Biography of Artemisia I, Warrior Queen of Halicarnassus

Fought With Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis

Artemisia I

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Artemisia I of Halicarnassus (~520–460 BCE) was the ruler of the city of Halicarnassus at the time of the Persian Wars (499–449 BCE), As a Carian colony of Persia, Halicarnassus fought against the Greeks. The Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BCE) was also a Carian, and he was born in that city during Artemisia's rule. Her story was recorded by Herodotus and appears in the Histories, written in the mid-450s BCE.

  • Known For: Ruler of Halicarnassus, naval commander in the Persian Wars
  • Born: ~520 BCE, Halicarnassus
  • Parents: Lygadimis and unknown Cretan mother
  • Died: ~460 BCE
  • Spouse: Unnamed husband
  • Children: Pisindelis I
  • Notable Quote: "If thou art hasty to fight, I tremble lest the defeat of thy sea force bring harm likewise to thy land army."

Early Life

Artemisia was born probably about 520 BCE in Halicarnassus, near today's Bodrum, Turkey. Halicarnassus was the capital of the Carian satrapy of the Achaemenid Persian empire in Asia Minor during the reign of Darius I (ruled 522–486 BCE). She was a member of the Lygdamid dynasty (520–450 BCE) of rulers in the city, as the daughter of Lygadimis, a Carian, and his wife, a woman (unnamed by Herodotus) from the Greek island of Crete.

Artemisia inherited her throne from her husband, whose name is not known, during the rule of the Persian emperor Xerxes I, also known as Xerxes the Great (ruled 486–465 BC). Her kingdom included the city of Halicarnassus and the nearby islands of Cos, Calymnos, and Nisyros. Artemisia I had at least one son, Pisindelis, who ruled Halicarnassus after her between ~460–450 BCE.

Persian Wars

When Xerxes went to war against Greece (480–479 BCE), Artemisia was the only woman among his commanders. She brought five ships of the 70 total sent to battle, and those five ships were forces with a reputation for ferocity and valor. Herodotus suggests that Xerxes selected Artemisia to lead a squadron to embarrass the Greeks, and indeed, when they heard about it, the Greeks offered a reward of 10,000 drachmas (about three years wages for a workman) for capturing Artemisia. No one succeeded in claiming the prize.

After winning the battle at Thermopylae in August of 480 BCE, Xerxes sent Mardonius to talk to each of his naval commanders separately about the upcoming battle of Salamis. Artemisia was the only one who advised against a sea battle, suggesting that Xerxes instead wait offshore for what she saw as the inevitable retreat or attack the Peloponnese on shore. She was quite blunt about their chances against the Greek armada, saying that the rest of the Persian naval commanders—Egyptians, Cypriots, Cilicians, and Pamphylians—were not up to the challenge. While he was pleased that she provided a separate viewpoint, Xerxes ignored her advice, choosing to follow the majority opinion.

Battle of Salamis

During the battle, Artemisia's found her flagship was being chased by an Athenian vessel and had no chance of escape. She rammed a friendly vessel which was commanded by the Calyndians and their king Damasithymos; the ship sank with all hands. The Athenian, confused by her actions, assumed she was either a Greek ship or a deserter, and left Artemisia's ship to chase others. Had the Greek commander realized who he was chasing, and recalled the price on her head, he would not have changed course. No one from the Calyndian ship survived, and Xerxes was impressed at her nerve and daring, saying "My men have become women, and my women, men."

After the failure at Salamis, Xerxes abandoned his invasion of Greece—and Artemisia is credited with persuading him to make this decision. As a reward, Xerxes sent her to Ephesus to take care of his illegitimate sons. 

Beyond Herodotus

That is all that Herodotus had to say about Artemisia. Other early references to Artemisia include the 5th century CE Greek physician Thessalus who spoke of her as a cowardly pirate; and the Greek playwright Aristophanes, who used her as a symbol of a strong and uppity warrior woman in his comic plays "Lysistrata" and "Thesmophoriazusae," equating her with the Amazons. 

Later writers were generally approving, including Polyaenus, the 2nd century CE Macedonian author of "Stratagems in War," and Justin, the 2nd century Roman empire historian. Photius, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinopole, described a legend depicting Artemisia as having fallen hopelessly in love with a younger man from Abydos, and jumping off a cliff to cure the unrequited passion. Whether her death was as glamorous and romantic as that described by Photius, she was probably dead when her son Pisindelis took over the rule of Halicarnassus.

Archaeological evidence of Artemisia's relationship with Xerxes was discovered in the ruins of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus by British archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton when he excavated there in 1857. The Mausoleum itself was built by Artemisia II to honor her husband Mausolus between 353–350 BCE, but the alabaster jar is inscribed with the signature of Xerxes I, in Old Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Elamite. The presence of this jar in this location strongly suggests it was given by Xerxes to Artemisia I and passed down to her descendants who buried it at the Mausoleum.

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