Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
When you think Ancient Queens, I bet Cleopatra immediately pops into mind. She was an amazing woman, whose story was complex and fascinates us to this day, but she wasn't the only ancient woman with a tantalizing past. In fact, ancient history contains some of the greatest leaders in history - and quite a few of them were women.
In this article, I explore the lives of three amazing ancient queens. Their stories are ones of mystery, war, and legend. Their actions would forever change the history of their kingdoms. And their legacies are still puzzling archaeologists and historians today...
Resistor of the Romans
We’ll start with the one closest in time to us - Amanirenas, Queen of the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush, known as “kandake.”
The Kingdom of Kush, from about 1050 BC to 250 CE, existed around what is now modern-day Sudan. In the height of its power, around 700 BC, the Kush controlled nearly all of Egypt and ruled as pharaohs. By the time Amanirenas came to power, they had been pushed back to Meroe. This is where we know the most about her: from Meroitic culture, which refers to her as “Kandake,” or ruling queen. The problem with her story is that the archaeology and research surrounding Nubia, Kush, and Meroe is rather slim and contradictory, and we have yet to confirm that Kandake is Amanirenas.
Who were the Kush?
Little is known about her early life. Most of what we know is from Strabo’s account of the Roman war with the Kushites from 27 to 22 BC. In it, he states that Amanirenas was “a masculine woman, who had lost an eye.” At this time, the Kushites -- ruling from Meroe -- were not under Roman control. The Romans had succeeded in conquering Egypt, but had yet to conquer the Meroitic-Kush who lived south of Egypt.
In 24 BC, the Roman Prefect of Egypt left on an expedition to Arabia. The Kushites, led by Amanirenas, took advantage of his absence and launched an attack on the Roman cities in Egypt, both to take back what had once been theirs and to assert their freedom from Roman rule. They successfully took over Syrene, Philae, and Elephantina, taking Roman statues from those cities and transporting them back to Meroe. One of these statues is now known as the Meroe Head, seen below. It was found by archaeologists on the steps of a temple in Meroe. Because the statue was dismembered, it’s believed to have been placed there as a sign of defiance of Roman rule.
Unfortunately for the Kushites, a new Roman Prefect came to Egypt and pushed them back to Napata, the Meroitic capital at the time. Amanirenas made one last move to try to turn the tide of war, attacking a garrison at Premnis with “an army of many thousand men.” But her efforts were thwarted.
By 20 BC, the Kushites sent ambassadors to negotiate peace with the Romans. The treaty may have ended favorably for the Kushites, as Sarbo states “the ambassadors obtained all that they desired,” but what happened to Queen Amanirenas is unknown.
Like most of her life, Amanirenas remains shrouded in mystery. We’ve found no artifacts to bear witness to her life, nor are there accounts from the Kushites themselves. Like most ancient women, and many queens, what we know of her will likely never come from her own words and thoughts. Instead, we must simply believe that she exists: a fierce warrior queen, one of potentially many, who ruled her people, fought for her freedom, and was likely far more complex than we will ever know. Today, her legacy lives on in one simple word: Candace, a name derived from the word kendake, “ruling queen.”
The Lady Who Charmed Snakes
Next we travel to Macedonia to meet a princess named Olympias. She’s someone you might recognize from modern-day film. In the film Alexander, she is played by Angelina Jolie!
That’s right - Olympias is none other than the mother of Alexander the Great, one of the most legendary figures in ancient history. But being his mother isn’t the only thing that makes Olympias so fascinating.
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Olympias was born around 375 BC to the king of the Molossians, one of the greatest tribes in Epirus - which was somewhere in modern-day Greece. During her father’s reign, the Molossians became a more sedentary people - building cities and starting administration similar to other civilizations of the time. They allied with the Macedonians in 358, when Olympias was just 17 years old. As part of the alliance, Olympias became Philip’s wife - cementing not just an alliance, but also a romance. According to Plutarch, the couple had previously met when they were initiated into the mysteries of Cabeiri at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace.
The night before their wedding, Olympias received a portent - or an omen, of sorts. She dreamed that a thunderbolt struck her body, kindling a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all about, and then were extinguished. After their marriage, Philip would also have a portent dream, where he put a seal upon his wife’s womb, in the figure of a lion.
Within a year of their marriage, Olympias had given birth to her first child: Alexander. She would also later give birth to a daughter, Cleopatra.
Olympias had a very rocky marriage with Philip. Both were jealous and volatile, and eventually became estranged. But it wasn’t just their jealous nature that led to this - it was Olympias’s fascination with snakes. Olympias was a follower of the Orphic rites. As Plutarch stated in his account of Alexander’s life, Olympias,
“affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion.”
She would entertain visitors with many tame serpents, often having the snakes come out of winnowing-baskets or ivy, or coiling themselves around her. In fact, she was so devoted to her practice that she even slept with snakes -- and it wasn’t exactly Philip’s favorite way to encourage marital relations.
One night, he found a snake lying peacefully next to Olympias as she slept and believed it to be a god! As Plutarch states, this scene dulled Philip’s affections so much that he no longer visited her bed, fearing that she would cast enchantments on him. Whatever the truth behind these stories, it’s clear that Olympias was a devoted follower of the Orphic rites, and that her devotion was so intense it scared her husband away!
Their marriage got even worse in 337. Just twenty years into their marriage, Philip took another wife - the noble Macedonian woman, Eurydice. Olympias retreated to her brother’s kingdom in voluntary exile, taking Alexander with her. Only a year later, Philip attempted to estrange Olympias even further by marrying their daughter to Olympias’s brother.
It might have been Olympias’s breaking point. Though her role was never confirmed, that night, Philip was killed by one of his own personal bodyguard. Shortly after, Olympias ordered Philip’s other wife (and child) to be executed, securing her son’s position as king of Macedonia.
Olympias would go on to become one of the key figures in Alexander’s achievements. She would regularly correspond with him while he was on military campaigns to expand his empire. She also played a role in Alexander’s claim to Egypt, stating that Alexander’s father wasn’t Philip - it was Zeus, king of the Gods, who had been the thunderbolt in her dream. Unfortunately for Olympias, no matter her intentions, Alexander became estranged from her as well. By 330 - only 7 years into Alexander’s campaigns - Olympias had again retreated to her brother’s kingdom in Epirus.
After her son’s death in 323, Olympias avoided conflict for a little while. But it came knocking on her door as the successors of Alexander battled it out over who would rule. Eventually, Olympias came to the rescue of Alexander’s wife and son, winning battles and executing hundreds in attempts to secure their throne. But her efforts failed, and Olympias was eventually stoned to death by the families of her victims.
The Queen You Find in Every Major Museum
Finally, we end with one of my favorite women from Ancient Egypt -- one you may encounter the next time you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art...or any major museum. Her name was Hatshepsut, and she would have a life so complex that we’re still trying to figure it all out.
Hatshepsut was born in 1507 BC, the daughter of pharaoh Thutmose I and his primary wife, Ahmes. She beat the odds in Ancient Egypt - surviving past the age of five, when many others did not. She grew up beside the other children of her father - including her half-brother, Thutmose II. She was tutored, learning how to read and write in the sacred script, and traveled with the royal family at times - though most believe she was primarily raised in Thebes.
Yet, Hatshepsut was special. She was the eldest daughter of the King by his primary wife, known as the King’s Great Wife. In fact, an inscription from Hagr el-Merwa shows her father and mother traveling up the Nile to Kurgus with the crown prince and a princess whose name is obscured - and could be Hatshepsut. To travel with her father implies that Hatshepsut had an important role to fill in her life, and needed to know how to rule effectively.
She would also fulfill another important role: a high religious office entitled “God’s Wife of Amen.” In this role, she was an influential priestess initiated into a sacred mystery with the god, Amen. Her role was second only to the High Priest, outranking all other religious officials. It came with estates and palaces, and her own treasury and administration. You can equate it to a modern-day Vatican, with Hatshepsut almost at its center. She was only nine or ten years old.
It was to prove a formative part of her later life. An inscription of hers at Karnak states,
“I acted under his command; it was he who led me. I did not plan a work without his doing. It was he who gave directions.”
And wow, did he give directions.
Within a few years, all of Hatshepsut’s older siblings had died - leaving her not only the eldest, but now the next queen of Egypt. She became engaged to Thutmose II, the half-brother she played with as a child. Thutmose II was in constant bad health and younger than Hatshepsut. His mummy shows signs of an enlarged heart, indicative of severe health problems. Soon after their engagement, tragedy struck again - and Thutmose II and Hatshepsut found themselves the new rulers of Egypt -- Hatshepsut was only twelve years old.
Given her husband’s bad health, and his death only three years later, Hatshepsut quickly became co-regent for her husband and, later, her infant son and then nephew. But “co” is misleading. In fact, Hatshepsut would rule Egypt in almost every way, becoming a “female pharaoh” - and one of the most powerful in history.
During her co-rule, Hatshepsut managed to consolidate power around herself - gathering allies while strengthening her claim to throne. By the time she took over as full-fledged pharaoh, she had built upon her claim to become nearly indisputable. She linked her claim to the story of divine birth - claiming that both her father, Thutmose I, and the god Amen had instructed her to assume the royal titles. She dressed and represented herself in masculine clothing, mixing both masculine and feminine elements to form one of the most unique statuary collections and artifact trails of Ancient Egypt.
Why was Hatshepsut Controversial to the Ancient Egyptians?
As pharaoh, Hatshepsut would have many great achievements. She successfully gained the support of government officials, including the High Priest of Amen. She also conducted successful military campaigns into Nubia, bringing back slaves and resources to strengthen Egypt. She established trade networks, which would bring the first recorded attempt to transplant foreign trees into the historical record.
She conducted massive building campaigns, becoming one of the most prolific builders in Ancient Egypt. Her buildings were grander and more numerous than any before, and she produced so much statuary that almost every major museum in the world has one of her making. She restored the Precinct of Mut at the Temple of Karnak, revitalizing the monuments to an ancient goddess.
She also erected twin obelisks, which became the tallest in the world, at the entrance of the Temple -- one of which still stands as the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on Earth. Another of her obelisks would become famously known as The Unfinished Obelisk, a broken one left at its quarrying site in Aswan that became a key to our understanding of Ancient Egyptian construction methods.
Hatshepsut didn’t stop there. She built the Temple of Pakhet, a cavernous underground temple cut into rock cliffs and later admired by the Greeks. She also built a massive mortuary temple on the West Bank of the Nile near the entrance to the Valley of the Kings - becoming the first pharaoh to build near the Valley. It included the Djeser-Djeseru, a colonnaded structure built in perfect symmetry nearly one thousand years before the Parthenon and surrounded by lush gardens.
In all of these projects, one element of Hatshepsut’s life remains the most fascinating of all: her romance with Senenmut. Originally her daughter’s tutor, Senenmut rose in power as Hatshepsut rose, eventually becoming the administrator for many of her building projects. As Kara Cooney details in her book, The Woman Who Would Be King, their relationship is likely far more complex than we’ll ever know. Senenmut’s own statues and monuments would almost solely focus on Hatshepsut and her daughter, alluding to a deep relationship with both that could almost hint at a lasting love affair.
Upon her death around 40 years of age, rule passed to Hatshepsut’s nephew - Thutmose III, the infant child whose regency had catapulted her to pharaoh. Though technically a co-regent for the entirety of her rule, Hatshepsut’s reign had been nearly absolute. But her legacy would die soon after her reign. Senenmut, her lover, and her only daughter would disappear from the historical record, superseded by those that the new pharaoh put into power.
Twenty-five years after her death, Thutmose III would begin a campaign to remove Hatshepsut’s image from Egypt, reassigning statues and images to his male ancestors instead of the co-regent who had secured his throne. His campaign would last the rest of his life - as Hatshepsut’s images were numerous. Despite all she had done for him, Thutmose III relegated his aunt to the status of intercessor. He no longer had need of her legitimacy to back his own - and had established his connections to male ancestors that would support his rule long after Hatshepsut was forgotten. Yet some images remained, for Hatshepsut’s use of male and female pronouns confused the destroyers. So today, we still find the original traces of her throughout Egypt as well as images where she is only portrayed as a queen and wife.
Hatshepsut’s tomb was robbed only 500 years after her death, the gilded objects, statuary, gems, and linens taken by thieves. Her body, like the intimate details of her life, may be lost to time. Yet her legacy remains, hinted at in the inscriptions and monuments that remain, the artifacts we piece together, and the continued search to uncover the true story of this incredible queen.