Back many moons ago when I was writing the proposal for this book I’m writing,* one of the first women I wrote about was Boudica, the Celtic woman who led an uprising against the Romans and almost kicked them out of Britain in 60 BCE. One of key elements in her story, at least from my perspective, was how horrified the Romans were at the idea of a woman fighting, let alone a woman leading troops. It seemed to them as unnatural as a two-head calf.
Since then, I’ve stumbled over more examples of women who fought against Rome–women who I never heard of before. Some of them won. Most of them at least made a good effort. And in each case, the Roman historians who tell the story repeat some variation of surprise/shock/horror/shame at the idea that Roman legions have suffered even a temporary defeat at the hands of a woman commander. After a while you’d think the novelty would have worn off.
I’ve told as many “women fighting against Rome” stories as the book will hold. ** I’d like to share some of the bounty here:
- Boudica (see above)
- Cleopatra commanded the Egyptian fleet as a reserve in the Battle of Actium (31BCE), the great naval engagement that was the decisive battle in the war with Octavia,—obviously she was more than just a pretty face.
- Soon after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, round 25 BCE, the one-eyed Kushite ruler*** Amanirenas the Brave took advantage of Rome’s distraction to do a bit of expansion. When Rome decided to take the land back, she successfully defended her country for five years, when Rome sued for peace. About fifteen years later, another kandake, Amanikasheto, defeated another Roman army.
- Zenobia, the ruler of Palmyra in what is now Syria, rose up against Rome, conquered the eastern third of the Roman empire**** and proclaimed herself Augusta before she was defeated by the emperor Aurelian in 272 CE.
- A hundred years later, in much the same neck of the empire, the Arab leader Mawiyya revolted against Rome and defeated them so thoroughly that Rome sued for peace on Mawiyya’s terms. Later that year, once again allies of Rome, Mawiyya and her troops came to the aid of Constantinople, which a group of Goths, Huns, and Alans had beseiged. At least one Roman historian, Amiantus Marcellianus, claimed Mawiyya’s Arabs saved the city. (Of course, he also claimed the Arabs terrified the Goths into submission by running shrieking into battle naked and that they sucked the blood from the throats of their fallen enemies Obviously a source to use with care.)
Anyone I’m missing who ought to be part of this list? Perhaps a woman who disguised herself as a man and fought on the Roman side? Let me know.
*I mentioned that I’m writing a book on women warriors, right?
**In fact, I suspect my editor may tell me to cut one or two. So many women warriors from so many times and places.
***Just to save you looking it up, Kush was an ancient Nubian kingdom in what is now the central Sudan. Their queens were known as kandakes, which the Roman geographer Strabo mangled into Candace, which he thought was the name of a single queen.
****About the same size as what would become what is often referred to as Byzantium, though the people who lived there thought they lived in the true Roman empire. Go figure.
For anyone who’s wondering why most of these women come from the Middle East, I refer you to this map of the Roman empire at its height in 117 CE. As you can see, the Roman empire was heavily weighted to the east.