All Hail Amastris, the War Captive Who Rose to Power and Became a Queen
The Persian princess was captured in battle by Alexander the Great, but she didn't let that stop her from founding a city and coining her own money.
Illustration by Erin Aniker
In ancient Greek literature, a woman captured in battle is a conquest on two levels. There’s obvious victory in the physical act of the capture itself, but there’s also the symbolic triumph of possession—the man who slays his enemy shows his power by making a slave or concubine of the women associated with the dead hero.
Unfortunately, much of the historical record initially appears to back this up. Women of the early Hellenistic period are mainly depicted as political pawns and the prisoners of powerful men. The story of 4th century BCE ruler Amastris begins with such inauspicious circumstances. The Persian princess is first recorded in 324 BCE as a captive of Alexander the Great. Her full biography, though, is that of a woman who rose to great power, steadily acquiring authority, land, and influence—including her own coin and city.
When Alexander triumphed over Persia’s mighty Achaemenid dynasty in the Battle of Issus, he ordered a mass marriage between 70 of his elite Greco-Macedonian guard, the hetairoi, and the Persian noblewomen that had come into his possession as the spoils of war. Amastris—as a member of the Achaemenid royal family—was married off to Krateros, Alexander’s leading general.
Many of these marriages fell apart right after Alexander’s death; Persians, along with Asians and Trojans, were still considered to be barbarians by the standards of Greek society, and the men of the hetairoi did not want children they perceived as half-barbarian heirs. Soon after Krateros learned that Alexander had died, he married another woman. However, evidence suggests that he made sure that Amastris was not abandoned.
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“When, after learning of Alexander’s death, Krateros arranged a marriage with Antipater’s daughter Nikaia, he found a new husband for Amastris, Dionysios the tyrant of Herakleia in Pontos,” writes James L. O’Neil in his article “Iranian Wives and their Roles in Macedonian Courts” for the journal Prudentia. “Clearly Krateros felt it necessary to find a new husband for Amastris when he made the new marriage.”
Equipped with a respectable dowry, Amastris and Dionysios wed and had three children together. Amastris named her sons Klearchos and Oxathres, and her daughter Amastris after herself. The name, according to the Encyclopedia Iranica I, means “strength of women.” Amastris’ status as a Persian royal brought Dionysios prestige and powerful friends, placing him at the centre of a luxurious court life. When he died in 305 BCE, Amastris headed up a regency council governing his city until his children were old enough to rule themselves.
“Nothing is known of these other guardians,” writes O’Neil, “but Amastris clearly played a major role in the government of Herakleia during her children’s minority.” One of the main sources of evidence for this is the mint of coins she produced in her own name, bearing the inscription: ΑΜΑΣΤΡΙΟΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΙΣΣΗΣ ("Of Queen Amastris" in Greek).
Very few of these coins are known to have survived, which likely means that there weren’t very many to begin with; a probable result of the small size of Herakleia’s mint, and its slightly out-of-the-way location. What compelled Amastris to start coining her own money? I asked Amelia Dowler, curator of Greek and Roman provincial coins at the British Museum, about Amastris’ motivations behind making them. “I would say that this is a period where rulers are starting to put more personal elements on coins,” she says, “So it could be that she’s attempting to make some sort of statement with the imagery chosen.”
The image on the front of the coin is a head in side-profile of a feminine figure wearing a Phrygian cap over soft, flowing hair. Some scholars have argued that this is an image of Amastris, though Dowler disagrees: “It was vanishingly rare to put a ‘portrait’ of a ruler on a coin.” She suggests that the conical cap could channel Amastris in a different way—as a marker that the figure is an Anatolian or Phrygian deity, and therefore a proud indication of Amastris’ Persian heritage.
"It is clear that here Amastris was adopting a male role which no other Greco-Macedonian woman is known to have done."
Amastris’ next marriage, to Macedonian officer Lysimachos, was another mutually beneficial partnership. She supported him publicly for the first time in the same year, when she provided supplies to his army during the winter. This was a politically clever move as it meant she gained Lysimachos as a powerful military ally and laid the foundations for the future expansion of Herakleia’s territory. The union, however, ended a few years later when he married another woman. Although polygamy was the Macedonian norm, either Lysimachos’ new bride or Amastris must have objected to the situation.
After leaving Lysimachos’ court, Amastris founded a city in her own name, while still maintaining regency over Herakleia. The city of Amastris was one of the earliest cities to have been named after a queen and, according to O’Neil, made Amastris “the only queen to found a city herself, rather than have one named after her.” He adds, “It is clear that here Amastris was adopting a male role which no other Greco-Macedonian woman is known to have done.”
The formation of the city is known as a synoikism, which refers to previously existent political entities being brought together, politically, physically, or both. “What usually happens is that the citizens of the previous political entities will receive a new civic identity. So, the old citizens of the old cities became the new citizens of Amastris,” Dowler explains. “Depending on where the cities were, and where the citizens were, it may or may not be a physical merger. It’s an interesting political tool, and you can also have synoikisms or political mergings where the two cities remain on separate sides.” Amastris the city, now modern Amasra in Turkey, fittingly consists of a headland and island strategically connected to the mainland.
Amastris died of matricide when her eldest son Klearchos had her drowned; falling victim, as multiple sources say, to the jealousy of her own son. Klearchos objected to his mother’s power and influence, but particularly in the wealthy and strategically important city of Herakleia. “It may well be,” O’Neil writes, “that he felt Amastris was going beyond the proper role of a Greek mother.”
“In Athenian society it was unthinkable that women should have any say in military, judicial, or political decision-making,” notes Dr. Maria Brosius in her book Women in Ancient Persia, 559-331 BC. “Women’s involvement in politics was motivated by a propensity for cruelty and violence. So we are told unanimously by ancient authors.”
Despite the odds stacked against her, Amastris operated and thrived as a ruler in a society that never wanted her to anything other than a symbol of a man’s power and conquest. Her legacy remains, like that of so many other great women, in the margins and footnotes of history—and in the few coins that have been preserved by time.