Walter Duvall Penrose, Jr., Postcolonial Amazons: Female Masculinity and Courage in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2016.
I watched this book on Oxford University Press’s website for months, before and after its publication, until the point at which I could — barely — justify a purchase. Postcolonial Amazons promises so much: “a ground-breaking re-evaluation of the place of martial women in the ancient world, bridging the gap between myth and historical reality and expanding our conception of the Amazon archetype.” It promises me a treatment of Amazons that uses a postcolonial frame to examine the periphery of the Greek world and the Indian one, a book that employs both Greek and Sanskrit literature to revision notions of “the Amazon” in the ancient world.
Any scholar who attempts such a treatment requires both depth and breadth of knowledge. Most of the archaeological evidence for Scythian and Sarmatian burials — which are two of the cultures most closely associated with the idea of Amazons, and which have provided female warrior burials — has been published in Russian, and some scholars have argued that surviving Central Asia epic cycles from the middle ages and later may preserve some clues about ancient cultures in the trans-Caucasus and the region of Georgia and Armenia. Indian history — especially the Mauryan and Gupta periods, and the time contemporaneous with the Hellenistic kingdoms in Bactria — and Sanskrit literature is its own well-developed field about which I know little (though I have tried to get access to the more recent works on Hellenistic Bactria), while a diachronic survey of Greek and Roman literature concerning not just Amazons but women who have participated in war — or who have accessed some form of masculinity — may require the knowledge of a career’s worth of study, especially if one is to speak of “female masculinity” in the ancient world and counterpoint it with “male femininity” — for it seems to me to make little sense to attempt to understand the one without the other.
Walter Duvall Penrose Jr. has some promising ideas, and connects them with moderate success. But throughout, Postcolonial Amazons feels much slighter than it should be, and much less underpinned by direct engagement with its sources. Let me take an example: Penrose cites Pomeroy on women in Hellenistic Egypt instead of directly engaging with the papyri that would have supported his argument in the early pages of this book, and this approach — cite an author who has already done some of the work, like Adrienne Mayor with The Amazons, which could have used more direct engagement with the Russian archaeological sources, or like Lindoff and Rubinson’s Are All Warriors Male? Gender Roles on the Ancient Eurasian Steppe, without peeling back the layers to make an independent examination of the material on which they base their conclusions, or at least to show that Penrose considered that material on his own — persists throughout. I cannot speak to the whole of Penrose’s work, but where I have some knowledge of the field, the lack of substantial and extended engagement with scholarship in languages other than French and English is notable (and for that matter, Penrose fails to nod to French archaeological work in Central Asia where it might give weight to some of his arguments).
Postcolonial Amazons feels more like a survey sprinkled with theory that, by and large, mystifies rather than illuminates — and I’ve read quite a bit of theory-heavy work in my time. It’s not that difficult to get a feel for when the theory is genuinely integrated with the material and supporting it, and when the material and the theory are a bit like roommates who live mostly separate lives, passing each other with witty asides and sidelong glances but lacking a really unified approach to their household. It’s a decent survey, and one with some interesting ideas (though Penrose is hobbled by the “let me tell you what I’m doing, no let me tell you what I am about to tell you” style of academic writing, which does his work no favours) but one that tantalises with glimpses of what it could have delivered, had it managed to pull off a deeper and more joined-up engagement with both literature and archaeology. (I cannot help but wonder, here, whether Penrose might have managed a more satisfying book in an academic system that did not put so much pressure on its denizens to publish early and often, or whether he was simply not aiming to produce that kind of work — but failed to communicate that to me in his opening chapters.)
Yet there is food for thought here, in the connections that Penrose sketches but does not draw out in detail. It is a book worth reading — though perhaps not to the extent of paying sixty euro for the privilege — and one whose sketches and preliminary arguments I hope other scholars will use as springboards for their research. And some of the Indian material was an entire revelation to me, since it deals with matters of which I have been entirely ignorant.
Maybe one day, someone will write me a really satisfying work about the idea and the reality of Amazons in the ancient world. I’m going to keep looking.