The Raven dedicates this bit of dark history to daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and women everywhere. May they never experience the pain and suffering of sexual abuse—and may they continue their fight on earth against the tyranny of predatory men.
Regardless of what you may believe about the recent political and judicial spectacle playing out in the U.S., there’s no denying the fact that women have been battling sexual threats and violence since early humans took their first steps some seven million years ago. That’s right—seven million years ago. The period when some apelike creatures in Africa began to walk on two legs and procreate with the early Homo species was about the same time female humans began their journey through life as children of a lesser god. And while it’s true these ancient females likely didn’t object much to the endless rutting from behind—mostly because the whole scene was still pretty animalistic—it’s safe to say women began to recognize the baseness of their sexual condition when our species lapsed into modern humans over two million years ago.
If this historic number feels too massive to digest, let’s just focus on what we know implicitly. Neanderthals have been identified as the oldest Homo on earth, emerging over half a million years ago in Europe—which means women have certainly been harassed, beaten, groped, assaulted, raped, forcibly impregnated, and sexually enslaved by their male counterparts for the past 500,000 years. Sure, there were plenty of cultures and countries who revered and elevated their women over time, but the filthy undercurrent of sexual ownership never disappeared—it just shifted and refocused itself on another section of the demographic. And the truth is, women still haven’t shaken this ongoing nightmare of physical threat and the relentless needs of men who want to control everything about the physical and sexual nature of the female form.
So, as the Raven flies back in time to the Battle of Thebes in 335 BCE, it’s no surprise to find a literal army of ancient Greek soldiers behaving badly. In fact, the rape culture of ancient Greece was so pervasive, its established law effectively ensured a second-class citizenship for Greek women, where institutionalized inequality and brutality flourished. But for one young woman named Timoclea of Thebes, who lived through a bitter rape at the hands of a Thracian captain, scurrying off in shame was not an option—she wanted action, she wanted resolution, she wanted revenge. And much to her satisfaction, she got it. She got it so well, in fact, her bravery and fierce sense of righteousness were documented in the 1st-century writings of Plutarch, one of the most famous Greek biographers of the period.
Although dark history is positively overflowing with stories of how the patriarchal paradigm has forcibly dominated women’s bodies through the ages, the most graphic and vile examples always appear during times of conflict. In fact, wartime sexual violence is a sociological phenomenon so vast and terrifying, rape has now become the centerpiece of psychological warfare for many countries, even today. In most cases, victimized women are too fraught with shame and fear to speak out against their attacker, let alone retaliate, which means men often escape the heat of justice. And even when women do muster the courage to assert themselves, they are often met with jeers, disbelief, and downright fury. But not Timoclea of Thebes. When the news of what she had done came to the attention of Alexander the Great, it was so passionate, so murderous, and so extraordinary, he couldn’t help but feel admiration.
Plutarch told the story of Timoclea in his tertiary account entitled Life of Alexander, where he described the conquerer’s reign as one of perpetual violence and control. Although Plutarch’s rendering came a few hundred years after the Battle of Thebes, his main source for the rape of Timoclea came from Aristobulus of Cassandreia, a close friend of Alexander himself. Not only did Aristobulus accompany Alexander on his many military campaigns, he served as his architect, engineer, and royal confidant as well. Although the first-hand account only exists in the quotes of others (and is certainly subject to inaccuracy), it served as an excellent and insightful source for Plutarch who was able to paint a vivid and moving picture of the young Timoclea.
Not only was she a dignified and well-respected woman in her own right, Timoclea was also the sister of Theagenes, the last commander of the Theban Sacred Band, who died “for the liberty of Greece” at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. This detail is particularly notable because it brings up yet another great unknown from ancient history—the existence of an all-homosexual military force. That’s right, the Sacred Band of Thebes was not just a mighty and experienced band of brothers; it was a Theban army consisting of 150 pairs of male lovers who fought together as an elite force during the 4th century BCE. They earned a fierce reputation among the people after shattering Sparta’s legendary army in the Battle of Leuctra, July 371 BCE. Given the Spartans vastly outnumbered the Sacred Band, the Theban victory was greatly revered, as it marked the first time in history where a Spartan force was defeated by a smaller army.
Although Plutarch is the source for details on the ancient Sacred Band, the earliest surviving record of their existence came from an oration called Against Demosthenes, given in 324 BCE by the Athenian speechwriter Dinarchus. The force was also mentioned by the Macedonian author Poyaenus in his writing Stratagems in War, which documents the foundation of Thebes “first and finest” military force. According to Plutarch’s account, all 300 of the soldiers were hand-picked based purely on their ability and merit, with no regard for social standing. In philosophy, the Sacred Band were composed of “lovers and their favorites, thus indicating the dignity of the god Eros in that they embraced a glorious death in preference to a dishonorable and reprehensible life.” The fighting brothers were described by Polyaenus as “devoted to each other by mutual obligations of love,” suggesting their valor was particularly strong because of their homosexuality, rather than in spite of it. The Sacred Band fought with glory and national support for almost 40 years, during which time Thebes maintained its independence and never lost a single military campaign—that is, until the force was annihilated in 338 BCE as Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander invaded Greece.
When Alexander The Great, who ruled the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon from 336 to 323 BCE, instigated the Battle of Thebes, thousands of Thracian soldiers flooded the city and tore apart the homes, the shrines, and the people within. Overall it was a bloody affair—about 6,000 Thebans were killed and 30,000 enslaved as the city was reduced to ruin. According to Plutarch, a prominent captain was leading his men on a search through one of the more affluent neighborhoods of Thebes, looking for money hidden by wealthy citizens. When they came upon the home of Timoclea, who was likely just a young teenage mother at the time, they pounded down the door and brazenly entered. As the men began pillaging the house for money, the captain turned his attention to the attractive woman, who appeared to have value as both a informant and a plaything. Taking his manly rights first, the captain threw Timoclea down on the floor, and pinning her with his weight, ripped her fine dress and raped her—likely in front of her two young children.
Among the other calamities that befell the city, it happened that some Thracian soldiers, having broken into the house of a matron of high character and repute, named Timoclea, their captain, after he had used violence with her, to satisfy his avarice as well as lust, asked her, if she knew of any money concealed; to which she readily answered she did, and bade him follow her into a garden.
The captain was so delighted with Timoclea’s confession, he did not hesitate to follow the cunning young woman into the yard where she showed him a deep marble well. Still gathering the folds of her torn skirt and wiping the wetness from her face, Timoclea pointed into the dark hole and confessed she had thrown her valuables down there when news broke of the impending invasion. Given her contrite and tearful appearance, the captain figured he had properly terrorized his victim and subsequently gained full control of the situation. In all of his masculine glory, he suspected nothing less.
She showed him a well, into which, she told him, upon the taking of the city, she had thrown what she had of most value. The greedy Thracian presently stooping down to view the place where he thought the treasure lay, she came behind him and pushed him into the well, and then flung great stones in upon him, till she had killed him.
As the strong captain lay crippled at the bottom of the well, Timoclea lifted giant stones onto the ledge and let them drop into the darkness, relishing the sounds of his agony as rock connected with flesh and bone. And soon, his pathetic groans faded into dead silence. Before she could retrieve her senses, Timoclea was seized from behind by the captain’s men who realized her crime and took her prisoner. But she was not afraid, nor was she contrite—she had doled out a just and righteous punishment and she strode out of the garden to face their commander with her head held high. She would surely be met with great punishment for her imprudent behavior against a respected military figure, but still she persisted.
When the soldiers led her away bound to Alexander, her very mien and gait showed her to be a woman of dignity, and of a mind no less elevated, not betraying the least sign of fear or astonishment. And when the king asked her who she was, “I am,” said she, “the sister of Theagenes, who fought the battle of Chaeronea with your father Philip, and fell there in command for the liberty of Greece.” Alexander was so surprised, both at what she had done and what she said, that he could not choose but give her and her children their freedom to go whither they pleased.
Timoclea was led to Alexander and her fate placed in his hands. Before him stood a woman who had clearly been abused, and yet she held her head with the regal nature of a queen, a glow of purpose and strength beneath her brow. She informed him that she was, in fact, the sister of the great commander Theagenes from The Sacred Band. Glimpsing the depth of her character and the might of her mind, Alexander decided to release Timoclea and her children, despite the fact that she had murdered one of his most trusted captains. In Alexander’s estimation, it would be a mistake to rid the world of such a regal and respectable figure.
Looking back on Renaissance art, it’s clear many people agreed with Alexander’s impression of Timoclea. Although her story is not well known, there was a period in the 16th century when her image became the perfect backdrop for the artistic and literary topos know as the “Power of Women.’ Under this license, historic female figures were inverted to assume the dominant position over men, both sexually and intellectually. Figures from the Bible, ancient history, and romance were used to exemplify themes like the power of love, the wiles of women, and the trials of marriage. Based on the number of printed copies, the most influential painting of Timoclea came in 1615 when the French painter Domenico depicted her standing alongside her two children. It’s worth noting here that these renderings of Timoclea, among other strong female figures, were tossed around intellectual circles as examples of conquerors with great clemency and compassion, rather than as a testament to the inherent strength of women and their often deplorable treatment at the hands of men.
Thinking about it this way, it’s interesting to note how Timoclea’s appearance was interpreted differently in each work. In an etching by 16th-century French printmaker Léon Davent, Timoclea is naked when presented before the king, and her demeanor appears less than forthright, as was suggested in literary accounts. Sometimes she appears angry and confused, while other times her countenance seems almost demure. In all likelihood, this interpretational shift was based on the common belief that women, especially unpredictable ones, could assume an almost chameleon-like manner that embraced tender motherhood at one moment and devilish cunning the next.
And of course, it would be absurd to ignore the way Timoclea’s somewhat tragic figure was used to titillate the male senses by emphasizing her sheer victimization and inability to decide her own fate. True, this proud Greek woman shocked the norm by murdering her rapist without hesitation; however, the truth is, she was ultimately still subject to the scorn or approval of a stronger, more powerful male—namely, Alexander the Great. Her fate was never really her own. And some 500,000 years later—or rather 2,400 years later—very little has changed.
And the rest is history.