Few women’s names have survived within the annals of ancient history with the mythic resonance of Queen Artemisia I, the warrior queen of Caria. She lived during an era that often, at best, made mere footnotes out of even its most respectable and powerful of women. What was it about Artemisia that earned the esteem of her allies, the fear of armies, the adoration of a king, and has even been linked to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World ?
Artemisia I of Caria, was the namesake of Artemis, later the mythological Roman huntress Diana, whose statue can be seen here. ( Evdoha / Adobe Stock)
The Origins of Queen Artemisia I of Caria in Halicarnassus
“Her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name… was Artemisia” (Herodotus in Histories).
Some people still believe that one’s name can help forge their destiny. In Artemisia’s case, this sentiment proved true. Her name beckons the mythos of Artemis, the Greek archer goddess of the hunt, or Diana in Roman mythology. But it took more than just an aspirational namesake to canonize Queen Artemisia’s story.
The ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum in Turkey) in the region of Caria boasted a fortified and valuable harbor at an ideal location along trade routes through the Aegean Sea. Caria was an ancient Hellenistic district of Anatolia, or Asia Minor, over which Persia took control around 546 BC. During the first years of the 5th century BC, a Carian revolt against King Darius I, the third Iranian King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire, failed.
From 520 BC the ruler of Halicarnassus, as part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, was the Halicarnassian King Lygdamis. He was succeeded by his daughter Artemisia. Her mother, whose name and life is unknown, was Cretan. Artemisia grew up to marry the King of Caria, the details of whom are also lost to time.
Artemisia’s husband, the nameless king of Caria died while their son, Pisindelis, was still young, leaving the throne to his widow. Pisindelis later succeeded his mother, and he and his own son, Lygdamis II, would govern Halicarnassus as tyrants. Most of what we know about Artemisia’s life was written by the famous Halicarnassian historian Herodotus, who documented some of the memorable stories about Artemisia shortly after her reign.
5th century BC kylix from the National Museum of Athens depicting a Greek holite and a Persian warrior during battle. ( Public domain )
The Greco-Persian Wars and Preceding Years
The Greco-Persian Wars which took place between the Persian Empire and Greece persisted from 492 to 449 BC. The conflict reached its height while Persia twice invaded the Greek mainland between 490 and 479. Leading up to the strong grip of Darius I , who came to power in 522 BC, the Persian kings Cyrus II and Cambyses II had begun expanding their power from the Indus River Valley to the Aegean Sea, defeating the Lydian king in 546. This Persianvictory precipitated their methodical conquest of the Anatolian coastal city-states of Greece.
The Ionian Revolt , the Greek uprising of 500 to 494 BC was unsuccessful and triggered Darius’s advances on the Greek mainland. A storm ruined his fleet, foiling his attack in 492. But two years later, it took both Athenian and Spartan troops to fend off 25,000 invading Persians at Marathon.
Xerxes led a massive but unwieldy legion back to Greece ten years later against a regrouped Greek league under Spartan command that included only 350 ships, a fleet only one third the size of their Persian counterpart. Herodotus marveled at what he thought were millions of Persians, an imaginative exaggeration, up against only a few thousand Greeks.
In August 480 BC, 200 Persian vessels attempted a surprise assault, but the Greeks fought back easily from their port while another fierce storm destroyed Xerxes’ naval forces. Despite dispatching the help of a Greek traitor to surround the Greek army and kill the Spartan general Leonidas, the Persians suffered yet another disastrous defeat in their two-day charge on land at Thermopylae. Simultaneous naval combat ensued to which both sides sustained heavy losses.
Nevertheless, some Greeks joined forces with Xerxes from the north. In September, the Persians burned the evacuated capital of Athens. Nearby, the Greek fleet stationed in the Strait of Salamis faked a retreat, therein luring the Persian squadron into a humiliating defeat. In the midst of these persistent and devastating struggles, a shrewd and peculiar warrior queen gained the trust of King Xerxes. While she had his ear, her tactical foresight could have altered the outcome of the Greco-Persian Wars and even the course of history.
Painting of the Battle of Marathon which took place during the first Persian invasion of Greece by Georges Rochegrosse. ( Public domain )
Paving the Way for the Famed Battle of Salamis
While thousands clashed at Thermopylae in 480 BC, Artemisia engaged in the three-day naval encounter against Greece off the Euboea coast at the Battle of Artemisium as a commander under Xerxes. She cunningly kept both the Greek and Persian battle standards close at hand in order to evade Greek incursion until she could attain strategic positioning to attack or flee successfully.
Although neither the Greeks nor the Persians really won the Battle of Artemisium, the Greeks drew back afterward, providing the Persian squadron some time to reconvene and re-strategize. Incensed at the audacity of a woman facing them in combat, the Greeks put a bounty on Artemisia’s head of 10,000 drachmas.
Xerxes had vanquished General Leonidas himself, but most of the Greek soldiers had successfully escaped the Persians out of Thermopylae on foot. After the city of Athens was emptied and while Thermistokles ordered his men to the Strait of Salamis , Xerxes had the Greek capital destroyed and sought counsel. He could either feud with the Greek armada again at sea or exploit his advantage on the conquered mainland and sever its influx of supplies until it surrendered.
Painting of the Battle of Salamis, with Queen Artemisia seen center left, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach. ( Public domain )
Queen Artemisia: Advisor to Xerxes During the Battle of Salamis
According to Herodotus, Xerxes’s generals assembled, and the king had his lead general Mardonius “test each of them by asking whether or not he should meet the enemy at sea.” The group unanimously endorsed the idea, but only one begged to differ:
“Artemisia. She said, “Mardonius, please take this message to the king for me, reminding him that I did not play a negligible or cowardly role in the sea battles of Euboea: Master, it is only right that I should tell you what is, in my honest opinion, the best course of action for you. So here is my advice: do not commit the fleet to battle, because at sea your men will be as inferior to the Greeks as women are to men. In any case, why should you have to run the risk of a sea battle? Have you not captured Athens, which was the point of the campaign? Do you not control the rest of Greece? There is no one to stand against you. Everyone who did so has met with the treatment he deserved. I will tell you what I think the future holds in store for our enemies. If you do not rush into a sea battle, master, but keep your fleet here close to shore, all you need do to gain all your objectives without any effort is either wait here or advance into the Peloponnese. The Greeks do not have the resources to hold out against you for any length of time; you will scatter them and they will retreat to their various towns and cities. You see, I have found out that they do not have provisions on this island of theirs, and if you march overland towards the Peloponnese, it is unlikely that the Greeks from there will remain inactive or will want to fight at sea in defense of Athens. However, if you rush into a sea battle straight away, I am afraid that the defeat of the fleet will cause the land army to come to grief as well ” (Herodotus, VIII.67-69).
Artemisia’s friends were distraught, fearing the wrathful Xerxes’s response to this dissension, and her envious rivals delighted in her impending execution. But when the King of Persia heard about Artemisia’s daring insight, he was amazed and intrigued. Regardless, he proceeded with his plan to wage war again at sea, dismissing the stalemate as a result of his absence from the Battle of Artemisium, and deciding to be present to spectate the next maritime skirmish.
Artemisia set aside her own better judgment and did not hesitate to stand with the Persian armada once again. During the battle, the smaller and more agile Greek navy simulated a phony retreat through the narrow Strait of Salamis, tricking the Persians into pursuit and entrapping them. Herodotus recounts that an enemy ship was closing in on Artemisia’s, cornering her while Persian ships unwittingly blocked her from escaping. Thinking on her feet, she deviously rammed into an unsuspecting ally ship, sinking it and presumably killing all on board.
Xerxes watched from his throne while the captain of the aggressing Greek ship then finally redirected, suddenly assuming Artemisia’s to be that of an ally or a Persian defector. In the words of Herodotus:
“As Xerxes was watching the battle, he noticed her ship ramming the other vessel and one of his entourage said, ‘Master, can you see how well Artemisia is fighting? Look, she has sunk an enemy ship!’ Xerxes asked if it was really Artemisia and they confirmed that it was because they could recognize the insignia on her ship, and therefore assumed that the ship she had destroyed was one of the enemy’s – an assumption that was never refuted, because a particular feature of the general good fortune of Artemisia, as noted, was that no one from the Calyndan ship survived to point the finger at her. In response to what the courtiers were telling him, the story goes on, Xerxes said, ‘My men have turned into women and my women into men!’ ” (VIII 87-88).
Cunning tactician or scheming pirate? Queen Artemisia I of Caria has been remembered for her actions during the Battle of Salamis and mostly thanks to the writings of Herodotus. ( sergeyklopotov / Adobe Stock)
Aftermath of the Battle of Salamis
Artemisia’s perilous prediction ultimately came true. Despite her crafty stunt, she did not prevent the Persians’ downfall at the Battle of Salamis . Lead General Mardonius proposed to a shocked and uneasy Persian King that he return home while his 30,000 men remain to extinguish the Greek troops. But Xerxes remembered Mardonius’s approval of the doomed plot to reiterate an attack on the Greek navy. He reassembled his council. Artemisia arrived, and Xerxes “dismissed everyone else” (VIII.101), whereby she advised him again:
“I think you should pull back and leave Mardonius here with the troops he’s asking for, since he’s offering to do that of his own free will. My thinking is that if he succeeds in the conquests he says he has set himself, and things go as he intends, the achievement is yours, Master, because it was your slaves who did it. But if things go wrong for Mardonius, it will be no great disaster as regards your survival and the prosperity of your house. I mean, if you and your house survive, the Greeks will still have to run many a race for their lives. But if anything happens to Mardonius, it doesn’t really matter; besides, if the Greeks win, it won’t be an important victory because they will only have destroyed one of your slaves. The whole point of this campaign of yours was to burn Athens to the ground; you’ve done that, so now you can leave ” (VIII.101-102).
This time, the humbled king listened. Additionally, Xerxes enlisted Artemisia to guard his own children and usher them to refuge in Ephesus. One year later, Mardonius died alongside his men while the Greeks struck down his offensive. Conflict would recur with Greece ultimately prevailing. After she displayed her cunning and tactical expertise in 480 BC, all mention of the Carian warrior queen, Artemisia I, vanished from historical records. But glimpses of her have occasionally reappeared.
The Jar of Xerxes was discovered in the ruins of the famed ancient wonder, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Caria, in modern-day Turkey. Now housed in the British Museum, the jar is believed to have been a gift from Xerxes to Queen Artemisia I due to her stunning support and tactical skill during the second Persian invasion of Greece. ( Public domain )
The Legacy of the Warrior Queen Artemisia I of Caria
Herodotus’s writings on Artemisia I smack with a level of admiration bordering on obsession. Pausaniaus, Polyaenus, Plutarch and the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, hail her as a cunning tactician. Thessalus, on the other hand, heeded her as a scheming pirate.
Some historians have even confused her with the consequent Halicarnassian Queen Artemisia II who oversaw the capital city briefly in the 350s BC. Artemisia II commissioned – in honor of her late husband, King Mausolus – the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (or Tomb of Mausolus), a famous landmark which coined the term “Mausoleum” and became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
What evidence remains of the stunning life of Queen Artemisia I? In his Description of Greece, Pausaniaus (110 AD – around 180 AD) reports beholding a statue honoring Artemisia in the Spartan marketplace within a colonnade of Persian spoils. Meanwhile, the alabaster Jar of Xerxes, inscribed with his signature and most likely a gift to Artemisia that passed down through her descendants, came to rest inside the Tomb of Mausolus. Her legend lives on in the Wilhelm von Kaulbach painting, which depicts her at the Battle of Salamis, drawing back a bow symbolizing her namesake, the goddess Artemis.
More than a millennium after Artemisia I’s life and death, Photius (c. 858 AD) wrote a cautionary fable taking place after she escorted Xerxes’ sons to Ephesus. Whether it be true or false, Photius spun a tale in the contemporary romantic tragedy fashion, blaming her unrequited love for a Prince Dardanus for her resulting suicide, whereby she threw herself off a cliff into the Aegean Sea.
Many skeptics over the years have observed that this sounds nothing like the inventive and cheeky commander queen who fought in the waters of Euboea and Salamis. Since then, literature like Gore Vidal’s novel Creation and films about the legendary 300 Spartans have conjured their own portrayals of Queen Artemisia. The fictional works may be no more credible than Photius’ tale, but these days Artemisia I’s later life and death exist only in the realms of imagination.
Top image: Queen Artemisia I went down in history for her brave warrior skills and performance in the Battle of Salamis. Source: warmtail / Adobe Stock
By Mary Mount