Very few women ever rose to power in the kingdoms and empires of the ancient world. The handful who did, in the Near East, Asia and Europe, fought their way through significant barriers, in often violent times.
These women first accessed their power through men—fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. But they stayed in power, sometimes for decades, through a mix of ambition, intelligence, political savvy, generosity, guile and, in some cases, a ruthless and bloody drive for power.
“In every single case, it’s crisis that brings them to the throne. It’s a lack of men, they are there as placeholders or stopgaps, and they usually have a bad end,” says Egyptologist and archaeologist Kara Cooney, who teaches about female rulers in antiquity at the University of California, Los Angeles.
When their reigns ended, they sometimes died violently. Their lives and achievements were often scrubbed from collective memory by subsequent male rulers eager to take credit and reinforce prevailing patriarchal norms.
“In each case, the woman is swept aside. In each, case the woman has no genetic legacy. And in each case, her ambition is judged as self-serving and dangerous,” says Cooney, author of The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt. And for millennia thereafter, their stories were chronicled largely by male historians. Those narratives, sometimes framed around the women’s violent or promiscuous ways (think Egypt’s Cleopatra or Phoenician royal Jezebel), became “cautionary tales” that “have invaded our cultural psyche,” says Cooney, preventing many from seeing a more complete picture of their real lives and accomplishments.
Here are five ancient female rulers who overcame obstacles to help shape the history of their times.
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HATSHEPSUT | Ancient Egypt
Queen Hatshepsut, who assumed the role of pharaoh in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, ruled during 22 years of great prosperity, peace and an explosion of artistic creativity that would forever influence Egyptian culture.
The eldest daughter of a pharaoh, Hatshepsut married her half-brother Thutmose II around the age of 12 and later became queen regent to her stepson and nephew Thutmose III, who inherited the throne at the age of two. Seven years into her regency, in 1478 BCE, she broke with tradition and had herself crowned pharaoh, co-ruler with the child king.
To be accepted by Egypt's patriarchal society, where monarchs had long been male, Hatshepsut fashioned a masculine image. She wore traditional royal kilts and false beards. She had herself depicted with large muscles, making royal offerings to the gods or bashing in foreign captives’ heads.
The longest-reigning female ruler in ancient Egypt, Hatshetsup fueled a booming economy, re-established lost trade networks and built hundreds of construction projects in Upper and Lower Egypt. She performed holy rituals usually reserved for male kings in many temples, securing her religious base and legitimacy on the throne.
When she died, her co-ruler Pharaoh Thutmose III erased Hatshepsut’s name from public records, destroyed her statues and carved out her image from public monuments. He backdated his reign to his father’s death, taking credit for his stepmother’s accomplishments.
WU ZETIAN | China
Empress Wu Zetian, the first and only female empress of China, served as de facto ruler of the Tang Dynasty for 40 years from 665 to 705—25 years through her husband and sons and then for 15 years when, in an unprecedented move, she founded the Wu Zhou Dynasty and became empress in her own right. Revered for leading with a strong hand, she shaped a more efficient and less corrupt government, revitalized China’s economy and culture and bucked the aristocracy to advance the peasant class. She expanded China by conquering new territory in Korea and Central Asia, making it one of the world’s most powerful empires.
She first came to the imperial court as a concubine to Emperor Taizong, and when he died, married his ninth son and successor, Emperor Gaozong. Well-educated, charismatic and ambitious, she was more decisive and proactive than her husband and was considered the real power behind the throne.
She gained that power, in part, through ruthlessness, deceit, lots of palace intrigue, accusations of witchcraft—and lots of spilled blood. She created a spy network to help her kill real, potential or perceived rivals. She demoted or exiled enemies and their children. She targeted members of her own family and massacred 12 collateral branches of the imperial family when some tried to remove her from power.
When her sons became emperors, she still held true power as empress regent and blocked them from governmental and political affairs. In 690, then in her 60s, she forced her youngest son, Emperor Ruizong, to abdicate, made herself the sole ruler and founded the Second Zhou Dynasty that would last 15 years.
She promoted arts and literature, initiated campaigns to raise the position of women and support women’s rights and spread and consolidated Buddhism over Taoism. In February 705, a coup removed Wu Zetian from power. She died later that year.
BOUDICA | Ancient Britain
Queen Boudica of the ancient British Iceni tribe became a leader for her people and a legendary figure and cultural symbol through revolt, violence and war.
When her husband Prasutagus died in the year A.D. 60, the Roman Empire moved in to annex the Iceni Kingdom. During the takeover, Romans publicly flogged the queen and raped her two daughters.
Author David Furlow said the Romans mistakenly believed the violence would make her submit. “It had the opposite effect. It made her strong beyond belief. It gave her power to wage a crusade of fire and steel.”
Boudica, who had been trained as a warrior, rallied the Iceni and other British tribe. Together, they attacked the three main Roman population centers, including Londonium (roughly present-day London) and defeated a detachment of the Roman legion. Her followers killed between 70,000 and 80,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons and came close to success in the uprising until a regrouped Roman army defeated the tribes decisively in a third and final battle.
Boudica died by suicide or illness soon after. The short-lived revolt in A.D. 61 would make her a national heroine and a cultural symbol 15 centuries later during the English Renaissance.
CLEOPATRA | Egypt
Cleopatra, queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, ruled for 21 years alongside two brothers and was its last active ruler before Rome annexed Egypt in 30 B.C.E. The last of the Macedonian Greek ancestry to rule Egypt, Cleopatra is known for her romantic liaisons with Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Marc Antony that influenced politics and ignited much upheaval in Rome. She sought to use Rome to restore lost territory to Egypt.
Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII became co-rulers when their father Ptolemy XII died in 51 BCE. But a power struggle and war between them led Roman dictator Julius Caesar, who then became Cleopatra’s lover, to take her side. When Ptolemy XIII was killed in battle, Caesar declared Cleopatra and her other brother Ptolemy XIV co-rulers. That brother died the same year Caesar was assassinated in Rome in 44 B.C.E., and she named her and Caesar's son, Caesarion, as co-ruler under the name Ptolemy XV to further the dynasty.
She then allied herself with Roman military officer Marc Antony, Caesar’s heir apparent. After more political and palace intrigue, they married, had twins and traded political favors. Cleopatra financed one of Antony’s long-desired military campaigns, then requested that Rome return parts of Syria and Lebanon to Egypt. This prompted a propaganda war with Caesar’s adopted son Octavian about Antony giving Roman land to a foreign woman. The Roman Senate declared war against Cleopatra.
Antony and Octavian’s forces met in battle. When he heard the false news that Cleopatra had died, Antony fell on his sword. When Octavian arrived to seize Cleopatra in the palace in Alexandria, she refused to be taken back to Rome to be paraded in the streets as a defeated queen. Legend states she committed suicide by a self-inflicted snake bite, although some historians say she may have taken in the toxin via needles, ointments or some other method.
QUEEN SEONDEOK | Korea
Since King Jinpyeong of Silla had no male heirs, his daughter, Princess Deokman, asked for a chance to compete for the throne instead of it being ceded to her brother-in-law. Women had wielded partial power before in Silla, one of the three kingdoms in the Korean peninsula, but a female taking full rein still proved unacceptable to many. In 631, two officials who planned an uprising to prevent her coronation were publicly executed in the marketplace along with their families.
In January 632, Queen Seondeok began her 15 years on the throne as Silla’s 27th ruler and its first reigning queen—not a regent or a queen dowager like women before her. In a time of many wars among the three kingdoms, she helped shape Korean culture through a revival in thought, literature and the arts. Concerned with people’s livelihoods, she tasked royal inspectors with improving the care of widows, widowers, the poor, orphans and the elderly.
She built the Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory (Tower of the Moon and Stars) to help farmers, exempted taxes for peasants for a year and reduced taxes for the middle class, gaining popular support that countered opposition from the male aristocracy. The Tang Dynasty in neighboring China initially refused to acknowledge a female ruler, but that didn’t faze her. She sought their help again as she lay the foundation to unify the three Korean kingdoms under Silla rule. She embraced Buddhism and built dozens of temples and pagodas, some of the tallest structures in East Asia, in hopes of making the unification of the three kingdoms a reality.
In 647, while suppressing a 10-day rebellion led by one of her hand-picked advisers, Queen Seondeok became ill and died. Her cousin, crowned Queen Jindeok, became the next female ruler of Silla.