Women Rulers of the Ancient and Classical World

"Boadicea and Her Army" 1850 Engraving
"Boadicea and Her Army" 1850 Engraving. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Though most rulers in the ancient world were men, some women wielded power and influence as well. These women ruled in their own names, and some even influenced their society as royal consorts. The ancient world's most powerful women leaders hailed from countries across the globe, including China, Egypt, and Greece.

Artemisia: Woman Ruler of Halicarnassas

Naval Battle of Salamis
Naval Battle of Salamis September 480 BCE. Adapted from an image by Wilhelm von Kaulbach / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

When Xerxes went to war against Greece (480-479 B.C.E.), Artemisia, ruler of Halicarnassus, brought five ships and helped Xerxes defeat the Greeks in the naval battle of Salamis. She was named for the goddess Artemisia, but Herodotus, born during her time of rule, is the source of this story. Artemisia of Halicarnassus later erected a mausoleum that was known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Boudicca (Boadicea): Woman Ruler of the Iceni

"Boadicea and Her Army" 1850 Engraving
"Boadicea and Her Army" 1850 Engraving. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Boudicca is an iconic hero of British history. Queen of the Iceni, a tribe in East England, she led a rebellion against Roman occupation in about 60 C.E. Her story became popular during the reign of another English queen who headed an army against foreign invasion, Queen Elizabeth I.

Cartimandua: Woman Ruler of the Brigantes

Rebel King Caractacus and members of his family, after being turned over to Roman Emperor Claudius
Rebel King Caractacus and members of his family, after being turned over to Roman Emperor Claudius. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Queen of the Brigantes, Cartimandua signed a peace treaty with the invading Romans and ruled as a client of Rome. Then she dumped her husband, and even Rome couldn't keep her in power. Because the Romans ultimately took direct control, however, her ex didn't win either. 

Cleopatra: Woman Ruler of Egypt

Bas relief fragment portraying Cleopatra
Bas relief fragment portraying Cleopatra. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Cleopatra was both the last Pharaoh of Egypt and the last of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egyptian rulers. As she tried to maintain power for her dynasty, she made famous connections with Roman rulers Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

Cleopatra Thea: Woman Ruler of Syria

Crocodile-god Sobek and King Ptolemy VI Philometor, bas-relief from Temple of Sobek and Haroeris
Crocodile-god Sobek and King Ptolemy VI Philometor, bas-relief from Temple of Sobek and Haroeris. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

A number of queens in antiquity bore the name Cleopatra. This Cleopatra, Cleopatra Thea, was less well known than her namesake. The daughter of Ptolemy VI Philometor of Egypt, she was a Syrian queen who exercised power after her husband's death and before her son's rise to power.

Elen Luyddog: Woman Ruler of Wales

Gold solidus of Magnus Maximus, c383-c388 AD
Gold solidus of Magnus Maximus, c383-c388 AD. Museum of London / Heritage Images / Getty Images

A shadowy legendary figure, Elen Luyddog has been described as a Celtic princess married to a Roman soldier, who later became the Western Emperor. When her husband was executed after failing to invade Italy, she returned to Britain and helped spread Christianity. She also inspired the building of many roads.

Hatshepsut: Woman Ruler of Egypt

Hatshepsut as Osiris
A row of statues of Hatshepsut as Osiris, from her Temple at Deir el-Bahri. iStockphoto / BMPix

Hatshepsut was born about 3500 years ago, and when her husband died and his son was young, she assumed the full kingship of Egypt. She even dressed in male clothing to reinforce her claim to be Pharaoh. 

Lei-tzu (Lei Zu, Si Ling-chi): Woman Ruler of China

Silk weaving in China, using historic methods
Silk weaving in China, using historic methods. Chad Henning / Getty Images

The Chinese have historically credited Huang Di as being the founder of both China and of religious Taoism. He also created humanity and invented the raising of silkworms and spinning of silk thread, according to Chinese tradition. Meanwhile, his wife, Lei-tzu, discovered the making of silk.

Meryt-Neith: Woman Ruler of Egypt

Osiris and Isis, The Great Temple of Seti I, Abydos
Osiris and Isis, The Great Temple of Seti I, Abydos. Joe & Clair Carnegie / Libyan Soup / Getty Images

The third ruler of the first Egyptian dynasty united upper and lower Egypt. Known only by name, there are also objects linked to this individual, including a tomb and a carved funeral monument. But many scholars believe that this ruler was a woman. Unfortunately, we don't know much about her life or her reign.

Nefertiti: Woman Ruler of Egypt

Nefertiti Bust in Berlin
Nefertiti Bust in Berlin. Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Getty Images

Chief wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who took the name Akhenaten, Nefertiti is portrayed in Egyptian art and may have ruled after her husband's death. The famous bust of Nefertiti is sometimes considered a classic representation of female beauty.

Olympias: Woman Ruler of Macedonia

Medallion depicting Olympias, queen of Macedon
Medallion depicting Olympias, queen of Macedon. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Olympias was the wife of Philip II of Macedonia, and the mother of Alexander the Great. She had a reputation as both sacred (a snake handler in a mystery cult) and violent. After Alexander's death, she seized power as regent for Alexander's posthumous son and had many of her enemies killed. But she didn't rule for long.

Semiramis (Sammu-Ramat): Woman Ruler of Assyria

Semiramis in 15th Century Artist's Conception
Semiramis, from De Claris Mulieribus (Of Famous Women) by Giovanni Boccaccio, 15th century. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Legendary warrior queen of Assyria, Semiramis is credited with building a new Babylon as well as a conquest of neighboring states. We know her from works by Herodotus, Ctesias, Diodorus of Sicily, and Latin historians Justin and Ammianus Macellinus. Her name appears in many inscriptions in Assyria and Mesopotamia.

Zenobia: Woman Ruler of Palmyra

Zenobia's Last Look on Palmyra. 1888 Painting.
Zenobia's Last Look on Palmyra. 1888 Painting. Artist Herbert Gustave Schmalz. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Zenobia, of Aramean descent, claimed Cleopatra as her ancestor. She took power as queen of the desert kingdom of Palmyra when her husband died. This warrior queen conquered Egypt, defied the Romans, and rode into battle against them, but she was eventually defeated and taken prisoner. She's also depicted on a coin of her time.