Okay, I have to admit it: I am having MORE FUN THAN SHOULD BE ALLOWED researching these powerful princesses. I’m also becoming more and more deeply convinced that Disney – and even the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang and Perrault and Calvino and the rest of my beloved (and doubly beloved!) fairy tale compilers, whose words I treasured when I was a child and whose vision shapes the writer I am today – are pretty much full of crap. Because history is lousy with ladies whose ambitions, talents, schemes, vision, fortitude, and force-of-being have left deep and indelible grooves in the world around them.
Take Arachidamia, for example.
Now, despite the fact that the Greeks weren’t all that keen into things like women’s rights during ancient times, the Spartans were a bit different. A war-like, austere culture (spartan, if you will), both athleticism and battle-prowess were recognized as being both possible in the fairer sex, as well as admired.
And to hear Plutarch tell of it, those ladies from Sparta were forces to be reckoned with.
Queen Arachidamia of Sparta was a woman of wealth and power and status. When King Pyrrhus, feeling his advanced age and the numb recognition that his long career of warmaking had landed him with empty coffers and more dead friends than he could count, decided to make one last foray into war with Sparta, Arachidamia smiled to herself, and began to get ready.
Now, at this point, Sparta was in the middle of a war with Crete, and while things were at this moment going their way, the King and most of the army were far away across the ocean, and impossible to reach in time. And the armies of Pyrrhus were…..extraordinary. Difficult to fight in the best of circumstances. The Spartan Senate, seeing the approach of the armies of Pyrrhus, knowing that they were out-manned and out-armed, made the wrenching decision to gather the women together and send them to Crete where they’d be safe. “Oh, no,” said Arachidamia. She gathered the women and approached the Senate. Arachidamia walked into the Senate chamber, according to Plutarch, “with a sword in her hand, in the name of them all, and asked if they expected the women to survive in the ruins of Sparta.” They would defend their homeland, the women snarled. And the men in the Senate felt their knees start to shake.
The matter was settled, so the Spartans – both men and women – began digging a huge trench, running parallel to Pyrrhus’s camp. And then the battle began.
Pyrrhus attacked with twenty thousand troops, and five thousand elephants. Have you ever seen an elephant at war? They fight like tanks. They leave a trail of destruction in their path. No matter, said the women of Sparta. And they fought like wolves.
Pyrrhus was astonished. This was supposed to be easy. He didn’t even want to engage in this war in the first place – and only did so at the behest of an old friend who held a grudge against Sparta for refusing to make him King. No one has ever made me King, but you don’t see me going to war about it, now do you?
Pyrrhus fled, ended up in Argos where he was struck by a falling statue while walking under a bridge and then beheaded. Serves him right.
History, strangely, is mute as to the fate of the fighting elephants. But, given that elephants typically live in matriarchal societies, unhindered by the bother of warmongering, I like to think that they gave up their warlike ways and retreated into the forest, munching on mulch for the rest of their days.
You know, it’s funny: in most of the descriptions that I’ve read about IRON HEARTED VIOLET, Violet is usually described as “an unconventional princess”, but I’m starting to think that such a descriptor is incorrect. There’s no such thing. Women and girls change history every day – and always have done so. Be they princess or soldier or scholar or artist or spy. Or preacher. Or writer. Or activist. Or friend. Sometimes, it just feels good to know that.