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Powerful Women in Ancient History

Some women stood atop all others in positions of power, and, with either a crown atop their heads or sword in hand, reshaped history.

By Anthony GramugliaPublished 6 years ago 14 min read

The phrase "behind every strong man is a stronger woman" is a historically flawed statement, as history has proven that there have been countless women in positions of great power without any man in front of them. While it may seem that women in power is a new phenomenon, the truth is that women have ruled with iron fists and gentle hands since the beginning of history.

Some saw the construction of towers to the skies. Others reigned over battlefield with a sword in fist. A few stared down the greatest empires in world history, and, with a sword in hand, cleaved through their territories. Some women stood atop all others in positions of power, and, with either a crown atop their heads or sword in hand, reshaped history.

Queen Hatshepsut - Pharaoh of Egypt

The Pharaohs of Egypt are well known as being patriarchal figures leading the ancient empire through the centuries. But there remains one Pharaoh that the Ancient Egyptians tried to erase from the history books. They scratched off her name from hieroglyphic records, tried to conceal her burial place, but the story Queen Hatshepsut remained - becoming the first female pharaoh in the history of Egypt to command the full authority of the position.

At twelve years old, Hatshepsut was married off to her half-brother, Thutmose II, following the death of her father, the Pharaoh Thutmose I. Hatshepsut was one of her brother's secondary wives. Thutmose would have a child only with one of his secondary wives, but Thutmose III would remain his only heir. Five years after marrying his half-sister (1479 BC), Thutmose II died. As Thutmose III, the heir apparent, was only an infant, authority fell on the shoulders of Hatshepsut, being the highest ranked of Thutmose II's secondary wives.

This was not the first time a woman became acting Pharaoh in Egypt. It had happened twice prior. But something different happened with Hatshepsut. While prior female pharaohs simply sat in the seat, Hatshepsut became the first woman to inherit the full powers and authorities of the Pharaoh, co-ruling Egypt with the child heir.

Historians debate as to why Hatshepsut took command of the throne. Some say Hatshepsut envied her half-brother's authority, and took command to exert her authority. Others claim, however, that another branch in the Egyptian government saw a vacancy in the throne, and hoped to exploit it to take over Egypt. In this theory, Hatshepsut took command of the throne to protect her dynasty and the young heir.

In order to establish her authority as ruler, Hatshepsut fabricated tales of her father leaving the kingdom to her. In depictions, she ordered that she be presented wearing a beard in order to make her look dignified. Under her command, great monuments were erected.

When she died in her mid-forties, she left the throne to Thutmose III, who ruled for another thirty years. However, while Thutmose proved a great warrior and leader, he must have realized that he could have had none of it without the help of a woman. Thutmose, resenting this, had all traces of Hatshepsut eradicated, in an attempt to take credit for all of Hatshepsut's accomplishments, and to establish his rule to the throne.

And Egyptologists fell for it... until they found Hatshepsut's sarcophagus... and her body, buried beside her father, with all her great accomplishments recorded in scrolls. Even Thutmose III, in his great purge of Hatshepsut's legacy, did not dare disturb the dead.

The Trung Sisters - Generals of Vietnam's Armies

Many leaders inherit their positions by working through the ranks of their government. The Trung Sisters led their forces by creating an army that they led to carve through the Chinese Empire, thus creating Vietnam in the wake of battle.

The Trung Sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, led a rebellion against China's Han Dynasty between 39-43 AD. Trung Trac had been the wife of a Vietnamese general who plotted with several others to rebel against the Chinese Imperial forces occupying their nation. However, Trac could only stand by and watch her beloved husband die before any of his plans could reach fruition.

The rebellion appeared dead before it could even start.

So Trac and her sister, Nhi, took up the reins of the rebellion.

They assembled a legion of aristocrats, and marched upon over 60 citadels, proclaiming themselves the queens of an unnamed, independent state. They recruited an army of primarily female warriors, and marched upon the backs of Elephants! The very ground shook under the cities they conquered, expanding their territory.

The Chinese forces fled their progress northward for years. Their forces fell at the blades of the Trung Sisters and their armies, cutting down countless soldiers in their battle to retake Vietnam - and more.

The Trung Sisters could not, however, resist the forces of Chinese General Ma Yuan, who, in a series of battles, pushed the Trung Sisters southward, until decisively desolating their forces at modern-day Son Tay. Unable to face defeat, the two sisters drowned themselves in the juncture of the Day and Red Rivers.

Their rebellion may have failed, but their rebellion helped fuel inspiration against later rebellions against the Han Dynasty, including the infamous Yellow Turban Rebellion that would, eventually, lead to the Han Dynasty's desolation.

Boudicca - Queen of the Iceni Tribe... and Bane to Rome

The Roman Empire expanded its territory far and wide, yet it odd to the casual student of history that they stopped halfway through modern-day England. They erected a massive wall across the scale of England, cutting the northern region off from the rest of Rome.

The reason? The Romans feared the wrath of Boudicca.

Boudicca's husband, Prasutagus, ruled the Iceni Tribe in England, an independent ally of Rome. When he died, he left the Iceni territory to both his daughter's and Rome. Emperor Nero, however, decided to take all the territory for himself, almost immediately following the death of the old king. Boudicca protested, but Nero, a cruel leader, made an example of her by viciously beating Boudicca while she watched her daughters raped before her eyes. The Iceni people were ravaged by Roman soldiers - some enslaved, some burned alive, and others viciously sodomized before being put in chains.

The attempt was to demonstrate Rome's power over Boudicca and her people.

But that only made her angry.

Boudicca, now Queen of her people, led an army of Britons southward. The Roman forces, caught unawares, stood no chance against the masses of soldiers. The Roman leaders in the area tried in vain to stop her, but all attempts were squashed under Boudicca's armies. Modern day Colchester and London fell under Boudicca's forces.

Until the Battle of Walting Street.

Though Boudicca had superior numbers, the Roman legion's superior strategy dismantled the Briton war front, annihilating their numbers, hacking down their forces with gladius swords and Roman spears. Boudicca's massive numbers ended up being her ruination, as they stumbled over one another as the Roman wedge-formation broke through their ranks.

Boudicca was captured, and, rather than fall to Rome, took her own life. Today, she is regarded as a British hero.

Cartimandua - The Second Briton to Fight Rome

Around the same time as Boudicca's rage against Nero, Cartimandua took Nero's side to her benefit. Cartimandua was queen of the Brigantes, a tribe located in modern-day Yorkshire. At the time, it was the largest Celtic tribe in England.

She came to power as Rome conquered England. In order to retain her power, she and her husband would make deals with the Roman aristocracy, arranging deals to permit them some degree of independence.

However, in 51 AD, a Celtic rebel, Caratacus, king of the Catuvellauni Tribe, was defeated by the Roman forces. He came to Cartimandua for aid, but the Queen of the Brigantes put him in shackles, and threw him back to Rome for their favor.

She lost favor, however, with the other Celts. Eventually, Cartimandua divorced her husband, Venutius, to marry his armor-bearer, a far stronger warrior than her lord-husband. Venutius rallied a legion of Celts to retake Brigantes, but Cartimandua called upon the Roman legion to defend her--which they did.

Cartimandua held onto her territory - expanding it with the aid of the Romans, until Nero's death in 69 AD. Venutius led a second battle against Cartimandua, who, only able to assemble so many Romans, fell in battle. Rather than be captured, however, she fled southward to Rome. The former king of Briganda retook his throne.

Cartimandua, however, faded into the annals of history. It is unknown if she survived beyond the year 69 AD, lived a life of comfort in Roman courts, or died penniless and alone.

Zenobia - Palmyrene Queen and Opposer to Rome

There are many myths of Zenobia. Most are incorrect. Zenobia did not lead an army against Rome. She did not face execution at the hands of Emperor Aurelian. But she did oppose Rome.

At the time, the Roman Empire had been divided into three units. The weaker domain following the fall of the Five Great Emperors led to numerous generals and armies rallying control in order to command dominance over Rome. Rome divided into three smaller empires: Rome, Gallic, and Palmyrene, each with their own leadership. The 50 years of civil war is often known as the Crisis of the Third Century.

Zenobia was born in modern-day Syria, part of the greater Roman Empire. She was trained as a girl in history and linguistics, and learned to rule over men at a young age thanks to her experience leading shepherds in farms. She was known for her endurance, both on foot and as a drinker. And many philosophers even from a young age acknowledged her brilliance.

Palmyra started as a city and center of trade. Zenobia married to the governor of Syria, Lucius Odaenthus, who resided in Palmyra. A series of conflicts that Odaenthus had settled led to him establishing a territory financially independent of Rome. However, during a hunting, Lucius was killed, along with his first son. Some historians claim that Zenobia arranged the affair so that her son with Lucius could be heir to Lucius's titles, but this is mostly disputed.

What is not disputed is that Palymra, now financially independent thanks to its position on the trade route, was now led alone by Zenobia.

At the time, Rome's Civil Wars led to the rapid succession of Roman Emperors, each one dying almost as soon as they reached the throne. In the chaos, Zenobia, who until now had been amicable with Rome, sent her general to take Egypt.

And he did.

While the generals fought in Rome, Zenobia amassed more command throughout Asia Minor and Levant, recruiting regions into her rapidly expanding empire. Remnants of Persia submitted to Zenobia's authority.

Never once did Zenobia consult Rome, nor did she require much war. She simply took it, exploiting Rome's distraction to her benefit.

This was until the Emperor Aurelian took command, and decided to end the conflict with Palmyra once and for all. The Emperor razed the fledgling cities to the ground. Much of what happened is disputed, as it is said that many forged letters Zenobia wrote as propaganda for Rome. What is known, however, is that Palmyra's armies fell against the Roman legions, and Zenobia, after countless battles and escapes, was captured. Her fate is disputed from there. While some say she was executed, it is more likely that Aurelian refused to dignify a woman as much as to make her worthy of such a "glorious" death. More likely, she took her own life.

At her height, Zenobia reigned over a third of the Roman Empire. And, before Emperor Aurelian seized command of it, it remained the most peaceful region of Rome.

Princess Olga of Kiev - More Badass Than You Will Ever Be

Art by Sergei Kirillov

Revenge is a dish best served cold. The Russian Princess Olga seemed to understand that full well - and, if anything, might have been more brutal about it than most.

Olga was married to Prince Igor, son of Prince Rurik, the progenitor of the Rurik Dynasty of Russian Tsars. At the time, Prince Igor ruled over the region of Kiev, a north-western region of Russia with a powerful military force. In 945 AD, Prince Igor went to the Drevlyans, a Slavic Tribe, to demand tributes. The Drevlyans didn't want to pay, so, instead, they killed Prince Igor.

With Olga and Igor's three year old son too young to rule, Olga took command of Kiev. The Kievian military proclaimed devout loyalty to the new Princess. Olga would proceed to exercise their loyalty in one of the most merciless revenges in world history.

With only a woman on the throne as acting leader, the Drevlyans saw this as an ideal chance to conquer Kiev. However, they saw no need to send their armies into Kiev, so, instead, sent matchmakers to propose a union between the widowed Olga and the Drevlyan Prince Mal.

Olga welcomed in the matchmakers... only for her soldiers to capture them, and bury them alive. Olga sent word to the Drevlyans that the matchmakers never made it to her capital (technically, she wasn't lying), and requested they sent more. When they came, she offered them a refreshing bath after their long voyage, which they gladly accepted... only for her to lock them all inside, and watch as her soldiers burned the bathhouse down.

But the Drevlyans never learned of this. If they would, they might not have welcomed Olga to their homeland for a ceremonial feast with the Drevlyan royalty and aristocracy to honor her late husband. She encouraged her guests to drink and be merry. Once the guests were drunk, she ordered her men to slaughter them. All of them.

Olga razed cities by requesting the people bring her doves, only to attach burning paper to them, then send them back home to spread fire across the Drevlyan roofs.

She then took all of the territory for Kiev, expanding the territory for her son, Svyatolsav. But she did not truly abdicate the throne. While her son expanded Kiev's territory in a series of brutal wars, Olga reigned over Kiev's domestic affairs, establishing a taxation system, fostering massive expansions to internal infrastructure, and even converting to Christianity after forming an alliance with the Byzantine and the Holy Roman Empires. She was instrumental in the organization what would one day be Russia's Orthodox Church.

Even as a grandmother, though, Olga never lost her fighting spirit, organizing defenses of Kiev's capital against nomadic tribes up until her death.

In the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church canonized her as a saint.

Ching Shih - The Pirate Who Defeated China

There have been several female pirate lords throughout history. Jeanne de Clisson fought the French along the English Channel during the Hundred Year War. Grace O'Malley ruled her Irish territory by raiding countless British trade ships.

But none compare to Ching Shih, a pirate so powerful that China surrendered to her.

Ching Shih's origins remain a mystery. It is known that, in 1801, she was a prostitute who married the pirate lord Cheng I. Cheng I ruled the Red Flag Pirate Fleet - a massive legion of pirate ships that would raid and loot entire countries. Ching Shih immediately became a huge influence and strategic commander on the ship, and, after Cheng I married her, met countless successes.

When Cheng I died in a Vietnamese tsunami in 1807, Ching Shih took command of his pirate fleet... and started a conquest of the Chinese seas that left her the single most powerful woman in the region.

Ching established a strict code of conduct for her pirates to keep them under her command. Anyone who disobeyed died.

If the rules didn't keep her men in line, her conquests of the Chinese shore and rivers would. She went through countless naval and on-land battles, never losing. Not once.

The Chinese Government, in 1808, decided to take a stand against the Red Flag Fleet, and sent their navy after them. They believed that the sheer sight of the Navy would be enough to subdue Ching. They never expected to find the Red Flag Fleet meeting them on the open sea, nor did they expect a fleet led by a woman to decimate their forces.

Ching Shih captured over sixty Chinese ships, offering everyone on board the same offer: join her legion or die. Any casualties of combat, both in terms of sunken ships or lost pirates, ended up being replaced by her prisoners.

Dutch and British ships were called in to aid the Chinese against Ching, but they stood less chance. Rival pirate crews - amassed into her territory. Captured enemy ships - forced to join.

Ching Shih proved so unstoppable that, by 1810, China granted her amnesty, thus surrendering to her authority. Within a decade, Ching Shih had defeated China.

Ching Shih settled down, walked away with a tremendous fortune, and opened up a gambling shop. She lived in comfort until she died of old age. No one dared mess with her.

historyhumanitylistwomen in politics

About the Creator

Anthony Gramuglia

Obsessive writer fueled by espresso and drive. Into speculative fiction, old books, and long walks. Follow me at

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