Ancient Women Queens and Other Rulers

"Boadicea and Her Army" 1850 Engraving. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Women Rulers of the Ancient and Classical World

Hatshepsut as Sphinx
Hatshepsut as Sphinx. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Though most rulers in the ancient (and classical) world were men, some women wielded power and influence. Some ruled in their own name, some influenced their world as royal consorts. Here are some of the most powerful women in the ancient world, listed alphabetically on the following pages.

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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.  Herodotus, born during her time of rule, is the source of her story.

A later Artemisia of Halicarnassus erected a mausolem that was known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

About Artemisia

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Boudicca (Boadicea): Woman Ruler of the Iceni

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

She's an iconic hero of British history.  Queen of the Iceni, a tribe in East England, Boudicca 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.

About Boudicca / Boadicea

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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 -- and they ultimately took direct control, so her ex didn't win, either. 

About Cartimandua

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Cleopatra: Woman Ruler of Egypt

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

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

About Cleopatra

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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 profile of Cleopatra Thea, less well known than her later namesake, a queen of Syria who exercised power after her husband died and before her son succeeded to power. A number of queens in antiquity bore the name Cleopatra. She was the daughter of Ptolemy VI Philometor of Egypt.

About Cleopatra Thea

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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, the stories say she was a Celtic princess married to a Roman soldier who became the Western Emperor. When he was executed after failing to invade Italy, she returned to Britain, where she helped bring Christianity and inspired the building of many roads.

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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

She was born about 3500 years ago, and when her husband died and his son was young, she assumed the full kingship of Egypt, even dressing in male clothing to reinforce her claim to be Pharaoh. Why did she assume the kingship, how was she nearly lost to history, how was her history recovered, and what's the latest news about what happened to her mummy after she died?

About Hatshepsut

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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

More legend than history, Chinese tradition credits Huang Di as founder of the Chinese nation and of religious Taoism, creator of humanity and inventor of the raising of silk worms and spinning of silk thread -- and, according to tradition, his wife Lei-tzu discovered the making of silk.

About Lei-Tzu

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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 which united upper and lower Egypt is known only by name and a few objects, including a tomb and a carved funeral monument -- but many scholars believe that this ruler was a woman. We don't know much about her life or her reign.  What was the context of the claims to her rulership?

About Meryt-Neith

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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 realistic art of Egypt's religious revolution initiated by her husband. Did she rule after her husband's death?

The famous bust of Nefertiti is sometimes considered a classic representation of female beauty.

About Nefertiti

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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 long.

About Olympias

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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 conquest of neighboring states. We known 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.

About Semiramis (Sammu-Ramat)

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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 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 was eventually defeated and taken prisoner.  She's also depicted on a coin of her time.

About Zenobia