Ancient history school: what's new with the old?

yr 9 and women in the ancient world

yr 9 and women in the ancient world

(image courtesy of HIstory vs Hollywood)

My year 9 class is researching a leader from the ancient world as their final presentation in history. My school is an all-girls school, so it has been interesting watching them make a decision about who they would ‘like to be’ (it is a dramatic presentation).

Where are the women?

Surely there are more examples of female leaders than Boudicca, Cleopatra and Hatshepsut?

Of course there are, I say. Can you find them?

Finally the girls come up with a list of likely contenders:

  • Zenobia

  • Artemisia

  • Agrippina

  • Nefertiti

Artemisia, the warrior queen of Caria (5thC BCE) had the edge over the others, as she was a naval commander who fought for the Persians in the wars against the Greeks. The lead primary source here is the ‘father of history’ himself, Herodotus. He writes favourably of her, describing her as intelligent, brave and quite the strategist:

Hers was the second most famous squadron in the entire navy, after the one from Sidon. None of Xerxes’ allies gave him better advice than her (VII.99).

Like Boudicca, Artemisia inherited the throne from her husband and took direct action to support the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, where she impressed the Persian king with her brilliance:

Master, it is only right that I should tell you what is, in my honest opinion, the best course of action for you. So here is my advice: do not commit the fleet to battle, because at sea your men will be as inferior to the Greeks as women are to men.

As far as the year 9 girls were concerned, she ticked all the right boxes for a ‘bad ass babe’ who demonstrated more military competence than the men. And now I prepare myself for several presentations by Artemisia in the weeks to come!

But how has the modern world presented Artemisia? She is not the person we think of when we think of great naval generals of the ancient world. We do not even think of her as a queen. We do not think of her at all - ‘why have I never heard of her, Miss?’

Artemisia is alive and well in the minds and history of Iran - indeed , she had a warship named after her . An apt memorial!

But she has certainly made a comeback through the film depictions of the Battle of Salamis/Thermopylae. In 1962, her character appears in The 300 Spartans and in 2014, she is played by Eva Green in 300: Rise of an Empire. In the latter, she is depicted as a leather-wearing, battle hardened rape survivor who commands king Xerxes’ navy. Nowhere does it mention that she was a queen in her own right. I have discussed the impact of Hollywood on the ancient world in a previous post, and Artemisia is as much a victim as Cleopatra.

As a teacher, it is important that I offer history students the opportunities to find quiet or silenced voices in history. I’m really glad that the year 9 girls found these women as they are as worthy of the title of leader as any man,..

When Women Ruled the world

When Women Ruled the world

Rome: City and Empire

Rome: City and Empire