Women in ancient warfare

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

The role of women in ancient warfare differed from culture to culture. Warfare throughout written history mainly has been portrayed in modern times as a matter for men, but women also have played a role. Until very recently, little mention of these exploits was included in retellings of history in most countries, aside from the Amazons.

Female deities, whose origins predate historical records, are present in most early cultures. Often they were portrayed as warriors, which signals a pervasive presence of women among such activities prior to a profound change in many human cultures after the adoption of agriculture as the typical sustenance (and which enabled protracted warfare with large armies).

Their influences, the roles of women rulers, and those of significant women, were retained in many of these cultures so strongly that no layers of new legends, ideals, and myths were able to obscure them completely.

The following is a list of prominent women who participated in warfare, which was assembled from the fragmentary beginning of written records to approximately 500 AD. Archaeological research provides more details and clues regularly.

Timeline of women in ancient warfare worldwide[edit]

Statue of Fu Hao at Yinxu
18th century depiction of Thaïs
Arsinoe III of Egypt
Fulvia of Roman Empire
Boadicea Haranguing the Britons by John Opie
Coin depicting Zenobia

17th century BC[edit]

  • 17th century BC – 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 BC[edit]

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

13th century BC[edit]

  • 13th century BC[5] – Estimated time period of the Trojan War. According to ancient sources, several women participate in battle. See Category:Women of the Trojan war for more information. The Trojan war is one of the first alleged instances of women cross-dressing as men to fight, as is in the case of Epipole of Carystus.[6][7]
  • 13th century BC – Lady Fu Hao consort of the Chinese emperor Wu Ding, led 3,000 men into battle[8] 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.[9] Fu Hao is known to modern scholars mainly from inscriptions on Shang Dynasty oracle bone artifacts unearthed at Yinxu.[10] 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.[11] This highly unusual status is confirmed by the many weapons, including great battle-axes, unearthed from her tomb.[12] One of Wu Ding's other wives, Fu Jing, also participated in military expeditions.[13]
  • 13th century BC – Deborah, Judge of Israel, traveled with Barak, who led her army, on a military campaign in Qedesh, according to Judges 4:6‑10.[14][15]
  • 13th century BC – Jael assassinated Sisera, a retreating general who was the enemy of the Israelites, according to Judges 5:23–27.[16]
  • Vedic period (1200–1000 BC) 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.[17]

11th century BC[edit]

  • 11th century BC[18] – 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.[19] However, Geoffrey of Monmouth is not considered a reliable historical source.[20]
  • 11th century BC – 4th century AD – Approximate time for the burial of Kangyuy woman in modern Kazakhstan who was buried with a sword and a dagger.[21]

10th century BC[edit]

  • 10th century BC[22] – According to Greek legendary history, Messene conquered a territory and founded a city at roughly this time.[23][24][25][26]

9th century BC[edit]

8th century BC[edit]

7th century BC[edit]

  • 660 BC – 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.[37]
  • 654 BC – Lampsacus is founded by the Greeks.[38] 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 worshiped as a goddess.[39][40][41]

6th century BC[edit]

5th century BC[edit]

4th century BC[edit]

  • 4th century BC – Onomaris is estimated to have lived at around this time period.[78] According to Tractatus De Mulieribus, she led her people in migration to a new land and conquered the local inhabitants.[79]
  • 4th century BC – 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.[80]
  • 4th century BC[81]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.[82]
  • 4th century BC – Chinese statesman Shang Yang wrote The Book of Lord Shang,[83] 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.[84]
  • 339 BC – Mania became of satrap 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 BC – 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 BC – Stateira I accompanied her 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 BC – 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 BC– 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 BC – Youtab fights against Greek Macedonian King Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Persian Gate.[94]
  • 320s BC – Cleophis surrendered to Alexander the Great after he laid siege her city.[95][96]
  • 318 BC – Eurydice III of Macedon fought Polyperchon and Olympias.[97]
  • 314 BC – 308 BC – Cratesipolis commanded an army and forced cities to submit to her.[98][99]

3rd century BC[edit]

2nd century BC[edit]

  • 2nd century BC – Queen Stratonice convinced Docimus to leave his stronghold, and her forces took him captive.[120]
  • 2nd century BC – The Book of Judith was probably written at this time.[121] It describes Judith as assassinating Holofernes, an enemy general.[122] However, this incident is regarded by historians fictional due to the historical anachronisms within the text.[123]
  • Late 2nd century BC[124]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.[125]
  • 186 BC – 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.[126]
  • 2nd century BC – 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.[127]
  • 138 BC – The Roman, Sextus 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."[128]
  • 131 BC -Cleopatra II led a rebellion against Ptolemy VIII in 131 BC, and drove him and Cleopatra III out of Egypt.[129]
  • 102 BC – 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."[130]
  • 102/101 BC[131] – 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,[132] as well as staves, stones, and swords.[133] When the Cimbrian women saw that defeat was imminent, they killed their children and committed suicide rather than be taken as captives.[134]

1st century BC[edit]

1st century AD[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. [140]
  • 1st century – A Sarmatian woman was buried with weapons in what is now modern Russia.[141]
  • 1st century – A woman was entombed with a sword in Tabriz, Iran. The tomb was discovered in 2004.[142]
  • 1st century – Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, allied with the Roman Empire against other Britons.[143]
  • 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.[144][145]
  • 1st century: There are several historical Roman references to female gladiators from this time period.[146]
  • 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.[147]
  • 14–18 – Lu Mu, a Chinese peasant also known as Mother Lu, led a rebellion against Wang Mang.[148]
  • 15 – Agrippina the elder defends a bridge upon the Rhine.[149]
  • 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".[150]
  • 40 – The Trung Sisters revolt against the Chinese in Vietnam.[151] Phung Thi Chinh joins them.[152]
  • 60–61 – Boudica, a Celtic queen of the Iceni in Britannia, led a massive uprising against the occupying Roman forces.[153] Suetonius stated that her army contained more women than men.[154]
  • 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.[155]

2nd century AD[edit]

3rd century AD[edit]

  • 3rd century – Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, led armies into battle against the Roman Empire.[160]
  • 3rd century: Two women warriors from the Danube region in Europe, described as Amazons, served in a Roman military unit and are buried in Britain. Their remains were discovered in 2004.[161]
  • 210s - Wang Yi (wife of Zhao Ang) participated in multiple battles alongside her husband against the warlord Ma Chao.[162][163]
  • 248 – Trieu Thi Trinh led a rebellion against the Chinese in Vietnam.[164]
  • Jin dynasty (265–420): During this time period in China, 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 Xiangyang from being invaded.[165]

4th century AD[edit]

  • 4th century – As military commander for the Emperor of China, Li Xiu took her father's place and defeated a rebellion.[166]
  • 375[167] – Queen Mavia led troops against the Romans.[168]
  • 378 – Roman Empress Albia Dominica organized her people in defense against the invading Goths after her husband had died in battle.[169]
  • 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.[170]
  • 4th–6th century: Possible time period that the legendary woman warrior Hua Mulan may have lived.[171]

See also[edit]


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