1

From Alexander the Great to Saladin, from Muqali to Horatio Nelson, from Napoleon I to Winfield Scott, history is loaded with great male generals.

Have there been any great female generals? Warfare certainly relies heavily on physical strength, making it a male-dominated discipline, but commanding doesn't seem to be physically intensive, which should superficially make female generals just as effective as male ones.

The closest I can think of is Catherine II of Russia, aka. Catherine the Great, who was sovereign of the nation and so technically the commander-in-chief. However as far as I know, she did not personally command troops in battles.

Edit: To clarify, I'm looking for those who 1) commanded armies in the field multiple times and 2) won much more often than they lost. I am not interested in those who fought but did not command (such as Hua Mulan), commanded only once (e.g. Albia Dominica), or did not win (e.g. Cleophis)

7

Moving away from some of the more obvious examples which are easily googled (and focusing on Africa, which gets far too little attention on History SE), consider Queen Amina of the Hausa state of Zazzau (in what is now northern Nigeria).

Information on her comes mostly (but not exclusively) from the Kano chronicle. Leaving aside more legendary accounts, this 16th century queen ruled for over 30 years, and personally fought and led armies, greatly expanding her realm at the expense of Kwararafa and the Nupe. She was also oversaw the construction of defensive walls for towns. What perhaps marks her out from other female military leaders such as Amanirenas of Kush, Anan Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba, Artemisia I of Caria or even Tomyris (who defeated Cyrus the Great, according to Herodotus) is that her military success was apparently largely sustained throughout her 30+ year reign.

After her death, her military successes were not repeated by her successors who soon lost out to the resurgent Kwararafa.


Queen Mawiyya of the Tanukhids

Mawiyya (reigned 375 to 425) was an Arab queen who achieved a series of notable victories over the Roman Empire during the time of the emperor Valens. She was also able to dictate the peace terms which followed a major victory in open battle. Mawiyya, unlike the better known Zenobia of Palmyra, often commanded herself and was also more successful.

The Tanukhid Mawiyya (sometimes known as Mavia or Mania, the latter not to be confused with JLK's answer) led semi-nomadic Arabs in revolt following an attempt by Rome to impose a bishop they did not want. The following excerpts are from Warwick Ball, Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (2000) and are based on contemporary and near-contemporary accounts.

Mawiyya...proceeded to strike hard at vulnerable Roman positions. Her raids extended deep into Palestine and even Egypt as far as the Nile. They had a deadly effect on the Romans….who were entirely lost in a desert war which could be fought on Mawiyya’s terms.

...But it was not only in desert warfare that Mawiyya’s forces were able to better the Romans….an initial force…commanded by the Roman governor of Phoenicia and Palestine, was defeated. Victorious in the desert and in open battle, Mawiyya met success in the towns as well....

Constantinople sent sent another force, this time led by the Roman military commander of the East himself….The two forces met in battle with Queen Mawiyya taking command in person. Mawiyya proved herself as good a field tactician as she was a political leader….The result was a Roman defeat.


Other sources:

H. J. Fisher, 'The eastern Maghrib and the central Sudan' in 'The Cambridge History of Africa' (J.D. Fage & R. Oliver, eds.)

Greg Fisher, 'Mavia, queen' in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

  • Curious: how'd you learn about Mawiyya or Amina? I've read page upon page of Wikipedia military biographies and still never heard of either. – Allure Aug 21 at 12:32
  • @Allure Concerning Amina, my specialist area is West African economic history. Amina built up a profitable trade in Kola nuts, which is how I knew about her in the first place. For Mawiyya, I made the connection through a historical novel (she's not mentioned in it, but the novel was on that area and got me thinking about the possibilities of Arab queens, which I already knew something about - googling did the rest). – Lars Bosteen Aug 21 at 13:27
4

Aetheflaed comes to mind if for no other reason than that she militarized bees.

Æthelred died in 911 and Æthelflæd then ruled Mercia as Lady of the Mercians. The accession of a female ruler in Mercia is described by the historian Ian Walker as "one of the most unique events in early medieval history".

Alfred had built a network of fortified burhs and in the 910s Edward and Æthelflæd embarked on a programme of extending them. Among the towns where she built defences were Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick, Chirbury and Runcorn. In 917 she sent an army to capture Derby, the first of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw to fall to the English, a victory described by Tim Clarkson as "her greatest triumph". In 918 Leicester surrendered without a fight. Shortly afterwards the Viking leaders of York offered her their loyalty, but she died on 12 June 918 before she could take advantage of the offer, and a few months later Edward completed the conquest of Mercia. Æthelflæd was succeeded by her daughter Ælfwynn, but in December Edward took personal control of Mercia and carried Ælfwynn off to Wessex. Wikipedia

The British History Podcast has an excellent couple of episodes on Aetheflaed. Jamie is clearly a fan, but I believe BHP presents evidence fairly, documenting what is certain and what is under debate. Highly recommended.

OP asks whether there is evidence that Aetheflaed commanded in the field; the BHP covers this. We don't have enough evidence to reach a positive conclusion, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that she did (from memory, she was in the city that was beseiged, which is pretty much by definition a field command). I also think the distinction is artificial; OP is introducing a new constraint on the solution. So long as the leader is recognized as part of the command hierarchy does it make a difference if they were in the field?

  • 1
    Did she actually command in the field or was she just the overall commander-in-chief like Catherine II? The article doesn't seem to say she commanded in the field. – Allure Aug 19 at 11:56
  • So long as the leader is recognized as part of the command hierarchy does it make a difference if they were in the field? Yes because otherwise 1) OP answers itself by naming Catherine II and 2) Alexander I would be a great leader even though he was decisively defeated by Napoleon when he involved himself in operations. – Allure Aug 21 at 0:06
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Looking through the list linked by Marakai in the comments, the best match appears to be Shang general Fu Hao. Her biography indicates she commanded several campaigns victoriously, successfully conquering several neighbours of the Shang dynasty, and was the most powerful general of her time. Comparatively, the other people listed either didn't command, didn't command often, or didn't win.

2

There was a Persian satrap called Mania. She became satrap in 399 BC. Polyaenus says in Strategems

Mania, the wife of Zenis prince of Dardanus, governed the realm after the death of her husband, with the assistance of Pharnabazus. She always went to battle, drawn in a chariot; she gave her orders at the time of action, formed her lines, and rewarded every man who fought well, as she saw he deserved. And - what has scarcely happened to any general, except herself - she never suffered a defeat. But Meidias, who had married her daughter, and might from that close relationship have been supposed to be faithful to her, secretly entered her apartments, and murdered her.

Xenophon also says she was a successful and expanded her territory by conquest.

1

Here is a list, non exhaustive:

  • Queen Cleopatra: not a great military commander, but a famous at the battle of Actium
  • Queen Bouddica: in Britanny, she fought the Roman Empire
  • In Sicily, when the Normans hold it: Sykelgaite of Salerne and Adelaïde of Montferrat, fighting multiple nobles
  • Rani Lakshmi Bai in the 19th century, against the British in India
  • Ching Shih, a great Chinese female commanding a fleet of pirates
  • Ching Shih sounds like a good contender. It would be hard to say if she was a good military leader but she was certainly an excellent political leader. Rani Lakshmi was a failure and achieved nothing. None of the others did much either. Bouddica was in Britain not Brittany. Brittany was made up of the larger part of Armorica in Gaul (modern France). – Daniel Aug 21 at 20:18
  • Ann Bonney perhaps? – Mark C. Wallace Aug 21 at 23:21
  • I might be mistaking with another Rani, but I have read a book saing that a Rani in India achieved to conserv some independance of her realm for her son, with diplomacy and battles against the British and other Indian chiefs Ann Bonney only commanded pirates, and not in great number (only a boat I guess?) – totalMongot Aug 22 at 19:18
0

Boudica, the beautiful rebel warrior queen who led the revolt of the Britons against the occupying Roman forces around A.D.60 in England.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    I wouldn't call boudicca a great general.. She was defeated pretty quickly. – Tom Aug 19 at 10:32
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    The O.P. is "looking for those who 1) commanded armies in the field multiple times and 2) won much more often than they lost" Boudica roused and united thousands of warriors, then personally led them in their complete rout of 3 major Roman towns (including London) in England before her forces were defeated (they put the towns to the sword and torch). According to a Roman historian, she directed the conduct of the entire war. It is likely that her army's action threatened Rome's hold on the isle... – Jimmy Fix-it Aug 20 at 0:33
  • London at this time was not defended because Seutonius lacked the men to defend it. Even when he defeated Boudicca it was with a much smaller army than her. – Tom Aug 20 at 10:31
  • @JimmyFix-it She led a massive army that was able to steamroller local Roman units and then sacked three unwalled towns. If there was more to it than that there is no record such as losses on both sides. The Romans only record the number of civilians killed in the towns. We have no idea who planned the campaign or who carried out the battles themselves. All we know is that at the final battle she was able to escape so must have been at the back in an era where troops were led from the front. Which suggests she was a figurehead leader rather than a war leader. – Daniel Aug 21 at 19:44
  • @Daniel: Re "must have been at the back" and "led from the front", I think you need to support both of those claims. E.g. it's certainly possible for someone at the front to escape in the confusion of a losing battle, and not all leaders were, or could be, at every front. – jamesqf Aug 22 at 4:17
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She Wolves discusses why we don't have good historical records of female commanders. Teasing out the role of women in warfare requires some historical skill. Author cites Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, and suggests that one of the criteria for judging female military commanders is the degree of sexist abuse heaped on them by their opponents. (my summary; boiling down a complex thesis into a sentence does not do it justice).

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