For the Romans, ethnographic observations were often a by-product of campaigning. All the more is it noteworthy that Roman historians repeatedly delve into descriptions of the warlike nature of Germanic women.
The most common involvement of women in combat seems to have been in the defence of the wagon fort. Germanic tribes used laagers to protect their baggage and sometimes also as a defensive tactic in itself. For example, at the battle of Adrianople (378 AD), the Goths formed up behind a circular ring of wagons.
When an army was beaten and the enemy moved against the wagon fort, the women and sometimes even the children entrenched there often put up a fierce fight. Plutarch writes about one of Caesar’s battles against the Helvetians:
“After a long and hard struggle he routed the enemy’s fighting men, but had the most trouble at their rampart of waggons, where not only did the men themselves make a stand and fight, but also their wives and children defended themselves to the death and were cut to pieces with the men.” (Plutarch, Life of Caesar 18)
Scenes like this seem to have happened often, as they can be found in several sources. This of course if not surprising if one considers that surrender would have meant slavery at the best.
Apart from their role as a last-ditch defence, at least among some tribes women also seemed to have had an active role on the battlefield. Cassius Dio, in his Roman History, describes “women’s bodies in armour” found among the corpses of the “barbarians” after a battle Marcus Aurelius won against the Marcomanni, a Germanic tribe. Marcus Aurelius also had ten women in male armament, who had been captured among the Goths, in his triumphal procession.
Intriguingly, apart from written sources, we also have archaeological evidence for Germanic warrior women. In an overview of bog corpse finds, the archaeologist Alfred Dieck drew attention to several female bodies found with weapons. For example, among eight bodies found in a site in Germany and dated to around 350 BC, three were young women equipped with shield, sword, spear and bow. All of them had died of wounds that indicate combat injuries. Corpses of women dating to the Roman imperial period have been found which were dressed and armed like men and which had been killed by sword thrusts. Dieck relates another find of spear- and sword-carrying women killed in combat from the 3rd century AD to the Goths in Marcus Aurelius’ triumphal procession, providing archaeological corroboration to the historian’s description. All in all, Dieck’s list contains twelve such finds up to the 6th century BC – who knows how many more might turn up?
Lots of reasons to include women into the Germanic hoards and warbands that make such a colourful sight on the tabletop. Fortunately, figures are available in 28mm as well as in 15mm.
In 28mm, Warlord have a splendid back of female Celtic Warriors, containing eight figures in different poses and armed with spears and swords. Crusader Miniatures also has a pack of skirmishing women and children which would be very useful for defending that wagon fort. The Boudicca models offered by Bad Squiddo Games would make fine leaders.
In 15mm, the Warrior Women of Erin range of Trey Corbies Miniatures offers a good choice of appropriate figures. Some of the slave revolt figures from Donningon might also be useful to fill the ranks or to defend a wagon fort.
Bruder, Reinhold: Die germanische Frau im Lichte der Runeninschriften und der antiken Historiographie, Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter 1974.
Dieck, Alfred: “Germanische Kriegerinnen: Literarische Erwähnungen und Moorleichenfunde,” Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 5 (1975), 93-96.