10 Badass Women of Antiquity
These women weren’t content to be the handmaids of men but lived life on their own terms.
Most everyone has heard of the famous men of antiquity, individuals like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Augustus, and the like. They are the colossi of the ancient world and, since history has often been written by men, they’ve gotten a lot of the attention. However, it’s also important to turn out attention to the many powerful women that strode across the stage of ancient history, many of whom were just as, if not more, powerful than the men that surrounded them.
In all of antiquity, there is probably no woman whose name is more well-known than Cleopatra’s. She was the last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, and with her death the control of that ancient land passed into the hands of the Romans. She has appeared in countless representations: painting, poetry, film, television, novels, and historiography, and she continues to haunt the popular imagination. All of these cultural representations have tended to obscure her true genius as a political leader, a woman who, despite all of the obstacles thrown in her way, managed to not only survive numerous threats to her life but came tantalizingly close to remaking the Mediterranean in her own image. Like many of her ancestors, she was determined to seize her destiny.
While Cleopatra gets the lion’s share of the attention of historians and modern audiences, in some ways Livia, the wife of the future Augustus and one of Cleopatra’s contemporaries, is even more interesting. For one thing, she lived to be quite old (outliving Augustus himself) and, for another, she was the ancestress of all of Julio-Claudians other than Augustus. She was a woman who managed to survive the brutal civil wars of the late Roman Republic and, through her marriage to Octavian, became the most powerful woman in the Mediterranean world. Though she hasn’t had quite the afterlife in popular culture as Cleopatra, she does make a very memorable appearance in the hugely popular BBC miniseries I, Claudius, in which she appears as a shrewd and machiavellian manipulator capable and willing of doing away with members of her own family in order to maintain control. Whether or not she was actually quite as ruthless as all that is unclear, but there’s no doubt that she was a canny politician in her own right, surviving when so many others did not.
Agrippina the Younger
Like so many of the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Agrippina the Younger has developed quite a bad reputation among historians, and most people probably know of the stories that she poisoned the doddering the Emperor Claudius to pave the way for her own son Nero to ascend to the throne. Say what you will, though, you have to admire her tenacity and her ability to stay alive in the viper’s nest that was the imperial family. Like her mother Agrippina the Elder — famous for her defiance of Tiberius — she was a survivor to the very end, you also can’t help but be in awe of a woman who, according to the ancient historians, managed to survive Nero’s attempt to murder her in a collapsing ship by swimming to shore. What’s more, when Nero’s soldiers arrived to dispatch her once and for all, she is said to have asked them to strike her first in the womb, since she had given birth to such a monster.
Like so many other women in antiquity, Olympias has something of a bad reputation in historiography. She’s often seen as ruthless and cunning and, in some history and fiction, as a shrew (Oliver Stone didn’t help matters by casting Angelina Jolie in his film Alexander). The truth is, though, that Olympias was a very subtle political operator, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that she managed to survive so many years in the Macedonian court which was, by most accounts, a very dangerous place for royalty. She could, of course, be very ruthless when it came to defending her son’s life and legacy, but that was true of many male Macedonian rulers as well. Particularly notable is the fact that she also did everything in her power to secure the lives of Alexander’s wife Roxane and her son Alexander but, alas, they were all defeated and ultimately executed.
It takes a pretty strong spirit to go up against the might of the Roman Empire, and yet that’s exactly what Zenobia, who ruled over the short-lived Palmyrene Empire, managed to do. In fact, she managed to bring a huge part of the eastern part of Rome’s domains under her rule, including Egypt (a crucial source of grain). The fact that she was so successful in a world dominated by men speaks volumes about her abilities as a military and political leader. Though she was ultimately defeated and sentenced to exile in Rome, that shouldn’t blind us to her accomplishments. As with so many of the other women listed here, she would go on to have quite the afterlife in the artistic imagination.
Though Cleopatra might be the most famous queen of Egypt, Hatshepsut is right up there as well. After all, this is a woman who managed to subvert all of the expectations of her gender and ruled Egypt as a pharaoh in her own right. What’s more, it appears that she was wildly successful, and the kingdom flourished under her rule. Hatshepsut was also a master of public relations, and she was canny enough to know that appearances matter a great deal, and so she took care to have herself shown wearing the traditional regalia of kingship in various pieces of iconography. Her funeral temple is, to this day, one of the most imposing architectural marvels of Egypt.
As with so many other women of antiquity, there’s very little that we know for sure about the life of Sappho. What we do know is that she was one of the most well-respected poets of the ancient world and, though her work largely exists in bits and pieces, if you’ve ever read even a snippet of it, you’ll know that there are few artists, working in either prose or poetry, who have been as able to capture the contradictory nature of human desire as well as Sappho. Her expressions of love for women are especially notable and are often heartbreakingly expressed.
The Women of the Severan Dynasty
I sort of cheated with this entry by including all four women of the Severan Dynasty of Rome, but I would argue that they were some of the most formidable women to have ever wielded power in imperial circles. Their rise to power started with Julia Domna, who was fortunate enough to marry the man who would become the Emperor Septimius Severus. After the deaths of Severus, Domna, and their son Caracalla, her sister Julia Maesa schemed and managed to elevate her grandson Elegabalus to the throne, and it’s very likely that she had a hand in his downfall and replacement by her other grandson Alexander Severus once he proved himself woefully incapable of ruling responsibly (among other things, he married a Vestal Virgin). Even though the last two female members of the dynasty, Julia Mamaea and Julia Sohaemias met rather ignominious ends — both were slain alongside their ruling sons — you can’t help but admire their sheer tenacity and ruthlessness.
Though the Roman Empire liked to fancy itself invincible, the fact is that it faced quite a few rebellions, many of which came perilously close to succeeding. In the annals of Roman history, the figure of Boudicca looms large, and with good reason. After all, this is a woman who managed to lead a full-scale revolt against the Empire, stirring up many British tribes to throw off the Roman yoke. The fact that she was ultimately defeated shouldn’t blind us to the fact that she was truly a force to be reckoned with.
Nefertiti is, along with Cleopatra, one of the most famous women of ancient Egypt, due in no small part to the famous bust of her currently housed in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. It shows her to have been a woman of truly extraordinary beauty and, indeed, that’s probably all that most people know about her. However, it’s important to recognize that she happened to live and rule during the Amarna Period, one of the most tumultuous eras of ancient Egypt, in which the old religion was abandoned in favor of the worship of the sun god Aten. What’s more, there’s good reason to believe that, after the death of her husband Akhenaten, that she assumed the throne under a male name and continued to rule.
Clearly, the women of antiquity were not to be trifled with. We shouldn’t let the popular imagination, which has tended to render these women into nothing more than sexual objects, obscure their true accomplishments as political actors. They understood the world that they lived in — one dominated by men, who wielded almost all of the political power — and yet they were determined to rule as men did, to overcome the limitations imposed on them from above and live their lives on their own terms.
When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt (by Kara Cooney)
Caesar’s Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire (by Annelise Freisenbruch)
Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great (by Elizabeth Carney)
Julia Domna: Syrian Empress (by Barbara Levick)