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The One-Eyed African Queen Who Defeated the Roman Empire
Cocky male monarchs underestimated Queen Amanirenas for her gender, her race, and her disability. Each time, they did so at their own peril.
The legendary Roman emperor Caesar Augustus was on the Greek island of Samos, preparing for an important expedition to Syria, when he received envoys from the Kingdom of Kush, in present-day Sudan. Journalist Selina O’Grady records in her book And Man Created God that the ambassadors presented Augustus with a bundle of golden arrows and relayed this message: “The Candace sends you these arrows.” (Candace was the Latinized spelling of Kandake, the Kushite term for “queen.”) They added that the emperor had two options for how to view the offering: “If you want peace, they are a token of her warmth and friendship. If you want war, you will need them.”
For an African queen to give such an ultimatum to the most powerful man in the world would have been considered a serious insult. After all, Augustus had almost single-handedly transformed Rome from a republic to an empire, and the territory he now reigned over stretched from as far as northern Spain, through to parts of central Europe, and all the way to Egypt. His legions wore bronze breastplates and wielded spears, swords and javelins, all much superior to the hatchets the Kushites carried as weapons. In addition, Kush had many natural resources — such as gold mines, iron and ivory — that could have enriched the treasuries of Rome, enticing Augustus to attack, even without the insult.
But this Kushite queen — whom the Greek geographer and historian Strabo of Amasia described as “a masculine sort of woman and blind in one eye” — had proved to be a formidable foe for the “son of god,” the title given to Caesar Augustus on Roman coins. He received the bundle of arrows from the envoys and promptly signed a peace treaty.
In truth, this was not so much a treaty as it was a surrender. Augustus submitted to all of the demands made by Queen Amanirenas, including that the Romans withdraw from all Kushite territories they had occupied and pledge that they would never again seek to collect taxes or tributes from her kingdom.
It was a remarkable concession for the world’s most powerful man, demonstrating just how feared and respected the one-eyed queen truly was.
Kush was part of a region below Egypt known as Nubia. It was a place where, unlike most of the world at the time, women exercised significant control. In the Nubian valley, worship of the queen of all goddesses, Isis, was paramount, and Nubia had several female rulers during its history.
Queen Amanirenas reigned over Nubia from 40 B.C. to 10 B.C. Her throne was in the city of Meroë, and from there she and her husband, King Teriteqas, presided over the wealthy kingdom.
Janice Kamrin, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum, writes that “based on its position as an intermediary between the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa, Nubia was a key transit point for luxury goods such as ivory and exotic objects. Of great importance was gold, a commodity found in the Nubian deserts and greatly prized by the Egyptians.”
To satisfy the demands of their luxury-loving populace, the Egyptians highly depended on trade with Meroë, which Queen Amanirenas controlled. Her labyrinthine palace, with massive brick-vaulted rooms lined with gold leaf, was a warehouse stocked with great blocks of gold and ivory tusks. She bartered her treasures for goods from Egypt, including cloth, corn, bronze bowls and glassware.
But 10 years into the reign of Amanirenas, the political landscape changed when Augustus seized control of Egypt from the grasp of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. He proclaimed himself emperor and established Egypt as a Roman province. He was now on Queen Amanirenas’s doorstep.
Before leaving Egypt to continue his quest to seize more territories, Augustus appointed a military colleague named Gaius Cornelius Gallus, a Roman poet and knight whom he had a close relationship with, giving him the title of praefectus Alexandreae et Aegypti, prefect of Alexandria and Egypt.
Only a year after the conquest, the Egyptians in the south rebelled against Roman rule, causing Cornelius to lead his forces south to repress the dissidence. After regaining order, he crossed into Amanirenas’s Nubia and laid claim to the island of Philae. He brought a local ruler there under Roman control, and in return for paying homage to Rome, he gave this dynast the powerful title of tyrannus (tyrant).
As a sign of intimidation and also his ego, Cornelius had his achievements inscribed on a large stone tablet that was erected in Philae. To publicize his fame, he listed the victories in Latin, Greek and hieroglyphic Egyptian. The monument, dated 16 April 29 B.C., read in part: “Gaius Cornelius Gallus son of Gnaius, the Roman cavalryman, first prefect of Alexandria and Egypt after the defeat of kings by Caesar son of the divine, and the vanquisher of Thebaid’s revolution in fifteen days.”
Queen Amanirenas reluctantly accepted the annexation of a part of her kingdom. Recognizing the military supremacy of the Roman legions, she saw that it was not time to fight yet. Instead, she watched the enemy’s moves closely.
Soon after, the Nubians in the annexed regions started complaining about the tyrannus. On the orders of Cornelius, he was imposing increased taxes on the traders who brought goods to the frontier and claiming tax rights over autonomous Nubian communities allied to Kush.
Cornelius, for his part, continued to celebrate his exploits with grandiose monuments. Roman historian Cassius Dio, who lived from 155 to 235 A.D., described how “he set up images of himself practically everywhere in Egypt and inscribed a list of his achievements, even upon the very pyramids.”
These extravagances were not looked upon kindly back in Rome, where the standard directive was to glorify the emperor, not his underlings. Cassius added that Cornelius “indulged in a great deal of disrespectful gossip about Augustus and was guilty of many reprehensible actions besides.” Suffice it to say, he was on the outs with Emperor Augustus, who ultimately disenfranchised Cornelius and issued many indictments against him. The Roman Senate unanimously voted that he should be convicted in the courts, exiled and deprived of his estate. Overwhelmed by his bleak prospects, Cornelius killed himself before the decrees took effect.
Both during and after the time of Cornelius, the massive Roman Empire kept expanding. This growing footprint made it difficult for Augustus to keep tabs on all corners of his kingdom at the same time — something Queen Amanirenas paid close attention to.
In 26 B.C., Emperor Augustus appointed Aelius Gallus, another Roman knight, as the next prefect of Egypt. Gallus had hardly settled in when the emperor commanded him to undertake a military expedition to Arabia. Three complete legions, approximately 15,000 troops in all, had been posted in Egypt to secure the province, but at Augustus’s command, many were transferred to Arabia to help in securing this newly sought territory. This presented Queen Amanirenas with an opportunity to challenge Rome’s power.
While the Roman troops were being removed from Egypt, Queen Amanirenas marshaled her army to liberate her people up north from Roman authority. Together with King Teriteqas, they commanded an army of 30,000 warriors from Kush, marching along the mudflats of the Nile and into Egypt.
Historian Cassius Dio narrates in Roman History that the Meroitic army “advanced as far as the city called Elephantine, with Candace as their leader, ravaging everything they encountered.”
They took the entire Triakontaschoinos region, including Syene, Philae and Elephantine, a terrain of 200 square miles. Strabo adds that in these cities, the Kushites “enslaved the inhabitants, and threw down the statues of Cæsar.” They then retreated south with loot, Roman prisoners and thousands of Egyptian captives. As a last insult, they lopped off and carried away the head of a statue of Augustus.
Upon arriving back home in Meroë, Queen Amanirenas took the bronze head, with its neatly disarrayed hair, protuberant ears and startling open eyes of colored glass, and buried it beneath the entryway steps of a temple dedicated to the god Amun. David Francis, an interpretation officer at the British Museum, said in an interview with Culture24 that, “in burying the head, the Meroites ensured that everyone who entered the building would trample this image of the emperor Augustus beneath their feet — ritually perpetuating their victory over the Romans.” It was the queen’s daily reminder that she had triumphed over the most powerful man in the world.
The Kushite victory did not last long. When the news reached Alexandria, the acting governor Gaius Petronius set out with a cavalry of 800, plus 10,000 Roman infantry. By then, the Kushite army had withdrawn to the city of Pselchis. Petronius pursued them, sending envoys ahead to demand the return of the captives. But the envoys were confused. They found that there was no leader in command of the warriors. By this, they meant no male leader. King Teriteqas had died suddenly of sickness or injury, and they simply could not comprehend that a queen alone ruled the Kushites.
Yet Kush did have a leader, and she was not done fighting yet.
The queen’s warriors, having assembled at Pselchis, came forward to battle, each carrying a large oblong shield made of raw ox hide and armed with an array of axes, pikes and swords. They outnumbered the Romans by almost three to one, but Strabo reported that they were “poorly marshaled and badly armed” compared with the heavily armored, well-drilled legionary ranks. The Romans drove them into retreat, and many of the Kushite warriors fled back to the city or into the desert. Some warriors escaped the battlefield by wading out into the Nile. They hoped to make a stand at a defensive position on a small island, but the Romans secured rafts and boats to capture the island and take them prisoner.
This time, the emboldened Romans invaded much deeper into Kushite territory than before. Petronius also captured some of Queen Amanirenas’s generals, whom he questioned about their leadership structure. They told him that the Kandake was the ruler in their kingdom. But they also distracted his attention with tales of a male leader. The generals informed Petronius that Akinidad, son of Queen Amanirenas, was based in the northern city of Napata, their ancient capital and holy city, which housed important temples and royal cemeteries. Unbeknownst to Petronius, this was a ruse, as the Kushite rulers had deliberately left Napata hundreds of years earlier.
Petronius confidently marched to Napata, sure that victory there would subdue the Kushites for good. He found that Prince Akinidad was in fact not there and that the actual capital, Meroë, was still more than 330 miles south. Angered at being misled, he burned the city and rounded up its occupants for transport back to Egypt as slaves.
But the queen’s ruse had worked. Petronius had marched so far and now did not have the capacity to unleash his army on the kingdom’s true ruler. He had already traveled more than 570 miles from Syene, a distance almost as long as the entire length of Egypt. Strabo wrote that Petronius “decided that the regions beyond would be difficult to traverse.” Cassius Dio added that “there was no advantage to be gained by remaining where he was with his entire force, so he withdrew, taking the greater part of the army with him.”
But Queen Amanirenas and her forces did not share his sense of exhaustion. She counterattacked with vigor, fiercely pursuing the retreating Romans back to the fortified hilltop city of Primis.
The queen herself was a fearsome presence on the battlefield. Her “masculine character,” as Strabo described her, referred to her commanding presence as a war leader. She towered above her troops, sporting three facial scars on her cheeks; these were indicators of physical beauty for the Meroë queens, which some Sudanese women still wear today. In one battle, as she clashed with the Romans, an enemy soldier injured the queen, blinding her in one eye.
Strabo’s description of the queen as “masculine” was in line with how Greco-Romans viewed powerful female rulers. Professor Brittany Wilson writes in Unmanly Men that the Greeks and Romans depicted foreign queens in a negative light and even viewed female leaders as a sign of a nation’s barbarity. These queens were often portrayed as “manly women” who went beyond the bounds of proper female behavior. Governor Petronius looked down on the queen’s new disability as well; from then on he referred to her derisively as “the One-Eyed Candace,” judging her “deficient” eyesight as mirroring her deficient insight as a ruler.
Yet again, these men underestimated Queen Amanirenas. After her wound healed, she returned to the front line. Losing an eye in battle only made Amanirenas stronger and braver. But her suffering was not over. When her troops reached Dakka in 24 B.C., clashing with the Romans to ensure Kush’s sovereignty, her son Prince Akinidad was killed in the campaign.
She had lost her husband, her eye and now her son. As a leader, many of her warriors had been killed in the fight, her generals and some of her people had been abducted, and her city of Napata sacked and razed. And still the war was far from over. But now she had but one thing left to fight for: her kingdom. Fueled by grief and anger, the Kandake, now blind in one eye, fought on.
Up until this point, Queen Amanirenas and her troops had been fighting a defensive war, aimed at keeping the Romans from permanently annexing any part of her kingdom. But after the destruction of Napata and the death of Prince Akinidad, they went on the attack. Over the next two years, she fought with all she had to offer. Her fearlessness even forced the admiration of Strabo, who said, “This queen has a courage above that of her gender.”
In 22 B.C., she marshaled a second force of thousands of Kushite fighters and marched toward the Roman troops who had set up camp in Primis, now the border of the Roman Empire.
It was a face-off of epic proportions. Based on the geography of Primis, it is nearly certain that the Kushite warriors entirely surrounded Petronius and his men. However, the Romans had a large array of ballista — ancient canons that, although less deadly than military weapons today, could still fire deadly darts over long distances. This made a frontal assault by Queen Amanirenas nearly impossible; she would have lost countless warriors. Yet Petronius was surrounded and had no way to escape. A stalemate.
Petronius was extremely eager for a ceasefire. Since becoming prefect of Egypt, Queen Amanirenas had untiringly engaged him in war, not giving him a moment’s peace to officiate his administrative duties of supervising tax levies, or even enough time to take part in the celebratory festivals, chariot races and hunting parties that the more leisurely nobles in Alexandria enjoyed. And now he was trapped in a hilltop city, with seemingly no way out.
Realizing there was no way forward, Petronius urged Queen Amanirenas to meet with Emperor Augustus himself and settle matters. The Meroë warriors offered a prideful response: They claimed in jest that they did not know who the “Caesar” was, or where they could find him.
Petronius, surely not appreciating the joke but eager to escape his current predicament, responded by giving them escorts to the Greek island of Samos, where the emperor was preparing for an expedition to Syria.
Dr. Robert Steven Bianchi, a renowned Egyptologist, writes in Daily Life of the Nubians that “this is believed to be the first recorded instance in the entire history of Africa when diplomats representing a Black African ruler independent of Egypt traveled to Europe to effect a diplomatic resolution.”
By sending her envoys and not going personally, Amanirenas showed herself to be superior to the emperor and Rome. She would not deign to travel hundreds of miles just to negotiate; she had people who could do that for her.
And the one-eyed queen indeed emerged victorious. The five-year war had cost the Romans many men and lots of money — a continued war with the tenacious Queen Amanirenas was not high on the imperial agenda. At the Treaty of Samos in 21 B.C., Caesar Augustus declared Kush to be sovereign and remitted all claims of tribute. Roman troops evacuated Primis and also ceded the areas in the southern portion of the Thirty-Mile Strip to the Kushites. They pulled back to Dodekaschoinos, which was established as the new border. Along with his signature on the official treaty, as one more step to appease the Nubian people, Augustus directed his administrators to collaborate with regional priests on the enlargement of a temple at Kalabsha, as well as the erection of another at Dendur.
The Kushite forces lent no such fealty to the Roman idols. As the emperor’s troops withdrew, the queen’s fighters toppled the statues of Augustus that had been placed in the occupied towns.
While the war had been long and bloody, the Kushites were now free. Queen Amanirenas spared her people centuries of domination by withstanding conquest. Unlike so many other kingdoms across Europe, Africa and Asia, she neither ceded her territory nor paid any tribute to Rome. Her kingdom was hers, and hers alone.
After the Roman War, Amanirenas dedicated herself to rebuilding the kingdom and making life better for her people. She spent the next 11 years of her reign in peace, an era that was one of the most prosperous times of Kushite history, often referred to as the kingdom’s golden age. She never remarried. She died in 10 B.C. and is buried in Jebel Barkal, Sudan. The Kushites commemorated her with a wall painting in a pyramid chapel at Meroë that portrays her holding a bow, arrows, and a spear tethered to a group of seven Roman captives.
The story of Queen Amanirenas is a powerful testament to one woman’s fighting spirit, but it’s also a testament to just how long people have been overlooked and underestimated because of gender, race and disability — in this case, underestimated at her enemies’ peril.
The full extent of how she humiliated the Romans has yet to be disclosed, since the Kushite account of the war, written in the Meroitic script, has not been fully decoded. Scholars hope that the ongoing excavations in Meroë will uncover another Rosetta Stone that will allow them to further translate these ancient texts. We may yet learn more about the fierce one-eyed warrior queen who triumphed over the Roman empire, battling her way to an unprecedented peace treaty, not resting until she defended her people and secured one of the best deals in history.
Adhiambo Edith Magak writes about African history, politics and minority stories.
Claire Wyman is a Brooklyn-based illustrator. She likes to pet dogs and bake too much banana bread.
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer whose work has appeared in Business Insider, The Tempest, Elite Daily and Poynter.