Contrary to popular belief, there have been an abundance of heroines throughout Ancient civilisation that have accompanied heroes in altering history, however, they are often forgotten in the history books. In most known Ancient civilisations, women led a traditional lifestyle that was expected of them by their society (History Hit, 10 Great Warrior Women of the Ancient World, 2018). However, there were numerous significant female figures that broke tradition in their respective cultures to become invaluable heroines in Ancient History. In order to discuss the extent to which the statement is true, the role of several heroines in the Ancient world, variables that led to the anonymity of heroines in Ancient history and the significance of the Trung Sisters and Theodora must be examined. In a time period dominated by men, women were only written as background characters in the pages of history, however, the real truth of history is that heroines existed, and they were powerful.
Ancient civilisation produced powerful females, who whether wore a crown on their heads or swung a sword in their hand, impacted their respective cultures and subsequently moulded the contemporary world. Heroines in Ancient History were not just confined to places that were well known for hosting heroes and conflicts such as Greece, Rome and Egypt, the expansion of significant heroines in Ancient History was global. The most well-known heroine in Ancient civilisation was Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra who was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty (National Geographic, Who Was the Most Powerful Woman in Ancient History?, 2018). While she is most famous for her beauty and powers of seduction including her romances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (History.com, Cleopatra, 2009), she was much more than a pretty face. Cleopatra was quite intelligent and was able to communicate in numerous languages, thus aiding her to be the main ruler in all three of her co-regencies, her reign lasting for over three decades. Another heroine in Ancient times was Cynane (c. 358 - 323 BC) who was the half-sister of legendary hero Alexander the Great. She fought alongside her brother during his campaign and according to Polyaenus (2nd-century CE Macedonian author and historian) she once murdered an Illyrian queen (History Hit, 10 Great Warrior Women of the Ancient World, 2018). Tomyris was another hero that significantly influenced her culture. Tomyris (6th century BC) was the Queen of the Massaegetae which was a Scythian union of nomadic tribes in Central Asia (History Hit, 10 Great Warrior Women of the Ancient World, 2018). She is most famous for the war she led against Cyrus the Great (the Persian King) and is rumoured to have murdered him herself as told by Herodotus, I.214: “Search was made among the slain by order of the queen for the body of Cyrus, and when it was found she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore saying, as she thus insulted the corpse, “I live and have conquered you in a fight”. Heroines were just as heroic than their hero counterparts, ruling not only in the royal court but on the battlefield.
Although there were numerous heroines in Ancient Civilisation who significantly impacted the world, there is little known about these figures. While reasons for the anonymity of female heroes in Ancient History differ from culture to culture, the general assumption to note is that in most cultures, females were considered less than males and were considered “not worthy enough” to write about. For the same reason, women were not able to participate in men’s activities such as fighting in a war, holding power or retaining a prestigious job, thus there generally lacked a reason for a woman to be written about. When a female heroes did arise, they were purposely left out of written historical sources as the power in charge (Monarchy, Government, etc) wanted to prevent a potential uprising of women demanding more equality. Despite the censorship and anonymity of heroines throughout Ancient civilisation, women made an invaluable contribution to their society.
Women in Asia during Ancient History lived a subservient lifestyle, according to the traditions of their respective cultures. However, the Trung Sisters broke that mould to become significant heroines in Vietnam. Trưng Trắc and her sister Trưng Nhị were key figures in the first Vietnamese independence movement, who led an uprising against the Chinese Han Dynasty conquerors to fleetingly form an autonomous society (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Trung Sisters Vietnamese Rebel Leaders, 2016). During the time period of the Trung Sisters, Vietnam was controlled by the Chinese Han Dynasty which conflicted with Vietnamese culture. Han China upheld a strict hierarchical and patriarchal system adopted by Confucius in contrast to the Vietnamese social structure which was more centred around equality. For example, women in Vietnam were able to obtain traditionally male jobs such as serving as a judge, becoming a soldier or being in a command position (ThoughtCo, Who Were the Trung Sisters of Ancient Vietnam? 2019). The Trung Sisters were born circa 12AD in Giao Chi (modern-day North Vietnam) (Ancient Origins, Hell hath no fury like the Trung Sister freedom fighters, 2014). During their childhood, the Trung Sisters studied warfare, were taught valuable fighting skills and were highly skilled in martial arts (Ancient Origins, Hell hath no fury like the Trung Sister freedom fighters, 2014). The Trung Sisters were unknowingly trained for their rebellion since they were children.
Thi Sách (the husband of Trưng Trắc) was the motivation behind the revolution led by the Trung Sisters. Thi Sách stood publicly against the Chinese command to oppose the increasing taxes. In order to regain control over the Vietnamese people and discipline Thi Sách, he was assassinated by a Chinese commander who also consequently raped Trưng Trắc (Ancient Origins, Hell hath no fury like the Trung Sister freedom fighters, 2014). The tragedy Trưng Trắc had experienced drove her to rebellion, using her fighting skills learned as a child to avenge her husband’s death and lead a rebellion against the oppressive rule of the Han Dynasty. In 39 AD, the Trung Sisters along with other nobles of the community forced the Chinese commander to flee by marching on Lien Lau (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Trung Sisters Vietnamese Rebel Leaders, 2016). Approximately 80,000 men and women, 36 female generals, including their mother, overtook 65 northern citadels within the timespan of a year (Ancient Origins, Hell hath no fury like the Trung Sister freedom fighters, 2014). The rebellion was successful at first and the Trung Sisters were able to proclaim themselves the rulers of an independent state which extended from southern China to Hue (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Trung Sisters Vietnamese Rebel Leaders, 2016). During their reign, they eliminated Chinese tax and implemented traditional Vietnamese values into their kingdom (Ancient Origins, Hell hath no fury like the Trung Sister freedom fighters, 2014). However, in 43 AD, the Trung Sisters were defeated by General Ma Yuan. According to Vietnamese records, the sisters committed suicide, an Ancient Vietnamese tradition to maintain the honour, by drowning themselves in a river. However, Chinese records show that they were captured by Ma Yuan and beheaded (ThoughtCo, Who Were the Trung Sisters of Ancient Vietnam? 2019).
Although Chinese rule over Vietnam was implemented again after the Trung Sisters' death, the Vietnamese people have immortalised the heroism of the sisters through literature, monuments and a national holiday and festival. Possibly the most famous piece of literature is an unnamed Vietnamese poem which echoes the sentiment that the sisters were more heroic than even the greatest heroes in Vietnam: 'All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission; Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country” (Found at Women in world history, The Trung Sisters, unknown). The Trung Sisters are recognised physically through numerous temples dedicated to their honour such as the Hai Bà Trưng Temple (Hanoi), temples in Mê Linh District (Vĩnh Phúc Province), Phúc Thọ District (Hà Tây), Bình Thạnh District, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (Ancient Origins, Hell hath no fury like the Trung Sister freedom fighters, 2014). A festival to honour the Trung Sisters is held on the 3rd day to the 6th day of the second lunar month in their hometown of Me Linh commune, Me Linh District, Hanoi. This festival includes a procession of war elephants, and gifts taken to the Trung Sisters’ temple, along with music performed by the town’s most prestigious elders. (Vietnam Visa Easy, The Trung Sisters Festival, unknown). According to Viet touch, Trung Trac & Trung Nhi, unknown; soldiers carry photographs of the Trung Sisters with them into battle as a reminder of their fight for freedom. The Trung Sisters are relatively well known compared to other heroines, although, this was not always the case. The Vietnamese worshipped the sisters and praised them openly, however, the Chinese Dynasty who had conquered Vietnam thought of the sisters as outlaws as they were able to lead an uprising. Thus, the Chinese excluded the Trung Sisters from their history and when little mention was made, they were not written as heroes, but as villains. Despite the attempt by the Chinese Dynasty to silence and exclude the Trung Sisters, they have not only been a source of inspiration for suppressed women and soldiers but for the entirety of Vietnam.
Not all heroines in Ancient Civilisation came from prestigious, noble backgrounds. Theodora is an excellent example of this. Theodora was born in c. 497 CE and according to 6th century CE Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea in his text entitled ‘Secret History’, Theodora pursued a similar occupation as her mother, working in the Hippodrome as an actress, acrobat, dancer and stripper (Ancient History Encyclopedia, Empress Theodora, 2018). Procopius further explains that she became a prostitute at a young age and gave birth to at least one child before marriage. Attracted by the combination of her beauty and intelligence, Justinian pursued her. Due to her unconventional background, a law had to be passed legalising unions between actresses and men of senatorial rank or higher (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Theodora, 2016). The pair married in 525 and Justinian succeed the throne to the Byzantine empire in 527 and Theodora became the Empress. Theodora is considered to be one of the first rulers to advocate for women’s rights such as allowing women to inherit and own property (Ancient Origins, Theodora: How a Poverty Stricken Prostitute Became an Empress, 2018) and giving women more rights in divorce cases, passing laws to prohibit human trafficking of young girls (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Theodora, 2016) and instituted the death penalty for rape. It is important to understand that the knowledge available about Theodora comes from only male sources and during her time period in Byzantine, a woman living any other life than a submissive one was considered shameful and was highly disapproved of. Thus, this is one example of why Theodora is not widely known in the Contemporary world, this sentiment relating also to the anonymity of other heroines from her time period.
Theodora had a substantial influence on all aspects of Byzantium society and although she ceased to hold a position of direct or coregent power, the utilization of her intelligence and skills of persuasion along with her extensive knowledge on political issues plaguing the empire caused many to believe that she was in power rather than Justinian (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Theodora, 2016). Theodora is attributed with multiple amendments including achieving Monophysitism in Nubia circa 540 CE and is credited for her significant influence on social reforms and charitable work such as sponsoring institutions for the poor (orphanages, hospitals), especially funding a home for former prostitutes wanting to pursue a respectable career in society (Ancient History Encyclopedia, Empress Theodora, 2018). Perhaps the best example of Theodora’s influence on the Byzantium state is her impact on the Nika riots. The Nika riots was a revolt against Justinian by supporters of popular chariot racing factions the Greens and the Blues (Ancient Origins, Theodora: How a Poverty Stricken Prostitute Became an Empress, 2018). Associates of Justinian began to flee and advised the Emperor to follow suit, however, Theodora convinced Justinian and the remaining advisors to stay. According to Procopius, she told her husband, '... the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it brings safety ... For one who has been an emperor, it is unendurable to be a fugitive ... consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve of a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud” (Thought Co, Overview of the Nika Revolt, 2019). Theodora can be attributed with the continuation of the Byzantium empire, thus she can also be attributed with its subsequent success.
Theodora succumbed to illness in 548 AD, her exact cause of death is unknown, however, it was most likely due to cancer or gangrene. The Empress was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles located in Constantinople and along with her husband, is noted as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church (Ancient Origins, Theodora: How a Poverty Stricken Prostitute Became an Empress, 2018). Theodora is remembered annually on her feast day, the 14th of November and therefore, her reforms that benefited the women of Ancient civilisation and paved the way for feminism throughout periods of history are continuously commemorated.
In conclusion, it is evident that the extent in which the statement “There was no such thing as a heroine in Ancient History, only a hero” is true is to no extent at all. Heroines existed and played a significant role in both their respective cultures and the broader world. “Given the same honour and dignity as men, women can build a much better and more harmonious world.” - Abhijit Naskar, The Bengal Tigress: A Treatise on Gender Equality. Although the tales of female heroes throughout history has not been told as much as their male counterparts, they are the reason that women today in most countries do not live a subvierent lifestyle and are instead independent. Subsequently, the gap between the quantity of male heroes compared to heroines is significantly closer to that of Ancient civilisations.