Discover the Lives of Powerful Ancient Queens

Egyptian Lillie
These ancient queens have long captured public imagination. Here, actress Lillie Langtry depicts Cleopatra circa 1895. W. and D. Downey / Getty Images

 The lives of some of history's most powerful and fascinating queens.

Hatshepsut - Queen of Ancient Egypt


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Hatshepsut ruled Egypt not only as queen and wife of the pharaoh, but as pharaoh herself, adopting the insignia, including beard, and performing the pharaoh's ceremonial race at the Sed festival [see "Athletic Skill" in Hatshepsut Profile].

Hatshepsut ruled for about two decades in the first half of the 15th century B.C. She was a daughter of 18th-dynasty king Thutmose I. She married her brother Thutmose II, but didn't give birth to a son to him. When he died, the son of a lesser wife become Thutmose III, but he was probably very young. Hatshepsut served as co-regent with her nephew/step-son. He went on military campaigns during her co-regency and she went on a famous trading expedition. The era was prosperous and allowed impressive building projects credited to her.

The walls of a temple of Hatshepsut at Dayr al-Bahri indicate that she ran a military campaign in Nubia and trading missions with Punt. Later, but not immediately upon her death, attempts were made to erase signs of her reign.

Recent excavations in the Valley of Kings have led archaeologists to believe the sarcophagus of Hatshepsut may have been the one numbered KV60. It would appear that far from the boy-like figure that graced her official portraiture, she had become a hefty, voluptuous middle aged woman by the time of her death.

Nefertiti - Queen of Ancient Egypt


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Nefertiti, which means "a beautiful woman has come" (aka Neferneferuaten) was queen of Egypt and wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten/Akhenaton. Earlier, before his religious change, Nefertiti's husband was known as Amenhotep IV. He ruled from the middle of the 14th century B.C. She played religious roles in Akhenaten's new religion, as part of the triad that consisted of Akhenaten's god Aton, Akehenaten, and Nefertiti.

Nefertiti's origins are unknown. She might have been a Mitanni princess or the daughter of Ay, brother of Akhenaton's mother, Tiy. Nefertiti had 3 daughters at Thebes before Akhenaten moved the royal family to Tell el-Amarna, where the fertile queen produced another 3 daughters.

A February 2013 Harvard Gazette article, A different take on Tut, says DNA evidence suggests Nefertiti may have been the mother of Tutankhamen (the boy pharaoh whose almost intact tomb Howard Carter and George Herbert discovered in 1922).

As shown in the picture, the beautiful Queen Nefertiti wore a special blue crown. However beautiful and unusual she may seem in this picture, in other pictures, it is surprisingly hard to distinguish Nefertiti from her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Tomyris - Queen of the Massagetae

Queen Tomyris with the Head of Cyrus the Great by Luca Ferrari
Queen Tomyris with the Head of Cyrus the Great by Luca Ferrari.

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Tomyris (fl. c. 530 B.C.) became queen of the Massagetae upon the death of her husband. The Massagetae lived east of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia and were similar to the Scythians, as described by Herodotus and other classical authors. This was the area where archaeologists have found remains of an ancient amazon society.

Cyrus of Persia wanted her kingdom and offered to marry her for it, but she declined, and accused him of trickery. So, of course they fought each other, instead. Treachery was a theme in the account. Using an unaccustomed intoxicant, Cyrus tricked the section of Tomyris' army led by her son, who was taken prisoner and committed suicide. Then the army of Tomyris ranged itself against the Persians, defeated it, and killed King Cyrus.

The story goes that Tomyris kept Cyrus' head and used it as a drinking vessel.

"Herodotus' Picture of Cyrus," by Harry C. Avery. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 93, No. 4. (Oct., 1972), pp. 529-546.

Arsinoe II - Queen of Ancient Thrace and Egypt

Ptolemy II offering to deified Arsinoe II
Ptolemy II offering to deified Arsinoe II.

Keith Schengili-Roberts/Creative Commons

Arsinoe II, queen of Thrace [see map] and Egypt, was born c. 316 B.C. to Berenice and Ptolemy I (Ptolemy Soter), founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. Arsinoe's husbands were Lysimachus, the king of Thrace, whom she married in about 300, and her brother, king Ptolemy II Philadelphus, whom she married in about 277. As Thracian queen, Arsinoe conspired to make her own son heir. This led to war and the death of her husband. As Ptolemy's queen, Arsinoe was also powerful and probably deified in her lifetime. Arsinoe died July 270 B.C.

Cleopatra VII - Queen of Ancient Egypt

The last pharaoh of Egypt, ruling before the Romans took control, Cleopatra is known for: (1) her affairs with Roman commanders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, by whom she had three children, and (2.) her suicide by snake bite after her husband or partner Antony took his own life. Many have assumed she was a beauty, but, unlike Nefertiti, Cleopatra was probably not. Instead, she was smart and politically valuable.

Cleopatra came to power in Egypt at the age of 17. She reigned from 51-30 B.C. As a Ptolemy, she was Macedonian, but even though her ancestry was Macedonian, she was still an Egyptian queen and worshiped as a god.

Since Cleopatra was legally obliged to have either a brother or son for her consort, she married brother Ptolemy XIII when he was 12. Following the death of Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra married an even younger brother, Ptolemy XIV. In time she ruled along with her son Caesarion.

After the death of Cleopatra, Octavian took control of Egypt, putting it into Roman hands.

Boudicca - Queen of the Iceni

Boudicca and her chariot
Boudicca and her chariot.


Boudicca (also spelled Boadicea and Boudica) was the wife of King Prasutagus of the Celtic Iceni, in the east of ancient Britain. When the Romans conquered Britain, they allowed the king to continue his rule, but when he died and his wife, Boudicca took over, the Romans wanted the territory. In an effort to assert their dominance, the Romans are said to have stripped and beaten Boudicca and raped her daughters. In a brave act of retaliation, in about A.D. 60, Boudicca led her troops and the Trinovantes of Camulodunum (Colchester) against the Romans, killing thousands in Camulodunum, London, and Verulamium (St. Albans). Boudicca's success didn't last long. The tide turned and the Roman governor in Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus (or Paulinus), defeated the Celts. It is not known how Boudicca died. She may have committed suicide.

Zenobia - Queen of Palmyra

Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelian, 1717. Found in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelian.

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Iulia Aurelia Zenobia of Palmyra or Bat-Zabbai in Aramaic, was a 3rd century queen of Palmyra (in modern Syria) — an oasis city halfway between the Mediterranean and Euphrates, who claimed Cleopatra and Dido of Carthage as ancestors, defied the Romans, and rode into battle against them, but was eventually defeated and probably taken prisoner.

Zenobia became queen when her husband Septimius Odaenathus and his son were assassinated in 267. Zenobia's son Vaballanthus was heir, but just an infant, so Zenobia ruled, instead (as regent). A "warrior queen" Zenobia conquered Egypt in 269, part of Asia Minor, taking Cappadocia and Bithynia, and ruled a large empire until she was captured in 274. Although Zenobia was defeated by the competent Roman Emperor Aurelian (r. A.D. 270-275), near Antioch, Syria, and rode in a triumphal parade for Aurelian, she was allowed to live out her life in luxury in Rome. Maybe. She may have been executed. Some think she may have committed suicide.

Ancient literary sources on Zenobia include Zosimus, the Historia Augusta, and Paul of Samosata (whose patron was Zenobia), according to BBC's In Our Time - Queen Zenobia.