4 Powerful and Inspiring Women Rulers that Changed Society and the World
Throughout ancient history, many women have defied societal expectations and risen to positions of power and influence. During their reigns, they left unforgettable marks not only on their own civilizations, but on human history as a whole. Their stories tend to fascinate and inspire us, as these women often had untraditional paths to power.
Below are the stories of four of ancient history’s influential women rulers.
1.Wu Zetian, China’s Only Female Emperor (624 - 705 AD)
Traditionally known as Empress Wu, Wu Zetian is known as the only female emperor in Chinese history. Coming from an untraditional background, Wu Zetian started as a concubine for Emperor Taizong, and later became concubine of his successor, Emperor Gaozong. During this time, Wu Zetian’s intelligent and cunning nature helped her earn influence in the imperial court.
When Emperor Gaozong became ill around 660 AD, Wu Zetian took control of the government as “empress consort.” After his passing, a few of her sons became emperor in his place, taking turns being replaced until she finally declared herself emperor in 690 AD. In total, she reigned for over 50 years in various capacities through the Tang and Zhou dynasties.
Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, from concubine to one of China’s most powerful rulers. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
Wu Zetian had many accomplishments during her reign, including many legal reforms and expanded bureaucracy. She helped society to adopt merit-based examinations for civil service appointments, which gave citizens from lower social classes opportunities to rise higher in the social ranks. She also led many successful military campaigns against neighboring kingdoms, and built several grand palaces and temples throughout the empire before her death in 705 AD.
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2.Queen Boudicca, Warrior Queen and Determined Women Ruler of a Roman Rebellion (30 – 61 AD)
Around 60 AD, Boudicca became the leader of the Iceni after her husband’s tragic death. Though the kingdom was meant to be shared between her and the Roman Empire, the Romans fought to seize the entirety of the Iceni lands, stealing their property and subjecting their people to horrific abuse.
Boudicca shows the marks of the Roman Rods, from Beric, the Briton: a story of the Roman invasion by G.A. Henty. (W Parkinson/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Enraged, Queen Boudicca formed alliances with neighboring tribes to create a massive force of retaliation against the Romans. This rebellion gained momentum quickly, and they were victorious several times during the initial attacks. Boudicca’s forces left large-scale destruction in their path, destroying settlements such as Verulamium and Camulodunum impressively quickly.
Unfortunately, Queen Boudicca and her rebellion were ultimately defeated. A counterattack by the Romans in 61 AD crippled her forces, leaving them unable to continue fighting. Rather than be captured, it is said that Boudicca ended her life, and the life of the rebellion, by drinking poison. Though her death marked the end of the Iceni’s power, her bravery, leadership, and determination in the face of oppression have inspired many.
3.Empress Theodora, Actress Turned Women’s Rights Empress (497 - 548 AD)
A highly powerful figure during the 6th century AD, Empress Theodora made a huge impact on the Byzantine Empire. Born in 497 AD, Theodora was raised in the theatre as an actress and performer, which was considered extremely low in terms of social status at the time. Regardless of her origins, future emperor Justinian I fell madly in love with her, choosing her to become his empress consort.
After Justinian’s rise to the throne in 527 AD, Empress Theodora became heavily involved in the region’s politics and governance. According to some records, Justinian was so impressed by Theodora’s intelligence that he would often go to her for advice on these matters.
Empress Theodora represented in mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna. (Public Domain)
Some of her most notable efforts include her involvement in promoting women’s rights. For one, Empress Theodora worked hard to improve women’s legal status to protect them from exploitation. She also helped pass laws to grant women more rights in property ownership, inheritances, and divorce, which heavily challenged the prevailing societal norms.
4.Queen Zenobia, Fearless Fighter for Palmyrene Independence (240 – Unknown AD)
Queen Zenobia was the famous ruler of the Palmyrene Empire during the 3rd century AD. Located in modern-day Syria, the Palmyrene Empire was considered a Roman client state, which meant it was subordinate to Rome.
Zenobia rose to power by marrying King Odaenathus, who was the ruler of the Palmyrene Empire at the time. After his assassination in 267 AD, Queen Zenobia declared herself the new ruler of the empire, and she did not disappoint. She worked to rebel against Roman forces, seeking to expand and make the Palmyrene Empire independent from their power.
During her reign, Queen Zenobia expanded its territories to capture several surrounding Roman states, including Egypt and Asia Minor. She was known for her impressive military strategies and her noble leadership in several successful campaigns. Because of this, she was heavily respected by her supporters, and admired even by her adversaries.
Queen Zenobia's Last Look upon Palmyra’ (1888) by Herbert Gustave Schmalz. (Public Domain)
When she wasn’t leading a rebellion, Zenobia worked to develop the culture of learning in her empire, transforming her court into a center of trade and learning. She was known as a patron of the arts, sciences, and literature, and helped to attract many scholars, philosophers, and artists from other countries to contribute to their society.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. In 272 AD, the Roman Empire launched a powerful attack against Zenobia and defeated the Palmyrene forces. Though it is unclear exactly what happened to Queen Zenobia, some sources suggest that she was so respected by her opponents that they spared her life and allowed her to retire in a luxurious villa in Rome after her capture.
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Each of these four powerful women rulers made a huge impact on their respective civilizations. After their death, they each left behind a fascinating legacy that continues to inspire anyone who has the privilege to learn about their stories.
Though their fates varied, their contributions left a lasting impact, constantly reminding us of the many fascinating ways ancient women have shaped our history.
Top image: Fearless women rulers who defied norms and forged their own paths to power. Source: Stasiuk/Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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