Artemisia gazes out over the water, the wind in her face, sea spray beading in the tight black coils of her braids. Her city of Halicarnassus shrinks behind her. She’s glad to get away from the stifling dullness of court, its endless calculating politics and fawning courtiers and whining supplicants. Action is what she craves, and the opportunity to pit her wits against the men who try to curry favor with her while talking down to her as if she were a witless child. She has answered Xerxes’ call to arms with a speed that startled her clucking, puffing courtiers. She and the five ships of her kingdom’s fleet are eager to shake off the dust of the polis and streak toward battle.
Historical women rarely make it into this blog, but there are a few in Greek history who are so powerful and memorable that their exploits achieve mythic status. Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city-state that was part of the Persian empire, is so fascinating that she has shouldered her way forward and demanded her spotlight.
Artemisia’s name is derived from the goddess Artemis, huntress, warrior and goddess of wild and feral things. As warlike and fierce as the goddess is, she’s a perfect patron for the warrior-queen who terrified her male military peers and drew praise and admiration from the Persian ruler, Xerxes.
The queen’s thoughts fly to her small son, cared for in her absence by trusted family members. She needs to hold Caria until he comes of age, damn her husband’s eyes for dying so young. Her only choice was to entrust their child to scheming politicians or take the throne herself, her eagle eyes dulling in the fog of tradition, rules, etiquette and the numbing minutiae of rulership. But this…this is what she was born for. Command, not queenship. Battle with sword and spear, not the endless dagger thrusts of political debate and court rhetoric.
She takes a deep breath of the cold sea air.
Artemisia I of Caria’s kingdom included the polis of Halicarnassus and the nearby islands of Kos, Nisyros and Kalymnos, all under the Archaemenid satrapy of Caria, part of the Persian empire, in modern day Turkey. She was of Greek and Carian descent from her father, and Cretan descent from her mother. Her exploits are often confused with those of Artemisia II of Caria, who built the ancient wonder of the world, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, for her brother/husband.
Artemisia had not been at the Battle of Marathon, but the Persians’ surprise defeat there had shocked her and the rulers of all the other satrapies. King Xerxes has now amassed the greatest fleet the world has ever seen, greater even than the fabled fleet said to have laid siege to Troy. He could not lose again. Artemisia plans to be a part of the victory. She and her warships had been with the great Xerxes’ navy at Artemisium, fighting the stubborn Greeks to a standstill. Xerxes’ ground forces simultaneously overwhelmed the tiny company of Spartan resisters at Thermopylae. Now they were gleefully sacking the hastily abandoned upstart polis of Athens.
It was at Artemisium that Xerxes had taken notice of his sole female general and her wily, unexpected tactics.
Artemisia glances back at the mainmast, where a halyard coils around the base, an Athenian flag neatly folded under it. A passing sailor sees a smile flicker across her face and hurries away, a chill running down his spine. The crew had been shocked when their queen had the Greek flag run up during the battle at Artemisium, then thrown into confusion at her order to ram one of their Persian allies. But the fire in her eyes had cowed them, and they did as ordered, right before an Athenian trireme would have rammed them. When the Athenian captain saw their flag and their prow buried in a Persian hull he had changed course and let them be.
There was no clear winner at Artemisium, but history gives the nod to the Persians. The allied Greek fleet, consisting of about 270 triremes from Athens, Sparta, Corinth and a handful of smaller polises, was tiny compared to the gargantuan number of Persian warships. But Xerxes lost approximately one third of his ships in a gale on the way to the engagement, then a couple hundred more in another storm as they attempted to sneak around the Greeks and trap them. The two fleets duked it out over a three day period, ending when the Greek allies received word of their defeat at Thermopylae. They withdrew to Salamis, leaving the plain of Attika to be overrun by the Persians, who took the abandoned polis of Athens and razed it. Xerxes enjoyed his brief moment of triumph, having taken the most strategically important parts of mainland Greece and the prized polis of Athens. Then the brilliant Athenian politician and general Themistokles rallied his tattered, decimated troops at Salamis.
A knock at the door interrupts a meeting between Artemisia and her second-in-command, a grizzled one-eyed veteran with a creative mind for tactics, a vicious temperament, and unshakeable loyalty to her. At her terse word a flustered lieutenant opens the door, bobbing and stammering. The queen’s eyes narrow. The boy gulps and manages, “It’s King Xerxes, my lady. He’s called a war council and he wants you there!”
Artemisia and her captain exchange a tight smile. Without a word, she rises, buckles on her sword and flings her purple cloak around her shoulders. With the captain one pace behind her, she brushes past the gaping young marine and strides to the gangplank.
Fires blaze on the beach, leaving no doubt where the council is taking place. About a hundred of Xerxes’ finest commanders are seated on rocks and logs in a rough semi-circle before the Persian king’s opulent tent. Artemisia surveys the scene. She motions to her captain.
“Zana, find me a place close to the front, but not too close. We will not be meekly shunted to the sidelines.”
Zana’s single eye gleams. Artemisia waits, motionless in the shadows, as he shoves his way through the throng, ignoring curses and complaints, his expression withering any who try to prevent his passage. He pauses by a good-sized boulder about twenty feet from Xerxes’ pavilion. Two well-dressed young men are sharing it. When he returns five minutes later, having parted the crowd with his queen pacing serenely in his wake, he stares down at the young nobles. They gaze back, with welcoming smiles that falter and fall off their faces. Zana jerks his head. One starts to bluster but the other, looking closely at the wolf face of the older man, takes his companion’s arm and they quietly vacate the stone. Zana removes his cloak, lays it across the boulder, and hands his queen onto the seat. A ripple of exclamations, incredulous laughter, and a mutter of protest eddies out through the crowd, but dies as Artemisia tosses back her now-loose mane of ebony hair and smiles her white, feral smile. Zana takes his place behind her, hand on the hilt of his sword.
The Persian king, taller than everyone else present, steps out of his tent. He surveys his commanders, his cold eyes assessing them, taking his time. The murmuring crowd falls into an awed silence. Artemisia smiles to herself. She recognizes the psychological ploy. It is one she often resorts to herself, an icy, tacit reminder of who holds the power.
In his deep, beautiful voice, Xerxes summarizes the battle they have just fought. There are nods as he terms it a victory, although Artemisia keeps her face carefully still, knowing how skillfully the desperately outnumbered Greeks fought and the damage they had wreaked on the Persian navy. Xerxes tells his commanders that they now have the choice to pursue the allies to their bolthole at Salamis, or gather their plunder from sacked Athens and the decimated Attikan plain and go home. One by one he asks each man to share his thoughts. One by one, each man firmly makes the case to take the fleet to Salamis and pound the Greeks into a final, resounding defeat.
Everyone has spoken by the time Xerxes’ eyes fall on Artemisia. He smiles slowly. The Carnian queen feels the circle of men draw back, away from her, isolating her, the distance palpable. Only Zana remains at her back. She cannot see his face but knows he is looking steadily back at the King of Kings, respectful but not one whit cowed.
Xerxes does not spare a glance for the underling. He walks with a stately tread through the crowd, commanders scrambling to clear his path. He stops before Artemisia. She meets his eyes, smiles into them and rises. She does not curtsy. She bows to her king, man to man.
Xerxes smiles back. “And you, my only female general. What say you to this plan? Do you agree with the rest that we should finish what we’ve started and crush the upstarts into jelly?”
Artemisia’s voice rings out clear in the firelight. “Great king, you have already won a victory of which the poets will sing through the ages. Athens is razed, the Greek polises are panicked, the villages and settlements scattered and demoralized. We can now prevent supplies getting through by sea and starve the remaining holdouts all across the Attikan plain, picking them off at our leisure. Your name strikes terror into the hearts of your enemies and none will dare to stand against you again. But the Greek navy, as we have just seen, are formidable sailors and warriors. They will fight fiercely to the last, even though they cannot win. There is no need to incur any further damage to your mighty fleet, nor to put yourself in harm’s way. You are already victorious. 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.”
The king’s eyes bore into her. Silence falls, heavy as a shroud. Artemisia feels Zana shift behind her, but her head is high and her smile never falters.
Xerxes’ chiseled face splits into a huge grin. Turning on his heel, he bellows, “Hear the Carian queen! Would that I had a hundred of her! I’d toss the rest of you into the midden heap and I would rule the whole world!” He strides back to his tent and pushes through the rich fabrics hanging at the door. There is a long, long pause, then subdued muttering. Eyes flash white in the firelight as men glance at Artemisia, then away. Not deigning to look at any of them, Artemisia walks with a firm stride to her ship, Zana at her back.
Despite his delight at the perspicacity of his female general, Xerxes decided to take the counsel of the majority, many of whom had more years of battle experience than the Carian queen. He deployed his troops to Salamis.
“10,000 drachmas,” laughs Zana as the flagship leads the Helicarnassian fleet toward the narrow straits of Salamis. “Not one of the other generals has such a bounty on his head! The Greeks are rightly terrified of you, my queen!” Artemisia grins back at him and tucks a stray lock of hair under her helm. She advised against this battle but since it is upon her, she is eager to engage. Her flag catches the sun, high on the midmast, and the oars send spray sparkling in their wake as they race forward. That very morning she overheard two of the Persian generals muttering that the bounty should be sufficient to scare the woman home to her throne and leave warring to her betters. She has marked their ships, just in case she has occasion to teach them a lesson in warfare.
The Greeks successfully lured the cocky Persians into the narrow straits of Salamis by feigning retreat. Then they turned a bold and frankly insane attack on the larger, heavier, more numerous warships of the Persians, which found themselves unable to pivot effectively in the tight confines. Artemisia was pursued by a deadly trireme from Athens and was unable to slip away from it, blocked in the busy, churning waters by both friendly and hostile ships.
Artemisia has seconds to act. She whirls to her mainmast where Zana is poised, watching for her signal. She nods. In one swift motion Zana releases the halyard with the Carian standard. Even as it crumples to the deck, the Athenian flag is hoisted to the peak where it unfurls, catching the sun. But Artemisia doesn’t wait to see its effect. Seeing a Persian ship wallowing haplessly nearby, blocked fore and aft, she grasps her helmsman’s shoulder and points. Well-trained by Zana, he does not hesitate for even a second. The nose of the ship turns to her ally and leaps forward. The quartermaster takes it in with a single glance and bellows, “Impact!”
The ram of Artemisia’s warship crunches through the hull of Persian ship. The queen has one immensely satisfying glance at one of her detractors righting himself from his headlong tumble across the bridge, shouting incoherently at her. She looks over her shoulder at the Athenian. The trireme has veered off and is in hot pursuit of another lumbering Persian ship. Quick as a cat, Zana has whipped the Greek flag down and is raising their own again. Artemisia gives the order to have the rowers back her ship out of the hapless Persian ship, and scans the busy waters for her next quarry.
Across the bay, high on a hill overlooking the water, Artemisia can see Xerxes’ elaborate canopy, its colors bright against the brown earth. She can just make out the tall figure, towering over all others, hand raised high in her direction. Even through the flood of battle adrenaline she feels a flush of pleasure. Catching Zana’s eye, she points toward a Greek ship in hot pursuit of one of her own allies. Her lips pull back in a snarl.
Time to go hunting.
Herodotus tells us that Xerxes, after seeing Artemisia flip her flags and deceive the enemy, exclaimed, “My male generals have turned into women and my female general into a man!”
Sadly for Xerxes, Artemisia’s wiliness was not enough to bring him victory. The menacing, heavy Persian ships turned out to be no match, in the confined straits of Salamis, for the fast, light, maneuverable Greek triremes. Afraid to be cut off and forced to remain in Greece where he could be captured or killed, Xerxes again turned to the one person who had given him good advice before the disaster. Artemisia reiterated that Xerxes had already accomplished his stated mission, to raze Athens, and that he could comfortably return in triumph to Persia, leaving his general, Mardonius, with a large force to finish mopping up on the mainland. She pointed out that if Mardonius succeeded the victory would be Xerxes’, but if he failed, the failure would be pinned on him while Xerxes would be safe at home. Xerxes took her advice this time and headed back to Persia, leaving Mardonius to lead the troops to their ultimate defeat, and Mardonius’ death, at Plataea the following year.
Before he left, Xerxes is reputed to have given his female general a suit of Greek armor, and her captain a distaff and spindle. Artemisia was given the honor of escorting Xerxes’ illegitimate children to safety at Ephesus. At this point, history loses track of her. Apparently she never went back to her throne in Halicarnassus. Her son, Pisindelis, became tyrant when he came of age, with no mention of his mother. But historians have left us with some speculations as to what became of the formidable general. Pausanias tells us that the Spartans, always admiring of a worthy foe, used detritus left over from the Persian invasion of their territory to make a beautiful marble statue of her in their Persian Hall in the agora. Photius, writing almost 400 years after the Persian Wars, claims she fell in love with a prince named Dardanus, and, after he rejected her advances, threw herself into the sea and drowned. While nothing contradicts this account, it seems unlikely that a woman like this would end so pitifully.
It’s almost impossible to find women in ancient Greece giving accounts of their experiences in their own voices. Even the most famous, Sappho, didn’t leave clear lines on what was her own history and what was fiction. When we read Herodotus quote Artemisia as saying to Xerxes, “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,” we don’t know if he is romanticizing her conversation with Xerxes (to which he was certainly not privy) or if she was cagily playing to the societal norms of her time.
But of one thing we can be sure —Artemesia I of Caria, mother, queen, general and badass, was inferior to no man and she knew it.