The bitch is back

The Classical Epic is back. And Hollywood wants a Gladiator with girls. So who have they plumped for? That simpering ninny Helen of Troy. Ridiculous, says Gavanndra Hodge. The ancient world was teeming with fabulous women who'd chop your head off as soon as look at you
Click to follow

At this very moment a phalanx of burly Spartan warriors are practising manoeuvres. Colin Farrell is growing his hair so that it falls about his shoulders in vigorous curls and Brad Pitt is stomping barefoot around a Greek island in a tempting little brown sarong. It is as if 1963's monumental financial disaster, Cleopatra, never happened. The Classical Epic is back. Wolfgang Petersen is making Troy with Pitt as the doughty Achilles. There is a Battle of Thermopylae with George Clooney. Vin Diesel has taken on the role of Hannibal. And no less than two Alexander the Greats - Colin Farrell's and Leonardo DiCaprio's - are tooling up to do battle at your local Odeon.

The reason for this inundation of bicep and sinew, blood and entrails is the $458m (£284.5m) made by Gladiator, and because men like what a sweaty man in a leather skirt says about them (whereas women just like a sweaty man in a leather skirt). They also like to see a comely maid polishing her warrior's shield, preferably in a diaphanous tunic. Hence a thousand casting agents were launched to scour the earth for the perfect facsimile of Helen, the fairest woman in the world.

In the end an unknown was chosen, a former model called Diane Kruger. This was fitting because, like Helen, Kruger's only appreciable attribute is her beauty. Helen of Troy was, and remains, a passive mirror for men's desires. In addition to being the most beautiful, she is possibly the most facile woman in history. It seems a shame that the most celebrated woman from our rich classical tradition - and probably the only female with any lines in the forthcoming superabundance of classical epics - should be someone who was regarded as little more than stolen treasure. There is always Cleopatra, of course - there was talk of yet another cinematic outing for her at this year's Cannes. But again, her place as a pivot in history is as a result of her unusual beauty - or at least that is how tradition tells it.

Ancient history and literature, those oft-neglected mines of information about Who We Are, have much more to tell us about women than this simpering, limpid cast-list of two would suggest. The real first ladies of Ancient Greece and Rome were cunning, capable, bitchy and bloodthirsty. They ruled empires through decrepit and doting husbands. They stood at the head of armies in chain mail and fancy purple cloaks. They had libidinous urges and they satisfied them.

Should we be troubled by the fact that they were also almost all creations of the fervid imaginations of men - the ancient historians, satirists and poets who lived in severely patriarchal societies in which it was unusual for a woman to leave the home unchaperoned, let alone jump on a horse and ride into battle? I don't think so. The female characters they wrote about were extremes. The only way these women would ever find their way into the homes of those imaginative fellows was in the pages of a book or the painting on a vase. And the imagined woman is often the most potent one of all.

So why do the 21st century's (mostly male) film directors appear to ignore these women? When they turn to the ancient world they are looking for that simple and comforting archetype, the Bold Hero. He is not so easy to find - and then represent credibly - in our society. On the other hand, the demanding, ambitious, conniving and even violent woman is alive and making herself heard in offices and bedrooms all over the world. As such, she should not be confined to academic colloquia - she deserves to be embraced, she deserves full Technicolor and acres of little computer-generated troops. And so, overleaf, we offer a few rather more interesting women with which to populate Hollywood's polystyrene forums and temples - our top 10 classical bitches, witches, goddesses and queens (and the perfect actresses to play them).

The Virgin Slayer

When Artemis was three she sat herself on her father Zeus's knee and asked for "eternal virginity, bows and arrows, a saffron hunting tunic with red hem - and all the mountains in the world". Her precocity was rewarded, and she gaily spent her days tearing about hunting down wild beasts and anyone who threatened her chastity. One day a young man called Actaeon was minding his own business in a leafy glade when he caught sight of Artemis bathing naked. She was pitiless. She turned him into a stag and sent 50 of his own hounds after him to tear him into tiny shreds.

Blood count:

Bitch factor: 3/5

Casting couch: Avril Lavigne

Murder at Bathtime

It was understandable that Clytemnestra was in a huff with Agamemnon. He sacrificed their daughter and then he buggered off for 10 years to fight the Trojan War. So in his absence she took a new lover and became the tyrant ruler of Mycenae. When Agamemnon returned she played the delighted wife, laid out a red carpet and led him to a nice hot bath. There she threw a net over him and chopped his head off with an axe. She celebrated the day of the murder every month with dancing and singing (not for long - she was soon murdered by her son Orestes).

Blood count:

Bitch factor: 4/5

Casting couch: Reese Witherspoon

The Amazon Queen

The Amazons hunted and fought and would never deign to cook, weave or clear up afterwards. It is even said that they would chop off one breast to facilitate the use of a bow. Penthesilea had two breasts, but was nevertheless a fine warrior. After killing her sister, Hippolyte, she fled to Troy, where the decade-long war was in full swing. Naturally she flung herself into the fracas and was a worthy opponent for the Greeks, running Achilles off the field many times. Finally he speared her and dragged her off her steed by her pony-tail. He removed her helmet and, as he stared into her beautiful, dying eyes, fell in love. He committed necrophilia on the spot. Thersites, the ugliest of the Greeks, was so disgusted with the whole episode that he gouged out her eyes (which are, of course, the conduit of love). Diomedes, Thersites' cousin, then dragged her body away by one foot and threw it into the river Scamander.

Blood count:

Bitch Factor: 1/5

Casting couch: Nicole Kidman

A Taste for Blood

The Great King Cyrus of Persia had been on the throne for 29 years and had extended the bounds of his empire far and wide. But the one place he hadn't conquered was a tract of land in Scythia ruled by Queen Tomyris. Inevitably, a battle ensued. The first round was won by the Persians during which Tomyris's son was captured and committed suicide. Tomyris was furious. She took to the field with the remainder of her men and the most violent battle in history was fought in which most of the Persian army was destroyed and Cyrus killed. At the end of the rout, Tomyris ordered a search for the King's body. When it was found she had him decapitated and plunged his head into a leather bag which she had filled with gore, proclaiming "now you have your fill of blood!"

Blood count:

Bitch factor: 2/5

Casting couch: Kathy Burke

Mother Knows Best

Not long after Olympias (375-316BC) gave birth to her son, Alexander, her relationship with her husband, King Philip of Macedon, disintegrated. She did not like his philandering ways; he was scared of a woman who slept in a bed full of tame snakes. When Philip had a second son with one of his many concubines, Olympias poisoned the boy so that he was rendered mentally retarded. She later killed the concubine and took part in a successful plot to assassinate Philip. After this she forced his latest concubine, Eurydice, to hang herself - but only after making her watch her new-born child being killed. By this time Alexander was king and was spending all his time away from home subjugating the Western world (in all likelihood he was only too happy to be away from his mother). After his death, Olympias briefly ruled Macedonia but was soon done away with by Alexander's friend Cassander, who handed her over to the families of the people she had murdered.

Blood count:

Bitch factor: 5/5

Casting couch: Helen Mirren

Sleeping with the Enemy II

Livia (58BC-AD29), wife of the Emperor Augustus, seemed the perfect Roman matron. She spent most of her time at the loom. But while she weaved she plotted. She and Augustus had no children together and Livia's ambition was to make emperor her son from a previous marriage, Tiberius. All other possible heirs were eliminated very quickly. First to go was Marcellus, son of Augustus's sister; then Gaius and Lucius, Augustus's grandchildren. Finally she disposed of Augustus himself, by smearing his figs with poison. Yet despite her scheming, Livia was regarded as the matriarch of the Roman Empire; indeed she had been instrumental in directing its foundation through her husband, whose seal she carried. After her death she was deified by her grandson, Claudius.

Blood count:

Bitch factor: 5/5

Casting couch: Catherine Zeta Jones

The Merry Wives of Rome

Poor Claudius. After years of being taunted by his family for his stutter and withered body he eventually became emperor and proceeded to marry two of the most unsavoury women in history. Messalina (AD15-48) was just 14 years old when she became his wife. He was not a particularly libidinous man (and he was 50) so Messalina satisfied herself with gladiators, dancers and anyone else she fancied. Those who turned her down were deemed treasonous and murdered. One day she challenged Rome's premier prostitute Scylla to a contest. After 25 men, Scylla was exhausted but Messalina continued unstintingly into the day. It all got too much for Claudius when she committed bigamy and married another man in an opulent public ceremony - she was executed soon afterwards. Agrippina (AD15-59) was Claudius's cousin, but that didn't stop her moving in swiftly after Messalina was executed. After their wedding, Agrippina persuaded Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, and then promptly poisoned the old man with mushrooms. Nero was hailed as emperor but Agrippina wrote all his speeches and made all his decisions. Eventually Nero grew tired of his over-bearing mother and arranged for her to be ferried home in a collapsible boat. Amazingly she survived, but when she swam to shore she was stabbed to death by her son's soldiers.

Blood count:

Bitch factor: both 4/5

Casting couch: Amanda Holden and Tamzin Outhwaite

The Syrian Siren

Zenobia's (c.AD231 -c.271) eyes were as black as onyx, her teeth as white as pearls, her heart as hard as steel. Her husband Odenathus ruled territory stretching from the Taurus mountains to the Red Sea, as the representative of the Roman Empire. Zenobia arranged for him to be assassinated, took control of the empire, extended it to Egypt and Mesopotamia and dissociated herself from Rome. But her dominion was brief. When the emperor Aurelian came into power in AD270 he made straight for her capital, Palmyra. Dressed in a mail tunic draped with purple cloth, Zenobia led an army of 70,000 Palmyranians. She was defeated but when interrogated blamed her counsellors. They were executed and she was sent to Rome to walk, bound with gold chains, at the head of Aurelian's triumphal procession - and then to dwell for the rest of her days in Roman comfort.

Blood count:

Bitch factor: 3/5

Casting couch: Salma Hayek

The Gate of Life

Vibia Perpetua (c.AD181-203) is the only one of our women who wrote part of her own story. She was a young Carthaginian who had recently given birth and found the Christian God. Her treachery was discovered and she was imprisoned, whereupon she started having visions. In one she fought an Egyptian in the amphitheatre and was able to float up, Matrix-style, and kill him by treading on his head. On the day of her execution, she and her friend Felicity entered the amphitheatre singing. They were stripped and put into a net. Felicity was pregnant and Vibia lactating. The baying crowds were so moved that they demanded that the girls should be decently attired to face their nemesis - a savage cow. The girls were flung about but managed to survive, so a young swordsman was brought in to finish the job. Utterly disarmed by their vulnerability, his hand wavered - so Vibia directed the tip of his sword to her throat and that way brought about her end.

Blood count:

Bitch factor: 0/5

Casting couch: Björk