A depiction of Queen Amanirenas

The One-Eyed African Queen Who Defeated the Great Roman Empire

Nearly lost to the erosion of time, this story of the Kushite Queen Amanirenas focuses on a conflict that began in 30 BCE, shortly after the first Roman Emperor occupied Egypt. After well over a thousand years of ruling the region, the Kingdom of Kush disappeared in 300 CE, but not before it accomplished a feat that shook the halls of history. The threat of the entire Roman Empire, and the deified Roman Emperor himself, could not crumble the resolve of the organized tribes living in Northeast Africa, south of Egypt. Rome’s penchant for warfare could only carry it so far against a nation that swore to never bend the knee. Although Rome persisted for many more centuries, the question of Kush's sovereignty was never questioned again, all thanks to this fierce warrior queen who tore apart gender discrimination with ease.

The Roman Empire

statue of Augustus
Statue of Augustus. Image credit Till Niermann via Creative Commons

The legions of Rome were a well-equipped and well-trained force. Their ranks utilized tight-knit formations and heavy ballistae to dominate their foes. Between 509 BCE to 330 CE, the Roman Empire expanded and conquered regions between Scotland and the Persian Gulf. A core aspect of their social structure depended on continuously flowing resources, either looted or tributed from captured territories, and there were few civilizations that could resist them. The Roman Republic ended in 27 BCE after the assassination of consul Caesar. The first emperor, Augustus, replaced him. During the first years of his reign, Augustus focused on conquering Egypt, Europe, and Judea to bolster trading networks.

The Kingdom of Kush

Kush on Map
Kingdom of Kush on a map. Image credit Peter Hermes Furian via Shutterstock

Queen Amanirenas reigned over Nubia from 40 BCE to 10 BCE. The King died around the beginning of the war, leaving the Queen in ultimate authority. This kingdom was along the edge of the Nile River to the south of Egypt and intermixing brought about a sharing of cultural values, although the two regions fought and made peace frequently. At one point around 750 BCE Kush conquered Egypt, and the Kushite ruler Piye declared himself Pharaoh and invested in a Pyramid-building revival. Assyrians in 672 BCE liberated Egypt but were unable to eliminate Kush because of the hundreds of miles of desert between Meroë and Egypt; an obstacle that Rome later faced. Valuable goldmines were present in the Kush region, and the powerhouse was in the capital of Meroë. The former capital was Napata, 150 miles to the north. Last, as gender discrimination was not as present in Kush, female queens, called kandakes, received military training and everyone revered them as goddesses.

Rome’s Push Into Egypt

Cleopatra. Image credit Mia Stendal via Shutterstock

Drama and dispute brought the legions of Rome to Northern Africa, and Emperor Augustus seized control of Egypt following the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The end of this dynasty is an ancient drama; Mark Antony and Cleopatra fell in love, Roman Consul and Queen of Egypt respectively, and Rome declared war on the couple. After defeat became imminent, the pair committed suicide which allowed Rome to occupy Egypt in August of 30 BCE. To secure the region, Augustus sent several legions under the administration of Gaius Cornelius Gallus. Gallus was proud and committed suicide after Augustus chastised him for glorifying himself by constructing monuments in his honor instead of Augustus. Aelius Gallus succeeded Gaius, and his failed expeditions to Arabia in 25 BCE left Egypt vulnerable. Gaius also imposed tribute and taxes on southern Egyptian provinces, some of which included Kush villages, who resented this sudden oppression.

The First Conflict

Queen Amanirenas. Image credit HappySloth via Shutterstock

The upset in Roman-Egyptian leadership following Gaius’ suicide created a vulnerability that the Kingdom of Kush knew they could exploit. Moreover, Aelius’ reallocation of troops to Arabia left the southern stretches of Egypt unguarded. In 24 BCE, Queen Amanirenas and King Teriteqas led an army of 30,000 troops into Roman territory and obliterated the only resistance they faced at a garrison in Philae. The armies of the King and Queen looted treasures, took Roman citizens captive, and lopped off the head of a statue of Emperor Augustus. Discovered in 1910, the bronze head was underneath a southern Kush temple, a gesture that meant every visitor was trampling on the head of Augustus. However, shortly after the war between Rome and the Kushites began, Queen Amanirenas’ husband, King Teriteqas, passed away.

Rome’s Response

Roman soldiers and their general
Roman soldiers. Image credit Vuk Kostic via Shutterstock

This escalation from a small empire, relative to the might of Rome, required retaliation. Over 10,000 Roman troops marched down the Nile and defeated a Kushite army that outnumbered them. The Roman leader Petronius captured several Kushite generals, who deceived him by claiming that Napata was the current capital and that Amanirenas’ son ruled the Kushites. Petronius razed Napata and enslaved its residents. However, he missed an opportunity to strike at Meroë due to the difficulty of traversing the desert region for an extra 330 miles south on top of the 570 miles he had already traveled between Egypt and Napata. Queen Amanirenas retaliated once again and pushed the encroaching Roman troops back to their garrison at Primis. During these conflicts, a roman soldier maimed her vision, which is why Strabo describes her as "a masculine woman … who had lost an eye". This conflation of her prowess with masculinity was a symptom of Roman culture’s sexist view of feminine traits, and Amanirenas’ success challenged their presumptions.

Eventual Peace

African queen, Kandake Amanirenas, ruler of the Kingdom of Kush in 40 BC
African queen, Kandake Amanirenas, ruler of the Kingdom of Kush in 40 BC. Image credit HappySloth via Shutterstock

While the invasion of Napata was a success for the Kushites, the Queen suffered, losing both her husband and her son during the hostilities. In 22 BCE, the allied forces of the Kushite tribes surrounded Petronius in the city of Primis, and the Roman governor requested that the queen visit Emperor Augustus to negotiate peace. She sent envoys in her stead, which was unusual for such a small kingdom when dealing with Rome, but this was her way of expressing her power. While Augustus focused on greater threats from Parthia, he received the messengers of Amanirenas. They delivered to him a bundle of golden arrows: a gift for a friend, or "weapons that Rome will need" if he refused the Kushite demands. Out of respect for Queen Amanirenas, Augustus agreed to her demands. The peace treaty of 21 BCE resulted in Rome withdrawing troops and remitting tax claims from occupied Kushite territories, and additionally, Rome recognized the kingdom as sovereign. This victory signified one of the very few times a small regional leader, a Queen in a patriarchal world, bested the strength of Rome.


The dust had settled, and Rome gave up on its attempt at dominating the lands south of Egypt. Emperor Nero attempted to explore and possibly conquer the region decades later, but his suicide and a subsequent civil war interrupted that effort. Another queen followed after Amanirenas passed away, inheriting the peace and strength that she had left. The Kushite Kingdom lasted several hundred more years into the third century CE, but the story of the Kush victory, led by a one-eyed queen, will persist for an eternity.


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