Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae glared as her soldiers dragged in the battered corpse of Cyrus the Great, slain founder of the Achaemenid empire. She had rejected his proposal of marriage to avoid war. In the subsequent vicious campaign to repel the Persian invaders, Tomyris had lost Spargapises—her son and commander of her army—and a third of her troops and had made a mortal enemy of the empire to the west. Persia, on the other hand, had lost its monarch.
Days before battle in 530 BC the queen of the nomadic Iranian tribal confederation had warned Cyrus not to march his army into her dominion northeast of the Caspian Sea. Following her son’s ignominious defeat at Persian hands, she flew into a rage and sent Cyrus one last letter, vowing to give him more blood than he could drink. Her army of the steppes defeated the Persian horde in a battle unusually violent even by ancient standards. After the field quieted and the surviving Persians fled west, she ordered her men to find Cyrus’ body.
Soldiers brought her his corpse as servants waited with a wineskin filled with human blood. Thrusting the head of the lifeless emperor into the gore-filled bag, Tomyris hissed, “Thus I make good my threat and give you your fill of blood!”
Herodotus’ account of Queen Tomyris is hardly the first story of a woman who led her nation in war. Ancient Egyptian stone monuments relate that Queen Hatshepsut, an 18th Dynasty ruler who came to the throne in 1478 bc, sent armies north into the Levant. The biblical Book of Judges recalls the generalship of Deborah, a judge from the tribe of Ephraim, who defeated a chariot-equipped Canaanite army in Israel’s Jezreel Valley around 1125 bc. A generation after Tomyris defeated Cyrus, the Persian emperor’s grandson, Xerxes, had as one of his trusted naval commanders the brash Queen Artemisia of the Persian satrapy of Caria.
Perhaps the best known among ancient warrior queens was Egypt’s legendary Cleopatra. She ascended to the throne in Alexandria in 51 bc at age 18 to rule Egypt jointly with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Three years into their joint reign Ptolemy’s courtiers orchestrated a palace coup and drove Cleopatra into the Sinai. There the queen amassed a force of some 20,000 mercenaries and marched her army west toward Alexandria. Cleopatra’s brother met her with an equal force at Pelusium, a fortress east of the city. Protected by the fort’s brick towers, Ptolemy’s army blocked Cleopatra’s path to the capital. The Egyptian king waited for his sister’s army to disintegrate in the desert.
It was then one of history’s twists jarred the plans of both siblings. The appearance in Alexandria of Julius Caesar, conqueror of Rome, forced Ptolemy to leave his army and return to his palace. Hoping to please Caesar, Ptolemy had had the general’s exiled chief rival, Pompey, slain. When Caesar arrived, he was presented with Pompey’s head, but the grisly trophy instead appalled the Roman.
Meanwhile, Cleopatra took action. In one of history’s more dramatic entrances she first stowed away on a small boat to Alexandria, then had a stout follower stroll into the royal palace toting his queen in a bedroll. Emerging from cover in Caesar’s quarters, a coquettish Cleopatra persuaded the general to arrange a reconciliation with her brother. But Caesar’s announcement Cleopatra would return to rule with Ptolemy triggered anti-Roman riots in the city, and the general and his two understrength legions found themselves besieged in the palace for months. Cleopatra undoubtedly gave Caesar political advice and shared local insights. She also engaged in an affair with the general and by the fall of 48 BC was pregnant with his son.
The spring arrival of Caesarian reinforcements forced Ptolemy to lift his siege and march east toward Pelusium. Seizing the moment, Caesar moved his legions up the Nile, concentrated his forces and destroyed Ptolemy’s army on the riverbanks. While fleeing the Roman wrath, Ptolemy toppled from his barge into the Nile. Weighed down with armor, the teenage king sank and drowned.
Caesar’s victory left Cleopatra de facto sole ruler of Egypt. In a strategic alliance she supplied Caesar with war materiel, while he gave political protection to the 22-year-old queen, expectant mother and war leader.
Caesar’s 44 BC murder set off a civil war between his assassins and his avengers, tribune Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew, Octavian. Cleopatra took a fleet of warships to support the avengers, only to see the vessels delayed by a storm and arrive too late to help.
Meanwhile, Gaius Cassius Longinus, one of Caesar’s assassins, marched a dozen legions against Egypt. Cleopatra threw together a hasty home defense, but Cassius was diverted north by the arrival of Antony and Octavian in Greece. The Caesarian victory at Philippi in 42 BC ended the republican threat to Cleopatra’s kingdom.
In the wake of the campaign Antony, who ruled Rome’s eastern provinces, summoned Cleopatra to meet him at Tarsus. Clad as a goddess, she arrived with barges loaded with riches from her kingdom and seduced Antony. He moved to Alexandria, and Cleopatra bore him twins.
Antony and Cleopatra ruled Rome’s eastern provinces for a decade as king and queen, god and goddess. Antony provided generalship and troops, while Cleopatra supplied money, weapons, ships, food and military intelligence. She accompanied Antony on the first leg of his disastrous campaign against Parthia and dispatched a relief column to protect the remnants of his army as it limped home.
In the spring of 32 BC, as tensions between Antony and Octavian flared into war, Cleopatra stockpiled ships, funds and weapons for her lover’s next campaign. She then accompanied Antony to Greece, where they held together a restive coalition of eastern allies and Roman legions.
Octavian’s navy gained control of the sea, trapping Antony and Cleopatra in western Greece. Isolated from her Egyptian base of support, Cleopatra likely encouraged Antony to regain naval superiority in a decisive battle or, failing that, to break out to Alexandria. Antony sallied forth against Octavian’s fleet in 31 bc and was soundly defeated at the Battle of Actium. Fleeing in one of the warships, Cleopatra led a squadron home and prepared to defend Alexandria once again.
Yet the tides of war had turned against Antony and Cleopatra. Antony sailed back to Egypt a broken man, and his armies melted away. Cleopatra prepared to move a fleet from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and escape east, but hostile locals burned her ships and cut off her retreat.
In the summer of 30 BC Octavian marched into the Egyptian capital. Cleopatra hid in a tomb built for her. Some accounts suggest she deceived Antony into believing she was already dead by having a messenger tell him she had killed herself. Bereft of options and believing his lover to be dead, Antony fell on his sword. Cleopatra survived to bury him, then met with Octavian, who promised leniency. When she learned he instead intended to take her to Rome in chains, Cleopatra committed suicide by poison.
Elsewhere in the world in the time of the western Roman empire other women proved effective rebel leaders. Around 40 AD the Trung sisters of northern Vietnam led a rebel army against the invading Han empire, staging hit-and-run raids for three years before the Chinese captured and beheaded the duo.
Twenty years later Boudica, queen of the Iceni tribe in eastern Britain led a bloody revolt against the Roman occupation. Her rebel army burned the Roman settlement at Londinium, site of present-day London, and sacked several other towns before being overwhelmed. Boudica reportedly took her own life.
Laws of succession during the Middle Ages did not always result in men assuming military leadership. In the Caucasus in the late 12th century Queen Tamar of Georgia fought off revolts led by her ex-husband and defeated neighboring Muslim armies. In the mid-1400s Queen Manduhai reunited the warring Mongols and led armies to restore the glory of Genghis Khan’s empire.
During the 15th century Wars of the Roses Margaret d’Anjou, Lancastrian queen of England, rallied soldiers to the standard of her mentally broken husband, King Henry VI. The Renaissance and Reformation also produced their share of warrior women. In 1484 Italian countess Caterina Sforza led a column of horsemen to capture Rome’s fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo while seven months pregnant.
A century later Elizabeth I of England sent armies to the Netherlands, France and Ireland. Most famously, in the summer of 1588 the queen’s navy, led by Sir Francis Drake, defeated the Spanish Armada in the English Channel.
In the 1620s, two decades after Elizabeth’s reign, Queen Njinga of Ndongo (present-day Angola) came to power as an adept diplomat and warrior. By the late 16th century west Africa was a bustling hub of the slave trade. Having established dominance over the central Atlantic coast, Portuguese officials and Jesuit missionaries moved south toward the lands of the Ndongo. At first the relationship between the Portuguese and the Ndongo king seemed amicable.
However, in 1618 the Portuguese governor allied with local Imbangala tribes, fierce mercenaries who raided neighboring lands and practiced cannibalism and infanticide. A Portuguese-Imbangala army stormed the Ndongo capital the following year, driving its leaders from the coast. Around 1624 Ndongo King Mbandi died under suspicious circumstances after naming his young son as his heir. Not to be denied, Mbandi’s aggressive sister, Njinga, had her nephew killed and declared herself ruler.
A Roman Catholic convert, Njinga at first tried to negotiate with the governor and continued to supply Portuguese merchants with slaves. Clashes ensued after Njinga set strict limits on the trade and officials complained of the queen’s willingness to harbor runaways. The discord prompted Portugal to back the claims of a rival. War raged between the two factions until 1628, when Njinga’s army was driven from the Ndongo capital.
Withdrawing to Matamba in the African interior, Njinga assembled a coalition of Ndongas, Matambas and Imbangalas. An adept politician, she adopted the ways of the warlike Imbangala, reportedly participating in ritual sacrifice and drinking human blood. Completing her transformation into a war queen, she merged Ndongo and Imbangala units into an effective fighting force of light troops and even adopted European innovations, often fielding a company of matchlock musketeers.
Over the next dozen years Njinga’s forces raided Portuguese coastal settlements. Then, in 1641, Portugal lost the key port of Luanda to a Dutch expeditionary force. Sensing her enemy’s weakness, Njinga allied herself with the Dutch and intensified the war. From 1643 to ’48 she led her forces to a string of minor victories, marred by a defeat resulting in her sister’s capture.
In 1648 the Portuguese retook Luanda and drove inland. Njinga again retreated into the Matamba interior, knowing the Portuguese could not operate that far from their coastal bases. While she continued to mount guerrilla raids, neither Njinga nor the Portuguese could force a decisive battle.
In time Portuguese emissaries reached out to Njinga for peace talks, with the primary interest of maintaining the lucrative slave trade. The exiled queen negotiated a treaty that required Portugal to return her sister and render military assistance when called on. In return Njinga supplied the Portuguese with slaves, granted them a concession to hold trade fairs, reconverted to Christianity and allowed missionaries to enter deep into Matamba lands.
Njinga died at age 82 in 1663, a symbol of resistance to colonial Europe. Her corpse, put on public display clad in jewel-encrusted robes and clutching bow and arrow, was mourned as a national hero.
The 18th century produced a succession of notable female war leaders. Amid the 1740–48 War of the Austrian Succession Empress Elizabeth of Russia joined forces with Austrian Queen Maria Theresa to battle Prussia’s Frederick the Great. Elizabeth’s niece-in-law, Catherine the Great, seized the Romanov throne from her husband in a military coup. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine had captured a warm-water port on the Black Sea, expanded her nation’s frontiers along the Danube and established Russia as the dominant power in Eastern Europe.
The modern era has witnessed a panoply of warrior women. In the 19th century rebel queens Rani Lakshmibai of India and Yaa Asantewaa of Ghana’s Ashanti people battled the British empire, albeit unsuccessfully.
During World War II women fought as frontline ground troops and military aviators in the forces of the Soviet Union, while Resistance movements throughout Nazi-occupied Europe relied on women as both support personnel and combatants.
A wave of democratization following the war saw the popular elections of such women as Indira Gandhi, who led India through the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. In 1982 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the famed “Iron Lady” of Britain, led her nation to victory over Argentina in the Falklands War. And the list goes on.
Among modern female war leaders, none played for such high stakes as a plump Israeli grandmother named Golda Meir. Born in Kiev, the present-day capital of Ukraine, and raised in Milwaukee, Meir immigrated to what was then Palestine after World War I and worked her way up the ranks of the Jewish political establishment. A committed Zionist, she worked strenuously to end the British mandate and was among the signatories of Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence. After stints in the Knesset and Israeli cabinet, Meir served as foreign minister during the 1956 Suez Crisis and informally advised the government during the 1967 Six-Day War. Two years later she was elected Israel’s first female prime minister.
Years of war had hardened Meir to the reality of life surrounded by enemies. “Are we supposed to sit here with our hands folded, praying and murmuring, ‘Let’s hope that nothing happens?’” she responded to one interviewer. “Praying doesn’t help. What helps is to counterattack. With all possible means, including means that we don’t necessarily like.”
Meir remained Israel’s prime minister in September 1973 when intelligence reports painted an ominous picture: Syria and Egypt were calling up reserves and moving armor and infantry to Israel’s borders. At 3:45 on the morning of Oct. 6, 1973, Meir’s intelligence chief informed her a reliable source in the Egyptian high command had disclosed Egypt and Syria would attack Israel that very day—Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Israeli Chief of Staff David Elazer recommended a preemptive air strike against Syrian and Egyptian airfields, a strategy that had proved successful in 1967. Under a cloud of fighter-bombers, he argued, Israeli armor and infantry could then roll back the invaders.
Meir fully appreciated Israel’s precarious position. Only 109 miles separated the Syrian border from Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital. To counter as many as 800,000 Arab troops on two fronts, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) could field only 135,000 active-duty troops. It would require the quick mobilization of 250,000 reservists to hold the battle lines. On Yom Kippur, though, those reservists would be praying in temples and at home with their families. It would take time to form them into combat units.
A preemptive air strike might level the playing field. As prime minister, however, Meir had to think beyond the war’s opening salvos. Israel depended on the United States for ammunition, aircraft and replacement parts, and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had privately warned her a preemptive strike would ignite strong anti-Israeli sentiment and make it difficult for President Richard Nixon to render military aid. Kissinger insisted Israel not attack first, even in the face of grave danger.
Haggard from stress, Meir duly ordered her commanders to refrain from a preemptive strike, though she did immediately mobilize active-duty troops. The IDF would have to hold the line as best it could until reservists fell in and the United States came through with replacement weapons and ammunition.
Later that morning sirens blared in Jerusalem’s empty streets as word of Syrian air strikes spread. Meanwhile, Egyptian engineers threw bridges over the Suez Canal, and T-55 tanks, covered by Soviet-built surface-to-air (SAM) missiles batteries, rolled across and smashed into the Bar-Lev Line, a thin chain of fortifications along the east bank. To the north Syrian tanks blasted a path toward the Golan Heights, the plateau overlooking northern Israel.
For a few days Israel’s survival hung in the balance. The IDF lost a quarter of its tanks and an eighth of its fighter-bombers. Cracks appeared in the Bar-Lev Line, as the Syrians made inroads along the Golan Heights. If either Syria or Egypt broke through the IDF’s thin shell, the Israeli heartland would be wide open to attack.
Meir spent several anxious days as chief diplomat, strategist and cheerleader. Chain-smoking and gulping a gallon of coffee each day, the 75-year-old boosted the badly shaken spirits of her defense minister and veteran general, Moshe Dayan. Rattled by Syrian gains in the north, he sought permission from Meir to ready Israel’s nuclear arsenal for deployment. The prime minister refused. The battle would be fought in Sinai and on the Golan Heights. The war would be won—or lost—with the support of Israel’s friends. There would be no nuclear option.
Shadowing Meir as she reviewed reports with Dayan, the defense editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote, “It was strange to see a warrior of seven campaigns and brilliant past chief of staff of the IDF bringing clearly operational subjects to a Jewish grandmother for decision.”
Absorbing severe losses, Israeli attack aircraft managed to snuff out the deadly SAM batteries and begin picking off Egyptian tanks from the air. In Syrian skies Israeli F-4 Phantom jets pounded Damascus, while on the ground IDF Centurion and Patton tanks drove Syrian troops back behind their start lines. Meir’s “no first strike” strategy paid off, as Nixon sent waves of cargo planes into Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport bearing 28,000 tons of ammunition, spare parts and supplies from U.S. arsenals.
As IDF spearheads crossed the Suez Canal, Kissinger warned Meir the United Nations would insist on a cease-fire. Again, she tempered military judgment with the eye of a statesman, realizing that to humiliate the Egyptians would only ignite their thirst for revenge. Meir deemed it best to reach an accord with Israel’s enemies.
On October 29, less than a month after the war began, IDF commanders in the Sinai met their Egyptian counterparts beneath a tent stretched across the guns of four parked Israeli tanks. In its welcome shade they negotiated the withdrawal of Egypt’s encircled Third Army on terms that permitted Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat to save face and, in time, negotiate a lasting peace with Israel. Four years later Sadat visited Jerusalem and shared a few peaceful moments with his former enemy, the 79-year-old grandmother from Milwaukee who led her nation to victory. MH
This article appeared in the November 2020 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: