Wonderful Women: Warrior Queen Tomyris and the Fall of Persia

The Peculiar Past Column:

Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? How about those potato chips you had for lunch? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe our cuisine and modern luxuries. 

In order to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, I thought I’d write about one of my favourite historical women ever! Saddle up onto your favourite steppes horse, quiver your arrows, and get ready for a wild ride, because this week we’re exploring the tumultuous story of Tomyris!


Mother, warrior-queen, and general badass, Tomyris confidently ruled over the Massagetae, a nomadic Scythian steppes people who resided around Eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and parts of Kazakhstan. Most of what we know about them comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who sort of invented the study of history, so I guess we can thank him for the best subject there is. But what we definitely do know is that they had a vast influence over their region, made lots of lovely gold jewelry, and were definitely a force to be reckoned with- proficient with bows, throwing axes, their specialised swords called akinaces, and of course, like most steppes warriors, were masters of horseback warfare (yes, I’m looking at you, Genghis Khan). Soon enough, their presence caught the attention of other nearby empires, and soon the Scythians found themselves in the midst of a war with the dominant Achaemenid Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great. 


Now, listen, as far as ancient rulers went, Cyrus the Great wasn’t the worst of them, by far. He used to allow conquered peoples to continue their practices and religions, and even helped pay towards the rebuilding of temples. Pretty tolerant, right? Except he was quite a stubborn man. Rather than first trying to conquer Tomyris’ Scythians, he first asked for her hand in marriage. She flat out refused, and like a rejected Chad who still believes in the friend-zone, he threw an absolute temper tantrum, except this one had deadly consequences. Now he took an aggressive approach, but Cyrus was quite the sneaky strategist. Instead of facing the Massagetae head on, he planted them a clever trap. In one variation of the tale, he picked out some of his weakest warriors and had them set up camp, complete with a feast and plenty of wine near Tomyris’ territory. After the Scythian warriors ransacked this camp and killed the decoy soldiers, they all got completely smashed on all the wine they found lying around- I mean it’s free drink, right? The problem was, the Scythians weren’t actually accustomed to wine and got a bit too drunk, and that’s when they were ambushed by the rest of the Persian army. It was a massacre, but some men were taken prisoner, including Tomyris’ own son. He chose to kill himself rather than be imprisoned by the man that had tried to marry his mother, understandably. Other stories also suggest that Tomyris’ husband, Rustam, was also killed by Cyrus, which makes the whole situation even worse.


Of course, Tomyris was furious. Now the Persians would have to pay, in blood. Accordingly, she sent Cyrus a letter after refusing his hand that warned him she had ‘vowed to give him enough blood to quench his thirst’. She kept her vow. The Persian army were shocked to find just as many women fighting for the Massagetae as there were men, and with equal prowess as well. With their excellent strategist, Tomyris, leading the way, the Massagetae knew the Persians stood no chance, and the Persians were defeated, losing a lot of territory and control of the city states around them. Herodotus claimed that the entire Persian army were slaughtered in the fight, most notably, Cyrus the Great himself. 


Tomyris, the absolute madwoman she was, decided to be a bit extra after Cyrus’ defeat. She was said to have not only fashioned a drinking cup from his skull, but also single handedly beheaded him and released the blood into a wineskin. Now he had gotten his fair share of blood. She remained an excellent ruler of her people until her death, upon which it took three Kings to fill her position. 


Perhaps the story of Tomyris tells us that women of antiquity weren’t quite as frail or ignored as we tend to assume. Tomyris was certainly a strong woman, and was the original destroyer of the patriarchy. This International Women’s Day, have a think about the historical women you admire, and what they’ve done to shape the world around us. Even if we tend not to remember Tomyris now, her killing of Cyrus caused ripples around the ancient world that surely changed our world.


CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion of the Incan empire. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing cello and her previous residence in five different countries.


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