Artemisia I of Halicarnassus: the only woman at the table

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 Xerxes himself.

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 empire.

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.

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