The common complaints these days seem to be that there are simply not many female leaders out there, or if there are, they are not as valued as the men. Therefore, we applaud countries like Canada who has a decent number of female ministers as if this is “modern” and we gasped in horror when we find out that Tony Abbott, now former Prime Minister of Australia, only had two women in his cabinet as if it’s “old fashioned”. In the Ancient World, female rulers and leaders were more common than we realize – so, really, having female leaders were never “modern”, as with everything else, the ancients got there first. It’s just that historical records of them are not as extensive. Some of these rulers lived in a time where writing systems were not yet developed, others were eclipsed by their husbands’ names that what they have done were made to sound insignificant in comparison. But these women existed. Some of them fought battles and led rebellions, others didn’t necessarily fight, yet heavily involved in politics and governmental matters. Here are only 10 of the many:
1. Nefertari-Merymut of Egypt
Nefertari was the first, and principle, queen of Ramses II. She was best known for her appearances in temple reliefs and colossi of the king. This was uncommon for royal women at the time, unless they wield some significant influence.
The marriage between Ramesses II and Nefertari was arranged to strengthen Ramesses’ hold on the throne by linking his family with one from Thebes. Some Egyptologists think that her designation as “Hereditary Princess” might be connected with her being representative of the Thebais. Ramesses married Nefertari in 1312 BC and she soon gave him his first son, Amenhirwenemef – the first of 11 children.
Apart from that, information on Nefertari are largely based on her titles. Nefertari carried the title “God’s Wife of Amun,” which gave her independent wealth and power. Her title of “Hereditary Princess,” is an indication of her high ranking origin. She played a special political role in her time and was very involved in the affairs of state is, reflected in her titles of “Great King’s Wife”, “Lady of Upper and Lower Egypt” and “Lady of the Two Lands”
Nefertari’s correspondence with Queen Puduheba survived and found in the royal archives in Bogazkoy in Hatti. The letter was on the occasion of a treaty which ended a long period of strained relationship between the two kingdoms.
2. Zabibe of Qedar
The kingdom of Qedar was subdued by the Assyrian empire in the ninth century BC, The kingdom survived as a vassal state. Queen Zabibe was the queen of Qedar who reigned between 738 and 733 BC. She was a vassal of Tiglath-Pileser III, king of Assyria, and is mentioned in the Annals of Tiglath-Pileser III among a list of monarchs who paid tribute to the king in 738 BC.
Queen Zabibe also had the distinction of being the first leader whose name is recognized to be associated with Qedar. The names of those before her has been lost. She was also the first monarch of Qedar who led the rebellion against the Assyrian empire by breaking her oath of Vassalage.
3. Tomyris of Massagetae
Tomyris was the daughter of the leader of all Massagetae tribes. Queen Tomyris ruled the Massagetae (Scythia) after the death of her father. For a long time, the Massagetae had secured their borders against the Persians. It was during the battle with Queen Tomyris’ troops that Cyrus the Great was killed.
In 530 BC Cyrus the Great headed his huge army and ventured to the East, where the Massagetaes were. Cyrus sent an envoy with a letter to the queen Tomyris, praising and proposing marriage to her so they could unite their forces and save her people from war. Tomyris realized that Cyrus only wanted her kingdom and refused. (Herodotus I.205)
As Massagetae gained the upper hand, Cyrus captured Spargapises, her son. When she heard what happened, she sent a herald to Cyrus demanding to release him (Herodotus I. 212) Cyrus refused and killed Spargapises. As soon as Tomyris learnt of her son’s death, she decided to attack. Cyrus was killed in this combat.
4. Olympias of Epirus
Although Olympias was best known as the mother of Alexander the Great, she ruled on the throne of Macedon as regent for king Philip during his military campaign, and won nearly all the battles she led against potential successors trying to take the crown away from her son. She was also the ruler of Epirus in her own right.
Olympias, whose birth name was Myrtle, was the daughter of Neoptolemus, the king of the Molossians, one of the greatest tribes in Epirus. In 357, the Molossian and Macedonian alliance was strengthened by a diplomatic marriage between Myrtle and King Philip of Macedon. The next year, a chariot that Philip had sent to the Olympic games, was victorious. Therefore, the queen received the name Olympias. In the same summer, she gave birth to Alexander. To clear the way for her son, she poisoned Phillip Arridaeus, a younger half brother of king Philip, another candidate for the throne.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, Olympias joined forces with her cousin Aeacides and the remainder of Polyperchon’s army and invaded Macedonia, killing the young king (Alexander’s half brother) and his wife, to put her grandson on the throne. However, Olympias’ invasion failed; she was captured at Pydna and was put to death in 316 BCE.
5. Himiko of Japan
Empress Himiko came to power in 183 CE. She was the first recorded ruler of ancient Japan and the supposed originator of the Grand Shrine of Ise, which to this day is still considered the most important Shintō sanctuary in Japan. Himiko existed long before the Japanese developed a comprehensive language system, therefore records of her came mostly from ancient Chinese texts.
Himiko was a shaman as well as an empress. She sent envoys to China with tributes of cloth and slaves for the Emperor. In return, by China’s Imperial edict, she was named ‘Ruler of Wa Friendly to Wei’. This led to trade and diplomatic relations between the two countries.
6. Zenobia of Palmyra
Zenobia, born in 240 CE, was the queen of Palmyra who challenged Rome’s authority during the latter part of the period in Roman history known as “The Crisis of the Third Century” (235-284 CE).
After her husband, Odaenathus, and his eldest son (by his former wife), Herodes, were assassinated in 267, Zenobia became regent for her own son Vaballathus. In her time as regent, she expanded the empire to three times it’s size while she was in power.
She governed Syria from 250 to 275 AD, developing Palmyra as an important stopping point for caravans carrying trade goods along the Old Silk Road. She declared Palmyra independent of Roman rule after her husband’s murder, leading her armies on horseback and making the Roman legions retreat from much of Asia Minor. Arabia, Armenia and Persia allied themselves with her, and she claimed dominion over Egypt by right of ancestry.
When Palmyra fell, Zenobia was captured and, according to some historians, Zenobia and Vaballathus were led in the triumphal procession that Aurelian celebrated at Rome in 274 as prisoners. However, other historians claim that she starved herself to death during the trip to Rome to spare herself the humiliation.
7. Theodora of Rome
Born of humble origins at the start of the sixth century CE, Theodora was the wife of Justinian I, and it is arguable that she was at least as powerful as he was. She encouraged Justinian to enact a number of legislation which prohibited forced prostitution as well as alterations in the divorce laws which made them more favorable to women. She also had her own civil service office, built several imperial churches and refugees for former prostitutes and women who had fled violent husbands.
Following the Nika Revolt, Theodora and Justinian rebuilt Constantinople, making it the center of Christian civilization from the 6th to the beginning of the 12th century. Theodora died of cancer on June 28, 548, and her body was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the churches she and Justinian had built in Constantinople.
8. Empress Irene of Charlemagne
Irene acted regent for her son, Constantine VI from 780-790 before overthrowing him and reigned in her own right. Irene is remembered for her role in helping to restore the use of Christian icons and images in the Byzantium, which had been forbidden in the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity.
As Constantine approached maturity, he claimed himself sole ruler and had Irene banished from court. In 792, Irene was allowed to return to court and resume her position as co-ruler. By enlisting the help of the bishops and courtiers she organized a conspiracy against Constantine, who was then arrested and blinded at her orders in 797.
After overthrowing Constantine, Irene ruled in her own name, while also adopting the male title of “basileus” on legal documents. She had a new gold coin minted to portray her as empress. Overall, Empress Irene’s reign lasted for 15 years.
9. Queen Didda of India
Queen Didda acted as regent to her son and grandson. She built the Abhimanyusvamin temple and a town which is now called Bimyan. She also built the Diddasvamin temple, and the Diddmar area of Srinagar. In her life-time, she has laid 64 foundations.
Didda was the daughter of Simharaja of Lohara. She married king Schemagupta, ruler of Kashmir. She was physically disabled, and often referred to as Charanhina, which means “footless”. King Kshemagupta was looking for political legitimacy for his rule, married Didda, who was the granddaughter of the Shahis.
Kshemagupta got coins minted with “Di(dda) Kshemagupta Deva” inscribed on them, adding her name to his own. This was rarely done in those days, because it was viewed as showing the queen’s influence over a king’s rule. Didda gave birth to a son, Abhimanyu.
In 958, Kshemagupta died. Didda then became regent for Abhimanyu who was crowned soon after, and proceeded to ruthlessly kill off many of the rebels including her husband’s nephews, but forgave some she thought would be of use to her. In 972, Abhimanyu died. Abhimanyu’s son Nandigupta was crowned and Didda continued as regent. Didda then ruled for the next 22 years in absolute power until she died in 1003 at the age of 79.
10, Lady Fu Hao of China
Lady Fu Hao was one of the consorts of the Chinese emperor Wu Ding. She led 3,000 men into battle during the Shang Dynasty, and known to modern scholars mainly from inscriptions on Shang Dynasty oracle bone artifacts unearthed at Yinxu. Fu Hao’s tomb has over a hundred weapons, showing her status as a military leader. From the inscriptions, it shows that Fu Hao was considered the most powerful military leader of her time.
Fu Hao was involved in ritual ceremonies and military activities, even though the king traditionally had the ultimate control over ritual matters. She also led numerous military campaigns against the Tu, Ba, Yi and Qiang tribes.