The common conception of ancient warfare is that armies were dominated by men in both commanding and fighting roles. With history books dotted with famous names like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Attila the Hun, it’s understandable how these prevailing ideas arose. But throughout ancient history, fierce female soldiers and commanders led armies, too.
Coming from diverse regions across Europe and Asia, these female military commanders were both feared and admired for their ability to lead revolts, field armies, and build empires throughout the ancient era. Some were courageous and ambitious; others were bloodthirsty and sought revenge for misdeeds brought against them and their people. Regardless of their differences, they all used strong knowledge of military strategy and tactics to best those they faced on the battlefield.
Tomyris Sought Vengeance For The Persian Emperor’s Deceit
Tomyris was the queen of the Massagetae, a nomadic people in Asia Minor. After Tomyris saw past Persian emperor Cyrus’s deceitful marriage proposal and denied him, Cyrus led the Persian army into war against the Massagetae. Cyrus defeated the Massagetae army, led by Tomyris’s son Spargapises, by getting them drunk and ambushing them while they were incapacitated. But then, Tomyris challenged the emperor to a second battle.
Tomyris personally led her army into battle in 530 BCE and defeated the Persians. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed Cyrus was killed in battle; Tomyris reportedly decapitated the emperor before dipping his head in a wineskin filled with human blood.
Xun Guan Led A Military Force At A Young Age
Xun Guan – the daughter of Xun Song, governor of Xiangyang, China – led a small counter-revolutionary force in the early fourth century CE at age 13. Du Zeng, a government official attempting to depose Xun Song and kill his followers, surrounded the city of Xiangyang with what looked like an impenetrable army. Provisions in the city were diminishing, so Xun Guan volunteered to take a small army through the enemy lines to get much-needed aid.
With a small force of men, Xun Guan broke through enemy lines in the middle of the night. She rode to the city of Pingnan and convinced Xun Song’s allies to send reinforcements. The additional troops were able to flank Du Zeng’s army, forcing him to flee. Through her courageous act, Xun Guan save her father and the people of Xiangyang.
Amage Led A Mission To Kill A Prince
Near the end of the second century BCE, Amage, queen of the Sarmatians, took full control of the government after deeming her husband unfit to rule. During her time as governess and military commander, the Chersonesus established an alliance with her in hopes that she could stop a neighboring Scythian prince from harassing them.
After the prince ignored her requests, Amage and 120 soldiers covered more than 100 miles in a single day and night, and stormed the prince’s palace. Amage and her soldiers quickly overtook the guards and slew the prince and his court. She left his son alive to rule in his deceased father’s place on the condition that he would leave his neighbors at peace.
Fu Hao Was A Great General During The Shang Dynasty
Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty in the 13th century BCE. Unlike his other wives, Fu Hao held important military and religious positions. According to inscriptions on oracle bones produced in that period, Fu Hao led successful military campaigns against a multitude of the Shang Dynasty’s enemies, including the Tu-Fang, Yi, Qiang, and Ba tribes.
Inscriptions also indicate Wu Ding gave her religious and ceremonial responsibilities, showing a great deal of trust in his wife. Archaeologists found her tomb in 1976; she was buried with a great variety of weapons, ritual vessels, currency, and 16 servants.
Onomaris Led Her People In A Mass Emigration
Onomaris was an important figure in the expansion of the Celtic people throughout Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries BCE. Not much has been written about her besides a brief account in the anonymously authored Tractatus de Mulieribus Claris in Bello.
According to the ancient Greek document, Onomaris volunteered to lead the Galatians, a Celtic tribe seeking to escape the famine in Western Europe. Onomaris led the Galatians across the Danube, where they conquered the native people and settled in the Balkans.
Sammu-Ramat Was A Warrior Queen Who Inspired A Legend
In the ninth century BCE, amid a series of revolts and political power plays for the Assyrian imperial throne, Sammu-Ramat rose to power and brought stability to the region. Records don’t show how she stabilized the country, but some historians believe it was through her military power. She went on military campaigns with her husband before his death and continued these military campaigns when she became queen regent.
Although not much is known about Sammu-Ramat’s life, historians theorize she inspired the Greek legend of the warrior queen Semiramis. Semiramis was said to be a queen, born to the goddess Aphrodite, who acquired power through military conquest and building projects before founding the city of Babylon.
Artemisia Was One Of The Most Revered Naval Commanders Of Her Time
Artemisia was the queen regent of the Anatolian region of Caria during the fifth century BCE. She was an ally of Xerxes I, King of Persia, during the Battle of Salamis. In Histories, Herodotus praises her wisdom and ingenuity both on and off the battlefield.
Though Xerxes ignored her advice and met the Greeks in a naval battle, Artemisia held strong to her alliance and commanded her five ships in the Battle of Salamis. During the battle, a Greek ship pursued her, but she evaded the enemy by ramming and destroying an allied ship. After witnessing this, the Greeks gave up their pursuit, assuming Artemisia’s ship was either Greek or a defector from the Persian side.
The move also earned Artemisia praise from Xerxes, who thought she had struck an enemy ship.
The Trung Sisters Were Revolutionaries Turned National Heroes
Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were two Vietnamese sisters trained from a young age in the art of warfare. After a failed revolutionary attempt by Trung Trac’s husband against their Chinese occupiers – and his subsequent execution – the sisters rallied a military force consisting mostly of women.
The revolt began in their village but quickly spread throughout the region. Their revolutionary army drove the Chinese out of Vietnam, and they continued to reign as dual queens, beginning around 40 CE. But only three years later, a Chinese expeditionary force invaded Vietnam and defeated their army. Rather than die at the hands of their oppressors, the sisters jumped into a river and drowned.
Zenobia Created A New Empire To Oppose Rome
The Palmyrene queen Zenobia left her mark on history by opposing Roman rule during a time of social unrest known as the Crisis of the Third Century. After the deaths of her husband and first son, Zenobia acted as queen regent of Palmyra – a kingdom in Syria – and saw the chaos of Rome’s imperial rule.
Zenobia strove to create an opposing empire and sent an army to conquer Egypt. The regions of Asia Minor and the Levant soon also fell under Palmyrene rule.
Eventually, Emperor Aurelian of Rome took notice of her expanding empire. He collected his troops and began a campaign through Anatolia, destroying every city that stayed loyal to Zenobia. After two decisive battles, the Palmyrene army was slaughtered, and Zenobia’s imperial ambitions were defeated.
Mania Was An Undefeated Ruler In The Persian Empire
Mania became the satrap, or ruler, of Dardanus after the death of her husband, Prince Zenis, around the turn of the fourth century BCE. She was known more for her skills as a military commander than as a political leader – reportedly, she never lost a battle.
She allegedly rode into every battle on her chariot and commanded directly from the field. Her orders were timely, her formations and lines were well-established, and she treated her soldiers appropriately by rewarding those who fought well.
It was not her capabilities on the battlefield that caused her ultimate downfall, but rather her misplaced loyalties. Mania’s trusted son-in-law Meidias murdered her in her own home.
Mavia And Her Nomadic Force Swept Through The Roman Empire
Mavia led a coalition of Arab tribes in a revolt against the Roman Empire around the mid-fifth century CE. Historians are uncertain why the revolt occurred, but Mavia’s army was a feared and unstoppable force.
She was the queen of the Tanukhid tribe, a foederatus – or confederate – of the Roman Empire under her husband’s reign. After his death, she did not renegotiate the terms of the alliance and rallied her army primarily in Syria and the Levant.
Mavia and her forces swept through the provinces of Palestine and Arabia, devastating everything in their path. Her army was unstoppable, and the Romans knew it. Instead of fighting this seemingly invincible force, Roman Emperor Valens negotiated a peaceful end to the insurrection.
Boudica Led A Bloody Revolt Against The Romans
Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe led an uprising of confederated Briton tribes against the Romans in 60 or 61 CE. After the death of Boudica’s husband, King Prastagus, Rome assumed direct control of the region. Roman officers confiscated Iceni property, publicly stripped and flogged Boudica, and assaulted her daughters.
Boudica rallied the Iceni people and other Briton tribes to revolt against their Roman oppressors. They killed 70,000 people on their warpath and razed three Roman settlements: Camulodunum, Londinium, and Verulamium.
Facing a Roman legion of 10,000 soldiers, Boudica and her rebel army were finally defeated. Roman historian Tacitus recorded that 80,000 Britons were killed. Rather than allowing Roman forces to capture her, Boudica took her own life.