But when the time shall come that the female conquers in battle,
Driving away the male, and wins great glory in Argos,
Then many wives of the Argives shall weep in their mourning
– Oracle of Delphi
If you have ever heard of the Spartans, you are likely to know how much they prized martial prowess and military training. They were a warrior culture built around warfare, with its male citizen knowing no other trade, with all manual labor being tended to by their slaves. To a Spartan, there was no higher honor than to die in battle and devoted their entire lives to military service. This made them a formidable and intimidating opponent and therefore it should be of no surprise that Sparta was one of the few Greek city-states that the legendary Macedonian King Alexander didn’t try to conquer.
Our story, however, takes place more than a hundred and fifty years before. In 494 BC, the Spartan King Kleomenes inflicted a brutal and devastating defeat on the opposing city-state of Argos. Not content with the bloodshed, he pursued and killed off the remaining survivors afterward. The victorious king than marched his army on Argos itself. With almost all of its fighting-age men having been killed in battle, King Kleomenes expected little if any resistance from its remaining inhabitants. But what he supposed as an easy takeover proved to be nothing short of a hard-pressed scuffle as the city’s women, under the leadership of the poet Telesilla mounted a stern defense. The city’s remaining males, virtually all too young or old to use weapons also aided the women, collecting and carrying weapons to them as well as climbing the roofs of building to harness the approaching Spartans with rocks, tiles and whatever they could throw.
However, when the Spartans broke through into the city, it was up to the women to face them in battle. Seeing their feminine opponents, the Spartans made their battle cry, hoping to scare the women away. Instead, Talesilla and the other women remained unfazed, stood their ground and held the charging Spartans with remarkable valor. Spartan discipline and strength were met with the spirited fury of enraged Argive women. Realizing that to achieve victory against their female adversaries would bring no honor while a defeat would entail a shameful disaster, the Spartans gave way and left the city.
The victory of the Argives would prove to be hallow, however. Greek customs did not allow women to fight wars after all and thus, lacking men, the city of Argos could do little to prevent Sparta from dominating the Peloponnese. It would not be until the Peloponnesian War nearly 70 years later that Argos would recover enough strength to challenge Spartan hegemony again.
Book worth checking out: Description of Greece, Volume I (Pausanias)