Allow Us to Explain 300: Rise of An Empire came out on Friday, and its release should give Queen Artemisia of Caria some well-deserved public recognition. Played by Eva Green in the film, Artemisia was a real-life naval commander for Xerxes the Great's fearsome Persian military in the 5th century BCE. According to the writings of war historian Polyaenus, Xerxes declared that she was the finest officer in his fleet. But she's far from the only amazing female military commander in history. Here are ten others, most (though not all) of whom have never had movies made about them... but definitely should someday soon.
I mentioned Fu Hao in my post on ideas for women-led historical TV series, and her story is no less applicable here. In China's Shang Dynasty of the 12th century BCE, she began adult life as one of the king's wives and ended it as her country's foremost military commander. So powerful was her might on the battlefield that she was eventually granted her own fiefdom to rule over individually, sharing a border with her husband's. Her spectacular tomb is sort of like King Tut's; it's one of the few from that era that was unearthed in an undisturbed state. Her grave goods, which included bone arrowheads, bronze tiger statues, and over 100 weapons, left no doubt of her status as a warrior-queen in the most literal sense.
In the first century CE, Confucianist teachings mostly relegated women to subservient roles in China. Not so in Vietnam, which was experiencing one of its many periods of resistance to Sinicization. This was illustrated no better than by the Trung Sisters, general's daughters who led a campaign to reclaim areas lost to the Han Chinese. Women soldiers were a big part of their army – one of their closest deputies, Phung Thi Chinh, fought while pregnant. (The story about her giving birth on the battlefield and continuing to fight with newborn in hand is probably apocryphal, but it sure is fun to think about.) The Trungs briefly ruled northern Vietnam as co-queens, and they're national heroes in modern-day Vietnam: A large Hanoi neighborhood is named for them.
At almost the same time as the Trung Sisters were doing their thing, another legendary woman-led rebellion was happening on the other side of the Eurasian landmass. When Boudicca's husband Prasutagus, king of the British Iceni tribe, died, he naïvely willed his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Empire, to whom he was in deep debt. The Romans, looking to recoup their assets and also refusing to legally accept female control, claimed the Iceni were now under their rule. Boudicca was having none of this – she led the fight against Rome, riding chariots through modern-day Colchester and London. Ultimately the Empire's force was too overwhelming, and like the Trungs, Boudicca probably committed suicide. But her legacy has endured, especially since her story was rediscovered in the Victorian era – it was often pointed out that in the proto-Celtic language of her day, “Boudicca” means basically the same thing as “Victoria.”
Joan is one of the most famous women in history for good reason. The broad facts of her feats are well documented, yet how exactly she accomplished them defy comprehension. 1420s France was a complete debacle, still recovering from the Black Death, further decimated by war, and at one point nominally ruled by an English prince who happened to be nine months old. Enter Joan, who somehow convinced King Charles VII that she – an illiterate teenager – was the one to take command of his army at Orleans, where a grueling siege had been raging for months. After her arrival, the siege was lifted in only nine days. That ended up as the pivotal battle in the epic struggle that was the Hundred Years' War, and France had her to thank for not becoming a part of England – posthumously, anyway. She was executed by a pro-English tribunal for heresy, in which the only specific charge she was proven guilty of was wearing men's clothing.
Bouboulina was born in a Constantinople prison to parents who were locked up for taking part in a failed Greek revolution against Ottoman rule. She played a big part in making sure the next revolution turned out differently. Obsessed with the sea and sailing from a young age, she married two naval commanders (who both died in battles with pirates). In 1821, as a 50-year-old mother of seven who'd inherited a considerable fortune, Bouboulina decided to become a naval leader herself. She financed and took control of the flagship of the fledgling Greek navy, which she named the Agamemnon, and commanded an eight-strong fleet in the ultimately successful Greek War of Independence. She didn't live to see its successful conclusion but was posthumously given the rank of admiral in the Russian Imperial Navy, which had allied with Greece against the Ottomans.
After being expelled from a convent, Azurduy realized her destiny was not to become a nun, but a guerrilla warrior. A Mestiza from present-day Bolivia, she fought against the Spanish for more than a decade and a half alongside her personal company of female guards as well as her husband and four sons. In one particularly daring escapade, she captured the ore-rich city that was home to the Spanish colonial mint. By the 1820s the Provinces of Rio de la Plata (now Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay) were independent and Azurduy's husband and sons were dead. She died in obscurity decades later at age 81. Recognition of her feats came long after – today the airport in one of Bolivia's two capital cities is named for her.
Like Boudicca, Lakshmibai's defining conflict came about because of incompatible inheritance laws. As the widowed Rani (queen) of the Indian state of Jhansi, she expected her baby son Damodar Rao to inherit her throne. Because he was adopted, the British East India Company considered Damodar Rao an illegitimate heir, which was grounds to seize the territory under their laws. The subsequent battle against the colonial megacorporation saw Lakshmibai lead a force of thousands, charging on horseback, wielding swords and pistols, and, according to legend anyway, sometimes doing it with Damodar Rao strapped to her back. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 erupted at the same time all over the subcontinent, and her warrior skills attained mythic status. One British officer wrote that she was “the most dangerous of all Indian leaders.” When India created one of the very few all-female combat units in World War II, it was named the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the Ashanti Empire (in present-day Ghana) existed in an uneasy semi-autonomous state alongside the British “Gold Coast” colony. The Ashanti maintained their monarchy, symbolized by their sacred throne, the Golden Stool. Enter Gold Coast Governor Sir Frederick Hodgson, a caricature of imperial sadism who told a meeting of Ashanti chiefs, “Why am I not sitting on the Golden Stool at this moment?” It was Queen Yaa Asantewaa whose rousing speech in response to this incident and subsequent military leadership instigated the War of the Golden Stool in 1900. While the War did not end favorably for the Ashanti, the Golden Stool was protected, and Ashanti leaders still sit on it today in independent Ghana, home to the Yaa Asantewaa Museum.
Millions of women served in uniform during World War II, but in most Allied nations they were prohibited from doing anything that involved actually discharging a weapon. The exception was the Soviet Union, which employed female snipers, female machine gunners, female guerrilla campaign leaders, and so on. They also organized three all-female units of fighter pilots, under the command of Major Marina Raskova. Raskova, an Amelia Earhart-like figure who was one of the first three women to be honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union, personally appealed to Joseph Stalin in support of their creation. With only flimsy wooden planes (that they tended to fly only under cover of darkness), the most famous of Raskova's units terrorized the Nazis and earned themselves a fantastic German nickname: the Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.” She died in action in 1943, and in a pre-Cold War sign of respect, an American “Liberty Ship” was named in her honor.