Mother Lü – d. 18 – Haiqu County, China

Ancient China, China

Mother Lu

Xin Dynasty China was a dangerous place. A feudal state, the ruling classes had almost total power over the working farmers. Not only this, but struggles between the nobility were also common and regions were often at war as men grappled for power.

One such man was Wang Mang, who usurped the imperial throne in year 9. He was not a popular ruler; many of his policies, such as income tax and land redistribution, were seen as attacks on landowners. On top of this, the Yellow River flooded which led to a terrible famine.

Wang’s troubles truly began in 14, when one of his magistrates ordered the execution of Lü Yu, a young civil servant.

Big mistake: for Lü’s mother it was the final straw. Mother Lü (we do not know her personal name) was furious at the murder of her son, and was not the kind of woman who would let it rest.

Mother Lü happened to be exceedingly wealthy – wealthy enough to hire her own army. In a region full of dissatisfied and desperate men, it was not difficult for this lady to amass thousands of recruits and have them armed.

Haiqu County

Haiqu County

Appointing herself General, she marched her troops to the capital and had the magistrate who executed her son beheaded. Having taken her revenge, Mother Lü presented the severed head to her son’s tomb as an offering. She then led her troops out to sea, where they planned to become pirates.

Grief and military life had taken its toll and shortly after these events Mother Lü took ill and died in year 18.

She had been the first Chinese woman to lead a rebellion and her legacy continued. The ripples Mother Lü started soon became waves as her armies expanded and eventually defeated Wang Mang.


Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 2 – edited by Junius P. Rodriguez

Women in Early Imperial China Bret Hinsch

On Wikipedia:

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ChinaShandongRizhao” by No machine-readable author provided. Plastictv~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).

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Amanitore – Reigned c.1 BCE – c.12 CE – Meroe, Kingdom of Kush

Kingdom of Kush


CW: Suicide

Following in the steps of Shanakdakhete, Amanirenas and Amanishakheto, Amanitore was a Nubian Kandake (queen) of the ancient Kushitic Kingdom of Meroë (Sudan and Ethiopia).

The Kingdom of Kush bore many resemblances to Egypt, including language, religion and pyramid building. It was an immensely wealthy state in Amanitore’s time, with successful trade routes throughout the classical world.

Kandake Amanitore is generally accepted as co-regent with Quore (king) Natakamani, who may have been either her husband or son. Kandake was a prominent position, as mothers could both create their sons as rulers or depose them. A Kandake could even order the king to commit suicide in order to end his own rule.

Evidence shows that Amanitore was a prolific builder, one of the last Kushite rulers to focus on construction. She restored the temples of Amun at Meroë and Napata following its destruction by the Romans and built two further temples at Naqa and Amara. As well as taking care of the spiritual health of her people, the queen also built reservoirs to retain water for her kingdom during drought.

Amanitore was buried in her own pyramid (rather than sharing with her husband or son) in Meroë.


Dictionary of African Biography, Volumes 1-6 – Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong, Mr. Steven J. Niven

Nubian Pharaohs and Meroitic Kings: The Kingdom of Kush – Necia Desiree Harkless

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Aegyptisches Museum Berlin InvNr7261 20080313 Barkenuntersatz Natakamani Amanitore aus Wad Ban Naga 1” by Sven-Steffen Arndt – Own work.

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Amanitore” by The original uploader was Lassi at Hungarian Wikipedia – Transferred from hu.wikipedia to Commons by Istvánka using CommonsHelper.

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Amanitore pyramid” by The original uploader was Lassi at Hungarian Wikipedia – Transferred from hu.wikipedia to Commons by Istvánka using CommonsHelper.

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Musa – Reigned 2 BCE – 4 CE – Parthia

Ancient Iran


A woman of humble beginnings who rose to queen, we do not know anything about Musa’s life before she was presented as a gift to King Phraates IV of Parthia (modern day Iran) by Emperor Augustus. It is likely that she was an Italian slave girl.


Parthia (orange) shown in relation to the Roman Republic and the Ptolemaic Empire, c. 200 BCE

Phraates grew very fond of Musa and she became his favourite concubine. He even appointed their son, Phraates V (or Phraataces – ‘little Phraates’) as heir and successor, despite having legitimate sons.

Seeing an opportunity, Musa persuaded Phraates to send his four legitimate sons to Rome for their education, as pledges of his fidelity to the Empire. With them out of the picture, there was no one to challenge her own son’s path to the throne.

The story goes that Musa and Phraataces then conspired against the king, poisoning him and taking the throne. They ruled together, and appear on Parthian coins as co-regents – Phraataces even gave his mother the title of Goddess.


Bust of Queen Musa from the National Museum of Iran

The historian Josephus wrote that Phraataces was in love with his mother and even married her, resulting in his being overthrown by the people of Parthia. We cannot say whether or not this is true and it seems very unlikely.


Antiquities of the Jews 18.1.4  Josephus

A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women Marjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman

ParthiaGeorge Rawlinson

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Parthian Queen Bust” by درفش کاویانی – Own work‏.

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Rome-Seleucia-Parthia 200bc” by Talessman – Own work.

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Amanishakheto – reigned 10 BCE – 1 CE – Meroe, Kingdom of Kush

Kingdom of Kush


Like her predecessors, Amanirenas and Shanakdakhete, Amanishakheto was a Kandake (or Candace) of the Kingdom of Kush, Nubia (modern Sudan).

Thought to be a direct successor of Amanirenas, the queen who won peace with Rome, Amanishakheto had the same title of Qore and Kandake (King/ruler and Queen). She was a prolific builder, and had a very prosperous reign.

There is a portrait of this queen in the Amun Temple in Kawa and a palace in Wad ban Naqa, showing her taking enemy prisoners, however she is best known for the treasure found in her pyramid complex. Amanishakheto was buried with a vast amount of great jewelry, befitting a great queen.

More: This post on the Kandakes of Kush was written for Black History Month 2015


Nubian Pharaohs and Meroitic Kings: The Kingdom of Kush – Necia Desiree Harkless

Roman Military Equipment: The Accoutrements of War: Proceedings of the Third Roman Military Equipment Research Seminar, British Archaeological Reports, 1987 Issues 336-338 – M. Dawson

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Image credits:

Relief Amanishakheto Munich” by Khruner – Own work.

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Aegyptisches Museum Berlin InvNr22877 20080313 Schulterkragen Amanishakheto” by Sven-Steffen Arndt – Own work.

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Amanishakheto pyrmaid Wad Naqa” by Unknown –

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Agrippina – 14 BCE – 33 CE – Rome

Ancient Rome


Vipsania Agrippina, commonly known as Agrippina Major or Agrippina the Elder played a key role in the lives and politics of the first emperors of Rome.

The granddaughter of emperor Augustus, Agrippina was named after her father, Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ favourite general. Her mother, Julia, was Augustus’ only legitimate child. Agrippa died when Agrippina was only two years old and her mother remarried the future emperor Tiberius. This marriage was an unhappy one, and in 2 BCE, when Agrippina was 12, Julia was exiled for adultery. Agrippina never saw her mother again.

Julio-Claudian family tree

Julio-Claudian family tree

Agrippina and her four full-blood siblings were raised by Augustus and his wife Livia. Historical sources report that she had an affectionate relationship with her grandfather. At some point between 1 BCE and 5 CE, she was married to her cousin Germanicus, Livia’s grandson.

Agrippina_the_elderBy all accounts, the couple was well matched and they were extremely happy together. Germanicus was a beloved general and popular politician, as well as Tiberius’ adopted heir. Agrippina was a devoted wife, who supported her husband, travelling with him to war in Gaul and Germania.

They had six surviving children together; sons Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar and Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (nicknamed Caligula) and daughters Agrippina the Younger (Julia Agrippina), Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla.

Agrippina was praised for her child-bearing and her support for her husband as she travelled across the Roman Empire with her large family on various military campaigns. She was seen as the ideal Roman matron and a heroic figure, making her very popular with ordinary people.

Agrippina’s happy life came to an abrupt end when in the year 19 while the family was in the Middle East Germanicus got into a disagreement with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria and died very suddenly. Agrippina believed that her husband had been poisoned by Piso on Tiberius’ orders.

Plunged into grief, she brought her six children back to Rome, publicly carrying Germanicus’ ashes, determined to seek justice. The people of Rome were hugely sympathetic towards the widowed Agrippina, and when she accused Piso of murder and treason, the governor felt he had no choice but to commit suicide.

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus by Benjamin West

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus by Benjamin West

Agrippina never recovered from Germanicus’ death, and her loneliness increased as many of her relatives continued to die – she had already lost her two elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, and her younger brother Postumus had been exiled.

She had always been outspoken, and in the court of Tiberius she became moreso, advocating for her sons to become heirs to the imperial throne over Tiberius’ son and grandson. She soon became involved in a plot to overthrow the Emperor and his right hand man, Sejanus. Tiberius began to mistrust Agrippina and in 26 refused her request to marry a Roman senator for political reasons.

800px-DSC04499_Istanbul_-_Museo_archeol._-_Agrippina_maggiore_sec._I_d.C._-_Foto_G._Dall'Orto_28-5-2006The ill-feeling between Agrippina and Tiberius came to a head when the emperor offered her an apple at a dinner party and she refused – suspecting it was poisoned. Shortly afterwards, Tiberius had Agrippina and her eldest sons, Nero and Drusus arrested for conspiracy to treason.

Following trial by the Senate, Agrippina and Nero were banished to Pandataria, the same island her mother had been banished to years before.

She did not give up without a fight. Historical sources tell us that Agrippina continued to be vocal even in her banishment, and was flogged so viciously that she lost an eye. She refused to eat and though she was force-fed, later succeeded in starving herself to death in 33.

Drusus died of starvation in Rome and Nero committed suicide. After Agrippina’s death, Tiberius declared her birthday as an unlucky day. However, the emperor was succeeded by Agrippina’s remaining son, Caligula, who restored his mother and brothers’ ashes to Rome. He had coins made in Agrippina’s honor and dedicated the Circus Games to her memory. Further to this, Caligula destroyed all evidence of the court case against Agrippina.


Agrippina’s son ruled for a further four years, and her daughter, Agrippina the Younger, later married the emperor Claudius, becoming empress and mother to future emperor Nero.

The historian Tacitus described Agrippina as determined and masculine:

“Agrippina knew no feminine weaknesses. Intolerant of rivalry, thirsting for power, she had a man’s preoccupations”

She was remembered as a great and deeply moral woman with a strong character who cared for her family above all things.

In Fiction:

Agrippina features as a main character in Robert Graves’ novel ‘I, Claudius’ and she was played by Fiona Walker in the 1976 TV serial.


Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce E. Salisbury

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Tiberius and CaligulaSeutonius

Image credits:

Julio-Claudian family tree – created by author

Benjamin West 001” by Benjamin West – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN3936122202

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Agrippina the elder” by Unknown – en:Image:Agrippina the elder.jpg. Uploaded on the English Wikipedia, 4 June 2004, by ChrisO

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Agripinna Senior (elder) Sestertius” by SwKSwK – Own work.

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Consort Ban (班婕妤) – c. 48 BCE – 6 BCE – Chang’an, China

Ancient China, China


Consort Ban (also known as Ban Jieyu 婕妤 or Lady Ban) was the title of a woman who was a third-ranking wife to Emperor Chengdi in Han Dynasty China. We do not know her personal name.

She began palace life as a junior maid (similar to the later European position of lady-in-waiting), and became a concubine to the emperor, a more prominent position.

Consort Ban was admired as a great scholar who was able to recite beautifully from the Shi Jing (the Chinese classic poetry). She was also very demure, and famously refused to ride in a palanquin (a covered litter) with Chengdi as she did not want to distract him from matters of state.


Consort Ban declining to ride with Emperor Cheng on his palanquin. The painting is from the bottom panel of a Northern Wei screen.

However, her poetry and modesty were not enough to secure her position with the emperor. Though she bore him two sons, both of them died shortly after birth. As the Empress Xu, Chendi’s first wife, had not produced an heir either, his mother the Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun asked him to take more concubines.

In around 19 BCE, the Emperor was visiting Princess Yang’a when he first saw her dancing girls, sisters Zhao Feiyan and Zhao Hede. He at once became infatuated with them and had the sisters brought back to his palace where he made them concubines.

Feiyan and Hede soon became Chengdi’s favourites, and he became less and less interested in Empress Xu and Consort Ban.

In 18 BCE the Zhou sisters accused both the empress and Consort Ban of witchcraft.

The empress was deposed from court and placed under house arrest, but Consort Ban took a stand. She made a speech before the emperor to plead her case, using citations from her studies of Confucius. The speech so impressed Chengdi that he permitted her to stay at court.

Not happy to remain in the palace which had now been taken over by the sisters who persecuted her, Consort Ban chose to become lady in waiting to the Empress Dowager instead. Another story tells of Consort Ban saving her brother Ban Zhi, father of the Chinese historian Ban Biao, from a charge of treason.

Two well-known Chinese poems are credited to Consort Ban and she was included in Liu Xiang’s Biography of Exemplary Women.


Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism – Kang-i Sun Chang, Haun Saussy, Charles Yim-tze Kwong

Autumn in the Han PalaceMa Zhiyuan

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Consort Ban and Emperor Cheng, Northern Wei painted screen” by Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China (1999).

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Hortensia – fl. 42 BCE – Rome

Ancient Rome, Italy


Hortensia was celebrated in the final years of the Roman Republic for her oration (public speaking) and in particular an impassioned speech she gave before the three most important men of her generation.

Public oratory was central to the life of a Roman citizen. Careers were built and destroyed based on a politician’s ability to speak in public and persuade the people with eloquence and reason. Courts of law held rhetoric in high esteem, and having a lawyer who could speak well was often more important than evidence and justice.

Hortensia’s father, Quintus Hortensius, was a highly skilled orator, and rival to Cicero, the greatest speaker of the time. He ensured that his intelligent daughter received an education unusual for women at the time. A keen student, Hortensia read Greek and Latin, learning rhetoric by reading the speeches of great orators.

She likely married her second cousin, Quintus Servilius Caepio, who left her widowed in 67 BCE. The marriage produced a daughter, Servilia, and Caepio also adopted his nephew Marcus Junius Brutus – who became one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.

In 42 BCE, Rome was being managed under the uneasy triumvirate of Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus, who were at war with Caesar’s assassins. The campaign required almost all of Rome’s legions and was becoming very expensive. A tax was needed – and the three rulers decided that it should be levied against Rome’s most wealthy women.

The women, including Hortensia, were outraged. They had not caused the war, nor were they permitted to vote under Roman law. Many of them had lost husbands, brothers and sons in the fighting – and now they were being forced to pay for it, too!


Medieval woodcarving of Hortensia leading the women of Rome to the Sentate (source)

They chose Hortensia to plead their case, and a group of women marched to the senate to protest the tax. The historian Appian records Hortensia’s speech:

“You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, our brothers on the pretext that they wronged you, but if, in addition, you take away our property you will reduce us to a condition unsuitable to our birth, our way of life and our female nature.

If we have done you any wrong, as you claim our husbands have, proscribe us as you do them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, nor torn down your house, nor destroyed your army, nor led another against you, nor prevented you from obtaining offices and honours, why do we share in the punishments when we did not participate in the crimes?

Why should we pay taxes when we do not share in the offices, honours, military commands, nor in short the government for which you fight between yourselves with such harmful results? You say ‘because it is wartime’. When have there not been wars? When have taxes been imposed on women, whom nature has set apart from men? Our mothers once went beyond what is natural and made contributions during the war against the Carthaginians, when danger threatened your entire Empire and Rome itself. But then they contributed willingly, not from their landed property, their fields, their dowries, or their houses, without which it is impossible for free women to live, but only from their jewelry. 

Let war with the Celts or Parthians come, we will not be inferior to our mothers when it is a question of common safety. But for civil wars, may we never contribute nor aid you against each other.”

Angry and embarrassed at being told off by a group of women, Octavian, Antony and Lepidus tried to no avail to dismiss the women. Still, the crowd found in their favor. The very next day the number of women subject to tax reduced from 1400 to 400.


The Civil Wars , Book 4Appian

Institutio OratoriaQuintilius

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Aretaphila of Cyrene – c. 50 BCE – Cyrene, North Africa



We know the story of Aretaphila from Plutarch’s work De mulierum virtutes (On the Virtues of Women), in which he describes her struggle to depose the tyrannical ruler Nicocrates.

A Greek noblewoman, Aretaphila lived with her husband Phaedimus in Cyrene, North Africa. Her life was changed forever when the cruel Nicocrates murdered Phaedimus and forced her to marry him instead.

This was not the worst Nicocrates had done – the people of Cyrene lived in fear of their violent ruler, who seized their property and destroyed their homes. Determined to have her revenge, Aretaphila attempted to poison Nicrocrates.

Nicocrates’ mother, Calbia, caught Aretaphila before she could act, and had the young woman tortured. Aretaphila confessed nothing, instead convincing Nicocrates that she had given him a love potion, not poison, in order to win his affections. Polyaenus writes:

She was acquitted by the tyrant’s order; and supposing that she had suffered innocently, he afterwards treated her with marks of great attention and affection.

Ruins of Cyrene (modern day Libya)

Ruins of Cyrene (modern day Libya)

After this, Aretaphila bided her time. She gave birth to a daughter, who grew up to be very beautiful, and when she was old enough, Aretaphila introduced her to Nicocrates’ brother Leander, who fell in love and married her.

Aretaphila used Leander’s love for her daughter to win him over and managed to convince him to kill Nicorates. Unfortunately, Leander turned out to be an even worse tyrant than his brother. Aretaphila was forced to come up with a new plan to rid her people of the oppressive foreign rulers once and for all.

She won favour with Ababus, the prince of Libya and bribed him to capture and arrest Leander.

Aretaphila was celebrated by the people of Cyrene, and in their gratitude they even offered her a role in the new government. However, Aretaphila declined. After dedicating her life to avenging her first husband, she opted for a quiet retirement.


Mulierum virtutesPlutarch, translated by William W. Goodwin

Stratagems 8:38Polyaenus translated by R.Shepherd

On Wikipedia:

Aretaphilia of Cyrene

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Cyrene8” by Maher27777 – Own work.

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Phile – c. 50 BCE – Priene, Greece

Ancient Turkey, Turkey


Phile lived in the Greek city state of Priene, which was under Roman rule. She was honored for her services to the city and the first woman elected Magistrate.


Ruins at Priene

A wealthy woman, Phile personally paid for the construction of a reservoir and aqueduct for the city in 50 BCE. The funding of public works by private citizens was encouraged under the Emperor Augustus who wished to see his Empire modernised.

History doesn’t tell us how Phile was able to pay for such a huge project, but she must have been independently wealthy somehow, whether she was widowed or by some other means.


Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain

We do know that the city of Priene was grateful to their benefactress – Phile was honoured by public decree. She was also rewarded in another way; by being elected Magistrate – the first woman to achieve this post.

To the ancient Romans, Magistrates were not lawyers, but the highest government officers. They often held some excecutive and judicial powers (and would be advised by jurists, who knew the law). Phile was probably responsible for supervising public works in the city.


Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities – Bruce W. Winter

Participating in Public: Female Patronage and Economic Prominence at Hellenistic Priene – Ashley Eckhardt

On Wikipedia:

Image Credits:

Agora of Priene” by Ken and Nyetta – Flickr: Agora of Priene.

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Acueducto1 Lou“.

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