From 25 to 21 B.C. Amanirenas, a queen or Kandake of the Kingdom of Kush, managed to do what many male leaders in her time could not: push back a Roman invasion.
Under Queen Amanirenas’ command, some 30,000 soldiers of the ancient Kingdom of Kush (located in modern-day Sudan) took to arms and fought back Roman invaders who had advanced from Egypt. The Romans had encroached on the fertile lands of the region below Egypt known as Nubia and enforced high taxation on the people of Meroë—the capital of Kush.
Amanirenas strategically rallied her army during a temporary withdrawal of the Roman troops for a campaign in Arabia. Her forces managed to capture the Roman-occupied cities of Aswan, Philae and Elephantine. The Kush forces plundered the cities and enslaved the Romans, before retreating to El-Dakkeh where the first skirmishes of the four-year Meroitic-Roman war began.
The Meroitic-Roman war stands out as a key juncture in both Nubian and Roman history. The Roman army ultimately dominated, but they ended up granting concessions to the Meroë Kingdom that weakened Rome’s political and economic standing and validated Meroitic sovereignty.
Nubia's Long Tradition of Female Rulers
While Amanirenas may have been unique in her military success against the Romans, her role as Kandake, or female ruler, was not unusual in the region at the time. For more than 3,000 years, three Kushite Kingdoms—the Kerma, Napata and Meroë—ruled the Middle Nile Valley of Nubia, and for long periods of this rule, women were in charge.
A long line of Kandake ruled contemporaneously with the formidable empires of Rome and Greece. Amanirenas herself ruled during the reign of Cleopatra in Egypt and Mark Antony in Rome, until they were deposed in 30 B.C. by Augustus Caesar. After Amanirenas, Amanishaketo and Amanitore inherited her powerful legacy in protecting lower Nubia from the Romans.
Amanirenas’ ascension to the throne began with the death of her husband Teriteqase in late 25 B.C., five years into the Roman occupation of lower Nubia. Previously Amanirenas’ kingdom had profited by trading their gold and other riches with Egypt, but the political landscape changed when Roman forces under Augustus seized control of Egypt from Mark Antony and Cleopatra. On assuming leadership of the kingdom, Amanirenas planned and then carried out her kingdom’s attacks on occupying Roman forces.
Statue of Augustus' Head Found Buried at Temple
One of the main pieces of evidence for the Meroitic raids against the Romans is a bronze head of Augustus Caesar found buried beneath the steps of a temple dedicated to Victory at the Kushite capital Meroë. The location of the head (adorned with opened eyes made of calcite) suggests it was broken off a statue and deliberately placed at the feet of its captors as a constant reminder of the queen’s victory over the powerful Roman ruler.
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The temple in Meroë is also decorated with drawings of Roman prisoners and victorious Nubian queens. Solange Ashby, Egyptologist and Post-Doctoral Fellow at The University of California, says such depictions are typical for the period and indicative of a wider culture where femininity and willingness to engage in warfare were not contradictory.
“In these images Meroitic queens are actually really voluptuous,” Ashby says. “So, they are really female-looking, but they are badass warriors, and there’s no question about their willingness to engage in violence. We see these powerful women being depicted in aggressive poses, and it is 100 percent in line with the way that they saw themselves.”
Petronius, a prefect appointed by Augustus to preside over Egypt, eventually confronted Amanirenas and her army at El-Dakkeh, and demanded she return loot from her army’s raids. Amanirenas refused, spurring Petronius and his infantry of 10,000 men to attack and pursue Amanirenas to Napata, her place of royal residence. On the way, Petronius captured Primis (present-day Qasr Ibrim), where he established a fort (archaeologists discovered Roman garrisons and artillery at the site in the 1990s).
But tracing the precise history of the conflict remains a challenge. The main written account of the war is a text completed around 21 A.C. called Geographical Sketches by the Greek historian Strabo. In it, Strabo famously describes Amanirenas as a “masculine woman with one eye destroyed.”
Strabo writes that Petronius marched on Napata and destroyed it after capturing Qasr Ibrim, but some historians question that account. One clue is that the distance between the two cities was unreasonably far for Petronius’ army to travel during the hot temperatures of the season. Meanwhile, historians are still working to decipher Meroitic records of the war.
“There are huge issues around the study of the Meroitic-Roman war,” Ashby says, “while there are large royal inscriptions that some scholars have said tell the Meroitic point of view of what happened, we can only read about 100 words of the Meroitic language. When we finally do figure out the grammar and vocabulary necessary to read extended prose, I believe it will greatly expand the amount of history that we know happened between these two powers.”
Amanirenas' Resistance Leads to Gains for Her Kingdom
While Strabo’s account casts the Romans in a victorious light, the outcome of the war suggests otherwise. By the beginning of 21 B.C., both armies were exhausted. Amanirenas sent emissaries to Samos to negotiate with Augustus, where he granted Amanirenas two important concessions. The first was the cancellation of the tax on the Meroë, the second was that Roman occupation would withdraw from the Second Cataract (around Gemai) to Maharaqqa, almost back on the border of Egypt.
While the details of this treaty are unclear, evidence suggests that Amanirenas’ resistance led to gains for her kingdom—despite any military losses. Lower Nubia had been a highly contested area well before the Roman and Greek occupations of Egypt. Nubian and Egyptian kingdoms had expanded and contracted over centuries as they fought for control of precious metals, animals, and slaves in the area. The reestablishment of Meroitic dominance in lower Nubia indicates a successful outcome for the kingdom of Meroë.
Although Kingdoms of Kush would eventually weaken and become absorbed into the Roman Empire, Amanirenas’ gains against Roman forces sealed her legacy as one of the few historical figures who resisted Roman rule.