Queen Thomyris (flourished 500s BC) was the ruler of the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation that stretched across the Central Asian Steppe from east of the Caspian Sea to China’s borders. A formidable warrior queen, she is credited with the defeat of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. Indeed, she brought his brilliant career of uninterrupted conquests to a screeching halt in 530 BC. According to ancient sources, the Massagetae were Iranian-speaking nomads who led a hardy pastoral life on the Eurasian Steppe.
They tended their herds most of the time, interspersed with raids into the surrounding civilized lands bordering the Steppe. Their raiding eventually grew too bothersome for Cyrus the Great, who had recently founded the Persian Empire, and whose realm now encompassed many of the territories being raided. So he led an army into the Steppe to bring the nomads to heel. He won an initial victory against a nomad contingent commanded by Thomyris’ son, with a ruse in which Cyrus “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. As seen below, the tribesmen took the bait.
3. Cyrus the Great Must Have Rued the Day He Came Across This Warrior Queen
The Massagetae captured the wine left behind by Cyrus, and swiftly got down to enjoying it. Unused to the drink, it was not long before they were rip-roaring drunk. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the inebriated nomads, killing many, including Thomyris’ son. She sent the Persian king a message, challenging him to a second battle, which the overconfident Cyrus accepted. She personally led her army this time, and as described by Herodoutus: “Thomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been….
They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually, the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too.” The Persian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, Thomyris had Cyrus’ corpse beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, addressed Cyrus the Great’s head as it bobbed in the blood: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall“.
Warrior Queen Mawia commenced her rule of the Tanukhid Confederation in 375 AD. Her realm was an agglomeration of Arab tribes whose range stretched from northern Arabia, through eastern Jordan, to southern Syria. In the fourth century AD, they became the first Arabs to serve as foederati, or allies, of the Roman Empire. The relationship soured, however, over a religious dispute. The Tanukhids were Orthodox Christians, but in 364 Emperor Valens, an Arian, ascended the throne. The doctrinal dispute between Arianism and Orthodox Christianity revolved around whether Jesus had always existed alongside God, and is thus his equal, or whether he was begotten by God, and is thus His subordinate.
To people today, that might seem like a trifling difference, but it mattered to people at the time – enough for them to kill or get killed over it. The Tanukhids asked Valens to send them an Orthodox bishop, but he insisted on sending them an Arian one instead. So Queen Mawia, who had recently ascended the throne, withdrew from her capital of Aleppo into the desert. There, she began to gather support throughout the region, and to form alliances with other Arab tribes in preparation for a revolt. In the spring of 378, she launched a massive uprising against the Roman Empire.
The Roman east was badly shaken when Queen Mawia’s uprising commenced. Rufinus of Aquileia, a fourth-century monk, wrote: “Mawia, the queen of the Saracens, began to rock the towns and cities on the borders of Palestine and Arabia with fierce attacks“. A formidable warrior, she led her troops into the Roman province of Palestine until they reached the Mediterranean, then continued on as far as Egypt. Rufinus added that she despoiled Rome’s provinces, laid them to waste, and “wore down the Roman army in frequent battles, killed many, and put the rest to flight“. Mawia’s revolt was a kind of ancient world blitzkrieg, as she swept in with her forces, overran Roman territories, and left death and devastation in her wake.
Emperor Valens ran out of options, and was forced to sue for peace. Mawia demanded an Orthodox bishop, and insisted that a hermit monk named Moses, whom she admired, be made that bishop. The Arian Valens agreed, and Moses became the first Arab bishop of the Arabs. In return, the Tanukhids resumed their alliance with Rome, and joined Valens in a war against the Goths, which ended in a Roman defeat at the Battle of Adrianople. The renewed alliance proved short-lived, however, and the Tanukhids rebelled again in 383. This revolt was quickly put down, and it marked the end of the alliance. It is unknown whether Mawia led the second revolt. What is known is that she lived until 425 and died in Khanasir, a town east of Aleppo, where an inscription notes her death that year.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading