Artemisia at Sea

March 8, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“My men have behaved like women, my women like men!” - Xerxes

Strong women have always had a complicated relationship with history. They have been feared, reviled, loved, hated, killed, made into men, adored, and crowned (among other things). Artemisia is one such female. She married the king of Halicarnassus (now in present-day Turkey) and from the beginning Artemisia demonstrated strength and wit. After the king died, she became sole ruler. In Book VII and XIII of Herodotus’s History, he writes about Artemisia, leader of Halicarnassus and her involvement in the Greco-Persian Wars. She was an intelligent leader who spoke her mind, and these traits allowed her to become close with Xerxes, leader of the Persian efforts. In fact, Xerxes began to regard her as an advisor at a time when women rarely had a say in anything. This unique treatment of Artemisia bears pondering, as does the way that Herodotus writes of her. The first quotation below is from Book VII, 99. It reads:

“Of the other lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid on me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name, as I said, was Artemisia, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; by race she was on his side a Halicarnassian, though by her mother a Cretan. She ruled over the Halicarnassians, the men of Cos, of Nisyrus, and of Calydna; and the five triremes which she furnished to the Persians were, next to the Sidonian, the most famous ships in the fleet. She likewise gave to Xerxes sounder counsel than any of his other allies.”

Already, we have a complicated image of Artemisia. Herodotus can only describe her in relation to the men that she is among. He cannot comprehend how a female became so intelligent at battle and wise with words. She is educated to the point of men, and that becomes her bar of measure. She too, according to Herodotus, regards herself by this same measure.

A few chapters later, Herodotus notes a long speech by Artemisia. While he presents many speeches, hers stands out as a sole female voice regarding battle tactics. In fact, Artemisia makes a name for herself by acting, according to Xerxes, as a man should act. Her logic, reasonable discourse, and fearlessness promote the character traits often associated with strong men. When in Book VIII, 68, she is asked about whether or not to engage the Greeks, she replies:

“Spare thy ships, and do not risk a battle; for these people are as much superior to thy people in seamanship, as men to women. What so great need is there for thee to incur hazard at sea? Art thou not master of Athens, for which thou didst undertake thy expedition? Is not Greece subject to thee? Not a soul now resists thy advance.”

She then suggests that they stick to land which would give the upper hand to their army, and might diminish Greek resources. This advice contradicts the advice of nearly every other officer in the room. In other words, Artemisia was either completely unafraid of Xerxes, or she trusted that he would not harm her for speaking her mind. Either way, she ably and nobly offered a wise opinion. Herodotus notes that many leaders in the room thought she might be punished by Xerxes and this filled them with a kind of jealous joy. However, Xerxes praised her more than ever. After praising her ideas, however, he felt compelled to follow the advice of the majority. Xerxes himself is remarkable for publicly noting his pleasure at her wisdom.

It is strange that in making a case which asks the men to listen to a woman, Artemisia would claim the superiority of men to women. This seemingly contradicts her argument and undermines the advice of a woman. However, it also seems a skillful rhetorical tactic which demonstrates how well she understands the audience.

More than merely speaking her mind, however, she also captains her own ship. The final section of Artemisia’s story occurs during the seafight. As the fight became chaotic and crowded, Artemisia found herself pinned in by the enemy on one side and a friendly ship on the other side. She chose to sink the friendly ship. In Book XIII, 87 and 88, Herodotus writes:

“Pressed by an Athenian pursuer, she bore straight against one of the ships of her own party, a Clyndian, which had Damsithymus, the Calyndian king, himself on board. I cannot say whether she had any quarrel with the man while the fleet was at Hellespont, or no – neither can I decide whether she of set purpose attacked his vessel, or whether it merely chanced that the Calyndian ship came in her way – but certain it is that she bore down upon his vessel and sank it, and that thereby she had the good fortune to procure herself a double advantage. For the commander of the Athenian trireme, when he saw her bear down on one of the enemy’s fleet, thought immediately that her vessel was a Greek, or else had deserted from the Persians and was now fighting on the Greek side; he therefore gave up the chase and turned away to attack others.

“Thus in the first place she saved her life by the action, and was enabled to get clear off from the battle; while further, it fell out that in the very act of doing the king an injury she raised herself to a greater height than ever in his esteem. For as Xerxes beheld the fight, he remarked (it is said) the destruction of the vessel, whereupon the bystanders observed him - ‘Seest thou, master, how well Artemisia fights, and how she has just sunk a ship of the enemy?’...Everything, it is said, conspired to prosper the queen – it was especially fortunate for her that not one of the Calyndian ship survived to become her accuser. Xerxes, they say, in reply to the remarks made to him, observed - ‘My men have behaved like women, my women like men!’”

This is one depiction of an ancient woman, strong, proud, intelligent. She thrived as a female in a man’s world. There are so few accounts about women by women that we must read and reread these passages to understand the woman’s role throughout ages and cultures.

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