Queen Tomyris of the Massagetai: A woman who dared or a woman who cared? "Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood" by Rubens

Throughout the millenia an image of a submissive and caring woman has been conveyed. Delving into ancient history, one could discover an amazing chronicle of Queen Tomyris who reigned over the nation of the Massagetai. Bold and successful, this woman seemed to challenge conventional views.

Still, as the account is provided by Herodotus, an  ancient Greek historian, it is possible to observe that the image of a successful ruler is reverted to portray a more recognizable and traditional character.

The Massagetai were a nomadic people living in Central Asia and north-east of the Caspian Sea in the VI-V centuries B.C., albeit the precise territory of their dwelling remains so far contested. Meanwhile, the Persian king Cyrus began to consolidate the Achaemenid Empire which soon started to expand. In the Clio book, Herodotus of Halicarnassus recounts the attempts by Cyrus to conquer the nation of Massagetai.

According to Herodotus, at that time the Massagetai were ruled by Queen Tomyris, who was enthroned after the death of the late king (I.205). In the beginning, Cyrus decided to act by craft pretending that he wanted to marry Queen Tomyris. However, Tomyris could decipher that he in fact wished to gain control over the kingdom of the Massagetai, and therefore rejected his proposal. Upon this rejection, Cyrus started to organise a military expedition (Herodotus:I.205). As he was amidst the preparations, Tomyris sent him a herald urging him to refrain from waging a war, reign over his own people and let the kingdom of Massagetai rule those whom they ruled (Herodotus:I.206). Otherwise , if King Cyrus was "greatly anxious to make trial of the Massagetai in fight",Tomyris called on to commence the battle soon (Herodotus:I.206). In a surprise attack, the army of Cyrus killed many Massagetai warriors and captured Spargapises, the son of Tomyris, who killed himself upon the realization of his "evil case" (Herodotus:I.211-213).

Shortly thereafter, another battle followed, and the Massagetai were victorious this time, as the battle was "of all the battles fought by Barbarians (...) the fiercest" (Herodotus:I.214). The army of Cyrus was completely defeated, and the king himself fell dead. The vengeful Tomyris filled a wineskin with the blood of the fallen soldiers. She ordered then to find the dead kind and to behead him, and put his head down to the wineskin saying ""Though I yet live and have overcome thee in fight, nevertheless thou didst undo me by taking my son with craft: but I according to my threat will give thee thy fill of blood."(Herodotus: I.214). The chronicle then proceeds to describe the Massagetai people, their ways of life, customs and religion. 

Apparently, Queen Tomyris represents an example of a wise, courageous and an able ruler. First, the Queen reveals her wisdom, as she deciphers the vile intentions of Cyrus in due time. Then, she displays courage in the face of the looming war. Finally, under her guidance the army of the Massagetai was able to destroy the adversary, and thus, win the battle. Arguably, the very fact that this occurrence took place provides a progressive view of a woman as a ruler and a mighty defender of the land.

Yet, in the Clio book a number of restrictive suggestions are introduced in order to 'reconcile' the unusual image of a female ruler with the existing perceptions. In the beginning, a subtle explanation, or rather, an excuse is provided for Tomyris being a ruler of the Massagetai Kingdom. Herodotus describes, "now the ruler of the Massagetai was a woman, who was queen after the death of her husband, and her name was Tomyris"(Herodotus:I.205). The chronicles suggest that it is in light of the unfortunate premature death of her husband, the late king, that Tomyris ascended the throne. Furthermore, her being a woman is pointed out in the first place. Then, as the Persian King Cyrus expresses his wish to marry Tomyris, it is implied that being a single woman can be precarious. Following the rejection, Cyrus makes preparations for a military invasion. In a humiliating gesture, the Queen initially sends a herald who calls on the king not to attack the kingdom. Strikingly, this act does not receive any condemnation, and is tributed as an expected move.  It is likely that the existing social perceptions of a woman did not suggest the Queen would be willing to wage a war. To this end, one could also wonder, whether a similar gesture performed by a male ruler could be regarded as cowardly, while in the case of Tomyris a concession is made due to her gender. Finally, the image of a female ruler is supplemented with her motherhood. Suddenly, motherhood intervenes the realm of state affairs, as it is narrated that Tomyris became vengeful only because her son fell dead. In this regard, neither the perished soldiers nor the harm inflicted upon the land are mentioned. Considering this, one could suggest that Tomyris has been implicitly bereft of her role as a ruler, and rather associated with a more traditional image of a grieving mother.

Arguably, in the Clio book, attempts were made to reconcile the unfitting image of Tomyris with the more traditional perceptions held in ancient societies. This was achieved using a number of subtle implications drawing on more familiar notions of marriage and motherhood, associated with women. Reading the last lines, one could particularly observe that the image of a wise, courageous and mighty ruler is strikingly reduced to a grieving mother who indulges herself in revenge. In this light, the outline of Tomyris as provided in the Clio book by Herodotus offers yet another example of the attempts to re-draw the images going beyond conventional perceptions.

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