Female Leaders Potentially were Involved in Ancient Near East Warfare

Source: Warlike men and invisible women: how scribes in the Ancient Near East represented warfare (Open Edition Journals) 2021 A.D.

From the source, “The analysis of women’s place in wars in the Ancient Near East is determined to a great extent by the fact that there was no law of war. However, some laws existed to allow wives to remarry, if their husbands were made prisoners of war or were considered to have disappeared. Thus, one must turn to the practice of war, as described by scribes, to find more elements concerning women. The queens of Assyria, such as Sammuramat (Semiramis) or Naqi’a/Zakutu were sufficiently involved in affairs of state to have some say in military matters. This was certainly true of Sammuramat. Women appear more frequently in references to violence directed against women, but for the most part the scribes do not single them out from the rest of defeated populations, in their descriptions of massacres and deportations…


There remains the very exceptional case of women whose hierarchical position offered them an opportunity to act as leaders in wartime. Once again, the sources are never explicit, at least not when documenting the situation in the Mesopotamian states themselves. It is to be noted, however, that the figures of two queens were closely associated with their reigning sons. The first of them is Shammuramat, better known as Semiramis. As the mother of Adad-nirari III (810-783), she was at his side in the treaties passed with the Western states.16 At the start of her son’s reign, Shammuramat seems to have led the Assyrian state with such brilliance that she left a memory of herself, doubtless tinged with legend, in the classical sources (particularly the writings of Ctesias).17 It must be admitted, however, that she is not to be seen explicitly acting as a wartime leader, possibly due to the nature of our documentary sources.18 It nevertheless remains the case that she appears in her son’s inscriptions, particularly when the latter intervened to the west of the Euphrates, as shown by the inscription found at Kızkapanlı near Maraş:19

Boundary stone of Adad-nirari, king of Assyria, son of Šamši-Adad (V), king of Assyria, (and of) Sammuramat, the palace-woman of Šamši-Adad, king of Assyria, mother of Adad-nirari, strong king, king of Assyria, daughter-in-law of Shalmaneser (III), king of the four quarters.
When Ušpilulume, king of the Kummuhites, caused Adad-nirari, king of Assyria, (and) Sammuramat, the palace woman, to cross the Euphrates; I fought a pitched battle with them – with Ataršumki, son of Adramu, of the city of Arpad, together with eight kings who were with him at the city Paqarahubunu. I took away from them their camp. To save their lives they dispersed. In this (same) year they erected this boundary stone between Ušpilulume, king of the Kummuhites, and Qalparuda, son of Palalam, king of the Gurgumites
. […]20

As the monarch officially received credit for armed exploits, the battle that is referred to here, which allowed the Assyrian king to project his army eastward, is recounted in the first person. However, Shammuramat’s close association with this military campaign and, in particular, the battle of Paqarahubunu suggests that she may have herself led the armies of her young son.


The second female Assyrian sovereign who may have commanded armies was the wife of Sennacherib, a king who reigned from 704 to 681. Known as Zakutu in Assyrian and Naqi’a in Aramaic, she saw to it that her son Esarhaddon (680-669) succeeded Sennacherib, even though that should not have taken place.21 It seems likely that she helped Esarhaddon ascend the throne when his brother Arad-Mullissu took up arms against him.22 Once again, however, no source places her on a battlefield, and all glory is accorded her son, who moreover sponsored the inscriptions relating these events. This is ultimately not very surprising, to the degree that war was considered an exclusively masculine domain, at least as narrated by royal inscriptions.23


The possibility that certain female sovereigns played an active role in wartime also arises in Assyrian sources from the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, this time in the case of Arab queens. The Assyrian monarchs Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727), Sennacherib (705-681), Esarhaddon (680-669) and finally Ashurbanipal (668-630/627) mention queens who commanded Arab populations and armies.24 Of these, the case of Samsi under Tiglath-Pileser III is the most revealing. Here is what the annals of this monarch have to say:

As for Samsi, queen of the Arabs, at Mount Saqurri, [I] de[feated 9,400 (of her people)]. I took away (from her) 1,000 people, 30,000 camels, 20,000 oxen (etc.). Moreover, she, in order to save her life, [… (and) set out] like a female onager [to the de]sert, a place (where one is always) thirsty. [I set the rest of her possessions] (and) her [ten]ts, her people’s safeguard within her camp [on fire].25


Subsequently, the queen obediently paid tribute, all the more so as, following this defeat, a representative of the King of Assyria was assigned to her. Though they provide no details concerning the organization of Samsi’s army, these few lines indicate that the queen probably commanded her troops, as she had to flee the camp attacked by the Assyrians in order to avoid capture. This point suggests we next consider the manner in which violence against women may be presented in Mesopotamian sources.26

This source provides some potential evidence that suggests some women did indeed lead armies in the ancient near east.

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