The common perception of ancient warfare is that armies were dominated by men in both commanding and fighting roles. History books are dotted with famous names like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Attila the Hun, so it's understandable how these prevailing ideas arose. But throughout ancient history, fierce female soldiers and commanders led armies, too.
Coming from regions across Europe and Asia, these female military commanders were both feared and admired for their ability to lead revolts, field armies, and build empires. Some were ambitious; others were bloodthirsty and sought revenge for misdeeds brought against them and their people. Regardless of their differences, they all used strong knowledge of military strategy and tactics to best those they faced in the field of battle.
Tomyris was the queen of the Massagetae, a nomadic people in Asia Minor. After Tomyris saw past Persian emperor Cyrus's deceitful marriage proposal and denied him, Cyrus led the Persian army into battle against the Massagetae. Cyrus defeated the Massagetae army, led by Tomyris's son Spargapises, by getting them drunk and ambushing them while they were incapacitated. But then, Tomyris challenged the emperor to a second battle.
Tomyris personally led her army into battle in 530 BCE and defeated the Persians. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus noted that while Cyrus's cause of demise is not known for sure, it is possible that Tomyris felled him in combat.
Xun Guan - the daughter of Xun Song, governor of Xiangyang, China - led a small counter-revolutionary force in the early fourth century at age 13. Du Zeng, a government official attempting to depose Xun Song and wipe out his followers, surrounded the city of Xiangyang with what looked like an impenetrable army. Provisions in the city were diminishing, so Xun Guan volunteered to take a small army through enemy lines to get much-needed aid.
With a small force of men, Xun Guan broke through enemy lines in the middle of the night. She rode to the city of Pingnan and convinced Xun Song's allies to send reinforcements. The additional soldiers were able to flank Du Zeng's army, forcing him to flee. Through her courageous act, Xun Guan saved her father and the people of Xiangyang.
Near the end of the second century BCE, Amage, queen of the Sarmatians, took full control of the government after deeming her husband unfit to rule. During her time as governess and military commander, the Chersonesus established an alliance with her in hopes that she could stop a neighboring Scythian prince from persecuting them.
After the prince ignored her requests, Amage and 120 soldiers covered more than 100 miles in a single day and stormed the prince's palace. Amage and her soldiers quickly overtook the guards and slew the prince and his court. She left his son alive to rule in his deceased father's place on the condition that he would leave his neighbors at peace.
Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty around 1200 BCE. Unlike his other wives, Fu Hao held important military and religious positions. According to inscriptions on oracle bones produced in that period, Fu Hao led successful military campaigns against a multitude of the Shang Dynasty's enemies, including the Tu-Fang, Yi, Qiang, and Ba tribes.
Inscriptions also indicate Wu Ding gave Fu Hao religious and ceremonial responsibilities, showing a great deal of trust in his wife. Archaeologists found her tomb in 1976; she was buried with ritual vessels, currency, and 16 servants.