10 Warrior Queens From Africa, Ancient Greece, Central Asia and Beyond

While Elizabeth I of England was comfortable admitting she had the “weak and feeble body of a woman,” not all queens have been so quick to give up their place in the field of battle. Here are ten warrior queens from history who showed that a woman’s place can be on the front lines.

‘A spartan woman giving a shield to her son’ by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, 1826. Arachidamia most definitely did not conform to type…

10. Arachidamia, Queen of Sparta

“Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?”
“Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.”
Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus

When Sparta was menaced by King Pyrrhus in the 3rd century BCE the main body of the Spartan army was away on campaign. The council of the city wished to send the women away to safety. Queen Arachidamia entered the debate with a sword in her hand. There was to be no more talk of sheltering the women. The women of the city, led by Arachidamia, constructed a defensive wall and during the battle they took part by pulling the wounded from the field.

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

9. Zenobia, Empress of Palmyra

When the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured in 260 CE by his Persian enemies, and forced to live out his life as a human footstool, the weakness of the Empire was too tempting for some previously loyal vassal states.

Palmyra declared their leader Odaenathus a king, though one still nominally loyal to the empire. On his assassination his wife Zenobia became Queen Regent for their son. Zenobia sent her armies to defend and expand the territories under her son’s control. She soon conquered Egypt, affirming her Roman allegiance even as she defeated its armies and drove out Roman officials. Eventually defeated, Zenobia was marched through the streets of Rome in chains.

Early 20th century art of the Rani of Jhansi, from the Art Gallery of New South Wales

8. Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi

Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, rose in rebellion against the British Raj in 1857. On the death of her husband the East India Company annexed Jhansi. Told she must quit her palace Lakshmibai declared “I will not surrender my Jhansi!” When the Indian Revolt broke out the Rani became a leader of the rebels. The British surrounded her fort and Lakshmibai fled under fire on horseback. Building a new force she occupied Gwalior before giving battle to the British. Dressed in a man’s uniform Lakshmibai fought beside her soldiers and died in the thick of combat.

7. Mavia of Arabia, Queen of the Tanukh

When Queen Zenobia rebelled against Rome the nomadic Tanukh people had come to Rome’s aid. A hundred years later, in 375 CE, when the Tanukh king died his queen Mavia took command of her people and launched a revolt against Roman rule. Mavia quit the city of Aleppo and took her forces into the desert, swelling their numbers with other tribes. Guerrilla tactics gave Mavia’s horsemen an advantage over the slower Roman army. Leading her troops into a pitched battle she fell on the Roman army sent against her and destroyed it. When her rebellion reached to the Egyptian border the Emperor Valens called for peace and a treaty was hastily arranged.

Lithograoh of Nzinga by François Villain, 1899

6. Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba

When Queen Nzinga met with the Portuguese they sought to diminish her by making her stand throughout the audience. She commanded one of her servants to go down on hands and knees to allow her to sit as an equal. When the Portuguese attacked her lands in 1626 Nzinga was forced to flee Ndongo to create a new nation in Matamba. From her new home she waged a three-decades long war against the Portuguese slavers which saw her personally leading troops.

5. Amage, Queen of Sarmatia

Amage of Sarmatia (2nd century CE) had a problem – her husband, who was weak, indecisive, and decadent. Instead of allowing her country to sink under his rule she took the reigns. She entered into an alliance with the Chersonesians who were being menaced by the Scythian king. Her demand that the Scythians respect her allies was rebuffed scornfully. Amage gathered a force of 120 horsemen and rode against the king, surprising him in his palace. In a short fight the king was captured and slain. She returned the Scythian lands to the king’s heir and told him to remember the lesson of his father’s haughtiness.

4. Fu Hao, Queen of Shang Dynasty China

Lady Fu Hao (~1200 BCE) was the wife of King Wu Ding. While the king took 60 wives to sure up alliances with neighbouring kingdoms it is safe to say that he only had one Fu Hao. She was a high-priestess but also, uniquely for the time, a general. Her forces consisted of 13,000 soldiers and she was placed above other, male, generals. Fu Hao personally led many successful campaigns. When her tomb was excavated besides the usual grave goods of a high born lady were discovered axes and weapons befitting a great warrior.

‘Tomyris Receiving the Head of Cyrus’ by Mattia Preti, 1670–72

3. Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae

Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire and turned it into the largest empire in the world. In 530 BCE he took on Tomyris, queen of the Massagetae. Looking to take her territory Cyrus offered her his hand in marriage. Seeing a hand for a nation as a poor deal, she refused. Cyrus decided to take it anyway. According to Herodotus Cyrus managed to defeat an army commanded by Tomyris’ son by trickery. Enraged, Tomyris led the next attack personally and Cyrus was defeated and killed. Tomyris had Cyrus’ head cut off and dipped in a bucket of blood to quench his thirst for blood.

A romantic version painting of the Battle of Salamis by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868

2. Artemisia, Queen of Caria

Artemisia was queen of Caria, a Greek city-state in the Empire of Xerxes I, great-grandson of Cyrus the Great. When Xerxes attempted to conquer the Greek mainland Artemisia contributed and commanded five ships in his grand fleet. In the battle of Salamis a bounty of 10,000 drachmas was placed on her by the Greeks, feeling dishonoured to have a woman fighting against them. As he saw the battle turning against him, despite Artemisia’s martial prowess and bravery, King Xerxes moaned “My men have become women; and my women, men.”

Boudicca leads her followers into battle in Young People’s History of England” (1887)

1. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni

If you dig in St Albans, the Roman city of Verulamium, you may find a layer of black ash. This is the remains of Boudicca’s sacking and burning of the city. Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni, rose in rebellion against the Romans in 60 CE when, on the death of her husband, her lands were seized. Boudicca first destroyed Colchester then forced the Romans to abandon Londinium. All the inhabitants not evacuated by the Romans were massacred. When faced by the Romans in open battle Boudicca roused her troops with a speech from her war chariot. The Britons were routed and slaughtered. Boudicca’s end is not reliably recorded and her tomb remains undiscovered.

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