Throughout history, most cultures have considered warfare to be the domain of men. It is only quite recently that female soldiers have participated in modern combat on a large scale. The exception is the Soviet Union, which included female battalions and pilots during the First World War and saw hundreds of thousands of women soldiers fight in World War Two.
In the major ancient civilisations, the lives of women were generally restricted to the most traditional roles, with a few notable exceptions. Yet there were some who broke with tradition and even achieved military greatness.
Here are 5 of history’s fiercest warriors who not only had to face their enemies, but also the strict gender roles of their day.
Fu Hao (d. c. 1200 BC)
Lady Fu Hao was one of the 60 wives of Emperor Wu Ding of ancient China’s Shang Dynasty. She broke with tradition by serving as both a high priestess and military general. According to inscriptions on oracle bones from the time, Fu Hao led many military campaigns, commanded 13,000 soldiers and was considered the most powerful military leader of her time.
The many weapons found in her tomb support Fu Hao’s status as a great military power. She also controlled her own fiefdom on the outskirts of her husband’s empire. Her tomb was unearthed in 1976 and can be visited by the public.
Artemisia I of Caria (fl. 480 BC)
The Ancient Greek Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemisia ruled during the late 5th century BC. She was an ally to the King of Persia, Xerxes I, and fought for him during the second Persian invasion of Greece, personally commanding 5 ships at the Battle of Salamis.
Herodotus writes that she was a decisive and intelligent, albeit ruthless strategist. According to Polyaenus, Xereses praised Artemisia above all other officers in his fleet and rewarded her for her performance in battle.
Boudica (d. 60/61 AD)
Queen of the British Celtic Icini tribe, Boudica led an uprising against the forces of the Roman Empire in Britain after the Romans ignored her husband Prasutagus’ will, which left rule of his kingdom to both Rome and his daughters. Upon Prasutagus’ death, the Romans seized control, flogged Boudica and had her daughters raped.
Boudica led an army of Icini and Trinovantes, and destroyed Camulodinum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London) before finally being defeated by the Romans.
Triệu Thị Trinh (ca. 222 – 248 AD)
Commonly referred to as Lady Triệu, this warrior of 3rd century Vietnam temporarily freed her homeland from Chinese rule. That is according to traditional Vietnamese sources at least, which also state that she 9 feet tall with 3-foot breasts that she tied behind her back during battle. She usually fought while riding an elephant.
Chinese historical sources make no mention of Triệu Thị Trinh, yet for the Vietnamese, Lady Triệu is the most important historical figure of her time.
Zenobia (240 – c. 275 AD)
The Queen of Syria’s Palmyrene Empire from 267 AD, Zenobia conquered Egypt from the Romans only 2 years into her reign. Her empire only lasted a short while longer, however, as the Roman Emperor Aurelian defeated her in 271, taking her back to Rome where she — depending on which account you believe — either died shortly thereafter or married a Roman governor and lived out a life of luxury as a well-known philosopher, socialite and matron.
Dubbed the ‘Warrior Queen’, Zenobia was well educated and multi-lingual. She was known to behave ‘like a man’, riding, drinking and hunting with her officers.