Arachidamia of Sparta

The Greeks did not have a good track record on women’s rights in the ancient world.  However, there was an anomaly in a strange place.  The city-state of Sparta was not generally a tolerant place.  Men were expected to give life long service to the military and boys were separated from their families to build esprit de corps.  A coming of age ritual was killing a slave and not getting caught.  It was a messed up place. (For more on the Spartans, please see these posts: and )  However,  women there were given extraordinary rights.  This was because the men were off fighting and the women were left to take care of everything else.  Spartan women were quite formidable.   Arachidamia was one such woman.

She was born in Sparta in the third century BCE and in due time became the wife of Eudamidas I and bore him a son, the future Archidamus IV. Not much is known about her until Sparta came under attack by the forces of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 273 BCE.  Pyrrhus was a legendary general, whose reputation gave even the Spartans pause.  Although he was at the end of his career, Pyrrhus had agreed to come out for one last hurrah by a rival contender for the Spartan throne.  The king and the bulk of the army were off fighting somewhere else.  This was a slam dunk.

The Spartan Gerousia, or council of elders, knew they were outmanned and outgunned and started to make plans.  They decided it would be best to send the women and children to the relative safety of Crete and then mount a defence of the city.  The Gerousia discussing this proposal when Arachidamia let them know she had other plans.  She marched in with a sword and asked the men how the expected Spartan women to survive the destruction of their city.   She declared every woman and child would step up to the defense.

And they did not falter.  Part of the defense plan was to dig a trench parallel to Pyrrhus’ army’s camp.  Arachidamia organized the women and children to dig, and the completed at least one third of it themselves.  It was in the nick of time as Pyrrhus attacked with 20,000 men and 5,000 elephants.  But Sparta was ready.  During the heat of the battle, some of the women pulled wounded to safety and nursed them while others fought alongside the men.  Together,  the pushed back the enemy and saved Sparta.  Pyrrhus fled to Argos and was beheaded by a falling statue.  I want to believe a Spartan woman pushed it, but that is completely my own fiction.

So, dear reader, don’t go after the home of formidable woman.  You’ll end up stomped.


The Valiant Ladies of Potosí

Mining in Potosí, an engraving from Theodoor de Bry in Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, 1596

When the Spanish “discovered” South America, they were thrilled to find a plethora of precious metals to take.  The heart of the silver boom was the town of Potosí, in what is now Bolivia.  At the time it was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru and was known as Alto Peru.  There was so much money there that the theory is that the mint mark of Potosí, which was the letters “PTSI” all written over each other, is the origin of the dollar sign.  The very name meant money, and a common Spanish expression is “vale un Potosí”, which is literally translated to “to be worth a Potosí” and means “to be of great value”.  However, with great wealth comes opportunity and unfortunately opportunistic people.  Native South Americans were used as forced labor in the mines for Spanish robber barons who came for the money.  Miners, who actually go paid, blew what salary they had on drinks, loose women and carousing.  Bandits were everywhere and crime was rampant.  It was so bad that the town council wouldn’t meet unless they had chain mail shirts on.  Enter in the mix of obscene wealth, screaming poverty and rank crime, Ana Lezama de Urinza and Dona Eustaquia de Sonza.

The two women were as different as they could be.  Ana was born on the streets and grew up as an orphan.  The fact she lived meant she was tough as nails.  Eustaquia lived in a beautiful villa overlooking the city with every possible comfort.  It’s not recorded how they met, but they became unlikely friends.  So close that Ana was adopted into Eustaquia’s family at the age of 12.  They were taught the skills needed for young noble women at the time-  dancing, needlework, cooking and running of a great household.  However, these two little Arya Starks were completely uninterested in all of this.  They paid much more attention to Eustaquia’s brother’s fencing lessons.  No matter what they were doing, the made sure to observe his lessons and try out the moves when no one was looking.  Sadly, Eustaquia’s brother died young, but the two girls had shown so much promise they received their own tutor and were working on swordplay, riding and firearms training.  Beats the heck out of needlepoint.

“Chronica del Peru” by Pedro de Lieca

Despite their training, Ana and Eustaquia were extremely sheltered.  It was no proper for a lady to be roaming the streets let alone in a town as dangerous as Potosí.  However, they were bored with their secluded life and came up with a plan to sneak out.  Disguising themselves as caballeros, they induced a servant to help them sneak out.  This became a habit, and the two young women got into the inevitable scrap.  In one of their most famous street duels, it was the two of them against four bandits.  Ana had fallen from a wound, and Eustaquia was guarding her from all comers.  Then Ana “rose to her feet like a lioness and, recognizing the man who had wounded her, said, ‘Monster, now I will revenge myself!”  The proceeded to open a can of whipass on him.  At the end of the fight, both women were wounded but made it home.  By this time, the women had found that their friendship had deepened into a romantic relationship.  The two lovers quit searching for fights and went full on vigilante on the mean streets of Potosí and beyond.  They spent five years touring Peru drinking, fighting bulls, playing cards and handing out their own brand of justice at the point of a sword.  They were known as “The Valiant Peruvian Ladies of Potosí”.

Eventually, they returned to Potosí as Eustaquia’s father died leaving her as sole heir.  They settled into the cushy villa, but did not give up their wild life.  Unfortunately, their life together ended a few years later when Ana succumbed to wounds she received in a bullfight.  Eustaquia did not live much longer, dying of a broken heart four months later.

Although their life was short, their legend lives on.


Isabel MacDuff Comyn-  The Lady in the Cage

As I have said before, do not mess with a Scottish woman.  This is the story of a woman who did her duty to her country and her king and paid the price.  A price that seems like it’s out of a fairy tale or a horror movie, but paid it she did.  This is the story of Isabel MacDuff Comyn, a patriot of Scotland.

Isabel crowning Robert the Bruce
Courtesy of: Martin York

Isabel was born to Duncan Macduff, the Earl of Fife, and Johanna de Clare.  The date of her birth isn’t recorded and estimates range from 1270 to 1285.  Her father was murdered by his classman in 1299, and Johanna and Isabel’s younger brother also named Duncan fled south to England.  Joan’s father had recently married Edward I’s sister, so they received a warm welcome there.  It is not clear whether Isabel remained in Scotland or not.  Her later views on the English indicate that she stayed.  The new Earl of Fife was raised in England with a decidedly English bias to events in Scotland.  Isabel was married in the late 1290s to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan.  Isabel would have been quite young, and Comyn was at least 30 or 40 years her senior.  However, this was a not uncommon and was a good match, which made Isabel the Countess of Buchan.  However, family ties did not make this an easy marriage.

The Comyns were in a struggle against another family for the throne of Scotland.  This was someone you may have heard of, dear reader.  Just a guy called Robert the Bruce.  (For more on Robert the Bruce, please see this post:  Matters between the Bruces and the Comyns came to a head when Robert stabbed to death John “Red” Comyn in the Kirk of Greyfriars in Dumfries in February 1306.  John Comyn was Isabel’s husband’s cousin, but Robert was Isabel’s cousin.  John obviously sided with the Comyns, but Isabel did not go with her husband.  She supported her cousin in his bid for the crown.

After the murder, Robert road hell for leather to Scone in Perth to be crowned King of Scotland at Moot hill.  There were some problems though.  Traditionally, all Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny, but it had been removed to London by Edward I in 1296.  (For more on the Stone of Destiny, please see this post: )  Because of this, it was important that all the other traditions of coronation be followed to the letter.  However, there a couple other problems.  Because Robert murdered a member of the Comyn family in a church, the Scottish Kirk wasn’t about to anoint him.  There was that pesky thing about sanctuary and the Comyn family was very tight with the Pope.  Another important tradition was the king was crowned by a member of the clan of MacDuff.  Slight problem.  Duncan MacDuff was raised in England as a ward of the English court.  Even if he wanted to, Edward I wasn’t going to let him come north to crown a rival king.  Enter his sister, Isabel.  

Isabel was not going to let her family’s part of the coronation be forgotten.  Her husband definitely wouldn’t approve as his family had sided with England after the murder of John “Red” Comyn.  However, he was conveniently in England.  She liberated several of his horses and rode to Scone to join her cousin, Robert.  He had already been crowned on March 26, 1306, but after Isabel arrived he was crowned again with Isabel placing the crown on his head.  Isabel had declared her colors, and she could no longer go home.

Robert sent her to Kildrummy Castle with his wife, daughter, sisters and the other royal ladies.  Rumors went round that Isabel did what she did because she and Robert were lovers.  However, it would have been extremely awkward if they were since she was roommates with his wife.  Stranger things have happened though.  The women tried to escape north, possibly to Orkney to escape to Norway, but were caught at St. Duthac’s Church in Tain.  They sought sanctuary, but were captured by Earl William de Ross.  He turned them over to the English to await their fate.

Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a friend and supporter of Edward I, so she was treated with honor and sent to house arrest in England.  Robert’s sister, Christina, was the wife of a member of the powerful Seaton family, and sent to Sixhills nunnery.  Edward threatened to hang Robert’s 9 year old daughter, Marjorie, in a cage outside the Tower of London, but relented because of her age.  She was sent to  Watton Priory.  He saved the cage for Robert’s sister, Mary, and Isabel.  Because Isabel was a rebellious wife and legitimized Robert’s coronation, she was forced to live in a cage hung outside Berwick Castle.  It was a cage made of lattice wood and iron hinges, and she was completely exposed to the elements.  There was a privy for privacy so she could dress and relieve herself without exposing herself.  However, she was forced to be out in all weathers and on display for all to see, but not allowed to speak to anyone.  Mary was hung in a similar cage outside Roxburgh Castle.  There is some debate as to whether the women were kept in the open, but they were definitely kept in a cage for several years.

No one is sure what happens to Isabel at this point.  Her name is not on the list of prisoners returned after the victory at Bannockburn in 1314.  It is doubtful Robert would have forgotten her and all she suffered, even if from a public relations perspective.  Many believe she died by this time.  There are rumors that she was removed from her cage in 1310 and sent to and placed in the Carmelite friary in Berwick, then released to her niece by marriage, Alice Comyn.  No one knows.  However, Isabel MacDuff Comyn suffered as much in her way for the cause of Scottish Independence as any man.  


Pingyang and the Army of the Lady

Princess Pingyang Photo Credit- Epoch Times

Pingyang was born in 600 to Li Yuan, a peasant who had risen through the army to become a commander.  She was the only daughter to him and his second wife Duchess Dou.  She did have two older sisters from Li Yuan’s first marriage, however, Pingyang spent more time with her four brothers.  As was customary, she was given in marriage when she was quite young.  Her chosen husband was Cai Shao, the son of the Duke of Julu.  By all reports, Pingyang was a dutiful and loving daughter, sister and wife.  However, her loyalty was put to the test when everything went sideways.

During this time, China was ruled by the Sui dynasty emperor, Yangdi.  Yangdi has gone down in history as a paranoid man who was one of China’s greatest villains.  He murdered his father to get to the throne and squandered China’s wealth on failed foreign exploits, of which he lost all of them.  Then Yangdi decided on an extensive building program, which had an extraordinary death toll.  He put men to work rebuilding the Great Wall, and 6 million were killed.  He put men to work building the Grand Canal, and there was a 40-50% death rate.  He raised taxes and no one could pay them because there was no one left to work the farms.  Yangdi had conscripted all the able bodied men into the army.  People chafed under this burden and began rebellions, which were put down with excess force.   Yangdi grew more and more suspicious of everyone.  Then in 615 a popular street balad went around that the next emperor would be named Li.  This this is kind of like saying the next president will be named Smith as it is an extremely common name.  However, Yangdi was already suspicious of Li Yuan.  He was a wildly popular general who had risen from the peasantry.  Plus he was rumored to have a birthmark in the shape of a dragon under his left armpit, which obviously meant he was destined to be emperor.  Who can argue with the armpit, right?  He ordered Li Yuan arrested and executed as a threat to the Empire.  Just for fun, he also accused Li Yuan of having sex with two of the emperor’s favorite concubines.

Li Yuan had no wish to become a rebel leader, but it was that or be killed on trumped up charges.  So,  he put together of more than 30,000 aided by the neighboring Turks, who admired him enough to forge a truce with him not to attack Chinese lands as long as he was in charge while he was still general.  Then he sent secret messages to his four sons and Pingyang’s husband to aid him.  Unfortunately, Cai Shao was the head of the palace guard and the family was living in the palace.  They were sitting ducks for the emperor’s rage.  Cai Shao and Pingyang discussed what to do.  Cai Shao wanted to join his father in law, but didn’t want to leave Pingyang in a prime spot to be kidnapped, ransomed, killed or all three.  However, Pingyang could take care of herself.  Her husband escaped to join the army and Pingyang escaped as well and went to the family’s estates in the province of Hu.  When she arrived in Hu, PingYang found everything in a mess.  People were starving because of a severe drought on top of the fighting that seemed to be everywhere.  To aid her people, Pingyang opened her personal food stores to them.  It was something they didn’t forget.

From Hu, Pingyang watched her father, husband and brothers’ forces fight tooth and nail with emperor’s army.  They fought hard and bravely, but they were outnumbered.  Pingyang wasn’t the kind of woman to sit around and wait while she watched her family destroyed.  She took action.  Going to the families she had just saved from starvation, she began recruiting her own army.  She even convinced a local highwayman and his men to join.  With this start of 10,000 men, Pingyang began convincing imperial allies to desert.  This was an amazing accomplishment for a woman not yet twenty in ancient China.  Women did not command armies, and certainly did not issue orders to men.  However, she was able to both command and train an army worthy of battle.  In a few months, Pingyang was able to raise more than 70,000 troops and the marched to take the capital of Hu under the banner of the “Army of the Lady”.  In a genius public relations move, Pingyang decreed there was to be no looting, raping and plundering in conquered lands.  In fact, she would distribute fresh water and food to the inhabitants.  This gesture of goodwill swelled her army even more.

Yangdi was not pleased with this turn of events and diverted troops from his fight with Li Yuan to take care of this troublesome woman.  He immediately got his behind handed to him.  She was able to link her army with her father’s and together, they marched on the imperial palace in Daxingcheng.  Emperor Yangdi fled south and was killed in 618, ignobly strangled by his own advisors in a bathhouse.  Li Yuan was now the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, taking the name Emperor Gaozu.  He promoted his daughter, Pingyang, to marshal, which came with a military staff.  All of this along with the new honor of being Princess Zhao of the Tang dynasty.

Sadly, Pingyang died two years later at the age of 23 of unknown causes.  Her father buried her with full military honors.  Some people in court questioned why a mere woman would deserve such honors.  Emperor Gaozu simply said, “She was no ordinary woman.”


Tamar of Georgia-  Queen of Kings

Despite the name, I am not talking about the state in the Southern United States.  There is a whole other country coincidentally called Georgia located on the Black Sea near Turkey.  The name “Georgia” is probably a corruption of the Persian name for the people there, gurğān.  There is also a theory put out there that the people loved the legend of St. George and the Dragon.  In any case, they were devoutly Orthodox Christian country with a reputation for being fierce warriors.  Their rulers also claimed to be descended from King David, the second king of Israel.  Yes, that David.

Tamar was born in 1166 CE to King Georgi III and his wife, Burdukhan.  Tamar was the couple’s first child.  There are mentions of a sister named Rusudan, but they are few and far between.  As the firstborn, Tamar was declared her father’s heir and co-ruler at the tender age of twelve.  A few years prior, Georgi had to put down a rebellion led by his cousin, Demna.  Demna was captured and blinded and castrated and pitched into prison.  This was a custom similar to the Byzantines, who believed a man must be “whole” before he could rule.  Demna didn’t last long in prison and died soon after.  However, the discontent among the nobility that fueled the rebellion did not die.  Georgi attempted to suppress it by raising new families to the nobility and emphasizing that Tamar was his heir.  If Georgi had any doubts about elevating his teen aged daughter, he allayed them by saying “One knows a lion by its claws and Tamar by her actions.”

The two ruled together jointly until Georgi’s death in 1184.  Tamar became the sole monarch in Georgia and was crowned a second time at the Gelati cathedral near the city  of Kutaisi.  She was called a “king” in their language as she ruled alone and not as a consort.  However, she was the first female rule in the country and that just stoked the fires of rebellion in the nobility.  In several stories, this is glossed over in light of her later achievements.  However, Tamar was forced in short order to deal with the rebels and she did so in a decisive manner.  One legend tells of how she sent two women to stall the rebels by pretending to negotiate long enough for her to gather her army.  They were eventually pardoned, but not until their titles and wealth had been stripped.

Despite this violent beginning, Tamar wanted to rule well.  She called a Holy Synod, a council of all the religious leaders in the country to decide important religious questions of the day.  Conveniently, after the Synod was finished all the clergy who had opposed her found themselves out of a job.  With the Church firmly behind her, Tamar married.  Unfortunately, the choice of Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal, was disastrous.  Yuri was quite handsome and a valiant soldier, however, he was also a first class jerk.  After his marriage was solemnized, Yuri was never found sober and he was a mean drunk.  He was constantly picking fights, sleeping with anyone he could managed to get into bed and publicly insulting his wife for not conceiving a child.  Worse, he was constantly trying to get the country into war with their Muslim neighbors for no other reason than he was bored.  Tamar was quietly consolidating her power, and soon had had enough of her drunken ass of a husband and did the unthinkable.  In a devoutly Christian country where divorce was considered illegal, Tamar convinced the Orthodox Church to give her a divorce from Yuri.  He was accused of addiction to drunkenness and sodomy and packed off to Constantinople.  He attempted a couple of coup d’etats by raising mercenary armies made up of wayward Vikings, Turks and disgruntled nobles.  All his attempts were put down by his ex-wife’s army, which was headed by her new husband Prince David Soslan.  David was not only an excellent general but also quite handsome, described by Tamar’s aunt as “Hewn from stone and reared on wolf’s milk.”  Damn.  The couple had two children together, the future Georgi IV and a daughter named Rusudan, who would also become “Queen of Kings” after her brother’s death.

At this time, a period of expansionism began in Georgia.  This mostly to give the nobles something to do besides try to take over Tamar’s throne.  Idle hands are the devil’s workplace and all.  Under her rule, the Georgia began reclaiming fortresses and districts which had been previously conquered by the Ildenizids and the Shirvanshah.  Georgia’s military successes were so great, the Islamic world decided to send a unified force to defeat them.  It was led by Sultan Rukn al-Din, and to say he was arrogant was an understatement.  He sent Tamar a lovely letter stating his intentions.  He started off with a bang saying “every woman is feeble of mind,” and went onto demand Tamar immediately surrender and either convert to Islam to become his wife or stay Christian and become his concubine.  Well.  Isn’t he sweet?  The Georgian court wasn’t pleased with this message, and in fact one of the nobles present when it was delivered hauled off and punched the messenger.  Despite these demands, Tamar did neither of these things and promptly handed him his ass at the battle of Basiani.

Between battles, Tamar influenced much of Georgian culture.  The national Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, was said to be inspired by her. The capital of Tblisi was flooded with gold and silver pouring in from their conquered lands, and became an important crossroads between East and West.   She also endowed many churches and monasteries, and in the new monasteries the captured battle flags from the Muslim armies she conquered hung as trophies.  However, despite her warlike nature she was very concerned with doing charitable works for her people.  Tamar died after an unknown illness around 1213.  Her burial place is also a mystery, as she is thought to have been intured in a secret niche at the Gelati monastery, but it has never been found.  Other legends say her body was taken to the Holy Land and buried near the Holy Sepulchre.   For her great piety and faith, she was canonized as the the Holy Righteous King Tamar by the Eastern Orthodox Church.