Queen Amanirenas: The One-Eyed African Queen Who Defeated the Roman Empire
Queen Amanirenas was a Kushite queen described as “a manly sort of lady and blind in one eye” by the Greek geographer and historian Strabo of Amasia.
Legendary Roman emperor Caesar Augustus was receiving envoys from the Kingdom of Kush, located in modern-day Sudan, when he was on the Greek island of Samos.
In her book, journalist Selina O’Grady writes that the messengers sent Augustus a collection of golden arrows while conveying the following message: “The Candace (Queen) gives you these arrows.”
In addition, they said that there were two ways the emperor could interpret the gift: “If you want peace, they are a sign of her warmth and friendliness. You will need them if you wish to go to battle.
It would have been viewed as a grave disrespect for an African queen to issue the most powerful man in the world with such a dire ultimatum.
After all, Augustus had essentially done it all by himself to turn Rome from a republic to an empire, and the realm he now ruled over extended as far as northern Spain, through portions of central Europe, and as far as Egypt.
His armies were armed with spears, swords, and javelins, all of which were far more effective than the hatchets the Kushites used.
They also wore bronze breastplates. In addition, Kush had a wealth of natural riches that could have benefited Rome’s coffers, including as gold mines, iron, and ivory, luring Augustus to assault even without the insult.
In actuality, this was more of a surrender than a pact. All of Queen Amanirenas’ demands, including that the Romans leave every Kushite territory they had conquered and promise they would never again try to extort money from her realm, were accepted by Augustus.
Kush was a portion of Nubia, which was located beneath Egypt. It was a location where women had a lot of power, in contrast to the majority of the rest of the globe at the time.
Isis was worshipped as the supreme deity in the Nubian valley, and throughout its history, Nubia has had various female rulers.
Between the years 40 and 10 B.C., Nubia was ruled by Queen Amanirenas. She and her husband, King Teriteqas, ruled the prosperous kingdom from their throne in the city of Mero.
According to Janice Kamrin, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum, “Nubia was an important transit point for luxury items such as ivory and exotic objects based on its position as an intermediary between the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa.
The Egyptians heavily relied on commerce with Queen Amanirenas’s ruled Mero to meet the demands of their affluent populous.
Her maze-like palace was a storehouse filled with enormous blocks of gold and ivory tusks, with gigantic brick-vaulted halls lined with gold leaf.
She exchanged her valuables for Egyptian items like glassware, fabric, maize, and bronze bowls.
However, ten years into Amanirenas’ rule, Augustus overthrew Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s rule in Egypt, altering the political climate.
He declared himself to be the emperor and made Egypt a Roman colony. He had arrived at Queen Amanirenas’ front door.
Augustus appointed a military comrade named Gaius Cornelius Gallus, a Roman poet, before he left Egypt to begin his mission to conquer new lands.
The Egyptians in the south rose against Roman control within a year after the conquest, prompting Cornelius to send his troops south to put down the uprising.
He regained control before entering Amanirenas’ Nubia and claiming the island of Philae.
He overthrew a local ruler there and granted this dynasty the prestigious title of tyrannus in exchange for their loyalty to Rome.
Cornelius had his accomplishments written on a sizable stone tablet that was constructed in Philae as a show of intimidation and also his vanity.
He listed his conquests in Latin, Greek, and ancient Egyptian to advertise his glory.
Gaius Cornelius Gallus son of Gnaius, the Roman cavalryman, was the first prefect of Alexandria and Egypt following Caesar son of the divine’s defeat of the kings.
He also put an end to Thebaid’s revolution in fifteen days, according to the monument, which was erected on April 16, 29 B.C.
Queen Amanirenas reluctantly agreed to have a portion of her realm annexed.
She realized that the Roman legions were militarily superior and that it was not yet time to engage in combat. Instead, she kept a tight eye on the enemy’s movements.
Soon after, the Nubians in the areas that had been annexed began to gripe about the tyrannus. He was raising taxes on traders who transported commodities to the boundary on Cornelius’ orders and asserting tax authority over independent Nubian communities that were allies of Kush.
For his part, Cornelius kept erecting opulent statues to honor his triumphs. From 155 to 235 A.D., the Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote of how “he built up images of himself nearly everywhere in Egypt and inscribed a record of his exploits, even upon the actual pyramids.”
In Rome, where it was customary to exalt the emperor rather than his subordinates, these extravagances were not seen favorably. Cassius continued, saying Cornelius “engaged in much derogatory discussion about Augustus and was guilty of many more despicable acts.”
It suffices to state that he had a strained relationship with Emperor Augustus, who ultimately deposed Cornelius and brought numerous charges against him.
He was found guilty in court, sentenced to exile, and stripped of his estate by a unanimous decision of the Roman Senate. Before the directives went into effect, Cornelius committed suicide because of his grim future.
Cornelius lived during and after the vast Roman Empire continued to grow. Augustus found it challenging to monitor every area of his kingdom at once due to his expanding footprint, something Queen Amanirenas paid particular attention to.
Aelius Gallus, a different Roman knight, was chosen by Emperor Augustus to be the second prefect of Egypt in 26 B.C. Just as Gallus was getting comfortable, the emperor gave him orders to go on a military mission to Arabia.
Three full legions, totaling over 15,000 soldiers, had been stationed in Egypt to guard the province, but on Augustus’s direction, many of them were moved to Arabia to aid in capturing this much sought-after land. This gave Queen Amanirenas the chance to question Rome’s authority.
Queen Amanirenas organized her army to free her people in the north from Roman rule while the Roman forces were being withdrawn from Egypt.
They led an army of 30,000 warriors from Kush under the command of King Teriteqas as they crossed the Nile’s mudflats and entered Egypt.
The entire Triakontaschoinos region, covering an area of 200 square miles, was taken, including Syene, Philae, and Elephantine. According to Strabo, the Kushites “enslaved the populace and tore down the statues of Caesar” in these cities.
With wealth, Roman prisoners, and thousands of Egyptian captives, they then fled south. They cut off and took away the head of an Augustus statue as a final insult.
When Queen Amanirenas returned to her house in Meroë, she took the bronze head with its neatly untidy hair, protruding ears, and startlingly wide colored glass eyes and buried it beneath the entrance steps of a temple dedicated to the god Amun.
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The Kushite victory was short-lived. Gaius Petronius, the acting governor, left Alexandria with 10,000 Roman army members and 800 cavalry when word of the situation reached Alexandria. The Kushite army had already withdrew to Pselchis at that point.
Petronius chased them and dispatched envoys to seek the release of the prisoners. The envoys, however, were perplexed. They discovered that the warriors were not under the leadership of a leader. They meant no male leader by this.
They simply did not understand that a queen ruled the Kushites alone in the wake of the tragic death of King Teriteqas from illness or injury.
Queen Amanirenas in battle
After gathering at Pselchis, the warriors of the queen charged into battle, each bearing a huge raw cow skin shield and armed with a variety of axes, pikes, and swords.
They were about three to one more numerous than the Romans, but according to Strabo, they were “poorly marshaled and insufficiently armed” in comparison to the well-trained, heavily armored legionary lines.
Many of the Kushite warriors fled back to the city or into the desert after the Romans forced them to retreat. A few soldiers made their way off the battlefield by wading into the Nile.
They intended to defend themselves at a location on a tiny island, but the Romans arranged for rafts and boats to seize the island and capture them.
The Romans were more confident this time and extended their invasion into Kushite territory. A few of Queen Amanirenas’s generals were also kidnapped by Petronius, who interrogated them about their organizational system.
He was informed that the Kandake was in charge of their kingdom. However, they also diverted his focus by telling him stories about a male leader.
The generals informed Petronius that Akinidad, the son of Queen Amanirenas, was based in Napata, their holy and former capital city, which contained significant temples and royal cemeteries. Napata was located in the north of the country.
Petronius was unaware that this was a subterfuge because Napata’s Kushite monarchs had purposefully left hundreds of years prior.
Petronius marched confidently to Napata, certain that victory there would permanently conquer the Kushites.
Prince Akinidad was actually not there, and the actual capital, Mero, was still more than 330 miles away, as he discovered. He set fire to the city and gathered its citizens, furious at having been duped, to take them back to Egypt as slaves.
Yet the queen’s trick had succeeded. Petronius had come this far and was now unable to attack the legitimate king of the realm with his troops. From Syene, he had already walked more than 570 miles, which is virtually the full length of Egypt.
The majority of the army departed as Cassius Dio said, “There was no benefit to be gained by remaining where he was with his entire force.”
However, Queen Amanirenas and her army did not feel as worn out as he did. She launched a ferocious counterattack, pursuing the fleeing Romans all the way to the fortified hilltop city of Primis.
On the battlefield, the queen herself was a terrifying presence. Strabo alluded to her “male nature” as her commanding presence as a combat commander.
Three facial scars on her cheeks, which were signs of physical attractiveness for the Mero queens and which some Sudanese women still wear today, made her tower over her army.
Queen Amanirenas tribulations and death
The queen was wounded in one battle while fighting the Romans, and one of her eyes was rendered blind by an enemy soldier.
The way the Greco-Romans saw strong female rulers was consistent with Strabo’s depiction of the queen as “masculine.” These queens were frequently characterized as “manly women” who acted inappropriately for their gender.
The queen’s new impairment was also looked down upon by Governor Petronius, who began to mockly refer to her as “the One-Eyed Candace” and believed that her “deficient” eyesight mirrored her lack of acumen as a monarch.
Once more, these men miscalculated Queen Amanirenas. She went back to the front lines after her injury had healed.
Amanirenas became more courageous and stronger after losing an eye in battle. But her pain was not yet gone. Her son Prince Akinidad was murdered when her warriors arrived in Dakka in 24 B.C. and engaged in combat with the Romans to uphold Kush’s sovereignty.
Her son was now gone, in addition to her husband and eye. As a leader, she had witnessed the slaughter of many of her soldiers in battle, the kidnapping of some of her subjects and generals, and the looting and destruction of her home city of Napata.
The conflict was still very much not ended. However, she was now left only fighting for her land. The Kandake, now blind in one eye, continued to fight while being motivated by sadness and rage.
Up to this point, Queen Amanirenas and her army had been engaged in a defensive conflict to prevent the Romans from annexing any territory permanently. But they launched an assault when Napata was destroyed and Prince Akinidad was killed.
She struggled for the next two years with everything she had. She was so bold that it even inspired Strabo to praise her, who remarked, “This queen has a courage above that of her gender.”
She assembled a second group of thousands of Kushite warriors in 22 B.C. and marched against the Roman forces camped in Primis, which is now the Roman Empire’s frontier.
A battle of epic magnitude took place. It is almost clear that Petronius and his soldiers were completely surrounded by Kushite warriors based on the topography of Primis.
The Romans, however, had a wide variety of ballista, which were ancient canons that, though less lethal than modern military weaponry, could nonetheless hurl lethal darts over great distances.
This rendered Queen Amanirenas attempt at a frontal assault extremely difficult; she would have lost countless men. Petronius, however, was trapped and unable to flee.
Petronius was really anxious for a truce. Since becoming Egypt’s prefect, Queen Amanirenas had relentlessly occupied him with war, not giving him a moment’s peace to carry out his administrative responsibilities of overseeing tax levies. He was now hopelessly stranded in a hilltop city with no way out.
Petronius advised Queen Amanirenas to speak with Emperor Augustus directly in order to resolve the situation after realizing there was no other option.
According to acclaimed Egyptologist Dr. Robert Steven Bianchi, “this is thought to be the first recorded incident in the entire history of Africa when diplomats representing a Black African ruler independent of Egypt journeyed to Europe to accomplish a diplomatic resolution.”
Amanirenas demonstrated her superiority to the emperor and Rome by sending her envoys instead of going herself. She had individuals who could negotiate for her, so she wouldn’t bother to travel hundreds of miles.
And the one-eyed queen did in fact triumph. A prolonged conflict with the stubborn Queen Amanirenas was not high on the imperial agenda after the Romans had lost so many men and so much money in the five-year war.
Caesar Augustus proclaimed Kush to be independent and renounced all rights to tribute at the Treaty of Samos in 21 B.C.
Roman forces left Primis and gave the Kushites control of the regions in the Thirty-Mile Strip’s southern half. Dodekaschoinos, which had been designated as the new border, was where they turned around.
In addition to signing the legal treaty, Augustus instructed his administrators to work with local priests to construct a new temple at Dendur and enlarge an existing one at Kalabsha. This was done in an effort to placate the Nubian populace.
No such loyalty was shown by the Kushite warriors to the Roman deities. The queen’s warriors overturned the Augustus statues that had been erected in the seized towns as the emperor’s army withdrew.
The Kushites were now free despite the bloody and prolonged conflict. By resisting conquest, Queen Amanirenas saved her people from centuries of oppression.
She did not give any of her land to Rome or pay any tribute, in contrast to many other kingdoms throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Amanirenas committed herself to reestablishing the kingdom and improving conditions for her people following the Roman War. She enjoyed peace for the last 11 years of her rule, which was among the most wealthy in Kushite history.
She never wedded again and she passed away in 10 B.C. and is interred at Sudan’s Jebel Barkal. The Kushites honored her with a wall mural depicting her with a bow, arrows, and a spear while chained to a group of seven Roman prisoners at Mero.
The life of Queen Amanirenas is a stirring example of one woman’s determination, but it’s also a reminder of how people have been stereotyped due to factors like gender, color, and disability.