Who was the greatest female warrior in history? The question is often asked by many as historical facts mostly speak of men and their valor on the battlefield. Female warriors in history, since the times of Cleopatra and even before, had made a noticeable impact in shaping the course of events. Their influence and inspiration were in no way less than their male counterparts. In fact, in many countries, they held sway over the military and political issues more than men. Their deeds are as relevant now as we’re in the past.
Here are 15 female warriors of the ancient world whose story needs to be told.
Table of Contents
1. Artemisia I
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Artemisia was the queen of Halicarnassus, a kingdom that now exists in Turkey. She made her mark in history in the fifth century BC Battle of Salamis against the Greeks. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Artemisia was incredibly intelligent in her strategies, particularly in sea battles. During the course of the battle, she intentionally steered her ship into a Persian vessel to trick the Greeks into believing that she was one of them. The plan paid off. The Greek let her go but the Persian ship sank. Artemisia, unrequited in love, is believed to have taken her own life later.
2. Joan of Arc
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The legendary Joan of Arc was not only one of the greatest female warriors in history but was also a Roman Catholic saint. She played a major role in commanding the French army, by the age of 17. She was more of a strategic leader than a slayer. Initially ridiculed by men soldiers, Joan gained importance when she ended the Siege of Orleans in nine days. After the English captured her in 1430, she made several unsuccessful escape attempts. She was convicted of heresy and cross-dressing, sentenced to death, and was burned alive.
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Cynane (358-323 BC) was the half-sister of Greek conqueror Alexander the Great. She accompanied the Macedonian army alongside Alexander in a number of campaigns. Cynane, according to Greek historian Polyaenus, once slew an Illyrian queen and was also the mastermind behind the slaughter of her army.
Cynane became a power broker after the death of Alexander in 323 BC. As chaos gripped Macedonia, she married off her daughter Adea to Philip Arrhidaeus. The latter was Alexander’s half-brother who Macedonian generals promoted to power as a puppet king. Cynane later commanded a powerful army and marched into Asia for a military campaign.
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She was the queen of Celtic tribal king Prasutagus. She united the tribals to drive the Romans out of her land. In 60 AD, Boudicca commanded an army of 100,000 men and toppled Camulodonum (modern-day Colchester), the Roman Capitol of Britain. She then rode her troops to Londinium (present-day London) and Verulamium (now St Albans), destroyed cities, and slaughtered 80,000 people. Her military victories compelled Roman Emperor Nero to mull a complete pullout of troops from Britain. Boudicca’s forces were later defeated by the Romans. Details about her death are unknown.
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She was the Illyrian queen of the Ardiaei tribe in the third century BC. Teuta, in 230 BC, was a regent for her infant stepson when a Roman envoy arrived at the court to mediate on the matter of Illyria’s expansion along the Adriatic. When, during the mediation, a Roman delegate lost his temper and started shouting at Teuta, she ordered the execution of the young envoy. The incident led to the First Illyrian War in 228 BC between Teuta’s Illyria and Rome. The latter won the war and Teuta was banished.
6. Ahhotep I
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Ahhotep I (1560–1530 BC) was one of the most prominent ancient Egyptian female warriors. She led her armies in battle against the Hyksos, the Semitic invaders who conquered Egypt’s Nile delta. Ahhotep ascended Egypt’s throne as a regent for her minor son Ahmose I. She kept up the pressure on the Hyksos until her son grew up to fight the enemy. Ahmose later unified Egypt after driving out the Hyksos. Ancient historical records describe Ahhotep as a unifier who cared for her soldiers.
7. Fu Hao
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She is considered as one of the most fearless female warriors in history. Fu Hao (1200 BC) was one of the numerous wives of the Shang emperor. She displayed remarkable intelligence and military aptitude and became the emperor’s most trusted confidant. She commanded and led the Shang army to battle the restive tribes and brought them under her domain. One of Fu Hao’s earliest victories was against an obstinate tribe which had troubled the Shang empire for generations. Fu Hao decisively defeated the tribe in a single battle. She later led numerous military campaigns to consolidate Shang power.
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Zenobia was the third-century Syrian queen who challenged the authority of Rome. She led the Palmyran empire from 267 to 272. She controlled and governed a huge area that included most of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces, through wars, conquests, and diplomacy. In her youth, Zenobia was put in charge of her family’s shepherd crew. She grew accustomed to horse riding and outdoor life that developed stamina and endurance in her. These became important and handy assets in her later life.
9. Triệu Thị Trinh
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A third-century Vietnamese warrior, Triệu Thị Trinh was also commonly known as Lady Triệu. She freed her homeland from Chinese rule, albeit temporarily. Her military deeds other than these are relatively unknown. According to traditional Vietnamese records, Triệu Thị Trinh was 9 feet tall and usually fought while riding an elephant. No mention of her is found in ancient Chinese records, though in Vietnam, Triệu Thị Trinh is revered as one of the greatest female warriors in history.
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She was the ruler of Tuscany, Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna, three of the most powerful Italian states in the 1070s. Matilda supported Pope Gregory VII in his campaign against the Roman emperor and German king Henry IV. Her land, as a result, was invaded several times and she emerged victorious in each of them. Matilda’s conquests led other Italian city-states to align with her and revolt against Henry. She assumed the title of the Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy and later forged an understanding between the Pope and the Roman emperor.
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Whether she really existed in flesh and blood, is debated even today. Irish legends, however, claim that Scathach had her fortress on the Isle of Skye, northwest of Scotland. She trained soldiers at her covert school which was strategically hidden. Those wanting to be trained by Scathach had to search for her and cross the stormy and dangerous Irish Sea. But reaching her was just the beginning. Scathach’s equally fearsome daughter Uatach guarded the castle with an army of fearless warriors.
12. Lady K’abel
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During the seventh century, from 672 to 692, Mayan woman warrior Lady K’abel ruled the Guatemalan city of El Peru-Waka with her husband, K’inich Bahlam. She served as the military governor of the Waka kingdom, under the aegis of the House of the Snake King. Lady K’abel held the official title of Kaloomte (supreme warrior), which meant that she outranked her husband. Ancient Mayan documents describe K’abel as a fearsome leader who commandeered the El Peru-Waka army in successful campaigns against other Mayan kings.
13. Grace O’Malley
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She never led an army but was a 16th-century Irish pirate queen. Being chieftain of the Ó Máille clan, Grace O’Malley went on to rule the Umaill kingdom of Ireland, after her father. The ships that Grace inherited were used for piracy. Grace and her crew would board vessels and demand a ‘tax’ for passage. Any resistance to pay resulted in violence and death. Her greatest showdown was against Queen Elizabeth I. Ancient historical records claim that she wrote to the queen, demanding her to be set free, at a time when the monarch was trouncing the power of the pirate chieftains.
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Widely considered as one of the most popular female warriors in history, Cleopatra ruled Egypt as a co-regent for nearly three decades. She used her beauty and the seductive prowess to ascend to power in the first century BC. She supported Roman emperor Julius Caesar in his battle against Egypt’s king Ptolemy XIII. Caesar defeated Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra became the queen of Egypt along with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra allied with his close friend Mark Antony. They became joint rulers of Egypt.
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The 530 BC queen of the Massaegetae confederation of nomadic tribes in the east of Caspian Sea, Tomyris was among the fiercest female warriors in history, who waged a war against Persian king Cyrus the Great. Having suffered an initial rout that led to the suicide of her son Spargapises out of shame, Tomyris raised another army and challenged Cyrus to battle. This time she emerged victorious. During her reign, Tomyris won many battles and defeated most of the powerful men at that time.
Not only in ancient times, female warriors have led from the front on the battlefield for centuries. Today, stories of female warriors in history, have become the stuff of myths and legends in many countries. They have often outperformed their male counterparts in matters of military and strategic planning.