In the past, just like today, the majority of political and military leaders were men. In most (but not all) regions of the world, the prevalence of female leaders decreases as you go back further and further into history. As a sad result, it is common for historians to become extremely enthusiastic when they find even a single woman in a position of influence within a kingdom or empire in the ancient or medieval world. Sometimes, these female rulers earned their place in history by merely achieving and maintaining power, an impressive feat in a world dominated by men. Yet, a few women during this male-dominated period of early history truly proved themselves to be more cunning, courageous and politically competent than their male counterparts. One of these great female figures from ancient history was Artemisia I, a vassal, military leader and trusted advisor of the Persian King of Kings, Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE).
The bulk of the information about Artemisia I came from the historian Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE). Herodotus was infatuated with the character of Artemisia, which is no surprise, as he was from her capital at Halicarnassus and grew up during her reign. Herodotus described the deeds of Artemisia in multiple paragraphs within The Histories, often to the chagrin of later historians—by narrating from Artemisia’s perspective, Herodotus neglected to write about the actions of other important Persian vassals. In addition to Herodotus, some of the other ancient historians who wrote about Artemisia included Pausaniaus, Polynaeus and Plutarch.
Artemisia was born from a marriage between King Lygdamis of Halicarnassus and a woman from Crete, whose name has been lost to history. During the reign of her father, Artemisia married a man whose name has also been forgotten, and when King Lygdamis eventually died, the rule of Halicarnassus fell to Queen Artemisia’s husband. Artemisia and her husband had a son named Pisindelis, but the boy lost his father at an early age. Upon the death of her husband, Artemisia became the regent ruler of Halicarnasus. Although she was ruling on behalf of her son, it is assumed that she remained in control of the region even after her son, Pisindelis, reached adulthood. Artemisia must have been a competent and charismatic ruler, for there is no evidence that her son or any other figures in Halicarnassus ever attempted to remove her from power.
Artemisia ruled the region of southwestern Anatolia known as Caria. The center of power in Caria was the city of Halicarnassus, but she also controlled other communities, such as Cos, Nisyra and Calydna. From the resources and manpower of these regions, Artemisia built one of Persia’s most powerful fleets, with a core of at least five sturdy warships under her personal control.
Although Artemisia was Queen of Caria, she was not an independent monarch. She was a vassal of Xerxes I, the Great King of Persia. In the historical accounts, there is no evidence that Artemisia was unhappy with her subservient position underneath the authority of Xerxes I. In fact, she was usually portrayed as a devoted, loyal vassal. As a result of her competence and loyalty, Xerxes is said to have viewed Artemisia as one of his most trustworthy members on his council of advisors.
When Xerxes I invaded Greece in 480 BCE, Artemisia personally led her famed fleet from the region of Caria to join the Persian Navy. Her forces participated in the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis, which both occurred in 480 BCE. The first was a draw that favored Persia, but the latter was a disastrous battle that ended with an utter defeat of the Persian Navy. Artemisia was said to have been the only advisor to warn Xerxes against engaging the Greeks at Salamis. Even though Xerxes, himself, was allegedly not confident about the planned attack on the Greeks, he fatefully chose to follow the majority of his advisors and go forward with the battle. Despite initially advising against the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia followed Xerxes’ orders and participated in the fight. When the Persian fleet was ultimately shattered by the Greeks, the queen successfully escaped, possibly by sinking another Persian ship to confuse her Greek pursuers, or by simply (and less treacherously) flying a Greek flag or sign to sneak quietly away. Despite all the chaos, Plutarch claimed that she was calm and brave enough to successfully retrieve the dead body of Xerxes’ brother, Ariamenes, who died in the battle of Salamis.
After the disaster at Salamis, one of Xerxes’ key vassals, named Mardonius, proposed a suggestion that would mitigate any further possible embarrassments. The plan was for Xerxes to return to the Persian heartland and leave the conquest of Greece to Mardonius. Xerxes was said to have had a private audience with Artemesia, his most trusted counsel, to discuss this proposal. She convinced Xerxes to agree to the plan—the Queen of Caria explained that all of Mardonius’ victories would be attributed to Xerxes, while all of the failures would rest solely with the leadership of Mardonius.
In the end, Xerxes and Artemisia both abandoned the campaign in Greece. While Xerxes withdrew to his royal residences in the Persian Empire, he tasked Artemisia with escorting his illegitimate sons to the city of Ephesus, which was to the north of Artemisia’s domain in Caria. After this mission, Artemisia virtually disappeared from the historical record. A rumor later emerged from the writings of a man named Photius (c. 858 CE) that claimed Artemisia committed suicide after a tragic love story. Yet, that tale, recorded more than 1,300 years after the Battle of Salamis, is largely considered to be untrue.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Sketch of Artemisia I by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.