CleoThe fiercest female rulers of ancient Egypt

This article was originally published on July 15, 2022.

Roman visitors to ancient Egypt often wondered how women lived differently. Roman law required only a man to raise his firstborn daughter; he could let everyone else die. To the Romans’ surprise, the Egyptians did not have a common practice of infanticide of unwanted girls.

Women’s participation in the economy was another culture shock. Long before the Ptolemies took power, Egypt had extended legal rights to women. A woman can choose her husband and, if she wishes, divorce him and keep her dowry. Married, widowed, and divorced women were allowed to run businesses and borrow money. A third of the economy in Ptolemaic Egypt belonged to women.

Who were the female rulers who influenced Ancient Egypt?

Warrior women led their troops into battle, strategizing and inspiring. Sometimes political and military leadership even belonged to women who became strong, respected rulers. Here are four female warriors who fought for Egypt.

Queen Ahhotep I/The fiercest female rulers of ancient Egypt

When this Egyptian queen died in 1530 BC at the age of about 30, she was buried with a necklace with three pendants in the shape of a fly a military honor. The fly pendants were large, about the size of a hand, and symbolized the shooting of enemies. Flies also represented the tenacity of biting insects, meant to honor a military leader who did not give up on himself.

An honor rarely bestowed upon a queen, Ahhotep I earned this distinction on the battlefield. When her husband, the pharaoh (who was also her brother), died in battle against the Hyksos, an enemy seen as foreign invaders, Ahhotep I supposedly took control of Egypt and its military. Her leadership brought order to a troubled land uniting his people and driving out the Hyksos.

An inscription remember her legacy and explains why she was worthy of burial: “The princess, the king’s mother, the noble who knows things and cares for Egypt. She cared for his soldiers and protected them. She brought back the fugitives and brought the dissidents together. She pacified Upper Egypt and drove out its rebels.

Pharaoh Hatshepsut /The fiercest female rulers of ancient Egypt

In 1472 BC Hatshepsut ascended the throne, ruling for 22 years. She was considered the second woman to hold the title of pharaoh rather than queen. She was also the first woman to lead in decades. Others held the title for only a short period of time or served as regents on behalf of their young sons.

Hatshepsut was born the daughter of a pharaoh and married around the age of 12-13 to her brother. Many scholars believe that he was the product of inbreeding, which helps explain why he was ill for most of his young life. When Hatshepsut was widowed at 16, she claimed that the right to rule was hers as the daughter of one pharaoh and the widow of another.

Hatshepsut and her mother, Queen Ahmose, ruled together in the early years. Ahmose had a take-no-prisoners mentality when he ordered troops to quell the uprisings. After a rebellion in modern-day Sudan, Yahmose called for all participants to be massacred except for one of the chieftain’s sons, who was returned to Egypt as a captive.

Hatshepsut learned foreign suppression from his mother and this provided Egypt with a source of wealth. She organized at least four military campaigns to the Kingdom of Kush and is believed to have traveled with her troops and given orders – making her one of the most recognizable female pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

She left a legacy of improved infrastructure and trade routes. Her successor was frightened by her popularity, erasing her image from statues and other monuments in the hope of undoing the high regard her memory held.

Queen Arsinoe III/The fiercest female rulers of ancient Egypt

Like other female warriors of Ancient Egypt, Arsinoe III married her brother, the pharaoh. Ptolemy IV wanted the throne so badly that he killed his mother and brother. However, he wanted power, not work, and was known as a Ptolemaic party man. However, his young wife was far more serious, proving why she became one of the greatest ancient female rulers.

Arsinoe served as queen from 223-203 BC and is best known for leading troops in successful battles during the Fourth Syrian War. In 217 BC, Arsinoe III and her husband went with 55,000 soldiers to fight against the Hellenistic kingdom of the Seleucids.

When the battle was going badly, Arsinoë III marches up and down the encouraging line. She is known to have inspired the weary troops by telling them to fight for their wives and children. She also offered them two gold mines for the victory, and the performance bonus had a motivating effect.

Arsinoë is believed to have led a body of troops as they drove back their enemy and retook Syria and Phoenicia. She was an effective leader so much so that the rebels killed her when they came for her husband in a palace coup.

Queen Cleopatra VII

In 49 BC Queen Cleopatra VII flees from Egypt to Syria in a power struggle with her husband (also her brother) threatened to become deadly. The pharaoh was only about 13 years old and his advisers were responsible for fomenting the conflict.

While Cleopatra was in exile, she organized a group of mercenaries who helped her fight her way back to Alexandria. After forming a political alliance with the Roman general Gaius Julius Caesar (which soon became a personal alliance), they took power back from the pharaoh.

Queen Cleopatra was known for her military leadership, mostly remembered for her failed campaign with Mark Antony, the Roman ruler who was defeated by her rival Caesar Augustus (aka Octavian). His forces defeated the armies of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium and then at the Battle of Alexandria.

Although Cleopatra has long been blamed, some scholars attribution of loss of Mark Antony. He is remembered as a rough and experienced general, but Mark Antony did not have much military experience by Roman standards. The couple saw no way forward and after the defeat took their own lives to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy.

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