From 25 to 21 BC. J.-C. Amanirenas, a queen or Kandake of the kingdom of Kush, succeeded in doing what many male rulers of his time could not: repel a Roman invasion.
Under the command of Queen Amanirenas, some 30,000 soldiers from the ancient Kingdom of Kush (located in present-day Sudan) took up arms and repelled the Roman invaders who had advanced from Egypt. The Romans had encroached on the fertile lands of the region under Egypt known as Nubia and imposed high taxes on the people of Meroe, the capital of Kush.
Amanirenas strategically rallied his army during a temporary withdrawal of Roman troops for a campaign in Arabia. His forces succeeded in capturing 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 moment in Nubian and Roman history. The Roman army eventually dominated, but it ended up granting concessions to the Kingdom of Meroë that weakened Rome’s political and economic position and validated Meroitic sovereignty.
The long tradition of sovereign women in Nubia
Although Amanirenas was unique in his military success against the Romans, his role as Kandake, or ruler, was not unusual in the region at the time. For over 3,000 years, three Kushite kingdoms – Kerma, Napata and Meroe – ruled the middle Nile valley in Nubia, and for long periods of this rule women were in control.
A long line of Kandake reigned at the same time as the formidable empires of Rome and Greece. Amanirenas herself ruled under the reign of Cleopatra in Egypt and Mark Antony in Rome, until they were deposed in 30 BC by Augustus Caesar. After Amanirenas, Amanishaketo and Amanitore inherited his powerful heritage by protecting lower Nubia from the Romans.
Amanirenas’ ascension to the throne began with the death of her husband Teriteqase at the end of 25 BC, five years after the Roman occupation of lower Nubia. Previously, the kingdom of Amanirenas had profited from trading its gold and other wealth with Egypt, but the political landscape changed when Roman forces under Augustus seized control of Egypt from Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Assuming leadership of the kingdom, Amanirenas planned and then executed his kingdom’s attacks on the occupying Roman forces.
The statue of the head of Augustus found buried in a temple
One of the main pieces of evidence of Meroitic raids against the Romans is a bronze head of Augustus Caesar found buried under the steps of a temple dedicated to Victory in the Kushite capital Meroë. The placement of the head (adorned with open calcite eyes) suggests that it was detached from a statue and deliberately placed at the feet of her captors as a constant reminder of the queen’s victory over the mighty Roman ruler.
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The temple of Meroë is also decorated with drawings of Roman prisoners and victorious Nubian queens. Solange Ashby, an Egyptologist and post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, says such depictions are typical of the era and point to a larger culture where femininity and the willingness to engage in war were not contradictory.
“In these images, the Meroitic queens are actually very voluptuous,” says Ashby. “So they definitely look feminine, but they’re badass warriors, and there’s no doubting their willingness to engage in violence. We see these powerful women portrayed in aggressive poses, and it’s 100% consistent with how they saw themselves.
Petronius, a prefect appointed by Augustus to preside over Egypt, finally confronted Amanirenas and his army at El-Dakkeh, and demanded that she return the spoils of his army’s raids. Amanirenas refused, prompting Petronius and his 10,000 strong infantry to attack and pursue Amanirenas to Napata, his royal residence. Along the way, Petronius captured Primis (now Kasr 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 AD 21 called Geographic sketches by the Greek historian Strabo. In it, Strabo describes Amanirenas as a “masculine woman with a destroyed eye”.
Strabo writes that Petronius marched on Napata and destroyed it after capturing Qasr Ibrim, but some historians question this account. One clue is that the distance between the two cities was unreasonably long for Petronius’ army to travel during the hot temperatures of the season. Meanwhile, historians are still working to decipher the Meroitic records of the war.
“There are huge problems around the study of Meroitic-Roman warfare,” says Ashby, “while there are large royal inscriptions which some scholars believe tell the Meroitic view of what happened, we can only read about 100 words of the Meroitic Language. When we finally understand the grammar and vocabulary needed to read extensive prose, I think it will greatly increase the amount of history we will have. know that it took place between these two powers.
Amanirenas’ resistance leads to gains for his kingdom
While Strabo’s account presents the Romans in a victorious light, the outcome of the war suggests otherwise. By early 21 BC, 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 the Roman occupation would withdraw from the second cataract (around Gemai) to Maharaqqa, almost back to the border of Egypt.
Although the details of this treaty are unclear, evidence suggests that Amanirenas’ resistance led to gains for his kingdom, despite military losses. Lower Nubia was a hotly contested region long before the Roman and Greek occupations of Egypt. The Nubian and Egyptian kingdoms had grown and contracted over the centuries as they fought for control of precious metals, animals and slaves in the region. The re-establishment of Meroitic domination in lower Nubia indicates a happy outcome for the kingdom of Meroe.
Although Kingdoms of Kush would eventually weaken and be absorbed by the Roman Empire, Amanirenas’ gains against Roman forces sealed his legacy as one of the few historical figures to resist Roman rule.