This painting, created by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (c. 1836–1912) and titled The Women of Amphissa, was inspired by a legend from ancient Greek history. Specifically, the story told in the painting was pulled from the Moralia essays, attributed to the ancient scholar, Plutarch (c. 50-120). In a section featuring brave women of ancient Greece, Plutarch used the opportunity to record a tale about an interesting interaction between the female population of Amphissa and a curious band of women refugees from the sacred region Delphi. The legend seemed to be set during the time of the Third Sacred War (c. 356-346 BCE), when Delphi’s host state of Phocis militarily seized control of the sacred site of Delphi, igniting a major power struggle between Phocis and the other member states of the Amphictyonic League that oversaw the sacred Oracle at Delphi. In Lawrence Alma Tadema’s painting, the women in white garb seen sprawled on the stone floor are a troupe of religious women who departed occupied Delphi and arrived at Amphissa (an ally of Phocis). These traveling women, apparently, were affiliated with the Amphictyonic League, and therefore they were not welcomed by all in Amphissa. Yet, the local women were said to have taken pity on the unexpected travelers and gave them aid and protection. On this legend, Plutarch wrote:
“When the despots in Phocis had seized Delphi, and the Thebans were waging war against them in what has been called the Sacred War, the women devotees of Dionysus, to whom they give the name of Thyads, in Bacchic frenzy wandering at night unwittingly arrived at Amphissa. As they were tired out, and sober reason had not yet returned to them, they flung themselves down in the market-place, and were lying asleep, some here, some there. The wives of the men of Amphissa, fearing, because their city had become allied with the Phocians, and numerous soldiers of the despots were present there, that the Thyads might be treated with indignity, all ran out into the market-place, and, taking their stand round in silence, did not go up to them while they were sleeping, but when they arose from their slumber, one devoted herself to one of the strangers and another to another, bestowing attentions on them and offering them food. Finally, the women of Amphissa, after winning the consent of their husbands, accompanied the strangers, who were safely escorted as far as the frontier” (Plutarch, Moralia, 249F).
It is this scene that Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema brings to life in his painting. The Thyads can be seen just waking up from their nightly sojourn, surrounded by a protective ring of Amphissan women who look on with interest and offer aid to their sleepy guests. No further information was recorded about the group of women from Delphi that reportedly passed through Amphissa. The Third Sacred War, however, raged on for a decade. It became a battle between Greece’ past and its future, with the renowned old powers of Athens and Sparta siding with Phocis, while the emergent Kingdom of Macedon aligned with the Amphictyonic League. The Third Sacred War, and the ample opportunities of meddling and expansion it provided, were masterfully exploited by King Philip II of Macedon (r. 359-336 BCE), father of Alexander the Great (r. 336-322 BCE).
Written by C. Keith Hansley