It’s safe to assume that most people who study the ancient world have heard of the charismatic and clever Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, but few other African queens, who are just as notable, get the same amount of recognition. One such woman was Kandake Amanirenas, the second queen of the Kush Kingdom. The land of Kush was a part of the region, Nubia, now present-day Sudan. Nubia was called “Ta-Seti” or “Land of Bows” by the Egyptians in the north, because Nubian hunters and archers were skilled with their bows and arrows. Archery was a skill done by both men and women, resulting in a number of Nubian female warriors and four queens. The title for a ruling queen was “Kandake,” meaning “Queen Mother” in Meroitic, the language and written system developed by the Nubians.
The most famous of the four Kandakes was Amanirenas, who ruled from 40BC-10BC, around the same time as Celopatra and Marc Anthonys’ rule in Egypt. We don’t possess Amanirenas’ full story from the Kushite perspective since their language, written in Meroitic Script, has not been fully deciphered. However, historians like Strabo tell Amanirenas’ story as that of great leadership and courage in battle.
In 30 BC, the Roman emperor was Caesar Augustus. Augustus’ ambition to expand the Roman Empire led him to claim Egypt after Cleopatra’s death. The Romans then began marching south, conquering territories up the Kush border. Hearing of Augustus’ intentions to take Nubia, Amanirenas launched a surprise attack of 30,000 Nubian soldiers equipped with swords, spears, bows and arrows against the Romans. Amanirenas led her soldiers into battle with her son, Akinidad, and together, they claimed the Roman ruled port, Syene, and the Roman inhabited island, Philae. The Nubians defaced and destroyed many Roman monuments, such as statues of Augustus that they found along their journey. In a bold act of defiance, Amanirenas cut the head off of a statue of Augustus, and put it under the stairs of the temple of Victoria so that all who entered would walk over the Roman emperor’s head.
Outraged by the Nubians’ advances, the Romans invaded Nubia, destroying its old capital and sending many Nubian soldiers into slavery. In response, Amanirenas attacked more viciously. Historical paintings show her with two swords feeding captives to a pet lion. However as the battles waged on, Amanirenas suffered losses, such as the death of her son to the Roman prefect, Gaius Petronius, and the blinding of one of her eyes by the blade of a Roman soldier.
Nevertheless, Amanirenas continued the tireless fight against the Romans for three more years until finally, a peace treaty was signed. The treaty heavily favored the Nubians, as it was decided that Augustus would give the Nubians back their land, withdraw Roman forts and cancel all Roman taxes which had been imposed on the Nubians.
History has seen women be oppressed and made into the background characters of another man’s story. However, Amanirenas proved otherwise by fighting for her country and the people she loved. The courage and strength of the warrior queen against the most powerful army in the world at the time saved her people from foreign domination, giving them freedom that would last them centuries into the future.
- Kandake Amanirenas: Regina Nubiae by Emma Vanderpool