Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors
Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors

Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors

Khalid Elhassan - December 7, 2017

Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors
Zenobia in Chains, by Harriet Hosmer. Skip Moss Photography


Zenobia (circa 240 – circa 274) was a third-century Syrian queen who challenged the authority of Rome and took charge of the short-lived Empire of Palmyra from 267 to 272. During that period, via war, conquest, and diplomacy, she came to control and govern a sizeable realm that encompassed most of the Roman Empire’s eastern provinces.

She was born Julia Aurelia Zenobia in Palmyra, a wealthy Syrian city that grew prosperous from its strategic location astride caravan trade routes. She was educated in Latin and Greek, and was fluent in Aramaic and Egyptian. In her youth, she was put in charge of her family’s flocks and crews of shepherds. As a result, she grew accustomed to horseback riding, the outdoors life, and developed endurance and stamina – assets that would come in handy later on in her life.

In her teens, Zenobia was married to Lucius Septimus Odaenathus, Rome’s client ruler of Palmyra. In the mid 200s AD, the Roman Empire was in the grip of a decades-long period of chaos and political instability that came to be known as the Crisis of the Third Century. Taking advantage of that weakness, the newly emergent Persian Sassanid Empire conquered much of the Roman east. Acting at Rome’s behest, Odaenathus fought off the Persians and recovered the Roman east. For his services, Odaenathus was made governor of most of the Roman east, and in 260, he crowned himself king.

In 267, Odaenathus and his eldest son by a previous wife were assassinated, at which point Zenobia stepped up and assumed power as regent on behalf of her underage son. She also crowned herself queen of Palmyra, and surrounded herself at court with intellectuals and philosophers. Unlike her deceased husband, however, Zenobia was not content to remain a Roman client, so she conquered Egypt in 269, seized a significant part of Asia Minor, and declared herself an independent ruler.

She was a remarkable queen, noted for her culture, her intellect, her beauty, and her toughness. It was recorded that she was capable of marching on foot long distances with her soldiers, could hunt as well as any man, and could out-drink anybody. By 270, she had conquered an empire stretching from modern Turkey to Egypt, and from Mesopotamia to the deserts of Libya.

Rome was finally forced to take note, and in 270, a new emperor, Aurelian, finally managed to restore a measure of order to the western Roman empire, and turned his attention to the east. Marching against Zenobia, he defeated her armies at Antioch and Emesa, and besieged her in Palmyra. She attempted to fight her way out and flee, but was eventually captured. She was supposed to march as a trophy in Aurelian’s triumph in Rome, but denied him that satisfaction by starving herself to death in 274 during the trip to Rome.

Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors
Khawla bint al Azwar. Buffy Mega

Khawla bint Al-Azwar

Khawla bint al Azwar (flourished 600s AD) was a Muslim Arab poet and warrior who accompanied her elder brother during the Islamic conquests of Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. She fought at her brother’s side, and at the head of her own forces in independent command in numerous battles, and became famous for her fighting skill, courage, and toughness.

Khawla was the daughter of the chief of an Arab tribe, and during her youth, she was taught warrior skills such as swordsmanship and horseback riding, at the side of her brother. She also learned poetry at her sibling’s side, who became a noted poet and warrior. When her brother converted to the then-new religion of Islam, Khawla followed his suit, and adopted the new faith.

She first gained note as a warrior in 634, during the Arab siege of Damascus, when her brother was wounded and taken prisoner by the city’s Byzantine defenders. Khawla donned armor and arms, and covering her face with a shawl to hide her gender, charged the Byzantine rearguard alone. She fought until reinforcements arrived to rescue her brother from captivity.

At the battle of Ajnadayn later that year, her brother was again taken prisoner, and Khawla again rushed to his rescue, covering her face and charging in alone until reinforcements arrived. By the time the Byzantines were beaten, Khawla was drenched in blood. The army’s commander, Khalid ibn al Walid, unaware of her identity or gender, ordered her to remove the shawl from her face. When she finally relented, he ordered her to the rear, but soon changed his mind and put her in command of a mobile column to pursue the fleeing Byzantines.

On another occasion, Khawla was herself captured during a raid on the Muslim camp, and taken prisoner along with other camp women. They were taken to an enemy general’s tent, who divided the captive women among his officers as slaves and concubines. Khawla roused the captives, and seizing tent poles, they fell upon their captors, and during the confusion, she made her escape. To this day, she is remembered as one of the greatest female warriors in the history of Islam, with hardly any sizeable city in the Muslim world that does not have at least one school named after her.

Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors
Sichelgaita of Salerno and Robert Guiscard. Wikimedia


Sichelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090) was a Lombard warrior princess and the hereditary duchess of Apulia in southern Italy. A six-foot Amazon, she met and married Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer who turned southern Italy and Sicily into a Norman domain. Armed and armored and going into combat at Guiscard’s side, or leading men into battle on her own, the power couple roiled the Mediterranean world during the second half of the 11th century.

Sichelgaita was born into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno. and from an early age, she exhibited a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding. After her father, the duke, was murdered in a palace coup, she helped her brother regain the duchy, and she regained her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then had to deal with encroachment from Normans to their south, who had settled in Italy following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

In 1058, Sichelgaita met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard, and the two fell passionately in love. Impressed by the six-foot Amazon who went into battle, armed and armored at his side, Guiscard divorced his wife and married Sichelgaita. For the next 18 years, she was Guiscard’s constant companion, on and off the battlefield, helping consolidate his and her family’s hold on southern Italy.

In 1076, clad in shining armor and mounted astride a stallion, Sichelgaita rode up to the walls of Salerno, which was ruled by her own brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, Sichelgaita and Guiscard put the city under siege, and starved him into surrender. She then took command of the city, and sent her brother into exile.

In addition to fighting at her husband’s side, Sichelgaita also led men on her own in independent commands. She and Guiscard attempted to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household. A palace coup in Constantinople foiled those plans, however, so the power couple decided to take over Byzantium the hard way, by conquering it.

Sichelgaita’s greatest exploit came during the ensuing war, at the Battle of Durazo on the Albanian coast, in October of 1081. Sichelgaita led an advance force ahead of the main body, which encountered a powerful Byzantine army that offered fierce resistance. Sichelgaita determined to press the attack and keep the Byzantines pinned in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements, but her men faltered, and some fled. As described by near contemporaries: “Directly Sichelgaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words “How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!” And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.

She was badly wounded in the fight, but held part of the battlefield until reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and win the hard-fought engagement. Notwithstanding the victory, the plans for conquering Byzantium had to be discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1084, the power couple resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. They won some initial victories, including a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine, which gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign in Greece fizzled out. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090.

Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors
Tomoe Gozen and her commanding general, Minamoto Yoshinaka. Wikimedia

Tomoe Gozen

Tomoe Gozen (circa 1157 – 1247) is perhaps Japan’s most famous female samurai, or onna-bogueisha. A formidable warrior, she was famous for her courage, physical strength, and skill with a variety of weapons. She put those assets to good use on the battlefield, as she fought in the Japanese civil war that led to the creation of that country’s first shogun (military dictator) government – the political system that would govern Japan from the 1180s until 1868.

It was not unusual for women in Japan to receive military training, and for centuries, women of the samurai class were taught swordsmanship, archery, and the use of polearms. It was defensive training, however, for the women to protect themselves and their households in the absence of their menfolk. Tomoe however wanted to test her mettle and training in battle, so she sought an active career as a warrior, and was accepted into the service of a general named Minamoto Yoshinaka.

As described by contemporaries: ” Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.

By 1184, Tomoe had become famous because of her fighting skill and exploits. Her greatest exploit came that year, at the battle of Awazu, when she was part of a small force of 300 samurai that was set upon by a far bigger army of around 6000. She fought with extreme courage and skill against overwhelming odds, but eventually, Tomoe’s force was whittled down from 300 to only Tomoe, her commanding general, Yoshinaka, and five other warriors. With the end drawing near, Yoshinaka ordered her to leave the battlefield, as it would be shameful for him to die alongside a woman. Reluctantly, she obeyed, beheading one more enemy warrior on her way out. Thereafter, she fades from history.

Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors
Joan of Arc. A&E Biography

Joan of Arc

France’s national heroine Joan of Arc, also known as the Maid of Orleans (1412 – 1431), is perhaps the world’s most famous female warrior of all time. As a teenage girl, she led French armies to victory against rampaging English invaders during the Hundred Years War. Fighting at the head of her forces, she won a series of miraculous victories that revived French national spirit, and turned the tide of the war.

Born into a peasant family in Lorraine, Joan was noted for her piety since childhood. As a teenager, she began seeing visions from a variety of saints, directing her to save France from English domination. At the time, France was exhausted, downtrodden and reeling from a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English. The French crown was also in dispute between the French Dauphin, or heir to throne, and the English king, Henry IV.

At age 16, Joan left home, and led by voices and visions from the saints, traveled to join the Dauphin. In 1429, she convinced the French heir to give her an army, which she took to relieve French forces besieged by the English at Orleans. Endowed with remarkable mental and physical courage, Joan led her men in a whirlwind campaign that lifted the siege in 9 days, and sent the English fleeing. In so doing, she won a momentous victory that repulsed an English attempt to conquer France.

After the victory at Orleans, Joan of Arc convinced the Dauphin to crown himself king of France, which he reluctantly did. She was then sent on a variety of military expeditions, and in one of them in 1430, she was thrown off her horse and captured by Burgundians. Her captors kept her for several months, while negotiating with the English, who were eager to get their hands on the girl who had caused them so much trouble.

Eventually, Joan was sold to the English, and although she had saved her country, she was now abandoned by her countrymen to fend for herself. The English and their French collaborators accused her of heresy and witchcraft and locked her in a dark and filthy cell pending her trial. Manacled to her bed with chains, she was incessantly harassed by her inquisitors at all hours of day and night in an effort to break her will and spirit. She adamantly refused to confess to wrongdoing, and her accusers were unable to prove either heresy or witchcraft. In frustration, they turned their attention to the way in which she had dressed in male attire on the field of battle. Claiming that such cross-dressing violated biblical injunctions, they convicted her. On May 30th, 1431, she was taken on a cart to her site of execution in Rouen, where the 19-year-old Maid of Orleans burned to death.

Two decades after her death, an inquisitorial court was ordered by a new Pope, to reexamine Joan of Arc’s trial. The new court debunked all the charges against her, cleared her posthumously, and declared her a martyr. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte made her a national symbol of France. Five centuries later, she was beatified in 1909, then canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church in 1920. Today, Saint Joan of Arc is one of the patron saints of France, and perhaps the most famous female warrior of all time.

Nobody Can Hold a Candle to These Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors
Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi. Wiki Voyage

Lakshmi Bai

Lakshmi Bai, also known as the Rani of Jhansi (circa 1830 – 1858), was the rani, or queen, of the Indian princely state of Jhansi in northern India. She is best known as a leader of the Indian Mutiny against British rule in 1857-1858, during which she personally led troops and fought in the line of battle. Her exploits made her an Indian national heroine, a symbol of resistance to British rule, and a martyr for independence.

Born and raised in an upper-caste Brahman family, Lakshmi had an unusual upbringing for a girl of her class. Brought up among boys in a prince’s household, she was taught and became proficient in martial arts such as swordsmanship, shooting, and horseback riding. Upon coming of age, she was married to the maharaja, or princely ruler, of Jhansi.

The couple did not have children, but her husband adopted a child as his heir. Upon her husband’s death, the British employed legal chicanery, refused to recognize the adopted child as heir to Jhansi, and annexed that state to the territory of the East India Company. When informed of this, Lakshmi vowed “I shall not surrender my Jhansi!“, which became her war cry in the subsequent rebellion.

In 1857, Indian troops in British service mutinied, and their rebellion quickly spread throughout northern India. Lakshmi was declared regent of Jhansi, and governed on behalf of the underage heir. She raised troops and joined the rebels, and disgruntled natives from across Indian flocked to her standard to offer their support and fight under her command.

She led her forces in a series of successful engagements that asserted her command and consolidated her rule. Eventually, the British sent an army to recapture Jhansi. When they demanded her surrender, she responded with a proclamation stating: “We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”

The British surrounded Jhansi, and a fierce battle ensued, during which Lakshmi Bai led her troops in offering stiff resistance. British heavy artillery eventually reduced her fortifications and breached the city walls. When Jhansi was about to fall, Lakshmi led a small force in a ferocious attack that cut its way to safety, fighting through the British siege lines with her child strapped to her back. She escaped, reached other rebel forces, and resumed the fight. She was finally killed in battle on June 17th, 1858, in an engagement against British cavalry.


Sources For Further Reading:

OZY – When A Warrior Queen Took Down An Emperor

Medium – Battle of Salamis that Ended the Xerxes’ Ambitions in Greece

ThoughtCo – Biography of Artemisia I, Warrior Queen of Halicarnassus

Factinate – Lethal Facts About Artemisia I Of Caria, The Pirate Queen Of Ancient Greece

The National News – The Rich Tales Of Women Who Went To War

ThoughtCo – Who Were the Trung Sisters of Ancient Vietnam?

Ancient Origins – Tomoe Gozen – A Fearsome Japanese Female Warrior Of The 12th Century

The Guardian – The Burning Mystery Of Joan Of Arc

New York Times – Overlooked No More: Rani of Jhansi, India’s Warrior Queen Who Fought the British