Here is a paper I wrote a couple years ago. I’m surprised no one ever covered this before since it is so colorful and that the Roman Emperor Nero had a unit (to use a generous term) of female bodyguards outfitted as Amazons could easily have become part of the popular depictions of him. It is actually informative about his mindset and how popular culture effects leaders particularly absolute dictators.
Nero’s Amazonian Guards
February 16th 2012 (edited and updated in February 2015)
Regardless of all the more recent sources Suetonius remains indispensable for chronicling the lives of the Roman Emperors in the period before his time, he is the start point for lore about the Caesars upon whom all others must lean. Emperor Nero remains one of the most hated of Roman leaders setting the gold standard for tyrannical insanity, at least in the sources. While other Caesars solidified their rule through extensive public works projects for the population at large Nero built monuments to himself, and solidified his rule by killing off his close relatives. His paranoia directly resulted in the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty as there were no other likely successors to the name and even this extreme measure only kept him in power till uprisings emerged from outside the imperial court. In this time of crisis Nero acquitted himself as poorly as a leader as he had as a sportsman when he failed to finish races and just declared himself victor. One of Nero’s maneuvers in trying to mobilize to deal with the revolt was to set his concubines out as a military force, and this makes it onto the laundry list of evidence in the sources for his insanity; however, when looking at this action and his moves in this period in context they come off as less insane and more as the actions of a man lacking experience thrust into a new field and trying to figure it out through what sources he had available which trended towards the popular culture of his time. The creation of his Amazonian Guards was likely for personal protection but more than anything this action served as an excuse to bring along on a projected campaign as many of this extremely decadent emperor’s playthings as possible. While the sources, as propaganda of a later regime, tend towards sensationalism about Nero’s mental state, state that despite the revolt starting in Gaul, thus giving Nero plenty of time to prepare a response, but he proved flatfooted to say the least. Suetonius writes in paragraph 44 of his Life of Nero: “In preparing for his campaign his first care was to select wagons to carry his theatrical instruments, to have the hair of his concubines, whom he planned to take with him, trimmed man-fashion, and to equip them with Amazonian axes and shields.” It is interesting that this episode has not been broadly covered in popular culture as the image of the mad emperor surrounded by armed through martially feeble concubines would be suitably ridiculous. But as with so much of the sparse writing from sources of this period we have to draw in areas to account for cultural context and to flesh out the event, for all my research Suetonius remains the only existent primary source to cover this course of action. The first piece of context is the priority of events, Nero selects wagons for his instruments before anything, it is a comedy in of itself that he required multiple wagons just for his theatrical instruments most likely to include his new water-organs which both Suetonius and Cassius Dio remark as centering Nero’s attention to a greater extent than did the revolt (Cassius Dio: Historia Romana, book 63). But this also suggests a man more concerned with the arts and his popularity with the masses than a true madman incapable of understanding the context of his actions. We can contrast that with Suetonius describing previous emperors, often before gaining that position, as traveling without extra baggage while Nero decadently cannot even think of going to war without a multitude of instruments large and small. The concubines are mentioned as part of the same extended sentence placing them as a high priority and at the same time as part of the superfluous baggage, a mere luxury. The concubines were given gear which hearkened to Greek legend, Amazonian axes and shields, this suggests that the type, probably fantastical reproductions, was familiar to the city probably from the gladiatorial games. Lacking further information we can assume this gear was of an eastern type possibly influenced by Scythian or possibly Persian combat gear following the artistic trends of the period. The shields would almost certainly have been distinctively crescent shaped.
More so than in normal circumstances we should assume that they followed the artistic conventions with which they were familiar, so representative arts are very useful in determining the styles of the gear. Judging by the type of axes on the Roman sarcophagus shown below the weapons were most likely of the double headed one hand wielded type. The depiction above is from Hellenistic Period Greece (323-31 B.C.) and the one below from the late 2nd Century Rome, the shields would more likely have been of the second type.
A theme in both depictions is of the soldiers pulling the Amazon’s hair, this is present in most depictions of battles with Amazons from antiquity, Nero may have been thinking of these images when he had the concubine’s hair cut short; however, this was not unique to depictions of Amazons, and looking at Suetonius we have this passage in paragraph 41: “…when but slightly encouraged by an insignificant omen, for he noticed a monument on which was sculptured the overthrow of a Gallic soldier by a Roman horseman, who was dragging him along by the hairs he leaped for joy at the sight and lifted up his hands to heaven.” So this liability must have been very much on Nero’s mind, but also these processions were usually tightly planned and as an aficionado, and creator, or popular culture he may well have staged this scene to encourage his supporters. Whether seizing an opportunity or creating a scene this does not really suggest madness, and from his preparations he seemed to be rallying his supporters and learning about warfare from what sources he had. How Suetonius prefaces his remarks is also worth looking at, before going into details he reminds us that it was in fact Nero’s plan to bring along his concubines further suggesting the ridiculousness of the circumstances as the extra confirmation is deemed necessary. There are no details about drilling the concubines nor is there any other reason to suppose military effectiveness of this psuedo-military unit, and Suetonius’s remarks seem to assume this was a mere pretext for taking along Nero’s sexual partners as an extreme reflection of his decadence and ineptitude. Armies throughout history have always preferred commanders who would endure campaigns in a similar fashion as their soldiers, and the Roman army even in this period showed a strong preference towards just that. Nero was incredibly lucky to have been born so high and proved himself a clever and opportunistic poisoner which served him well in palace intrigues but he had not a clue as to what was expected of a Roman commander, a role which he was now forced to take; however, the prevalence of intrigues may have been a part of his decision to bring along his concubines as he probably trusted their loyalty to a greater extent than his courtiers, we know his father Claudius actually preferred freedmen for administrators for their superior trustworthiness. With this in mind it is actually possible that if Nero had retained power he may have kept the guard around, even if militarily weak they could have proven to be another check against the ambitions of other groups. With time and training this group could have become effective at least for personal protection though probably not for pitched battles. While notions of equality might have some believing women to be just as capable as men in combat this is not generally true, in terms of physical strength and endurance men have critical advantages. On campaigns where physical labor is needed these advantages would be even more important; and, the Amazon’s were legendary for being the exception to a very strong rule. This almost certainly came from pastorial influenced cultures where women were needed to mind herds and defend them, so more than just myths there were likely historical precedents for fantasized stories about warrior women and reliable Roman chronicles claim encounters with Amazons well into the 1st Century BC. More than likely this was from encounters with armed contingents which included some warrior-women; however, these writings suggest Amazon more as a type than a distinct tribe. Mentions are made of Amazons in Libya as well as Asia Minor and the prairie land north of the Black Sea, there is no reason to assume there was movement by these peoples and any kind of central culture. So it is safe to project that the references to ‘Amazons’ are not to one group but merely the Greco-Roman way of describing warrior-women.
Even if the idea was a type the imagery, at least as it applied to Roman popular culture, has a general uniformity and once features are linked to an idea they become inextricably linked. This is one of the areas where archaeology becomes very handy as now we have a much better idea of what the people of many cultures from this period looked like, most significantly for this investigation are the Scythians who lived across a swath of territory in the western Eurasian Steppe. Female graves often have weapons and armor, and the shields have a distinct crescent shape fitting very closely with the Greek depictions of Amazons. Axes were also among the favored personal weapons again drawing a connection between what the ancient Greeks saw as Amazons and the Scythians. It hardly matters if this was conflation of real peoples with a mythical story, or if people were aware at the time of a link, what matters is that they were linked in the eyes of the Greeks who passed this on to the Romans. The more elaborate type of shield seen in later Roman depictions may have been from theatrical gladiatrix (female gladiator) equipment or could have been the invention of an artist at some point but once the connection is made it is hard to unmake it. Again we can assume with a reasonable degree of certainty that this was how the Romans saw Amazonian shields, and thus what Nero’s concubines would have been issued. While clearly male dominated the idea, at least, of warrior-women was inside the Greco-Roman culture to the point that they actually had to ban Roman women below the age of twenty from volunteering for the arena. So this concept must have had a significant cache, and Nero may have been trying to inspire the populace with an exotic display of martial women. Beyond the ancient world there have been many historical precedents for women being included in war fighting, albeit on a limited scale. The North Germanic tribes had shield maidens, again attested to in the primary sources and widely attested to by the archaeological record. The 12th Century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in the Gesta Danorum relates how a famous female warrior Lagetha: “Ladgerda, a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All-marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.” A couple take aways from this for the context in general was that she was considered a great fighter by any standard, and the use of her hair. It seems that these women wore enough military equipment that their gender was not easily recognizable, Byzantine sources mentioning the existence of these women attest to their soldiers only discovering that there had been female warriors among their enemies after the fighting was over, and that in her case not only did she wear it long but displayed it in a way to advertise her gender. In many cases, though possibly not in this one, male warriors express terror at the thought of being killed by a woman as that fate could be seen as having less honor.
Europeans in the Nineteenth Century marveled at the Dohomey kingdom of Africa, particularly for its us of women in their army which made up approximately one third of the total and were known for their ferocity.
Beyond these earlier examples the 20th Century has only seen an increased use of women, both in armed forces in general and sometimes as direct combatants. There is however no reason to conflate this historical phenomenon, or its modern equivalents, with Nero’s attempt at creating his female bodyguard force. The barbarian Amazons who received at least a begrudging respect would have been from cultures where girls were taught martial skills from a young age, so the appointment of pampered palace concubines as a unit of bodyguards is no less ridiculous in purely military terms despite likely historical precedents for the Greek legends of the Amazons. The best reasonable use for such a unit would have been for protection from within Nero’s own circle and in such a role a group like this could have possibly continued as court politics was one of the deadliest arenas with which the Caesars had to contend a fact attested to by Nero’s own rise to power. While sources attribute Nero’s lack of audience with the Senate during the crisis as part of his stupidity he may have just worried for his own safety as part of the larger trend towards internal intrigues. There are of course obvious historical precedents which would leave Roman leaders worried about the possibility of assassination by Senators. Some notes on hair pulling. Despite the preoccupation with the classical depictions of hair pulling as a common feature of melees (something possibly originating from the Iliad) there is little reason to see it as based on truth. These battles were overwhelmingly fought in lines by people who filled both hands with weapons and shields, and even with a free hand it would be a tremendous disadvantage to reach out one’s own arm to try to grasp an opponent’s hair. Even if pulled the opponent could easily react by attacking the offending vulnerably extended arm. Over the centuries military hair was often worn long or longish, and many units wore distinctive styles such as French Dragoons having long braids, so there does not seem an overriding military need for short hair. In modern history short hair was adopted by armies more for sanitary purposes than any disadvantage in combat. Coming back to Nero and his concubines, even though there was little real value to the shorter hair Nero would not have known that and this once again supports the theory that he was lacking qualified military advisers and was relying on what he could figure out from what sources he had. This does not suggest insanity as there is a logic behind the actions, but it is the logic of a mind unlearned in this field. Conspicuous consumption is an important facet of solidifying monarchical rule, impressing people and attracting large contingents of the best as courtiers keeps a nation on that system running smoothly even if it can be seen as a waste of resources both monetary and human. In this Nero was a master, although quite possibly an unintended one, his building projects took over swaths of the city and served only himself and his court. Most Caesars focused their projects on the city itself to demonstrate a level of concern for the populace at large, so Nero is exceptional not so much for the scale of his works but in that they were self-centered and thus rather than be monuments to the dynasty to be admired they became symbols of his corrupt autocratic rule. In that context Nero’s Amazonian Guard are fairly typical, he may have intended to impress people by the spectacle of warrior women but those who needed to be impressed would certainly have seen right through the façade. Thus intentionally or not they ended up as just another symbol of Nero’s self-obsession, who probably could not impress the right people. The other bookend to this strange chapter reads: “Next he summoned the city tribes to enlist, and when no eligible person responded, he levied on their masters a stated number of slaves, accepting only the choicest from each household and not even exempting paymasters and secretaries.” Suetonius The Life of Nero paragraph 44 From this we see the failure of Nero’s war preparations. He could not enlist any volunteers at all, only managing to conscript some slaves. In a way the creation of the Amazonian Guard seems a precursor to this desperate action as the concubines were Nero’s slaves. Even though this did not work it still does not suggest insanity as he did not try to take the field with his woefully inadequate force where a madman would probably not have been able to see the obvious. This was how Rome would summon its militia army before the shift towards professional soldiers became complete, the law was part of their tradition but it had not been used since the Marian Reforms (107 B.C.) and even then it had been moribund for decades. This may have been a desperate act but it was not necessarily a mad one, his cult of personality was the outstanding feature of his reign, and his popularity if strong enough could have rallied the Plebeians to his cause. But the project failed to rally the populace by turning out volunteers in any numbers, and thus showed the ultimate failure of Nero’s self aggrandizement. If he had succeeded in making the people worship him he would have at least been difficult to overthrow. We should also remember that this type of revolt was new to the Roman imperial system, and trying to avoid such civil wars was a central reason for establishing an absolute emperor. The outbreak of a revolt by Roman legions tells us more about the failure of the political shift to absolutism than about Nero himself. His reliance on popular culture was not unique and it was not even particularly odd. Alexander the great carried a copy of the Iliad with him where ever he went and tried to base his life and even tactics around it. Nero’s cult of personality calls to mind many modern dictators and their imperial airs, and it is from them that we can see the nearest equivalents to the Caesars of old. Like the worse Caesars the militaristic dictators of modern history are often looked on as mad, and yet prove remarkably savvy, luck may help put someone in power but it usually needs help. Nero was born to the imperial family yet rose to power through cunning intrigues, and such intelligence is not the mark of a madman. Another common feature is military ineptitude, contrasting with the opportunistic brutality, and Nero fits right in with the dictator’s club with his failure to raise any army to speak of. His use of popular culture is also common, Saddam Hussein (another ruler who came up through intrigues) distributed thousands of bootleg copies of the Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down to his officers on the eve of the United State’s invasion in 2003 seeking to use it as a guide for how to defeat American forces. Most directly the autocratic kitsch of Nero calls to mind Muammar Qaddafi and his ‘Revolutionary Nuns’ normally called Qaddafi’s Amazonian Guards, this group was probably how Nero’s concubine/guard unity would have worked. While the Revolutionary Nuns put on martial displays they were not a real unit and did not normally even carry weapons, and when a serious uprising hit they were simply disbanded as a luxury their leader could no longer afford to keep. There is not much to suggest anything approaching real insanity in any of these figures before they rose to power, and it is a rare piece of luck to deposit someone without mental faculties as an absolute ruler without any work or cleverness on their part needed. Nero’s last days suggest rather the dangers of power left unchecked and its ability to magnify garden variety narcissism.
As there is relatively little about this strange episode near the end of Nero’s reign we have to fill in with some conjecture but some of the available context can flesh it out a great deal. Nero, while inexperienced does not display real signs of insanity, and instead shows signs of a justifiable paranoia and a lack of skilled advice, or any personal knowledge, in military matters and yet was trying to reason out a difficult situation with what sources he had. He also displays an indecisive streak, but this is again a sign of inexperience in a new field and not any sort of insanity. We can see this from the long delays before he took any action and from his apparent sense of priorities once he belatedly began his preparations. Nero’s attempt at creating an Amazonian Guard seems to fit with his efforts to retain the comforts of the palace while on campaign, we can infer from his actions his heavy influence from popular culture in how they were prepared, but it is doubtful if he had high hopes for military effectiveness. The main intention was more than likely for personal protection from within the ranks, and to continue to service him sexually, as he must have realized a unit of untrained women equipped with fantastical gear by numbers and individual strength was not something on which a commander could rely for neither tough campaigning nor heavy combat. All this suggests understandable paranoia and a continued preoccupation with internal intrigues, Nero’s bread and butter, which hampered his attempts at military preparations, a new subject to him, and spelled the end for the last member of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.
Suetonius. The Life of Nero. Translation by J.C. Rolfe Cassius Dio. Historia Romana. Translation by Earnest Cary
Document format, in Open Office: Nero’s Amazons