The Achaean Women

The effect of warfare on women has been lamented from Euripides to the present-day Congolese sexual violence commission. There is just one methodological problem about all these laments – they only consider the effect of war on the women of the losing side. I do not believe that anybody has ever considered how war and the female sex might interact on the winning side. Given that nobody starts a war intending to lose it, contemplation of the women of the winning side might actually tell us what role women play in the causation of war as such.

The Trojan women whose misery was so eloquently captured by Euripides were going to be taken to the Greek lands as slaves and concubines. Which is to say, as a labour force. For it was not all about sex; women were the only technology then known for making clothes. Kidnapping of artisans continued long after Homer’s day – the Sicilians learned their sericulture from kidnapped Greeks, the Japanese learned their pottery from captured Koreans and the Americans learned their rocketry from captured Germans.

Making clothes was a mind-bogglingly labour-intensive industry. Weaving was bad enough, on a warp-weighted loom, but spinning was far worse; pre-industrial societies had every available female, even nobles and royal ones, spinning from dawn to bedtime. That is, after all, why one word for an unmarried woman is “spinster”.

Servile women were also, of course, cooking and cleaning technology. As well as textile production, we may imagine the captured Trojan princesses being put to work in the storehouse, the laundry, the kitchen and the bathhouse, and also to scrubbing the floor and polishing the gew-gaws. In between their domestic duties the Trojan women would no doubt be satisfying the lusts of the male Greeks, but it would be a mistake to think that this was the only or even the primary reason for enslaving them. For we misunderstand the nature of a seraglio; pace the Orientalist painters, nobody could afford to keep a pack of women loafing around in the nude. It was not so much a matter of single-purpose concubines as a fuckable labour force, and this was just as true in Western noble houses as in the Topkapi Serai. This is, after all, that is why one word for a loose woman is “scrubber”.

Now, the Achaean men no doubt enjoyed the dominance game of having coercive sex with the defeated country’s nobility, but who was it that actually benefited from the extra labour? Their wives, of course. For every skein that a Trojan princess spun, that was one less skein for the Achaean wives to spin. Housekeeping is hard, boring and dirty work, and there has never been a time when women did it for fun, which means that there has never been a time when they did not yearn to have someone else do it for them. (It is worth remembering that modern labour-saving devices came along as a replacement for the uneducated, lower-class servants that every middle-class woman once had – by definition – and only then in response to a dearth of farm-girls and the consequent increase in servile market power.)

The import of domestic slaves was very much in the Achaean women’s interest, although they probably found the princesses in need of remedial scrubbing lessons. It follows that the Achaean women had an objective interest (as the Marxists used to say) in their menfolk going abroad to bring them back new slaves, whether Trojan princesses or no, and it is only a short jump from that objective interest to a rational motive for encouraging such wars. Who cares about gender solidarity when there is hard and dirty work to be done – or rather, assigned?

After the labour force come the inanimate spoils of war. No doubt the Achaean men also enjoyed the Trojan treasures and luxury goods, but – fine weapons apart – how could we possibly think that the Achaean women had any less interest in them? If the Achaean wife wanted a beautiful necklace and the women of some other, militarily weaker, nation wore such necklaces, do we really believe that she would put the interests of those foreign women above her own, and not whisper to her husband in the watches of the night that if only he were a Real Man™, he would go out, conquer them and bring her back lots of lovely swag?

Both kinds of spoils are invoked by Sisera’s mother at the end of the Song of Deborah, Judges 5:30. “Are they not finding and dividing the spoil? A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?” She does not seem very concerned about the necks of the previous owners. And what does Sisera’s mother mean by “a womb or two for every man”? Concubines, of course, to give her sons extra children and therewith extra status. Sisera’s wife would be on side as well; in that culture, we remember, any child born to a concubine was deemed to belong to the legitimate wife, thus giving her enhanced status. Which is what it was all about, and still is.

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