Khawlah bint al-Azwar خولة بنت الأزور – c.7th Century – Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Kawlah bint al-Azwar

Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a warrior like no other. Born during the 7th century, the daughter of a chief of the Bani Assad tribe, her family was amoung the first to convert to Islam, during the life of Mohammed.

Living during the times of the Muslim conquests, she clearly had some serious military training behind her. In fact, the first time we hear about Khawlah is in the heat of battle. She was working as a combat nurse during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uquab in 634 when her brother, Zirrar (sometimes Dhirrar), the commander of the Rashidun army, was wounded and captured by the Byzantine army.

Khalid ibn Walid, the leader of the Muslim forces, set off on a rescue mission, and Khawlah went with them. She dressed as an ordinary soldier in an attempt to blend in – but her bravery in singledhandedly fighting off the Byzantine rear guard made her somewhat conspicuous.  In fact, she so distinguished herself that the soldiers who saw her fight thought she must be Khalid himself.

When the Byzantines finally fled the battlefield, Khalid came to find the warrior he had heard so much about. He found Khawlah drenched in blood and asked her to lower her veil. Her identity revealed, Khalid ordered his army to chase the remaining Byzantine soldiers – led by Khawlah.

Khawlah fought alongside Khalid and her brother many more times. In another battle she was knocked off her horse and captured by the enemy. As a woman, she did not have the rights a male captured soldier had. She was the spoils of war.

But the enemy had sorely underestimated her. Imprisoned alongside other women captives, Khawlah got organised. She led the women as they tore the camp apart, using the enemy’s tent poles as weapons, killing thirty Byzantine knights as they escaped.

Today Khawlah is honoured in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East as a heroine. The Iraqi all-women military unit is named the Khawlah bint al-Azwar unit, and the first military college for women in the UAE is called the Khawlah bint Al Azwar Training College.


References:

On Wikipedia:

Chen Shuozhen 陳碩真 – d. 653 – Muzhou, China

Ancient China, China

Chen Shuozhen

China is no stranger to women warriors, but while Fu Hao, Mother Lü, Yuenü, and Princess Pingyang were all rabble rousers from noble houses, Chen Shuozhen came from more humble origins.

A peasant woman living in Muzhou, Tang dynasty China (modern day Chun’an, Zhejiang), we know very little about Chen Shuozhen’s background prior to the rebellion in 653. She would have lived through the last years of Emperor Taizong’s reign, during which there was likely a recession in China due to some large building projects.

Taizong’s successor, Gaozong, was seen as a weak ruler, and wars at the Chinese boarders during the early years of his reign caused further discontent among the common people.

Against this backdrop of general discontent and poverty Chen Shuozhen led a rebel army of more than 14,000 soldiers. Historical sources say that she rang bells and burned incense as she marched, leading some to believe that there were religious motivations behind the uprising.

She declared herself Emperor Wenjia – becoming the first woman in Chinese history to declare herself emperor (more than forty years before Wu Zetian) and took three cities before she could be stopped.

Though the rebellion lasted only two months, Chen Shuozhen’s name lived on in Chinese folklore as a hero and the first woman to claim the title of emperor.


References:

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

On Wikipedia:

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

The Lady of Cao – c.450 – Chicama, Peru

Peru

CW: Human sacrifice, goreLady of Cao

The ancient Moche culture of northern Peru was highly sophisticated, and is well known for its beautiful ceramics, detailed gold work, enormous huacas (revered monuments) and elaborate religious rituals.

Their brutal belief system centred largely on war, blood, sex and death. Ritual human sacrifice appears to have been common, as well as drinking blood and excarnation (stripping the flesh from a corpse to leave only the bones).  Until recently, it was believed that this was a patriarchal religion, presided over by male priests.

The tomb of the Lady of Cao was only discovered in 2006, though it is estimated that she died around 450 CE. She was laid to rest surrounded by ceremonial items which included weapons and gold jewellery, indicating that she was a woman of high rank.

Her body had been mummified by the hot, dry climate, meaning that an autopsy could be performed to reveal more about her life and death. The lady was heavily tattooed with images of snakes and spiders (sacred animals in Moche culture) as well as other symbols.

Archaeologists believe that she may have been a priestess or even a ruler. It is estimated that the Lady of Cao was only in her twenties when she died as a complication from pregnancy or childbirth. A second young woman was buried in the same tomb, potentially a human sacrifice.

See also: Puabi of Ur is another high ranking woman whose tomb was discovered in Iraq – she is believed to have been either a priestess or a ruler circa 3000 BCE.


References:

Mummy of Tattooed Woman Discovered in Peru Pyramid – Scott Norris for the National Geographic

Tomb of the Tattooed Sorceress Queen, The Lady of CaoAncient Origins

On Wikipedia:

Lady Triệu – 225 – 248 – Vietnam

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.

Den-tho-ba-trieu

Bà Triệu Temple

 


 

References:

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

Hyspicratea – fl.63 BCE – Pontus

Pontus

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King Mithridates VI had already had five wives before he met his match in Hypsicratea. He was a hugely ambitious man who spent much of his life at war with Rome – which was no deterrent to this warrior woman.

Mithridates_VI_Louvre

Mithridates VI

Historical sources describe her as loving her husband so much that she dressed as a soldier and learned to fight alongside him in order to be useful to the king during his exile.

Hysicratea’s origins are uncertain – she is described as a concubine and a Caucasian (from Caucasus – an area is now on the peripheries of Turkey, Iran and Russia). We do not know when she was born or when she died – but what we do know is that she was tough.

Plutarch writes that she displayed “manly spirit and extravagant daring”, and that the king often called her Hypsicrates (the male form of Hypsicratea).

Valerius Maximus writes that she made herself ugly by cutting her hair short, but praises her loyalty:

“The Queen Hypsicratea… loved her husband Mithradates, with all the stops of affection let out, and for his sake she thought it a pleasure to change the outstanding splendor of her beauty for a masculine style. For she cut her hair and habituated herself to horse and arms, so that she might more easily participate in his tools and danger… Her extraordinary fidelity was for Mithradates his greatest solace and most pleasant comfort in those bitter and difficult conditions, for he considered that he was wandering with house and home because his wife was in exile along with him.”

In battle, Hypsicratea is described as fighting in hand to hand combat, using an ax, lance and sword. She was also adept with a bow and arrow.

After Mithridates death, we do not know what happened to Hysicratea. She may have died in battle with her husband, or she may have been captured as a slave.

Etching of Hypsicratea from 'Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum'

Etching of Hypsicratea from ‘Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum’

One of the more interesting theories is that she kept her male name and is the same Hypsicrates who became personal historian to Julius Caesar.

Strabo wrote that Hypsicrates accompanied Julius Caesar on his campaigns as an expert on “military fortifications of the Bosporan Kingdom” and the Caucasian Amazons – stranger things have happened!


References:

From Amazon to Pharaoh – Following a Trail from Hypsicratea to Cleopatra VII Borys Freiburg and Hewitt Freiburg

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Mithridates VI Louvre” by Sting.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons

Hypsicratea” Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Salome Alexandra – 141 – 67 BCE – Judea

Kingdom of Judea

She defied the odds to become the most powerful woman in Judea’s history.

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Salome Alexandra (or Alexandra of Jerusalem) was one of the only women to rule over ancient Kingdom of Judea and was the last to die as the ruler of an independent Judea.

The Talmud describes Alexandra’s reign as a golden age of peace and prosperity, and she orchestrated a number of religious reforms that shaped the Judaism of today.

Salome Alexandra married King Alexander Jannaeus in a political match when she was twenty-nine and he in his mid-teens. It was not a good match.

Alexander Jannaeus was, by many accounts, one of the cruellest and most bloodthirsty kings in Judean history. Determined to expand his Kingdom, the young monarch instigated a reckless campaign of relentless warfare on neighbouring states, resulting in devastating losses.

His brutality was not exclusive to those outside of his Kingdom – during his reign Jannaeus killed more than 50,000 of his own people. When he finally died in 76 BCE, Alexander Jannaeus was hated far and wide. Perhaps his only good decision was to name his wife, Salome Alexandra, as his successor, rather than one of their sons.

It is suggested that while Alexander was away on his military campaigns, Salome Alexandra must have acted as regent for Judea. This may be the reason that her husband thought she would be a suitable ruler. The queen’s reputation was the opposite to Jannaeus’. She was seen as kind, measured and supportive of her people who willingly accepted her as a ruler despite the fact that she had two adult sons.

As Alexander Jannaeus had strived for war, so Salome Alexandra worked for peace. She reconciled with her husband’s enemies within and without while maintaining a strong military and hiring additional foreign troops to use as a deterrent against invasion.

Salome Alexandra also made peace with the Pharisees, a religious faction which had been persecuted by her husband in favour of the rival Sadducees. The Pharisees were popular among ordinary Judeans, emphasising piety and simple living and championing the Oral Law which made life easier for the common people.

With the help of the Pharisees, Salome Alexandra reformed the court system and introduced the ketubah—a marriage contract that specified the obligations of the groom toward his bride in order to protect women. She also decreed that all children attend school.

The Talmud describes Salome Alexandra’s reign as so prosperous that “the rains would come down from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, until the wheat became like kidneys, the barley like olive pits, and the lentils like golden denars. The sages gathered some of them and put them aside for the coming generations.”

Salome Alexrandra died at the age of 73 after ruling for nine years. Her two sons were left to fight each other for the throne and at this point Rome saw their chance to invade. The late queen’s elder son, Hyrcanus was permitted to act as high priest, but not as king. Four years after Salome Alexandra’s death, Judea was declared a Roman possession. It would not become a sovereign nation again for more than two thousand years.

[Salome Alexandra] was a woman who showed none of the weakness of her sex; for being one of those inordinately desirous of the power to rule, she showed by her deeds the ability to carry out her plans, and at the same time she exposed the folly of those men who continually fail to maintain sovereign power. – Josephus


Notes:

Talmud – The central text of Rabbinic Judaism.


References:

Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Warrior Monarch of the First Century BCE – Kenneth Atkinson

The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman WorldPeter Schafer

On Wikipedia:

Cratesipolis – fl.314 BCE – Achaea, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Cratesipolis lived at a time of huge upheaval, when Empires could be built or destroyed by conquerors and tyrants. She knew this better than most, as she had married Alexander, a Macedonian military general.

When her husband was murdered at Sicyon, Cratesipolis was put in a difficult situation. Suddenly Alexander’s troops were without a leader, and the Sicyonians who has killed him now had their sights on her – hoping for an easy victory against a grieving woman.

Of course, Cratesipolis (whose name means conqueror of the city) wasn’t having any of it. She had accompanied her husband on many campaigns and had gained the respect of his men – apparently due to her kindness.

Unfortunately for the Sicyonians, she did not have kindness in mind this time. She led Alexander’s troops to victory against Sicyon, captured thirty of their leaders and had them crucified as an example.


References:

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities – William Smith

The Political Activities and the name of Cratesipolis – GH Macurdy

On Wikipedia:

Cynane – d.323 BCE – Illyria

Ancient Illyria

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She was half-sister to the greatest conqueror of the classical world, Alexander the Great, and daughter of King Philip II, but Cynane owed much of her tactical knowledge to her mother Audata, an Illyrian princess.

Audata trained her daughter in riding, hunting, and fighting in the Illyrian tradition. This unusual education prepared her Cynane for a life which would be fraught with conflict and political intrigue.

Her father Philip gave her in marriage to her cousin Amyntas, by whose death she was left a widow in 336 BCE. In the following year, her brother promised her hand, as a reward for his services, to Langarus, king of the Agrianians, who became ill and died before the wedding could take place.

Cynane, probably sick of being bartered for, continued unmarried, and devoted herself to the education of her daughter, Eurydice.

Much like Audata, Cynane trained Eurydice in martial arts and groomed her for a life in politics. When Cynane’s other half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus was chosen king in 323 BCE, Cynane determined to marry Eurydice to him, and crossed over to Asia accordingly.

Polyaenus wrote:

“Cynane, the daughter of Philip was famous for her military knowledge: she conducted armies, and in the field charged at the head of them. In an engagement with the Illyrians, she with her own hand slew Caeria their queen; and with great slaughter defeated the Illyrian army.”

Her military prowess and influence was famous throughout the ancient world, and the idea that her daughter might marry a King was alarming to many. Perdiccas, Alexander the Great’s General, was particularly concerned and sent his brother Alcetas to meet Cynane on her way to Asia and have her killed.

Alcetas’ troops were against the murder of Cynane, but she was killed either way, and is said to have ‘met her doom with an undaunted spirit’.

Eurydice’s wedding still took place, but both daughter and son-in-law were eventually killed by Olympias. In 317 BC, Cassander, after defeating Olympias, buried Cynane with Eurydice and Arrhidaeus at Aegae, the royal burying-place.


In Fiction:

Cynane appears as a character in the historical novel Funeral Games by Mary Renault. Renault calls her Kynna.


References:

Polyaenus on Cynane

On Wikipedia:

Arachidamia – 3rd Century BCE – Sparta, Greece

Ancient Greece

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The ancient Greeks are known for their philosophers and poets – and the majority of classical Greek women in this project fit into one of those two categories. But when actions speak louder than words, you can always rely on a Spartan woman.

Arachidamia was a queen and the wealthiest woman in Sparta. In the 3rd Century BCE, the city state was under siege by Phyrrhus of Epirus. Faced with invasion, the Spartan Gerousia (council of elders) began to discuss the possibility of sending the Spartan women to Crete for their safety. When Arachidamia got news of this plan, she was furious. Leave the city? They had to be joking.

The queen marched into the Gerousia, ‘with a sword in her hand’ and spoke on behalf of the women of Sparta, telling the senators that they were idiots if they thought that the women of Sparta wished to survive the city’s downfall. They would rather die fighting than run away.

With that question settled, the Spartans began digging a defensive trench along the enemy camp in order to impede the elephants Phyrrus’ army used. Arachidamia began to direct the woman to help with the digging.

“…there came to them the women and maidens, some of them in their robes, with tunics girt close and others in their tunics only, to help the elderly men in the work.”

"Spartan helmet 2 British Museum" by john antoni - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Spartan helmet 2 British Museum” by john antoni – Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It is likely that Arachidamia led the efforts of Spartan women during the subsequent battle against Pyrrhus, as they are noted for supplying the defenders with weapons and refreshment during combat, and extracting wounded from the battlefield.

“But the Lacedaemonians defended themselves with an alacrity and bravery beyond their strength; the women, too, were at hand, proffering missiles, distributing food and drink to those who needed them, and taking up the wounded.”


Notes:

Lacedaemon – The name of the Spartan homeland


References:

Parallel Lives: Life of Phyrrus 27.2-5, 29.3 –  Plutarch

On Wikipedia: