Real Historians Answer Questions About Historical Queens We Wish We Asked Sooner

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Vote up the most interesting facts about history's powerful queens.

Look, it's a sad fact of history that women are usually given short shrift. This is true of women in pretty much every culture and era - from the commoners to even the highest royalty. But women have been leading empires and conquering nations for as long as there have been empires and nations on the planet. 

If you've ever had a question about famous historical females you never got satisfying answers to, a great place to visit is the AskHistorians subreddit. In that open forum, real experts answer all history questions great and small. Below is a selection of some of the most fascinating responses to history questions about queens. Vote up the ones that are truly enlightening.

  • 1
    83 VOTES

    Did Egypt Fall Apart After Cleopatra Perished?

    Asked by Redditor u/lil_hagrid:

    Why did Egypt just completely fall apart after Cleopatra died? Cleopatra is one of the most well known pharaohs of all. She was a manipulator and a strategist, but not really a leader. Which begs the question; what made Cleopatra’s demise so devastating that Egypt just fell to pieces over it?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/decadentgremlin's answer:

    First, we have no reason to believe that Cleopatra was not an incredibly successful leader. She ascended to the throne at the young age of 18 and ruled for 21 years, fighting off threats to her power both from inside her country and outside it. Egypt flourished under her reign. Cleopatra herself was multilingual, and known for her political prowess. The primary reason she is remembered otherwise is because her tomb has remained thus far undiscovered, and there exist next to no records of her reign that would have been produced during her lifetime (with the exception of coins bearing her likeliness). In fact, the only historic biographic account of Cleopatra is found in the work of Plutarch (Parallel Lives), in which she is mentioned within the biographies of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. It is from these accounts of Plutarch, and the various literary accounts that follow, in which Cleopatra becomes immortalized as the "oriental femme fatale" in the western tradition.

    It’s worth noting that despite becoming a sex symbol of sorts, Plutarch doesn’t even eulogize her as being remarkably beautiful: “For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible” (Plutarch, Biography of Anthony). The biggest issue is that the works of Plutarch are written well after the fact (almost two centuries later, given that Cleopatra died in 30 BCE and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are estimated to have been published in the beginning of the 2nd century CE) and are rather dramatized. His preference is clearly towards the male romans who are “corrupted” by Cleopatra. It makes his accounts of her to a particular extent unreliable.

    As for Egypt's downfall, Cleopatra's [taking her own life] coincides with the end of the final war of the Roman republic, a civil war notably between Octavius and Cleopatra alongside Mark Anthony. After Cleopatra’s... defeat, Egypt became a Roman province and by no means “fell apart.” It was one of the wealthiest Roman provinces. It was just no longer independent from Rome.

  • 2
    24 VOTES

    How Did Queen Tomyris Defeat Cyrus The Great?

    Asked by Redditor u/LulzTigre:

    How did the Cyrus the great lose against Queen Tomyris [during his attempted conquest of her country]? Was there any special tactic she used during this battle?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/PippinIRL's answer:

    So the earliest account of the battle, given by Herodotus, does not go into much detail about the tactics used. He tells us that in the first engagement Cyrus followed the advice of one of his advisors, Croesus. They feigned a defeat and left an elaborate banquet for the Massagetae (Tomyris’s tribe) including a great deal of unmixed wine. The Massagetae, who did not drink alcohol, become intoxicated very quickly and are then [slain] or captured by Cyrus, including Tomyris’s son. He talks Cyrus into loosening his chains, and then commits suicide, making Tomyris swear revenge. Herodotus 1.214 then describes the second battle and Cyrus’s defeat:

    Such was the end of Spargapises. Tomyris, when Cyrus would not listen to her, collected all her power and joined battle with him. This fight I judge to have been the stubbornest of all fights that were ever fought by men that were not Greek; and indeed I have learnt that this was so. For first (it is said) they shot at each other from a distance with arrows; presently, their arrows being all shot away, they rushed upon each other and fought at grips with their spears and their daggers; and for a long time they battled foot to foot and neither would give ground; but at last the Massagetae had the mastery. There perished the greater part of the Persian army, and there fell Cyrus himself, having reigned thirty years in all save one. Tomyris filled a skin with human blood, and sought for Cyrus' body among the Persian dead; when she found it, she put his head into the skin, and spoke these words of insult to the dead man: "Though I live and conquer thee, thou hast undone me, overcoming my son by guile; but even as I threatened, so will I do, and give thee thy fill of blood." Many stories are related of Cyrus' death; this, that I have told, is the worthiest of credence.

    As you can see, it sounds like an open field battle whereby the Massagetae seemingly got the upper hand, without much in the way of tactics.

    Later sources though ascribe trickery on the part of Tomyris to the victory over Cyrus... So it seems the key strategem was to lure Cyrus into unfamiliar terrain and launch an ambush amongst the mountainous routes. From a military standpoint, the tactic makes sense, as the Massagetae were a nomadic people and so hit-and-run tactics were going to be far more effective against a standard ancient force such as would have been used as Cyrus. The Scythians used similar tactics against Darius I a few decades later.

    The strategy described by Ororius and Justin makes more military sense, but Herodotus was writing only around a century after whereas Orosius was writing in the 4th/5th centuries AD and Justin approximately in the 2nd century AD. This is centuries after the account of Herodotus and it is likely that the cultural shifts since the days of Herodotus made the common story more into a tale of “womanly” trickery, whereas Herodotus presents more of a straight forward and noble queen, whereas it is Cyrus’s deceit that is more noteworthy...

  • 3
    63 VOTES

    Was Queen Nefertiti A Particularly Powerful Ruler Of Ancient Egypt?

    Asked by Redditor u/matildemp:

    Why is Queen Nefertiti perceived as the most powerful female figure of Ancient Egypt?

    Answered by Redditor u/kookingpot:

    Nefertiti was the wife of Akhenaten, the father of Tutankhamun. She is one of the most famous female figures of Ancient Egypt, due to the fact that her husband was the famous "heretic" who attempted to make Egypt follow a monotheistic religion centered around the sun god Aten, and also initiated some artistic changes toward realism rather than typical idealized Egyptian art. She is mostly famous because of the well-known bust of her head that is currently displayed in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

    Few other female figures were depicted so beautifully, and had their name known. This is why you know of her. I don't think she was particularly powerful in her own right. With her husband, many changes were made in Egypt, between the religion and switching the capital of Egypt to Tell el-Amarna, so her reign had a lot of impact, culturally. But I wouldn't really say she was unusually powerful. She is certainly the most beautifully depicted of the Ancient (Pre-Greek) Egyptian queens.

    But Hatshepsut (who proclaimed herself Pharaoh and ruled in her own right, and made expeditions to Punt) and Cleopatra (who was influential and perhaps had a role in the way the Roman Empire eventually was founded, due to her relationships with the Roman ruling families) have better claims to the status as "most powerful."

  • 4
    141 VOTES

    Was Queen Anne's High Rate Of Child Mortality Normal For Her Era?

    Asked by Redditor u/bluelily216:

    Queen Anne of England was pregnant 17 times yet had no children reach adolescence. Was this high rate of child mortality standard in all social castes at the time? Or is it more likely due to centuries of inbreeding by the royal families of Europe?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/mimicofmodes's answer:

    Well, the basic answer is that since this case shows a 100% child mortality rate, it couldn't be standard in any social class at the time, or else the population of that class would not replace itself.

    It's hard to compare Queen Anne's situation to the population at large because so many of her pregnancies - twelve out of the seventeen - resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths, and most women living at that time would have not recorded these, particularly the former, enough for us to draw statistical analysis from them.... We just do not know how frequently aristocratic, mercantile, artisan, peasant, or pauper women miscarried. However, Anne's number of miscarriages is likely greater than normal for women of any of those groups: the authors of English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1530-1837 came to the conclusion based on various statistics that the rate of miscarriage/spontaneous abortion/stillbirths was not very high in England in the early modern period.

    As the last Protestant in the Stuart royal line, Anne was under a great deal of pressure to produce a living heir to avoid the throne potentially being claimed by the Great Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart, her Catholic half-brother, instead of her designated but more distantly-related heir, George of Hanover. Most women who had this many stillbirths and miscarriages would have probably resigned themselves to childlessness much sooner and decided with their husbands to stop conceiving....

    I want to emphasize again that a 100% child/infant mortality rate was still not typical, but, sadly, infant mortality rates were at a high in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: about 90 infants in 1,000 born at the same time would die....

    The concept of royal inbreeding is kind of exaggerated today, because it's odd to think that wealthy people were hurting their own descendants by fixating on bloodline purity and because of some really well-known examples. The Spanish monarchs from the Hapsburgs forward did seem to actively prioritize first cousins and uncle/niece arrangements in marriage proceedings. England and then Great Britain, however, was very much not like this, with royal consorts generally coming from all different corners of Europe. Anne in particular was not inbred: her mother was not part of the royal class that married off their children, but an English commoner named Anne Hyde, who married the future James II out of love, sexual attraction, and already being pregnant. James's parents, Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France, were also not related...

    Ultimately, we don't really know why Anne had problems carrying children to term. It may very well have been genetic, since her sister, Mary II (who did in fact marry her first cousin), had at least one miscarriage and no heirs as well, but it was almost definitely not the case that inbreeding caused the fetuses to have severe defects.