Powerful women in ancient times


When you think ancient times, you don’t immediately think feminism. But surprisingly, in ancient Egypt and Greece, there were women of power who were highly respected and are still looked up to. These women’s roles would not be taken seriously in some parts of the world today. If a woman tried leading a navy ship of mostly men, chances are she would be laughed at; if a woman tried to reign over an entire country, she might be considered a joke.  Not that there aren’t women in powerful leadership roles today; it’s just still not very common.

Women’s rights seemed to have been pushed back and put on halt these past few years, and it’s time to take some advice from these women of history.  Pop culture has helped these four women become well known, you might already have an idea as to whom this is about. Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Queen Gorgo and Artemisia are key players in not only ancient times, but also feminism and women’s rights. Although film has slightly altered the truth, for the most part these women have been kept true to who they were and how the history books have captured them.

Cleopatra seems to be the most well-known, thanks to Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in 1963, and more recently, Stacy Schiff’s 2010 book, Cleopatra, a Life. Most seem to remember her more for her scandalous romance with Mark Antony more than her leadership of Egypt; but she single handily controlled the most powerful throne at that time for 21 years (51– 12 August 30 BCE). She was the last active pharaoh of Egypt, and was survived by her son, Caesarion; whose father was Julius Caesar. Even during her exile and the Roman Civil War, she remained true to her title and held her own until her death at age 39.

Nefertiti reined Egypt with her husband Akhenaten until 1330 BCE, sometime before Cleopatra. They were known for their religious revolution in Egypt; worshipping only one god, the sun god Aten, and she ruled briefly alone after her husband’s death. She was someone the people of Egypt took seriously, she was greatly respected her for beauty, wealth and political views. She changed the way women were viewed from a political and leadership standpoint.  She is famously known for the sculpture of her bust, and it is one of the most copied works of art.

Nefertiti's bust from Neues Museum in Berlin

Nefertiti’s bust from Neues Museum in Berlin

Moving over to Greece, Gorgo and Artemisia lived during the same time period, but never met. Some historians suggest that they knew of one another, considering they were both extremely powerful women.  Queen Gorgo was the queen of Sparta, and was present at court and council meetings with city elders. She commonly gave advice, and when questioned by a woman from Attica as to why a Spartan woman could rule men, she famously replied, “Because we are the only ones who give birth to men,” meaning that Spartan men were stronger than the other men of Greece. The quote was slightly altered for the 2007 film 300, where Lena Headey portrayed her. Although there had been other films concerning the 300 Spartans, 300 arguably gave her a larger role and made her better known. For a woman to have as much power as she did in Ancient Greece was very uncommon. Sparta did things differently from other places in Greece, and women across the country saw her as a symbol of feminism and hope.

“In ancient times, there were female goddess and deities, and now in most cultures there is only one god, who is considered by most to be male,” says Canadian Naval Combat Information Operator Katie Porter. “I think religion has a lot to do with how women are, and have been treated.”

 Artemisia I of Caria, or better known as simply Artemisia, was the first female naval commander in Ancient Greece, let alone the ancient world. She commanded her five ships during the battles of Artemisium and Salamis in 480 BCE. She was made known by the writer Herodotus, who praised her for her strength, courage, and for the respect she achieved from not only men, but women and Xerxes. She survived both of the battles, then to the dismay of many, just disappears from history.She made it possible for women to have leadership roles in the military, although this did not become popular until many centuries later. Her role on the battlefield and in ships is still widely recognized today; and she was reintroduced by Eva Green in the second 300 film, Rise of an Empire from this year.

“I did have a female Executive Officer on ship, which is one level below Captain,” Porter says. “I think the women of power today should try and model some aspects of themselves after the women of ancient times; the women back then knew what they were talking about.”

English School's Artemisia of Caria from a Private Collection, created in the 19th century

English School’s Artemisia of Caria from a Private Collection, created in the 19th century

These early depictions of feminism and women in power must be remembered; they did not come into the positions easily. They helped pave the way for women of power today, and perhaps unintentionally started feminism thousands of years ago.

1 Comment

  1. Alexandria Anisha Abishegam

    06/09/2014 at 6:25 pm

    Nice to read about where feminism might have started.. I guess never underestimate the power of a woman.

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