Amanirenas – One-Eyed Warrior Queen

This time I’m telling you about the time the Roman Empire set its mind to conquering the Kingdom of Kush where it was met by a fierce one-eyed warrior queen who would continue to fight back for seven years and eventually pushed Rome out of her country. This is the story of Amanirenas and you’re in for a ride.

We’re jumping right into the story as not much is known about Amanirenas’ early years, other than that she was born around 60 B.C. The story is set in the Nubian kingdom of Kush, a relatively small but quite powerful kingdom in what is now Sudan. Amanirenas became Kandake, Queen, of Kush after her husband died in battle around 40 B.C. In inscriptions about her she is titled Qore and Kandake, King and Queen, clearly showing her as the kingdom’s sole ruler. But enough with the foreword, let’s get into the warring bit, shall we?! 

Amanirenas ruled her kingdom diligently and apparently without any major problems, but after ten years the Roman Empire took Egypt, their direct neighbor in the north. That alone would have been a blessing for Kush who would have lost their main competitor, but Rome turned its eyes south. Kush was a small kingdom and should the Romans truly wage war on them, their chances weren’t looking too good. However there was a bit of trouble on another front, namely Arabia, so they didn’t attack immediately. It’s not certain whether Amanirenas knew of Rome’s expansion plans, but since that was basically their whole deal, she probably anticipated it. So she struck first. 

The first battles began in 27 B.C. but the big invasion came three years later. In 24 B.C. an army of 30.000 marched against Roman Egypt, Amanirenas and her son at the helm.  Even though it seems to have been one of the battles that followed in which the Kandake lost her eye, the Kushites were ultimately successful.

They captured the cities of Syene and Philae as well as Elephantine Island, decapitating all the statues of Augustus Caesar they came across. Triumphant the Kushites returned home, with a rich bounty and war prisoners in tow – and at least one of Augustus’ bronze heads. However victory didn’t last long and in the same year the Romans pushed back, retaking their cities and advancing into Nubian territory. They took Kush’s old capital Napata and although they retreated north again relatively quickly it was a debilitating defeat.

Many Kushites were sold into slavery and the newly established Roman garrison at Primis proved undefeatable. But Amanirenas would not give in.

For three more years she waged war on the Romans. There are stories of war elephants as well as about the Kandake feeding war prisoners to her pet lion. The former are likely to be true, although Kush probably did not use elephants as much as Carthage did, while the latter might be an exaggeration but who is to say for certain. 

Even though Amanirenas didn’t succeed in reconquering her land, the Romans had to give up eventually. Yes, Kush was small and its military strength inferior to that of their opponents, but it was also too far off to easily call on reinforcements and the goods needed to sustain an army. Add the harsh environment and significant armed resistance led by our heroine and it was just too much to handle. 

Around 20 B.C. a peace treaty was forged that strongly favoured Kush. Rome was to retreat from their post at Primis and the surrounding lands (called Triakontaschoinos, the Thirty-Mile-Strip) and there was no tribute to be paid whatsoever. The Romans got to keep a smaller strip of land (the Dodekashoinos or ‘Twelve-Mile Lands’) to establish a military border zone, but apparently there were no subsequent attacks. In fact this peace treaty was honored until way after Amanirenas’ death around 10 B.C. and the Kushite Kingdom thrived for more than 300 years.

You might wonder why all we know about her is related to her military exploits. Well, most of the sources on her that exist are Roman. But even they had to admit she was brave and strong. While Kush did leave a fair share of inscriptions, they had their own system of hieroglyphs that no one has been able to really decipher to this day. They did leave us one obvious message though. Remember the decapitated statues? So, in 1912 a temple that had apparently been dedicated to victory was unearthed in Meroë, the new capital of Kush. In this temple, the archeologists found the bronze head of Augustus Caesar. It was found buried underneath the steps.

image credits:

1: Map – User Gigillo83 in Wikimedia Commons, 2010 – modified: highlighted the places important to the story, added the modern border of Sudan and Egypt, added “Kush” to Nubia as called in the article – Link
2: Kandake Amanirenas as identified by JC Coovi Gomez on the Barwa’s Beg pyramid No. 6 (*Barwa was another name of Kush at that time. The Pyramids mentioned are located at Meroë.) – Link
3: The Pyramids at the foot of Jebel Barkal, Karima, Sudan (*where Amanirenas was likely buried) by Maurice Chédel, 1884 – Link

Hipparchia of Maroneia – A Cynic Life

Today’s article is taking us to the philosophers of Ancient Greece, specifically the Cynics. And to a woman who challenged the conventions of a philosophical school devoted to challenging society’s conventions. Meet one of the few female philosophers of the time, Hipparchia of Maroneia.

As her name suggests, Hipparchia was born around 350 BC in Maroneia, a small town on the coastline of the Greek region of Thrace, and her birth was soon followed by that of her brother Metrocles – with whom this story actually begins. You see, he was a philosopher’s student and quickly won over a teenage Hipparchia as well. One day Metrocles came home mortified, he had farted while giving a speech at the Lyceum, what an embarrassment! Promptly he locked himself up in his room, set on starving himself to death. Enter Crates, a Cynic philosopher who had heard of the situation and came to resolve it. Calling on the despairing young man, he convinced him that his actions had been an entirely natural act and no cause for shame. Intrigued by this philosophical approach, Metrocles became a follower of Crates and soon he introduced him to his family. To enable him to study with his new mentor, the whole family moved to Athens, the cultural hotspot of Ancient Greece.

While his parents must have been incredibly grateful that their son had refrained from suicide, they were less than happy when Hipparchia announced that she planned on marrying Crates. They pleaded with her to reconsider, to choose one of her more “fitting” suitors, after all he was already an old man at the time, but to no avail. They only succeeded in having their second child threatening suicide as well, should they not stand aside. To understand their opposition, you need to understand the life a Cynic was leading. Cynicism teaches that human life should not be limited and complicated by the conventions and traditions of society, but should be lived in accordance with nature. This meant renouncing all physical possessions, only keeping that what is necessary, and acting according to natural impulses instead of societal norms. That included the institution of marriage which was seen as impeding on the individual’s personal freedom.

Failing to talk Hipparchia out of her idea and unable to intervene further, her parents begged Crates to talk some sense into her. Let’s say, the talk didn’t exactly go as planned. He pictured their life together in the bleakest colours, home- and penniless, living on the charity of others and owning nothing but the clothes they wore. She remained certain that his kindness, empathy and intelligence was enough for her to be happy and worth more than the wealth that surrounded her at the moment. Running out of ideas, Crates supposedly tore off his cloak, hoping to scare her off with his age and probably unkempt appearance, announcing “this is the groom, and these are his possessions; choose accordingly.” And Hipparchia chose him. They were married around 326 BC.

It was a happy marriage and Hipparchia turned out to be right. She did not miss her former life in luxury and the marriage went on to last more than 30 years until his death around 285 BC. She lived out the last five-ish years of her life as a content woman. But back to her younger years. Besides her philosophical lectures she also worked as a counsellor for those in need, never charging but gladly accepting donations. One of her specialities was marriage counselling, obviously. It is also reported that the couple had at least one son, named Pasicles, and one daughter. They were raised according to their parents’ values, sleeping in a tortoise shell cradle and when her daughter wanted to get married, her parents did not object. They did however ask that she lived with her intended for one month before making a final decision. This marks the first trial marriage in history – it is not known if it worked out or not.

Hipparchia quickly became popular with other Cynics, so much that they would later make an exception for her whenever they talked about their opposition to marriage. They figured that she truly lived according to Cynic values, challenging their own traditions by marrying in the first place and those of society by renouncing all possessions and becoming a philosopher in doing so. However not everyone was impressed.

Hipparchia had a habit of attending philosophical discussions and dinner parties with her husband, something respectable women usually refrained from. At one such banquet she was approached by a man named Theodorus who questioned her right to be there. She retorted that it could not be wrong if he was doing it, so it could not be wrong for her and swiftly added that, in conclusion, if it isn’t wrong for him to hit himself, it would not be wrong for her to hit him as well. Hurt, but not defeated, he tried another jab by asking if she wasn’t neglecting her work at the loom in order to attend a banquet. She answered that, yes, she was, but wasn’t it right to devote herself to education and knowledge instead of such useless tasks? Theodorus had no comeback. An anecdote recalls that at loss for a better argument, he stripped her of her cloak, but Hipparchia did not flinch. To her nudity was natural and not a reason for shame.

She had used her understanding of Cynic philosophy to free herself.

image credits:

1: Engraving depicting the Greek philosophers Hipparchia of Maroneia and Crates of Thebes. From the book Proefsteen van de Trou-ringh (Touchstone of the Wedding Ring) written by Jacob Cats. Hipparchia and Crates are depicted wearing 17th-century clothing. In the scene depicted, Crates is trying to dissuade Hipparchia from her affections for him by pointing to his head to show how ugly he is. (1637) – Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons – Link

2: Wall painting showing the Cynic philosophers Crates and Hipparchia. From the garden of the Villa Farnesina, Museo delle Terme, Rome (ca. 1st century) – Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons – Link

Enheduanna – The World’s First Author

Did you know that the first author ever was a woman? Well, we can’t say for certain as for a long time all writing was anonymous. But the first person to ever put their name on their work was today’s heroine: Enheduanna, Sumerian High Priestess. As far as we can tell, her opus encompasses 42 temple hymns and a number of longer texts, representing the first human attempt to compose a systematic theology. Isn’t that amazing?!

Enheduanna’s story takes us way back in time, to the ancient city of Ur in 2300 BC. Given how little information we have about people from that time, even royalty, it is fascinating how much we know about her. So let’s get started!

She was the daughter of one of history’s earliest empire builders, Sargon the Great, king of Akkadia. And great was his conquest indeed: his reign extended from all of southern Mesopotamia to parts of Syria, Anatolia and western Iran. In the late 23rd to early 22nd century BC, he incorporated a number of Sumerian city states into his kingdom and this is where our knowledge of Enheduanna’s life begins. While the Akkadians and Sumerians were culturally not quite that dissimilar and worshipped the same gods, their languages still differed and tensions arose. So Sargon appointed his daughter High Priestess of the city of Ur. That way she could keep an eye on the population and exert Akkadian influence.

The position of High Priestess was a powerful one indeed as the temples were not only religious places but social and economical centres as well. And the Ziggurat of Ur was one of the most significant temples in the Mesopotamian valley – in the picture you can see the modern reconstruction behind the ruins of the original.

Enheduanna’s religious duties included caring for the statues of their gods, offering sacrifices (animals, but also jewellery and produce) and interpreting dreams and omens. She and her staff were also responsible for cataloguing astronomical movements, a scientific process, although it is unclear how exactly they did this. Furthermore she controlled quite a large plot of land, employing an array of people such as fishermen, farmers and shepherds. Her land brought in a good amount of money, so the temple also functioned as a bank – which was overseen by Enheduanna as well. On top of that she also had to maintain relationships with the other temples in the area, advocating for her deities but also for her father.

I’d like to get into her daily religious duties a bit more because her role and status were tightly bound to her position of High Priestess. You can see her performing those alongside her staff on the disc in the picture; Enheduanna is the one in the middle with the frilly dress.

As High Priestess she was known as the “Wife of Nanna,” the Akkadian moon god and served him as well as his divine wife Ningal and their daughter Inanna. And she seemed to have had a real soft spot for the latter, starting a whole cult revolving around her which eventually made Inanna one of the pantheon’s highest-ranking deities. The temple was adorned with statues of the gods which were bathed and dressed ritually every day by the priestesses, but not before they themselves had cleansed themselves thoroughly and brought their offerings. Once a year, Enheduanna took part in a ritual of sacred marriage, where she lay with a mortal representative of Nanna. Another theory is that Enheduanna represented Inanna, a goddess of love and fertility, in this rite. Whether it involved literal intercourse or not is unclear, but is is far from improbable – there are a few lines of poetry that strongly suggest a physical component to these rituals. Certain is that this union was intended as some sort of blessing, ensuring the land’s fertility and the temple’s prosperity.

Now that her background is laid out, let’s get to the interesting part: her poetry. Yes, I too am wondering where she found the time to write besides all her duties and responsibilities. And yes, it gets even more interesting than ritualistic sex.

I already said before that Enheduanna wrote a total of 42 temple hymns – for comparison, Shakespeare “only” wrote 37 plays, and her count does not even include her other texts! To be fair, it might be that other authors used her fame and put her name under their own manuscripts but analyzing the style, it is pretty likely that most if not all of them were written by Enheduanna herself. Her work is generally divided into these temple hymns and her other texts which are mainly poems to her favourite goddess Inanna. In the picture you can see that they carved their letters into clay (the depicted text is not by Enheduanna though, I couldn’t find a plate that was certainly hers.) The former were means of communication between the temples and were not only used for religious exchange but also as propaganda for King Sargon, meant to dissolve tensions between the two people of the kingdom. However these texts are so lyrical in nature that they are unlikely to be purely political in nature – and if they basically were political pamphlets, why should she have signed them with her name when this was unheard of?

Here is why: she was proud of her work! It was not that she felt immortalized in her poems, or at least she never mentioned if she did, but she was fascinated by the fact that she created something entirely new and she took pride in it.

This kind of self-reflection was also completely new to poetry and writing in general. It wasn’t until more than 700 years later that the likes of Homer and Sappho started on that path – just to put things into perspective. Before Enheduanna there was no clear distinction between emotional and physical experiences, between mortal and divine in writing; she was the first to write about her inner turmoils and thoughts, marking the beginning of the human understanding of self.

Now back to an episode of her life when she was basically evicted from her temple and replaced by a man called Lugalunne, who was either a priest as well or a foreign king. Anyways, Enheduanna was not amused and wrote one of her most dramatic poems, one of those addressed to Inanna:

truly for your gain / you drew me toward
 my holy quarters
 / I 
the High Priestess / 
Enheduanna /
 there I raised the ritual basket 
/ there I sang the shout of joy /
 but that man cast me among the dead / 
I am not allowed in my rooms 
/ gloom falls on the day
 / light turns leaden 
/ shadows close in 
/ dreaded southstorm cloaks the sun 
/ he wipes his spit-soaked hand 
/ on my honey-sweet mouth 
/ my beautiful image 
fades under dust
 / what is happening to me
 / O Suen [i.e. Inanna] 
/ what is this with Lugalanne?… / he gave me the ritual dagger of mutilation / he said / “it becomes you.”

The remarkable thing about this poem is that it was the first of its kind! Today we are used to emotions wrapped in words, but this was the first time that was ever done, more than 4000 years ago! And it’s poetic too! I’m not sure by the way if there truly was bodily mutilation involved, if it was a specific ritual or just another metaphor. Her exile however does not seem to have lasted very long as in the next part of her story she was already back home.

Another interesting part of her writing is the religious shift we are able to learn about from her diaries. As I already said, before her time the divine was one with the worldly, god was everything. This understanding however began to shift towards the belief that god is IN everything, a small but significant difference that implies that god transcends the worldly instead of being one with it. And Enheduanna did not like that notion, so she composed a poem (which is pretty long so a summary has to do): While Inanna was a relatively “young” goddess, she still stood for the old way, uniting the contradictions of life; the lover and the warrior, birth and death, growth and destruction. When the mountain Ebih defied her, she unleashed all her fury upon him, completely destroying her adversary.

What makes this story so fascinating is that Ebih is described as an almost utopian place with lambs and lions living in peace (bible, anyone?) and Inanna flat-out bulldozes it which Enheduanna is obviously more than okay with. Why is that? Because it is unnatural. Nature is not merciful an harmonious, there are contrasts, there is good and bad, light and dark. Eternal peace does not fit into this world view and Enheduanna has Inanna annihilate it entirely.

Obviously that opinion didn’t stick and was eventually replaced by a more distinctive view on religion and the gods – although Inanna did stick around for around 2000 years still, donning the names of Ishtar and Cybele among others. Ironically it was Enheduanna who lay the groundwork for this development. Had she not began her journey of self-awareness people might not have differentiated between divine and worldly for another 1000 years or so and the old gods would have survived a little longer. On the other hand, is there nothing divine in creating something that never was before? And in this aspect maybe Enheduanna was not all wrong.

Do you want to read all of her poems now? Because I did!

Unfortunately there is no complete collection on the internet, but you can find a selection of her temple hymns here (click) and there is one of her Inanna poems here (click.)
You can also hear one of her texts in the original Sumerian here (click and scroll down to the bottom.)

image credits:

Ruins: Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq by M. Lubinski in Wikimedia Commons – Link
Disc: Penn Museum, British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1926 (B16665)
Clay Tablets: CDLI – Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, photo by Thomas Fish, 1982 (P212927)

Aelia Eudoxia – The Barbarian Empress of Rome

Today’s story is about a woman who rose from relative obscurity to the throne of the Roman Empire, a woman who became an influential figure of the church while hosting lavish parties. Today I will tell you about Aelia Eudoxia.

But first let’s take a look at the time she lived in: In 330 the Roman Empire moved its capital from Rome to Constantinople – and it became Christian. This marked the beginning of what is now known as the Byzantine Empire. However, this term is a modern invention and the people of the time would still consider themselves Roman for many centuries to come.

At the time Eudoxia was born, the 380s, former enemies of the Roman Empire were taken into service, beginning to play a more significant role. Her (supposed) father was one of them. He was of the Franks (a Germanic people) and had become a high military commander for the Roman Army. Nothing is known about her mother, although she is presumed to have been Roman. This heritage was to prove difficult for our heroine, as she was considered a “barbarian” by her countrymen – but more on that later.

By 388 an orphaned Eudoxia arrived in Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire, and was taken in by a friend of her father’s, a high-ranking commander himself. There her fate began to show, when she was not only tutored alongside the children of the family but also the sons of the Emperor, Arcadius and Honorius. Soon-ish (about ten years later) the emperor died and his sons divided the Empire with Honorius taking the “original” Western while Arcadius remained in Constantinople – and he needed a wife. For reasons not entirely clear he chose Eudoxia and they were married in 395, with her gaining the title “Aelia.”

Her intelligence and willpower divided popular opinion with many criticizing how much control she held over her husband. That combined with her father’s heritage and her self-confidence made her quite unpopular at court and with the people. But I don’t think she cared. Instead she immersed herself in politics and church affairs, continuously increasing her influence until in 400 she was crowned “Augusta,” empress, and her picture decorated Roman coins (a fact that her brother-in-law Honorius didn’t like too much.) In the meantime she had born two children with a third on the way and would bear two more. She would also suffer two stillbirths but more on that later.

The records of her political activity in court are sparse, but it’s known that she had a say in legal matters and was allowed to wear the purple paludamentum, a garment reserved for people of imperial rank. Her involvement with the Nicene church has been recorded much more thoroughly though. She made herself its patron, attending to religious matters independently, as her husband chose to stay out of them. Remember how I said the people didn’t like her? Well, quite a few people in the church really, really didn’t like her. And so they had a lot to say. Her foremost enemy was John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople. He was a strong opponent of luxury and openly denounced the lavish parties held by the upper class and the extravagance in women’s clothes – criticism not very subtly aimed at Eudoxia herself. When her son was born in 401, John even suggested Arcadius was not the father. She decided something was to be done about him. Using her influence within the church, she had him banished.

…for, like, a day. As he had been really popular with the common people, they started a riot. Also there was an earthquake in the night of his judgement, which clearly was a heavenly sign. So he was reinstated. You could think he learned his lesson, but nope. Set off by a statue of the empress, John condemned her as Jezebel (who made her husband abandon the Christian god) and Herodias (who was responsible for decapitating John the Baptist; he compared himself to the latter.) And once again he touched on the subject of her children and placed the guilt for a stillbirth in late 403 on her actions. This time he was banished for good.

Eudoxia however did not live to enjoy her triumph for long. She would not survive a second stillbirth and died in October 404, only about 27 years old. Her legacy however lived on with first her son and later her daughter on the Byzantine throne.

image credits:

map: The Roman Empire Divided (400 AD) – Link
Coin: User Daderot in Wikimedia Commons – Link
Painting: “Saint John Chrysostome and the Empress Eudoxia” by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1893 (© Photo STC – Mairie de Toulouse) – Link