The ancient Greeks and Romans imagined battlefields as distinctly masculine spaces, at least until the fighting stopped. But a number of scenes from ancient literature feature women ‘taking the field’ amidst the aftermath of battle. These women travel to the sites of recent battles and search among the bodies of dead soldiers for one of two reasons: either they are bereaved and hoping to grant their loved ones proper funerary rites, or they are witches intent on practicing necromancy. The presence of a woman on a battlefield, therefore, could be the best thing to happen to a dead soldier’s body, or the worst.
A startling episode in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica (6.13–15) shows these two depictions intertwined and in tension with one another. In this episode, the heroine and her priestly companion come upon a battlefield littered with corpses. They meet a woman weeping over the body of a slain soldier, whom she identifies as her son. She claims to be giving him a proper funeral. But from their camp that night, Chariklea and Kalasiris perceive her true purpose—necromancy. The witch masquerading as nothing more than a grieving mother now reanimates her son’s body and compels him to prophesy.
Taking this episode as a jumping-off point, this paper traces the occurrence of these two traditions back through Roman imperial literature, focusing primarily on the mourning women of Statius’ Thebaid and the Erictho episode in Lucan’s Civil War. It is argued that neither of these two depictions of women in aftermath narratives is realistic. While there may have been people who claimed to possess magical powers in antiquity, no one can really raise the dead; likewise, it was highly unlikely in this period that if a man died in battle, his mother or wife would be on hand to find and care for his body. But there are other reasons to tell a story besides the fact that it accurately depicts lived experience. The first type of scene, in which a dead soldier’s womenfolk find his body and lay it to rest, represents a fantasy; the second, featuring the necromancer-witch, a nightmare. By staging such scenes, Roman (male) writers reveal a latent cultural anxiety about the fate of body and soul after death as well as (in a male-dominated society) the kind of extreme helplessness that might place that fate in a woman’s hands.
Furthermore, these depictions of women and aftermath contribute to the authors’ overarching portrayals of the social breakdown civil war inevitably entails. In the Erictho episode, Lucan indicates that so many soldiers lie unburied because an army of their own countrymen, sharing similar beliefs about the afterlife, left them as prey for wild animals and witches. Likewise, in the story of the Seven Against Thebes, the bodies whose burial Creon prevents are in many cases literally akin to his own citizens. Thus the ethical breach inherent even in the mistreatment of enemy dead is multiplied in the case of civil conflict, because under these circumstances a community denies to itself the individual and collective closure that results from reclaiming the bodies of the dead and laying them to rest appropriately.