Ancient Women Warriors

Throughout history, women warriors have fought and led troops into battle. This partial list of warrior queens and other women warriors runs from the legendary Amazons -- who may have been real warriors from the Steppes -- to the Syrian queen of Palmyra, Zenobia. Sadly, we know too little about most of these brave warrior women who stood up to the powerful male leaders of their day because history is written by the victors.

1
Alexander's Women

Alexander The Great and Roxane by Pietro Rotari (Hermitage, S.-Peterburg, Russia) 1756
Alexander The Great and Roxane by Pietro Rotari (Hermitage, S.-Peterburg, Russia) 1756. Courtesy of Wikipedia

No, I'm not talking about a cat fight between his wives, but a battle of sorts for succession after Alexander's untimely death. In his Ghost on the Throne, classicist James Romm says these two women fought the first recorded battle led by women on each side. It wasn't much of a battle, though, because of mixed loyalties.

2
The Amazons

Hellenistic mosaic from the Villa of Herodes Atticus in Eva Kynourias, Greece. This mosaic portrays Achilles holding the body of Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, after slaying her during the Trojan War.
Hellenistic mosaic from the Villa of Herodes Atticus in Eva Kynourias, Greece. This mosaic portrays Achilles holding the body of Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, after slaying her during the Trojan War. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Amazons are credited with helping the Trojans against the Greeks in the Trojan War. They are also said to have been fierce women archers who cut off a breast to aid them in shooting, but recent archaeological evidence suggests the Amazons were real, important, powerful, two-breasted, warrior women, possibly from the Steppes.

3
Queen Tomyris

Tomyris plunges the head of the dead Cyrus into a vessel of blood, by Alexander Zick.
Tomyris plunges the head of the dead Cyrus into a vessel of blood, by Alexander Zick. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tomyris became queen of the Massegetai upon the death of her husband. Cyrus of Persia wanted her kingdom and offered to marry her for it, but she declined, so, of course, they fought each other, instead. 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.

4
Queen Artemisia

Queen Artemisia drinking ashes of Mausolus, by Giovan Gioseffo del Sole (1654-1719), Oil on canvas
The queen Artemisia drinking the Ashes of Mausolus, by Giovan Gioseffo del Sole (1654-1719), oil on canvas, 157x190 cm. De Agostini / V. Pirozzi / Getty Images

Artemisia, queen of Herodotus' homeland of Halicarnassus, gained renown for her brave, manly actions in the Greco-Persian Wars' Battle of Salamis. Artemisia was a member of the Persian Great King Xerxes' multi-national invading force.

5
Queen Boudicca

Boudica or Boadicea
Boadicea haranging the Britons. Culture Club / Getty Images

When her husband Prasutagus died, Boudicca became queen of the Iceni in Britain. For several months during A.D. 60-61 she led the Iceni in revolt against the Romans in response to their treatment of her and her daughters. She burned three major Roman towns, Londinium (London), Verulamium (St. Albans), and Camulodunum (Colchester). In the end, the Roman military governor Suetonius Paullinus suppressed the revolt. This information comes mainly from Athena Review Vol.1, No.1.

6
Queen Zenobia

Bust of Zenobia
Bust of Zenobia. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Third-century queen of Palmyra (in modern Syria), Zenobia claimed Cleopatra as an ancestor. Zenobia started as a regent for her son, but then claimed the throne, defying the Romans, and rode into battle against them. She was eventually defeated by Aurelian and probably taken prisoner.

  • "Traces of Longinus' Library in Eusebius' 'Praeparatio Evangelica'"
    Paul Kalligas
    The Classical Quarterly, (2001).
  • "Numismatic Evidence"
    Leo Mildenberg
    Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, (1987).

7
Queen Samsi (Shamsi) of Arabia

In 732 B.C. Samsi rebelled against Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser III (745-727 B.C.) by refusing tribute and perhaps by giving aid to Damascus for an unsuccessful fight against Assyria. The Assyrian king captured her cities; she was forced to flee to the desert. Suffering, she surrendered and was forced to pay tribute to the king. Although an officer of Tiglath Pileser III was stationed at her court, Samsi was allowed to continue to rule. 17 years later, she was still sending tribute to Sargon II.

References:

8
The Trung Sisters

The statue of Hai Ba Trung in the Suoi Tien Amusement Park, which is located at the 9th District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The statue of Hai Ba Trung in the Suoi Tien Amusement Park, which is located at the 9th District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. By TDA at Vietnamese Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After two centuries of Chinese rule, the Vietnamese rose up against them under the leadership of two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who gathered an army of 80,000. They trained 36 women to be generals and drove the Chinese out of Viet Nam in A.D. 40. Trung Trac was then named ruler and renamed "Trung Vuong" or "She-king Trung." They continued to fight the Chinese for three years, but eventually, unsuccessful, they committed suicide.
For more on the sisters, see:

  • "The 1920s Women's Rights Debates in Vietnam"
    David Marr
    The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3 (May, 1976).
  • "Kateb Yacine's Journey beyond Algeria and Back"
    Pamela A. Pears
    Research in African Literatures, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 2003).

9
Queen K'abel

Carved Alabaster Vessel from tomb of Lady K’abel, in the royal Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ Guatemala.
The carved alabaster vessel (shown from two sides) found in the burial chamber caused the archaeologists to conclude the tomb was that of Lady K’abel. © El Peru Waka Regional Archaeological Project

Said to have been the greatest queen of the late classical Maya, she ruled from c. A.D. 672-692, was military governor of the Wak kingdom, and bore the title of Supreme Warrior, with higher reigning authority than the king, her husband, K'inich Bahlam.