epic violence against men involves women

The Iliad and the Aeneid, epics that are classics of classics, recount massive violence against men. That gender profile of violence scarcely registers in the reception of these and other epics. Vastly gender-disproportionate violence against men, like vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men, hasn’t mattered. That’s an imaginative, emotional, and deliberative failure. Some are satisfied merely with blaming men for killing men (or more pretentiously, blaming patriarchy), as if blaming men makes men’s deaths less of a personal and social loss. Epic violence against men concerns deep social structures of gender. Epic violence against men unquestionably involves women.

Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s twelfth-century Roman de Troie explains why men came to fight in the horrific Trojan War. Regarding Greek men-soldiers, Benoît declared:

As many troops as one could have
whether by force or by command,
by volunteering or by other means,
by summons or by entreaty,
were assembled at Athens.

{ Quant qu’il porent de gent aveir
Ne par force ne par poëir,
Par gré ne par autre maniere,
Par somonse ne par preiere,
A Athenes fu assemblee }[1]

Men, but not women, have long been compelled to fight in wars. Today, the U.S. has fully gender-integrated armed forces, but only men are still legally compelled to register to be conscripted. Women, who comprise the majority of voters in the U.S, help to sustain that fundamental gender inequality.

Elite men have much broader choices than do ordinary men. Benoît explained why thirty-three kings and dukes came to fight for the Trojans:

Many of them came there
for fame, for renown, and for love,
and a number for feudal obligation,
and others because of familial relations.

{ Dedenz se mistrent li plusor
Por los, por pris e por amor,
E li auquant por seignorage,
E li autre por parentage }

Social status for men — fame, renown, and love — depends to a large extent on women’s evaluations of them. Men compete with other men to win women’s favor.

Henry I, Count of Anhalt engages in violence against men as women watch

From behind the walls of Troy, Trojan women watched their men engaged in the brutal violence against men of the Trojan War. It was a horrific spectator event:

On top of Troy’s walls were the ladies,
none of whom had a calm heart,
and all the daughters of the king.
They were there in order to watch the great battle.
Helen was the most anxious one there,
and the most downcast, and the most afraid.
A thousand young women and a thousand wealthy women,
noble and courtly, appeared there.
Not one of them wasn’t fearful.

{ Les dames furent sor les murs,
Que de rien n’ont les cuers seûrs,
E totes les filles le rei,
Por esguarder le grant tornei.
Heleine i fu moût paorose
Et moût pensive e moût dotose.
Mil puceles e mil borgeises
I perent gentes e concises:
N’i a celi ne seit dotanz. }

Some women watched from gilded windows. Women identified specific men preparing for brutal battle:

One of the women called to the other
while she pointed: “See there Paris!
There is Hector, so it seems to me,
and see over here is Polidamas,
who soon will angrily charge into the fray.
He much resembles a fine knight.
See how his steel helmet fits him.
There is Troilus’s division.
Look! Now Deiphebus is emerging.
See how close now the sides are to each other.
Soon we shall have in full stride
a thousand horrific jousts.
Much we have to be fearful,
for the lives and the health
and the joys of our young men
are being put into the balance.
May death not part them from us.”

{ E l’une d’eles l’autre apele;
Al dei mostrent: “Vez la Paris;
La rest Hector, ço m’est avis:
E vez deça Polidamas,
Qui ja s’ira ferir el tas.
Mout ressemble bien chevalier:
Vez com li siet l’eaumes d’acier!
Ça rest li conreiz Troïlus.
Vez! or s’en ist Deïphebus.
Vez come or sont ja près a près!
Ja i avra de plain eslais
Mil jostes faites haïnoses.
Mout devons estre paoroses,
Que les vies e les santez
E les joies de noz aez
Veons en si faite balance.
Que mort n’en face desevrance,
N’i a nule doter n’en deie.” }

In medieval Europe, women loved men. Women didn’t want to see their men killed or to have their men imprisoned. Yet women did little to prevent violence against men. Helen, one of the women watching fearfully the battles of the Trojan War, was the primary cause of the Trojan War.

Epic violence against men is starkly explicit. Benoît narrated:

Then commenced the ferocious battle,
awful, extraordinary, and murderous.
You would have seen there so many in anguish,
who were wounded and who were lamenting,
who slew and maimed each other.
Large were the lines and rows of combatants,
large were the battle and the contests,
large were the chases and throngs of fighting.
They hadn’t armed their heads well enough
to prevent their brains being smashed,
and their entrails and their guts splattered.
The mire of their blood was huge on the field.
So many lay dead and fallen
that no man could count them.

{ Puis comença li estors fiers,
Pesmes, estranges, doloros:
La veïsseiz tant angoissos,
Qui sont navré e qui se plaignent,
Qui s’entrociënt e mahaignent.
Grant sont li renc e li conrei,
Grant la bataille e li tornei,
Granz les chaces e les meslees;
Si n’ont les testes si armees
Qu’il ne s’espandent les cerveles,
Les entrailles e les boëles.
De lor sanc est grant la paluz.
Tant i gist morz e abatuz,
Nus hom n’en set esmee faire; }

Watching such violence against men would have been vomit-inducing to persons not inured to it. Benoît typically focused on the fighting of famous men. But Benoît wasn’t just narrating the exploits of heroes. Consider the following battle description:

An admiral, Morin d’Aresse,
fell dead, not living any longer,
from such a blow Menelaus gave him.
Isdor, Morin’s brother, had so harshly struck
a noble count that he was lifted
from his saddle and died.
Chirrus shattered his lance
when he thrust it through the body of a Greek
descended from counts and kings.
Meles of Orop was the nephew of Thoas.
Meles engaged Celidonias,
whom he knocked from his horse
and wounded in the middle of his face.
Hermagoras avenged his brother.
He struck a foe beneath his sword belt,
causing his lungs and guts
to spill out over the bow of his saddle.
Scedius was a noble king
and very esteemed among the Greeks.
Mauden Clarueil engaged him and
struck Scedius right in the eye
so that it came flying out of his head.
Scedius would have fallen in pain
if he hadn’t held onto his horse with both hands.
He was never completely well again.

{ Uns amirauz, Morins d’Aresse,
Est chaeiz morz, ne vesqui plus:
Tel coup li dona Menelus.
Isdor, sis frere, i ra ataint
Un riche conte e si empeint
Que mort le seivre de la sele.
Chirrus sa lance i enastele:
Par mi le cors fiert un Grezeis
Estrait de contes e de reis.
Meles d’Orep niés fu Thoas:
Cist joinst o Celidonias,
Que del cheval l’a enversé
E par mi la chiere navré.
Hermagoras son frere venge:
Celui fiert si desoz la renge
Que li poumons e la boële
Li chiet sor l’arçon de la sele.
Scedius ert uns riches reis
E mout preisiez entre Grezeis:
O cestui joinst Maudanz Clarueil;
Si l’a feru tres par mi l’ueil
Que fors del chief li est volez.
De l’angoisse chaîst pasmez,
S’il ne se fust tenuz as mains;
Dès or n’est mie del tot sains. }

Here Benoît explicitly combined high status with brutal violence against men. Being brutalized in war united ordinary men and elite men.

Women rewarded men for their prowess in violence against men. Consider, for example, Antigone and Ismene, daughters of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. In the twelfth-century Roman de Thèbes, Antigone and Ismene watched from the walls of Thebes as a large group of men besieged the city. The besiegers were fighting on behalf of Polynices, who was Antigone’s and Ismene’s younger brother. The current ruler of Thebes was Eteocles, their older brother. Athon, a son of a king from the East, came to fight on behalf of Eteocles because he was in love with Ismene. He could have for the same reason fought on behalf of Polynices. Antigone was in love Parthenopaeus, the king of Arcadia. He was fighting on behalf of Polynices. Antigone and Ismene thus watched as their beloved men fought against each other’s side.

Antigone wanted to be with Parthenopaeus after she learned that he had killed a man in battle. He killed Itys with a violent spear thrust. Then he seized Itys’s horse and sent it to Antigone via a youth. The youth greeted Antigone:

“The king of Arcadia, your beloved,
has sent me and this to you,” he said.
“Know that he is fighting well as he should.
He has left one foe totally dead on the field.
He sends that man’s war-horse to you here.”

{ Li rois d’Archade, vostre amis,
m’a ça, fet il, a vous tramis.
Sachiez que bien i joint a droit,
un en lessa u champ tot froit,
le destrier vous tramet ici. }[2]

Antigone had no need of a war-horse. Nonetheless, she was very pleased. She responded:

I offer him my thanks.
May he know well that for this gift
I intend to give him a great reward.
May he know well, without any doubt,
that he has me and my entire love.
When he leaves the battle,
ask him to come and talk with me.
Have him come here and I shall see him.
I don’t know when I will have the opportunity again.

{ Seue merci,
sache bien que por icest don
l’en cuit rendre grant guerredon.
Ce sache bien sanz nule doute
que il a moi et m’amor toute.
Quant il partira du tornoi,
mant lui que il parolt a moi.
Par ci s’en tort si le verrai,
ne sai quant g’i recouverrai. }

The great reward that she wanted to give him apparently was to have sex with him. Sex might be as much a reward to her as it is to him. But men’s sexuality is social devalued such that women regard sex with men as a reward to them. Men commit violence against men to earn that “reward.”

Ismene was eager to give Athon such a reward. She saw Athon strike Garsy of Marre with a strong blow. Garsy was knocked off his war-horse into the mud. Athon then took away Garsy’s horse. Ismene was watching:

Ismene saw this blow very clearly
and also the war-horse that Athon seized.
She very clearly recognized Athon
from the sleeve of silk
that he had as a personal identifier
laced to the end of his lance.
She pointed him out to her sister,
saying to her tenderly in private:
“That is Athon I can see there.
See how he spurs his horse in this battle,
I must love him above all things,
for he is doing all this here for me.
May I never be a king’s daughter,
if I’m not led astray through love for him.
Whether I do right or I act foolishly,
I will lie with him, so I believe,
because fire doesn’t spread in secret
as much as the love I have for him within me.

{ Icest coup vit tres bien Ysmaine
et le destrier qu’Athon amaine.
Ele cognut tres bien Athon
a la manche du syglaton
que il avoit par connoissance
lacié el soumet de sa lance.
A sa seur l’a moustré au doi,
belement li dist en secroi:
“Ce est Athes que je la voi,
veez com broche a cel tornoi!
Sor toute rien amer le doi,
car tout ice fet il por moi.
Ja ne soie fille de roi,
se pour s’amor ne me desroi.
Ou face bien ou ge foloi,
coucherai moi o lui, ce croi,
car feux n’esprent si en requoi
com fet l’amor que j’ai o moi.” }

Ismene was delighted that Athon was fighting for love of her. That’s sickening.[3]

medieval woman awards prize to man-knight

Love and war became perniciously associated in literature through Gallus’s influential Latin love elegy in the first century BGC. Grotesque effects can be seen in the behavior of Antigone and Ismene during the brutal violence against men at Thebes:

About their beloveds they joked and laughed,
and they argued about their men’s prowess,
because each, in her own opinion,
believed that she had the better one.
Antigone said to Ismene:
“You can talk with good spirit
because you kiss and embrace Athon
and all day have intercourse with him.
I cannot have intercourse with my mine,
nor kiss him nor embrace him.
I will never see him, unhappy one,
except from here, through these battlements.”
“Now envy will never die,” Ismene said.
“I’m not taking away anything from you, dear friend.
If I take my ease with my beloved
and do whatever pleases him greatly,
why would that upset you?
You would soon do the same
if you could have your beloved.
May God give me pleasure and joy!”

{ De leur amis joent et rient,
de leur proueces contralient,
car chascune, au sien espoir,
en cuide le meillor avoir.
Anthigoné dist a Ysmaine:
“Tu puez parler de teste saine,
car Athon baises et acoles
et toute jour a lui paroles.
Je ne puis pas au mien parler,
ne lui baisier ne acoler.
Ja nel pourrai veoir, chetive,
se de ça non, par ceste eschive.”
“Ja ne mourra,” fet ele, “envie!
Je ne vous toill du vostre, amie!
Se je faz o le mien mon aise
et cele rien qui mout li plaise,
pour quoi vos en seroit il mal?
Ja ferïez vous autretal
se pouïez le vostre avoir.
Diex m’en doint bien et joie avoir!” }[4]

Ismene didn’t have pleasure and joy with Athon for long. Tydeus struck Athon a mortal blow to the chest. Athon fell to the ground and was soon bathed in his own blood. On the brink of death, he was brought back into Thebes. He opened his eyes at the sound of Ismene’s voice and then immediately died.

Literature influential for thousands of years provides an important perspective on human social life. Epic violence against men in such literature has largely been regarded as natural. Yet vastly disproportionate violence against men isn’t natural. Ending epic violence against men requires greater imagination. The Life of Aesop and Lucian’s True Story, both from the second-century GC, Walahfrid Strabo’s ninth-century response to elegiac love and war, the eleventh-century Verses from Ivrea {Versus Eporedienses}, and great medieval troubadour poetry are under-appreciated resources for overcoming the epic curse of violence against men. You can make a different. Read, and imagine more!

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Read more:


[1] Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Roman de Troie, vv. 5589-93, Old French text from Constans (1904), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017).

Subsequent quotes from the Roman de Troie are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 6909-12 (Many of them came there…), 8081-89 (On top of Troy’s walls were the ladies…), 10602-19 (One of the women called to the other…), 12704-17 (Then commenced the ferocious battle…), 9890-9914 (An admiral, Morin d’Aresse…).

[2] Roman de Thèbes, vv. 4611-5, Old French text from Raynaud de Lage (1968), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2021).

Subsequent quotes from the Roman de Thèbes are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 4616-24 (I offer him my thanks…), 4677-94 (Ismene saw this blow very clearly…), 5879-98 (About their beloveds they joked and laughed…).

[3] Men fighting amid the horrific violence were aware of women watching them. Paris perceived Helen watching him fight with her husband Menelaus:

But Menelaus made him slip
from a blow, right next to the river.
Over the cropper of his horse
Paris fell. He was much ashamed from this
because Helen was watching him.

{ Mais Menelaus l’a fait glacier,
A l’empeindre, tot contre val.
Par sor la crope del cheval
Paris chaï: grant honte en ot
Por Heleine, que l’esguardot. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 11364-8. That wasn’t a particular effect of Helen. Hector also felt shame on the battlefield under women’s gaze:

When Hector perceived that he was covered in blood
and forcibly driven from the battlefield,
and he saw Helen and his sisters
and seven hundred ladies watching from the towers,
anger from shame entirely seized him.
From evil intention he shuddered and trembled.
He turned madly to oppose the Greeks.

{ Quant il se vit ensanglantez
E par force del champ getez,
E vit Heleine e ses sorors
E set cenz dames par les tors,
Ire ot e honte tôt ensemble;
De mautalent fremist e tremble.
Torne desvez contre Grezeis. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 14129-35.

[4] “The verb parler here (v. 5886) seems to be used in the sense of ‘to have sexual relations with.'” Burgess & Kelly (2021) p. 121, n. 92. On such use, see also note [2] and associated text in my post on the lai of Argentille and Haveloc. Above I’ve used the less explicit term “intercourse.”

Subsequently, Antigone and Salemander together watched Parthenopaeus and Eteocles, their respected beloveds, fight each other. Roman de Thèbes, vv. 8641-78. Drias joined the fight and killed Parthenopeaus.

[images] (1) Henry I, Count of Anhalt (1218-1252) engages in violence against men as women watch. Illustration from Codex Manesse, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, folio 17r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Rudolf von Rotenburg, who lived in Germanic lands in the middle of the thirteenth century, receives for his fighting prowess a prize from a woman. Codex Manesse, folio 54r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons. Other, similar images exist in the Codex Manesse.


Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Mauré: a translation. Gallica, 41. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. Reviews by Sylvia Federico and by Cristian Bratu.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly, trans. 2021. The Roman de Thèbes and The Roman d’Eneas. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Constans, Léopold, ed. 1904-12. Le roman de Troie, par Benoît de Sainte-Maure, publié d’après tous les manuscrits connus. Société des Aanciens Textes Français. Paris: F. Didot. Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Raynaud de Lage, Guy, ed. 1968. Roman de Thèbes. Paris: Champion. Published online by ENS of Lyon in the Base de français médiéval, last revised 2013-06-18. Part 1. Part 2.

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