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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Warrior Women: Archaeological Evidence

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates.

“But the world changes. In all the women’s villages of the Empire, this week or next, a soldier like myself will arrive to ask to live in the village, to take up a trade.” Casyn paused, for a breath, a heartbeat. “And to teach you and your daughters to fight.”

Empire’s Daughter

So begins the major conflict of Empire’s Daughter, the first book in my Empire’s Legacy trilogy. My protagonist Lena’s journey from fisherwoman to soldier, and the life-changing effects on her and the women of her village and her land is its theme and story. Lena is already competent with a hunting bow; now she must learn to use other weapons.

“But how realistic is this?” one of my reviewers asked. Far more so than people of my age were educated to believe, based on archaeological evidence coupled with advanced DNA analysis techniques.  In recent years, analysis or re-analysis of skeletal remains of bodies buried with weapons and other grave goods associated with warriors have shown up to a third of these are women.

In 1941, a grave was excavated at Birka, a town in Eastern Central Sweden and a centre for trade during the 8th–late 10th century. This was an exceptional grave: on a raised area between the town and a hillfort, the goods buried with the warrior included “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour‐piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high‐ranking officer.”[i]

So, of course, this was a man. Except she wasn’t, when the DNA work was done in 2017, confirming earlier analysis of the bones that had strongly suggested the skeleton was female. More than a ‘shield-maiden’ of the sagas, this was the grave of a high-ranking commander.

The Hårby Valkyrie, c 800 CE, Denmark. Gilwellian / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Later in the Empire’s Legacy series, Lena learns to use a bow from horseback as a weapon of war, a bow she’s never seen before: triple-layered and powerful. In January of this year, results of excavations in the western Russian village of Devitsa revealed two, or maybe three, generations of warrior women buried in one mound: Scythians from about 2500 BCE. Ranging in age from  12 or 13  between 45 to 50 years old, these women were buried with daggers and arrowheads and spears, and in the position of a someone riding a horse.[ii] Over a third of Scythian graves containing women also contain weapons, with skeletal remains showing injuries consistent with war wounds – and with changes to bone structure indicating long hours spent on horseback and using a bow.[iii]

(Archaeoolog.ru, via https://www.smithsonianmag.com)

Key to the involvement of Scythian women in warfare was likely the Scythian bow, a composite bow. Lena first sees one when she visits the horse archers’ training ground:

Compact and deeply curved, it reminded me of the bows we had taken from the plains riders. But I had never seen one constructed like this. It had three layers, I realized as I examined it: a central layer of wood between horn on the inside and what looked to me like sinew along the outer curve. As I compressed it to fasten the bowstring, I felt its resilience.

Empire’s Exile

Composite bows combine a smaller size with higher power, making them especially useful on horseback or from a chariot.  

“If you think about it, a woman on a horse with a bow, trained since childhood, can be just as fast and as deadly as a boy or man.”

Adrienne Mayor

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books may draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates, but I write the history of an alternate world based on ours, not a faithful interpretation of events. Could she have wielded these weapons in defence of her land?  Recent research says a resounding yes.

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[i]    https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308

[ii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tomb-containing-three-generations-amazon-warrior-women-unearthed-russia-180973877/

[iii]   The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2016/

Featured image: Statue of Boudicca at Westminter: Paul Walter: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.