Military History

WOMEN OF WAR

Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae glared as her soldiers dragged in the battered corpse of Cyrus the Great, slain founder of the Achaemenid empire. She had rejected his proposal of marriage to avoid war. In the subsequent vicious campaign to repel the Persian invaders, Tomyris had lost Spargapises—her son and commander of her army—and a third of her troops and had made a mortal enemy of the empire to the west. Persia, on the other hand, had lost its monarch.

Days before battle in 530 BC the queen of the nomadic Iranian tribal confederation had warned Cyrus not to march his army into her dominion northeast of the Caspian Sea. Following her son’s ignominious defeat at Persian hands, she flew into a rage and sent Cyrus one last letter, vowing to give him more blood than he could drink. Her army of the steppes defeated the Persian horde in a battle unusually violent even by ancient standards. After the field quieted and the surviving Persians fled west, she ordered her men to find Cyrus’ body. Soldiers brought her his corpse as servants waited with a wineskin filled with human blood. Thrusting the head of the lifeless emperor into the gore-filled bag, Tomyris hissed, “Thus I make good my threat and give you your fill of blood!”

Herodotus’ account of Queen Tomyris is hardly the first story of a woman who led her nation in war. Ancient Egyptian stone monuments relate that Queen Hatshepsut, an 18th Dynasty ruler who came to the throne in 1478 BC, sent armies north into the Levant. The biblical Book of Judges recalls the generalship of Deborah, a judge from the tribe of Ephraim, who defeated a chariot-equipped Canaanite army in Israel’s Jezreel Valley around 1125 BC. A generation after Tomyris defeated Cyrus, the Persian emperor’s grandson, Xerxes, had as one of his trusted naval commanders the brash Queen Artemisia of the Persian satrapy of Caria.

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