A naval commander who advised the most powerful man in the world and brought Athens to its knees…
She was a capable ruler, formidable admiral and the only person who dared to contradict the King of Persia; Artemisia I of Caria stands out not only in her own time, but in history as a remarkable woman.
As ruling queen of Caria (now in modern day Turkey) she sided with Xerxes I, the King of Persia in his campaign against the Greek states, actively participating in battle.
Born sometime in the mid-5th Century BCE, Artemisia took the throne of Halicarnassus following the death of her husband. By 480 BCE she had allied herself with Xerxes I, the powerful King of Persia who was hell-bent on invading Greece.
A capable naval commander, Artemisia leapt into the fray, personally leading five ships in the Battle of Artemisium.
Following this battle, Xerxes gathered his naval commanders to ask them their opinions on fighting another battle at sea, rather than sending his fleet to Peloponesus to wait for the dissolution of the Greek armies. All of the commanders recommended that Xerxes go to battle – except Artemisia. She (basically) said:
‘Look, Xerxes, the Greek navy is much stronger than your navy. You’ve got Athens now, what do you want to start another fight for? If you move towards Peloponesus you’ve got a definite win – they don’t have enough food anyway and won’t hold out for long. I know you’re impatient to get this whole invasion thing over with, but I’m telling you, Xerxes, pal, if you go through with this battle you’ll end up worse off.’
Xerxes praised Artemisia for her sound advice – before promptly disregarding everything she’d said and launching into battle. Artemisia (probably after some heavy eye rolling) rallied her troops and prepared to attack.
The Battle of Salamis took place in September 480 BCE and Artemisia led five of the best ships in the fleet. Following the previous battle, she also had a price of 10,000 drachmas on her head as a reward to any Athenian captain who could take her alive.
The Queen was extremely cunning and her tactics were brutal. Before the battle, she had had a disagreement with King Damasithymos, who was also on the Persians side. During battle, Artemisia found herself pursued by a Greek vessel into a corner, with only friendly ships in front of her. Unable to see a way out, she ordered that the Persian flags be pulled down, and to attack one of the friendly ships – that of Damasithymos. Once the Greeks saw her attack a Persian ship, they turned away and left her alone – assuming that Artemisia’s ship had switched sides. Damasithymos’ ship was sunk and there were no survivors.
Seeing this, Xerxes (who was pretty disappointed in the rest of his navy) remarked; ‘My men have become women and my women men.’ – High praise considering the extremely sexist attitudes of the time.
After the battle, the king rewarded Artemisia with a full suit of Greek armour and asked for her advice yet again. Should he head to Peloponnese himself and head up his invasion of Greece? Or should he withdraw and leave his General in charge.
Once again, Artemisia’s response demonstrated a keen political mind and sound judgement:
‘Leave your General here and head home. Then if he wins, you get all the glory, because he works on your behalf. But if he loses, it’s no biggie – you’d still be safe and no one cares about your General. Either way, you’ve burnt Athens to the ground – mission accomplished.’
This time, Xerxes did the smart thing and followed Artemisia’s advice.
Stratagems, Book 8 – Polyaenus
The Histories – Herodotus
The Encyclopaedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce Salisbury
In The 300 Spartans (1962) Artemisia is played by Anne Wakefield.
300: Rise of an Empire (2014) portrays heavily fictionalised versions of both Artemisia and Xerxes.
Artemisia of Caria is a character in the book Creation by Gore Vidal.