Book Review: “Women Warriors: An Unexpected History” by Pamela D. Toler

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 4/22/2019


Back when I was in graduate school, I studied what I considered “pop culture” in antiquity: folklore, sexuality/gender, slavery – basically cultural history, right? My dissertation was about mentions of Amazons in four specific Greek and Roman authors. A book like Pamela D. Toler’s Women Warriors: An Unexpected History might seem right up my alley, but I can also be harsh on such books when they don’t meet my expectations.


Front Cover of Warrior Women: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler

The “unexpected” in this collection of historical women warriors refers to two things. First, the target audience, laypeople who are intrigued by the increase in women in military service, often believe that this is a new phenomenon, something Toler proves incorrect. Second, Toler has tried to find women who are less well-known in western culture for a variety of reasons, as well as a few stars you may have seen books, documentaries, or even fictional accounts about.

For us here at Rome Reborn®, the big question is whether or not Rome is covered in this book. Yes, but only as the opposition. No Roman woman qualifies as a warrior in this book, and I’d agree with that assessment using the criteria that Toler lays out in Chapter One. Toler clearly explains her criteria and how each woman warrior meets those standards, but she does it in a thematic way that makes this unique among similar books I’ve read that list famous women in history.

Four female opponents of Rome appear in this book. Oddly, both Cleopatra and Zenobia are given only a couple of sentences in the chapter about “queen” warriors. Yes, these two queens may be well-known to us, but there are twenty paragraphs devoted to Boudica who, I’d argue, is at least as well-known as Cleopatra for most western readers.

Boudica is classified as a “mother,” meaning that she is a warrior who fights either because of or in spite of a threat to her children. Two Roman authors are cited in this section — Tacitus and Dio Cassius — and while Toler may not be an ancient historian, she grasps the limits of these authors and lays them out well for the layperson. Boudica is treated in a balanced way; the section about her focuses on the battles and political decisions, while the salacious details of why she fought are acknowledged but not drawn out, nor should they be in this type of study. It is only at the end that she and the status of women among the various tribes of Britons are compared to the position of Roman women in society. I wish this comparison had been made throughout this section and not just a few, desultory sentences.

The other woman warrior who opposed the might of Rome in this book is fourth-century Queen Mawiyya, a “widow” warrior who fights to defend her deceased husband’s lands and peoples. If you haven’t read of Mawiyya, you aren’t alone, but Toler found enough evidence to fill fourteen paragraphs. Like Zenobia, Mawiyya is described as “Arab,” though she inherits a confederation of kingdoms, called the Tanukh, not a single kingdom. The Romans had a treaty with the Tanukh but would not renew it with Mawiyya, and religious differences are the reason given in Christian histories written centuries later. Again, Toler does a good job of laying out some limitations, but she does not as clearly list the sources she used as she did for Boudica. The details here are less full, but that might reflect the sources’ focus on religion and the fact that they apparently contradict each other.

Beyond these four Roman opponents, there are dozens of woman warriors I had never heard about in this book as well as the famous ones, such as Hua Mulan, Artemisia II, and Isabella of Castile. There are eight chapters and eight categories of woman warriors, one per chapter. Within each chapter one warrior is highlighted first, then the others are laid out in a roughly chronological fashion. There are also four subchapters that focus on specific woman warriors or new archeological finds being debated that connect to a previous category but do not fit into it perfectly.

Toler writes clearly and avoids dumbing down history for the non-specialist reader; she just lays out the facts and connects each warrior to the ones mentioned previously. The book does have an agenda: to show that current debates about women in the military are both old and previously fought. Can or should women be warriors? This book declares those questions foolish, because they have been, and they are.


Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler was published by Beacon Press in 2019. You can buy it on Amazon and via other booksellers.

Sister Fidelma is one of three female mystery solvers in this anthology. Roman mysteries need not be only for adults. Marilyn Todd gives us the anti-hero in Claudia Seferius, who combines advancing her own agenda with solving (and possibly committing) crimes in “Honey Moon.” Flavia Gemina, Caroline Lawrence’s gutsy child detective from the popular YA series Roman Mysteries, brings up an interesting historical point in her story “Bread and Circuses” – were there detectives at all in the Roman world? If there were mysteries or crimes, then there must have been people solving them. Even in the heavily patriarchal Roman world, sometimes the best person for that job might have been a woman or a girl.

What is interesting about this collection is the range of status and occupations the various detectives hold. Our solo philosopher is an unnamed viewpoint character in “Never Forget” by Tom Holt. Holt’s sense of humor was off-putting at first, but it relates to the twist, which I won’t ruin for you. One need not be a philosopher, though, to solve mysteries, as the other 16 stories demonstrate.

Everyday folks may be forced to solve mysteries before they can get on with making a living. The “average” fictional Roman whose logic and reasoning make him a great detective is represented by Gordianus the Finder in Steven Saylor’s “A Gladiator Dies Only Once.” You don't need to be familiar with Saylor’s series, but it does help with some of the references in this story.

Roman soldiers as detectives are common in this collection. We see the first example of this in Michael Jecks’ story “The Hostage to Fortune,” with an unnamed narrator who uses nicknames for everyone. I found that tedious and confusing to read. Centurion Figulus from Simon Scarrow’s “Heads You Lose” finds himself in a tricky spot when charged to find a traitor. The greatest mystery of “The Missing Centurion” is who wrote it and when, because the story itself felt dated and weak. Jean Davidson’s “Golden Opportunity” was a bit more salacious than I was expecting from this anthology, but a fun read. “Sunshine and Shadow” by R.H. Stewart used language that kept taking me out of the story because it felt too modern for the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE.

Romans from the upper echelons of society might solve mysteries for fun or at the order of someone above them. Decius Metellus from the John Maddox Roberts series SPQR perfectly fits this description in “The Will,”  having a ball while doing his job. In “Great Caesar’s Ghost” by Michael Kurland, a well-respected legal mind is called to action. The quality of the story, the narrative design, and the pace made this one of my favorite stories in this book. In “Damnum Fatale” from Philip Boast, former Senator Septimus Severus Quistus would rather spend his time reading and grieving than almost anything else, while the descriptions of his aggressive slave woman hit me as racist and sexist.

Famous historical figures also star in some of these mysteries, beginning with the 1952 piece “De Crimine” by Mariam Allen deFord. Cicero – yes, the famous Cicero – is sort of the detective here, but to be blunt, the mystery is revealed by the story rather than a character’s investigation. Pliny the Younger, in letter form, of course, tells the Emperor Trajan about his investigations into more Christian problems in Darrell Schweitzer’s “Some Unpublished Correspondence.”

Freedmen turn detective to make a living or to help out a patron in three stories in this anthology. Rufus was more than a mere bodyguard when he was a slave, and in “The Cleopatra Game” from Jane Finnis, he uses his wits and proximity to protect his patron and his own beloved. Mary Reed and Eric Mayer give us a John the Eunuch mystery in “The Finger of Aphrodite,” where a statue startles then intrigues the Emperor’s envoy. Of course, no mystery collection of ancient Rome would be complete without another Libertus story by Rosemary Rowe. This one, “Caveat Emptor,” lives up to fan expectations but also benefits from the reader’s knowing most about the character’s history.

I think that a slave detective would be nearly perfect for unofficial investigations because they are everywhere and yet often ignored. Yet we find such a character only once in this anthology. Wallace Nichols’ Sollicus uncovers a complex conspiracy while solving “The Case of His Own Abduction” while giving us a decent look into the realities for some slaves in the imperial period.

While there were some less-than-stellar short stories in this collection, the majority were interesting to read. A few had unforeseen twists yet maintained their internal sense of the time period and the status of the main character. Most were well researched, and those details added to the enjoyment instead of detracting from it. Overall, of the twenty stories, the majority held my interest as both reader and historian.


The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits was edited by Mike Ashley and published by Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., in 2003. New and used copies of the paperback are available for sale on Amazon.

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