Artemisia I (c. 520–? BCE)

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Artemisia I (c. 520–? bce)

Queen of Halicarnassus (present-day Turkey) who backed Xerxes' invasion of Greece with her own naval contingent. Born around 520 bce; died after 480 bce; Artemisia was the daughter of Lygdamis of Halicarnassus.

When Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, set out to conquer European Greece, Artemisia was the ruler of Caria, Nisyrus, Calyndria, Cos, and the Greek cities along their respective coasts, as well as a client-queen of the Persian Empire. A figure of importance, Artemisia personally commanded a contingent of five ships in the armada that supported Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 bce (only one Persian dependent, the Phoenician city of Sidon, contributed more ships to the Persian navy than did she). Her exploits during the naval battle of Salamis were reported by her Halicarnassian compatriot, Herodotus, who took pride in the bravery she displayed during that struggle while simultaneously rejoicing in the defeat of her side. Before Salamis—the battle, which more than any other, ensured that the Persian attempt to subject European Greece would fail—Artemisia advised Xerxes not to attack the Greeks in the narrow channel between Attica and the island of Salamis where the Greek navy had taken refuge. Unfortunately for Xerxes, he did not heed Artemisia's advice, and, consequently, he suffered a devastating naval setback.

During the battle, however, Artemisia proved herself to be so competent a naval commander that Xerxes (whose vantage point allowed him to view the marine struggle from the security of dry land) is said to have remarked that within his fleet, "the men fought like women, and the women like men." Although Artemisia appears to have been an excellent admiral, the incident that provoked Xerxes' comment appears to have occurred when she, in order to prevent being rammed by a Greek ship, rammed and sank the ship of one of her Persian compatriots. Xerxes, recognizing Artemisia's ship but not that which she sank, thus seems to have praised her at a moment when she probably would have preferred not being noticed at all.

Despite the irony of Xerxes' untimely praise, Artemisia fought well enough at Salamis for the Athenians to offer a reward of 10,000 drachmae (about the weekly wage of 2,000 skilled artisans) for her capture; they were especially eager to lay hold of her because she was not only competent, but a woman as well. After Xerxes' defeat at Salamis, his navy was disheveled, and Xerxes' supply lines to Asia were severed, crippling his ability to feed his huge army. Realizing the significance of the defeat, Artemisia was one of the most ardent voices admonishing Xerxes to act expediently by withdrawing from Europe lest his army starve in Greece.

After Xerxes' retreat from Greece, Artemisia returned to her domain within the Persian sphere of influence, where little is heard of her thereafter. If a late source can be trusted, her end came when a much younger would-be lover (Dardanus, from the Greek city of Abydus) rejected her affections, after which she is said to have leaped from the Leucas promontory (not far from Halicarnassus) to her death in the Aegean Sea. It must be pointed out, however, that such romanticism seems out of place for the hard-nosed monarch of one of the Persian Empire's most prosperous districts.

suggested reading:

Herodotus, The Histories, revised edition, Penguin, 1972 (especially Book Eight).

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California