1: Julia Disobeys Emperor Augustus
Begin your exploration of dynamic, influential women with Julia, the daughter of Caesar Augustus, whose experiences offer a window into the way many societies of the pre-modern world sought to control morality and enforce gender roles. Julia’s life may have been one of thwarted potential, but her story is integral to understanding what many other women had to overcome to make a mark on history.
2: Herodias Has John the Baptist Beheaded
Writers and artists have long portrayed the death of John the Baptist as the whim of the young femme fatale Salome, but the truth is much more complicated. Discover the story of Salome’s mother, the ambitious Herodias, an influential Judean woman whose hunger for power and recognition ultimately left her exiled and forgotten.
3: The Trung Sisters of Vietnam Fight the Han
Turn from the Mediterranean to China under the Han Dynasty, as its imperial expansion threatened the traditional—and strongly matriarchal—culture of Vietnam. Two of the most famous Vietnamese rebels of this era were the Trung sisters, who led tribal armies against the powerful invaders. See how their story has become a touchstone of Vietnamese culture and pride into the 21st century.
4: Boudicca Attacks the Romans
Witness the end of Iron Age Britain and the birth of “Roman Briton” with the valiant but thwarted rebellion led by the Celtic warrior queen, Boudicca. Like many rebels before her, she was motivated by personal tragedy as much as she was driven by the bigger picture of freedom for her people. Her legacy would be revived in the rule of another British queen, Victoria.
5: Poppaea Helps Nero Persecute Christians
Nero may not have truly “fiddled while Rome burned” but his reputation for excess and cruelty is genuine. See how the beautiful Poppaea became the wife of the mad emperor and how her religious sympathies likely influenced his persecution of Christians following a devastating fire. Ultimately, Poppaea’s story is a complex mix of spiritual zeal and vicious cruelty.
6: Plotina Advises Emperor Trajan
The impact of Plotina on the reign of her husband Trajan is both profound and difficult to delineate. Witness how her moral influence—as well as that of other valued women in Trajan’s household—shaped the policies and reputation of one of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome and how her story demonstrates a particular version of female power in the ancient world.
7: Perpetua Is Martyred in the Arena
Follow the story of Vibia Perpetua, one of the earliest reliably verified Christian martyrs. How did the well-educated daughter of a noble family end up publicly executed in the arena? Trace the seemingly random series of events that led to a tragic death and see how Perpetua’s record of her own experiences became an immensely popular text in the early Christian church.
8: Julia Maesa Controls an Unusual Emperor
After the murder of the despised Roman emperor Caracalla, an unlikely new dynasty was formed by a family of Syrian women. Examine how both utilizing and upending the strict gender roles of ancient Rome allowed Julia Maesa and her family to gain unprecedented (and precarious) power. Their influence was short-lived, but altered the course of the empire, nonetheless.
9: Zenobia Battles the Roman Legions
Travel to the furthest edge of the Roman empire, to the wealthy outpost of Palmyra, where the gradual collapse of the Pax Romana opened the way for rebellion. There, the ambitious, young Queen Zenobia managed to bring substantial parts of the eastern Roman empire under her rule before facing defeat and exile when she attempted to declare her son emperor.
10: Helena Brings Christianity Down to Earth
Meet Helena, a tavern girl in Naissus (modern Serbia) who captured the heart of a powerful Roman soldier and gave birth to a son named Constantine. When Constantine became emperor, his mother influenced his religious policy, creating a foothold for Christianity to become one of the most powerful institutions the world has ever seen.
11: Galla Placidia Supports the Visigoths
The unusual life of the Roman Princess Galla Placidia shows how an odd series of events can lead to astonishing results. After being kidnapped by the Visigoths, Placidia became a political advisor to the king of these “barbarians”—and then his wife. Eventually, she would become a powerful empress of Rome and leave a strong mark on the politics, laws, and art of the empire.
12: Hypatia Dies for Intellectual Freedom
Look at the brilliant and controversial scholar, Hypatia, as she lived, taught, and died in Alexandria in the middle of the 5th century. Her role as a public intellectual and philosopher would make her a rare example of respected female scholarship in a male-dominated world—and would ultimately lead to her murder at the hands of an angry Christian mob.
13: Pulcheria Defends the Virgin Mary
How does a 13-year-old girl become the guiding force of the most powerful empire in the world? Discover how Pulcheria used religion and a very strategic vow of chastity to ensure the success of her family’s dynasty following the death of her parents. Also see how her successful theological defense of the Virgin Mary would shape the Catholic Church for centuries to come.
14: Theodora Rises from Dancer to Empress
Witness one of the most dramatic stories of upward mobility in history: the rise of Theodora from prostitution to royalty. As co-ruler with her husband, the emperor Justinian, she led a lavish and influential life, exercising her power to help improve the lives of women who experienced the hardships she had known in her youth.
15: Radegund Founds a Convent
During the brutal Merovingian dynasty, Queen Radegund stands out as an exception to the violence and cruelty of Western Europe after the collapse of Roman power. See how her religious convictions helped her escape her abusive husband and build a convent that would help other women find a place of freedom and safety.
16: Aisha Helps Shape Islam
Aisha bin Abi Bakr was the favorite wife of the prophet Muhammad and she became one of the most influential women in Islam—and one of the most controversial. Explore the many ways Aisha’s influence and authority helped shape a burgeoning religion that would become one of the largest and most powerful institutions in the world.
17: Wu Zetian Rules China
In all of Chinese history, only one woman ever ruled on her own: Wu Zetian. Trace her rise to power, from her lowly origins as the daughter of a merchant to the head of her own dynasty. Along the way, gain insight into the cutthroat nature of the Chinese imperial court and the ways Wu could be both brilliant and cruel throughout her reign.
18: Kahina Defends North Africa against Muslims
Turn to northwest Africa, where the fierce warrior woman, Kahina, fought to defend the mountain tribes of Maghreb from Muslim incursion. Understand why the struggle between the north African tribes and Islam was not about religion, but rather about preserving independence. Also discover the crucial role of olive trees in this conflict.
19: Dhuoda Chronicles a Carolingian Life
Take a closer look at everyday life and politics in the Middle Ages with the chronicle kept by the Carolingian woman, Dhouda, for her young son. Through her writing, we can gain rare insight into this time of constant warfare and shifting alliances from the perspective of a highly educated woman who stands in for the many women whose voices are lost to time.
20: Elfrida Rules Anglo-Saxon England
The life of Elfrida can serve as a lesson in the difficulties of separating historical fact from rumor. See how the first crowned queen of England was often reduced to the archetype of the “wicked step-mother” when she was so much more than that. Look at her contributions to England in the 10th century and consider the common failings of historical memory.
21: Freydis Journeys to North America
The formidable sister of Leif Eriksson, Freydis Eriksdottir, accompanied her famous brother on two of the six voyages he took from Greenland to North America, making a fortune—and building a reputation for cunning and violence—along the way. Through Freydis, consider the contributions of women to the Viking age that would transform Europe.
22: Lubna of Córdoba Masters Mathematics
See how a woman, Lubna, rose to prominence as the most renowned mathematician of her day in the glittering intellectual capital Córdoba and get a better understanding of women’s education in the Muslim world and beyond. You’ll see that, while Lubna was extraordinary, she was not necessarily unique to her time and place.
23: Lady Murasaki Writes the First Novel
At the height of the Heian period, Japan was breaking away from Chinese influence and developing its own courtly culture, with women emerging as a powerful force in art and literature. Here you will meet Murasaki Shikibu, the woman who wrote the world’s first novel: The Tale of Genji.
24: Anna Brings Christianity to Russia
One strategic political alliance changed the course of history in Eastern Europe. Understand how the marriage of a Byzantine princess and a pagan Scandinavian king brought Christianity to the area that would become Russia and how the marriage would establish a base of power that would be used to legitimize future tsars, generations later.
25: Anna Comnena Writes a Byzantine History
Meet one of the most significant historians of the First Crusade: Anna Comnena. Denied her dream of ruling as empress in Byzantium, the highly educated Anna made a different kind of mark on history by producing one of the most thorough and clear-eyed records of a momentous event that would echo through the ages.
26: Eleanor of Aquitaine Goes on Crusade
The Crusades of the early Middle Ages would have repercussions for centuries to come. Dive into the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a young queen whose experience of the Second Crusade shows how deeply personal politics could be in a world shaped by dynastic alliances and ruled by church doctrine.
27: Marie of Champagne Promotes Romantic Love
The ideas of chivalry and “romantic love” have been a distinctive feature of Western culture for centuries, but where did they begin? One point of origin is through the patronage of Marie of Champagne. See how her influence shaped literature through the artists she supported, including the originator of the Arthurian romance, Chrétien de Troyes.
28: Heloise Embraces the New Philosophy
Discover the story of Heloise, a woman who embodied the passion for ideas that would define the time known as the “12th-century renaissance.” Her thirst for knowledge—and scandalous love affair with the teacher Peter Abelard—resulted in years of correspondence that captures spiritual and intellectual ideas that foreshadow modern philosophy.
29: Hildegard Revolutionizes Traditional Medicine
Meet one of the most famous women of the Middle Ages. Pledged as a nun from the age of eight, Hildegard put the considerable knowledge she acquired to work through her writings. Her texts on medicine are notable for their blending of ideas that were drawn from the masculine and feminine spheres, as well as the insight they provide into medieval medical practice.
30: Razia Rules Muslim India
Venture to the newly established Muslim sultanate of northern India in the 13th century, where Razia became the first and only female sultan. Though her rule was challenged by conservative Muslims who did not approve of a female ruler, Razia helped keep the peace in her kingdom by promoting compromise between the two competing religions of the area, Islam and Hinduism.
31: Sorkhakhtani Administers a Mongol Empire
Explore the life of a woman some modern historians argue is one of the most influential women in history. From a marriage alliance with the Mongols at the tender age of 13, Sorkhakhtani would grow to have a prodigious influence on this important Asian empire, exercising a degree of power unavailable to many other women of the time.
32: Licoricia Deals with the King of England
The story of Licoricia is inextricably tied to the commerce and violence that swept through England and its Jewish community throughout the 13th century. Her impact on society reflects the changing perception of money in the West and how Jews were both aided and restricted by the laws that dictated how they could make and keep their wealth.
33: Abutsu Follows the Way of Poetry
Though we don’t know her birth name, the woman who would come to be called Abutsu used her talents as a writer to make her fortune in a time of immense change for Japan. Under the new regime of Confucianism, women saw their freedoms curtailed and their opportunities limited, but Abutsu found a path to influence through the “Way of Poetry.”
34: Brigitta Speaks to God and the Pope
The disasters of the tumultuous 14th century paved the way for the modern world. The first of two stories from this era, the life of Brigitta is one of struggle with the social and environmental problems of her time, a struggle she approached through religion. Brigitta’s personal faith led her to seek comfort through mysticism and pass her experience down through her writings.
35: Joan of Arc Dies for France
Joan d’Arc stands at the turning point of the brutal Hundred Years’ War, a conflict that would transform warfare and national identity in 14th-century Europe. How does an illiterate country girl come to lead the armies of France against the English and become a symbol of a changing world? Look at the events of her life and the tragedy of her death to find out.
36: Christine of Pisan Defends Women
With over 40 works that continue to be read and valued today, Christine of Pisan is considered the first professional writer in history. Her writings offer a clear window into the politics and culture of her day, with a unique perspective based on reason rather than religious faith. She also advocated for a new view of women that was ahead of its time.
We humans do not walk lightly. We leave our imprint as we go, and I want to show you how each group has left its mark on Spain.
We humans do not walk lightly. We leave our imprint as we go, and I want to show you how each group has left its mark on Spain.
About Joyce E. Salisbury
Joyce E. Salisbury is Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where she taught history and served as associate dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of International Education. She earned her Ph.D. in Medieval History at Rutgers University, specializing in religious and social history.
Professor Salisbury began her career performing research in Spain, and she has continued to travel there to conduct further research, lecture, and guide students and other travelers. She is currently working on a book about the history of early Christian martyrdom.
In addition to receiving the University of Wisconsin's Outstanding Teaching award, she was named Professor of the Year in 1991 by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. She has taught three times on Semester at Sea, a study-abroad program on a ship that circumnavigates the world with more than 500 students for a full semester.
Professor Salisbury is a prolific author whose books include the award-winning Perpetua's Passion: Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman; The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages; Rome's Christian Empress: Galla Placidia Rules at the Twilight of the Empire; and the widely used textbook The West in the World. She has been interviewed many times on National Public Radio on topics from religion to the books she has written, and she appeared on the PBS special The Road from Christ to Constantine.