Nothing if it was not warlike, ancient Rome fought with many enemies, peoples, cultures, and figures who stood opposed to her expansionism. It is then no surprise that Rome even experienced a handful of wars against female warriors and war leaders.
“May the world near and far dread the sons of Aeneas … ”
[Ovid, Fasti, I.709]
Rome’s enemies, like the Latin city itself, were usually patriarchal and male-dominated societies. To our modern thinking, ancient Romans were deeply misogynistic.
“Our ancestors permitted no woman to conduct even personal business without a guardian to intervene on her behalf; they wished them to be under the control of fathers, brothers, husbands …”
[Livy History, 34.2]
Within this context, Rome’s wars with formidable female warriors take on a truly fascinating dimension.
1. The First Female Warrior: Queen Teuta Of Illyria [Ruled c. 231 – 227 BCE]
Our first female warrior who opposed Rome was a queen of the fierce Illyrian tribes that dominated the Adriatic and Balkan coastlines. Occupying roughly what is now modern Albania, Queen Teuta of Illyria ruled as regent on behalf of her stepson, Pinneus. After the death of her husband, Argon, Teuta was seen as a capable and formidable ruler. She knew exactly what she wanted to do with her kingdom, and she took an aggressive stance to its positioning. This included war-driven expansion within the Balkan region and the deliberate state-sponsorship of piracy and raiding within the Adriatic and Ionian seas.
“Her first measure was to grant license to privateers, authorizing them to plunder all whom they fell in with; and she next collected a fleet and military force as large as the former one, and dispatched them with general instructions to the leaders to regard every land as belonging to an enemy.”
[Polybius, History of Rome, 2.4]
Disrupting Roman and Greek shipping, piracy had been tolerated at first by ancient Rome while focused on other major conflicts. However, tolerance of piracy in the Adriatic had a limited shelf-life as Rome began to attain true superpower status.
No female warrior could be allowed to insult the power of Rome on its very doorstep.
“From time immemorial [the Illyrians] had oppressed and pillaged vessels sailing from Italy; … [they] committed acts of piracy on a number of Italian merchants: some they merely plundered, others they murdered, and a great many they carried off alive into captivity.”
[Polybius, History of Rome, 2.5]
In 230 BCE, Rome dispatched two envoys, Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius, to deal with the Illyrian queen. This was certainly not welcomed by Teuta, who had been making war on several cities in the region.
Rome’s delegation did not go well. It went quite poorly.
“… Teuta listened with an insolent and disdainful air; and when they [the Roman ambassadors] had finished their speech, she replied that she would endeavor to take care that no injury should be inflicted on Roman citizens by Illyrian officials; but that it was not the custom for the sovereigns of Illyria to bind private persons from taking booty at sea. Angered by these words, the younger of the two ambassadors used the plainest of speech which, though thoroughly to the point, was rather ill-timed. “The Romans,” he said, “O Teuta, have a most excellent custom of using the State for the punishment of private wrongs and the redress of private grievances: and we will endeavor, God willing, before long to compel you to improve the relations between the sovereign and the subjects in Illyria.” The queen received this plain-speaking with womanish passion and unreasoning anger.”
[Polybius, History of Rome, 2.4]
This was Roman chauvinism at its best; the misogyny of the account is unmissable. Indeed, throughout the accounts of Polybius and Arrian, we are left with little doubt that Teuta’s main weakness, at least through the Greco-Roman lens, was that she was a woman: a condition that rendered her not entirely balanced in the man’s world of power politics. In prejudiced tones, the account blames Teuta’s insatiable and feminine appetite for plunder that drove her sponsorship of piracy. It also rendered her unfit to understand the geopolitics of the scenario.
“But her woman’s head had been turned by the success just related, and she fixed her gaze upon that, and had no eyes for anything going on outside the country”
[Polybius, History 2.4]
Even beyond the sexism, things had gone very wrong with Rome’s embassy to Illyria. To make things even worse, the Roman ambassador who had insulted Teuta was murdered in cold blood. This act contravened all the established norms of ancient international law. To the Romans, it was an act of egregious barbarity. War would undoubtedly follow.
The Romans didn’t mess about and sent in a massive expeditionary force in 229 BCE. This included 200 ships and two consular armies totaling 20,000 men and 2000 cavalry. Ancient Rome’s might was insatiable. In the ensuing conflict, Teuta was hamstrung early by the betrayal of her governor, Demetrius, who defected to the Romans.
“Yet woman-like, such was her vain and fickle disposition that when the consuls had crossed over to the island [Corcyra], she became emboldened again, and sent out an army to Epidamnus and Apollonia. After the Romans had rescued these cities, seized ships of hers which were sailing home from the Peloponnesus laden with treasure, and devastated the coast regions, and after Demetrius as a result of her caprice had transferred his allegiance to the Romans and also persuaded some others to desert, she became utterly terrified and abdicated her power.”
[Cassius Dio, Histories, Fragments 12.19]
The Roman account is harsh, but it remains true that the female warrior queen could not hope to resist Roman might. Teuta quite sensibly sued for peace. She accepted for her stepson Pinneus a diminished kingdom as a minor ally of Rome. She also agreed that her Illyrian subjects would diminish their fleets and never again harass the seas.
History doesn’t tell us what happened to Teuta in the years following, though it’s believed she ruled for a period over a greatly diminished kingdom before passing from power.
Folklore and modern pop culture have invented several romanticized versions of Teuta as everything from a resistance-fighting national hero of the Balkans to a kick-ass femme fatale, sinking ships and breaking hearts. There is no evidence that Teuta personally engaged in warfare or piracy. However, in Teuta, we have a powerful and determined leader that directed aggressive, warlike harassment against her powerful neighbors. In that sense, she was most certainly a great female warrior and leader.
2. Queen Cleopatra Of Egypt [69 BCE – 30 BCE]
Our next female warrior was an enemy of ancient Rome within a context far more complex. The independent kingdom of Egypt was a significant player during the civil wars of the late Roman Republic. Cleopatra VII ruled an Egyptian kingdom that claimed greater antiquity than either the Romans or the Greeks.
Viewed sometimes as a fated figure, Cleopatra was the last of her Ptolemaic house to rule an ancient and independent kingdom. It was already under threat from Rome, and the Egyptian queen would ultimately be a ruler who would find herself on the wrong side of history.
“For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character, which was somehow diffused about her behavior towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice.”
[Plutarch, Life of Antony, 27]
However, this is only one side of the coin. In the Realpolitik of the ancient world, it’s easily possible to view Cleopatra as an able, independent ruler seeking to secure the integrity of her kingdom through an equal alliance with the Roman world’s predominant power men of the moment. However, it was not an equal game. She employed her charm as a strategy to get results from Julius Caesar. It might very well have continued had it not been for the assassination of Caesar in 44BCE. As a pragmatic operator, there is much to suggest that Cleopatra sought to nurture an Egypto-Roman court, especially with Caesar’s successors, Marc Antony. The might of Rome, along with the resources of Egypt, was a powerful prospect. While the late Roman Republic was driven by civil conflict, Cleopatra had a strong and potentially war-winning hand to play.
Cleopatra had borne Caesar a child, a blood heir Caesarion. Within the context of Caesar’s legacy, this granted her a powerful stake at the heart of Rome’s future despite being a foreigner. Augmenting that position, a powerful union with Caesar’s ambitious, right-hand man—the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, fire-eater—Marc Antony, granted the Egyptian Queen great power. However, it equally courted great danger.
Unfortunately for Cleopatra, Caesar left a Roman heir to his legacy: his adopted son, Octavian (Augustus Caesar). Accredited as perhaps the most formidable, clever, and relentlessly determined leader of the entire Roman era, Octavian was deadly. Though not a military man of Caesar or Antony’s type, he has been acknowledged as a master of politics, a user of sophisticated propaganda, and a ruthless operator. A man who could successfully save the Republic from war with its rivals before giving back a dictatorship run by him – disguised in the traditions of a dead Republic – really had to be good. This man became Cleopatra’s nemesis.
Marc Antony is acknowledged as making one of the great blunders of history when he abandoned Rome for command in the East, leaving Octavian full control of Italy. In aligning himself with Cleopatra, with whom he had three children, Antony not only gifted Octavian the perfect reason to make war but also priceless political capital. Octavian could now portray Antony and Cleopatra as hostile foreign threats: a shameless Eastern queen and a man who had surrendered his heritage, his dignity, and his masculinity.
In a way perhaps similar to how elements of the modern British press have vilified Megan Markle, it was all too easy for Augustan propaganda to paint Cleopatra as the calculating foreign temptress who had lured Antony away from his traditional Roman values. This was a powerful gift when viewed within the context of ancient Rome’s inherent misogyny and deep xenophobia.
“We Romans are the rulers of the greatest and best parts of the world, and yet we find ourselves spurned and trampled upon by a woman of Egypt. This disgraces our fathers … It disgraces our own generation, who have conquered the Gauls, subdued the Pannonians, marched as far as the Danube and beyond the Rhine, and crossed the sea to Britain. The men who achieved these feats of arms would be wounded to the heart to know that we have been overcome by the pestilence of a woman.”
[Cassius Dio, Roman Histories, 50,24.]
Octavian lost no opportunity in vilifying Antony as an anathema to all good Romans. After all, Antony had followed a foreign woman to the oriental East and had clearly “gone native.” The fact that he had allowed himself, and by extension his armies, to be corrupted played right into the hands of Octavian propaganda. No Roman could tolerate the rule of a woman, and certainly not a foreign woman! Misogyny and racism made great bedfellows.
“Would we not utterly dishonor ourselves, if after surpassing all other nations in valor we then meekly endured the insults of this scum, the natives of Alexandria and of Egypt, for what more ignoble or more exact name could one give them? They worship reptiles and beasts as gods, they embalm their bodies to make them appear immortal, they are most forward in effrontery, but most backward in courage. Worst of all, they are not ruled by a man, but are the slaves of a woman, and yet they have dared to claim our possessions, and to employ our fellow countrymen to lay hands on them as if we would ever consent to surrender the prosperity which belongs to us.”
[Cassius Dio, Roman Histories, 50,25]
The attack on Antony as a man who had become “un-Roman,” following the worst temptations of an Eastern temptress, spoke directly to Roman xenophobia.
“… [Antony] has abandoned his whole ancestral way of life, has embraced alien and barbaric customs, has ceased to honor us, his fellow countrymen, or our laws, or his father’s gods.”
[Cassius Dio, Histories, 50,25.1]
What could any good Roman citizen make of such a man? Such powerful attacks and many of the ill-fated decisions that Anthony and Cleopatra took allowed Octavian to depict the situation as just another foreign war against a distasteful despotic ruler. This would have fateful consequences for Cleopatra, who notably became the focus of much Roman bile.
At the major sea battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Octavian’s forces roundly defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s combined forces. Octavian would celebrate only a low-key procession for this – the most significant victory of his career – and yet he would enjoy a full-scale triumph in 29 BCE for the celebrated conquest of Egypt.
“I added Egypt to the Empire of the Roman People.”
[Res Gestae Divi Augusti 27]
Actium is mentioned as a victory in name only within the Res Gestae, and no mention is made of Antony nor the significant number of Roman forces that resisted Octavian. The politics of killing fellow Romans were sensitive. In victory, the idea of it being a civil war had to be played down, the foreign war to be celebrated.
Following the subsequent suicide of Antony, it was not long until Octavian closed in on the focus of Roman misogynistic hate. Cue one of history’s most iconic death scenes. Using the poison of a deadly snake, Cleopatra, with defiance and dignity, coolly robbed Octavian in his moment of victory by taking her own life.
No queen of Egypt would be dragged in humiliation through the streets of Rome as the defeated object of someone else’s triumph. Cleopatra died on her own terms, upholding the dignity of a queen and ruler of an ancient and proud kingdom. Neither she nor her son Caesarean would be allowed to survive as a challenge to Octavian’s position.
Cleopatra had played for the highest stakes possible in the deadly male game of Roman politics. She was a true female warrior in that, with intelligence and relatively full agency, she had deployed her nation’s considerable resources in support of Antony and his bid for power.
Although she ultimately lost everything, there is much to admire in how the Egyptian queen sought to maintain her kingdom’s independence. She shaped events that came close to irrevocably changing the Roman world.
3. Candace Amanirenas Of Kush [Ruled c. 40 – 10 BCE]
Ironically, Octavian’s conquest of Egypt brought him into direct conflict with another female warrior queen, Candace Amanirenas of Kush. This formidable female warrior resisted the might of Rome and was an enigmatic and fascinating queen from a little-understood part of the ancient world. Cited under differing Greek and Romanized names by our sources as Candace or Kandake (meaning “great woman”), Amanirenas was the queen of the remote kingdom of Kush and is thought to have ruled from c. 40 BCE to 10 BCE.
Kush was an African kingdom that bordered the hinterlands of Egypt and was vaguely known by the ancient Greeks, Persians, and Romans. Occupying roughly the modern area of Southern Egypt and Sudan, Kush was enigmatic due to its remoteness. It appears to have been ruled by a long line that included many venerable queens, several of whom are depicted as warriors. The fact that ancient sources refer to the land under several names, including Kush, Nubia, Aethiopia, and Meroe (the capital), reflects the patchy knowledge that our ancient Mediterranean-focused sources had for the distant kingdom. Octavian’s domination of Egypt brought Kush firmly within the Roman sphere of influence. The independent and war-like Kushites fought to resist becoming a Roman satellite state.
The Kushites started a war by invading Roman Egypt in 24 BCE while its governor, Aelius Gallus, was campaigning in Arabia. The writer Strabo leaves much untold, but he tells of a fierce, one-eyed warrior queen who both directed the war through generals and later led in battle herself. She enjoyed some clear success over Roman forces. Advancing deep into the new Roman province, the Kushites initially attacked Thebaïs and Syenê, overrunning garrisons and pillaging the three Roman cities of Syenê, Elephantinê, and Philae.
Strabo mentions the theft of Augustan statues and the carrying away of plunder of considerable value. Archaeology backs this up with the discovery of the famous ‘Meroe Head’: an Augustan statue-head discovered in 1910 that was buried within the entrance to the temple of victory in Kushite Meroe. This, in tandem with temple depictions showing Roman captives taken in war, points towards a Kushite victory over Roman armies. Queen Amanirenas and her people were quite literally stepping on the head of Augustus. It was Kush 1: Rome 0, in a surprise early lead.
The Kushite incursion, however, could not be sustained. Under the new Roman prefect of Egypt, Gaius Petronius, in 25 BCE, the empire struck back. According to Strabo, Kushite forces could not resist the Roman incursion into Kush:
“But Petronius, setting out with less than ten thousand infantry and eight hundred cavalry against thirty thousand men, first forced them to flee back to Pselchis, … he made an attack and forced them to come forth to battle; and he quickly turned them to flight, since they were badly marshaled and badly armed; for they had large oblong shields, and those too made of raw ox-hide, and as weapons, some had only axes, others pikes, and others swords. Now some were driven together into the city, others fled into the desert, and others found refuge on a neighboring island, having waded into the channel, for on account of the current the crocodiles were not numerous there. Among these fugitives were the generals of Queen Candacê, who was ruler of the Aethiopians in my time — a masculine sort of woman, and blind in one eye.”
[Strabo, Geography, 17.54]
Petronius eventually took the royal town of Nabata, forcing Amanirenas to seek terms through negotiation.
“After this, he set out for Nabata. This was the royal residence of Candacê, and her son was there, and she herself was residing at a place nearby. But though she sent ambassadors to treat for friendship and offered to give back the captives and the statues brought from Syenê, Petronius attacked and captured Nabata too, from which her son had fled, and razed it to the ground; and having enslaved its inhabitants, he turned back again with the booty, having decided that the regions farther on would be hard to traverse.”
[Strabo, Geography, XVII.54]
It was now Rome 1: Kush 1, in a nail-biting match.
The Romans had more than stabilized their provincial border, but they were also a long way off from winning a war in such a remote, uncharted, and inhospitable kingdom.
It is not clear if this was a war that Rome even wanted to win. Always pragmatic in its imperial calculations, ancient Rome most often operated a cool “profit vs loss” attitude to their expansionist adventures. It’s likely in this context that a relatively generous peace treaty was agreed with the Kushites in 21/20 BCE, allowing them to retain their kingdom and avoid paying tribute to Rome.
This was an exceptionally rare result and must afford Candace Amanirenas a rare place in history. A female warrior queen that fought Rome and emerged with the integrity of her kingdom undiminished. This was a victory that few leaders ever achieved.
4. Boudicca [Led Rebellion 60/61CE]
“We British are used to women commanders in war; I am descended from mighty men! But I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters…
[Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, 14.35 ]
Now let’s look at an iconic folk hero of the British Isles who led a rebellion that challenged Roman power in its relatively new island province.
An ancient Briton and a queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudicca is a distinct figure among these female warriors. She hailed from a northern Celtic tradition, far removed from the classical Greco-Roman and Egyptian cultures of the Mediterranean. However, like the kingdom of Kush, Celtic society accepted inheritance through the female lineage and was, therefore, more open to women playing a political role.
We know very little of Boudicca herself, and from our very Roman sources, we must be aware of the tendencies to denigrate and over-sensationalize. To a Roman audience, this was almost tabloid reading, yet it’s still possible to gain glimpses of a real figure:
“In stature, she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of diverse colors over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.”
[Cassius Dio, Roman History 62.1]
At the time of Boudicca’s rebellion in 61 CE, under the reign of the notorious emperor Nero, Britain was still undergoing a major military conquest. They had been invaded less than 20 years before by Emperor Claudius in 43 CE. At the time of Boudicca’s revolt, Roman forces were continuing a long process of subjugation, both north and westward. Slow colonization was underway in the island province.
The catalyst for revolt followed the death of King Prasutagus, king of the Iceni. He bequeathed an inheritance between his daughters, with a portion left to the emperor Nero in Rome. All might have been okay had it not been for Roman greed and mismanagement.
“Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, famed for his long prosperity, had made the emperor his heir along with his two daughters, under the impression that this token of submission would put his kingdom and his house out of the reach of wrong. But the reverse was the result, so much so that his kingdom was plundered by centurions, his house by slaves, as if they were the spoils of war. First, his wife Boudicea was whipped, and his daughters raped. All the chief men of the Iceni, as if Rome had received the whole country as spoils, were stripped of their ancestral possessions, and the king’s relatives were made slaves.”
[Tacitus, Annals 14.31]
Roman brutality towards native peoples – unleashed here directly on women – was all too evident. That the royal house of a legal ally could be treated like this speaks to the very worst of Roman provincial oppression.
With the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, engaged far away on a campaign in North Wales, it was the perfect time for the Iceni to revolt in the East. Push people too far, and you give them little to lose:
“Nothing is now safe from [Roman] avarice, nothing from their lust. In war it is the strong who plunders; now, it is for the most part by cowards that our homes are rifled, our children torn from us, the conscription enforced, as though it were for our own country alone that we could not die”
[Tacitus, Agricola, 15]
The Romans had lit the torch paper, and the resulting firestorm would rip through their fledgling province.
“Rousing each other by this and like language, under the leadership of Boudicca, a woman of kingly descent (for they admit no distinction of sex in their royal successions), they all rose in arms.”
[Tacitus, Agricola 16.]
Under the leadership of Boudicca, the vengeful female warrior, the Britons’ rebellion soon spread to other tribes. A whole catalog of Roman villainy fired up the Britons, centered on taxation, money-lending, corruption, colonialist settlements, social injustices, and loss of status. The revolt spread quickly, raging over the Southern province and spreading to many tribes.
The revolt led by the female warrior queen fast became a popular insurrection:
“Roused by these insults and the dread of worse, reduced as they now were into the condition of a province, they flew to arms and stirred to revolt the Trinobantes and others who, not yet cowed by slavery, had agreed in conspiracy to reclaim their freedom. It was against the veterans that their hatred was most intense. For these new settlers in the colony of Camulodunum drove people out of their houses, ejected them from their farms, called them captives and slaves, and the lawlessness of the veterans was encouraged by the soldiers, who lived a similar life and hoped for similar license.”
[Tacitus, Annals, 14.31]
The rebels obliterated the hated Roman colony of Camulodunum (Colchester) and the young city of Londinium (London). Sources tell us that up to 80,000 Romans and provincial citizens were massacred. This period’s archaeological record collaborates the destruction with major stratified carbon deposits, signifying a great fire appearing at both sites. The viability of Rome’s province was hanging in the balance.
This critical situation was only countered when the governor Suetonius Paulinus hastily marched East, gathering Roman troops to make a critical stand. The entire future of Rome’s province would be settled in one desperate, all-or-nothing battle.
Taking place somewhere off of Watling Street, a major Roman military road, the battle was held where the Britons heavily outnumbered Roman forces. Boudicca, the female warrior queen, was central to motivating and leading the Britons:
“Boudicca, in a chariot with her two daughters before her, drove through the ranks. She harangued the different tribes in their turn. “This is not the first time that we Britons have been led to battle by a woman.” But now she did not come to boost the pride of a long line of ancestry, nor even to recover her Kingdom and the plundered wealth of her family. She took the field, like the lowliest among them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body polluted with indignity, and her two daughters infamously ravaged. “From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the lash, and the virgins are deflowered.”
[Tacitus, Annals, 14.35 ]
Of the battle itself, the Romans would ultimately withstand British numbers. Using the topography of the land to funnel the Britons into a narrow front, thus nullifying their numbers and their fury, the Romans used the mechanical efficiency of three legionary bodies to hold their center, stabbing away with ruthless efficiency. After long and savage fighting, the Romans broke the will of the Britons, forcing them back with great slaughter onto their camp of wagons where their woman and children waited.
Of Boudicca herself, we hear that although she got away from the battle, she took sick and died, perhaps even taking poison to avoid capture and the terrible revenge that Rome would exact on her. All sources agree that she did not survive long, and thus, with very little detail, Boudicca passes from history.
However, the legend of the female warrior queen survives. Though she had failed to expel the hated Romans from her homeland, Boudicca’s legacy lives on. Like so many of our famous female warriors, her reputation would pass into near legend, celebrated within the realms of folklore and national identity to this very day.
5. Zenobia, Fierce Female Warrior [c. 250 – 275 CE]
Our last female warrior battled the Roman empire during the troubled third century CE. Hailing from the Eastern Roman province of Palmyra, which is now modern-day Syria, Zenobia was a ruler who sought to break free from a failing Empire.
Educated, intelligent, sophisticated, and athletic; sources note that Zenobia was an incredibly gifted figure who rode, hunted, and marched with her troops. This female warrior queen is described to us with considerable admiration, even by the very sources who disdained her feminine condition.
“Now all shame is exhausted, for in the weakened state of the commonwealth things came to such a pass that, while Gallienus conducted himself in the evilest fashion, even women ruled most excellently. For, in fact, even a foreigner, Zenobia by name, … boasting herself to be of the family of the Cleopatras and the Ptolemies, proceeded upon the death of her husband Odaenathus to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle; and arrayed in the robes of Dido and even assuming the diadem, she held the imperial power in the name of her sons Herennianus and Timolaus, ruling longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.”
[Historia Augusta, Life of Zenobia, 30]
Claiming descent from the Ptolemies, and therefore a distant relation to Cleopatra, Zenobia is an enigmatic figure who has been heavily romanticized by history. Culturally, Zenobia and her people were subject to a fusion of Roman, Hellenic, Aramaic, and Arabic influences. In this sense, she reflected the later Roman empire, which had become far more diverse in its cultural makeup and dynamics. In broader terms, the later Roman Empire was not like the earlier empire of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.
For one, it was no longer exclusively Roman, with emperors and elites increasingly achieving the highest positions from the imperial provinces. This trend allowed provincial elites to rise within the government and even aspire to imperial marriage and rule. Africans, Hungarians, and Spaniards all became more prominent within Roman Imperial politics. Power no longer resided exclusively in Rome as new regional capitals grew in tandem with their provincial elites.
In the 3rd century CE, Palmyra was a semi-autonomous Roman province that had grown rich from the silk and spice routes that went through the strategically placed oasis city. Feeding the Roman empire with luxury goods from the East, the province was a massive money generator for the Palmyrenes, who protected and taxed the trade caravans.
The steady growth of Palmyrene power also came when Rome was struggling to control its declining empire: battling with a financial crisis, successive coups, provincial revolts, endless imperial usurpers, and aggressive incursions on its northern and western frontiers. The Roman empire was in a real crisis.
To the east, Rome’s traditional enemy, the Parthians, were also in relative decline. This gave a window of opportunity for the prosperous, well-positioned buffer state of Palmyra to become a regional power. When the Roman emperor Valerian was captured by the Persian King Saphur I in 260 CE, the Palmyrenes seized the opportunity.
“Had not Odaenathus, prince of the Palmyrenes, seized the imperial power after the capture of Valerian, with the strength of the Roman state was exhausted, all would have been lost in the East. He assumed, therefore, as the first of his line, the title of King, and after gathering together an army he set out against the Persians … .”
[Historia Augusta, 15, Life of Odaenathus]
Historians argue whether Zenobia’s husband, Odaenathus, sought to rule as an independent king or remained a loyal and allied partner to Rome. What cannot be doubted is that his military successes in the East put him and Palmyra in a powerful place. Rome was simply not in a position to hold its Eastern provinces, and Palmyra emerged as a new force.
Zanobia was no trophy-wife now that she had access to real power through her husband Odaenathus; in her own right, she drew much admiration:
“his wife, too, [Zenobia] was inured to hardship and in the opinion of many was held to be braver than her husband, being, indeed, the noblest of all the women of the East, and, as Cornelius Capitolinus declares, the most beautiful.”
[Historia Augusta, Life of Odaenathus,15]
However, everything changed with the sudden assassination of Odaenathus and his son Herodes in 267 CE. Historians do not agree as to whether Zenobia played a part in this, but it left the queen and her biological son Vaballathus holding all the cards. They very quickly succeeded the rule and legacy of Odaenathus. Although sources of the period were suspicious about Zenobia’s role in her husband’s death, the evidence is scant, and it’s simply not known if she was involved.
Zenobia now emerged as a real regent in her own right, adopting the title of Augusta, with her infant son Vaballathus awarded that of Augustus. A new and unmistakable dynasty had emerged led by this competent queen, an educated and politically ambitious woman.
Consolidating power in the East, Zenobia’s forces took control of swathes of Asia Minor and Arabia, eventually annexing Egypt in 269 CE. This extended the queen’s control into a significant Eastern bloc and a geographically viable empire. The female warrior queen now had a strong regional domain which was a serious affront to the power and prestige of imperial Rome.
We can discern a fascinating picture of Zenobia herself and she drew many of the most learned philosophers and scholars of her age to her court.
“She lived in regal pomp. It was rather in the manner of the Persians that she received worship and in the manner of the Persian kings that she banqueted; but it was in the manner of a Roman emperor that she came forth to public assemblies, wearing a helmet and girt with a purple fillet, which had gems hanging from the lower edge, while its centre was fastened with the jewel called cochlis, used instead of the brooch worn by women, and her arms were frequently bare. Her face was dark and of a swarthy hue, her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual wont, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible. So white were her teeth that many thought that she had pearls in place of teeth. Her voice was clear and like that of a man. Her sternness, when necessity demanded, was that of a tyrant, her clemency, when her sense of right called for it, that of a good emperor. Generous with prudence, she conserved her treasures beyond the want of women.”
[Historia Augusta, Zenobia, 30.13]
Coinage of the era initially referenced the rule of Vaballathus alongside the Roman emperor Aurelian, but it very soon progressed to represent only the queen and her son. This reflected a distinct pulling-away from the overlordship of Rome. This signified a clear break, and it would only be a matter of time until the Romans sought to counter it.
Roman re-assertion came in the form of the emperor Aurelian, the iron-man of the period, who had greatly re-established stability in the Western empire. Coming to power in 270 CE, Aurelian did much to stabilize the failing Roman empire. By 272 CE, Rome’s new emperor was ready to re-establish control over the secessionist kingdom of Zenobia.
Fighting two significant battles at Antioch and Emesa, Zenobia’s forces came close but could not resist the weight of Aurelian’s legions. Eventually falling back on Palmyra itself, a siege followed and ultimately defeat With the rich desert city destined to be sacked, Zenobia and her son fled east, seeking asylum over the border with the Persians. All sources agree that Zenobia was captured by Aurelian troops. The war against Rome had brought the reign of this female warrior queen to a firm end.
The end of the Palmyran queen is contradicted within histories and renders her fate highly uncertain. Some suggest that the Palmyrene ruler committed suicide, like Cleopatra, or starved herself, rather than being captured. Other accounts say she was dragged through the great eastern cities, sickened and dying. Others again relate that she was taken back to Rome, though she may have died during the journey. Another tradition has Zenobia being paraded in formal triumph in 274 CE through Rome itself, led in golden chains and on foot, to the feet of an all-conquering Aurelian.
The “Roman triumph” version has it that Zenobia so charmed Aurelian that she was granted a villa in the city and lived out her days as a noblewoman of high renown and distinction. This story may have lent kudos to the Aurelian regime. Still, it represented a near exceptional departure of how Romans traditionally dealt with nearly all their previous enemies, led in triumph. In all the uncertainty, we must appreciate the influence of contemporary Roman propaganda as well as the sentimental romanticism that Romans celebrated in vanquished foes.
Zenobia remained enigmatic even in death, ensuring that a degree of legend would be the legacy of this highly accomplished female warrior.
The Female Warriors Who Rained Fury On Ancient Rome
Seeing how Rome dealt with its female warrior enemies can show us the very nature of Rome itself. It’s all there: Rome’s deep misogyny, its pathological war-making, its overt racism, its use of propaganda, its imperial pragmatism, and even its warped fascination towards the female warriors whom it both castigated and occasionally romanticized.
Though each woman came from a different culture, all of our female warriors are exceptional for their leadership, tenacity, and bravery in the face of overwhelming Roman power. Though several of our female warriors came from societies that accepted limited female leadership, we must remember that even within their own cultures, these powerful women still operated under heavily male-dominated constraints: as wives, daughters, mothers, and regents.
We can see that Roman-centric sources often vilify and diminish them. Some figures like Cleopatra were the victims of highly negative propaganda, while those like Zenobia were romanticized, giving birth to myths about their lives and fates. Despite this, what each woman really shows us is a life of courage, dignity, bravery, resolve, and tenacity.
Each of these warriors battled a relentless foe. All were pitted against a Roman culture that exalted war, ruthless in its capacity for conflict, and ferociously prejudiced against both women and foreigners.
For so many reasons, these five female warriors are admirable. The fact that we know so very little about these amazing, powerful women only heightens our fascination and the mystique that surrounds them.