Ada of Caria

Marble head, perhaps Ada of Caria. From Priene c.340 BC (Monopthalmos) by Monopthalmos.

Alexander the Great was not worried about what other people would think if he made a deal with a woman. It helped that the woman was very smart and knew how to benefit both sides by striking that deal. Ada of Caria negotiated with the Macedonian conqueror by making him her adoptive son and her heir. She got her power back and ruled for a total of nineteen years.

Ada came from a long line of rulers who included her grandfather, father, and four siblings. They were known as the House of Hecatomnus. She was born around 380 BC when her father, Hecatomnus of Mylasa, ruled Caria, a kingdom founded six centuries earlier in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). We do not know who her mother was. In 545 BC the Persians had invaded and turned Caria into a satrapy. This was an administrative unit that made it possible to rule the huge Achaemenid empire by having a local noble collect taxes, manage local politics, and deal with uprisings.

When Ada’s father died in 377 BC, her brother Mausolus married Artemisia, their sister, as was customary among the Carians. They became the next satraps, and greatly expanded the power of Caria. They were able to do that because the Persian kings were busy fighting wars elsewhere. Like their father before them, they were fascinated by Greek culture and also worked hard to Hellenize Caria.

They moved the capital from Mylasa to the city of Halicarnassus (which centuries before had been the capital), where they built fortified walls that could ward off catapult attacks (catapults had recently been developed). But they are perhaps best known for the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This was begun by Mausolus, who had amassed great wealth and spent it on the spectacular monument. When he died in 353 BC Artemisia finished it with the help of Greek architects and dedicated it to the memory of her husband and brother.

Artemisia continued ruling as sole sovereign of Caria for another two years and had to secure the power that she and Mausolus had acquired during the previous twenty years. She even became involved in military action against the people of Rhodes and, after conquering them in a brief engagement, she had a statue built to herself to commemorate the event. But in 351 BC she died, apparently of grief, after spending two years mixing Mausolus’ ashes in her daily drink. She was most probably buried with Mausolus.

Idrieus and Ada, brother and sister of Artemisia, succeeded as satraps, and also had to marry each other. During their joint rule they continued to increase Caria’s power and prestige. Together they signed official documents, including many decrees. They engaged in much building activity both in the capital of Halicarnassus and at Labranda. It is significant that several statues at shrines were dedicated to both Ada and Idrieus, since, at the time, portrait statues of women were rare, especially in that kind of setting.

In 344 BC, Idrieus died from some unspecified disease and Ada continued ruling on her own. But four years later, the youngest of the five siblings, Pixodarus, decided to overthrow Ada and become satrap. Ada left Halicarnassus and moved to the fortified Carian city of Alinda where she was well-liked and had many supporters.

During Pixodarus’ rule, the ancient world would change forever. Alexander the Great had just set out to follow up on his father’s expansion plans. One of the places that he wanted to conquer was the Persian empire, of which Caria was part.

Pixodarus only lasted five years as satrap, and he tried in vain to become an ally of Philip II of Macedon. On his death in 335 BC his son-in-law Orontobates received the satrapy of Caria from the Persian king Darius III. He may have been motivated by the fact that Orontobates was married to a daughter of Pixodarus. That meant that the Carians already knew him and the transition of power would be smooth.

This daughter of Pixodarus had almost married Alexander the Great. His father Philip II had initially agreed to make a marriage alliance between the Macedonians and the Carians by betrothing the girl to Alexander’s half-brother, Arrhidaeus, who had a mental disability. When Alexander’s mother found out, she managed to convince him that Philip II was trying to pass him over as heir to the throne in favour of Arrhidaeus. Alexander quickly sent a messenger to Caria, to offer Pixodarus a better deal: to have his daughter marry him. The satrap agreed, but Philip II talked sense into Alexander, and the marriage was off.

Not long after Orontobates became the Carian satrap, Alexander the Great arrived in Asia Minor, and captured Sardis and then Miletus. From there he planned to go to Caria (in 334 BC), and made the invasion of the city of Halicarnassus a top priority. It was there that the Persians were concentrating resources, and the satrap Orontobates was going to be assisted by Memnon, a commander appointed by Darius III.

Alexander planned to take Halicarnassus by siege, so he sent his equipment ahead of him, while he spent some time winning over the cities in Caria by treating them kindly. This was a golden opportunity for Ada, who asked to meet with Alexander.

Ada and Alexander the Great met at Labranda, the site of an important temple of Zeus, at which Alexander probably wanted to make offerings. She asked for his help in restoring her to her ancient position. In return, she would cooperate with him. Some parts of Caria were backing the Persians. Since these parts were held by her relatives, she would convince them to change sides. In addition, she gave him the fortified city of Alinda, where she had been living since being deposed. And last but not least, she adopted him as her son and made him her heir. That way, when she died, the government of Caria would pass to him with no difficulty.

Alexander the Great agreed to all of Ada’s terms. He became her adopted son, and he reappointed her as satrap. He accepted Alinda, but immediately returned it to her.

Ada set to work, and she easily got her relatives to stop backing the Persians and cooperate with the Macedonians instead. And since she was well liked by the people in the countryside, she won Alexander their loyalty.

Alexander the Great, followed shortly after by Ada, marched to Halicarnassus and besieged it. Mausolus’ walls were indeed strong, and Alexander’s catapults were not very effective at first. But after months of battering the walls, some parts were either weakened or fell down. The satrap Orontobates and the commander Memnon, who had been fighting the Macedonians and sending out sorties during the siege, which had lasted a year already, finally made a decision.

At midnight, they set fire to a wooden tower built to defend themselves against Alexander’s attacks. They also set fire to the sheds where they stored their weapons. It was a windy night, and the flames spread to nearby houses. Alexander stormed the city through the gaps in the wall and killed those who fought him and his men, but ordered that the people of Halicarnassus should be left alone.

So Halicarnassus was captured (and razed to the ground), but not the city’s acropolis. Knowing that Artemisia, Ada’s sister, had, during her rule as satrap, successfully engaged in military actions, he assigned the siege of the acropolis to Ada. She didn’t disappoint Alexander. In no time it was captured.

We know that Ada took her role as Alexander the Great’s mother seriously. At one point she started sending him choice cuts of meat and cakes. Then she offered to send him some of the best cooks and bakers. He refused, saying that he had better cooks, given to him by Leonidas, one of his tutors. For breakfast they served him “a night march,” and for supper they served “a light breakfast.” He had always boasted about his simple tastes.

Before setting out to the East in order to continue with his campaign, Alexander placed 3000 soldiers to guard Caria. Then he gave orders to make Ada queen of Caria. She ruled the whole country until her death in 326 BC. She had ruled three times: first as satrap with her husband (351 to 344 BC), then alone as satrap (344 to 340 BC), and finally as queen (334 to 326 BC).

Ada, like her brother Mausolus and her sister Artemisia before her, and unlike the satraps in other parts of the Persian empire, was always true to the ancient local cults. She never sacrificed to Ahura Mazda, the Persian supreme god, and, despite Greek influence in Asia Minor, never worshiped Greek gods.

Ada was buried in a royal tomb, although it was not as spectacular as her brother’s Mausoleum. She was buried in a rich garment decorated with gold and blue glass appliqués, and a gold myrtle wreath was placed on her head. Her sarcophagus was then placed within a burial chamber, and surrounded by much gold jewellery, including necklaces, rings, and earrings.

Alexander was quick to recognize a windfall, however unusual, and received her with respect. Through Ada, he could appear to the Carians as protector of their weaker local interests against Persia; support for a member of their hellenizing dynasty would fit with his liberation of the resident Greeks. His adoption was popular. Within days, nearby cities of Caria had sent him golden crowns; he ‘entrusted Ada with her fortesss of Alinda and did not disdain the name of son’: his new mother hurried home delighted, and ‘kept sending him meats and delicacies every day, finally offering him such cooks and bakers as were thought to be masters of their craft’. Alexander demurred politely: ‘he said that he needed none of them; for his breakfast, his preparation was a night march; for his lunch, a sparing breakfast’; it was a tactful evasion of Asian hospitality, and his mother countered by renaming her Carian fortress as an Alexandria, in honour of her lately adopted son.

Siege of Halicarnassus

Culinary matters were not Ada’s only concern. She confirmed the ominous news that Memnon and Persian fugitives from the Granicus had rallied again at Halicarnassus, the coastal capital of Caria; Memnon had been promoted by order of royal letter to the ‘leadership of lower Asia and the fleet’ and as a pledge of his loyalty, he had sent his children inland to Darius’s court. With ships, imperial soldiers and a strong hired garrison, he had blockaded Halicarnassus, trusting in the circling line of walls and the satrapal citadel which had been built by Ada’s eldest brother; Alexander, therefore, should expect a serious siege. The necessary equipment was carried by ship to the nearest open harbour and the king and his army marched south to meet it by the inland road.

The siege of Halicarnassus is a prelude to one of the major themes of Alexander’s achievement as a general. Nowadays, he is remembered for his pitched battles and for the extreme length of his march, but on his contemporaries, perhaps, it was as a stormer of walled cities that he left his most vigorous impression. Both before him and after him, the art was never mastered with such success. Philip had been persistent in siegecraft without being victorious and it is the plainest statement of the different qualities of father and son that whereas Philip failed doggedly, Alexander’s record as a besieger was unique in the ancient world. Though a siege involves men and machines, a complex interaction which soon comes to the fore in Alexander’s methods, it is also the severest test of a general’s personality. Alexander was imaginative, supremely undaunted and hence more likely to be lucky. At Halicarnassus, he did not rely on technical weaponry of any novelty and his stone-throwers, the one new feature, were used to repel enemy sallies rather than to breach the walls, probably because they had not yet been fitted with torsion springs of sinew. He was challenged by the strongest fortified city then known in Asia Minor, rising ‘like a theatre’ in semicircular tiers from its sheltered harbour, with an arsenal to provide its weapons and a jutting castle to shelter its governor. As the Persians held the seaward side with their fleet, Alexander was forced to attack from the north-east or the west where the outer walls, though solid stone, descended to a tolerably level stretch of ground. The challenge was unpromising, especially as the enemy were masters of the sea, and it is not easy to decide why he succeeded, even after doing justice to his personal flair.

Two descriptions of the siege survive and they match each other most interestingly; the one, written by Alexander’s officers, again minimizes his difficulties, confirmation of the way in which the myth of his invincibility was later developed by contemporaries; the other, probably based on soldiers’ reminiscences and Callisthenes’s published flatteries, rightly stresses the city’s resistance and notes that the defenders were led by two Athenian generals with the stirringly democratic names of Thrasybulus and Ephialtes, whose surrender Alexander had demanded in the previous autumn; though spared, they had crossed to Asia to resist the man who was supposed to be avenging their city’s past injustices. A third leader, it was agreed, was a Macedonian deserter, probably the son of one of the Lyncestians who had been killed at the accession; they made a strong team, but neither of the histories makes it plain that their main defence was to last for two months, including the heat of August.

At first, Alexander skirmished lightly, probably because his siege engines had not yet laboured their slow way by road from the harbour some six miles to the rear, the one port unoccupied by the Persians’ fleet. He encamped on level ground half a mile from the north-east sector of the wall and busied his men first with an unsuccessful night attempt to capture a sea-port some twelve miles west of the city which had falsely offered surrender, then with the filling of the ditch, 45 feet wide and 22 feet deep, which had made the north-east wall of Halicarnassus inaccessible to his wheeled siege towers. Diggers and fillers were sheltered by makeshift sheds until their ditch was levelled out and the siege-towers, newly arrived by road, could roll across it into position; thereupon catapults cleared the defenders, rams were lowered from the siege towers on to the walls, and soon two buttresses and an appreciable length of fortifications had been flattened. Undaunted, the defence sallied forth by night, led by the renegade Lyncestian; torches were hurled into the wooden siege engines and the Macedonian guards were unpleasantly surprised in the darkness before they had time to put on their body-armour. Having made their point, the defenders retired to repair the hole in their outer wall and build a semicircular blockade of brick on hilly ground. They also finished a sky-high tower of their own which bristled with arrow-catapults.

The next incident is unanimously ascribed to the heartening effect of drink. One night, two or more soldiers in Perdiccas’s battalion, flown with insolence and wine, urged on their fellows to a show of strength against the new semicircular wall. The ground was unfavourable, the defenders alert and amid a flurry of catapults, Memnon led such a counterattack that Alexander himself was forced to the rescue of his disorderly regiment. But though the defenders retired, they did so as they pleased: Alexander had to admit defeat and ask for the return of the Macedonian dead, the accepted sign that a battle had been lost. In his history, King Ptolemy recorded the start of this drunken sortie, knowing that it discredited Perdiccas, the rival with whom he had fought after Alexander’s death, but he suppressed the defeat which followed, unwilling to reveal a failure by his friend Alexander; it thus went unsaid that within the city, the Athenian exile Ephialtes had urged his fellow defenders not to return the enemy bodies, so fervent was his hatred of the Macedonians.

Anxious at this setback, Alexander battered and catapulted as furiously as ever. Again the Persians sallied, and again, covered by their fellows from higher ground, they came off well. That was only a prelude. A few days later, they planned their most cunning sortie, dividing themselves into three separate waves at Ephialtes’s bidding. The first wave was to hurl torches into Alexander’s siege-towers in the north-east sector; the second was to race out from a more westerly gate and take the Macedonian guards in the flank, while the third was to wait in reserve with Memnon and overwhelm the battle when a suitable number of opponents had been lured forward. According to the officers, these sorties were repelled ‘without difficulty’ at the west and north-east gates; in fact, the first two waves did their job splendidly and Alexander himself was compelled to bear the brunt of their onslaught. The entry of the third wave into the battle startled even Alexander, and only a famous shield-to-shield rally by a battalion of Philip’s most experienced veterans prevented the younger Macedonians from flinching and heading for camp. However, Ephialtes was killed, fighting gloriously at the head of his hired Greeks, and because the defenders shut their gates prematurely, many of his men were trapped outside at the mercy of the Macedonians. ‘The city came near to capture,’ wrote the officers, ‘had not Alexander recalled his army, still wishing to save Halicarnassus if its citizens would show a gesture of friendliness.’ Night had fallen and presumably Alexander’s men were in some disorder; if he had thought he could attack successfully, citizens or no citizens, as at Miletus, he would have done so.

That night the Persian leaders decided to abandon the outer city: the wall was broken, Ephialtes was dead, their losses were heavy and now that their garrison had dwindled, perhaps they feared betrayal by a party within the city. ‘In the second watch of the night’, about ten o’clock, they set fire to their siege-tower, their arsenals and all houses near to the walls, leaving the wind to do its worst. The satrap Orontobates decided to hold the two promontories at the entrance to the harbour, trusting in their walls and his mastery of the sea.

When the news reached Alexander’s camp, he hurred into the city, giving orders, said his officers, that any incendiaries should be killed, but that Halicarnassian citizens in their homes should be spared. When dawn showed him the extent of the damage, he ‘razed the city to the ground’, a detail recorded in both versions but evidently exaggerated as the city’s famous monuments remained unscathed. Probably, Alexander only cleared a space from which to besiege Orontobates’s two remaining strongholds, for some 3,000 troops were ordered to continue the siege and garrison the city. As Halicarnassus had been stubborn, there was no reason to give her a democracy or call her free. She was a Greek city, but she was not Ionian or Aeolian and had been promised nothing; her promontories were to hold out for another whole year and serve the Persian fleet as a base of supply. But Caria, at least, had fallen; mother Ada was named its satrap and given troops under a Macedonian commander to do any work that might prove too strenuous for an elderly woman. Thus, under a female eye, Alexander’s principle of a province split between a native satrap and a Macedonian general was introduced for the first time.

The siege of Halicarnassus leaves a mixed impression. Alexander had persevered, and personally he had fought with his usual courage, but his victory, and that only within its limits, was not due to bold ingenuity or mechanical subtlety so much as to outnumbering an enemy who had sallied repeatedly. None the less, an important point of supply for an Aegean fleet had been breached, if not wholly broken, and as autumn was far advanced, most generals could have been forgiven for relaxing. Typically, Alexander did nothing of the sort.

Before advancing, he gave orders that all Macedonians who had married ‘shortly before his Asian campaign’ should be sent back home to Macedonia to spend the coming winter with their wives. ‘Of all his actions, this earned Alexander popularity amongst his Macedonians’, besides helping their homeland’s birthrate and encouraging more reinforcements. Led by the husband of one of Parmenion’s daughters, the bridegrooms bustled homewards, and Alexander thinned out his forces, detailing Parmenion to take the supply wagons, the Greek allies and two squadrons of cavalry back by road to Sardis and thence to await him further east on the Royal Road. The siege equipment was despatched to Tralles, and ever inexhaustible, Alexander announced that he would head south to the coast of Lycia and Pamphylia ‘to hold the seaboard and render the enemy useless’.


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