Ancient Warrior Women Part II: Commanders

Some of Rome’s most formidable enemies were women. Here’s a look at five of them.

Last week I wrote about the archaeological evidence of women warriors in the bronze and iron ages. This week, I’ll take a look at a few of those who not only fought, but led forces against the Roman Empire.

Khawlah bint al-Azwar (بنت الأزور)

A 7th C Arab, Khawlah bint al-Azwar fought alongside her brother during the Siege of Damascus, when the army of the Rashidun Caliphatetook Damascus from the Eastern Roman Empire. When her brother, commanding the troops, was taken prisoner during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uqab (معركة ثنية العقاب‎) by the Byzantine Army, Khawlah bint al-Azwar successfully attacked the Byzantine rear guard with a small group of women. In two other battles against Byzantine forces, she again successfully led others – male and female – against their enemy.

Mavia, (ماوية‎,)

Mavia was ruler of the Tanûkhids in southern Syria in the last half of the 4th century. Riding against Roman rule in Phoenicia and Palestine, she defeated the Roman army several times, until they gave up and signed a truce. She was an able tactician: she and her generals had been studying Roman fighting techniques and tactics for over a hundred years. Her troops were nomadic, using guerilla warfare techniques – notably lancers on horseback – against the Romans. Later, after winning favourable peace terms from Rome, she would send mounted troops to support their fight against the Goths.

Amanirenas 

A leader of the Kush in the last century BCE, Amanirenas led her people against Roman forces in Egypt in 25 BCE, capturing several forts. Ongoing fighting saw the Kushites pushed back, but a treaty signed a few years later saw a portion of lands returned to the Kush, and after that, relations between Rome and the Kush were peaceable. (On a side note, Amanirenas was a kandake, the king’s sister whose son would be the heir. Kandake = candace, and is the origin of the woman’s name.)

Boudicca.

Leader of the Iceni rebellion against Roman rule in Britannia in 60/61 CE, after her lands were confiscated and her daughters raped, Boudicca’s forays against Roman towns and troops were so successful that the Emperor Nero considered withdrawing from Britain altogether. She was eventually defeated by the Roman general Suetonius in 61 CE.

Zenobia

A third-century queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria, Zenobia was regent for her  son  after the death of his father. Under her leadership, most of the Roman East came under her rule, including Egypt. In 272, Zenobia declared her empire free of Rome, made her son Emperor and herself Empress. After considerable conflict, Zenobia was captured; likely she taken to Rome to be part of the Emperor Aurelian’s triumphal procession, but after that her fate is unclear; contemporary sources differ.

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