Women in ancient warfare

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Amazonomachy battle between Greeks and Amazons, relief of a sarcophagus – c. 180 BCE, found in Thessaloniki, 1836, now in the Louvre, Department of Greek Antiquities

The role of women in ancient warfare differed from culture to culture. There have been various historical accounts of females participating in battle.

This article lists instances of women recorded as participating in ancient warfare, from the beginning of written records to approximately 500 CE. Contemporary archaeological research regularly provides better insight into the accuracy of ancient historical accounts.

Only women active in direct warfare, such as warriors, spies, and women who actively led armies are included in this list.

Timeline of women in ancient warfare worldwide[edit]

17th century BCE[edit]

  • 17th century BCE – Ahhotep I is credited with a stela at Karnak for "having pulled Egypt together, having cared for its army, having guarded it, having brought back those who fled, gathering up its deserters, having quieted the South, subduing those who defy her".[1]
  • Ahhotep II is buried with a dagger and axe, as well as three golden fly pendants, which were given as rewards for military valor. However, it is debated as to whether or not they actually belong to her.[2]

15th century BCE[edit]

  • 1479–1458 BCE[3] – Reign of Hatshepsut. It is possible that she led military campaigns against Nubia and Canaan.[4]

13th century BCE[edit]

Statue of Fu Hao at Yinxu
  • 13th century BCE[5] – Estimated time of the Trojan War. According to ancient sources, several women participate in battle (see Category:Women of the Trojan war). Epipole of Carystus is one of the first women who are reported to have fought in a war.
  • 13th century BCE – Lady Fu Hao, consort of the Chinese emperor Wu Ding, led 3,000 troops into battle[6] during the Shang dynasty. Fu Hao had entered the royal household by marriage and took advantage of the semi-matriarchal slave society to rise through the ranks.[7] Fu Hao is known to modern scholars mainly from inscriptions on Shang dynasty oracle bone artifacts unearthed at Yinxu.[8] In these inscriptions she is shown to have led numerous military campaigns. The Tu fought against the Shang for generations until they finally were defeated by Fu Hao in a single decisive battle. Further campaigns against the neighbouring Yi, Qiang, and Ba followed, the latter is particularly remembered as the earliest recorded large-scale ambush in Chinese history. With up to 13,000 troops and the important generals Zhi and Hou Gao serving under her, she was the most powerful military leader of her time.[9] This highly unusual status is confirmed by the many weapons, including great battle-axes, unearthed from her tomb.[10] One of Wu Ding's other wives, Fu Jing, also participated in military expeditions.[11]
  • Vedic period (1200–1000 BCE) roughly – The Rigveda (RV 1 and RV 10) hymns mention a female warrior named Vishpala, who lost a leg in battle, had an iron prosthesis made, and returned to warfare.[12]

12th century BCE[edit]

11th century BCE[edit]

  • 11th century BCE[14] – According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Queen Gwendolen fought her husband, Locrinus, in battle for the throne of Britain. She defeated him and became the monarch.[15] However, Geoffrey of Monmouth is not considered a reliable historical source.[16]
  • 11th century BCE – 4th century CE – Approximate time for the burial of a Kangju woman in modern Kazakhstan who was buried with a sword and a dagger.[17]

10th century BCE[edit]

  • 10th century BCE[18] – According to Greek legendary history, Messene conquered a territory and founded a city at roughly this time.[19][20][21][22]

9th century BCE[edit]

8th century BCE[edit]

  • 8th to 6th centuries BCE – Early Armenian period. A woman is buried in the Armenian highlands at this time. Her skeleton indicates strong muscles and a healed wound to her skeleton contained an iron arrowhead. Other injuries suggest that she was a warrior.[29]
  • 732 BCE – Approximate time of the reign of Samsi, an Arabian queen who may have been the successor of Zabibe.[30] She revolted against the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III.[31][32][33]

7th century BCE[edit]

  • 660 BCE – Lady Xu Mu is credited with saving the state of Wey from military invasion with her appeals for aid. The Wey people remembered her for bringing supplies, getting military aid and rebuilding the state. She is also the first recorded female poet in Chinese history.[34]
  • 654 BCE – Lampsacus is founded by the Greeks.[35] According to Greek legendary history, written centuries later, a Bebryces woman named Lampsace informed the Greeks of a plot against them by the Bebryces, and thus enabled them to conquer the area and found the city, which was named in her honor. She was deified and worshipped as a goddess.[36][37][38]
  • A Scythian warrior girl, aged approximately 13, is buried Saryg-Bulun in Central Tuva, Russia. The remains, discovered in 1988, were originally assumed to be male, but DNA sequencing in 2020 determines the mummy to be female.[39]

6th century BCE[edit]

  • 506 BCE – Cloelia, a Roman girl[58] who was given as a hostage to the Etruscans, escaped her captors and led several others to safety.[59]

5th century BCE[edit]

4th century BCE[edit]

  • 4th century BCE – Onomaris is estimated to have lived around this time period.[77] According to Tractatus De Mulieribus, she led her people in migration to a new land and conquered the local inhabitants.[78]
  • 4th century BCE – Cynane, a half-sister to Alexander the Great, accompanied her father on a military campaign and killed an Illyrian leader named Caeria in hand-to-hand combat, and defeated the Illyrian army.[79]
  • 4th century BCE[80]Pythagorean philosopher, Timycha, was captured by Sicilian soldiers during a battle. She and her husband were the only survivors. She is admired for her defiance after capture, because while being questioned by the Sicilian tyrant, she bit off her tongue and spat it at his feet.[81]
  • 4th century BCE – Chinese statesman Shang Yang wrote The Book of Lord Shang,[82] in which he recommended dividing the members of an army into three categories; strong men, strong women, and the weak and old of both sexes. He recommended that the strong men serve as the first line of defence, that the strong women defend the forts and build traps, and that the weak and elderly of both sexes control the supply chain. He also recommended that these three groups not be intermingled, on the basis that doing so would be detrimental to morale.[83]
  • 4th century BCE – Artemisia II of Caria led a fleet and played a role in the military-political affairs of the Aegean after the decline in Athenian naval superiority.
  • 350 BCE – According to Heracleides of Cyme, Achaemenid kings employed a 300-woman entourage of concubines who served also as bodyguards.[84]
  • 339 BCE – Mania became satrap of Dardanus.[85] Polyaenus described her as going into battle riding in a chariot, and as being such an excellent general that she was never defeated.[86]
  • 335 BCE – Timoclea, after being raped by one of Alexander the Great's soldiers during his attack on Thebes, pushed her rapist down a well and killed him. Alexander was so impressed with her cunning in luring him to the well that he ordered her to be released and that she not be punished for killing his soldier.[87]
  • 333 BCE – Stateira I accompanied her husband Darius III while he went to war. It was because of this that she was captured by Alexander the Great after the Battle of Issus at the town of Issus.[88] Other female family members, including Drypetis, Stateira II, and Sisygambis were present and were captured as well.[89]
  • 332 BCE – The Nubian queen, Candace of Meroe, intimidated Alexander the Great with her armies and her strategy while confronting him, causing him to avoid Nubia, instead heading to Egypt, according to Pseudo-Callisthenes.[90] However, Pseudo-Callisthenes is not considered a reliable source, and it is possible that the entire event is fiction.[91] More reliable historical accounts indicate that Alexander never attacked Nubia and never attempted to move farther south than the oasis of Siwa in Egypt.[92]
  • 331 BCE – Alexander the Great and his troops burned down Persepolis several months after its capture; traditionally Thaïs (a hetaera who accompanied Alexander on campaigns) suggested it when they were drunk, but others record that it had been discussed previously.[93]
  • January 330 BCE – Youtab fights against Greek Macedonian King Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Persian Gate.[94]
  • 320s BCE – Cleophis surrendered to Alexander the Great after he laid siege to her city.[95][96] In the same battle, the wives of Indian mercenaries took up the weapons and armors of their fallen husbands and fought against the Macedonians.[97]
  • 320s BCE – Reign of Chandragupta Maurya, who started the custom of kings of the ancient India to employ armed women as bodyguards. They rode war chariots, horses and elephants, and would also partake in military campaigns.[98][99] This custom apparently was still in force until the Gupta period (320 to 550 AD).[100]
  • 324 BCE – The satrap Atropates presented Alexander the Great with 100 horsewomen armed with war axes and light shields. Alexander did not add them to his army, however, believing their presence might incite his troops to molest them.[84] This has been considered related to the myth of Thalestris.[101]
  • 318 BCE – Eurydice III of Macedon fought Polyperchon and Olympias.[102]
  • 314–308 BCE – Cratesipolis commanded an army and forced cities to submit to her.[103][104]

3rd century BCE[edit]

Arsinoe III of Egypt

2nd century BCE[edit]

  • 2nd century BCE – Queen Stratonice convinced Docimus to leave his stronghold, and her forces took him captive.[133]
  • 2nd century BCE – The Book of Judith was probably written at this time.[134] It describes Judith as assassinating Holofernes, an enemy general.[135] However, this incident is regarded by historians fictional due to the historical anachronisms within the text.[136]
  • Late 2nd century BCE[137]Amage, a Sarmatian queen, attacked a Scythian prince who was making incursions onto her protectorates. She rode to Scythia with 120 warriors, where she killed his guards, his friends, his family, and ultimately, killed the prince himself. She allowed his son to live on the condition that he obey her.[138]
  • 186 BCE – Chiomara, a Galatian princess, was captured in a battle between Rome and the Galatians and was raped by a centurion. After a reversal she ordered him killed by her companions, and she had him beheaded after he was dead. She then delivered his head to her husband.[139]
  • 2nd century BCE – Queen Rhodogune of Parthia was informed of a rebellion while preparing for her bath. She vowed not to brush her hair until the rebellion was ended. She waged a long war to suppress the rebellion, and won it without breaking her vow.[140]
  • 138 BCE – The Roman Decimus Junius Brutus found that in Lusitania the women were "fighting and perishing in company with the men with such bravery that they uttered no cry even in the midst of slaughter". He also noted that the Bracari women were "bearing arms with the men, who fought never turning, never showing their backs, or uttering a cry."[141]
  • 131 BCE – Cleopatra II led a rebellion against Ptolemy VIII in 131 BCE, and drove him and Cleopatra III out of Egypt.[142]
  • 102 BCE – A battle between Romans and the Teutonic Ambrones at Aquae Sextiae took place during this time. Plutarch described that "the fight had been no less fierce with the women than with the men themselves... the women charged with swords and axes and fell upon their opponents uttering a hideous outcry." The women attacked both the Romans and the Ambrones who tried to desert.[143]
  • 102/101 BCE[144] – General Marius of the Romans fought the Teutonic Cimbrians. Cimbrian women accompanied their men into war, created a line in battle with their wagons and fought with poles and lances,[145] as well as staves, stones, and swords.[146] When the Cimbrian women saw that defeat was imminent, they killed their children and committed suicide rather than be taken as captives.[147]

1st century BCE[edit]

1st century CE[edit]

  • 1st century – There were detailed reports of women accompanying their men on Germanic battlefields to provide morale support. Tacitus mentions them twice; in his Germania and again in his Annals, specifically at the battle near modern Nijmegen when the XV Primigenia and V Alaudae legions were sent packing back to Castra Vetera where they were later besieged during the Revolt of the Batavi. He writes in detail how the women would gather behind the warhost, and show their breasts to flagging warriors while screaming that their loss that day would mean the enemy gaining these as slaves. Women held an honored position in German tribes, and were seen as holy spirits as shown by their adoration of such as Aurinia and Veleda. Slavery was the fate of cowards and the unlucky – and letting one's women fall into that fate was a hideous deed. Thus the men were encouraged to fight harder.[153]
  • 1st century – A Sarmatian woman was buried with weapons in what is now modern Russia.[154]
  • 1st century – A woman was entombed with a sword in Tabriz, Iran. The tomb was discovered in 2004.[155]
  • 1st century – Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, allied with the Roman Empire against other Britons.[156]
  • 1st century: The historian Tacitus wrote that Triaria, wife of Lucius Vitellius the younger, was accused of having armed herself with a sword and behaved with arrogance and cruelty while at Tarracina, a captured city.[157][158]
  • 1st century: There are several historical Roman references to female gladiators from this time period.[159]
  • 1st century – 5th century: Four women were buried in Phum Snay, Cambodia with metal swords. The graves date approximately from this time period, and were discovered in 2007.[160]
  • 14–18 – Lu Mu, a Chinese peasant also known as Mother Lu, led a rebellion against Wang Mang.[161]
  • 15 – Agrippina the Elder defends a bridge upon the Rhine.[162]
  • 21 – Debate erupted as to whether or not the wives of Roman governors should accompany their husbands in the provinces. Caecina Severus said that they should not, because they "paraded among the soldiers" and that "a woman had presided at the exercises of the cohorts and the manoeuvres of the legions".[163]
  • 40 – The Trung Sisters revolt against the Chinese in Vietnam.[164] Phung Thi Chinh joins them.[165]
  • 60 – According to Tacitus, druidesses among the Britannian lines waged psychological warfare against the Roman forces in the island of Mona.[166]
  • 60–61 – Boudica, a Celtic queen of the Iceni in Britannia, led a massive uprising against the occupying Roman forces.[167] According to Suetonius, her enemy Gaius Suetonius Paulinus encouraged his soldiers by joking that her army contained more women than men, implying the presence of warrior women.[168]
  • 69–70 – Veleda of the Germanic Bructeri tribe wielded a great deal of influence in the Batavian rebellion. She was acknowledged as a strategic leader, a priestess, a prophet, and as a living deity.[169]

2nd century CE[edit]

3rd century CE[edit]

4th century CE[edit]

Xun Guan portrayed by a Peking opera actress during a 2015 performance in Tianchan Theatre, Shanghai, China.
  • 306–307 – As military commander for the Emperor of China, Li Xiu took her father's place and defeated a rebellion.[181]
  • 315 – Xun Guan famously led a group of soldiers into battle at the age of thirteen. As daughter of the governor of Xiangyang she is said to have broken through enemy lines to assemble reinforcements and prevent the city of Wancheng from being invaded.[182]
  • 368–370 – Queen Pharantzem defended the fort Artogeressa against the Persian army of Shapur II.[183]
  • 375[184] – The Arab Queen Mavia led troops against the Romans.[185]
  • 378 – Roman Empress Albia Dominica organized her people in defense against the invading Goths after her husband had died in battle.[186]
  • 4th–6th centuries: Possible time period that the legendary woman warrior Hua Mulan may have lived.[187]

5th century[edit]

  • 5th century: Princess Sela acts as a pirate. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus described Sela as a "skilled warrior and experienced in roving."[188][189]
  • 450 – A Moche woman was buried with two ceremonial war clubs and twenty-eight spear throwers. The South American grave is discovered in 2006, and is the first known grave of a Moche woman to contain weapons.[190]
  • 451: Saint Genevieve is credited with averting Attila from Paris by rallying the people in prayer.[191]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Maeve. "Amazons." The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies (2016): 1–4.
  • Liccardo, Salvatore. "Different Gentes, Same Amazons: The Myth of Women Warriors at the Service of Ethnic Discourse." Medieval History Journal 21.2 (2018): 222–250.
  • Mayor, Adrienne. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (Princeton University Press, 2014) online review
  • Toler, Pamela D. Women warriors: An unexpected history (Beacon Press, 2019).
  • Wilde, Lyn Webster. On the trail of the women warriors: The Amazons in myth and history (Macmillan, 2000).