The woman of courage

Artemisia I of Caria

Artemisia I of Caria was no ordinary woman. She ruled with great capacity in 480 BCE as a monarch of Halicarnassus, an ancient Greek city-state that is located within the Achaemenid satrapy of Caria.

She was more than just a ruler at her time of reign. She was a brave warrior, and a trusted advisor to the Persian King, King Xerxes I.

Artemisia I of Caria was well respected for her "bravery and masculine turn of mind". Being ambitious and adventurous, she insisted that she would follow the Persian fleet during the expedition to attack the Greeks. Offering five of her battle ships, known as galleys, for the invasion into Greek waters, she therefore commanded an important division of the navy.

Interestingly, Herodotus, a Greek historian that was from Halicarnassus, the same place where Artemisia ruled and a man which we all are well aware of, documented her achievements as well as his description of the Battle of Salamis into his accounts. She was also mentioned in many other sources by other historians and philosophers such as Pausanias and Plutarch.

The Battle of Salamis

Battle of Salamis, Wilhelm von Kaulbach via Wikimedia Commons

Battle of Salamis, Wilhelm von Kaulbach via Wikimedia Commons

Map of [Battle of Salamis],  Wikimedia Commons

Map of [Battle of Salamis],  Wikimedia Commons

Artemisia was well known in the battle of Salamis. It was a naval war between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire in 480 BCE, led by King Xerxes. The battle was fought at a sea passage between the mainland and Salamis, which is an island at the Saronic Gulf near Athens.

 

Before any military actions, King Xerxes and all his navy commanders amassed, together with Mardonios, the commander-in-chief, to advise if a naval battle should be directed. To Xerxes’ surprise, Artemisia did not concur with the opinions of the the rest of the advisers but rejected the idea. According the Herodotus, she told Mardonios:

Tell the King to spare his ships and not do a naval battle because our enemies are much stronger than us in the sea, as men are to women. And why does he need to risk a naval battle? Athens for which he did undertake this expedition is his and the rest of Greece too. No man can stand against him and they who once resisted, were destroyed.

If Xerxes chose not to rush into a naval encounter, but instead kept his ships close to the shore and either stayed there or moved them towards the Peloponnese, victory would be his. The Greeks can't hold out against him for very long. They will leave for their cities, because they don't have food in store on this island, as I have learned, and when our army will march against the Peloponnese they who have come from there will become worried and they will not stay here to fight to defend Athens.

But if he hurries to engage I am afraid that the navy will be defeated and the land-forces will be weakened as well. In addition, he should also consider that he has certain untrustworthy allies, like the Egyptians, the Cyprians, the Kilikians and the Pamphylians, who are completely useless.

When Artemisia was given a chance to voice her opinions about the battle, she did not refuse, but boldly offered her views with great wisdom. The rest of the members listened intently as she brought about a fresh new perspective. However, some were afraid that she would incur displeasure on their powerful king. Instead of jumping mad with fury, Xerxes actually applauded Artemisia for her eloquence and zeal through her insights. Though the King went with the majority’s decision, he was even impressed with Artemisia’s courage and tenacity.

The Escape

Unfortunately, Artemisia’s galley was pursued by a Greek fleet in the midst of the battle, charged by the commander, Ameinias. It was intolerable that a woman make an expedition against the Athens, hence, a prize was set to be given for any man that takes Artemisia alive. In order to escape the chase, the quick-witted leader ordered for the Persian colours to be lowered. Assuming the ship ahead was one that belongs to Damasithymus, her enemy in the Persian fleet, Artemisia commanded her troops to devastatingly wreck his galley, in order to save their own lives.

When Ameinias saw that Artemisia’s ship was engaged, he decided to leave it alone, presuming the identity of it to be one of the Greeks. This whole deception in the midst of chaos had saved the lives of everyone on board Artemisia’s ship and they make their way back to the Persian lines.

Witnessing the entire course of events that happened, one of King Xerxes’ man commented, "Master, see Artemisia, how well she is fighting, and how she sank even now a ship of the enemy" in which Xerxes then replied, "My men have become women; and my women, men."

Through the voyage, Artemisia has proved herself to be capable and abundantly qualified for the discharge of her duties. Although she did not agree with the majority of the advisers to attack the Greek galleys, but she obeyed the king diligently and executed as planned.

After the Battle of Salamis

After the battle, according to Herodotus, Artemisia advised Xerxes not to stay in Greece, but rather, returned to Asia. Mardonius actually offered to conquer the remaining of Greece while the rest of the Persian fleet return home. He had a rather good plan, with a decent allocation of soldiers for the conquest. However, the King insisted to hear Artemisia’s thoughts. According to Herodotus she replied:

"I think that you should retire and leave Mardonius behind with those whom he desires to have. If he succeeds, the honour will be yours because your slaves performed it. If on the other hand, he fails, it would be no great matter as you would be safe and no danger threatens anything that concerns your house. And while you will be safe the Greeks will have to pass through many difficulties for their own existence. In addition, if Mardonius were to suffer a disaster who would care? He is just your slave and the Greeks will have but a poor triumph. As for yourself, you will be going home with the object for your campaign accomplished, for you have burnt Athens."

Furthermore, he also mentions that Artemisia brought Xerxes’ illegitimate sons from Greece to Ephesus, where she then disappears from history.

The Legend of Her Death

A writer, Photius (c. 858 CE), asserted that Artemisia fell in love with a man named Dardanus from Abydos. When he ignored Artemisia, she blinded him in his sleep. However, she loved him even more from them. Thus, out of guilt, she jumped off a cliff and drowned in the sea. There is nothing in the ancient sources which records or gives any credence to this legend.

In addition, Artemisia’s recent fictional portrayal in the 2014 movie- 300: Rise of an empire, also hardly supports the ancient claim that Artemisia might end her life over the love of a man. 

Conclusion

Artemisia is considered one of the most skillful and efficient commanders in the fleet in the Battle of Salamis. A well respected woman, she was depicted to possess both great insight and bravery throughout her rule as queen. The dominant characteristics that Artemisia possesses has shown us that there are women that are actually capable in the past, unlike what we have always studied.