Five Ladies Who Governed the Ancient World


Cleopatra. Boudica. Seondouk, the Queen. Although they were rare in antiquity, female monarchs had a significant impact on history.

In the ancient world’s kingdoms and empires, very few women ever attained positions of authority. The few who succeeded did so in the Near East, Asia, and Europe, pushing past formidable obstacles during sometimes bloody periods.

Fathers, spouses, brothers, and sons were the first males through whom these women gained access to authority. But a combination of ambition, cunning, political acumen, kindness, cunning, and, in some instances, a brutal and violent thirst for power allowed them to hold onto power for decades at a time.

The catalyst for their ascent to the throne is a crisis in every instance. “It’s a lack of men; they are there as stopgaps or placeholders, and they usually have a bad end,” says Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist and archaeologist who lectures at the University of California, Los Angeles, on female rulers in antiquity.

They sometimes died away brutally after their reigns ended. In an attempt to claim credit and uphold the patriarchal standards that ruled at the time, male rulers who came after them often erased their accomplishments and lives from the common memory.

The lady gets brushed aside in every instance. The lady in each instance has no inherited traits. She is seen as dangerous and self-serving in each instance, according to Cooney, the author of The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt. And for millennia thereafter, male historians wrote the majority of their accounts. According to Cooney, these stories—which occasionally center on the women’s violent or promiscuous behavior—became “cautionary tales” that “have invaded our cultural psyche” and kept many people from realizing the full scope of the women’s achievements and real lives. Examples of these stories include Cleopatra of Egypt and Jezebel, the royal princess of Phoenicia.

These five historical female monarchs overcame hardships to influence their era’s history.

1. Egypt’s Ancient Hatshepsut

After ascending to the throne in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, Queen Hatshepsut oversaw 22 years of unprecedented peace, wealth, and artistic innovation that would have a lasting impact on Egyptian culture.

Hatshepsut, the oldest daughter of a pharaoh, married her half-brother Thutmose II at around twelve years of age. She then went on to become queen regent to her stepson and nephew Thutmose III, who, at two years old, took the throne. After seven years of regency, in 1478 BCE, she defied custom and was anointed pharaoh, sharing power with the young monarch.

Hatshepsut created a manly persona in order to fit in with Egypt’s patriarchal culture, where male rulers had ruled for a very long time. She had on a phony beard and customary royal kilts. She had portrayed herself as having enormous strength, either giving regal sacrifices to the gods or hitting the skulls of foreign prisoners.

Hatshetsup, the longest-reigning female pharaoh of ancient Egypt, revived lost trade routes, spurred economic growth, and oversaw hundreds of building projects in both Upper and Lower Egypt. She secured her religious foundation and kingdom’s legitimacy by carrying out sacred rites that many temples only allowed male rulers to execute.

Following Hatshepsut’s demise, her co-ruler, Pharaoh Thutmose III, removed her likeness from public monuments, demolished her sculptures, and removed her name from official records. He claimed credit for his stepmother’s achievements and began his rule at the moment of his father’s death.

2. China’s Wu Zetian

The first and only female empress of China, Empress Wu Zetian, ruled the Tang Dynasty de facto for forty years, from 665 to 705, for twenty-five of those years via her husband and sons, and the remaining fifteen years during which she formed the Wu Zhou Dynasty and assumed the title of empress in her own right. Admired for her strong leadership, she restored China’s economy and culture, built a more effective and less corrupt administration, and defied the aristocracy to empower the peasant class. She made China one of the most powerful empires in history by annexing more land in Korea and Central Asia.

She first entered the royal court as Emperor Taizong’s concubine, and upon his passing, she married Emperor Gaozong, the ninth son and heir. She was seen as the true power behind the throne because she was an intelligent, charming, and aspirational woman who acted more independently and decisively than her husband.

She acquired that authority, in part, through cruelty, trickery, a great deal of palace intrigue, charges of witchcraft, and a great deal of bloodshed. She set up a spy network to assist her in eliminating perceived, actual, or possible competitors. She banished or demoted foes along with their offspring. When some attempted to usurp her power, she slaughtered 12 collateral branches of the imperial line, focusing on members of her own family.

As empress regent, she retained her authority and prevented her sons from participating in political and administrative matters even after they were crowned emperors. She compelled her youngest son, Emperor Ruizong, to abdicate in 690, when she was in her 60s, established the Second Zhou Dynasty, which lasted for fifteen years, and became the only monarch.

In addition to advancing literature and the arts, she spearheaded movements for women’s rights and a better status for themselves, and she favored Buddhism over Taoism. Wu Zetian was deposed in a coup that took place in February 705. Later in the year, she passed away.

3. Boudica | Prehistoric Britain

Through rebellion, bloodshed, and conflict, Queen Boudica of the ancient British Iceni tribe rose to become a mythical character, a cultural icon, and a leader for her people.

Following the death of her husband Prasutagus in the year 60 A.D., the Iceni Kingdom was annexed by the Roman Empire. The Romans publicly whipped the queen and sexually assaulted her two daughters during the conquest.

According to author David Furlow, the Romans thought that the assault would force her to surrender. It produced the opposite result. It gave her unbelievable strength. It enabled her to lead a steel-and-fire campaign.

Trained as a warrior, Boudica united the Iceni and other British tribes. Together, they overran all three of the major Roman cities, including Londonium, or approximately modern-day London, and routed a Roman legionary division. Her supporters almost succeeded in the rebellion, killing 70,000–80,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons, until a reorganized Roman army soundly destroyed the tribes in the third and last battle.

Soon later, Boudica passed either from sickness or suicide. She became a national hero and cultural icon during the English Renaissance, fifteen centuries after the brief uprising in 61 A.D.

4. Egypt | Cleopatra

The last reigning monarch of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt before Rome captured it in 30 BCE was Cleopatra, who reigned for 21 years with her two brothers. As the last ruler of Egypt of Macedonian Greek descent, Cleopatra is renowned for her passionate relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, which had a significant impact on politics and caused significant turmoil in Rome. Her goal was to utilize Rome to give Egypt back its lost land.

Following the death of their father, Ptolemy XII, in 51 BCE, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, assumed joint leadership. However, a battle and power struggle between them forced Julius Caesar, the dictator of Rome, to side with Cleopatra, whom he later fell in love with. Caesar anointed Cleopatra and her other brother, Ptolemy XIV, as co-rulers after the death of Ptolemy XIII in combat. In order to advance the dynasty, she designated herself and Caesar’s son, Caesarion, as co-rulers under the name Ptolemy XV after that brother passed away in 44 BCE in Rome.

Then, she formed an alliance with Marc Antony, a Roman military commander and Caesar’s presumed successor. They married, produced twins, and exchanged political favors after more political and royal intrigue. After providing funding for one of Antony’s long-awaited military expeditions, Cleopatra asked Rome to give Egypt back control over portions of Syria and Lebanon. This led to a propaganda campaign over Antony gifting Roman property to a foreign lady, which began with Caesar’s adoptive son Octavian. The Roman Senate pronounced Cleopatra to be the enemy.

The armies of Octavian and Antony engaged in combat. Antony fell on his sword upon hearing the false rumor that Cleopatra had passed away. Cleopatra refused to be brought back to Rome and was carried through the streets as a vanquished queen when Octavian showed up to capture her at the palace in Alexandria. According to legend, she bit herself to death; however, other historians speculate that she may have ingested the poison by needles, ointments, or another means.

5. Korea’s Queen, Seondeok

Princess Deokman, the daughter of King Jinpyeong of Silla, requested the opportunity to vie for the kingdom rather than having her brother-in-law inherit it because her father had no male offspring. In Silla, one of the three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula, women had previously had some authority, but many people still considered it undesirable for a woman to have absolute control. Along with their families, two officials who plotted an insurrection to stop her coronation were publicly killed in the marketplace in 631.

As the first ruling queen of Silla and its 27th ruler overall, Queen Seondeok ascended to the throne in January 632, devoid of the regent or queen dowager titles held by women who came before her. She contributed to the resurgence of literature, the arts, and intellectualism during a period when the three kingdoms were engaged in frequent battles. She assigned royal inspectors the duty of enhancing the care of widows, widowers, the impoverished, orphans, and the elderly because she was concerned about people’s livelihoods.

She overcame resistance from the male aristocracy by winning public support and constructing the Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory (Tower of the Moon and Stars) to aid farmers. She also lowered taxes for the middle class and freed peasants from paying taxes for a year. She was unfazed by the Tang Dynasty’s initial refusal to recognize a female monarch in neighboring China. As she laid the groundwork for the three Korean kingdoms to be united under Silla control, she once again turned to them for assistance. In an attempt to bring the three kingdoms together, she adopted Buddhism and erected hundreds of temples and pagodas, some of the highest buildings in East Asia.

In 647, Queen Seondeok became sick and passed away while putting down a 10-day uprising spearheaded by one of her personally chosen advisors. The next female monarch of Silla was her cousin, the newly crowned Queen Jindeok.

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