Here the women met them, swords and axes in their hands, and with hideous shrieks of rage tried to drive back fugitives and pursuers alike, the fugitives as traitors, and the pursuers as foes; they mixed themselves up with the combatants, with bare hands tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, and endured wounds and mutilations…
I recently discovered this quote from Plutarch’s Life of Marius, which was offered by the internet with a handful of others as “proof” that Celtic women were warriors. But here’s the deal: whether or not that’s true — I suspect sometimes they were! — Plutarch doesn’t actually tell us that. In fact, he tells us the exact opposite.
In the first place, the women in question were Ambrones, a people who came from Jutland, modern-day Denmark, and who are ultimately of uncertain origin. They’re more likely Germanic than Celtic, but the latter is possible based on some extant cultural practices. Anyone as concerned with truth as they are with identity politics would mention that.
But more to the point, if you read the quote in context, you’re left with a very different impression than was originally proposed:
5 Well, then, the Ambrones became separated by the stream; for they did not all succeed in getting across and forming an array, but upon the foremost of them the Ligurians at once fell with a rush, and the fighting was hand-to‑hand. Then the Romans came to the aid of the Ligurians, and charging down from the heights upon the Barbarians overwhelmed and turned them back. 6 Most of the Ambrones were cut down there in the stream where they were all crowded together, and the river was filled with their blood and their dead bodies; the rest, after the Romans had crossed, did not dare to face about, and the Romans kept slaying them until they came in their flight to their camp and waggons. 7 Here the women met them, swords and axes in their hands, and with hideous shrieks of rage tried to drive back fugitives and pursuers alike, the fugitives as traitors, and the pursuers as foes; they mixed themselves up with the combatants, with bare hands tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, and endured wounds and mutilations, their fierce spirits unvanquished to the end. So, then, as we are told, the battle at the river was brought on by accident rather than by the intention of the commander.
20 1 After destroying many of the Ambrones the Romans withdrew and night came on; but in spite of so great a success the army did not indulge in paeans of victory, or drinking in the tents, or friendly converse over suppers, or that sweetest of delights for men who have fought and won a battle, sleep…
(Section 19, paragraph 5)
First, Plutarch draws a distinction between “women” and “combatants.” Second, he tells us it’s only after the Romans crushed the Ambrone line and broke into their camp that they encountered any women. There the women did fight, clearly, but not on the battlefield, which is what we were meant to believe.
At this point, someone will probably mistake me for a “men’s rights activist” or some bullshit. People evaluate arguments not by what’s said but by which direction they’re pointing. They draw a straight line from your words and drop you at whatever pole of the Left-Right continuum it hits.
I don’t care what you think, but if you’re scanning this text trying to discern my politics, you’re not only missing the point. You’re the problem.
But I don’t want to argue about it. Any of it. I don’t have to be right. Or, more accurately, I don’t have to be seen as being right. You made an argument. I made an argument. I referenced mine. I armed you with facts. I’ll let you die in the river. I have better things to do.
As wonderful as the internet is for connecting people across any distance — I am typing this from Tokyo — it remains quite possibly the worst medium in existence for enlightened discussion. Interpretive dance would fare better in as much as any abstract non-verbal performance would force people to rely less on appearance and perception and to puzzle a bit before speaking.
That’s not to say the internet is absent reason. It’s around. But for every intelligent post, there’s a comments section, and every comment box is LITERALLY built on the theory that effective discourse is character-limited and broken into threads. Because if your truth isn’t bite-sized, well, then clearly you’re wrong. And let me tell you why.
(The reason that format is stable is not because it adds value but because it’s an effective way of baiting people.)
We all know this to be true. The phrase “arguing on the internet” is code for “pointless activity.” And yet on it goes.
So… why? If everyone knows it’s terrible, why do so many people do it? Every damned day?
Sport. Entertainment. Competition.
Just like politics, arguing on the internet is a species of competitive rhetoric where the primary goal is to capture the appearance of victory. You can actually diagram it, like the X’s and O’s of a football play. There’s something called the warrant of the argument, for example, which, if you can capture it, goes a long way toward the appearance of victory — sort of like getting a first down.
Internet arguments are to your local intramural league what politics is to the NFL. That is, measured by weight, the bulk of internet discussion has as much to do with truth-seeking as the bulk of politics does with actual, real governance. But it’s fun for some people. They identify with a group of complete strangers — a team — and it gets their blood up to cheer the game and boo the other guys. To follow the score. To see who’s up. Who’s down. What to expect next season. And how that will that affect the championship — which in American politics is held every four years, like the World Cup.
The difference between politics and professional football is one of degree. Not kind. Same for arguing on the internet (whatever the topic).
And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Two consenting adults can argue about whatever the fuck they want. Why cheese-graters make excellent masturbation aids. Which of two popular science fiction franchises is clearly superior. Why I’m secretly descended from a line of kickass female barbarian warriors. I don’t care. My only real criticism is that some folks seem to think arguing on the internet — or following professional politics, or professional football for that matter — is more than sport, that all that cheering and waving is important. That it means something.
(art by Ron Allouche)