Throughout history, most cultures have considered warfare to be the domain of men. It is only quite recently that female soldiers have participated in modern combat on a large scale.
The exception is the Soviet Union, which included female battalions and pilots during the First World War and saw hundreds of thousands of women soldiers fight in World War Two.
In the major ancient civilisations, the lives of women were generally restricted to more traditional roles. Yet there were some who broke with tradition, both at home and on the battlefield.
Here are 10 of history’s fiercest female warriors who not only had to face their enemies, but also the strict gender roles of their day.
1. Fu Hao (d. c. 1200 BC)
Lady Fu Hao was one of the 60 wives of Emperor Wu Ding of ancient China’s Shang Dynasty. She broke with tradition by serving as both a high priestess and military general. According to inscriptions on oracle bones from the time, Fu Hao led many military campaigns, commanded 13,000 soldiers and was considered the most powerful military leaders of her time.
The many weapons found in her tomb support Fu Hao’s status as a great female warrior. She also controlled her own fiefdom on the outskirts of her husband’s empire. Her tomb was unearthed in 1976 and can be visited by the public.
2. Tomyris(fl. 530 BC)
Tomyris was the Queen of the Massaegetae, a confederation of nomadic tribes that lived east of the Caspian Sea. She ruled during the 6th century BC and is most famous for the vengeful war she waged against the Persian king, Cyrus the Great.
‘Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood’ by Rubens
Image Credit: Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Initially the war did not go well for Tomyris and the Massaegetae. Cyrus destroyed their army and Tomyris’ son, Spargapises, committed suicide out of shame.
The grief-stricken Tomyris raised another army and challenged Cyrus to battle a second time. Cyrus believed another victory was certain and accepted the challenge, but in the ensuing engagement Tomyris emerged victorious.
Cyrus himself fell in the melee. During his reign he had won many battles anddefeated many of the most powerful men of his time, yet Tomyris proved a Queen too far.
Tomyris’ vengeance was not sated by Cyrus’ death. Following the battle, the Queen demanded her men find Cyrus’ body; when they located it, the 5th century BC historian Herodotus reveals Tomyris’ gruesome next move:
…she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the corpse, “I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.”
Tomyris was not a queen to mess with.
3. Artemisia I of Caria (fl. 480 BC)
The Ancient Greek Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemisia ruled during the late 5th century BC. She was an ally to the King of Persia, Xerxes I, and fought for him during the second Persian invasion of Greece, personally commanding 5 ships at the Battle of Salamis.
Herodotus writes that she was a decisive and intelligent, albeit ruthless strategist. According to Polyaenus, Xerxes praised Artemisia above all other officers in his fleet and rewarded her for her performance in battle.
Battle of Salamis. Artemisia appears highlighted center-left of the painting, above the victorious Greek fleet, below the throne of Xerxes, and shooting arrows at the Greeks
Image Credit: Wilhelm von Kaulbach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Cynane (c. 358 – 323 BC)
Cynane was the daughter of King Philip II of Macedon and his first wife, the Illyrian Princess Audata. She was also the half-sister of Alexander the Great.
Audata raised Cynane in the Illyrian tradition, training her in the arts of war and turning her into an exceptional fighter – so much so that her skill on the battlefield became famed throughout the land.
Cynane accompanied the Macedonian army on campaign alongside Alexander the Great and according to the historian Polyaenus, she once slew an Illyrian queen and masterminded the slaughter of her army.Such was her military prowess.
Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, Cynane attempted an audacious power play. In the ensuing chaos, she championed her daughter, Adea, to marry Philip Arrhidaeus, Alexander’s simple-minded half-brother who the Macedonian generals had installed as a puppet king.
Yet Alexander’s former generals – and especially the new regent, Perdiccas – had no intention of accepting this, seeing Cynane as a threat to their own power.Undeterred, Cynane gathered a powerful army and marched into Asia to place her daughter on the throne by force.
As she and her army were marching through Asia towards Babylon, Cynane was confronted by another army commanded by Alcetas, the brother of Perdiccas and a former companion of Cynane.
However, desiring to keep his brother in power Alcetas slew Cynane when they met – a sad end to one of history’s most remarkable female warriors.
Although Cynane never reached Babylon, her power play proved successful. The Macedonian soldiers were angered at Alcetas’ killing of Cynane, especially as she was directly related to their beloved Alexander.
Thus they demanded Cynane’s wish be fulfilled. Perdiccas relented, Adea and Philip Arrhidaeus were married, and Adea adopted the title Queen Adea Eurydice.
5. & 6. Olympias and Eurydice
The mother of Alexander the Great, Olympias was one of the most remarkable women in antiquity. She was a princess of the most powerful tribe in Epirus (a region now divided between northwest Greece and southern Albania) and her family claimed descent from Achilles.
Roman medallion with Olympias, Museum of Thessaloniki
Image Credit: Fotogeniss, CC BY-SA 3.0
Despite this impressive claim, many Greeks considered her home kingdom to be semi-barbarous – a realm tainted with vice because of its proximity to raiding Illyrians in the north. Thus the surviving texts often perceive her as a somewhat exotic character.
In 358 BC Olympias’ uncle, the Molossian King Arrybas, married Olympias to King Philip II of Macedonia to secure the strongest possible alliance. She gave birth to Alexander the Great two years later in 356 BC.
Further conflict was added to an already tempestuous relationship when Philip married again, this time a Macedonian noblewoman called Cleopatra Eurydice.
Olympias began to fear this new marriage might threaten the possibility of Alexander inheriting Philip’s throne. Her Molossian heritage was starting to make some Macedonian nobles question Alexander’s legitimacy.
Thus there is a strong possibility that Olympias was involved in the subsequent murders of Philip II, Cleopatra Eurydice and her infant children. She is often portrayed as a woman who stopped at nothing to ensure Alexander ascended the throne.
Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, she became a major player in the early Wars of the Successors in Macedonia. In 317 BC, she led an army into Macedonia and was confronted by an army led by another queen: none other than Cynane’s daughter, Adea Eurydice.
This clash was the first time in Greek history that two armies faced each other commanded by women. However, the battle ended before a sword blow was exchanged.As soon as they saw the mother of their beloved Alexander the Great facing them, Eurydice’s army deserted to Olympias.
Upon capturing Eurydice and Philip Arrhidaeus, Eurydice’s husband, Olympias had them imprisoned in squalid conditions. Soon after she had Philip stabbed to death while his wife watched on.
On Christmas Day 317, Olympias sent Eurydice a sword, a noose, and some hemlock, and ordered her to choose which way she wanted to die. After cursing Olympias’ name that she might suffer a similarly sad end, Eurydice chose the noose.
Olympias herself did not live long to cherish this victory. The following year Olympias’ control of Macedonia was overthrown by Cassander, another of the Successors. Upon capturing Olympias, Cassander sent two hundred soldiers to her house to slay her.
However, after being overawed by the sight of Alexander the Great’s mother, the hired killers did not go through with the task. Yet this only temporarily prolonged Olympias’ life as relatives of her past victims soon murdered her in revenge.
7. Queen Teuta (fl. 229 BC)
Teuta was the Queen of the Ardiaei tribe in Illyria during the late third century BC. In 230 BC, she was acting as regent for her infant stepson when a Roman embassy arrived at her court to mediate concerns about Illyrian expansion along the Adriatic shoreline.
During the meeting however, one of the Roman delegates lost his temper and began to shout at the Illyrian queen.Outraged by the outburst, Teuta had the young diplomat murdered.
The incident marked the outbreak of the First Illyrian War between Rome and Teuta’s Illyria. By 228 BC, Rome had emerged victorious and Teuta was banished from her homeland.
8. Boudicca (d. 60/61 AD)
Queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe, Boudicca led an uprising against the forces of the Roman Empire in Britain after the Romans ignored her husband Prasutagus’ will, which left rule of his kingdom to both Rome and his daughters. Upon Prasutagus’ death, the Romans seized control, flogged Boudicca and Roman soldiers raped her daughters.
Boudica statue, Westminster
Image Credit: Paul Walter, CC BY 2.0
Boudicca led an army of Iceni and Trinovantes and waged a devastating campaign on Roman Britain. She destroyed three Roman towns, Camulodinum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London), and also all-but annihilated one of the Roman legions in Britain: the famous Ninth Legion.
In the end Boudicca and her army were defeated by the Romans somewhere along Watling Street and Boudicca committed suicide not long after.
9. Triệu Thị Trinh (ca. 222 – 248 AD)
Commonly referred to as Lady Triệu, this warrior of 3rd century Vietnam temporarily freed her homeland from Chinese rule.
That is according to traditional Vietnamese sources at least, which also state that she was 9 feet tall with 3-foot breasts that she tied behind her back during battle. She usually fought while riding an elephant.
Chinese historical sources make no mention of Triệu Thị Trinh, yet for the Vietnamese, Lady Triệu is the most important historical figure of her time.
10. Zenobia (240 – c. 275 AD)
The Queen of Syria’s Palmyrene Empirefrom 267 AD, Zenobia conquered Egypt from the Romans only 2 years into her reign.
Her empire only lasted a short while longer, however, as the Roman Emperor Aurelian defeated her in 271, taking her back to Rome where she — depending on which account you believe — either died shortly thereafter or married a Roman governor and lived out a life of luxury as a well-known philosopher, socialite and matron.
Dubbed the ‘Warrior Queen’, Zenobia was well educated and multi-lingual. She was known to behave ‘like a man’, riding, drinking and hunting with her officers.