Fifty years after Tomyris defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia, Artemisia I of Halicarnassus fought on the side of another Persian king, Xerxes, in his war against the Greeks in 480 BCE.* Like her namesake, Artemisia II,† she ruled the Carian city of Halicarnassus and the nearby islands of Cos, Calymnos, and Nisyros as a vassal of the Persian Empire. She commanded five ships on the Persian side at the Battle of Salamis—a battle the Persians lost in large part because Xerxes ignored her advice.
Ten years earlier, the Greeks had slaughtered a Persian army
at the Battle of Marathon. Now the Persians were back for revenge, led by
In addition to a land army, reported by Herodotus to be the
largest army ever assembled, Xerxes also put together a navy to fight the
Greeks. Artemisia was the only woman in the fleet,‡ but she was not the only
non-Persian to bring ships to the fight. Persia was a land power. Every ship in
the Persian fleet was provided by an oceangoing Persian vassal state, including
some places we think of today as Greek.
Herodotus reported that it was “a most strange and
interesting thing” that Artemisia fought in the war against Greece.6 She had a
grown son who would have been the logical choice to serve as the Carian
commander. Instead, Artemisia chose to command the Carian ships herself.
According to Herodotus: “Her own spirit of adventure and her manly courage were
her only incentives.”§
Before Salamis, Artemisia distinguished herself in the
Battle of Artemisium, which took place off the Greek island of Euboea (known
today as Évvoia) at the same time the Persian army was forcing its way through
the pass at Thermopylae. When the news came of the Persian victory at
Thermopylae, the Greeks withdrew. Both fleets suffered heavy losses. There was
no clear winner.
After his victory at Thermopylae, Xerxes marched across
Greece and burned Athens to the ground. The Greeks abandoned Athens before the
Persians arrived and rallied their navy off the coast, near the straits of
Salamis. Now Xerxes had to make a decision. He could call it a win and go home.
He could besiege the Greek cities until they sued for peace. Or he could meet
the Greeks in a sea battle, hoping for another decisive win.
He called a war council with his fleet commanders, including
Artemisia. Unlike the other commanders, Artemisia advised him not to fight the
Greeks at sea. The Persian fleet was larger, but the Greeks were more
experienced seamen. If Xerxes did not rush into a sea battle, the Greeks would
soon disperse. But if Xerxes allowed himself to be sucked into another naval
disaster it could mean the ruin of his land army as well as his navy.
Xerxes did not take Artemisia’s advice. He decided the
Persians had lost at Euboea because he was not there to oversee the battle in
person. (Hubris much?) He ordered the Persian fleet to pursue the Greeks into
the narrow channel between the island of Salamis and the Greek mainland.
Artemisia may have believed the orders were a mistake, but when the Persian
triremes rowed out of Phaleron Bay, her ships were among them.
The Battle of Salamis began on September 20, 480 BCE.
The triremes that made up the fleets on both sides were
wooden warships that were state-of-the-art naval technology. In battle, when
speed and maneuverability were at a premium, three banks of rowers powered the
ships. The prow at the waterline ended in a ram: a timber core covered with
cast bronze. (Do not forget the ram. It plays an important role in Artemisia’s
story.) Only amateurs—like the Persians—tried to board an enemy ship and fight
it out on deck; experienced crews used the ram to strike another ship and then
retreated before the enemy could fight back.
The narrow channel off Salamis turned Persia’s superior
numbers into a liability. The Persian fleet advanced in tight lines, similar to
the formation of Persian troops in a land battle. The smaller, more
maneuverable Greek ships soon gained the upper hand. At one point in the
confusion of battle, Artemisia found herself pursued by an Athenian ship. She
was blocked on one side by Persian ships and by enemy ships on the other.
Desperate to escape capture by the enemy, she rammed another ship from the
Persian fleet, which sank with its entire crew.* This maneuver convinced her
pursuer that her ship was either under Greek command or had switched sides in
midbattle—not an unknown situation in a fleet that was made up of ships
provided by Persian vassal states with varying degrees of commitment to the
The Greek commander’s decision not to continue the pursuit
was an expensive one. The Athenians had put a price on Artemisia’s head,
because they “resented the fact that a woman should appear in arms against them”†—ten
thousand drachmas to anyone who captured her alive.‡
Xerxes watched the battle from the high land overlooking the
channel. When an aide brought Artemisia’s action to his attention, Xerxes made
the not-unreasonable assumption that she had rammed an enemy ship, and
declared, “My men have turned into women, my women into men.”§
Artemisia made one last appearance in the history of the
Greco-Persian wars. After the Battle of Salamis, Xerxes feared the Greeks would
be emboldened by their victory and march against the Persian forces quartered
at the Hellespont. One of his generals, Mardonius, suggested Xerxes return to
Persia and leave Mardonius in command of an army of three hundred thousand men,
with which he would subdue the Greeks. Artemisia advised the emperor to follow
Mardonius’s suggestion. If the Greeks won, Xerxes could blame Mardonius. If the
Persian army defeated the Greeks again, Xerxes could take the credit. (A
dubious management strategy by modern standards.) This time, Xerxes followed
Artemisia’s advice. He gave Artemisia the job of escorting his (illegitimate)
sons to Ephesus.
We know nothing about Artemisia’s life after she headed to
Ephesus. Perhaps she went home to Halicarnassus and turned the reins of power
over to her son. Perhaps her “manly courage” spurred her on to new adventures.