Ten Powerful and Fearsome Women of the Ancient World
In most civilizations of the past, it was the men who were engaged in the bloody business of war… but not always. Throughout history there have been many powerful women who have led nations or guided armies into war, renowned not only as fearsome fighters, but also as cunning strategists and inspirational leaders. There were others who made a name for themselves in a domain traditionally held by men and whose stories, carried forward over the centuries, continue to be told today.
Throughout history, Vietnamese women have been instrumental in resisting foreign domination. The most well-known of these heroines are the Trung sisters, who led the first national uprising against their Chinese conquerors in 40 AD.
Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were born sometime around the year 12 AD to a powerful lord in Giao Chỉ province. During the era in which the sisters were born, all of Vietnam was under the control of the Chinese Han Dynasty. The Trung sisters grew up in a household where they studied the art of warfare, learned fighting skills, and were well-versed in martial arts. In 39 AD, the Trung sisters took a revolutionary path to oppose the Han Dynasty’s oppressive rule. They rallied supporters – many of whom were women – to fight against the Chinese. The sisters rode into battle upon the backs of elephants, and within a few months their forces overtook more than 65 citadels from Chinese control.
For more than three years, the Chinese fought to retake control of Vietnam, but the Trung sisters’ forces fought them off and retained control until 43 AD, when they were eventually overcome. Rather than accept defeat at the hands of the Chinese, the sisters committed suicide. Their courageous spirit has served as an inspiration to the people of Vietnam for nearly two thousand years and their legacy remains firmly embedded in the culture and national identity of the country to this day.
We British are used to women commanders in war; I am descended from mighty men! But I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters.... Consider how many of you are fighting — and why! Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do!— let the men live in slavery if they will.
These are the words of Queen Boudicca, according to ancient historian Tacitus, as she summoned her people to unleash war upon the invading Romans in Britain. Boudicca, sometimes written Boadicea, was queen of the Iceni tribe, a Celtic clan which united a number of British tribes in revolt against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in 60-61 AD. While she famously succeeded in defeating the Romans in three great battles, their victories would not last. The Romans rallied and eventually crushed the revolts, executing thousands of Iceni and taking the rest as slaves. Boudicca’s name has been remembered through history as the courageous warrior queen who fought for freedom from oppression, for herself, and all the Celtic tribes of Britain.
Grace O'Malley was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the O Maille clan, rebel, seafarer, and fearless leader, who challenged the turbulent politics of 16th century England and Ireland. She was born in Ireland in around 1530, as a daughter of the wealthy nobleman and sea trader. Upon his death, she inherited his large shipping and trading business, along with his money.
Under the policies of the English government at the time, the semi-autonomous Irish princes and lords were left mostly to their own devices. However this changed with the Tudor conquest of Ireland, when more and more Irish lands came under their rule. The O'Malleys were one of the few seafaring families on the west coast, and they built a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory. From their base at Rockfleet Castle, they reportedly attacked ships and fortresses on the shoreline. O'Malley's ships would stop and board the traders and demand either cash or a portion of the cargo in exchange for safe passage the rest of the way to Galway.
Ambitious and fiercely independent, her exploits eventually became known through all of Ireland and England. By March, 1574, the English felt they could no longer ignore her ‘predatory sieges’, so a force of ships and men laid siege to O’Malley in Rockfleet Castle. Within two weeks, the Pirate Queen had turned her defence into an attack and the English were forced to make a hasty retreat.
At the age of 56, O’Malley was finally captured by governor Sir Richard Bingham and closely escaped the death sentence. O’Malley petitioned the Crown for redress, and then set sail for England. During a historic 1593 meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, she somehow managed to convince her to free her family and restore much of her lands and influence.
Cartimandua was Queen of the Brigantes tribe, which occupied the region known today as northern England, said to be the largest tribe on the British Isles. When the Romans under the emperor Claudius invaded Britain in A.D. 43, the Brigantes tribe became a client kingdom of Rome, whose loyalty to the empire ensured its autonomy.
In A.D. 57, a quarrel arose between Cartimandua and her consort, Venutius. This resulted in a civil war when Venutius, angered by the capture of his brothers and relatives by Cartimandua, invaded her territory. The Romans decided to interfere by sending military aid, first auxiliaries, and then a legion, to their client. As a result, Cartimandua was able to secure her throne, and it seemed that the queen and Venutius were reconciled for the time being.
However in A.D. 69, Roman emperor Nero died and the Roman Empire was plunged into chaos. The time was ripe for Venutius to settle old scores, and Cartimandua had to act swiftly. Venutius led a revolt against Cartimandua. Once again, Cartimandua sought the Romans for help. This time, however, the Romans could only afford to send auxiliaries, as the legions were busy fighting in other part of the empire. Although she lost her throne, Cartimandua managed to flee to the Roman fort at Deva (modern day Chester). From that point on, the once mighty queen simply vanished from the historical records, her fate unknown.
Penthesilea was a Queen of the Amazons, a legendary race of warrior women. The Amazon women were so dedicated to being warriors, that they were known to cut off one of their breasts so that they would be better able to wield a bow. While hunting one day, Penthesilea accidentally killed her sister Hippolyta with a spear. This caused Penthesilea a great deal of grief, and led her to wish for death. However, as a warrior, and an Amazon, she could only die honorably and during battle.
Penthesilea’s reign as queen was during the years of the Trojan War. The Amazons did not take a particular side in the war, and Penthesiliea made an effort to stay away from the conflict. However, when Achilles killed the Trojan prince, Hector, and upon the accidental killing of her sister, Penthesilea decided that it was time for the Amazons to intervene, so she led the Amazons into war.
It is written that she blazed through the Greeks like lightning. She wanted to prove that the Amazons were great warriors. She wanted to kill Achilles to avenge the death of Hector, and she wanted to die in battle. Although Penthesilea was a ferocious warrior, her life came to an end, at the hands of Achilles. While he was drawn to her with the intention of killing her, he fell in love with her upon seeing her eyes and as his sword struck, Achilles was overcome with enormous grief and regret.
Ching Shih was born in the Guangdong province of China in 1775. She became a prostitute who worked in a floating brothel in Canton. In 1801, Pirate Zhèng Yi, who commanded a fleet of ships called the “Red Flag Fleet,” noticed Ching Shih’s beauty and took her as his wife.
With Zhèng Yi and Ching Shih side-by-side, the Red Flag Fleet quickly grew from 200 ships to more than 1700 ships. Zhèng Yi died in 1807, only 6 years after marrying Ching Shih. At the time of his death, the Red Flag Fleet consisted of approximately 50,000 – 70,000 pirates. Ching Shih, wishing not to go back to a life of prostitution, knew that this was her opportunity to rise to power. Ching Shih was a strict and regimented pirate lord. She focused much on business and military strategy. She even went to great lengths to form an ad hoc government under which her pirates were bound to and protected by laws and taxes. She also set forth strict rules regarding the treatment of captured prisoners – female prisoners in particular. Female captives who were considered to be “ugly” were released, unharmed. A pirate who wished to take a beautiful female captive as their wife was free to do so, but they were bound to be faithful and to care for her. Unfaithfulness and rape were both offenses punishable by death.
When it appeared Ching Shih could not be defeated, the Chinese offered amnesty to all pirates, hoping to eliminate Ching Shih’s reign over the sea. Ching Shih entered negotiations with the government until it was agreed that she would end her career as a pirate as long as was permitted to keep all of her loot. Ching Shih returned to Canton and opened a gambling house, where she remained until she died in 1844.
Zenobia was a Palymerene queen, born around 240 AD in Palmyra, at that time a Roman province. She was married at the age of 18 to Septimius Odaenathus, an influential member of Palmyrene society. However, only 9 years later, he and his son from his first wife were assassinated. Zenobia’s son, Vaballathus, became king of Palmyra, whilst Zenobia ruled as regent. As Rome was gripped by the Crisis of the Third Century, it was the perfect opportunity for Zenobia to extend Palmyrene rule.
In 269 AD, Zenobia sent her general, Zabdas, to claim the Roman province of Egypt as her own. With help from their Egyptian ally, Timagenes, the Palmyrenes were able to defeat the Roman prefect of Egypt. To consolidate her position in Egypt, she claimed that she was a descendent of Cleopatra. Following the conquest of Egypt, Zenobia then marched her army into Anatolia, conquering Roman territory as far west as Ancyra. She then moved on to conquer Syria, Palestine and Lebanon using a blend of military might and ideological propaganda.
Initially, the Palmyrene Empire was recognised by the new Roman emperor, Aurelian, who was occupied with the campaign against the Gallic Empire in the west. However, having defeated the Gallic Empire, Aurelian turned his sights on the East, eventually defeating the Palmyrenes and capturing Zenobia, whose final fate is unknown.
In the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France, an enraged French woman named Jeanne de Clisson took to the sea with a fleet of warships, where she mercilessly hunted down ships of King Philip VI to avenge her husband’s death, who was executed following rumors that he had defected to the English side. For her ferocity, she eventually acquired the name The Lioness of Brittany. Jeanne and her crew would slaughter the crew of the King’s ships, leaving two or three sailors alive, so that the message would get back to the King that the Lioness of Brittany had struck once again.
In her efforts to keep the English Channel completely free of French ships, she formed an alliance with the English, laundering supplies to their soldiers for battles. She continued her work as a pirate even after the death of her enemy, King Philip VI, in 1350.
Jeanne de Clisson fought as a pirate for thirteen years. When her quest for revenge ended, it was not through losing a battle, nor was it through the French authorities finally catching up with her. Jeanne found love in English noble Sir Walter Brentley, who had been King Edward III’s lieutenant during a campaign against Charles de Blois, her arch enemy. She married Sir Walter in 1356 and settled into a quiet life in the Castle of Hennebont in France, which was a territory of her Montfort allies, and later died there in unknown circumstances.
The day had been spent in ritual battles, and a group of individuals who were vanquished, naked, and tied-together were marched up the long stairs to the top platform of the great pyramid where there they were killed, throats cut, sacrificed to their supreme deity. A great silver goblet, the mark of a ruler in Moche society, was used to collect the blood and then the blood was consumed by the priestess-queen and the circle was completed, for life feeds on life, and this seems to have been a fundamental cultural concept for the violent, passionate Moche society.
In 2006, archaeologists in Peru made an incredible discovery. On the beautiful northern coastline of Peru, the place known as Huaca El Brujo (Sacred place of the Wizard), once a center of social and religious functions, researchers discovered the final resting place of a tattooed mummy, who has come to be known as the Lady of Cao. Like the description presented above, the Lady of Cao was a powerful priestess mystic who engaged in violent rituals and ruled over the Moche.
The surprise discovery of the tattooed female in the Hill of the Wizard caused archaeologists to reconsider their male-centric model of the Moche political structure. The subsequent discoveries of eight more Moche Queens made it quite clear that this was not a male ruled society. It appears that Moche society was based on loosely aligned ‘states’ ruled by high priest kings or priestess queens and that the division of government was of a more balanced nature.
Nefertiti was the chief consort of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV), who reigned from approximately 1353 to 1336 BC. Known as the Ruler of the Nile and Daughter of Gods, Nefertiti acquired unprecedented power, and is believed to have held equal status to the pharaoh himself.
Nefertiti was married to Amenhotep IV around 1357 BC and was later promoted to be his queen. In the fourth year of Amenhotep IV's reign, the sun god Aten became the dominant national god. The king led a religious revolution closing the older temples and promoting Aten's central role. Nefertiti had played a prominent role in the old religion, and this continued in the new system. She worshiped alongside her husband and held the unusual kingly position of priest of Aten. In the new, virtually monotheistic religion, the king and queen were viewed as "a primeval first pair," through whom Aten provided his blessings. They thus formed a royal triad or trinity with Aten, through which Aten's "light" was dispensed to the entire population.
During Akhenaten's reign (and perhaps after) Nefertiti enjoyed unprecedented power, and by the twelfth year of his reign, there is evidence that she may have been elevated to the status of co-regent, equal in status to the pharaoh himself. She is often depicted on temple walls in the same size as him, signifying her importance, and is shown alone worshiping the god Aten.
In the regal year 12, Nefertiti's name ceases to be found. The reason for her disappearance from the historical record continues to remain a matter of speculation and debate.