My baby sister became a mother this past week. So, in honor of her, this post is all about mothers (and war, of course).
Many of the stories of mothers in war come in stories of siege, as in Caesar’s description of the siege of Gergovia. The Romans unexpectedly attack the city, creating great panic among the people—especially when they see their soldiers fleeing. The mothers step up to protect the city, throwing their clothes and money down from the walls, begging the Romans (with, if you didn’t catch it, nothing on) to let them and their children live, and finally even dropping down off the walls to surrender to the oncoming soldiers. But when the Gallic soldiers return to defend the city, the women, without missing a beat, immediately shift their focus to encouraging their men: “the matrons who a moment before were stretching out their hands to the Romans from the wall began to adjure their own men and, in Gallic fashion, to show disheveled hair and to bring their children forward into view” (Gallic War 7.47-48 [LCL]). These particular mothers are quite enterprising, making good use of their own bodies to call for pity from the Romans, and their own children to urge on the defense of the city.
Appian tells a different story of mothers in the city of Uttica, in Carthage. When the Romans come to besiege Uttica, the people surrender, and Rome takes three hundred children from the city as hostages. The mothers were not happy about this. They swam out to the Roman ships for a last look at their children, and they mourned bitterly back on shore. When the Romans decide to destroy the city anyway, the mothers of the hostage children go a little nuts: “like Furies in a tragedy” they “accosted those whom they met with shrieks, and reproached them with giving away their children against their protest, or mocked at them, saying that the gods were now taking vengeance on them for the lost children” (Punic Wars 8.11.76-77, 8.13.92). Like Furies? Or like mothers whose children have been stolen away?
This next one, from Josephus, is largely discredited by most scholars; there’s really very little trust of Josephus as a historical source in the scholarly world. This particular story was certainly influenced by Old Testament siege texts and by the famine in Athens described by Thucydides. The famine was very bad during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the First Jewish Revolt, so much so that the rebels would go around sniffing out food and stealing it from the few surviving residents of the city. One mother decides to pay the rebels back: she kills, roasts, and eats her own baby, offering it up to the rebels when they come calling (Jewish War 6.205-212). Of course Josephus has his own aims in telling this story—it’s an indication of the desperate conditions of Jerusalem, and the depravity of the people sucked into the rebellion. But Josephus also says this mother did what she did in part to save her child from enslavement to the Romans, perhaps, we might guess, from a state of madness like the mothers of Uttica.
I hope you weren’t expecting something too uplifting from a post about mothers during war. But if you did want some uplifting, here you go. This story comes from Story House (a program of the Arab Educational Institute Center in Bethlehem), and it’s currently one of the stories displayed on the separation wall: “During the first Intifada Israeli tanks stood in front of our house. Our young men had to pass here to reach their work places in Jerusalem… One day, the soldiers stopped two young men. We couldn’t hear the talk but the soldiers started to beat them. Suddenly, a woman in the street came out shouting and screaming. We heard her saying that the young men were her children. She hugged them and asked the soldiers what they wanted. She saved the young men whom actually she did not know.” This story, unlike the first three, was remembered and recorded by a woman. If women had been historians in the days of Caesar, Josephus, and Appian, would we hear very different stories about mothers in times of war?