Rereading Thucydides: Where are the Women?

“Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female—whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949[1]

The historian Thucydides wrote his account of The Peloponnesian War in 450 BC to be a “possession for all time.”[2] His work, intended to have ongoing relevance, invites us to review its meaning in relation to current times as well as its original context. In doing so, we find this account of politics and war is exclusively focused on male activities and behaviours. This article engages in a re-reading of The Peloponnesian War using a feminist lens, and considers how the text is not one of human endeavour, as it is often noted—but rather of male endeavour.

In 1994, John Keegan wrote, “If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.”[3] This masculine preoccupation is reflected, twenty centuries earlier, in The Peloponnesian War, which shows war and politics as exclusively male domains. Thucydides’ history is the record of man’s interactions with other men, where women are only considered when they are obstacles or dividends and are otherwise deemed irrelevant. The Peloponnesian War therefore establishes a form of historiographical patriarchy by representing history purely through a male perspective.

In The Peloponnesian War, a (free) male in Ancient Greece had a voice to advocate for or discourage war. In comparison, a woman’s contributions to politics was largely as a channel for the transfer of citizenship from her father to her son.[4] Without the ability to participate in the polis, when Athens and Sparta waged war, women lived the consequences of a whole-of-society effort without agency in its cause or strategy. War had evolved from distant, decisive land and sea battles to affect the broader Peloponnese, including neutral states. All states suffered as the war escalated, as long-standing laws that governed the conduct of war were broken, dissolving non-combatant status and assigning men, women, and children of the defeated side to death or enslavement. However, we learn of this only through the male lens, as female voices are silent in the narrative.  The Peloponnesian War creates a single story—of male experience—and a single story is linked to power, especially as Thucydides is considered to be one of the fathers of history.[5] Because of this status, The Peloponnesian War is considered an authoritative account of warfare, and by omitting female voices in this work Thucydides establishes the precedent of one of the most dominating forms of suppression—the invisibility of the “other.” 

Male Experience as Human Experience

To further explore how only male experience features in The Peloponnesian War, it is useful to show how women are largely unknown in Thucydides’ work. Most women in the text are nameless; only twenty females are mentioned by name in 650 pages.[6] Notably, of these twenty women, seven have done something immoral or illegal.[7] Women are generally referred to in the plural, with the term “women and children” used twenty-five times in the text, rendering women as simply another component of the physical and social environment. Most of these references relate to enslavement or massacre, assigning women as an outcome and an afterthought of the preceding battle. Thucydides is not interested in women’s perspectives or in documenting any roles they performed during the war. Female work to prepare the dead for burial, support economies, maintain rituals, and raise the next generation must be entirely extrapolated from the text.

“Plague in an Ancient City” painted by Michiel Sweerts. The painting is believed to be referring to the plague of Athens or have elements from it. (Wikimedia)

Examples of courage in the text are shown through descriptions of combat and representations of military and political leadership, and therefore examples of female courage must be largely inferred. When women take part in the battles on two occasions—showing courage like men—the references are too few to meaningfully represent a common human quality. Thucydides notes the “[Corcyraean] women [were] also valiantly assisting them...and supporting the melée with a fortitude beyond their sex.”[8] Here Thucydides offers female courage as an exception to the rule. Yet, the women of ancient Greece would have shown resilience in many ways during the twenty-seven-year conflict as they were dispossessed from their homes, sold into slavery, and endured starvation, rape, and death.[9] However, they are not discussed. For example, while women were caretakers and victims during the Athenian plague, during the four-page description in the text women are not mentioned once. Dogs are.[10]

The experience of female resilience after enslavement is also muted. Thucydides mentions female enslavement five times, each in a single sentence, which contrasts with several detailed passages about male suffering during the war.[11] These passages describe the plague in Athens, the Athenian retreat from Syracuse, the battle at Assinarus river, and the subsequent living conditions of Athenian prisoners.[12] Thucydides disregards women’s suffering by focusing on male experience of suffering, thereby asserting that both courage and resilience are exclusively male qualities. Thucydides’ lens obscures the female experience, negates its value, and without female voices, his reference to human qualities are, in fact, only male ones. The Peloponnesian War asserts that the nature of war is, ultimately, male.

The Character of War has Changed, the Politics (and Nature) Have Not

So what relevance is this re-reading today and what has changed? Women’s contribution to the political sphere—and warfare—has been unequal since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Despite some limited progress twenty centuries after the Peloponnesian War, the dominance of men and marginalisation of women in social power structures, remains an endemic feature of many modern societies. With women traditionally excluded from politics, it has taken until the 20th century for the uneven progress of female suffrage to enable women to have a voice in some political systems. Further, only since the year 2000 is there now formal international recognition of the importance of women in the prevention and transformation of conflict, emphasising the need for equal participation in political structures that manage peace and security.[13] There is a discussion about how to engage women to prevent radicalisation and counter violent extremism.[14] Engagement with women is certainly crucial, however female leadership is also key to any developments in peacebuilding. Where men continue to dominate the modern polis, they exclusively govern the use of war. Using Weber’s assertion that the state has a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence to advance political aims, the lack of historical political parity has meant—at its simplest—the use of state violence since recorded time by male leadership.[15] Women may now have the ability to participate in politics, however female leadership in the broad is still lacking. A brief comparison of female leadership in with current business, military, and political structures today shows this to be an enduring challenge.[16]

Given the fractious nature of state relationships, would female leaders be any less likely to wage war as a means to advance political aims? In their histories of warfare, Keegan and Gat assert that women are inherently less violent than men.[17] Of course, it cannot be assured that increasing female political leadership will decrease violent conflict between states. However, as female parity in politics has never been achieved, this idea is difficult to disprove based on any broad empirical evidence. There is an urgency to this conversation because the current strongman leadership, escalatory rhetoric, and trade sanctions between states suggests the geopolitical order is in a heightened state of competition, leading to more global disruption and potential violent conflict. In terms of equal female representation in global politics, there is far to go. In 2018, there were 14 female heads of state from 195 countries in the world—a total of 7.2% female leadership.[18] Humankind’s history of war, and overwhelmingly male leadership in waging war, suggests it is unlikely state and non-state actors will adjust the way warfare is employed while political systems still lack the representation of the broader society they govern.

A Yazidi woman who joined the Kurdish Peshmerga forces sits next to rifles in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State. (Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters)


Thucydides defined history as politics and war. As these were male-only enterprises, the intimation is that the only stories during the war worth telling were those of men. On re-reading The Peloponnesian War and asking Where are the women?, careful work is required to reconstruct the female narrative. We find that a woman is a possession, a victim, a notable exception, and, mostly, invisible. Examples of female courage are quickly subsumed, as de Beauvoir suggests, as imitating male nature. Women do not govern, and their vital role in maintaining societies during the war is not acknowledged. Without agency or voice, and without recognition as either combatants or non-combatants, women suffer as men do in the war, albeit silently.  Because women’s perspectives are excluded in the text, Thucydides’ portrait of human nature is largely of male nature. Thucydides wrote a single story, and the consequence of a single story is that it makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult.[19] Our subsequent history of war and little development towards equal gender representation in politics since the time of ancient Greece suggests that the structures and discourses of patriarchy remain largely robust and unevolved.

Kate Tollenaar is an officer in the Australian Army. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the Australian Defence Force.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Athena (Flikr)


[1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949, Êditions Gallimard, Paris, (trans). Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 5. 

[2] Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides, (1.22.4)

[3] John Keegan, A History of Warfare, (London: Random House, 1994) 76. This argument is limited in terms of women’s participation in war throughout history as combatants. Further discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Cheryl Glenn, ‘Sex, Lies and Manuscript: Reconfiguring Aspasia in the History of Rhetoric’, College Composition and Communication, 45 (1994): 184.

[5] ‘The danger of a single story’, Chimamanda Adichie, TED talk, 21 May 2005.

[6] In comparison, female to male references by name are a 1:8 ratio –– and that is only in relation to the males whose names begins with an “A.” (151 individual males whose names begin with ‘A’, see Strassler 637-640).

[7] David Harvey, “Women in Thucydides,” Arethusa, 18 (1985): 72. Of the seven women, four have committed crimes, one is a traitor, one is deceptive, and one transmits a hereditary curse.

[8] Strassler, (2.4.2) and (3.74.1)

[9] Harvey, “Women and Thucydides,” 72. (Strassler, 2.54)

[10] Strassler, Plague (2.47-54). Reference to dogs (2.50.2).

[11] Strassler, (3.68.2), (4.484), (5.116.4), (5.32.1), (5.3.4). A slightly longer paragraph explains the massacre at Mycalessus with a focus on the murder of male children while at school. (7.29)

[12] Strassler, Plague in Athens, (2.47-54), Athenian retreat from Syracuse, (7.75), Battle at Assinarus river, (7.84), treatment of Athenian prisoners (7.87).

[13] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, “Women, Peace and Security,” released 31 October 2000. The resolution also calls for a reduction in sexual-based violence in conflict which overwhelmingly affects women and girls., accessed 20 October 2018.

[14] References include ‘Participants, enablers and preventers: The roles of women in terrorism’ (2009) by Ellie Hearne and ‘Engaging women in countering violent extremism: avoiding instrumentalisation and furthering agency’ (2017) by Sophie Giscard d’Estaing.

[15] Max Weber’s essay, ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1919) posits that the state is the only entity with the monopoly of violence as a legitimate act. Common example of female leaders in wartime include Cleopatra, Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher, who are frequently cited but are statistically insignificant.

[16] Business: “There are now just six female chief executives at the helm of Britain’s largest businesses, a figure so small that they are outnumbered by the number of male FTSE CEOs called Steve/Stephen, which is currently at seven.” 12 Nov 2018, ‘Who are the six female bosses in the FTSE 100?’ Accessed at Military: Major General Cheryl Pearce, Commander UN Peacekeeping Mission in Cyprus (UNFICYP) is only the second woman to be appointed force commander of a UN peacekeeping mission. Accessed at Political: There are 15 female world leaders currently in office, eight of whom are their country’s first woman in power…these women still represent fewer than 10% of 193 UN member states. Accessed at

[17] See John Keegan, The History of Warfare, “Half of human nature –– the female half –– is in any case, highly ambivalent about warmaking” (78). And Azar Gat, War in Human Civilisation, “[Women’s] aggressiveness is much less channelled to physical violence as men’s aggressiveness is” (78-83).

[18] “2018, Women and Political Leadership.”, accessed 12 Oct 18.

[19] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘The danger of a single story’. TED Talk - TED Global 2009: