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Artemisia in Herodotus

Translation and notes copyright 2001 Caroline L. Falkner; all rights reserved.

The following excerpts from Herodotus, Books 7 and 8, tell the story of Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, a city which was said to be the birthplace of Herodotus himself. In 480 Artemisia led a small squadron of eastern Greek ships in Xerxes' invasion force against the Greek mainland states. Herodotus presents her as a remarkable woman and the shrewdest of Xerxes' commanders.

The translation is based on the Oxford Classical Text (1962), edited by C. Hude.

There is no reason for me to mention any of the other commanders, except for Artemisia. I consider her to be a particular object of admiration because she was a woman who played a part in the war against Greece. She took power on the death of her husband, as she had a son who was still a youth. Because of her courage and spirit she went to war although she had no need to do so. Her name was Artemisia; she was the daughter of Lygdamis, and was of Halicarnassian stock on her father's side and Cretan on her mother's. She led the forces of Halicarnassos, Cos, Nisyros and Calyndos, and supplied five ships. The ships she brought had the best reputation in the whole fleet, next to the ones from Sidon, and of all the allies she gave the king the best advice. I have listed the cities that she led; I have evidence that they all belong to the Dorian group, as the people of Halicarnassos come from Troizen, and the rest from Epidauros. (Herodotus 7.99)

After the battle of Thermopylae and the Persian occupation of Attica, King Xerxes consulted his naval commanders about fighting a battle against the Greek fleet, which was gathering off Salamis. The only one to advise him against fighting at sea was Artemisia. In this incident her role is that of a tragic warner, as she gave Xerxes advice which he praised, but refused to follow. The defeat of the Persian fleet ensued. (Herodotus 8. 67-69)

[67] All these forces then came to Athens, except for the Parians, who stayed behind in Cythnos waiting to see how the war turned out. The rest proceeded to Phaleron where Xerxes visited the fleet in person. He wanted to meet with the naval commanders and to find out their opinions. He arrived and sat before them, and the rulers of the peoples and the commanders of the fleet, who had been summoned to his presence, sat down according to the rank the king had assigned them. The first was the king of Sidon, the second the king of Tyre, and the rest after them. When they were sitting in proper order, Xerxes sent Mardonius to approach each one and ask whether he should fight a sea battle.

[68] Mardonius went around and put the question, beginning with the king of Sidon. The others offered the same advice and encouraged him to fight at sea, but Artemisia spoke as follows: "Tell the king from me, Mardonius, that this is his reply from one who showed herself neither the most cowardly nor the weakest in the naval encounters at Euboea. Master, it is right for me to tell you my opinion, as I am considering what is to your best advantage. This is my advice to you: spare your ships and do not fight a battle at sea. For their men are as superior to yours at sea as men are to women. Why need you run the risk of naval actions at all? Do you not hold Athens, the particular objective of your campaign, and do you not control the rest of Greece? No one stands in your way. Those who resisted you have ended as they deserve. I shall explain how I think the enemy will fare. If you do not rush into an engagement at sea, but hold the fleet here waiting on shore, or if you attack the Peloponnese, master, you will attain your objectives without trouble. For the Greeks cannot put up resistance against you for long, but they will scatter their forces and run away, city by city. They have no supplies on this island, according to my information, nor do they consider it their home. If you send your army against the Peloponnese, it is not likely that any Peloponnesians in the Greek forces will be prepared to stay quiet or fight a naval battle in defence of Athens. If you bring on a naval battle right now, I am afraid that the fleet will be destroyed and involve the army as well in defeat. Reflect on this too, my king. Good men usually have bad slaves and bad men good ones. You, as the best of all men, have bad slaves. None of these Egyptians, Cypriotes, Cilicians and Pamphilians, who are called your allies, is of any use."

[69] This was her speech to Mardonius. All those who were well disposed to Artemisia thought her words disastrous because she was advising the king to act wrongly in not allowing them to fight at sea. Others, who regarded her with envy because of her reputation among all the allied leaders, were delighted at the idea that she was engineering her own downfall. When their opinions were reported to Xerxes, he was especially pleased at the advice of Artemisia. He had considered her worth listening to before but from this point he approved of her even more. Nonetheless, his orders were to follow the opinion of the majority. He suspected that the fleet had deliberately made little effort at Euboea because he was not there. This time he prepared in person to watch them fight at sea.

During the battle of Salamis Artemisia's ship, in an attempt to get away from the enemy, rammed an allied vessel. King Xerxes, who was watching the battle from the shore, assumed this to be an outstanding act of bravery in an engagement in which the rest of his ships made a disappointing showing. (Herodotus 8.87-8)

[87] In fact, as to the rest I cannot say exactly how each of them, barbarian or Greek, played his part in the battle. This is what happened in the case of Artemisia, and, as a result of it, she stood even higher in the king's estimation. The king's forces were disordered, and at this critical point Artemisia's ship was being chased by an Athenian vessel. She had no way of escape, for in front of her were other ships on the Persian side, and she was very close to the enemy. This is what she decided to do, and it turned out well for her. Pursued by the Athenian vessel she made for a friendly ship and rammed it. The ship was manned by Calyndians and was commanded by their king, Damasithymos. Whether she had some ongoing quarrel with him from the time they were in the Hellespont, whether she planned the action, or whether the Calyndian ship chanced to sail in her way, I cannot say. She rammed it and sank it, and created from the opportunity a double benefit for herself. For when the captain on the Athenian ship saw her attacking an enemy vessel, he supposed Artemisia's ship was either Greek or was a deserter from the enemy cause who was fighting for the Greeks. He changed course and made for the rest of the enemy ships.

[88] Such an outcome benefited Artemisia in that she escaped without harm, and at the same time as she weakened the Persian cause, she increased her standing enormously with Xerxes. For, according to the story, the king was watching and saw that it was her ship that made the attack. What is more, one of the people with him said, " Master, do you see how well Artemisia is fighting? She has sunk an enemy ship." When the king asked whether it was really Artemisia who had done so, they confirmed it was because they recognised her vessel's flag clearly and assumed that she had sunk an enemy ship. As far as the rest of the story goes, the incident turned out to her advantage because no one from the Calyndian ship survived to bring a charge against her. Xerxes is said to have replied to the news, "My men have become women and my women, men." This, they say, was the king's response.

After his defeat at Salamis Xerxes debated whether he should leave some of his forces with Mardonius in Greece and return to the east to ensure his own safety. In discussions with his leading officers he singled out Artemisia for special consultation. This time the king was ready to act on her advice, as it agreed with his own assessment of the situation. (Herodotus 8.101-103)

[101] Xerxes was delighted and happy to hear this instead of bad news. He said that he would make a decision and tell Mardonius which of the two courses he wished to adopt. While he was consulting the Persians whom he had summoned, he decided to summon Artemisia, too, to come to the conference, because on the previous occasion she seemed to be the only one who had known what should be done. When Artemisia arrived, Xerxes dismissed the other commanders, his Persian advisers and his bodyguards, and made the following observations, "Mardonius is advising me to stay and attack the Peloponnese. He claims that the Persians and their army are not to blame for our misfortune but are ready to prove themselves in action. So he is proposing that either I take this course, or that he be allowed to select 300,000 men from the army and bring about the reduction of Greece for me, while I lead the rest of the troops away to my own territory. As you did for me before, when you gave me good advice not to risk the sea battle I fought, tell me now which of these two courses of action I would be wise to adopt."

[102] These were the points he made. Artemisia responded, "Majesty, it is hard to advise what is best. Nonetheless, under the present circumstances, I believe that you should take the army back with you and leave Mardonius behind here with the troops he wants, if he wishes to do so and has made you that promise. If he achieves what he says are his aims, and if his intentions go according to plan, the deed, master, is to your credit. For your slaves accomplished it. But if things turn out contrary to Mardonius' plan, it will be no great loss, because you and the affairs of your house will survive. If you and your line remain safe, the Greeks will find themselves running many a race for their existence. Should Mardonius suffer some disaster, it will be of no account. The Greeks will win no real victory if they destroy only your slave. You, on the other hand, will be returning after burning Athens, the objective of your campaign."

[103] Xerxes was certainly pleased with her advice, as her words reflected his own thoughts exactly. For even if all his advisers, male and female, counselled him to stay, I do not think he would have done; so thoroughly frightened had he become. He commended Artemisia and sent her to Ephesus with his children, as he had taken some of his illegitimate sons on campaign with him.

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