Artemisia, Hero(ine) of the Baddies

On this blog we don’t do a black and white view of the world, therefore even the Baddies can have heroes. And since we’re writing about Herodotus here, in this case the Baddies are Xerxes and his Greece-invading Persian lot, while their hero is, in point of fact, a heroine: Artemisia, the queen of Caria.

The Woman Who Outdid the Men in a Men’s World

We don’t really do feminism (or any other -isms for that matter) either here; nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Herodotus’s world was, by and large, a men’s world, so that was where Artemisia had to excel: in the war council and on the battlefield. Or rather, in her particular case, on the deck of a war galley, slippery with blood.

Artemisia at the Battle of Salamis by Wilhelm von Kaulbach [Public domain via Wikipedia]
The fame of Artemisia is based on her actions in the Battle of Salamis, as told by Herodotus in The Histories.

The Battle of Salamis, 480 B.C.

A naval battle during the Second Persian War, fought in the Straight of Salamis (between the island of Salamis and the Athenian mainland), resulting in a decisive Greek victory. The main antagonists were Xerxes (Persia) and Themistocles (Athens). The famous Athenian playwright Aeschylus took part in the battle, which he later retold in his play The Persians.

For further details I refer you to my earlier posts :) :

⇒ Salamis (According to Herodotus)Salamis (Retold in Poetry)Salamis (Retold in Poetry II)

In the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia made such an impression that at some point during the battle the dismayed Xerxes commented:

My men have become women, and my women men!

(Herodotus: The Histories, VIII.88.)

But Artemisia didn’t just impress her own boss with her battle heroics.

The Athenians, for example, offered ten thousand drachmas to the man who should take her alive…

…for orders to capture her had been given to the Athenian trierarchs, and a prize of 10,000 drachmas had been offered to whoever captured her alive, since they considered it a disgrace that a woman should wage war on Athens. (VIII.93)

…while the Spartans subsequently erected a statue to her in their market place in the so-called Persian Portico. This is how Pausanias describes the portico in Sparta in second century A.D.:

The most striking feature in the marketplace is the portico which they call Persian because it was made from spoils taken in the Persian wars. In course of time they have altered it until it is as large and as splendid as it is now. On the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians, including Mardonius, son of Gobryas. There is also a figure of Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis and queen of Halicarnassus. It is said that this lady voluntarily joined the expedition of Xerxes against Greece and distinguished herself at the naval engagement off Salamis.

(Pausanias: The Description of Greece, Book III. Chapter 11)

But who was this woman who fought better than the men?

Who was this woman with ten thousand drachmas on her head?

Who was this woman who impressed the war-like Spartans so much that they erected a statue to commemorate her?!

Artemisia, Queen of Caria

Most of what we know about her is actually straight from Herodotus. Very little was added by later authors such as Plutarch. Maybe Herodotus knew so much about her because she was, after all, from Halicarnassus; the hometown of Herodotus himself. Which one of us hasn’t got a soft spot for the heroes of our homeland?

Herodotus first mentions Artemisia in VII.99, as he comes towards the end of the lengthy catalogue of the Persian army and navy units and commanders:

Although I am not mentioning the other subordinate commanders because I am not compelled to do so, I shall mention Artemisia. I find it absolutely amazing that she, a woman, should join the expedition against Hellas.

After her husband died, she held the tyranny, and then, though her son was a young man of military age and she was not forced to do so at all, she went to war, roused by her own determination and courage.

Now the name of this woman was Artemisia; she was the daughter of Lygdamos, by race part Halicarnassian on her father’s side, and part Cretan on her mother’s side. She led the men of Halicarnassus, Kos, Nisyros and Kalymna, and provided five ships for the expedition. Of the entire navy, the ships she furnished were the most highly esteemed after those of the Sidonians, and of all the counsel offered to the king by the allies, hers was the best. (VII.99)

Artemisia’s Advice

And since we mentioned that her advice was the best…

Clearly there was more to Artemisia than being a fearless warrior on a battlefield. She was also a clever and capable woman and one, moreover, who was not afraid to speak her mind. When Xerxes sought the advice of his assembled naval commanders in Phaleron before the Battle of Salamis, none dared speak against an attack on the Greek fleet – except Artemisia. Like a shrewd strategist she pointed out to Xerxes that it was not in his interest to fight this battle:

 …Xerxes himself came down to the ships, wishing to converse and to hear the opinions of the men on board. When he arrived, he sat before them, and those he had summoned, they tyrants of their nations and subordinate commanders of their ships, came to him and sat as the King granted honour to each: first, the king of Sidon and after him the king of Tyre, followed by the others. When they had seated themselves in order of precedence, Xerxes sent Mardonios to question them and to put the question to each one about whether or not he should wage a naval battle.

68. So Mardonios made his way round and questioned them, beginning with the Sidonian. They all expressed teh same opinion, urging him to initiate a battle at sea, except for Artemisia, who said:

“Speak to the King for me, Mardonios, and tell him what I say, since I have not proven to be the worst fighter in his naval battles off Euboea, nor have I performed the least significant of feats. Tell him, ‘My lord, it is right and just that I express my opinion, and what I think is best regarding your interests. Here is what I think you should do: spare your fleet; do not wage a battle at sea. For their men surpass yours in strength at sea to the same degree that men surpass women. And why is it necessary for you to risk another sea battle? Do you not already hold Athens, the very reason for which you set out on this campaign? And do you not have the rest of Hellas, too? No one is standing in your way; those who have stood against you have ended up as they deserved.

“Let me tell you what I think your foes will end up doing. If you do not rush into waging a sea battle, but instead wait and keep your ships near land, or even if you advance to the Peloponnese, then, my lord, you will easily achieve what you intended by coming here. The Hellenes are incapable of holding out against you for very long; you will scatter them, and each one will flee to his own city. For I hear that they have no food with them on this island, and if you lead your army to the Peloponnese, it is unlikely that those who came from there will remain where they are now and concern themselves with fighting at sea for the Athenians.

“But if you rush into a sea battle immediately, I fear that your fleet will be badly mauled, which would cause the ruin of your land army as well. And there is one more thing that you should think about, sire, and keep in mind: bad slaves tend to belong to good people, while good slaves belong to bad people. And you, the best of men, have the worst slaves, who are said to be included among your allies, namely, the Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians: they are absolutely worthless.”

As Artemisia was speaking to Mardonios, all those who were well-disposed toward her thought her words most unfortunate, since they believed she would suffer some punishment fro m the King for telling him not to wage a battle at sea. On the other hand, those who were envious and jealous of her, because she was honoured as one of the most prominent of the allies, were delighted by her response to the question, thinking that she would perish for it.

When these opinions were reported to Xerxes, however, he was quite pleased with Artemisia’s answer. Even prior to this, he had considered her worthy of his serious attention, but now he held her in even higher regard. Nevertheless, his orders were to obey the majority; he strongly suspected that off Euboea they had behaved like cowards because he was not present, but now he was fully prepared to watch them fight at sea. (VIII.67-69)

Artemisia gave Xerxes a sensible piece of advice and one which was borne out by the subsequent events. It was lucky for Ancient Greece that Xerxes did not take it!

Artemisia in the Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis

The Persians advanced into the Straight of Salamis and there engaged with the Greek ships. Artemisia was in the thick of the fighting, together with one of Xerxes’s brothers, Ariamenes…

We owe the following detail of what happened next to Plutarch:

…confronting him [Themistocles] was the admiral of Xerxes, Ariamenes, who being on a great ship, kept shooting arrows and javelins as though from a city wall,—brave man that he was, by far the strongest and most just of the King’s brothers. It was upon him that Ameinias the Deceleian and Socles the Paeanian bore down,—they being together on one ship,—and as the two ships struck each other bow on, crashed together, and hung fast by their bronze beaks, he tried to board their trireme; but they faced him, smote him with their spears, and hurled him into the sea. His body, as it drifted about with other wreckage, was recognized by Artemisia, who had it carried to Xerxes.

(Plutarch: Themistocles, Chapter 14)

Death of the Persian Admiral [brother of Xerxes] at Salamis by William Rainey. Via Wikipedia [public domain]
Saving his brother’s body from the sea would likely have earned Artemisia Xerxes’s gratitude and goodwill. Herodotus however does not mention the episode above; instead he tells another story of how Artemisia conducted herself in the fight. This would have presumably happened after Artemisia fished out the body of Ariamenes from the sea:

I cannot speak with certainty about the rest of them, how each specific group of barbarians and Hellenes performed in the fighting, but this is what happened to Artemisia, which resulted in her winning still higher esteem from the King.

The King’s fleet had reached a state of mass confusion, and it was during this crisis that Artemisia’s ship was pursued by one from Attica. She was unable to escape it because there were so many other friendly ships in front of her, and since her own ship was closest to those of the enemy, she made a decision which turned out to be very much to her advantage. While she was still being chased by the Attic ship, she rammed at full seepd a friendly ship manned by Kalyndians and the king of the Kalyndians himself, Damasithymos. Now I cannot say if there was some quarrel she had with him that had arisen while they were still near the Hellespont, or even whether, when she ran into the Kalyndian ship, the deed was premeditated or accidental. But when she rammed it, the good she accomplished for herself was twofold.

For when the trierarch of the Attic ship saw that she was ramming a ship of the barbarians, he assumed that Artemisia’s vessel was either a Greek ship or one that was deserting from the barbarians and now fighting for the Hellenes, so he turned away from her ship to attack others.

That was one result to her advantage: she escaped and was not destroyed. But another outcome was that, even though she was doing harm to her own side, she won the highest possible praise from Xerxes. For it is said that as the King was watching, he noticed the one ship ramming the other, and one of the men with him said, “My lord, do you see how well Artemisia is fighting, and how she has sunk an enemy ship?” Xerxes inquired if it was truly Artemisia who had accomplished this feat, and they confirmed that it was, clearly recognizing the ensign of her vessel, and believing that the one she had destroyed belonged to the enemy. So all that, as I have explained brought her good fortune. And in addition, no one from the Kalyndian ship survived to become her accuser. In response to what he had heard, Xerxes is reported to have said, “My men have become women, and my women, men!”

Of the Hellenes who fought in this naval battle at Salamis, praise for the greatest valour went to the Aeginetans, and after them to the Athenians; of individual men, to Polykritos of Aegina and the Athenians Eumenes of Anagyrous and Ameinias of Pallene. It was Ameinias who had pursued Artemisia; if he had realized that she was sailing on that ship, he would not have stopped before capturing her or being taken himself, for orders to capture her had been given to the Athenian trierarchs, and  a prize of 10,000 drachmas had been offered to whoever captured her alive…


An interesting story, especially as Herodotus clearly has a soft spot for Artemisia, and this story isn’t all to Artemisia’s credit. A bit ruthless, wouldn’t you say, sinking a ship of her own side, in an effort to make good her escape from the battle? Bad luck for the ship of the Kalyndian king, although had he been as forward in the fight as Artemisia had been, perhaps he’d not have ended being rammed by her galley…!

In any case, it was clearly a case of Fortuna audeces iuvat (fortune favours the brave): not only did Artemisia escape capture or death but she even gained further appreciation from Xerxes.

And so of course Xerxes turned to her for advice again!

Artemisia’s Second Advice

After the lost battle, Xerxes was frightened that the Greeks might sail to Hellespont and cut him off from Persia. He was anxious to be gone but his general  Mardonios was of a different opinion:

Xerxes… told Mardonios that he would first consult with others about the two courses before giving him an answer. And while he was deliberating with his specially chosen counsellors, he decided to summon Artemisia to join the consultation, because she had obviously been the only one before who had correctly perceived what should be done.

When Artemisia arrived, Xerxes sent away all the others, his counsellors as well as his bodyguards, and said to her, “Mardonios bids me to stay and make an attempt on the Peloponnese, claiming that the Persians – the land army, that is – are not to blame for the disaster, and that they want to display proof of that. In any case, he bids me to do that, or if not, he wants to pick out 300,000 troops from the army and completely enslave Hellas, and bids me to lead the rest of the army back to my homeland. Well, then, since you counselled me well by trying to prevent me from waging the naval battle that has taken place, please tell me now how I can prosper through your good advice.”

Thus he requested her advice, and this is what she told him:

“Sire, … in view of the present situation, it seems to me that you should go back home, and if Mardonios wants and promises to do what he has suggested, leave him behind here with the men of choice. For if he does subjugate the land as he claims he would like to do and thus succeeds in this plan, the success will be yours, my lord, since the conquest will be performed by your slaves On the other hand, if the outcome is the opposite of what Mardonios things will happen, it will be no great misfortune, since you will survive and so will your power in Asia as far as your own house is concerned. And if you and your house survive, the Hellenes will have to run many races for their lives. Besides, if something happens to Mardonios, it is of no great consequence. And even if the Hellenes win, they will not win anything substantial by destroying your slave, while you will march home after you have burned Athens, and thus will have achieved the goal of your expedition.”


Positively machiavellian, wouldn’t you say?

Xerxes was delighted with this advice, for she had succeeded in telling him exactly what he was thinking himself. But I suppose that even if al the men and women in the world had advised him to stay, he would not have done so, such was his state of utter terror. After praising Artemisia, he sent her off to take his sons to Ephesus, for some of his illegitimate sons had accompanied him. (VIII.103)

And that is the end of Herodotus’s story of Artemisia, the warrior queen and shrewd politician/strategist of Halicarnassus. In fact, it’s pretty much the end of all we know about her.

You might also like:Artemisia, entry in the Encyclopaedia IranicaArtemisia I of Caria, entry in the Ancient History EncyclopaediaThemistocles by PlutarchThe Description of Greece by PausaniasThe Histories by Herodotus

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