Artemisia of Caria (5th century BCE) was a queen and genius military strategist whose advice was sought out by the Persian Emperor Xerxes
Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Happy February! A new month means a brand new theme. This time, we’re talking about warriors -- women from throughout history and around the world who stood up to fight for what they believed in. For some, that meant literally taking up arms. For others, that meant marching, writing or speaking up for the cause.
Our story today starts way back in Ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. We’re talking about a queen and genius military strategist whose advice was sought out by the Persian Emperor Xerxes. Meet Artemisia of Caria.
Artemisia was the daughter of the king of Halicarnassus. Her mother’s identity is unknown other than the fact that she was from Crete. After her father’s death, Artemisia assumed the throne of Caria, which is located in what’s now Turkey. Caria was a province of the Persian empire at the time. Because of her gender, Artemisia technically served as regent for her young son.
During this period, Xerxes, the powerful emperor of Persia, was attempting to conquer Greece. His father had suffered an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Marathon and Xerxes was determined to carry out his father’s quest for revenge.
To do so, Xerxes had brought together what’s believed to be the largest military force assembled up to that point in history. Artemisia’s troops were part of that force, led by the Queen herself. As queen, she wasn’t required or expected to join the war . She must have actively chosen to do so.
Most of what we know about Artemisia comes from the famous Greek historian Herodotus. He was quite a fan.
When describing the Persian military Herodotus wrote of her, “I pass over all the other officers because there is no need for me to mention them, except for Artemisia, because I find it particularly remarkable that a woman should have taken part in the expedition against Greece. She took over the tyranny after her husband’s death, and although she had a grown-up son and did not have to join the expedition, her manly courage impelled her to do so…Hers was the second most famous squadron in the entire navy, after the one from Sidon. None of Xerxes’ allies gave him better advice than her.”
Artemisia fought in the battle of Artemisium in late 480 BCE. There she proved herself to be quite the tactician. To avoid unnecessary conflict before her forces were ready and in the correct positions, she instructed her ships to switch between the Greek and the Persian flags on her orders. That battle was considered a tie, but the Greeks fled, allowing the Persians to regroup. Artemisia’s performance was so impressive that the Greeks put a bounty on her head.
As the naval Battle of Artemisium was being fought, the Battle of Thermopylae was playing out on land. The Persians won a major victory at the land battle and went on to burn the city of Athens.
In some ways, destroying the city accomplished Xerxes’ goal. But the Greeks had fled Athens before the Persian troops arrived and the war was far from over. The Greek forces were instead preparing to change the tide of the war in a naval battle. They lured the Persians into a conflict off the coast of Greece.
Xerxes called on all of his advisors to decide whether or not the Persians should move their forces to meet the Greeks where they had stationed near the strait of Salamis. According to Herodotus, every single member of Xerxes’ Council wanted to go for it except for Artemesia. Xerxes was impressed that she dared to oppose the majority opinion. He had already been impressed by her performance in the Battle of Artemisium and this honest guidance lifted her even higher in his esteem.
Still, Xerxes decided to follow the rest of his advisors. He wanted a decisive, absolute victory against the Greeks. Unfortunately, things didn’t go that way.
Despite the fact that Artemisia had advised against joining the fray, she didn’t hesitate to follow Xerxes’ orders to do so. As the Persians attacked, the Greeks acted like they were retreating. The move forced the fight into the Strait of Salamis. The narrow strait was very difficult to maneuver in the Persians’ large ships and easy for the Greek’s more nimble vessels. The Persians majorly lost the battle.
Xerxes was afraid that the loss would prompt the Greek forces to go on the offensive and strategically trap his troops in Greece. One commander offered to stay behind with 300,000 troops to allow Xerxes himself to retreat.
Before agreeing to the plan, Xerxes again sought the advice of his military leaders, including Artemisia. According to Herodotus, when Artemisia arrived to give advice, Xerxes excused everyone else to hear her thoughts. This time, she sided with the proposed plan. She said that whether the remaining troops won or lost, it wouldn’t be too much sweat off Xerxes’ back.
Xerxes followed Artemisia’s advice and left Greece. Artemisia was charged with taking his children to safety in Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey. The commander who stayed behind was killed the following year in another Greek victory.
After delivering Xerxes’ children, Artemisia disappears from historical record.
Despite the fact that her side lost, Artemisia proved herself to be an extraordinary strategist. She earned herself the position of prized advisor at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman to be in such a role.
Tune in tomorrow for the story of another warrior.
Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.
Talk to you tomorrow!