire. Hidetora, alone and losing his mind, leaves the castle as it is consumed by flames. During the siege on the castle, Taro is killed by a bullet from Jiro’s general, Shuri Kurogane’s (Hisashi Igawa) gun. Meanwhile, Hidetora wanders the wilderness and is found by Tango, who tries to assist him. The pair take shelter in a peasant’s home, but realize that the peasant is Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), the brother of Lady Sué (Yoshiko Miyazaki), Jiro’s wife. Tsurumaru was a victim of Hidetora’s regime: he was blinded and left for dead after Hidetora murdered his father and conquered their land. [Act IV] After Taro’s death, Jiro takes on the title of the Great Lord, moving into the First Castle and commanding the Ichimonji clan. Jiro returns to the castle to find Lady Kaede, unbothered by Taro’s death, waiting to blackmail Jiro into an affair. Lady Kaede uses her influence with Jiro to call for Lady Sué’s death. Jiro orders Kurogane to carry out the task, but he declines, stating that Kaede will be the ruin of both Jiro and the clan. Kurogane runs to tell Sué and Tsurumaru to leave. Meanwhile, two ronin are captured by Tango, who coerces them to reveal plans for assassinating Hidetora. Tango leaves to share the news with Saburo. Hidetora is overtaken by madness and runs off into a volcanic plain while Kyoami (Pîtâ) runs after him. Saburo and Jiro meet on the battlefield and agree on a truce, and Saburo becomes concerned by the report of his father’s onset of madness. While Saburo meets with Kyoami and takes 10 warriors along to rescue Hidetora, Jiro takes advantage of the situation and sends gunners to ambush his brother and father. Jiro also attacks Saburo’s army, which falls back into the woods as the soldiers go on the defensive. As the family is warring, a messenger shares news that Ayabe, a rival lord, is headed towards the First Castle. At the same time, Saburo locates Hidetora, and the father experiences a reprieve from his insanity and begins to heal his relationship with his son. However, in the midst of the reconciliation, one of Jiro’s snipers kills Saburo. Hidetora dies out of sadness. Fujimaki arrives with his troops to see Tango and Kyoami grieving. [Act V] In the meantime, Tsurumaru and Sué get to the ruined castle, but realize that they forgot a flute at Tsurumaru’s home, one that Sué had gifted to Tsurumaru at the time of his banishment. She goes back for the flute, but is discovered and murdered by one of Jiro’s assassins. Simultaneously, Ayabe’s army attacks the First Castle. When Kurogane hears that Lady Sué has been killed by Jiro’s assassin, he corners Kaede and pushes her for information. She comes clean about her plot to obliterate Hidetora and his clan to avenge the deaths of her family members. Kurogane decapitates Kaede for her treachery. As Ayabe’s army overtakes the First Castle, Jiro, Kurogane, and all of Jiro’s men are killed. Tsurumaru is left amidst the rubble, alone.


Ran had its world premiere in Tokyo on 25 May 1985. It was subsequently screened at a number of film festivals before going into staggered general release in about two dozen countries. Ran did not do very well at the box office, initially making only enough to break even. It did, however, receive Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design (which it won), among many other international nominations and awards. Reviews were, for the most part, adulatory. Vincent Canby wrote, “Though big in physical scope and of a beauty that suggests a kind of drunken, barbaric lyricism, Ran has the terrible logic and clarity of a morality tale seen in tight close-up, of a myth that, while being utterly specific and particular in its time and place, remains ageless, infinitely adaptable … Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion” (Canby, 1985). Roger Ebert called the film “visually magnificent” and said he realized on seeing it again in 2000 that “the action doesn’t center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil” (Ebert, 2000). Decades after its release, most film critics and scholars view Ran as Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

Reel History Versus Real History

The story that Ran tells is, of course, entirely fictional. One can only judge its historical accuracy in terms of its depictions of medieval Japanese castles; the look, dress, and demeanor of the Ichimonji clan; the conduct in battle of the samurai; etc. On these counts, Ran has extraordinary verisimilitude.



“Askari” was a term applied to local Africans who served in European colonial forces. The entomology of the word comes from the Arabic word soldier and, as it was most commonly used in the eastern African context, reflects the mixed Swahili culture of the region. The term also means someone who is “locally recruited,” which carries special import in terms of Africans recruited from the colonies to serve European interests. The importance of the askari to the colonial project underscores the true nature of imperialism. Despite the claims of imperialists that European success was due to their cultural, racial, or technological superiority, the reality of most colonial conquest underscores European dependence on Africans to accomplish the aims of imperialism. For example, the famous colonial standoff at Fashoda, in that the French force consisted of seven Frenchmen and around 140 Senegalese, illustrates this reliance. African askari were of critical importance to nearly all of the colonial powers, although the manner in which they were organized and employed was as varied as the colonizers themselves.

What was common to the colonizers, at least initially, was a firm belief in a hierarchy of “martial races” that meant Africans from certain communities were seen as naturally good soldiers for the Europeans. Not only were these races deemed strong and hearty (useful qualities in any soldier), but also they were considered most willing to obey European officers. Often, this led to common recruitment practices as Europeans attempted to maximize their use of these martial races. Prized for their effectiveness against the forces of the Egyptian Khedive, and later against Europeans under the Mahdi, were Sudanese troops. Sudanese were recruited by both the British and the Germans, for example, to staff their initial forces. Even after such common recruiting practices went away, largely due to the solidification of colonial divisions, this belief in racial or ethnic hierarchy was sim- ply transferred to the specific colony or colonial holdings of the respective powers. Beyond racial categorization, askari often would be recruited on ethnic lines to ensure the connection of one people, group, or region to the colonizers. The very nature of recruitment was designed to divide and conquer the colony.

African soldiers were often utilized in regions not connected to their ethnic background to ensure that there would be no chance of common cause between colonial troops and African civilians. These tactics underscore that the role of the askari was as much about internal security as about de- fending the colony from foreign threats. Beyond such racial and political justifications were the practical matter that utilizing African troops made colonial conquest and administration far less costly in money and European lives. Every askari in a colonial force lowered the monetary cost of administration, as well as the risk to European troops, who often suffered mightily from the African climate and African diseases.

As Belgium’s King Leopold II served as one of the major catalyzing agents for the Scramble for Africa, it is unsurprising that his Force Publique (FP) employed askari. Leopold’s force reflected the views of the “martial race,” with his force initially recruiting heavily from the Sudan. Of the initial 2,000 askari, for example, only 111 were Congolese. Only in the 1890s were local chiefs required to produce recruits for ser vice to fill out the ranks. During the period of personal rule, the line between soldier and mercenary was thin, with the askari more readily employed as overseers to punish those African civilians who did not meet their rubber quotas. Famously, the Belgians went out of their way to recruit cannibals in order to heighten the potential terror of their troops. The largest action of the FP was during the Congo- Arab War, to repress Arab population centers along the Lualaba River. The war involved a massive number of African troops as the FP absorbed mercenaries and irregulars into their forces to quell the Arab states. After a three- year war, the Belgians were able to defeat the remaining Arab positions and solidify their control over the Free State. After the Belgian government acquired the colony, the askari became a more regularized force, both in weaponry and organization, which enabled the FP to acquit themselves in Africa during World War I.

In the British case, the use of Africans to fight for British interests was originally an ad-hoc affair. Frederick Lugard helped create the Central African Rifles and Uganda Rifles when serving the interests of British companies attempting to solidify their hold over the African interior. Eventually these ad- hoc units, as well as the East African Rifles, combined to form the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in 1902. The KAR served with distinction in colonial campaigns in Somalia and the German East Africa campaign of World War I. Lugard was also responsible for the creation of the askari forces in the British possessions in West Africa. He was the founding commander of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), which was an amalgamation of a number of ad- hoc units in West Africa. This force was organized in order to protect Nigeria’s hinterland from French encroachment. Lugard utilized the force, however, to conquer the Sokoto caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria. The WAFF fought in World War I in Africa and was renamed the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) in 1928.

Despite the common utilization of the term askari, it is most readily associated with the German Schutztruppe (Protective Force) of the respective German colonies. Like other colonial forces, these units were created out of necessity to meet the needs of the imperial venture. In 1888, after suffering under the exploitive rule of Carl Peters and his German East Africa Company, Africans led an uprising against the company that took over nearly the entire coast. The German government, in responding to this threat against their interests, sent a force under the command of Hermann von Wissmann to repress the revolt. Originally, this Wissmann-Truppe consisted of a polyglot assembly of Africans (600 Sudanese, 100 Zulu from Mozambique, 80 East Africans, and 40 Somali), in line with the common European attitude of the martial races. The Sudanese were deemed the bravest soldiers with some Germans referring to them as “black lansquenets” in homage to the Germanic mercenary soldiers. This force, which was used to crush the rebel- lion, was then made the official protective force of East Africa by the German government. While initially relying on foreign Africans, the Schutztruppe shifted to utilizing locally recruited Africans (in other words, askari), primarily from the Nyamwezi people located in western Tanganyika. This region, heavily connected to the caravan culture of east Africa which required the service of young men as soldiers and porters, served as an attractive area of recruitment. While the forces in East Africa have attracted the most historic attention, largely due to their success in World War I, another primarily African Schutztruppe force was formed in German Cameroon, while an entirely white cavalry force was created in German South West Africa. These forces served as the punitive and protective force in the German colonies and then became the main fount of German resistance during World War I. Under Paul von Lettow-Vorbek, the east African Schutztruppe proved a thorn in the side of the British, as the Germans were able to conduct a guerilla campaign that tied down British imperial troops throughout the entire war.

Further Reading Jonas, Raymond. The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011. Moyd, Michelle R. Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa. Athens: Ohio University, 2014. Page, Malcolm. A History of the King’s African Rifles. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2011. Parsons, Timothy. The African rank and file: Social implications of colonial military ser- vice in the King’s African Rifles, 1902-1964. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999. Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.


In 480 BCE an army marched into Greece under the command of the Persian king Xerxes. His goal was to conquer Greece and make it part of the Persian Empire. In an unprecedented act of cooperation, many of the Greek poleis set aside their differences and formed a coalition to resist the Persian advance. An army of allies, under the command of the Spartan king Leonidas, took up position at Thermopylae, a natural choke point on a narrow coastal plain.

Leonidas was not the only Spartan king in the action. Demaratus, a former king of Sparta who had been exiled by his people, was with the Persians as an adviser to Xerxes. As the army approached the pass at Thermopylae, Xerxes consulted Demaratus about what his forces were about to face. According to Herodotus, the two kings discussed the Spartans. Xerxes compared his massive army with the small population of Sparta and was incredulous that the Spartans would dare to stand against him. Demaratus assured him that they would do so: “Their master is the law, whom they revere far more than your subjects revere you. They will do what it commands, and it always commands the same: not to flee, whatever the numbers, but to remain in their ranks and to triumph or be destroyed.” Xerxes remained unconvinced.

Once the battle began at Thermopylae, Demaratus was proven right. The Greeks held their defensive position and the narrow pass prevented the Persians from bringing their superior numbers to bear. The stalemate dragged on until the Persians finally learned of a mountain track that allowed them to send a contingent to attack the Greek position from behind. Leonidas ordered most of the allied forces to withdraw, but the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans remained behind and fought to the last man. Surveying the battlefield in the aftermath, Xerxes admitted that Demaratus had been right.

The Battle of Thermopylae has come down in legend as one of the great clashes between East and West. Framed by the conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus, it has been interpreted as a test of Western democracy against Eastern tyranny. Since the only thing more romantic than a victory is a noble defeat, Leonidas has been celebrated in forms ranging from ancient hero cult to Hollywood film.

Like most heroic legends, however, Thermopylae becomes more complicated the closer we look at it. Thermopylae was a battle, not a morality play, and the choices of both sides were dictated more by practicality than ideology. Xerxes’ large army required supplies brought across the Aegean by ship, but the Mediterranean is stormy in winter and the Persians could not risk going hungry because of a shipwrecked supply fleet. A swift conquest, before winter came, was therefore crucial to Persian strategy. The Greeks knew they could not expect the army at Thermopylae to hold the Persian forces back indefinitely. Their mission was not to die nobly but to slow down Xerxes’ advance enough to strain his supply lines and make a swift conquest impossible. When the Persians turned the Greek flank, the Greeks withdrew. Those who stayed behind may have been intended only as a covering force who would withdraw last, but they ran out of time. Despite Demaratus’ assertions to Xerxes, Spartans had been known to withdraw in the face of overwhelming forces before. If Leonidas did in fact intend to fight to the death, he had strategic reasons for doing so besides romantic heroism. The greatest danger to the Greeks was always that their alliance would fall apart over old rivalries. The Athenians in particular, whose fleet was vital, were suspicious of Sparta’s commitment to the cause. By fighting to the last, the Spartans demonstrated their resolve and helped keep the alliance intact. The events at Thermopylae reflect the realities of ancient warfare, not a test of national character.

The conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus in Herodotus’ account also mean rather less than some have made them out to. Like most such dialogues in ancient histories, they were probably pure invention. Herodotus, proud of his fellow Greeks for their resistance to Xerxes, used these exchanges to make a point, but his argument is less sweeping than a cosmic opposition between democratic Greeks and despotic Persians. First of all, Demaratus is  explicit that his praise applies only to Spartans, not all Greeks. Second, it is not freedom or democracy that Demaratus points to, but self-control. The unspoken contrast is not to Persians as a culture but to Xerxes himself, whose capricious character Herodotus explored elsewhere in detail. The trouble with the Persians was not that they had a king but that they had a bad one, and bad rulers were not unique to Persia; Greeks had had plenty of their own.

The wars between Greece and Persia in the early fifth century have been hailed as the defining clash between East and West and the spark that lit the torch of Western civilization. While the events of the war were important in the history of ancient Greece, the reality is that Greece and Persia were not so starkly opposed as many have made them out to be. Greeks and Persians had much in common, and the history of their interactions turned more on the practicalities of politics and diplomacy than on ideology. The war was a painful and complicated event that provoked many different responses, but it was no clash of civilizations.

The Greco-Persian Wars in Western History

Western scholarship up to the latter half of the twentieth century was unabashedly pro-Greek and anti-Persian. The nineteenth-century German historian Barthold Niebuhr spoke for many of his peers when he wrote: “a Persian man has never been a free and proud man. . . . At the same time the Persians are exceptionally cruel. . . . The orientals are an evil and morally corrupt people through and through.” Niebuhr’s English contemporary Sir Edward Creasey began his 1851 history The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World with the battle between a Persian expeditionary force and the Athenians at Marathon in 490 and left no doubt as to how he judged the significance of the event: “on the result of [the Greek generals’] deliberations depended not merely the fate of two armies, but the whole future progress of human civilization.” Even a century later in the 1950s, it was regarded as no more than a banal truism to state that “In 480–79 the Greeks saved themselves and the future of European civilization from Oriental conquest.”

The idea of the Greco-Persian Wars as a conflict between two radically opposed forces has lingered on in more modern scholarship but has come to be expressed in cultural rather than racial terms. One book from 1996 still described some Persian troops as “Stone Age savages” and celebrated the Greek victory as one that “continue[s] to irradiate and quicken our whole western heritage.” Books on the Battle of Salamis, from 2004, and Marathon, from 2010, both argued that the outcome saved Western civilization.

A different approach to Greece and Persia has developed with the rise of postcolonial studies. Some scholars have shifted the focus to the Persian perspective and have explained the failure of Persia’s campaigns in Greece less as the product of Greek heroism and more as the result of poor strategic planning on the Persians’ part. Others have ousted the wars from the center of Greco-Persian interactions and traced a long-term pattern of trade, accommodation, and cultural interchange in which the invasions of mainland Greece were only a brief interruption. Greek attitudes toward Persia have been examined more fully and found to be far more nuanced and multifaceted than was long assumed.

Understanding the Greco-Persian Wars requires setting aside nineteenth-century assumptions about “Oriental” races and twentieth-century arguments about Western civilization to see both the Persians and the Greeks on their own terms.


The Persian Empire arose in the context of another empire’s fall. In the tenth century BCE the old northern Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria began to build an empire using innovative techniques of siege warfare. Walled towns that might have held out for months or years against earlier armies fell to the Assyrians’ towers and battering rams in a matter of days. Supported by its army’s expertise in capturing cities, the Assyrian Empire expanded faster and farther than any state in the region had done before, ultimately stretching from the edge of the Iranian plateau to the Nile valley.

The Assyrians faced new challenges as their army was stretched thin by its rapid conquests. To suppress rebellion, they massacred, enslaved, or forcibly resettled many conquered peoples and destroyed rebellious cities. Assyrian cruelty was a calculated political strategy, and though effective in the short term, it sowed resentment among its victims. When the empire was weakened by civil war in the late seventh century BCE, an alliance of its subjects and neighbors banded together to overthrow it. A few generations later, with the memory of Assyrian oppression still fresh, the Persians began to build a new empire.

The Persians first appear in history as nomads in the southern Iranian plateau at the fringes of Assyrian power. They allied themselves with another Iranian people, the Medes, who lived to their north. Both the Medes and the Persians were part of the anti-Assyrian coalition. In 550 BCE the Persian king Cyrus began a campaign of expansion and ultimately built an empire larger than any the world had seen before. Persian territory stretched from the Indus River in the east to Egypt and Anatolia in the west. Cyrus and his descendants, the Achaemenid dynasty, ruled over this empire for the next three centuries.

In a deliberate contrast to the Assyrians, the Persians adopted a policy of tolerance toward the peoples they ruled. Slavery was forbidden by Persian custom, and though they did not end slaveholding among their subjects, they took no slaves of their own. They never massacred a conquered people and only forcibly resettled the most persistent troublemakers. In fact, the Persians helped some displaced people—notably the Jews—return home and rebuild.

Local cultures were allowed to thrive. The Persians did not impose their customs, language, or laws on their subjects. The only demands they made were the payment of taxes and provision of soldiers for the army. In return, the Persians guaranteed peace and stability, and they supported trade through the construction of roads and the issuing of a common currency. The empire was organized into provinces ruled by governors, called satraps, who had a degree of local autonomy but were accountable to the king for the orderly administration of their territories. At a more local level, the Persians generally left peoples with their own native rulers, so long as those rulers did not support rebellion. Achaemenid royal art, such as the stairway of the ceremonial palace at Persepolis and the tombs cut into cliff faces nearby, shows the king surrounded by subjects of many different ethnicities in their own native garb, rendered in a style that combined elements from the artistic traditions of many different peoples. For the Persians, multiculturalism was both a virtue and a pragmatic policy.

Persians and Greeks

No empire has ever been created without violence. The Persian Empire is no exception. Most of the peoples over whom the Persians ruled were, most of the time, content with the arrangement and prospered from it, but some parts of the empire resisted Persian rule and threatened the stability of their satrapies. The northwestern frontier was a persistent trouble spot for the empire. The conquests of Cyrus had brought the kingdom of Lydia, in western Anatolia, into the empire in 546. Not long before, around 560, the Lydians had conquered the Ionian Greek cities on the Aegean coast. These cities now came under Persian control.

Like most other Greek poleis of the time, the Ionian cities in Anatolia had a variety of constitutions, but most allowed some degree of democratic participation. Democracy is by its nature messy and unpredictable. As practiced in ancient Greece, it was also prone to outbreaks of factional violence. Although it was the Persians’ custom to leave local politics alone, they needed a measure of stability on their frontier. They therefore supported the rise of local aristocrats who ruled the Ionian cities as pro-Persian tyrants.

The opponents of these tyrants found shelter across the Aegean in the cities of mainland Greece, especially Athens, which had strong historical ties to the Ionians. Agitation against the tyrants continued until 499 when many of the Ionian cities rose up in revolt. Athens and some other mainland Greek cities committed warships to the cause. The Athenians had their own troubled history with Persia, which helped draw them into the revolt. The former tyrant of Athens, Hippias, had fled to Persia when he was driven out of the city in 510 and had been trying for some time to engineer a return with Persian backing. Having forced out Hippias, the Athenians went through a series of internal conflicts, ending with the establishment of a democratic constitution. When Sparta tried to intervene and help some pro-Spartan aristocrats regain power, the Athenians went so far as to offer submission to Persia in return for protection. After the Spartan threat had passed, however, the Athenians wanted neither Persian rule nor the return of Hippias. Driving the Persians back from the Aegean coast must have seemed a prudent step toward avoiding both.

The Ionian revolt had some initial success, including capturing and burning down the satrapal capital at Sardis, but in the end the rebellion was a failure. Most of the Ionian cities accepted their old tyrants back on the promise that no harm would come to them. The only city to suffer reprisals was Miletus, where the revolt had begun and which held out until recaptured by force. The population of the city was forcibly resettled at the mouth of the Tigris River. The Persians’ uncharacteristically harsh treatment of the Milesians shows how vexing this frontier problem had become.

The Persians continued to try to pacify their Aegean frontier through diplomacy and targeted strikes against foreign agitators such as Athens. In 491 King Darius sent envoys to many cities on the Greek mainland and islands asking for earth and water, the traditional symbols of submission to Persia. Many cities, remembering what happened to Miletus, acquiesced. The next year, Darius sent a naval expedition across the sea against Athens and some of the other cities who persisted in resistance. Hippias, now an old man, was brought along in the hopes that he could rally local supporters and seize control of the city, but that support never materialized. After a long standoff, some of the Persian forces were defeated in battle with the Athenian army at Marathon. The rest tried to sail around Attica and attack the undefended city, but the Athenian troops raced overland in time to draw up outside the city walls as the Persian ships came into view. The Persians withdrew to Ionia.

In 486 Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who decided that after some sixty years of trying to manage the Aegean frontier, the time had come to conquer and incorporate the territory. In 480, apart from the delaying action at Thermopylae, Persian forces marched largely unopposed into Greece. Most Athenians abandoned their city and fell back to the fleet. In the straits between the island of Salamis and the Attic coast the allied Greek fleet won a major battle against the Persian navy and changed the strategic calculus. Without naval superiority, the Persians could no longer count on keeping their army supplied by ship. Xerxes withdrew with most of his army, leaving a small force under his general Mardonius to overwinter in Thessaly and continue the campaign the next year. The following summer the Greeks assembled the largest army they could muster and defeated Mardonius’ troops at Plataea. Following up on the victory, the Greek forces expelled Persian garrisons from many of the cities they had occupied in their march.

Once the Persians had been driven out of Europe, Sparta withdrew its forces from the alliance. Athens instead took the lead and organized a new alliance, known as the Delian League, with the avowed purpose of carrying on the fight to liberate the Greek cities in Ionia and defend them from Persian interference. The Ionian cities seized the opportunity to rebel against Persia again and joined up with the new league. Athenian-led forces won a decisive victory against the Persians at Eurymedon in 466 that secured Athenian dominance over the Aegean for decades.


Persian Infantry

Greek Reactions to the Wars with Persia

The wars with Persia were traumatic to those who lived through them. Most of Greece was involved in the fighting and many cities suffered deep losses. After the war, Greeks enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity. Their art and literature expressed a new sense of self-confidence. The Parthenon of Athens, great works of drama and philosophy, the maturing of classical sculpture and vase painting—much of what we think of as the defining achievements of ancient Greek civilization were created when the Battles of Marathon and Plataea were no more than a generation or two in the past. It is no surprise that we find the experience of the wars reflected in many of the great works of Greek culture.

Persians became the definitive barbarians in Greek consciousness and certain conventional narratives emerged in discussions of both the Persians and the wars. These narratives became part of the Greek philosophical, literary, and artistic repertoire, to be deployed at need and liable, like all such conventional narratives, to be reduced to shorthand and caricature. One narrative depicted the wars as a struggle between free but disciplined Greeks and weak-willed Persians under a despotic king. Another regarded Greek victory as the vindication of democracy. The unity of the Greeks in their alliance against the invaders was also celebrated. Another common theme was the hardiness of Greeks who lived in poverty as compared with the softness of Persians accustomed to luxury. There was never a single unified Greek view on Persia. Multiple conflicting and overlapping narratives always existed.

Some Greek ideas reduced the Persians to stereotypes. A narrative of otherness depicted the Greeks as hardy, democratic, masculine, and independent while portraying the Persians as soft, despotic, feminine, and servile. The philosopher Plato used Persia as an archetypal example of monarchy and its failings. His student Aristotle went further and defined all barbarians as natural slaves fit to be ruled over by Greeks. The orators Demosthenes and Isocrates both invoked the weakness of Persia in their arguments over Athenian foreign policy, clearly appealing to a theme their audience knew well.

Not all Greek responses to Persia were so straightforward. The writer and sometime mercenary Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus is a fictionalized account of King Cyrus’ youth that presents him as a model of temperance, honesty, and martial vigor. The final chapter of the work, however, portrays a modern Persia in which Cyrus’ virtues have all been overthrown and replaced with the vices of greed, gluttony, and deceit. The change is so dramatic that it seems unlikely Xenophon meant his conclusion to be taken at face value but was instead ironically tweaking an existing narrative of Persian decline. The Education of Cyrus casts contemporary Persians as the most stereotyped of others, but they stand in contrast to the virtue of earlier Persians, not Greeks.

Artistic renditions of Persians and the Persian wars are a similarly mixed group. Persians and Greeks in battle appear as a common theme of vase painting in the decades after the war, but while the Persians are depicted as the enemy, they are not caricatured as weak, effeminate, or cowardly. They stand their ground and fight as worthy adversaries; sometimes they even win.

In other cases, the Persians were assimilated into the Greek mythic tradition. In the Painted Stoa in Athens, images of the Battle of Marathon were paired with depictions of the hero Theseus fighting Amazons and Greeks fighting Trojans. On the Parthenon the Persians are evoked only through mythic analogues, as Greek heroes battle Trojans, Amazons, and centaurs. The symbolism is potent, but not simple. On one hand, figures such as Amazons and centaurs represent chaos. Their defeat is necessary for the restoration of good order as personified by Greek heroes. The Trojans are a different case. The legends of the Trojan War were among the most celebrated Greek myths, but the moral standing of the Greeks as destroyers of Troy was dubious, and the story of Troy was as much one of tragedy as of triumph. Recasting the Trojans as precursors of the Persians made the Greco-Persian Wars equally complex. As Herodotus points out, the destruction of Troy was a gross overreaction to the abduction of one woman. In this mythic context, Xerxes’ invasion of Greece could even be seen as justified retribution for the Greek invasion of Troy.

The modern assumption that Greeks and Persians were implacable enemies has distorted the interpretation of some artworks, such as the so-called Eurymedon vase. On one side of this vase stands a man naked but for a cloak, grasping his penis in one hand. On the opposite side a man in form-fitting clothes carrying a bow case stands bent forward with his hands raised. Between the two figures runs the text: “I am Eurymedon. I am bent over.” This image has conventionally been interpreted as a bawdy celebration of the Greek victory at Eurymedon; as Dover put it: “We’ve buggered the Persians.” But this interpretation depends on the unfounded assumption that Greeks considered being the penetrated partner in a homosexual liaison demeaning. In fact, a liaison like the one depicted was considered humiliating for both partners, not because of who was doing what to whom but because their disorderly haste showed a lack of self-control. The identities of the two figures are also less than clear. The Greek is unarmed and unkempt, far from heroic. The “Persian” may actually be a Scythian, another people customarily depicted in close-fitting clothes carrying bows. “Eurymedon” is the name of not only a river but also numerous individuals, including the man who introduced Scythian archers into Athens as a kind of police force. This vase may be a bit of political mockery aimed not at the Persians but at an Athenian.

Herodotus and Aeschylus: Bringing the Persians Home

While Greek art and literature of the classical age celebrates Greek victory, its attitudes toward the Persians are diverse and subtle. Simple narratives contrasting Greek virtue with Persian wickedness are a part of that diversity, but only a part. Two surviving works of Greek literature engage more deeply with the nature of the Persians and the causes of their wars against the Greeks than any others: Aeschylus’ drama The Persians and Herodotus’ Histories. Both of these texts emphasize the similarities between Greeks and Persians more than their differences.

Aeschylus’ tragedy takes place at the Persian court where the queen mother Atossa anxiously discusses the war with Persian elders. A messenger arrives bearing the news of defeat at Salamis and Atossa summons the spirit of Darius for counsel before Xerxes, defeated and bedraggled, finally returns home. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars who was manifestly proud of his service and one might have expected a triumphal celebration of Greek victory, but the play is surprisingly subtle.

The Persians is a tragedy and Xerxes is its hero. The tragic hero is by definition a noble character brought down by the flaws in his nature. In Aeschylus’ drama, Xerxes’ flaws are rashness and arrogance, not an unusual turn in Greek tragedy. The catharsis that tragedy was meant to create came in the tension between the audience’s compassion for the sufferings of the hero and their horror at the deeds that led to his downfall. Without the audience being able to imaginatively cast themselves in the role of the tragic hero and recognize the small echoes of his faults in themselves, tragedy fails. Greek drama created empathy between the audience and the hero by inviting the audience to imagine the play as taking place in their own city. By setting his play in Persia with a cast of Persian characters, Aeschylus was asking his Athenian audience to imagine themselves as Persians.

Praise of Greece in the play is muted. Atossa questions the chorus as to who commands the Athenians and learns that “They are said to be no one’s slaves and heedful of no man.” Later the herald who describes the Battle of Salamis comments on the Greeks’ unity in battle, but both sections are brief.50 Aeschylus does not disparage the Persians but presents them as a noble people. As Darius recounts, their state was ordained by Zeus who gave the scepter of kingship to their first ruler. Atossa recalls a dream in which she saw Greece and Persia personified as two sisters whom Xerxes tried to yoke to a chariot. While Persia accepted the bridle, Greece refused and smashed the yoke, but in Atossa’s eyes they were equal in beauty.

The play leaves us in no doubt that Xerxes was wrong to invade Greece. Darius castigates his son’s arrogance and condemns the invading army’s sacrilegious destruction of temples and sacred images. But this was Xerxes’ failing, not a fault of the Persians as a whole, and if Aeschylus’ audience were to condemn overseas expeditions and the burning of temples, they would have to admit that the Athenians had interfered in Ionia and burned Sardis long before Xerxes had gone on the march. Nor was their involvement in the Ionian revolt the only campaign the Athenians had cause to regret. The hero of Marathon, Miltiades, had led a disastrous campaign in the Aegean in 489 that ended so badly he was nearly put to death on his return. The success of Aeschylus’  drama depended on the Athenians’ ability to see the Persians as people in whose troubles and sorrows they could share, not as oppositional others.

Herodotus’ Histories offers a similarly nuanced view of the Persians and their dealings with the Greeks. Early in his work, Herodotus gives an ethnographic account of the Persians with a mix of praise and disapproval. On one hand, the Persians were devout, truth-loving, and courteous. Their laws were moderate and they especially esteemed martial prowess and honesty. On the other hand, they overindulged in wine and fine foods, they abased themselves in unseemly ways before men of high status, and they left the bodies of the dead to be mauled by birds and dogs before burial, which offended Greek sensibilities. On the whole, however, Herodotus avoids judging the Persians. Their customs were appropriate for them just as Greek customs were appropriate for Greeks. The fact that their ways were different did not make them wrong.

Herodotus’ Persians were not ethnic stereotypes or anti-Greek others but individuals with their own individual virtues and flaws. Some, indeed, were bad. The worst of the lot was Cyrus’ abusive and impious son Cambyses. Xerxes was not much better, but his flaws were different: rashness and changeability. It was not only kings who were flawed: Xerxes’ general Mardonius was a blustering bully and a fount of bad advice. On the other hand, many Persians were good. Like Xenophon, Herodotus praises the wisdom of Cyrus, but he does not go on to paint the Persians of his own day as degenerate. Persians with admirable qualities were to be found in any age. Prexaspes, a general of Cambyses, revealed his master’s crimes to the public. Otanes, Darius, and a group of other noblemen, aided by Otanes’ daughter Phaidymie, boldly overthrew a usurper and then held a rational debate about what form of government was best. Darius’ general Zopyrus endured extreme physical hardship in order to get behind the walls of Babylon and open the gates for the king’s army. Artabanus provided wise counsel both to Darius and Xerxes.

Like Aeschylus, there is no doubt that Herodotus deplored the Persian invasions of Greece and was proud of his countrymen for their resistance, but the blame fell on Darius and Xerxes, not the Persians as a whole. Herodotus evinces sympathy for the Persians who were burdened with bad kings. Bad kings do not make a bad people, and the Persians were hardly the only ones to have them. The Egyptians and Lydians had them, too, but the bad rulers Herodotus devotes most of his attention to are the Greek tyrants, whose crimes included theft of private property, abuse of women, and the murder of rivals.

Herodotus was on the side of democracy, but he was not an absolutist. He knew that democracies sometimes failed, just as some kings were good. He also knew that democracy was not a definitively Greek invention. Greeks had lived under tyrants and, as he is at pains to inform his audience, the Persians were perfectly familiar with democracy. The Persians and Greeks were, if anything, more alike than any other people Herodotus knew.

This similarity gives force to one of Herodotus’ most powerful passages. At the very end of his history, once Xerxes’ invasion had been defeated, Herodotus casts his eye all the way back to the birth of the Persian Empire some seventy years before. He recounts a story in which some Persians approached Cyrus and proposed that they go forth and conquer an empire. Cyrus warned them that this plan would lead to their downfall: “For from soft lands come soft men; the same land cannot bear rich fruits and noble, valorous men.” Herodotus’ audience was the Athenians of the late fifth century who were themselves engaged in a project of empire building at the head of the Delian League. Cyrus’ warning to his people serves as a warning to the Greeks about the consequences of imperialism. Like Aeschylus, Herodotus believed his Greek audience could see the similarities between the Persians and themselves.

The Greek and Persian worlds had long been entangled. The wars left their scars, but they did not leave Greeks and Persians polarized and unable to think beyond binary oppositions. Individuals traveled between the two cultures, trade carried on, and culture was shared. Athenians adopted elements of Persian art, architecture, and dress while Ionian artisans helped carve the tombs of Persian kings. Stereotyped and pejorative attitudes toward Persia existed in the Greek world, but they existed alongside narratives that made Persians familiar, individual, and sympathetic.

The Greco-Persian Wars and Western Civilization

Although the wars with Persia were important events in fifth-century Greece, their consequences were not simple, nor should they be magnified into a battle for the fate of the West. The Persians and the Greeks were not idealized representatives of two fundamentally different ways of life. Greece was a small, underdeveloped, fractious region whose politics, economy, and culture had long been entangled with Persia’s. Persian kings recruited Greek mercenaries and hosted Greek exiles. Some Greek cities sought or accepted admission to the Persian Empire as a bulwark against their enemies, and Persians were sometimes looked to as arbiters between warring Greek factions. The fact that Herodotus knew so much about the Persian Empire, its peoples, and its history testifies to the deep interconnections between the two cultures.

While the outcome of the wars was important to the Greeks, the events were much less momentous for the Persians. The loss of territories in Europe and the Aegean registered very little effect on the wider empire. The Persian kings returned to a diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Greek problem, patiently managing frontier affairs as the Greeks wore themselves down with inter-polis fighting. This diplomacy eventually paid off in the fourth century when the Persians were able to dictate terms to exhausted Greek cities. For Persia, the conflicts with Greece had never been ideological. The shift from a military to a diplomatic approach to dealing with the unstable frontier region was a rational adaptation of policy. A useful comparison can be made with the Roman Empire’s policy toward the peoples of its northern frontier: when conquest proved unfeasible, Rome’s interests in the region were secured through diplomacy instead.

The idea that Persia would have stifled the emergence of democracy and classical art, literature, and philosophy, thus cutting off Western civilization at the source, is misguided. On one hand it gives classical Greek culture an unwarranted status, and on the other it misapprehends Persian culture.

The art, architecture, literature, and philosophy of classical Greece have long had a place of special honor in the Western tradition, not because Greek culture was superior but because later peoples chose to elevate and emulate it. The veneration of Greece was part of the ideology of European imperialism in which connections to the classical past were asserted as marks of a “superior” society justified in its conquest and colonization of “inferior” societies. Without Greek culture to emulate, later Europeans would simply have found other markers of status to celebrate.

Moreover, it is unlikely that a Persian conquest of mainland Greece would have snuffed out the creative flowering of the following age. The unexpected victory over Persia did invigorate the Greek imagination, but it was not the sole cause for the developments of the classical age. The archaic period saw a tremendous flowering of cultural inventiveness in Greece, even through difficult periods of war and internal conflict. There is no reason why defeat by the Persians should have stopped up that creativity. The Persians had no interest in suppressing Greek culture. The Ionian Greek cities thrived economically and culturally under Persian rule.68 Persian kings and satraps patronized Greek artists, and elements of Greek art were incorporated into the multicultural Achaemenid court style. Greek culture under Persian rule would surely have been different, but it would not have simply ended.

Like Greek culture, Greek democracy may have been different under Persian rule, but it would not have disappeared. In 480 the Athenians had lived under a stable democratic constitution for less than three decades, but democracy was not a fresh flower to be easily plucked. It was the product of centuries of social pressures and power struggles that were not unique to Athens and that could not be simply dispelled by Persian fiat. While most of the Greek poleis were governed with some degree of citizen participation, the nature of their constitutions varied drastically from one state to another, with many dominated by entrenched aristocracies. Sparta was a far more totalitarian state than the Persian Empire. The image of Persians as enervated slaves cowering under their master’s lash is a gross fiction.

After conquering the Ionian cities, the Persians suppressed democracies and installed friendly tyrants, but in the aftermath of the Ionian revolt the Persian satrap Artaphrenes renegotiated the arrangements in Ionia to be more favorable to the Ionians. The Persian general Mardonius shortly later deposed the Ionian tyrants and established democracies. No doubt these democracies were required to maintain an acceptable level of stability and not to challenge Persian suzerainty. Still, Persian rule was pragmatic and flexible. The Persians had no ideological opposition to democracy. As in Ionia, if the Persians had conquered mainland Greece they would soon have found it prudent to compromise on the nature of their rule there.

Furthermore, democracy was not a uniquely Greek invention. Other peoples had experimented with varieties of participatory government before and would do so later—notably the Roman republic.73 Greek democracy was always a work in progress built up out of personal feuds and precarious compromises, not a pristine development gifted to the world. It was a government that excluded women and immigrants (sometimes even the native-born descendants of immigrants) and that depended on a large slave population. Persian culture abhorred slavery, allowed women substantial freedoms, and welcomed people of all origins. In many ways, the ideals of modern Western society are more in line with those of ancient Persia than those of ancient Greece.

Persians and Greeks

The popular memory of Greeks and Persians tends to be dominated by the image of heroic Spartans making their last stand against a tyrannical Xerxes at Thermopylae. The reality of Greco-Persian relations was never so simple.

From a Persian point of view, Greece was at worst a minor frontier nuisance. Persians neither hated the Greeks nor wished to destroy their culture but welcomed Greek dignitaries, traders, and artisans into their multi-ethnic empire. Many Greek cities flourished under Persian rule, and Persian goods and ideas were welcomed in Greece, even in the aftermath of war.

The Greeks who lived through the Greco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century were deeply affected by the experience, and it is no surprise that we find anti-Persian sentiments in later Greek culture. The wars, however, were only a brief incident in a centuries-long history of commercial, cultural, and personal interaction between the Greek and Persian worlds. Many Greeks, even those who were proud of the victories against Darius and Xerxes, also thought of the Persians in ways that were sympathetic and nuanced. Indeed, the more focused the attention Greeks gave to Persia, the more they tended to dwell on the things that made Greeks and Persians similar, not different. Between Greece and Persia there were a few clashes of armies, but never a clash of civilizations.


The commercial trade between the Ohio American Indians and French or British agents and traders during the 18th century was of a different nature to previous trading. It degenerated into competition for Indian alliances by means of gifts. War gifts of cutlasses, scalping knives, hatchets, guns, powder, and bullet molds were added to vermilion paint, flints, cottons, blankets, scissors, needles, thread, cloth, watchcoats, and stockings. Once the Indians had become accustomed to the white man’s goods, they could not live without them. Unscrupulous traders plied Indians with rum, which often resulted in intoxication, brawls, and death. The French gradually regained the upper hand in the Indian trade during the first half of the 18th century, and they were in control of the Ohio area in 1754.

The eastern Woodland Indians, especially the Canadian Iroquois and Abenakis, were among the most steadfast allies of the French in Canada. Their villages were often close to the French settlements and they served with the Canadian militia. Most of the western Woodland tribes – Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Shawnee – were also allies of the French. The Hurons who had finally settled in the Ohio Valley following the dispersal of their confederacy by the Iroquois in the mid-17th century were known as the Wyandot. Allied with the Ottawa, they were the “eldest children” of Onontio, the governor-general of New France, and the cornerstone of the French alliance with the Great Lakes Algonkians. Although their relations with the French were tempestuous for many years, when war broke out in the Ohio Valley, the Wyandot sided with the French, and with the other French allies went east to fight in the French campaigns in northern New York.

The Iroquois for the most part fought on the side of the English, in part due to the influence of the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. The Irish trader George Croghan, in the British service of Sir William Johnson, won over the friendship of the western Indians at a great council in Pittsburgh in 1758.

Following the battle of Lake George, Sir William exerted himself to keep the Iroquois friendly to Britain’s cause, or at least neutral, despite a series of disheartening military failures. The Iroquois fulfilled a campaign of diplomatic pressure by bringing the Delawares and Shawnees to heel at the treaty of Easton in October 1758, and they played a major part in the final British victory. However, following the end of the war, the actions of Amherst destroyed the relations with the western nations and led to Pontiac’s War.

William Johnson and the Mohawks

William Johnson, a young Anglo-Irishman, came to the Mohawk Valley in 1738. He built a huge commercial empire from the fur trade and land deals. Within three years he had built a fortress-like home, Mount Johnson, and had begun a long association with the Mohawks. His second wife, Caroline, was the niece of old “King Hendrick.” After her death he married as his third wife Molly Brant whose younger brother, Joseph Brant, was destined to become a captain in the British Army during the American Revolution. In 1745 Johnson was appointed British Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and in 1755, Superintendent of Indian Affairs. His victory at Lake George, supported by hundreds of Mohawks and Oneidas, was heartening to the British colonists, although King Hendrick was one of those killed in the fighting. Through this victory Johnson united the Iroquois behind him, and was rewarded by the Crown with a baronetcy and cash grant. Johnson spent the rest of the war trying to keep the Iroquois friendly to Britain’s cause. He took Fort 62 Niagara in 1759 with a force augmented by over 900 Iroquois warriors. Johnson’s home was palisaded in 1755 and became known as Fort Johnson, but with the return of peace he built a stately home called Johnson Hall at Johnstown, NY, where he sheltered Indians and entertained other distinguished guests. This illustration shows various distinguished Indian visitors to Johnson Hall, from left, an Ottawa chief a Wyandot chief a clan matron, Joseph Brant, a Fox chief and a Huron chief. As many as 60 to 80 Indians often camped in the grounds. His actions helped to bring about the end of Pontiac’s War in 1766, and in 1768 he made a formal treaty with all the Indians which set out the boundaries between the American colonies and Indian country. Johnson was adopted as a war chief of the Canajoharie Mohawks; his nickname was Orihwane, “Big Business.” He had a unique influence with the Mohawks, and through his many children he has descendants among them today. Jonathan Smith

French and Indian War (1754-1763) I

French and Indian War (1754-1763) II

French and Indian War (1754-1763) III

Lord Dunmore’s War

Sir JEFFERY, 1st Baron Amherst KB (1717–1797)


British-allied American Indians of the 18th century. On the left is an Iroquois warrior from about 1759. He is tattooed) and is armed with a painted trade musket. The Mohawk in the center is from the early 18th century) and is carrying a Hudson Valley fowling piece. He has complex tattoos on his face and body) and wears ear ornaments of swan down. He has a European blanket and shirt. On the right is a Mohawk warrior from about 1764. He carries a bow and arrows and a trade tomahawk. He wears feather and quillwork head ornaments, wampum ear ornaments and a ‘gorget.’ In the foreground are ball-headed clubs and a red-painted scalp with decorative stretcher rim. Richard Hook

Woodland American Indian men seem to have revered war above all else and, despite the great message of peace enshrined in the Iroquois league’s constitution, a conflict between the old men and the young over war policy was endemic. The councils could only adopt a policy of peace or neutrality; they could not force young men to observe it. War had been a major cause of the decline of the native population during the 17th century, for which the Iroquois compensated by the adoption of captives; in fact, war parties were often organized for this purpose. So despite the ideal that men were brothers and that killing should stop, the Iroquois were the major native disruptive military force in the northeast.

A warrior who wished to lead a war party would send a messenger with tobacco to ask others to join his expedition. The messenger would explain the purpose of the expedition followed by a ceremonial smoking of the pipe with those who enlisted. Later the warriors arrived near the camp of the leaders, who prepared a feast asking for a final pledge of support. The leader usually appointed lieutenants to act as his aides during the proposed raids. War dances and striking-the-warpost ceremonies were held before the war party left the camp together with the collection of ‘medicine,’ and materials for making and repairing moccasins. Amongst many of the eastern tribes parched corn was the standard provision of the warrior when on the trail; when mixed with maple-sugar it provided quick sustenance. The final event before the departure of the war party was often the dog feast, which was considered as a final pledge to meet the full fortunes of war. Dog war feasts were not acts of piety. They were organized by the warrior or clan societies in order to receive blessings from spirits. The dogs would be killed, singed, then boiled, and prepared in the same way as deer. The meat symbolized the flesh of captives that they might later eat, these enemies being compared to dogs. The attendant ceremonies, involving the ritual use of tobacco, evoked help from the night spirits, and also the bear and buffalo spirits.

On the warriors’ journey to the enemy village many songs and dances were held at the nightly camps, the warriors frequently singing of their former victories. The pipe bearer, a noted warrior, often led the war party with the leader walking last. A Chippewa war party could travel 25 miles a day. As the warriors neared the enemy they began preparations for actual warfare: singing medicine songs, making litters for the wounded, and designating individuals to carry extra supplies of medicine, corn, and water. An eagle-feather banner was often carried by one of the bravest warriors during the fight; another beat a drum to inspire his comrades.

The warriors would array themselves in the most colorful body-painting, trappings, feathers, and charms for the attack, which was often made at daybreak after taking ambush positions near the enemy village. The attackers usually rushed the enemy while they were sleeping. Occasionally one warrior might inspire the others by making himself a target, throwing away his weapons and clothing, and charging the enemy.

Returning victorious war parties sent runners in advance to carry the news of the warriors’ approach to their home village. The women would meet the warriors and carry the scalps, painted red, fastened inside hoops on the end of poles; frequently scalps were given to the women. The women led the procession, waving the scalps and singing, into the village. After the return preparations were made to hold a victory dance, and a feast of dried meat, wild rice, and maple sugar followed. The victory or scalp dance seems to have been common to almost every tribe in eastern North America. Wives and sweethearts of warriors usually carried the poles with the attached scalps at celebrations in neighboring villages. Unsuccessful war parties were generally ignored by villagers.

Amongst the Iroquoian tribes the taking of prisoners was an important part of warfare. They were often adopted into families who had lost warriors in battle, thus helping to maintain population strength. Ceremonial torture of prisoners and the eating of vital organs were also reported by early observers of the Iroquois.

The war dance was usually performed on special occasions such as council meetings to recall past deeds. In the dance itself attitudes of battle, watching, listening, acts of striking the foe, and throwing the tomahawk added to the war songs, rapid drumming, recitals, and speeches, giving the effect of passion, excitement, and violence. Most deeds of valor were recorded by symbols worn in public, usually eagle feathers worn upright, crosswise, hanging down, or colored red. Other warrior insignia were armbands, ankle and knee bands of skunk or otter skin, painted legs, painted hand designs on body or face, and raven’s skin around the neck. Sometimes the skulls of slain enemies were used as lodge weights, and their flayed skins were used as mats and doorflaps.

The Woodland American Indians fought bravely to defend their lands from neighboring tribes and whites. Their methods of warfare were culturally determined, and any atrocities committed were equally matched by their foes. The torture and burning of captives were often abandoned at the instigation of their own chiefs. Scalping was a New World custom, although it was later much encouraged by the payment of bounties by the English and French. However, killing and scalping were sometimes secondary objectives to prisoner-taking by Iroquois war parties. Scalping for bounty became a feature of white frontier life, as did the severing of heads. King Philip’s head was carried to Plymouth at the close of the 1675-76 war, where it was placed on a pole and remained exposed for a generation as a reminder to Indians and whites of the brutality of colonial warfare.

The disruptive use of gifts by both the French and the British during the 18th century did much to undermine the stability of the frontier and the dependability of American Indian auxiliaries. Braddock’s Indian scouts reconnoitering Fort Duquesne reported few men at the fort; following the death of the leader’s son by friendly fire only constant presents bribed the scouts to continue their duties, and they did so with little enthusiasm. A better understanding and treatment of the Indian allies by the British could probably have avoided the ambush of the column at Monongahela altogether.

Before the trade tomahawk and gun came into popular use by the eastern Indians, their principal weapons were the bow, the stone tomahawk, and the war club. The war club was a heavy weapon, usually made of ironwood or maple, with a large ball or knot at the end. Some antique clubs in museums have a warrior’s face carved on the ball, sometimes with inlaid wampum (beads cut from the shell of the clam or conch), a long-tailed carved serpent on the top of the ball adjoining the shaft, and a cross motif. The shafts were also occasionally carved with war records and decorated. It appears to have been a devastating weapon at close quarters.

In the Great Lakes region the so-called “gun stock club” was popular, often having a sharp-pointed horn or steel trade spike at the shoulder. These were largely replaced with the trade tomahawk of English, French, or later American manufacture in iron or steeL Originally of a hatchet form, these later incorporated a pipe bowl, thus symbolizing a dual role in peace and war: to smoke – to parley; to bury it – peace; to raise it – deadly war.

Poisoned blow-gun arrows were used by the Cherokee and Iroquois but not to any extent in the major conflicts, and perhaps for hunting only. Bows were usually of one piece, made from ash, hickory, or oak. Arrows had delicately chipped triangular chert heads, and were usually kept in sheaths or quivers of cornhusk or skins. Early reports suggest that a type of wooden slatted armor made of tied rods was used by the Huron and Iroquois.

The gun replaced the bow throughout most of the eastern regions between about 1640 and the late 17th century, and partly rendered obsolete the bow and arrow and rod armor. However, as late as 1842 (due to lack of ammunition) an eyewitness reported that a battle between Chippewa and Sioux was waged with club and scalping knife.

Between the I 7th century and early 19th centuries the practice of American Indian warfare changed little. A warrior’s equipment in later years included a blanket, extra moccasins, a tumpline used as a prisoner tie, a rifle, powder horn, bullet bag, and his own medicine. Delaware and Shawnee scouts in the US Army out west are said to have administered warrior medicine to white soldiers. The calumet ceremony was often performed for war and peace. It appears to have been of Mississippian origin and spread east to the Ottawa via most central tribes, together with the ritual use of tobacco and steatite and catlinite pipe bowls. Calumets were highly decorated wands of feathers, painted tubes with animal parts (including the heads and necks of birds) with or without the pipe. The use of the calumet and pipe for ritual smoking at treaty councils led to the term “peace pipe:’

Although the horse was adopted by the eastern tribes as a beast of burden, there seems to be little reference to its use in warfare except in the later 18th and early 19th centuries and particularly by the western tribes Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, etc. However, the Iroquois and Cherokee had large numbers of horses from the mid-18th century on.

The Iroquois conquered or exterminated all the tribes upon their immediate borders and by 1680 had turned their arms against more distant tribes, the Illinois, Catawba, and Cherokee. According to Iroquois tradition the Cherokee were the original aggressors, having attacked and plundered a Seneca Iroquois hunting party, while in another story they are represented as having violated a peace treaty by the murder of Iroquois delegates. The Iroquois war party usually took 20 days at least to reach the edge of Cherokee territory. Such a war party was small in number, as the distance was too great for a large expedition. The Cherokee often retaliated by individual exploits, a single warrior going hundreds of miles to strike a blow which was sure to be promptly answered by a war party from the north. A formal and final peace treaty between the two tribes was arranged through the efforts of Sir William Johnson in 1768.

About the year 1700 the Iroquois reached the apogee of their empire. From the start their relationship with the French was difficult, and from 1640 to 1700 a constant warfare was maintained, broken by periods of negotiated peace, the exchange of prisoners, and periods of missionary influence, which drew a portion of the Mohawks from their homelands to Canada. Their friendship with the English remained largely unbroken during the 17th century, but during the 18th century frontier politics were such that the league weakened and individual tribes no longer acted in one accord with league policy.

The Jesuits had established missions in eastern Canada by 1639, and by 1700 they were as far west as the Mississippi river. Thus France had a secure route to its southern territories, and secured French dominance of the Great Lakes fur trade until 176I. New France now encircled the Thirteen Colonies through the western wilderness. However, it was not always a friendly relationship between the French and the various American Indian tribes and several wars resulted with the Mesquakie (Fox), Sauk, Dakota (Sioux), Huron, and Chickasaw. While inter-tribal warfare seems always to have been the norm, the arrival of the Europeans added to inter-tribal rivalry within the fur trade. Indeed, the Iroquois’ conquests seem to have been largely to establish their superiority in such commerce. At times Indians took their furs to the British posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the far north, or even to Albany. By the 1730s the focal point of Indian and frontier colonial warfare was the Ohio River Valley, now populated along its tributaries by tribes forced across the Appalachian mountains by white population pressure. These were principally the Delaware and Shawnee, with portions of many tribes forming a multi-tribal population, including fragments of all six Iroquois tribes, Mahican, New England groups, Abenaki, and Chippewa (Mississauga).

American Indian Tactics

Though apparently crudely armed by European standards, American Indians had an undeniable advantage in North American warfare. Their knowledge of the forests and wilderness of their homeland was built up over centuries, and they could use the topography against any enemy. Having hunted since childhood, Indian warriors were well used to traveling vast distances at speed, dealing with fatigue and hazard, and being aware of every detail of their surroundings. They were lightly armed, highly mobile fighters, able to disappear into the environment at will, and supply themselves from their surroundings while on campaign for extended periods. Complete command of stealth tactics made Indians invaluable as scouts, and gatherers of intelligence. Colonial military leaders learned that spying on, and defeating, Indian warriors in battle was only possible with the expertise and knowledge of other Indians. Eventually, native scouts and tactical knowledge became legendary, and success in the Revolutionary War was partly attributed to the use of American Indian tactics and stealth.



Viking Warrior Women

If a woman served as head of the household in a family which lacked a man to fulfil this role, she could be buried with symbols of manhood. In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland two decorative swords have been found in a female burial dated to the 11th century. This one has the blade and the hilt made in bronze, decorated in Jelling style.

Warrior women appear frequently in Scandinavian folklore, whether as pirates, fighters, leaders of armies or avengers. In sagas and poetry, women who chose to live as warriors were called ‘warrior women’. These were women who had chosen to stand outside the traditional gender role, and they seem to have been an accepted part of Old Norse society. In many of the stories and the poems they are referred to a ‘shield maidens’, meaning young women who had chosen to work as warriors. This expression is often used in the texts without further explanation, which suggests that the readers and listeners were well acquainted with the phenomenon The shield maidens must not be confused with the Valkyries, who were divine beings associated with the battlefield.

The question is whether warrior women are literary fantasies, myths, or a historical reality. Warrior women are not mentioned in any contemporary Nordic rune inscriptions, but that is perhaps not so surprising if they comprised only a small part of the Scandinavian warrior groups. Also, we know that rune stones often functioned as documentary records of inheritance and were usually raised by widows or mothers of fallen husbands and sons. Nor are warrior women named in French and Anglo-Saxon annals and chronicles.13 They are not mentioned either in the Irish chronicles in connection with the Vikings, but the phenomenon was not unfamiliar to the Irish themselves. The most famous were the protagonists Scáthach and Aífe, who probably had Scottish-Celtic origins and lived in the 5th or 6th century.

Several older sources claim that warrior women were found in northern Europe and Scandinavia around the time of Christ’s birth. Historians such as Strabo and Plutarch (1st century BC), Dio Cassius (49 AD) and Tacitus (100 AD) all say that there were warrior women among the tribes in northern and eastern Europe. In the 1st century AD, Saxon men and women were regarded by the Romans as of equal value. According to Tacitus, when a man married he gave to the woman oxen and a horse with its bridle, together with shield, spear and sword. She gave him the weapons back. Such reports, probably based on witness observation, surely contributed to reinforcing the Romans’ view of Germanic women as warlike. Such a ritual does not automatically imply that all women fought in war, or that all women bore weapons, but it can mean that Saxon men and women had shared responsibility for defending their nearest and dearest if necessary, and that fighting was part of life.

Two particular features recur in all Roman descriptions of the Germans: their appearance, with powerful bodies and reddish-blond hair and beard; and their women. According to the sources, the women supported their men in war and sometimes took part in the battles themselves.

Roman war reports regularly told of warrior women being found among the enemy’s dead. This can mean that some of the women fought in war, especially if the reports are from conflicts where the Romans were attacked, but it can also mean that women defended themselves with weapons when the tribe was attacked, just as Saxon women apparently did. As we do not know what types of conflict were being described, it is difficult to distinguish if these were warrior women who attacked the Romans, or whether they were taking part in a defence, or if they did both.

At the end of the 3rd century AD, 30 captured ‘Gothic warrior women’ were paraded in front of the populace when Emperor Aurelian (emperor 270–275 AD) held a triumphal procession in Rome. It is quite possible that these women really were warrior women, but the Roman triumphal processions were theatre and these ‘Gothic warrior women’ may also have just been the result of the Romans wishing that such women did exist. The Romans, with their severe and puritanical view of women and their double moral standards regarding sex, must have been terrified and aroused at the same time by the thought that they could be attacked by women. Such emotions certainly led to many stories and fantasies being played out in the gladiatorial arenas and the triumphal processions.

Eastern Roman historians also mention warrior women among their European enemies. In Procopius’ account of the war against the Goths (535–552) there is a story about an English princess who led an invasion of Jutland and captured the young king, Radigis, because he had deceived her. This story is characteristic of Saga material, and it can hardly be used as a reliable source to prove the existence of the warrior woman. On the other hand, another Byzantine historian, Johannes Skylitzes, tells in his historical writing from the 12th century that warrior women took part in the fighting when Prince Svjatoslav of Kiev lost a battle against the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971. He says that the Byzantines were amazed when they found armed women among the fallen warriors.

Even though Skylitzes was writing 200 years after the events, it is possible that he had access to contemporary archives. Just like the West Romans, the East Romans were prolific writers of reports. In this context, we must also consider the social structures among the rus. Svjatoslav and his warriors were almost nomadic. They could be absent from Kiev for years, and therefore would have their women, female slaves and children with them when they went raiding. It may have been these women who were killed in the battles, as they tried to defend themselves and their families.

Nearly all the descriptions of warrior women are in texts from the Middle Ages. They were written several centuries after the events they describe. Some of these reports are of events said to have taken place in the time of tribal migrations, which was even more remote.

The Fornalder sagas (‘Sagas of Earlier Times’) comprise a collection of legendary sagas which were gathered together at the end of the 14th century. Among others, they include Hervor’s and Hedrek’s Saga, which is about the magic sword, Tyrfing, with the action taking place in the 5th century. Hervor, Angantyr’s daughter, dressed like a man and learned to use weapons in her youth, and went on plundering raids in search of valuables.

In Rolf Gautreksons Saga, which was written down in the 13th century, we find Torbjørg the shield-maiden. She was daughter of a King Erik in Uppsala and preferred to spend her days in fighting and athletic activities than in womanly activities. She even had her own guard troops. In oral tradition she was known as ‘King Torberg’.

A number of women warriors also appear in Saxo’s 13th-century Gesta Danorum (‘Chronicle of the Danes’). It is important to note that all the warrior women in the Fornalder sagas and in Saxo’s writings are upper-class women. In fact, this makes the stories appear more authentic. Even if they had wanted to do so, women from other layers of society would not have had the same opportunity to distinguish themselves in masculine arenas. In theory, upper-class women had the time and the authority to be able to assert themselves outside the wholly traditional role model.

According to Saxo, the warrior women were so numerous that he needed to explain to the reader why this was so. In Book Seven, which mainly deals with events at the end of the 8th century and beginning of the 9th, he says that he will explain how some women behaved in older times:

In olden days there were among the Danes, women who dressed like men and used nearly every moment of their time in battle-training so as not to run the risk that the sickness of luxurious life would drain away their courage. They hated luxury, preferring to harden both body and soul with toil and endurance (…) they forced their womanly nature to act with manly ruthlessness. And they absorbed the art of warfare with such zeal that one would not believe they were women any longer. It was especially those with a strong personality or a tall, handsome body who chose such a life.

After his introduction, Saxo turns back to the story itself, which is an account of the line of Danish kings. Warrior women appear again in Book Eight. In the battle of Brävall, between the Danish King Harald Hildetann and the Swedish King Ring, there are among the leaders of the Danish army two woman warriors, Hede and Visna, ‘to whom nature has given manly courage in women’s bodies’. These two women led a force from Slesvig in the battle. Visna carried the unit’s banner and is described by Saxo as ‘a tough woman with good knowledge of the arts of warfare’. Hede led Harald’s right flank.

Vebjørg was another woman warrior who took part on the Danish side. She led a group of ‘battlethirsty men’ and was herself a feared warrior. She felled a giant called Sote during the battle, but when she began to challenge further warriors to individual combat she was killed by a well-aimed arrow. The other women were all killed in the battle too. Among other wounds, Visna had her hand chopped off. On King Ring’s side, it is mentioned briefly among other things that Gerd den glade (‘Gerd the Happy’) fought for him together with a group of warriors from Värmland.

There is nothing in the reports to indicate that a warrior woman lost her femininity in the eyes of men. In the written sources it appears that the warrior women were desired by men and that they married and had children.

Saxo’s histories are exciting reading and good entertainment, but most people agree that his presentation of historic facts cannot be relied upon as accurate. He wrote in ponderous Latin and was inspired by classical texts, and many of his female characters have classic precedents, such as the Amazons and Camilla in The Aeneid. However, Saxo’s warrior women are not just classic models transferred to a Scandinavian scene. Saxo based his material on Scandinavian sources, mainly Icelandic. He himself says that he had copied much of this material in his presentation, especially from the heroic poetry. Many of Saxo’s stories about the warrior women have literary parallels in the heroic poems in The Older Edda and elsewhere. The events in these lays are mostly supposed to have taken place in the time of the tribal migrations, and they are preserved in Icelandic parchment manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries.

A good example of such parallel stories is Saxo’s account of Hagbart, who in his struggle to win Signe pretended to be a woman warrior, and the story of Helge in Det andre kvadet om Helge Hundingsbane (‘The second poem about Helge Hundingsbane’). In Saxo’s account, Hagbart is asked why he is so masculine. ‘She’ replies that it is not usual for warrior women to concern themselves with feminine arts. In The Older Edda, Helge is asked the same question when he pretends to be a slave girl. His patron explains that the slave girl is so masculine because she was previously a warrior woman from a noble family:

The grinding-stone groans

On the grinding-bench

When a prince’s daughter

Turns the quern.

Once she rode

Above the clouds;

Ventured to fight

Like a Viking;

Until Helge

Captured her;

Sister is she

To Sigar and Hognes;

Quick and sharp-eyed,

Our quern-girl.

We don’t know who wrote these poems, but they are thought to be survivals from an oral folk tradition that existed for hundreds of years before the Viking Age. We know them from early written sources including excavations at Bryggen in Bergen where a number of runic inscriptions from the 12th century have been found, containing verses from the Edda poems. They are also found in fragments of the German Hildebrandslied (‘Song of Hildebrand’) from the 9th century.

Do the Roman and Norse stories reflect an actual reality, namely that warrior women existed in Germanic tribal culture in northern Europe and Scandinavia until well into the Viking Age? Alternatively, are the stories of warrior women just based on misunderstanding, or are they pure literary fantasy?

Women also feature outside their established roles in the Old Norse sagas about events in Iceland; not directly as warrior women, but as women who take up arms. Here, however, they are often punished for this, or have to tolerate social criticism. In the Laksdøla Saga we hear about Aud, who attacked her husband, Tord, with a sword. She was called Broka-Aud (‘Trousered Aud’) because she preferred to wear men’s clothes rather than skirts. This led to Tord divorcing her, because her lack of femininity offended his manly honour. She herself didn’t think there was anything noteworthy or dishonourable in wearing trousers. When Tord found himself a new woman, Aud took the sword and wounded him as an act of revenge. In Gisle Surson’s Saga, Tordis took upon herself the role of avenger when her family was offended. She wielded a sword against Øyolv and injured him to avenge the killing of her brother.

In The Greenland Saga and Eirik Raude’s Saga we meet Frøydis, who was Eirik Raude’s daughter. She was a very determined woman who didn’t hesitate to take up a weapon. She killed five women with an axe after first having their men killed. In Vinland she grasped a sword and displayed her breasts and pregnant abdomen to show the Indian warriors that she was a woman. She hit herself on the breasts with the flat of a sword when they attacked the new settlements. Frøydis’s aim in doing this was probably not to fight with the Indians, but first and foremost to demonstrate that she was a woman and pregnant, and that she was prepared to defend herself and her child.

Neither Aud, Tordis nor Frøydis were warrior women, but as participants in these dramas they were in a theatre where it was considered legitimate for women to handle weapons. These women were also to a certain extent upper-class women. They were married to independent farmers. In Iceland, where there was no king, the free farmers constituted the upper class and the landless, the tenant farmers, the freed serfs and the slaves made up the lower classes. It is possible that the Icelandic family sagas are pure fiction and should really be regarded as intended to combine the telling of good stories with imparting to the readers the kind of behaviour that was accepted in Icelandic society in the Middle Ages.

Gender roles in Viking times were clearly defined and separated. Men and women each related to their symbolic world of rights, values and attributes. A free man had weapons as his symbol, with which to defend himself and his family. The woman held the keys to the rooms and storage chests on the farm. Another symbolic distinction of both sex and status was clothing and appearance. One Icelandic legal decision specified that women who wore men’s clothing, cut their hair or carried weapons could be condemned as outlaws, and the same applied to men who wore women’s clothes. The distinction was most acute in the social milieu of the warriors, which promoted a purely masculine culture.

In the daily toil on the farm, by contrast, many of the areas of responsibility overlapped. The gender distinctions were manifested instead in cultural practices and symbolism.

Marriage between a man and a woman was one of the most important social institutions of the Viking Age. Getting married was a symbolically important decision which affected the whole extended family, and a man had to consult his friends and relatives before he could choose a bride. In theory the woman had no say in the matter but in practice it was probably usual for both bride and groom to give their consent. Women in the aristocratic classes, though, differed from farming-class women in being largely pawns in the game of politics.

A description of a marriage ceremony tells us that the man gave the family sword to the woman as a wedding present, to be passed on thereafter to a male heir. She also received and gave to the man gifts of weapons, as the Germanic women had done in Tacitus’s time.

Weaponry in female burials

Remains of weapons have been found in many sites of female burial from Roman, Germanic migration and Viking times. In some instances, where there is evidence of more than one weapon, this could be interpreted as indicating that the weapons were actually used by the women. There are several female burials in northern Germany which contain evidence of military gear, shields, spears and swords. Two of these are dated between 450 and 650 AD. More usually, however, the graves contain a single weapon rather than the whole equipment. Moreover, it is often difficult to be certain that the surviving artefacts really are the remains of a weapon.

In 1867 a Scandinavian female burial from the Viking Age was found in Norfolk, England. In addition to a pair of oval brooches this contained an object resembling a sword. This obviously made headlines, but it is equally likely that it was a weaving shuttle.

Weapons have been found with greater certainty in other burials from Viking times. In 1981, during an excavation in the neighbourhood of the village of Gerdrup in Denmark, a female skeleton was found buried with a needle-case, an iron knife and a spear. This grave dates from the beginning of the 9th century. It has been suggested that she was either a warrior woman or a woman with ‘man-status’, serving as head of a household which lacked a man to fulfil this role. In such circumstances it was legitimate for a woman to be buried with symbols of manhood. But this does not tell us anything about whether she actually fought with the spear.

In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland a decorated sword has been found associated with a female burial dated to the 10th century. Perhaps here too we have a woman carrying out a manly role? However, later investigations seem to connect the sword to a secondary grave and not the female burial. Weapons have also been found in two female burials from Kaupang in Norway. In a boat burial from the last quarter of the 9th century, an axe, eight knives, a quiver for holding arrows and a whetstone were found in addition to a pair of oval brooches and other feminine accessories. In addition to these two, nearly 20 burials have been found in Norway containing both women’s and men’s equipment. Many of these were excavated during the 19th and early 20th centuries and are therefore not so well documented as the Gerdrup and Kaupang graves. As documentation is scantly or entirely lacking, we cannot be sure whether there was more than one skeleton in each of these graves. So they cannot be used as a source.

In the light of corresponding finds, it is not unthinkable that many of these Norwegian ‘undocumented’ burials were single female burials with a weapon. The finds are obviously not evidence that these women were warrior women, but they are evidence that women and weaponry were not incompatible in the Viking Age.

Was it possible for women in the Viking Age to appear as warriors in the battle line alongside men? Even though the Edda poems and many sagas should perhaps be interpreted as allegories conveying moral values in the form of parables rather than as factual accounts, and the warrior women should be seen as fictitious, there are many archaeological finds which associate women with weapons. As we have seen, such finds of weapons can be explained other than as weapons for use by women in battle. We have also seen that the gender roles in Viking society were normally kept strictly separate, and that it was associated with shame and dishonour to break those boundaries, though it was still possible for men and woman to break out of such bonds if the conditions were right.

It is however difficult to say anything about why some women in Viking society wanted to appear as warriors and about how some of them seem to have acquired the right to do so. There is much research still to be done in this area, but the preliminary conclusion is that women warriors would probably have represented too big a deviation from the gender roles of the Viking Age.