Amazon Maximou ultimately failed in gambit for women’s privilege

Amazon warrior women

Maximou was a renowned Amazon warrior, a descendant of the Amazons that Alexander the Great had brought from India. Maximou commanded more than a thousand men soldiers. Her kinsman Philopappous, himself an experienced and feared fighter, turned to her for help in abducting a young woman.

In asking Maximou for help, Philopappous didn’t tell her that only one man protected the young woman. Maximou gathered a hundred experienced, well-equipped men soldiers to make the raid. When she learned that her force was to engage only one man, she berated Philopappous:

You thrice-accursed old man,
was it because of one man that you have put me and my people to such trouble?
I shall cross over to get to him on my own, making my boast with God’s help,
and shall remove his head, without need of you. [1]

That man whom Maximou set out to behead was Digenis Akritis the frontiersman. Showing more agency than Alexander the Great, Digenis told Maximou not to cross the river. Digenis crossed the river himself to get to her and fight with her.[2]

Digenis quickly defeated Maximou. He recounted:

I made for Maximou with all my heart and skill.
Since she was already well-prepared, she ran to meet me
and struck me a glancing blow on the breast-plate with her spear.
I was not hurt at all, but I broke her spear.
Brandishing my sword again I spared her,
but promptly cut off her horse’s head,
and the carcass collapsed awkwardly to the ground.
She leapt off, overwhelmed with terror,
and falling down before me cried out: “Young man, let me not die.
I have been led astray like a woman by listening to Philopappous.” [3]

Women’s power comes not mainly from the force of their arms, but from the effects of their beauty on men. Digenis pitied “her marvelous beauty” and turned to attack the men who had come with Maximou. He killed many of them. As always, nameless, numberless men die while the story centers on a woman’s fate.

After praising and blessing Digenis, Maximou requested the opportunity to fight with him again. Digenis agreed and gave her a new horse for the fight. He also told her that she could bring men to fight with her against him. Reflecting men’s vastly disproportionate deaths from violence, men can always be found willing to fight for a woman against other men.

The second battle between Maximou and Digenis went as might have been expected. Maximou showed up very well dressed:

She was seated on a black, most noble steed,
she wore a surcoat over her breastplate all of pure purple silk,
a green turban embroidered with gold,
a shield painted with eagle’s wings,
and Arab spear and a sword slung from her belt. [4]

Maximou and Digenis charged at each other and exchanged spear thrusts. They repeatedly struck each other with swords. Digenis adhered to gynocentric ideology within this potentially deadly fight:

I avoided harming her, my good friend,
for it is a reproach to men not only to kill a women
but even to start fighting with them.
But she was amongst those with a reputation for bravery at that time,
and because of that I was not at all ashamed of fighting;
I struck her right hand just above the fingers;
and the sword which she held fell to the ground;
she was seized with terror and very great fear.

Digenis had merely wounded Maximou in the hand. He recounted:

I shouted out: “Maximou, don’t be frightened;
I have pity on you since you are a woman and full of beauty.
And so that you may clearly know from my deeds who I am,
I shall use your horse to display my strength.”
And at once I drove my sword with a downward stroke
into the charger’s loins and he was split down the middle,
half falling on one side with her
and the rest collapsing to the ground on the other side.

Despite already being privileged as a woman, Maximou shifted tactics to gain further privilege:

She leapt up, very agitated,
and cried out in a choking voice: “Have mercy on me,
have mercy, lord, for I have erred greatly.
Or rather, if you do not think it beneath you, let us make a pact,
for I am still a virgin, not violated by any man.
You alone have defeated me, it is you who shall win me completely
and you alone shall have me as your comrade against your enemies.

In short, Maximou proposed marriage to Digenis. He, however, was already married. He said to her:

You are not going to die, Maximou,
but I cannot take you as my wife
for I have a lawful wife, high-born and beautiful,
whose love I shall never dare to deny.
Come then, let us go into the shade of the tree
and I shall tell you all about myself.

The reality that Maximou, a professional warrior, had attacked him and sought to kill him apparently vanished from Digenis’s mind. In fighting men, Maxmiou had advantages that men lacked. She soon revealed some of them:

she threw off her surcoat, for the heat was intense.
Maximou’s shift was gossamer-thin,
and it revealed her limbs as in a mirror
and her breasts rising just a little above her chest.
And my soul was wounded, for she was beautiful.

Maximou wasn’t a passive maiden:

As I got down from my horse, she called out loudly,
“Greetings, my master,” as she ran towards me,
“I have truly become your slave by the chance of war.”
And she kissed my right hand sweetly. [5]

Maximou didn’t ask for affirmative consent before she kissed Digenis’s hand. If she were he, and they were on a U.S. college campus today, he probably would be found guilty of sexual assault. In the more liberal and tolerant circumstances of twelfth-century Byzantium, Maximou and Digenis went on to have sex. Afterwards, as Digenis prepared to leave, Maximou “tried urgently to compel me to return.”

Digenis returned, but not to provide Maximou with further sexual pleasure. Arriving home late, Digenis seemed to have given his wife a partial account of his engagement with Maximou:

having pity on her {Maximou} as a woman and weak by nature,
I washed her hand thoroughly and bound up her wound,
and I am late for that reason, my perfumed light,
so that I should not be reproached for having killed a woman. [6]

What Digenis’s wife said in reply isn’t known. But Digenis explained:

turning the girl’s {his wife’s} remarks over in my mind
and working myself up in my anger,
I immediately rode off, as if to hunt,
and caught up with her and pitilessly slew her,
the adulterous creature, committing a badly disordered murder. [7]

On his deathbed, recounting to his wife his life’s deeds, Digenis reminisced:

I unhorsed Maximou, I destroyed those with her,
then obeying your words I ran back
and slew her then secretly, without your knowledge.
And many more other things for love of you, my soul,
I achieved, so that I might win you [8]

With a keen sense of social justice, Digenis’s wife may have chided Digenis for not killing Maximou, while killing many men with whom he had fought. In our age of anti-men gender bigotry, such a gender-egalitarian perspective is barely conceivable. But Digenis, belatedly and sub-consciously, apparently understood the injustice. In returning to kill Maximou, Digenis repudiated women’s privilege and rebelled against gynocentrism.

Literary scholars have outrageously and shamelessly mis-interpreted Digenis’s killing of Maximou. Consistent with current, absurd claims about rape, a recent scholarly book refers to Digenis’s rape of Maximou:

the rape of Maximou in Digenis Akritas, where Digenis, not content with his martial victory over the Amazon, seeks to complete her humiliation with an unwanted sexual assault. … he even kills the Amazon in order to silence the story of the rape and prevent his own shaming. [9]

That interpretation shows the extent to which anti-men gender bigotry permeates current literary scholarship.[10] Scholars forcefully impose on literature the dominant, hateful gender ideology of demonic males determined to kill all females. An influential and highly regarded scholarly article, for example, explains:

Once Maximo {Maximou} loses her virginity, she becomes “fully female,” and as such is too dangerous to be allowed to exist. … It falls on the greatest representative of male honour in the poem (Digenes) to obliterate transgressors of the patriarchal gender role system and restore patriarchal order. He does so … by killing Maximo, too dangerous to be quashed by marriage or rape. [11]

That interpretation is irrational and bereft of textually sensitive literary imagination. But the literary failure goes deeper. Another recent work of literary scholarship reasons:

the killing cannot be excused: Maximo has reverted to a female role by offering her virginity to Digenes; she is no longer an asexual warrior. [12]

Warriors throughout history have been almost exclusively men. Forced to wage war against other men on behalf of their societies, men are not “asexual”. In the epic story of his life, Digenis killed many men who attacked him. Digenis initially didn’t kill Maximou after she similarly attacked him, but then he returned and summarily killed her. Why?[13] Literary scholars have utterly failed to answer that literary question in a way that truly respects the literary text and the reality of life.

Many today question the value of literary study. That’s mainly the result of literary scholarship’s failings. Appreciating literature such as Digenis Akritis, the Aeneid, Lamentationes Matheoluli, and Solomon and Marcolf could contribute enormously to creating more humane lives today.

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[1] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata version, 6.564-7, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 185. All subsequent citations and quotations from Digenis Akritis are from the Grottaferra version unless otherwise noted. Citations are to lines and pages in Jeffreys’s Greek text and English translation, respectively.

On Maximou being a descendant of Amazons, Digenis Akritis 6.386-7. Here’s more on Alexander the Great’s interaction with the Amazons.

The name Philopappous has linguistic roots in “loving grandfather.” He was fifty-two at the time of the events in the epic. Digenis Akritis 6.355, p. 173. The Escorial version refers to him as a “moulting hawk.” Escorial 1361, p. 341. That’s plausibly, playfully figures a man going bald. When Maximou learns that her opponent is only one man, she disparages Philopappous:

Get out of here, mad old man, son of perdition;
extreme old age has withered your cock.
I reckoned he had armies and brave youngsters

Digenis Akritis, Escorial 1519-21, trans Jeffreys (1998) p. 351. Women disparaging men’s penises is relatively common within castration culture.

[2] In the Greek Alexander Romance, Alexander the Great and the Amazon leaders sparred over who would come to whom. Alexander urged the Amazons, “cross your river and let us see you.” The Amazons responded, “We give you permission to come to us and to see our country.” Alexander Romance 3.26, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) pp. 143-4.

Dominant gender ideology tends to construct women as passive. Failing to recognize the intertextuality with the Alexander Romance, Galatariotou interpreted through dominant gender ideology Digenis crossing the river to fight Maximou:

Digenis tells her {text citation: “don’t cross over. It is natural for men to come to women.” 569-70, p. 185}, and he crosses the river. Thus the image is re-created whereby mobility is possessed by men, women being expected to remain immobile and inactive.

Galatariotou (1987) p. 60. Maximou was far from immobile and inactive. She traveled and fought on horseback. The relevant context in Digenis Akritis apparently refers to men’s structural gender disadvantage. Nonetheless, the Alexander Romance provides a closer literary context for interpreting the river crossing.

[3] Digenis Akritis 6.583-92, pp. 185, 187.  For l. 592, Jeffreys has “I have been led astray by listening to Philopappous, like a woman.” I’ve shifted the dangling final adverbial phrase “like a woman” (ὡς γυνὴ) to be adjacent to the verb.

[4] Digenis Akritis 6.735-39, p. 195. The subsequent five quotes are from 6.748-55, p. 195 (I avoided harming her…); 6.756-63, p. 195 (I shouted…); 6.764-70, pp. 195, 107 (She leapt up…); 6.771-6, p. 197 (You are not going to die…); 6.781-5, p. 197 (she threw off…).

[5] At this point in the story, a folio is missing from the Grottaferrata manuscript. That loss probably resulted from moral concern about Maximou’s seduction of Digenis. However, a manuscript reconstruction (Z) apparently provides the relevant lines. The above lines are from Z3699-702, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 197. The subsequent quoted phrase “tried urgently to compel me to return” is from Z3720.

[6] Digenis Akritis 6.788-91, p. 201.

[7] Digenis Akritis 6.794-98, p. 201. In l. 6.798, Jeffreys translated μοιχεíαν as “promiscuous creature,” but noted that the word literally means “adulteress.” I’ve used the literal translation above. The illicit combination might metaphorically suggest Maximou being a warrior yet also claiming women’s privilege in avoiding death in battle. Maximou was literally neither promiscuous nor an adulteress.

Also in l. 6.798, Jeffreys translated ἀθλίως as “wretched.” Within the semantic range of that Greek word is the sense “badly disordered.” The later translation seems to me more contextually appropriate. That’s what I’ve used above.

[8] Digenis Akritis 8.118-22, p. 223.

[9] Moore (2013) p. 160, n. 27, p. 138, n. 32. The assertion that Digenis raped Maximou is echoed in the scholarship of Jeffreys, who prepared the critical edition. She referred to “Digenes’s rape and murder of Maximou.” Jeffreys (1993) p. 27. Galatariotou, who shows scant concern for injustices against men, nonetheless observed, “Maximou is not raped.” Galatarioutou (1987) p. 61.

[10] On anti-men bias in discussing rape in medieval literary scholarship, Birge (1997).

[11] Galatariotou (1987) pp. 61-2.

[12] Penninck (2007) p. 245.

[13] Trilling, apparently “in a fit of self-loathing and hideously misconceived atonement,” attributed Digenis killing Maximou to Digenis’s “emotional weakness”:

Basil {Digenis}, in a fit of self-loathing and hideously misconceived atonement, rides after Maximou and murders her … His surrender to sexual temptation, his murderous outburst of rage against Maximou — as though he could kill his lust by killing its object — and his insistence on a showy, symbolic atonement for his infidelity, are all aspects of the same emotional weakness.

Trilling (2016) pp. 156, 163. There’s no reason to think that Digenis or his wife seek to kill his lust for women. That claim perhaps reflects Trilling’s own personal ambition. For a scholarly authority on the Amazons, Trilling cites Adrienne Mayor’s 2016 cheerleading book on Amazon warrior women. A knowledgeable reviewer of that book observed:

Mayor presses her argument well beyond the available evidence. … The Amazons is rich in research but weak in the accepted methods of scholarship.

Keith (2016) p. 177. On Mayor’s claims about the Amazons, see notes [1], [11], and [23] in my post on Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis. From the perspective of social justice, arguing about the historical Amazons is much less important that promoting gender equality in military service today.

[image] Two Amazon women warriors fighting a Greek man warrior. Pentelic marble frieze from mid-fourth century BGC. Attributed to the school of Bryaxis or Tymotheos. On display in the Room 28 of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Image thanks to Sharon Mollerus and Wikimedia Commons.


Birge Vitz, Evelyn. 1997. “Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections.” Romanic Review. 88 (1): 1-26.

Galatariotou, Catia. 1987. “Structural Oppositions in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 11 (1): 29-68.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth. 1993. “The Grottaferrata Version of Digenes Akrities: A Reassessment.” Ch. 3 (pp. 26-37) in Beaton, Roderick, and David Ricks, eds. Digenes Akrites: new approaches to byzantine heroic poetry. Aldershot, G.B.: Variorum.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, ed. and trans. 1998. Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Keith, Alison. 2016. “Review. Adrienne Mayor. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.” American Journal of Philology. 137 (1): 174-176.

Moore, Megan. 2013. Exchanges in Exoticism: Cross-cultural Marriage and the Making of the Mediterranean in Old French Romance. University of Toronto Press.

Penninck, Mieke. 2007. “Two heroes, two lives in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 31(1): 32-52.

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Greek Alexander romance. London, England: Penguin Books.

Trilling, James. 2016. “Re-Introducing Digenis Akritis: A Byzantine Poem of Strength, Weakness, and the Disturbing Absence of God.” Viator. 47 (3): 149-170.

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