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Military homecomings: ancient myths and modern truths

Dr Emma Bridges, public engagement fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies, explores the stories of soldiers’ wives in ancient myths to discover what they tell us about the psychological, emotional and social consequences of being a military spouse.

Written by Dr Emma Bridges |

Bursting into tears, she ran straight towards him, and flung her arms around Odysseus’ neck, and kissed his face and spoke to him. (Homer, Odyssey 23.207-8)

In describing the emotional reunion of Penelope with her soldier husband Odysseus, who has returned home after almost 20 years away – first fighting a war at Troy, and then undertaking a meandering journey home – the Greek epic poet Homer captures the sense of joy and relief that this couple feel when they are finally back together. The tearful embrace which the mythical husband and wife share has much in common with the heart-warming images of military reunions which today’s media are fond of broadcasting.

Image from page 96 of "Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad, books I, VI, XXII, XXIV;" (1900)
Image from page 96 of "Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad, books I, VI, XXII, XXIV;" (1900)

Yet the image of a couple embracing is only one element of the much more complex emotional process, which takes place when a soldier returns from war to their family. Both partners need to undergo an often-challenging readjustment process, as each seeks to get to know the other once more after a prolonged separation under difficult circumstances. The difficulties can be particularly pronounced when the serving partner has suffered physical or emotional trauma, and may be unrecognisable to their waiting spouse. Homer, it seems, knew this too. His painstaking depiction of Penelope’s reunion with Odysseus, in which the combat veteran returns home literally in disguise, acknowledges that it takes time and patience for a relationship to return to normal.

Penelope is just one of several mythical soldiers’ wives who we find in the epic poetry and tragic drama of the ancient Greek world. Homer’s portrayal of her – as the resourceful and isolated waiting wife, who for much of the Odyssey has no idea whether her husband is alive or dead, yet who remains faithful despite the presence of 108 suitors vying for her hand in marriage – cemented Penelope’s reputation in the ancient world as a paradigm of marital fidelity and wifely virtue.

Domenico Beccafumi - Penelope
Domenico Beccafumi - Penelope.

Elsewhere in the ancient sources, we meet other warriors’ wives. Among them is Andromache, who in the Iliad becomes a war widow after the death of her husband Hector in the course of the Trojan War, and Clytemnestra, who is presented as Penelope’s opposite, and perhaps represents the deep-seated fears of troops on active service about what might happen at home in their absence. Rather than remaining faithful to her husband Agamemnon while he is away fighting the war at Troy, Clytemnestra takes a lover. On Agamemnon’s return – as imagined in particularly gruesome detail by the fifth-century BCE Athenian playwright Aeschylus – she murders her husband.

These mythical women, and others like them, are shown in the ancient texts in a range of situations which might well be familiar to present-day ‘military spouses’. Saying goodbye to their partners as they leave for battle; dealing with separation and wartime suffering; coping with the anxieties associated with having a loved one in the line of fire; readjusting when warriors return home; and negotiating bereavement and trauma.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, American clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay published two influential works – Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America – which compared the traumas undergone by Vietnam veterans with descriptions of the heroes’ experiences of war and homecoming in the Iliad and Odyssey. Since then a significant strand of scholarship in the field of classics has sought to compare ancient representations of armed conflict with the experiences of modern combatants.

Meanwhile, several initiatives in the US involving theatrical performances and readings have used ancient texts as a way of opening up public dialogue with and about veterans. This work uses the narratives of myth as a starting-point for talking about complex and painful real-world experiences. It’s an approach, which to some extent, mirrors how ancient Greeks used mythical stories to think about difficult topics related to their civic and domestic life. Until now, however, the spouses of warriors – those in the ancient narratives as well as those in the modern world – have not been given the same level of scholarly or public attention.

I am currently working on a project which aims to start redressing the balance, by focusing on the stories of soldiers’ wives in ancient myth and thinking about what these women might reveal to us about some of the psychological, emotional, and social consequences of being married to a soldier. Of course, it is not always possible to draw straightforward comparisons between the ancient stories and those of modern military families. For women in the ancient Greek world, where war was an ever-present part of life, marriage to a soldier was not the exception for a woman, but the norm. By contrast, in contemporary western society, where the military is a career choice and the majority of the population has no direct experience of combat, marriage to someone who has spent time in a war zone sets apart the military spouse from other women in society.

In addition, in modern society the situation can differ from the marriages depicted in the ancient sources, as women and those in same-sex partnerships are eligible for military service, and in some cases both partners in a relationship may be service personnel. Nonetheless, as the most recent statistics for the UK and US show, the gender balance among front line troops is still skewed towards being predominantly male, and the majority of military spouses are therefore women.

Often, when the emphasis of media reporting and scholarly study is on the combatants themselves, just as in the Odyssey, where the majority of the narrative focuses on the experiences of Odysseus rather than those of the waiting Penelope, the voices of their partners can be silenced or forgotten. As a result, spouses’ experiences can be misunderstood or overlooked altogether, or they become reduced to gendered stereotypes of passivity based on archaic ideas of wifely decorum.

By examining more closely the depictions of Penelope, Andromache, and Clytemnestra, and the relationships of these characters with their soldier husbands, I’m aiming to open up a conversation about the experiences of contemporary military spouses; in turn, looking at the first-hand testimonies of the partners of soldiers, from the world wars of the 20th century to recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, will help to shed fresh light on the women we find represented in the ancient texts. It’s time to look beyond the outdated stereotypes and to listen more carefully to the voices – ancient and modern – which we don’t always get the opportunity to hear.

Dr Emma Bridges’ book, provisionally entitled ‘Warriors’ Wives: Ancient Greek Myth and Modern Experience’, is under contract to Oxford University Press and is due for publication in 2020. Meanwhile, you can find her on Twitter @emmabridges.

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