Archaeologists believe they might have stumbled across an Iron Age mint which produced gold and silver coins for the coveted Hallaton Treasure.
The dig at Blackfriars, in the city, unearthed coin mould fragments which, combined with evidence from previous…
I’m considering vlogging, perhaps using old pieces on my blog or new points of interest.
No point doing it if no-one is interested. So - the question is what would you want from a Youtube channel devoted to Ancient History?
Anyone familiar with Pericles’ Funeral Oration will remember the sort of glory expected of a woman, that she is least talked about. Winning glory through ‘not being talked about’ is a bit of a paradox, luckily this selection of women didn’t hold much truck with such an idea. Here’s a brief overview of some of the women in antiquity who were happy to turn their arm to well, arms.
the Golden Flies
We’ll start in the middle of the 16th century BCE with Ahhotep who ruled in northern Egypt. More than capable as a ruler (she acted as regent when her husband died and later when her eldest son fell in battle) she held the fragile kingdom together all this whilst repelling the Hyskos invaders. When her youngest son came of age she initially co-ruled the empire and was in charge of the forces left behind while he campaigned.
She died in her 90s and when her tomb was discovered (in 1859) her body was found to be adorned with three golden flies. A golden fly was a medal awarded for extreme valour in combat.
We travel forward almost 1,000 years to meet our next two women, both Tomyris and Pantea Arteshbod were active in the mid-to-late 6th century BCE and both had an association with Cyrus the great, but in conflicting ways.
Similar to Ahhotep in being a mother Tomyris, queen of the Massagetae also lost a son and set out to avenge him. According to Herodotus (1.212ff) her son was tricked by Cyrus who deliberately allowed the Massagetae to plunder his camp which was full of wine. Never having drunk it before they soon collapsed and were quickly overcome.
Tomyris’ response was to lead the army to victory over Cyrus, some authors indicate she participated in the fighting herself. Reports of how Cyrus died are numerous but one story involves Tomyris beheading him and placing his head in a wineskin.
the Massagetae - see if you can find them
Pantea Arteshbod wasn’t a queen but was head of Cyrus’ immortals, a unit of 10,000 elite infantrymen. The immortals were crucial to Cyrus’ conquests in particular those leading to capture of Babylon (which eventually happened in 539 BCE). The Persians, it seems, were quite happy for ability to be the important factor rather than gender and we’ll certainly see that with our second Persian who served some decades later.
Artemisia gained fame as a Persian admiral for Xerxes at Salamis in 480 BCE. A Queen of Halicarnassus Artemisia was happy to contribute five ships to the battle, but her contribution was far from token. According to Herodotus it was she who advised against a sea battle and when her advice was ignored still committed to fighting in it. The trope of the unheeded advisor might seem a touch blatant, but there is no real reason to dismiss it out of hand. Artemisia certainly wasn’t stupid, at the battle she used both Persian and Greek ‘colours’ to confuse the Greek triremes into not engaging with her or chasing her after the battle had been lost.
Possibly one of the most intimidating mother-in-laws of history, Olympias, doesn’t escape this list. When her son Alexander died in 323 the fighting wasn’t left to the men. When Eurydice, one of Philip’s daughters (and thus a half-sister of Alexander), rose in rebellion Olympias marched out to meet her and realising they were facing Alexander’s mother the forces of Eurydice dissolved.
The ever compassionate Olympias imprisoned Eurydice and sent down a rope, a sword and a glass of hemlock. Eurydice chose the rope and hung herself. If only Eurydice was as able in battle as her mother, Cynane, had been. Cynane was brought up a Queen in Illyria and trained to hunt at an early age, she put this to good use, leading an army against a rival called Caria and killing her in battle.
In the spirit of Alexander we’ll move eastwards to the wilds of Sarmatia where a certain Amage ruled (around the same period). Possibly my favourite of the lot, if nothing for her simple approach. A nearby Scythian prince kept making small raids into her lands. If you were in Amage’s position what would you do?
(a) Make formal diplomatic representations to the Prince, explaining the need to respect the borders of her territory.
(b) Flame him on twitter
(c) Lead a bodyguard of 120 men on a raid which kills his guards, his family and finally killing him yourself in a duel.
Hint: it’s C
It’s somewhat concerning that we’ve come this far and not encountered a Spartan. Thankfully Chilonis saves us in this respect. In 280 BCE Chilonis’ husband returned from campaigning with a certain Pyrrhus. It’s fair to say that the marriage bed was frosty at best, apart from when heated by her new lover. Not keen on talking things through or even un-coupling Chilonis defended her city with zeal, even to the extent of wearing a rope around her neck on the walls to state how she’d rather die than be captured (how very Spartan). The defence of the city worked and in a side note this wasn’t the only time Pyrrhus would be beaten by a woman. Whilst trying to take Argos a woman threw down a roof tile which knocked Pyrrhus out cold and left him to be finished off.
We’re down to the last featured few but there’s lots of quality still. Unfortunately named Arsinoe features in the Bible (3 Maccabees 1) where she implores the troops of her brother, Ptolemy to rally against Antiochus. Other sources cite her as heading the cavalry, but what’s curious is the reference to her hair which was all in disarray when rousing the troops. It’s uncertain if bed-hair made much of a difference in appealing to them, more likely the promise of extra pay but with our next character hair became something which defined her.
It was the late 2nd century BCE and the Parthian Queen Rhodogune was in the midst of a relaxing bath. Suddenly reports came to her of a rebellion and in a fury she vowed not to brush her hair till she defeated the rebels in battle, which she did. Later depictions of her included the wild hair as proof of her ability to keep a promise.
We come to our final two female warriors, the final one you can probably guess but the penultimate is someone who certainly could do with some more coverage. We are reminded of the first on our list, Ahhotep and return to Africa, albeit more southerly and in the Kingdom of the Kush. Candace Amanirenas (Candace was a term meaning Queen or Queen Mother) wasn’t the first Candace to show military aptitude, a predecessor called Shanakdakhete ruled 170-150 BCE and had a pyramid built for her with her military campaigns featured. However, Amanirenas was the first to take on and beat the Romans, which she did in 30 BCE.
Depiction of Amanirenas
Roman incursions from Upper Egypt resulted in a successful raid, with Roman soldiers taken prisoner and even the odd statue of Augustus. Fighting with only one eye (which must have reminded the Romans of their original bogeyman – Hannibal) she was eventually beaten back though the peace treaty signed certainly indicated that she had considerable leverage. This was not a humiliation by any regards.
The final warrior Queen is possibly the most famous – Boudicca. There’s not much more which can be said about her. It’s worth pointing out that a lot of what we know is largely embellished from the accounts of Tacitus and the myth surrounding her is easily mistaken for fact (for example we don’t know how she died). Boudicca led the Iceni in a revolt against the Romans in AD 61 and raised both Colchester and London to the ground before eventually being defeated by the troops of Paulinus in the Battle of Watling Street.
The queens and prominent women above as much as informing us, provide a problem. After all most belonged to a group who already held power and status (i.e. by being part of a ruling family). The shift into the male role as a warrior is made much easier, an army might follow a Queen because they owed her husband allegiance or simply because she was the remaining figurehead.
So what of the average Joe (or in this case Jo)? How would a woman who didn’t belong to the ruling class fare if she wanted to fight? The most obvious candidates for female warriors in antiquity were the Amazons. Though it’s accepted these were largely a mythic race the idea of a female-only warrior society must have had some kernel of truth in it. Like the centaurs who were probably inspired by archers on horseback, the warrior women could only have been based on women who fought. Did such a culture exist and if so where? Spookily in line with modern tensions we’ll turn our attention to the area north of the Black Sea, to the lands of the Scythians and Sarmatians.
apologies for any neck pain whilst reading this map
The use of the term ‘Scythian’ is at best an umbrella term for a group of tribes who seem to have arrived in this area in the 8th Century BCE and who ruled over a massive area stretching east. The Sarmatians were a tribe who initially co-existed in the area just around the Don River (though again ‘Sarmatian’ may simply be an umbrella term for several tribes). The aforementioned Amage was a Sarmatian and her story of unrest between the Sarmatians and Scythians isn’t unique, in the 3rd century BCE the Sarmatians expanded westwards into Scythian territory.
Both Scythians and Sarmatians buried their dead in large burial mounds (known as kurgans) and these revealed a number of women buried with bows, some even had other weapons. Initially it was thought that this meant that the women simply hunted, a fair enough premise especially in the case of a nomadic people. However, the evidence started to indicate something far more demanding than hunting.
A burial in Akkerman, South Ukraine, featured a female buried with a number of weapons as well as a battle-belt (armour). The skeleton also featured an arrow in the knee and a number of slashing injuries to the skull. This wasn’t a unique case, another Ukrainian kurgan, this time in Ordzhonikidze revealed a female skeleton with weapons and combat injuries. More intriguingly still a burial was found on the banks of the Tyasmin river, known as Cholodny Yar Kurgan 20 the body of a female warrior dating to the 4th Century BCE was found with another body placed at her feet. This skeleton was male and it is thought that he was her slave or attendant presumably buried with her to serve her in the afterlife. Much further to the east in Pokrovka (just inside the Kyrgyzstan border) over 50 burials of women dating to the Classical Period with weapons were discovered.
Obviously this is quite a distance from where we started (north of the Black Sea) but it does give an indication of a cultural acceptance and use of women as warriors.
Going back to where we started, the middle/lower Don area burials were found which dated to 5/4th centuries BCE, more kurgans revealed warrior women. This area is particularly apt, though the ancient name for the Don is Tanais. The Scythians called it something different, the Amazon.
The River Don - or Tanais as it was once called
According to Pseudo-Plutarch (On Rivers) the Tanais was bathed in frequently by the Amazons. Herodotus has them landing on the shores of the Sea of Azov and interbreeding with the Scythians (resulting in the Sarmatians). Hippocrates (On Airs, Water and Places, 17) has the Sarmatians (which he defines as a Scythian tribe) fighting and riding like men, but mentions a more curious fact: that they cannot marry till they have killed three men and once they have married give up riding. The last point, about riding, gains weight when you realise that the Scythians and Sarmatians fought on horseback. These were not infantry tribesmen but cavalry. In one sense this makes the inclusion of female warriors easier, fighting on horseback requires agility, core strength and technique especially without stirrups. Not relying on brute strength the wider challenge of horseback fighting would have ignored gender and instead preferred ability.
Here we have myth and fact mingling, albeit briefly, the female warriors of the Scythians perhaps giving rise to the tales of the Amazons. This retrospective myth building isn’t new by any means, elephant skulls were mistaken for those of Cyclops by the ancient Greeks (the hole in the centre of the elephant skull for the trunk was thought to be the single eye).
An Amazon riding a horse and dressed as a Scythian, Attic Red figure, 420 BCE
Ancient peoples were keen to incorporate new finds to bolster older beliefs. It’s possible that the early mention of the Amazons (the Iliad as an example) took the Scythian example and simply worked backwards, in the Classical Period writers such as Herodotus were able to add to the myth (in Herodotus’ case making them the ancestors of the Sarmatians).
So, we’ve seen that women could command not only as Queens or from a position of privilege but through being simply as good as the men they fought against and with. In the case of the Scythians and Sarmatians they formed a very potent light cavalry unit, capable of devastating attacks both at close range and a distance.
Not quite Xena, but closer than you might have thought.