10: Anna Dalassene, Augusta of Byzantium


Last Chance

Anna knew that victory depended on her; she needed to buy her sons time. If not, then her sons, her family, the throne she had spent years working towards – all was lost. She had made her way to the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia, but she did not want sanctuary alone. This was her last, best chance.

Anna drew a ragged breath, as if terribly weary, and fell on her knees before the open doorway. She was a mother protecting her sons, surely the Mother of God would come to her aid. Most blessed Queen. Anna rose. She took another step, and then sank to her knees again. We fly to your protection, O Virgin. Once again she rose, and saw that she stood at the very doors of the sanctuary. She sank to her knees again, but this time she had no plan to rise. She grabbed the door frame with both hands, and took a deep breath.

“Unless you cut off my hands, I will not leave this sanctuary! Defile the holy church and drag me out if you will, but I will not rise from this place until the emperor sends me his cross as promise of my safety, and of my family’s safety!”

The emperor’s messengers stared at her, then each other, baffled. They had not expected any difficulty, not from an old woman, and obviously had no idea what to do now. To drag her out of the holy Hagia Sofia after she had claimed sanctuary was unthinkable, a gross sacrilege. But nor did they want to go back to the emperor with news of their failure.

Straboromanos reached into his robe, and pulled out his own cross.

“Here, kouropalatissa. Please, come with us to the palace. No harm will come to you.”

“I asked for the emperor’s guarantee, not yours. None but the emperor can promise my safety. Go, take him the message. And if he decides to see sense, tell him not to send such a miserable little cross!”


And the emperor could do no other but send her the cross she required, as he was a kind man who would never dare bring offence so noble and devoted a lady, or defile the great church. And then for her safety and that of her family they were escorted from Byzantium to the monastery of Petrii, where they were kept informed of everything that went on in the capital; the noble lady Anna Dalassene had long since brought the emperor’s own wife over to her faction, with her guarantees for the empress’s son. And through Anna’s wisdom and devotion did her son succeed, and in April of that year the great Alexios Komnenos was proclaimed and crowned Emperor of the Romans.

There were slanderous rumours that Alexios would set aside his young wife Irene, and marry the former empress Maria; evil men whispered that my grandmother, the noblest Anna, even connived to have my mother Irene set aside. But such whispers were soon shown to be only vile speculation, as within a week of my father Alexios being crowned, the patriarch crowned also my mother. However, as his wife was still so young, Alexios could not burden her with the weight of government, and instead had his mother Anna declared Augusta, that she might aid him in the heavy business of government.

This she did, and most excellently, owing to the great devotion she felt for her son, and through the constant prayers to the Mother of God to have mercy on another mother. And so it was that my father and grandmother ruled the empire together for twenty years, he directing the war and she directing the palace, until at last her advanced age caused her to retire.

Anna Comnena, Alexiad

What really happened…

This! Anna Dalessene spent decades working toward the single goal of putting her family on the throne of Byzantium, and she succeeded.

9. Arsinoë, Queen of Egypt

You can only have one queen

Arsinoë glowered at the inscriptions on the wall; they glorified her ancestor, the first Ptolemy, but she found the mere thought of a Ptolemy infuriating. Not that men with other names didn’t present problems. Achillas or Ganymede. She would have to choose. Ganymede, the tutor she’d known for years, who had helped her escape, or Achillas, who she’d barely met, who had murdered Pompey and brought Caesar to Alexandria in fury, who also commanded the loyalty of the army? Of course, Achillas didn’t just want to be general; she pretended not to hear the whispers that he planned to make himself pharaoh by marrying the youngest royal sister.

At the thought of royal sisters Arsinoë got up and wandered restlessly about the room. Her older sister Cleopatra had made her choice, sharing Caesar’s bed so that she wouldn’t have to share her throne with their brother Ptolemy, the husband she didn’t want. And before that, while Arsinoë was still a child, their oldest sister had killed a husband that she didn’t want. And earlier still, her father’s first wife had seized his throne. Arsinoë smiled; Achillas should be careful, wanting to marry a queen of the line of Ptolemy. They were dangerous prizes, harder to keep than they were to win.

Ganymede couldn’t even try for the prize – he was a eunuch. Not that she wanted to marry him, but he was the only one she could trust. She wanted to keep him close, but he and Achillas hated each other. And the army followed Achillas. Arsinoë sat down and glared at the wall again. She couldn’t get rid of Achillas, but neither could he get rid of her. He couldn’t be king without a queen of the royal blood. She sat for some time, glaring at the wall while the lamp burned low. Her thoughts returned to her sister, who had moved so quickly to catch Caesar. Too quickly, maybe. Her hasty liaison with Caesar had ended with the two of them trapped in the city, while Arsinoë was free outside. Arsinoë would not make the same mistake with her general. She would keep him as general, and give him no cause to be jealous of Ganymede. But she would not be his queen.

She stood up and called the guard.

“Send for Achillas. We would speak with him.”

And so it was that great Caesar was slain in Alexandria, killed by a woman and for a woman, when the Egyptians under their queen Arsinoë stormed the palace. Cleopatra also died, but by her own hand. They say she took poison rather than be her sister’s prisoner. The young king Ptolemy was spared, as Queen Arsinoë had promised that she would marry him and together they would rule as king and queen of Egypt. The general Achillas was given great honour, and the queen herself presented him with a golden barge. But the general was not pleased that young Ptolemy sat beside Arsinoë; it was whispered that the general had thought to marry the queen himself. And when a few years later Ptolemy was found dead, all people believed that Achillas had ordered his death. Her youngest brother having died as well, the queen then sought a husband from among the Parthians. She contracted a marriage with Pacorus, who aspired to replace his father as lord of the Parthian empire. Together, Arsinoë and Pacorus raised an army and after many battles overthrew King Orodes. So it was that a princess of the line of Ptolemy Soter became queen of much of the empire which had once been Alexander’s.

So great was her empire, and so fearsome her armies, that even mighty Rome could do nothing against her. Octavian, who became Augustus, met her in battle more than once, but it was at the battle of Antioch, where both the Roman emperor and the Egyptian queen came with their armies, that the matter was settled. Queen Arsinoë won, and Augustus was forced to flee. Arsinoë could have seized even the city of Rome, but she had ever said that the Romans were upstarts, while she was of ancient royal lineage. She was content to be Queen of the East.

And there followed an age of peace under her reign. When she died, an old woman, she left her throne to her grandson, Ptolemy Ganymede.

Cassius Dio, Roman History

What really happened…

Arsinoë made the wrong call: she had Achillas executed and promoted Ganymede, alienating the army. In short order she was handed over to Caesar in exchange for her brother Ptolemy. Caesar took her back to Rome and displayed her in his triumph, although the would-be queen managed to score a small victory; the Roman public called for mercy, and so rather than being strangled, she was sent into exile in Ephesus, a religious sanctuary.

Time passed, Caesar was stabbed, Rome had a civil war, and about five years later Cleopatra got Mark Antony to arrange Arsinoë’s murder at Ephesus, a murder which flouted all the rules regarding sanctuary in the ancient world.

8. Malinche



Malintzin lay on the bed, eyes open. She wanted nothing more than peace, to lie down and sleep without fear, but she could not close her eyes. The flight from Tenochtitlan to Tlaxcala had been the worst journey of a life that had featured many terrible journeys. She could still see the Spanish soldiers, as they slipped and scrambled across the stone bridge, drenched by the rain, trying to fend off the angry Aztec warriors. The greed of the Spanish had killed them. She had not been horrified by the lust of the Spanish: she had been given a slave to too many men. But to see men drown rather than lose the gold they carried… They were fools, madmen, to value gold above their own lives. Cortés had ordered them to carry as much treasure as they could. It was his fault that his men had died, his fault that she had almost died. If she stayed with him, she would surely die too, either in war or when he discarded her. She knew everyone thought her a traitor, and what the punishment for traitors was. It would not matter that she’d had no more choice with this man than she’d had with any other.

Malintzin felt closer to weeping than she had in years. She longed for peace, but Cortés would never let her go. Oh, he could find another woman for his bed, but he needed her to speak for him. None of the soldiers understood more than a few words of Nahuatl, not enough to stay alive. He understood little enough of Aztec culture, but he understood how much he needed her. He would not let her go.

She heard shouts from below. Someone from Tlaxcala. Probably Xicotencatl, always a reluctant ally, who had not been sympathetic to the desperate foreign soldiers who had dragged themselves to his city after they had been forced to flee Tenochtitlan. Xicotencatl, who led the armies of Tlaxcala, and who the Spanish would have to convince to help them if Cortés wanted to take back the Aztec capital. Who Malintzin would have to convince, as the Spanish could not speak to him. They would speak privately in a room crowded with the Spanish.

For the first time in weeks, Malintzin smiled.


There was nothing we could do. At the edge of the lake that surrounded the capital city Tenochtitlan, the Tlaxcala lord Xicotencatl betrayed us, and instead of aiding us, he and his men drove us into the lake, while the warriors fired arrows upon us from the city walls. Cortés had been at the front, ready to lead the assault on the city, and he was among those who fell first. His death left our men without a leader, and they lost heart when they saw him fall. Those few of us who survived, perhaps a hundred, spent the rest of that terrible day in battle, until we finally broke through the circle of our enemies and fled. We made the journey to the coast, harried by natives and made weak by illness. In the end, it was barely a dozen who arrived in Cuba four months later.

It was six months after the death of Cortés that I was summoned by Governor Velazquéz. He had news from Mexico, brought by a priest who had recently returned from there. Xicotencatl had taken possession of the city after our defeat, and had made himself lord of those lands. He was a great warrior, but not cruel, and was much beloved of all the peoples of that land. The priest also brought crueler news: our betrayal had been brought about not by Xicotencatl alone, but by the woman Marina, also called Malintzin, who had been slave and interpreter to Cortés. The priest spoke of how she was a great lady in Tenochtitlan, given wealth and respect. It was well known that she had conspired with Xicotencatl while we were in Tlaxcala, and that the rebellion would not have happened had it not been for her. Evil woman, to betray us, who had brought much good to her country, even baptising her in our Christian faith. The priest said that on the order of Xicotencatl she taught Spanish to certain men, who were sent out to every city of the empire, and that Xicotencatl had decreed that any who taught the Nahuatl language to the foreigners would be punished by death.

So it was that the Mexican expedition ended, victory turned to ashes by a woman’s words.

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The True History of the Mexican Expedition

What really happened…

Malinche/Malitzin did not betray Cortés, and the Spanish invaders successfully besieged Tenochtitlan. It is anyone’s guess what Malitzin thought of her Spanish captor: she had already been a slave in her homeland before the Spanish arrived. Diaz del Castillo thought she may have belonged to a local noble/royal family. The non-Spanish sources also indicate she occupied a position of importance; she is often shown on equal footing with Cortés, almost as a diplomat in her own right.

For her undeniably important role in the Spanish Conquest which brought so much misery to so many people, Malinche has been  reviled at times. But what choice did she really have?

7. Empress Maud

Henry’s daughter, wife, and mother

Maud sat in her room, listening as the bells mourned her husband. She had given silver for this mass, a month after his death. Her husband, her emperor, her world. She had been a child when she came to these lands, still only a girl when she had been married. Heinrich had been so kind from the beginning, always patient with his young bride, but also always insisting on her rights as empress. And she had become an empress, crowned in the church of Saint Peter himself. What man could replace Henry, either in affection or in rank?

More than one man had offered to replace him. Duke Frederick, her husband’s nephew, was discrete, but clearly hoped to secure a good match for the imperial widow. And why not? She was still young, a woman with great wealth and great skill in administering her wealth. Frederick and his rival, Lothar, were already married, and hadn’t pursued her, but marriage with the dowager empress would suit many men’s ambitions.

But what of her ambitions? Back in England, her father had lost his only legitimate son years ago. He had married again, but his young wife hadn’t given him any sons yet. If she returned, could he be persuaded to make her his heir? And would they accept her? She was his lawful daughter, but she had spent almost all her life with the Germans. She would seem a foreigner to the lords of England and Normandy. Here she spoke the language, knew the people, and was well liked. Wealth, love, a man of her choice – should she risk it, for an uncertain throne in England?


And in the year 1152 Matilda, wife and queen of King Stephen of England, died. All the people mourned her passing, and her husband had her entombed most nobly in the abbey of Favesham which they had founded some years previously. King Stephen grieved most deeply for the loss of his queen, who all men knew had been the better ruler; for Stephen was a good but mild man, and his queen had given him much advice. And the next year his son Eustace also died, and the king was filled with care, for his youngest son was only sixteen years old, and had not been trained in kingship. But he had little time to teach his son, for the very next year Stephen himself died, and was buried with his wife and son at Favesham.

And then came a bad time, for the young king William was not ready to rule, and the powerful men of the kingdom, namely Earl Robert of Leicester and Earl Geoffrey of Essex, caused much strife, such that men said it would have been better that his daughter Maud had returned to claim her father’s throne. But that lady had chosen to remain in the country of her first husband, Henry, king of the Romans; after his death, she had married Henry of Bavaria, called the proud, and had sons with him. And after the death of Emperor Conrad her oldest son Henry was crowned king of the Germans.

What really happened…

The widowed Empress Maud obeyed her father King Henry’s summons to return to England, where she was declared his heir and married to Geoffrey of Anjou. Maud didn’t like her second husband, who was only 15, and much less impressive than her first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. Still, they managed to have 3 sons, including Henry FitzEmpress (as he was originally known – Plantagenet came later). She did NOT get the throne her father had promised, instead fighting a long civil war against her cousin Stephen – widely considered a nice guy but kind of useless as far as ruling went.

Maud lived long enough to see her son crowned king as Henry II of England, and to see most of her friends and enemies die. Her epitaph says it all as far as many medieval women were concerned: Here lies Henry’s daughter, wife, and mother; great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest by motherhood.


6. Ildico

You don’t get to make many decisions

Ildico looked at the sleeping Hun. She had barely eaten at the feast, but the king of the Huns had feasted, and drank, and then come to his new wife. Now he lay sprawled across the bed, his head almost over the edge, snoring. She had wrapped a fur around her and now sat huddled up in one a corner of the great bed. She thought about her grandmother, who had warned her that being too beautiful was a curse. Here she was, given as a bride to the great king Attila, who had conquered all the tribes of the Goths, whose armies had killed her father in battle and her little brother when they razed the village. A fine husband!

She listened as he snored, and thought about what her grandmother had said while she was being prepared for the wedding. Listen to me, an old woman who has seen many wars. I would happily watch the crows peck out their eyes, but that won’t happen. He has many wives, but no queen. You are beautiful, very beautiful. You could be queen. Queen for our people. Gain his favour, even if you hate him. He gives gifts to all his wives. Let our people be the gift he gives you. Give him a son, give him a favourite, and have your son inherit his empire. You’re scared, you’re scared, but try to find your courage. You could save us.

His snoring stopped. She took a deep breath, thinking he was awake again. But he wasn’t; he was snoring again. Only it sounded strange, almost as if he was choking? He was, he was choking! She scrambled over to his side. He was too drunk to wake. He might die! He might die…

No! She was going to be queen, she was going to have a son. She had to save him to save her people.

“Help! Help! The KING!! HELP!!” She screamed for help, all while trying to wake him up, to pull him up. He was too heavy. Desperate, she shoved him off the bed. He rolled onto the floor onto his stomach, taking the linen sheets with him, and a great stream of blood ran out of his mouth onto the rug. The servants had broken open the door, and ran over to help hoist him back up onto the bed. Ildico piled up the cushions to prop up his head, and they all listened, terrified, to his breathing. But the blood was all out: he only snored, oblivious to his near-death.


And then it happened that Rome and the Western Empire, fell to Attila, king of the Huns. It happened in this way. Attila had planned to attack Constantinople immediately after his return to his palace after his defeat at the Catalaunian Plains, for the Emperor Marcian had greatly angered him by refusing to pay to the Huns the gold that his predecessor Theodosius had promised. He was persuaded by Ardaric to wait, and regather his forces. For the loss against Aetius had led some of the farther tribes to rebel against their submission, and Attila was counselled that it was wiser to defeat the rebels and firmly reunite all the peoples under his command, and then to turn his attention to the Emperor of the East.

But it was not on Constantinople that his wrath fell. For in waiting and warring in his own lands, he acquired great advantages: Galla Placidia and Aetius in the meanwhile had both died, leaving Rome in the hands of Valentinian. Valentinian was not a wise Emperor, having murdered the general Aetius with his own hands. Attila was still abroad when the news arrived at his palace, but his queen, Ildico, sent word to him immediately of the news and begged him to return. It is rumoured that the queen herself urged Attila to leave Constantinople, and take his armies west to claim as his wife, Honoria, sister of the Emperor Valentinian. For this sister had behaved most shamefully, sending to the barbarian king to free her from her own brother. Attila heeded the words of Ildico, for she was his queen and favourite wife, having saved him from great misfortune during their wedding feast, and mother of his heir.

The armies of the Huns and all the tribes that had submitted to them moved west, and found no resistance. Valentinian failed to persuade the Visigoths to come to his aid, and no general had been found to replace Aetius. The Huns overran all the cities of northern Italy, and soon sacked Ravenna. The Emperor and his court were forced to flee over the sea, to Marcian in Constantinople. When they heard that the emperor was fled, the people of Rome sent to Attila, that they submitted to his rule and would open their gates. And so it was that when the Huns arrived, the gates stood open. Attila married Honoria, and was proclaimed King of the Romans. He was now lord of half of Europe, and in the east the people trembled to hear his name. For the Emperor Marcian would still in no way agree to pay gold to the Huns, but rather strengthened his own armies for the battle that must come.

But to finish in Rome, before we talk of that matter, a curious detail. For although Attila married Honoria, sister of Valentinian and daughter of Galla Placidia, it was not she was Empress. That great honour was bestowed upon Ildico, his queen and favourite wife. And though the Romans were angered by the slight to the noble Honoria, they could do nothing, for Ildico being from a tribes of Goths, the Gothic soldiers were most loyal to her and would not allow any to speak against her.

Jordanes, The Origin and History of the Goths

What really happened…

Attila died. His newest wife did not save his life, although it was probably just an accident, not well-earned revenge. The Hun Empire collapsed, and both the Eastern and Western Empires survived.

5. Dakhamunzu: Queen of Egypt


A Queen in need of a King

Fragment I

To my brother, the Great King, the King of Mittani. Your sister, Queen of Egypt, Dakhamunzu beseeches you to send me aid. My husband is dead. I have no sons to place upon the throne. You though, Great King, have many sons. Send to me one of these sons, that I might take him for my husband and make him King of Egypt. Send me one of your sons; I am alone and have no son of my own. I will not marry a servant.

It is strange, for the Queen of Egypt to ask for a husband from a foreign land. It has never happened before. But you are a Great King, King of Mittani, my brother, and it will bring me no shame to marry your son. Only hurry; I am alone and surrounded by those who wish me ill. Let us join our peoples in peace.

Fragment II

To my brother, the Great King, King of Mitanni. Your letter brings shame upon you. “Perhaps she lies?” you say. “Perhaps she means to trap me?” you say. I am the God’s Wife, the Queen of Egypt; I do not deal in petty lies. Would I tell you of my loss, of my fear, if I had a king of my own? I tell you again, my husband is dead, and I have no son. I am surrounded by servants I cannot trust. You, Great King, have many sons. Send to me even the least of your sons, and I will make him King and husband and father of the Kings of Egypt. Do not forsake me, my brother. I have not asked the king of Hatti for a husband, nor the king of Babylon.

I ask you again, send to me a son. To show that I do not deceive you, I send to you this my ring and my seal; give it to the son you choose for me. Let us make peace and an alliance between our peoples. You war with your brother; I am beset by traitors; the King of the Hatti wars against both our countries. Send me a son, and let us make an alliance against our enemies. But send him soon!

Fragment III

Shuttarna, Great King, King of Egypt, says to Artatama, Great King of Mittani, my brother, my father, rejoice! For the gods of given us victory over our enemy, Suppiluliuma, king of the Hatti. 

What really happened…

The pharaohs of ancient Egypt had a simple rule for diplomatic marriage: Egyptian kings could marry foreign princesses, but Egyptian royal women DID NOT marry foreign kings. So when a desperate Egyptian queen decided to write to a foreign king, pleading for his son for her husband, it sent shockwaves through royal circles.

We’re not sure who this Egyptian queen was – there are no Egyptian records of this request, so we only have the Hittite version of her name/title, Dakhamunzu. She’s widely believed to have been Ankhsenamun, widow of King Tut. The widowed, son-less queen chose to write to the king of the Hatti (Hittites), begging for a husband. However, the Hittite king was so stunned by this extraordinary request that he waited too long, and the son he eventually sent was murdered, and the mystery queen had been shuffled out of the throne, exactly how is unclear. Instead of a foreign alliance with a king, Egypt soon ended up with the Pharaoh formerly known as General Horemheb.

4. Empress Dowager Ci’an


A Tale of Two Dowagers

Empress Dowager Ci’an carefully pressed the seal onto the paper. It had been a gift from her dying emperor. The other Empress Dowager had also received one; had she done the same thing, seeing what the seal would be like and imagining that even the most trivial business would only happen if that seal was attached? Without a doubt she had: as Noble Consort Yi she had sometimes read state documents for the emperor, and she had been overjoyed to give birth to the emperor’s only son. Now, as Empress Dowager Cixi, she was plotting to overthrow Sushun and the other regents and make herself ruler of China.

Ci’an was still a little stunned from Cixi’s visit. The former concubine had been persuasive, arguing that Sushun and the other regents had certainly advised the late emperor badly enough – the ashes of the Summer Palace proved that. If they continued to advise the boy emperor, it would be the Forbidden City that burned next. Cixi was right about that; they wouldn’t survive another war with the foreigners. Ci’an could see that to leave the government in the hands of the regents could lead to the end of their dynasty, but should she agree to “share” power with Cixi? Cixi understood politics better than her, and was ambitious – Ci’an knew that she was included only because Cixi couldn’t be dowager alone. She had been a concubine, not empress, and no matter whose womb had nurtured him, as empress Ci’an was Zaichun’s mother.

Ci’an looked at the lines of the seal. Her seal. Everyone had seals, but most of them held no power. Hers had never held power, and what power would it hold if Cixi refused to add hers? But, what power could Cixi claim on her own? Cixi couldn’t be regent alone; she was only a concubine. Her family belonged to the Bordered Blue Banner, lowest of the eight; Ci’an was born under the Bordered Yellow Banner. Prince Gong would never rebel for a concubine of low status. Would he do it for an empress?


I cannot say whether the recent news is good or bad. Hardly had the new government of regents been installed, before it was thrown down. For the consort of the late emperor, the dowager Ci’an, joined with Prince Gong in a coup against the appointed regents, and had herself and the prince declared regents for the boy emperor. The Baron Gros suspects that they plan to marry and take the throne as Emperor and Empress, but our interpreter was outraged at the suggestion: an emperor’s widow is to remain chaste the rest of her life. Time will tell.

I have been informed that as the emperor’s official wife and empress, the dowager Ci’an is considered the mother of the boy, and thus it seems only reasonable that she be regent for him. Certainly she could do no worse than the regents, who had proved so obstinate in our earlier misadventures. And of course Prince Gong is a fine, sensible man – you may remember that it was with him that I negotiated the treaty which put an end to the wars. I do think that China will benefit a great deal from this government.

Peace with China is what I most desire, and it is my dear hope that once this new regency is settled, our treaty will be observed with all honour, and I can at last return home. The country does not agree with me, and I am quite exhausted from having to constantly adopt such a haughty manner when dealing with the imperial representatives. It will be much more pleasant to return home, where I might have more restful conversation.

Letter from Lord Elgin, High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary in China

What really happened…

Empress Dowager Ci’an was the empress, but she lacked Cixi’s ambition – instead, she joined forces with her fellow Dowager, and their combined weight was enough to convince Prince Gong to stage a coup. But Cixi couldn’t have done it without the support of Ci’an, who was generally content to remain in the background. Empress Dowager Cixi would be the main force in imperial politics for nearly 50 years.

And yes, Lord Elgin really DID complain that it was exhausting having to be haughty and threatening to everyone. Burning down civilisations can really wear a guy out.