Women have been much more involved in history then you may know.
Simply put, there is rampant sexism in ancient texts and from most historians up until relatively recently.
Women have been conquerors, rulers of empires, builders of lasting monuments and stuff of legends. Some are seen as myths, some have their characteristics all smooshed into one figure which makes it hard to see through the haze of the past.
Often times women are simply portrayed as passive actors who have things happen to them. They are sexualized, minimized and excluded from warfare. However there are nuances to all of these conceptions.
One dramatic re-conception is that women Amazon Warriors were real.
There likely were female armies who sparred equally with their male counterparts. They were some of the only tribes on record to directly beat the Greeks in combat.
There were maybe two groups of “Amazons” at different times, one in Libya and one in Asia Minor. They reversed traditional gender and sexual roles and had women in the “dominant” position in society. Men did house work while the women ruled, fought and conquered.
For the longest time, even by most people today, Amazons were considered myths. It was simply unbelievable that gender roles could be filled this way.
However Amazons are not referred to as myths by Greeks. They were instead seen as very real neighboring tribe who often times kicked Greek ass. They seemed to have shared some attributes or possibly inspiration from the nomadic horse riding cultures found on the Eurasian steppes.
Over 30% of Warrior style burials in some Eurasian steppe regions are females.
Ancients were sexist too, it is unfortunately not just modern or Western problem.
Women were not allowed to participate in ancient Greek democracy, whatsoever.
Often times the easiest way to slander a woman, then as it is now, are allegations of promiscuity and sexual deviance.
Are these historical asides true?
Do they have some basis in reality?
Are they simply slanders?
One of the most famous tale is the likely true example of the Chinese empress Wu Zetian and her fixation on oral sex.
We cannot possibly verify but is commonly told and believed that all men appearing before her in court had to kneel and perform oral sex on her, no matter what issue they sought, however big or small.
This is referred to in texts as “Licking lotus stem”. Is this a misunderstood euphemism of some sort? Possibly, but most historians do not think so.
Then there are allegations based in some truths, based on behavior that actually happed at the time.
For example, the common story of Marie Antoinette goes that she enjoyed dressing in peasant “costumes” and having trysts with various nobles in the ample garden niches of Versailles. In fact some nobles definitely did do this, but did she, the reigning Queen of France?
There is no direct proof that Marie Antionette participated, but others certainly did. So the rumors are based in some fact, but incorrectly applied to the wrong person as slander.
To contrast the often told and highly sexualized tales of women in history, here are some absolute basasses throughout time virtually no one in popular culture ever mentions. They all deserve more attention.
There are countless powerful and influential women I am leaving off this list. Please send me stories and examples you would have used!
Lived in the 500s B.C.
She was Queen of the Scyths. An absolute badass charioteer and horse archer, she was the leader of feared nomadic mounted warriors. Scythians had tattoos and smoked weed, they wore intricate gold jewelry and mastered the tactics of using the bow and arrow from horseback. They constructed stone tombs and spread military and cultural influences from the Middle East and Europe to China and back via the endless grassland steppes of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
According to Herodotus, Tomyris’ lands were invaded by Cyrus the Great, the famous King of Persia. The Persians decided to avoid direct combat and instead deceived the Scythians by laying out wine flasks. Unfamiliar with alcohol, the Scyths drank themselves silly. Her son was captured in this trap. He soon committed suicide due to his shame of being taken prisoner in such a deceitful manner.
Tomyris vowed to quench King Cyrus’s apparent thirst for blood the best way she knew how. Her chariots and horse archers defeated the Persian lightly armored infantry. The Persians could not match the speed and maneuverability of the Scythian nomads and their rapid-firing arrows. Tomyris captured, tortured and then beheaded Cyrus.
She then put his head in a wineskin full of his own blood, forever quenching his thirst and avenging her son.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Lived 1122 to 1204 C.E.
Eleanor was Queen of both England and parts of France at different times. Her royal courts focused on arts and poetry and helped shape the high medieval concept of chivalry and culture. She was the wealthiest most powerful woman in Western Europe during her lifetime. She Led the 2nd Crusade, the only woman to ever do so.
Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart, was considered the absolute model of a man for his time. He exemplified the dignity, strength and grace that his mother Eleanor did, and had sought to impart on him. She ruled extremely effectively while he Crusaded in the Middle East against the infamous Saladin.
In fact Richard never governed a day as king. Eleanor ruled over England the entire tenure of Richard’s reign as well.
Ruled from 811-806 BCE
Queen of Assyria, Semiramis was known as a master architect and builder. Countless monuments across the Middle East were attributed to her, correctly or not. She is even rumored to have built tunnels under the river Euphrates.
Her myth and reality do not add up.
She also supposedly conquered much of Middle East, Egypt and Asia Minor uniting them all under her sophisticated rule. Semiramis then invaded India and finally lost when her camels-disguised-as-elephants ruse was discovered.
The actual Indian elephants made quick work of her army.
However, historians have only found record of one woman Queen of Assyria, Queen Shammuramat who only served for three years and did little to no conquering or constructing. She was a placeholder for the young King-in-waiting, her son.
Was there another Semiramis?
I stumbled upon Semiramis while reading Diodorus’ Bibliotheca Historica and was struck. Maybe another Queen of Assyria figure existed much further back in time.
One who did a hell of a lot of building conquering and deceiving. The time before the written word is hazy murky and fascinating.
Diodorus of Sicily, an ancient historian, specifically names a Semiramis in much more ancient times than traditionally thought. He places her rule 600 years before the Trojan War which was 1260 to 1180 B.C.E. according to most modern accounts.
Is Semiramis a figure from prehistory? A purely mythical ruler? The amalgamation of what a female ruler could be? Did she rule Assyria some time around 1800 B.C.E.?
Is Diodorus just way off with his dates? It is hard to see the truths through the haze of myth and time.
The unnamed women defenders of Thebes
Some time around 460–445 B.C.E
One of my favorite passages from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is an overnight invasion of the Greek city-state of Thebes gone wrong. The attack floundered, with the invaders being peppered with tiles and bricks by local women who had taken to the roofs to do their part defending their homes to repel the heavily armed soldiers.
The Theban citizens realized they vastly outnumbered the enemy. They chased the soldiers through the narrow alleyways, pelting them with stones, stabbing them as they hit dead ends, the foreigners not knowing what way to turn. Thebes organized its own hoplites and, along with the women and slaves, they formed a hodge-podge “army” with the women throwing stones and bricks as a impromptu “ranged infantry”.
Reading Thucydides contemporary account of the ancient Greek civil wars was fascinating. He includes so much human detail for a book written 2,400 years ago.
If you are interested in ancient war tactics and politics I highly recommend him, as well as the more accessible Polybius, both works are available free online.
Too often history focuses on big names and rulers and ignores majority of people who lived through events, fought in wars or had their homes destroyed and lives disrupted. What were their thoughts? Feelings? Asperations?
A Worker Reads History
by Bertolt Brecht
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.
Sources / Further Reading
The Real Amazons by Joshua Rothman
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