Queen Artemisia of Caria is mentioned by a handful of ancient Greek writers who would have lived some years after her death. Most of our knowledge about her, of course, comes from the Father of History himself. Herodotus directly makes reference to Artemisia numerous times as he
recounts the events of the Greco-Persian wars. As is with all of Herodotus’ writing, the
authenticity of his claims are open to some speculation.
What we do know is that Artemisia was born some time during the 5th century. She was a noted naval commander at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, so we can conclude that her birth and ascension to queen of Caria was some time before this.
Her father was king of Halicarnassus and her mother was of Cretan descent. When she came of age, she was wed to the King of Caria, a Persian province located in modern day Turkey. Strangely enough, we know very little about this mysterious husband. He is never mentioned by name in The Histories and is effectively overshadowed by his ambitious wife. He would die mysteriously while his son was still just a boy. With a dead husband and a son that was still a child, Artemisia ascended as ruler to the prominent kingdom of Caria.
Rather than passively ruling or perhaps even surrendering control, she exercised a spirit for adventure and a penchant for warfare. Herodotus writes about her in a tone that could be considered to be one of admiration.
“Her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name, as I said, was Artemisia.” -Herodotus (The Histories)
Rather than rely on brute force or sheer numbers to conquer her enemies, Artemisia was renowned for her cunning tactics and subterfuge. The 2nd century Macedonian writer, Polyaenus, tells us how Artemisia would regularly carry both Greek and Persian flags when engaged in naval combat. When pursuing an enemy ship, she would often fly a Greek flag to confuse her targets. The unsuspecting Greek warship would be caught off guard and would be set upon by the full force of the Carian fleet.
Polyaenus also reports that Artemisia the conqueror once set her sights upon the ancient city of Latmus. Rather than set siege to the city with countless warriors, she instead planned a cunning rouse. The Queen of Caria positioned her soldiers into hiding near the city entrance. At the same time a great festival was prepared approximately one kilometer away from the city. A great festival was had, several sacrifices were offered and countless musicians and entertainers created a grand procession.
The event was said to have been so amazing that it drew the attention of the nearby city. The citizens and many of the soldiers of Latmus were drawn to the festival, effectively emptying the city of its occupants. With this distraction in place, Artemisia launched a full-scale invasion of the city and took it with ease.
It was during the second Persian invasion of mainland Greece, that Artemisia gained a significant amount of, if not fame, then notoriety. Artemisia joined with the Persian King, Xerxes and she immediately became something of an insult to the Athenians.
Herodotus tells us that the united Greeks felt great indignation that a woman would take up arms against them, and as a consequence offered a reward of 10,000 drachmas for any man who could capture the illusive Queen.
It was before the decisive battle of Salamis that Artemisia is highlighted as a character of particular interest. At this time the Greeks are scattered, slowly collecting their forces near the island of Salamis. The great city of Athens has been lost, burned to the ground by King Xerxes. The Greeks appear to be nearly defeated. Xerxes’ advisers tell the Persian commander that he must launch a naval assault against the Greeks, destroy them entirely. This is the consensus of almost all the officers, save for one.
Artemisia advises Xerxes to take a different route. One that may very well have changed the course of history…
“Spare your ships, and do not risk a battle; for these people are as much superior to your people in seamanship, as men to women. What so great need is there for you to incur hazard at sea? Are you not master of Athens, for which you did undertake your expedition? Is not Hellas subject to you? Not a soul now resists your advance…” -Artemisia, as recounted in “The Histories”
The Queen of Caria advises, practically implores Xerxes to not engage the Greeks at sea. She argues that the enemy’s resources are in short supply. They will soon be out of food. Additionally the Greeks were considering abandoning Attica altogether and instead marching towards the Peloponnese, which would have undoubtedly spread their already fragile army thinner. If the Persians were to wait out the Greeks, ambush them as they attempt to march west, then certainly their enemy would fall before the might of the massive Persian infantry.
Xerxes, perhaps wishing to end the war quickly, disregards this advice. An assault is launched. The tide of the war is about to turn.
What ensued was the Battle of Salamis, a military engagement that, at least for the Persians, was a complete disaster. The invaders found themselves out maneuvered and outfought by a maneuverable Greek navy that was better equipped to wage war in the narrow strait of Salamis. A decisive defeat for Persia, and something of a miracle for the Greeks, Salamis marked a turning point in the war. It was a turning point that Xerxes would never recover from.
So yes, in case you were wondering, the most humiliating defeat of the war could have been completely avoided if the men had only listened to the advice of the one woman in the room.
During the battle itself, Artemisia distinguished herself according to Herodotus. It was said that while in the midst of battle, Artemisia’s warship was being hotly pursued by an Athenian trireme. Pressured by her pursuer and desperate for an escape, Artemisia rammed an ally ship that had unknowingly crossed her path. Witnessing this, the pursuer quickly gave up the chase, assuming that Artemisia was an ally of the Greeks.
Meanwhile Xerxes was perched upon a cliff. Sitting in his throne, he watched the battle unfold below him. Herodotus tells us that upon seeing Artemisia ram the ally ship, Xerxes made the assumption that the the Queen of Caria had, in fact, defeated an Athenian vessel. Xerxes was so impressed with this brutal assault that he is reported to have said…
“My men fight like women, and my women like men!”
It is rather lucky for Artemisia that upon ramming this Persian vessel, the entire crew, including the captain, sunk beneath the waves and drowned. Had anybody survived the attack, they would have undoubtedly become Artemisia’s accuser. Fortunately, that was not the case. So I suppose you could say everything worked out for the best.
At the conclusion of the battle, the Persian King was rather disheartened by the loss. He once more seeks the council of Artemisia, knowing full well that had he listened to her before, things might have gone differently for his army.
Artemisia advises Xerxes that it would be best for him to return home and to allow the general Mardonius to continue the expedition with a contingent of 300,000 soldiers. Having already razed Athens to the ground and fearing another humiliating defeat, Xerxes leaves the Greek mainland and abandons his campaign.
As for Artemisia herself, she is entrusted with the care of Xerxes’ children. She accompanies them to the town of Ephesus on the Ionian coast. The Greeks and the Persians would war for some time yet. But as for Xerxes and Artemisia, the fighting was over.
And what of her death? We cannot say for sure. While she did not perish in battle, her eventual demise remains something of a mystery. A legend reported by Photios, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 858 to 867, tells that Artemisia fell in love with a man named Dardanus. Once the man denies her love, Artemisia hurls herself over a cliff and sinks beneath the Aegean.
We may be dubious of such a claim. It seems rather difficult to believe that a woman as strong willed and as brave as Artemisia would seek her own demise over lost love. However her story may have ended, her life remains a topic of fascination. We must now say goodbye to Artemisia of Caria. Not content to live passively, she found adventure and glory amidst the giants of her time. Queen, conqueror, commander, she was a remarkable woman in a time when women were often encouraged to remain anonymous.