Princess Pingyang 平陽公主 – 598 – 623 – China

Ancient China, China

Pingyang

By single-handedly amassing an army of 70,000, Princess Pingyang was a key player in the destruction of the Sui dynasty and the foundation of the Tang dynasty – a golden age for China.

The daughter of a military commander, Li Yuan, and the wife of the chief of the imperial palace guards, Pingyang was a noble lady and a prominent figure at court. China had only recently been united under the Sui dynasty, and in the early 600s was under the control of Emperor Yangdi – an immensely unpopular ruler.

Yangdi spent China’s money on expensive invasions into surrounding Asia, dangerous construction projects like rebuilding the great wall (which caused millions of deaths) – and attempted to pay for everything through heavy taxation.

The imprisonment of Li Yuan was the final straw, and as soon as he was released he and Pingyang’s husband left the imperial palace to mount a rebellion. Pinyang stayed behind in a highly vulnerable position as the wife and daughter of two insurgents.

Pingyang was made of stern stuff, however, and eventually left the palace herself, heading for the safety of her family’s feudal lands in Hu county. Thanks to Yangdi’s oppressive policies, the people there were starving, having suffered a drought without being offered relief by the government. Pingyang flew into action, offering the people food from her own family’s stores and winning their loyalty.

Pingyang continued to work covertly to ally herself with other local rebel forces and so building her own army, which later became known as the Woman’s Army. She herself dressed in male military uniform, marching at the head of her troops like a general.

She was a strict leader, forbidding looting, raping or pillaging, in order to keep the rural people on her side. Wherever Pingyang’s Woman’s Army triumphed, they shared the food with the locals, and came to be seen as heroic liberators.

Eventually, thanks in part to Pingyang’s efforts, the Sui dynasty was defeated and Yangdi fled for his life. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, and Pingyang was given the title ‘Princess’. She was also given the rank of marshal, and conferred all the honours due to an imperial prince.

Princess Pingyang died very young, at the age of twenty three. Her grief stricken father ordered an elaborate military funeral. When advisors complained that it was highly irregular to have such an extravagant ceremony for a woman, he replied –

“She was no ordinary woman.”


References:

Notable Women of ChinaBarbara Bennett Peterson

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles

On Wikipedia:

Princess Pingyang

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Mavia ماوية – Reigned 375 – 425 – Syria

Ancient Syria, Syria

Mavia

A century after Zenobia set her sights on taking Egypt from the Roman Empire, another Arab queen attempted the same thing. Where Zenobia had failed, Mavia not only succeeded – but also made Rome sign a treaty in her favour.

Also known as Māwiyya, this fierce warrior queen ruled a confederation of Arab tribes (known as the Tanukhids) from her seat in southern Syria. Her husband had been king of the Tanukhids and once he died his power passed to Mavia.

She proved herself equal to the task, leading her army in open rebellion against Roman rule in the Middle East. Mavia rode at the head of her cavalry, leading troops into Phoenica (modern day Israel, Lebanon and Syria) and Palestine before finally reaching Egypt.

In Egypt Mavia met the Roman army in battle again and again, defeating them each time. Eventually, Rome consented to a truce – but Mavia set the conditions.

Mavia was a successful general and ruler largely because of her use of guerrilla tactics. Rather than fight from Aleppo, which would have given the Romans a target, she retreated with her troops into the desert, drawing on the nomadic tribe’s knowledge of the terrain. As a result, the Tanukhids were better prepared than the Romans and able to keep them guessing.

As for her conditions for peace, Mavia requested that a monk named Moses be made bishop over her people. Moses was supposedly a desert dwelling Christian Arab who impressed Mavia – and who possibly convinced her to convert to Christianity. To prove that she honoured the truce, Mavia married her daughter Chasidat to a Roman commander.

Peace was temporary.

Rome was soon at war with the Goths (in Eastern Germany) and called upon Mavia’s formidable forces for assistance. She provided cavalry, but her Arab army was not prepared for the environment of northern Europe and the Goths won, killing Roman emperor Valens.

The new emperor Theodosius I gave the Gothic kings and nobles a number of high profile positions within the Roman Empire at the expense of the Arabs. Furious at the lack of respect shown for their loyalty, the Tanukhids revolted a second time in 383. It is not clear whether or not Mavia led this revolt, but it was certainly the end of the Tanukh-Roman alliance.


References:

God’s Self-confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women – Anne Jensen

Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs – Irfan Shahîd

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth CenturyIrfan Shahîd

On Wikipedia:

Xun Guan – 3rd Century – Xiangyang city, China

Ancient China, China

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Xun Guan was born at a time of turbulence and uncertainty for feudal China. Her father, Xun Song, was the governor of Xiangyang (also Xiangcheng) during the last years of the Western Jin dynasty (265 – 316).

She was thirteen years old and with her father when their city came under attack from the insurgent Du Zeng, who had amassed some 2000 troops and surrounded the city. Under siege and low on supplies, Xun Song found himself in a desperate situation. If he could just get word to Shi Lan, a general and ally in neighbouring Pinyang, then perhaps they could send supplies and reinforcements – but to do this someone would have to break through Du Zeng’s forces.

It was a dangerous mission, one that no one was willing to take. As food supplies dwindled further, Xun Song prepared himself to carry out the task himself. Xun Guan stopped him.

His young daughter was adamant that he must stay with his people, who needed his leadership now more than ever. Instead, she volunteered to lead a small party past the enemy line and go for help herself.

Though she was only thirteen, Xun Guan clearly had some military training and was a persuasive speaker, because her father allowed her to go. She waited for night to fall, when she knew that Du Zeng’s soldiers lowered their guard, and managed to escape the city unscathed.

From there, she headed straight to Pinyang where she pleaded to Shi Lan for help. She also wrote a letter on behalf of her father to General Zhou Fang in the south, asking for further reinforcements. Zhou sent 3000 men at once and the two armies fell upon the besieged city, forcing Du Zeng to retreat.

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Xun Guan (source)

Once the city was freed, Shi Lan commented to Xun Song:”You daughter is clever and brave. I am envious of you!”

Zhou Fang added:

“Xiangyang is no longer under siege and the people are saved. Respect and thanks to young Xun Guan!”


References:

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E – 618 C.E. Lily Xiao Hong Lee, A. D. Stefanowska, Sue Wiles

Xun GuanCultural China

Zenobia – 240 – c.274 – Palmyrene Empire

Ancient Syria

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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.

Denarius-Zenobia-s3290

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.

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Zenobia’s empire shown in yellow (Source)

Herbert_Schmalz-Zenobia

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.

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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.


 

References:

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:

 

Boudica – d. 60/61 – Norfolk, Britain

Britain

Trigger Warning: Rape

“She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees… Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her……”

Boudicca

The enduring image of Boudica, warrior queen of the Celts, needs no introduction. Fierce and heroic, this remarkable woman remains vivid in our imaginations today.

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.

She was queen of the Iceni tribe in ancient Britain and her territory covered roughly the modern day county of Norfolk. She is described as having been tall with long red hair falling past her waist. Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio ‘generously’ describe her as possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women.

Boudica was the wife of Prasutagus, the Iceni king. Though Britain had been under Roman occupation for many years, the Iceni tribe had remained proudly independent, allies to Rome but not under Roman control. Prasutagus died a very wealthy man and in his will left his territory to both the Roman emperor (Nero) and his wife and two daughters.

Unfortunately for Boudica, the Romans did not recognise women’s inheritance. As Prasutagus had left no sons, the will was ignored and the Iceni kingdom annexed. The Roman army was brutal, taking the land by force and enslaving the local nobility. The terror did not stop there; Boudica herself was publicly flogged and her two daughters were raped by Roman soldiers.

Humiliated, abused and devastated, the Iceni sought help from neighbouring tribe the Queen_Boadicea2Trinovantes to organise a revolt. Boudica, who had lost so much and who was filled with rage at the Romans, was chosen as their leader.

Cassius Dio writes about an interesting episode in which Boudica acted as a kind of oracle or priestess, releasing a hare from the folds of her dress and interpreting the direction in which in ran as a positive omen. She also invoked Andraste, the ancient British goddess of victory, saying:

“I thank you, Andraste, and call upon you as woman speaking to woman … I beg you for victory and preservation of liberty.”

Boudica’s army first targeted Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex), which had been the Trinovantian capital but was now a Roman colony. The city was poorly defended and the furious Celts demolished it in two days. Commander Quintus Petillius Cerialis’s legion was destroyed, and he escaped with only a few cavalry.

The Celts next set their sights on Londinium (London). At the time, this city was only 20 years old, but a popular and busy centre of trade. The Roman Governor of Britain, Suetonius had heard about Boudica’s triumph in Colchester and was on his way to Londinium from Wales. Nervous and lacking numbers, Suetonius chose to order the Romans to abandon Londinium rather than attempt to defend it.

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Like Colchester, London was wiped out and burnt to the ground and any remaining settlers were slaughtered on sight. The rebel army led by Boudica next moved on to Verulanium (St Albans) and did the same.

Historians today estimate that between seventy and eighty thousand people were killed in the destruction of the three settlements at Colchester, London and St Albans. Boudica took no prisoners, and Tacitus writes that she was interested only in slaughtering as many Romans as possible. They also reclaimed the sacred spaces which had been taken from them, including the groves of Andraste.

While the rebels were still in St Albans, Suetonius was regrouping. He had called in every legion close enough and amassed an army of ten thousand. The experienced General then held firm at a location on the Roman road known as Watling Street and waited for Boudica’s army.

When the rebels came to attack, they had greater numbers, but when it came to combat skills and technique the Romans had them beaten. At first the Romans stood their ground, throwing volleys of javelins at the Britons who rushed at the Roman lines. Then they advanced in wedge formation at Boudica’s second wave.

Watling Street, Northamptonshire

Watling Street, Northamptonshire

Boudica famously rode a chariot into battle, with her daughters at her side. She also positioned lines of wagons and women at the back of the battlefield as a last line of defence. As the Romans came towards them, the terrified Britons attempted to escape, but were trapped by their own families and forced into the wagon ring where they were slaughtered.

Boudica died around this time, though accounts vary. Tacitus wrote that she poisoned herself rather than face capture, Dio says that she died of an illness and was given a queens burial. The crisis that the Celtic queen had caused in Britain shook Rome and the emperor Nero nearly considered abandoning Britain altogether.

Interestingly, Boudica’s rebellion was almost forgotten by history. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that her story became legend. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the poem Boadicea and it became fashionable to name ships after the fallen queen.

Ironically, a statue to commemorate Boudica stands next to Westminster bridge in London, the city she razed to the ground.


Pronunciation:

The name Boudica most probably derives from the Celtic word boudīka, meaning “victorious”, that in turn is derived from bouda, “victory” (cf. Irish bua (Classical Irish buadh), Buaidheach, Welsh buddugoliaeth).

The closest English equivalent to the vowel in the first syllable is the ‘ow’ in “bow-and-arrow”. The modern English pronunciation is bo-dik-ah.


In fiction:

Books:

  • One of the viewpoint characters of Ian Watson’s novel Oracle is an eyewitness to her defeat.
  • Ruled Britannia is an alternate history novel by Harry Turtledove in which Shakespeare writes a play called Boudica.
  • The Doctor Who audio play The Wrath of the Iceni takes place during Boudica’s uprising against the Romans. Boudica is portrayed by Ella Kenion.
  • The 2012 vampire novel Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers depicts Boadicea as one of the two head vampires menacing Victorian Europe.Plays, Films and Television:
  • Bonduca, or the British Heroine is a 1695 musical play by Henry Purcell
  • Bonduca is a Jacobean tragi-comedy by John Fletcher. It was acted by the King’s Men c. 1613, and published in 1647.
  • Boadicea is a 1928 film, in which Boudica is portrayed by Phyllis Neilson-Terry.
  • Boudica (US title Warrior Queen) is a 2003 film written by Andrew Davies and starring Alex Kingston as Boudica.
  • Warrior Queen was a 1978 TV series, starring Siân Phillips as Boudica.
  • The Viking Queen is a 1967 adventure film set in ancient Britain, in which the role of ‘Queen Salina’ is based upon the historical figure of Boudica.
  • In the fictional world of Ghosts of Albion, ‘Queen Bodicea’ is one of three Ghosts who once were mystical protectors of Albion and assists the current protectors with advice and knowledge.
  • Television series Bonekickers dedicated an hour to Boudica in the episode named The Eternal Fire.

Video Games:

  • In 2013 video game Ryse: Son of Rome Boudica appears as a heavily fictionalized character.
  • She appears as a Rider-class Servant in the 2015 mobile game Fate/Grand Order.

Music:

Boudica has also been the primary subject of songs by Irish singer/songwriter Enya, Dutch soprano Petra Berger, Scottish singer/songwriter Steve McDonald, English metal band Bal-SagothFaith and the MuseMason and Róisín Murphy, and Dreams in the Witching House.

In Science:

In 2003 an LTR retrotransposon from the genome of the human blood fluke “Schistosoma mansoni” was named “Boudicca”.


References:

The AnnalsTacitus

Roman History – Cassius Dio


Image credits:

Queen Boudica by John Opie” by John Opie – Easy Art.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Boadicea2” by Anonymous – True Stories of Wonderful Deeds: Pictures and Stories for Little Folk.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pictures of English History Plate IV – Boadicea and Her Army” by Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96)[1] – →This file has been extracted from another file: Pictures of English History – Plates I to IV.jpg.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Watling Street Northamptonshire” by Ian Rob.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

The Trưng Sisters – c. 12 – 43 – Jiaozhi, Vietnam

Vietnam

When the enemy is at the gate, the woman goes out fighting

(Old Vietnamese adage)

TrungSisters

Though they are sadly not as well-known as western warrior women like Boudica, the story of Vietnamese sisters Trưng Trắc (徵側) and Trưng Nhị (徵貳) and their rebellion against Imperial China is just thrilling and vivid.

Born in Jiaozhi, Northern Vietnam, the Trưng sisters were raised in a noble military household, where they learned martial arts from their father, a prefect of Mê Linh. They grew into intelligent and accomplished young women, and when a neighbouring prefect came to visit their father, his son, Thi Sách, could not help but fall in love with the elder sister, Trưng Trắc.

The pair were very happily married. However, this was no fairytale ending, as the two families were living under the Chinese Han dynasty, who had invaded and conquered Northern Vietnam some decades earlier.

The native Vietnamese were extremely unhappy by what they viewed as their oppression under Chinese rule, and there are many accounts of the Hans forcing the Vietnamese to assimilate to Chinese culture as they pushed further southwards.

The newly married Thi Sách chose to rebel, and was executed for his insurrection. Motivated by this cruel injustice, the Trưng sisters sprang into action, assembling an army of both men and women to drive out the Chinese.

The rebellion was immensely successful, taking back as many as 65 citadels and liberating Nanyue within months. Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were appointed queens of Nanyue and held off the Han for over three years from 40 – 43 CE.

A memorial parade for the sisters in Ho Chi Min City

A memorial parade for the sisters in Ho Chi Min City

Unfortunately, nothing could keep the Han dynasty back forever, and the reign of the sisters was short lived. Both Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were defeated in battle in 43 – some sources say they were executed, others say they committed suicide once they saw the battle was lost.

Whatever happened, the legacy of the Trưng Sisters remains revered in Vietnam. It was the first resistance movement against the Chinese after over 200 years of subjugation. There is a district in Hanoi named after the women, as well as many streets in large cities and several schools. In addition there are a number of temples dedicated to the Trưng Sisters and a yearly holiday is observed in February commemorating their deaths.

“All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission, Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country”

– 15th Century Vietnamese poem


References:

Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past Patricia M. Pelley

The Birth of Vietnam – Keith Weller Taylor

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

On a sunny day in Saigon, national heroines of Viet Nam are honored with a parade of elephants and floats” by SAS Scandinavian Airlines – http://images.flysas.com.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.


References:

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

Women in Early Imperial China Bret Hinsch

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

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).

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons