Zenobia – 240 – c.274 – Palmyrene Empire

Ancient Syria


Syrian warrior queen Zenobia was another in a long line of women to cause trouble for the Roman Empire.

Born in Palmyra, her origins are mysterious – the Greeks called her Zenobia, her Roman name was Julia Aurelia Zenobia and in Arabic she is called al-Zabba (الزباء‎). Some historians describe her as having Jewish heritage, others that she was the daughter of a sheikh, or that her father was the Roman Governor of Palmyra.

Wherever she came from, Zenobia had no problem coming up with her own family history. She claimed to be a descendant of the Ptolemies – related to queen Cleopatra herself, as well as Dido, the legendary goddess-queen of Carthage.


Coin featuring Zenobia (Source)

Her lineage is uncertain, but Zenobia definitely did speak the ancient Egyptian language, and may have learnt from her mother who is thought to have been part-Egyptian. Zenobia was also described as very beautiful and highly intelligent, just like Cleopatra. She was well educated and spoke Latin, Greek and Aramaic fluently. In addition, Zenobia was physically strong, being an accomplished horsewoman and huntress.

She was married to the king of Palmyra, Septimus Odaenathus when she was about eighteen. He already had a son from a previous marriage, and in 266 Zenobia gave birth to her own son, Vaballathus.

When Varballathus was only a year old, the king and his eldest son were assassinated. Zenobia became the sole ruler of Palmyra until her son came of age.

She lost no time in securing her power, and immediately began planning conquests to expand the limits of her empire. At this time, Zenobia had the full backing of Rome as a client queen. She was expected to protect her borders and the eastern empire from the neighbouring Sassanid Empire – so it was within her remit to attack on these fronts.

In 269, she went too far.

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and her General Zabdas marched their army into Egypt, violently defeating the Roman forces. They captured the Roman Prefect in charge of the region and beheaded him, proclaiming Zenobia queen of Egypt.


Zenobia’s empire shown in yellow (Source)


Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz (Source)

From there, she pressed on into Anatolia, then Palestine and Lebanon. These were all hugely important trade routes in the classical world, which the Roman Empire depended upon. Zenobia claimed them for herself and for her son.

Emperor Aurelian had finally had enough in 272. His forces clashed with Zenobia’s army in Antioch and defeated the Palmyrenes, who retreated to Emesa, where Zenobia had a treasury. Aurelian was hot on her heals and besieged the city, forcing Zenobia to escape with Varballathus on the back of a camel.

This last desperate attempt at escape failed, and Aurelian’s cavalry captured the Queen before she could get home to Palmyra. Zenobia’s Empire came to an end. She was taken back to Rome in chains and eight year old Varballathus is presumed to have died on the voyage.


The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717 (Source)

It’s not clear what happened next for this fierce ruler. One version of her story claims that she either committed suicide or was excecuted in Rome. Another that she happily married a Roman senator and became a prominent philosopher and socialite.

In fiction:

Geoffrey Chaucer gives a short version of the story of Zenobia in The Monk’s Tale.

A number of operas have been written about the life and exploits of queen Zenobia by various authors including: Tomaso Albinoni (1694), Leonardo Leo (1725), Johann Adolph Hasse (1761), Pasquale Anfossi (1789), Giovanni Paisiello (1790), Gioachino Rossini (1819) and Mansour Rahbani (2007).

Lebanese singer Fairuz performed a song called Zenobia in 1977.

Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker is a historical romance novel fictionalising the life of Zenobia.



BBC’s In Our Time featuring a discussion on Zenobia.

Zenobia, Queen of the East, Or, Letters from Palmyra, Volume 2 – William Ware

Empress Zenobia: Palmyra s Rebel Queen – Pat Southern

On Wikipedia:



Lady Triệu – 225 – 248 – Vietnam


Lady Trieu

Almost two centuries after the rise and fall of the warrior sisters Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, Vietman was still under Chinese rule. The native people continued to resist foreign domination, and uprisings were a regular occurrence.

It was time for another heroine.

Lady Triệu (also known as Triệu Thị Trinh) was a young woman who refused to go down without a fight. She ran away from her village into the forest, where she gathered an army to take on the Chinese.

Her brother tried to stop her and convince her to settle down, but she shook him off, assuring him that she was meant for better things:

“I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.”

《欽定越史通鑑綱目》卷首This was a difficult argument to ignore, and her brother chose to join her.

Lady Triệu is described by Vietnamese sources as literally larger than life at 9 feet tall, with a voice like a ‘temple bell’. Like all good heroes she had stamina, and could walk 500 leagues in one day.

Historians describe Lady Triệu as riding war-elephants into battle and wearing yellow tunics, gaining the title ‘Nhụy Kiều Tướng quân’ – the Lady General clad in Golden Robes. Her gaze was supposedly so fierce that the Chinese soldiers were afraid to meet her eyes.

Sadly, like her predecessors the Tru’ng sisters, Lady Triệu’s rebellion did not last. Unable to gain enough support to grow her army, Lady Triệu was eventually defeated in 248. According to legend she was so brokenhearted at the loss that she killed herself.

However, a small thing like being dead would not stop her from being a nuisance to the Chinese, and legend says that her spirit haunted the Chinese general who had beaten her. Her memory continued to offer hope and support to the subjugated Vietnamese for centuries and today she is a celebrated national hero.


Bà Triệu Temple




The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set  Bonnie G. Smith

The Birth of Vietnam Keith Weller Taylor

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

By 阮朝國史館(Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn) – National Library of Vietnam, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6446560

View from outside of the gate of Bà Triệu Temple in Hậu Lộc District, Thanh Hóa Province By Mai Trung Dung – Own work, Public Domain

Metrodora – c.200 – 400 – Greece

Ancient Greece


Among a huge number of historical women who leave behind no information on their lives, Metrodora has at least left us with her work. In two volumes and 63 chapters, On the Diseases and Cures of Women survives today and is the earliest surviving medical text known to be written by a woman.

A Greek physician, like Aspasia before her, Metrodora’s work covers a variety of medicine, including gynaecology. However, while the majority of women in medicine during the classical age tend to be midwives, Metrodora’s text does not touch upon obstetrics (pregnancy and childbirth), making her even more unusual.

It seems that rather than focus on the area of medicine traditionally considered ‘feminine’ – that is midwifery – Metrodora’s interests were in pathology; diagnosing diseases based on examination of organs, tissues and bodily fluids. There is little doubt that she was an experienced physician, and took a very ‘hands on’ approach to her work, in which she discusses performing examinations with her hands and fingers as well as tools such as the speculum.

Metrodora also differs from Aspasia in that she does not write about surgery – though this may be for two reasons; first that surgery was not widely practiced in Greece or Rome at this time; secondly we are possibly missing part of the work.

On the Diseases and Cures of Women is also the first text known to be written in the form of an alphabetical medical encyclopaedia, with lettered headings for quick reference. It was clearly considered very useful and was copied, translated and republished well into the medieval period.


The Hippocratic Oath – Metrodora studied the medical writings of Hippocrates and explored them in her own work. Source.

Like other medical writers of the time, Metrodora had studied the work of Hippocrates and drew heavily from his theories. She was thorough in her studies, referring directly to Hippocrates writings rather than drawing from secondary sources written after his death.

The book also contains many of Metrodora’s own observations and contributions to medicine; she formed a classification system for vaginal discharges and theorised that some discharges were caused by rectal parasitic infection.

Though she left behind her life’s work, Metrodora very nearly lost her name altogether in the 16th Century. She cited a bibliographic reference within her text to a woman called Cleopatra, who late medieval translators confused with Cleopatra VII. This led to On the Diseases and Cures of Women being attributed to the famous queen in some versions.


Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long HillLilian R. Furst

A Companion to Women in the Ancient World Sharon L. James, Sheila Dillon

On Wikipedia:


Empress Jingū 神功皇后 – c.169 – 269 – Japan

Ancient Japan


The story of Empress Jingū is entrenched in legend. Until the early 20th century she was considered a historical figure and the 15th imperial ruler of Japan. Since then her historicity has been re-evaluated, and Jingū has been removed from the traditional order of succession.

The sources say that she was married to Emperor Chūai and acted as his consort until his death in 201. After this Jingū acted as Empress Regent to her son, Ōjin, until he took the throne in 270.

Many of the Japanese Emperors from this time period lack solid historical evidence, including Ōjin and Jingū. There are certainly aspects of Jingū’s story which seem fantastical to us today. She supposedly owned two divine jewels which gave her the power to control the tides, and used them to carry out a bloodless conquest of Korea.


Empress Jingū. Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1880) – Source

While there is no evidence that Japan had conquered Korea during the timeframe given for Jingū’s rule, some sources do demonstrate Japanese presence in southern Korea by the 4th century. Korean and Chinese records also describe Japan (known then as Wa) as ‘the Queen’s land’.

The legend also states that Jingū conceived her son before her husband died, but did not give birth for three years while she completed her conquest. It could be simply that the calculations for the pregnancy were incorrect, or that Ōjin was only symbolically the son of Chūai, and his biological father was someone else.

Jingū has a specially designated tomb in modern day Nara and in 1881 became the first woman featured on a Japanese banknote.


The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō – Jien, Delmer Myers Brown, Ichirō Ishida

Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan –  Chieko Irie Mulhern

On Wikipedia:




Maria the Prophetess – c. 1st Century CE – Egypt

Ancient Egypt



Like so many women of her time, the details of the life of Maria Prophetissima are hazy at Prophetissabest. We cannot even be certain of her name, as she is referred to in turns as Maria Prophetissima (in Latin) Mary the Jewess and Miriam the Prophetess.

The little we do know about Maria is passed down to us by Zosimos of Panopolis, who authored the earliest known book on alchemy in the early 4th century. Zosimus describes Maria as ‘one of the sages’, and talks about her living in the past – so we can assume she lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries.

Most importantly, Zosimos describes Maria as not only a woman alchemist, but as an inventor. Alchemy was an early form of chemistry concerned mainly with purifying certain elements to create gold, medicines and even immortality. Though alchemy is generally no longer practiced, the inventions credited to Maria are still in use today.

The tribikas:

This instrument was a kind of still used to obtain substances purified by distillation. A metal or element would be placed inside the pot and heated so that the alchemist can


An alemic – very similar to a tribikas

collect vapours from one of the three tubes.

Maria made the recommendation that the tubes used with this equipment to extract the purified substance should be copper or bronze and the thickness of a frying pan. She also advised to seal the still-head using flour paste – an early kind of glue.

Zosimos credits Maria with the first written description of the tribikas, though it is not known whether she was its inventor.

The kerotakis:

Also used for collecting vapours, the kerotakis was a container with a sheet of copper on its upper side.

If used correctly, the kerotakis should be airtight and form a vacuum. The aim was to create the same conditions in a laboratory as when gold is formed naturally deep in the earth.

The bain-marie:
This apparatus bears the name of its inventor – Mary’s Bath. Also known as a double boiler, it consists of two separate chambers, one inside the other. The outer chamber is filled with liquid – usually water – and heated to boiling point. This regulates the temperature of the inner chamber and its contents.


A bain-marie illustration

The bain-marie continues to be used in chemical processes today, as well as in the kitchen where it is commonly used for foods requiring a gentle heat.

Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.- The Axiom of Maria

Though all of our information on Maria’s inventions and experiments in alchemy comes from male gnostic writers centuries later, we know that she authored alchemic texts herself – though they have since been lost.


Medieval illustration of a mandrake root

One anonymous philosopher recorded an extract, known as The Dialogue of Mary and Aros and the Magistery of Hermes. This excerpt describes a number of operations which formed the basis of alchemy including the whitening and yellowing of elements. It is also the first document to mention an acid salt, and contains recipes for gold using mandragora (also known as mandrake).

As there is such sparse information on Maria Prophetissima, her life and contributions are often disputed. She is sometimes conflated with Moses’ sister, Miriam, placing her centuries earlier than Zosimos suggests. The popularity of the names Mary, Maria and Miriam in this time suggest that there might even have been more than one woman with this way in alchemical circles.

Regardless, Zosimus’ inclusion of Maria in his history of alchemy demonstrates some evidence of women working in science during the early Christian era.


History of Alchemy podcast

The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book – Raphael Patai

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Maria Prophetissima By Michael Maier (1566-1622) – Symbola Aurea Mensae Duodecim Nationum, Frankfurt, 1617 Public Domain

An alemic from a medieval manuscript. The original uploader was Makemake at German Wikipedia – Own work (Original text: Eigenes Foto), Public Domain

An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Hortus Sanitatis; mandrake Wellcome L0008134” by . Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Cai Wenji 蔡琰 – fl. 207 – Han Dynasty China

Ancient China, China


Cai Wenji’s life could almost be straight from a fairy tale. She was the intelligent, accomplished only daughter of Cai Yong, a scholar from Yu County (modern day Qi County, Kaifeng, Henan).

畫麗珠萃秀_Gathering_Gems_of_Beauty_(漢蔡文姬)_2She married her first husband at a young age and was widowed before the marriage produced any children.

At some time between 194 and 195, Cai was kidnapped by Xiongnu nomads who had invaded Han territory. She was taken to the north as a prisoner and married to Liu Bao, the nomads’ chieftain.

Cai Wenji lived as a captive wife in the northern lands for twelve years, and gave birth to two sons. As well as being a scholar and an articulate speaker, Cai Wenji was a highly thought of calligrapher, as her father had been. She wrote two famous poems about her years as a captive, both named Poem of Sorrow and Anger:

My dwelling is often covered by frost and snow,
The foreign winds bring again spring and summer;

They gently blow into my robes,
And chillingly shrill into my ear;

Emotions stirred, I think of my parents,
Whilst I draw a long sigh of endless sorrows.

Whenever guests visit from afar,
I would often make joy of their tidings;

I lost no time in throwing eager questions,
Only to find that the guests were not from my home town.

Finally, Cao Cao, the Han Chancellor paid a large ransom for her return. By this time her father had died, and she was the last surviving member of her family due to Cao Cao’s struggles for power. He ransomed her purely to placate her ancestors, in case they became vengeful and haunted Cao Cao himself.

Cai Wenji left her children behind in enemy territory and made the journey back to her homeland. There she was re-married to a government official named Dong Si.


‘Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland’, painting dating from the Southern Song dynasty depicting Cai Wenji and her Xiongnu husband. They are riding their horses along, each holding one of their sons.

Upon her return she also found that the 4000 volumes of ancient texts she had inherited from her father had been destroyed in the same war that had wiped out her family. Amazingly, Cai wenji was able to recite 400 of the books from memory, and wrote them down at Cao Cao’s request.

When her new husband later committed a capital crime, Cai Wenji was so distressed at losing someone else close to her that she interrupted a banquet being held by Cao Cao to plead for her husband’s life. She asked if he would procure her yet another husband after she lost this one – Cao Cao took pity and pardoned Dong Si.

In fiction:

  • Guo Moruo wrote a play on her life in 1959.
  • Cai Wenji appears as a playable character in Koei’s Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce 2 and Dynasty Warriors 7 (her debut as a playable character in North American and European ports).
  • She also appears in Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game series and in Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires as a non-playable character.
  • She is also a playable character in Warriors Orochi 3.

In science:

  • In 1976, a crater on Mercury was named Ts’ai Wen-chi after Cai Wenji.
  • In 1994, a crater on Venus was named Caiwenji after Cai Wenji.



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

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

By Identified as He Dazi (赫達資) – Selections. The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Selections from the History of Chinese Painting (exhibit). Taipei: National Palace Museum., Public Domain

Cai Wenji Returns to Her Homeland By Unknown – CHINA Art Pic Stock (China Artistic Publisher, Beijing Panoramic Visual Pic LTD) Cat:p127, CD41:img0158, (purchased and donated by Kosi Gramatikoff User:kosigrim., Public Domain



Music Hall to Stonewall – the history of the Drag King: LGBT History Month

LGBT History Month

Drag Queens have recently become a popular fixture in the entertainment industry (thanks, RuPaul), but their trousered counterparts – Drag Kings – are less widely known of. In fact, women have been dressing as men and ‘performing masculinity’ on stage for centuries, from regency actresses in breeches to music hall stars in top hats and tails. Here is a rundown of the long history of the drag king…

Breeches Roles


Actress Mary Anne Keele in Breeches (Source)

Throughout history, women have generally been prevented from acting in public, from as far back as ancient Greece. Instead, women’s parts were played by male actors in drag well into the Shakespearean era. The first woman to tread the English boards was in 1629, as part of a visiting French company – she was booed off the stage.

In 1642 the Puritan government passed an ordinance to ban theatrical performances altogether on the grounds that they were overindulgent and unseemly. When theatres re-opened eighteen years later under King Charles II, women were finally allowed to appear. While this eliminated the need for ‘boys in dresses’, a new phenomenon surfaced – women in trousers.

Known as ‘breeches roles’, a huge number of Restoration plays featured male parts intended for women to play. Breeches roles were a popular novelty in a time when clothing was extremely restrictive depending on gender.

It must have been very liberating for the actresses to subvert the conventions of the time, and many women in the theatre made their living playing only ‘breeches’ parts. These types of roles in the eventually began to die out as social norms changed, but cross-dressing became a mainstay of Victorian Music Hall performance.

Music Hall


Vesta Tilly (Source)

Music Hall (known as Vaudeville in the US) consisted of variety acts including comedy sketches and sing-alongs to popular songs. Both male and female impersonators were sought after acts.

Vesta Tilly was the most successful male impersonator of her day, touring both Britain and America for more than three decades. A child star, Tilly first appeared on stage when she was three years old, with her father who was a comedy actor. At six, she appeared dressed as a boy for the first time, singing opera.

After this, she preferred to perform in exclusively male clothes.

“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” – Vesta Tilly

Tilly was largely a comedic actress, most famously in the part of the London ‘swell’ Burlington Bertie, strutting across the stage in a tuxedo and flirting with the girls in the audience. Her songs such as ‘Following in Father’s Footsteps’, ‘The girls I’ve left behind me’ and ‘Naughty Boy’, portrayed a rakish young ‘man about town’, though she also performed more sentimental love songs directed at women.

Another popular entertainer was Ella Shields, an American woman from Baltimore who became famous in the London Halls for her parody of Vesta Tilly’s ‘Burlington Bertie’. Shields’ version was ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ – a young man who dressed the part of an aristocrat without the money to match.

Shields toured the world as a male impersonator, and was known as ‘Bertie’ rather than Ella almost everywhere she went.

During the heyday of Music Hall (from the mid-1800s to the 1920s) it was also common for male impersonation acts to play soldier boys – adopting the uniforms of the British army in the Boer and First World wars. Hetty King popularised a number of songs from the trenches of World War One in her 1916 act ‘Songs the Soldiers Sing’.

The first male impersonator to become famous in America was English performer Annie Hindle, who immigrated to New York City in 1868. Hindle toured the country and was extremely successful, earning rave reviews wherever she went.


Drawing of Annie Hindle (Source)

While Vesta Tilly, Ella Shields and Hetty King all generally dressed in women’s clothes in their private lives and all married men, Annie Hindle’s career came to an abrupt end in 1886 when she fell in love with and married her dresser – Annie Ryan.

Hindle dressed in male attire for the Baptist ceremony, giving the name Charles. This was not to be her last marriage; by 1892 Ryan had passed away and Hindle was re-married to a woman called Louise Spanghel.

“Annie has once before done the same thing. In fact once she was a bride; twice she has been a groom. Once she had a husband and twice has she had a wife. Once she was a widow, once a widower and now she is a husband again.” – Daily Illinois State journal, Friday 22nd July 1892.

The Jazz age

By the 1920s Music Hall and Vaudeville were in decline due to the advent of cinema as well as the American Depression. Social norms and gender identity continued to be challenged in other ways – step in Gladys Bentley.

A hugely talented jazz pianist and singer, Bentley began her career as a nightclub singer in a gay speakeasy in Harlem.


Gladys Bentley (Source)

Openly lesbian, Bentley was big, bold and irreverent. She performed dressed in a white tuxedo and top hat, sang raunchy songs backed up by a chorus line of drag queens and flirted wildly with the women in the audience. She even claimed to have married another woman (unnamed).

The rise of McCarthyism in America meant that Gladys Bentley had to tone down her act. She began to wear dresses, married a man and, even more tragically, attempted to ‘cure’ herself of homosexuality.

Bentley was not the only LGBT woman to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. Other popular Jazz singers included Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, both of whom had relationships with other women.


On 28th June 1969, the New York police carried out a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a notorious


The Stonewall Inn (Source)

gay nightclub. This was not the first raid of its kind, but this time would be very different. As crowds outside began to congregate, chanting ‘gay power’ and booing the police, the mood changed.

Things began to escalate when a woman – described by witnesses as a ‘typical New York butch’ was escorted into a police wagon from which she repeatedly escaped, running back into the crowd each time. She had been hit on the head with a police baton and was bleeding from the wound as she wrestled with the officers attempting to subdue her and yelled at the crowd; “Why don’t you guys do something?!”

This moment is described as a turning point in the Stonewall rebellion, as once the woman was finally thrown into the wagon, the crowd went ‘berserk’.

“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience — it wasn’t no damn riot.” – Stormé DeLarverie

Since that night, the woman has been called ‘the Rosa Parks of the gay community’ and has been identified by witnesses and by herself as Stormé DeLarverie, a butch lesbian drag performer.


DeLarverie (Source)

“Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumoured that she did, and she said she did,’ – Ms. Cannistraci, owner of the Village lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson.

DeLarverie had already made a name for herself on the entertainment circuit as a drag king, and had been photographed by Diane Arbus. She performed as part of the Jewel Box Revue, America’s first racially integrated drag revue during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Even after Stonewall, Stormé DeLarverie continued to serve New York’s LGBT community. In the ‘80s and ‘90s she worked as a bouncer in various lesbian bars and was also the Chief of Security and later Vice President of the Stonewall Veterans Association.

“Ms. DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls”. … She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero.” – DeLarverie’s obituary in The New York Times (2014)

In Fiction:

  • The 2004 film Stage Beauty directed by Richard Eyre fictionalises the life of Edward Kynaston a restoration era actor who played women’s parts. Clare Danes plays a young woman who aspires to be an actress.
  • A lesbian relationship between two Victorian male impersonators is central to the plot of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which was also made into a TV miniseries in 2003.
  • 1982 film Victor Victoria set in 1930s Paris and Starring Julie Andrews as a male impersonator. Andrews had met Ella Shields while she was still alive and likely used her as inspiration.




Male Impersonation in the Music Hall: the Case of Vesta Tilley

On Wikipedia:


Julia Maesa – 165 – 226 – Rome

Ancient Rome, Ancient Syria


The younger sister of Julia Domna, Julia Maesa played an equally important part in the politics of the Roman Empire, actively influencing the ascension of her grandsons the emperors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus.

Ethnically Syrian, Julia Maesa, like her sister, was considered a Roman citizen due to her family’s immense wealth. She married Syrian nobleman Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus and had two daughters; Julia Soaemias Bassiana and Julia Avita Matmaea.

After the death of her nephew, Caracalla and her sister’s suicide, Julia Maesa returned to Syria where she began to make plans.


Coin depicting Julia Maesa (source)

Her grandson, Elagabalus, was fourteen years old and Julia Maesa was willing to do anything to make sure her family was back in power. Hugely rich, she was able to orchestrate a plot to overthrow emperor Macrinus and put Elagabalus in his place. She and her daughter (Elagabalus’ mother) spread a rumour that the boy was actually Caracalla’s illegitimate son, and therefore rightful heir to the empire.

The plot was successful and for her efforts Julia was rewarded with the title Augusta avia Augusti (‘Augusta, grandmother of Augustus’). Unfortunately, the best laid plans often go awry and Elagabalus was not a successful emperor.


Bust of Elagabalus (source)

The teenager’s behaviour was erratic and scandalous. He held lavish parties, ignored the Roman gods in favour of the Syrian sun god and married a Vestal Virgin – an enormous taboo by Roman standards. Julia Maesa took swift action against her uncontrollable grandson and had him and his mother assassinated.

Now Julia promoted her second grandson, Alexander Severus, who was somewhat less of a disaster than his cousin – he managed to escape assassination until he was 26.

Julia Maesa died sometime in 226. Like her sister Domna before her, she was deified.


Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient WorldJoyce E. Salisbury

Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the CaesarsJasper Burns

A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman WomenMarjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman

On Wikipedia:

Julia Domna – 170 – 217 – Rome

Ancient Rome


Julia Domna (sometimes Julia Domma) had a very privileged start in life. Born into the wealthiest family in Syria, her father was a high-priest and her great-uncle had been a leading Roman Centurion – who left her his estate.

800px-Julia_Domna_Glyptothek_Munich_354Educated in politics and philosophy, Domna’s star continued to rise as she married the roman Septimius Severus in her late teens. By all accounts it was an extremely happy pairing, and Severus openly listened to his clever wife’s opinions and advice.

Domna had two sons, Caracall and Geta, and the family’s fortunes increased when Severus became emperor of Rome in 193. However, this position would come at a price as Severus faced civil war with a number of rivals.

As Severus marched out on military campaigns to the Eastern reaches of the empire, Julia Domna travelled at his side. This bought her a lot of respect among the common people and soldiers, and she was given the title Mater Castrorum – mother of the camp.

Back in Rome, Julia Domna flourished in the role of empress. She pursued her passion for philosophy and encouraged philosophers to share their knowledge. She commissioned Philostratus to write his Life of Apollonius, which is still considered the major source of information on Apollonius.

In 208 Severus and Julia left Rome again for Britain, where three years later Severus died in York. The emperor’s sons, Caracalla and Geta were left to rule jointly, with Julia as their mediator. Unfortunately, the two brothers did not get on, and within a year Caracalla had ordered his soldiers to murder Geta.

Julia was horrified by her son’s actions and their relationship never recovered. She continued to play the role of dutiful mother and was with Caracalla in Parthia when he was assassinated in 217.

Having lost her husband and both sons and suffering from breast cancer, Julia Domna chose to commit suicide. She was carried back to Rome and given an empress’s burial.


Julia Domna: Syrian Empress – Barbara Levick

Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Élite from Cornelia to Julia DomnaEmily Ann Hemelrijk

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Julia Domna Glyptothek By Unknown – User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-02-08, Public Domain

The Severan Tondo By Fred the Oyster – Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, Public Domain

Coin featuring Julia Domna By Rasiel Suarez, CC BY-SA 3.0

Coins, Aureus with Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta By cgb – http://www.cgb.fr/septime-severe-julia-domna-caracalla-et-geta-aureus,brm_251139,a.html, CC BY-SA 3.0



7 Biopics of LGBT Women: LGBT History Month

LGBT History Month, TV and Film
  1. The Danish Girl (2016)

The_Danish_Girl_(film)_posterBased on the life of: Lili Elbe

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch and Amber Heard

One of the most hotly anticipated films of 2016, Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery.

This fictionalised account of Elbe’s life and transition somewhat differs from the true story (notably the reaction of Elbe’s wife, Gerda Wegener) and has faced criticism for casting a cisgender man in the role – but nevertheless has been well received by critics and nominated for several awards.

  1. I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)

ShotandywarholBased on the life of: Valerie Solanas

Directed by: Mary Harron

Starring: Lili Taylor, Jared Harris, Stephen Dorff and Martha Plimpton

A biopic of the radical feminist Valerie Solanas who became infamous for shooting Andy Warhol in 1968, this film tracks Solanas’ troubled life as she navigates 1960s New York as a down on her luck lesbian writer.

Lili Taylor won the Award for Best Actress at the both the Seattle and Stockholm Film Festivals, as well as achieving Special Recognition for her performance at the Sundance Film Festival.

  1. Frida (2002)

FridaposterBased on the life of: Frida Kahlo

Directed by: Julie Taymor

Starring: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Valeria Golino, Mia Maestro, Roger Rees and Geoffrey Rush

This film depicts the professional and private life of the surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Though the main romantic focus of the movie is on Kahlo’s relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera, the film does not shy away from her bisexuality and also addresses themes of gender identity.

The American Film Institute was included Frida in their Movies of the Year 2001 and Salma Hayek was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal.

  1. The Hours (2002)

The_Hours_posterBased on the life of: Virginia Woolf

Directed by: Stephen Daldry

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Ed Harris.

This complex plot focuses on three women of different generations whose lives are interconnected by the novel Mrs Dalloway byVirginia Woolf. Themes of bisexuality run throughout each plotline, though the film does not mention Woolf’s documented relationship with Vita Sackville-West.

Nicole Kidman won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the famous writer.

  1. Bessie (2015)

BessiePromotionalPosterBased on the life of: Bessie Smith

Directed by: Dee Rees

Starring: Queen Latifa, Mo’nique, Michael Kenneth Williams and Khandi Alexander

Queen Latifa portrays Bessie Smith, legendary blues performer, who rose to fame during the 1920s and ’30s. The film follows Smith from a sad abandoned childhood in Tennessee, to becoming known as ‘Empress of the Blues’.

Both Smith and Ma Rainey are depicted as having same-sex relationships throughout the film.

  1. The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)

Christine_Jorgenson_Story_PosterBased on the life of: Christine Jorgensen

Directed by: Irving Rapper

Starring: John Hansen, Joan Tompkins and Quinn K. Redeker

This film was never going to win any awards for its acting – or even its accuracy, but as one of the first films to cover this topic it is a milestone.

Though her name is not as well known today, Jorgensen became a minor celebrity in the 1950s as one of the first widely known cases of sex reassignment surgery in the United States.

  1. Henry & June (1990)

Based on the life of: Anaïs Nin

Directed by: Philip Kaufman

Starring: Fred Ward, Maria de Medeiros and Uma Thurman

Based on the lives of renowned writers Anais Nin and Henry Miller and the complicated relationship Nin has with Miller and his wife, June.

Image credits:

The Danish Girl (film) poster” by Source.

Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Shotandywarhol” by Source.

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Fridaposter” by Source.

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The Hours poster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4).

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Christine Jorgenson Story Poster“.

Via Wikipedia

BessiePromotionalPoster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4).

Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Henry&June” by Source.

Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia