Artemisia of Caria (Antiquity)

Admiral in the fleet of the Persian emperor Xerxes; reputedly the first female admiral. Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis, was the ruler of Caria in southwest Asia Minor in the second half of the fifth century b.c. As a vassal of the Persian Empire, she provided a contingent of five fighting ships when Xerxes I invaded Greece in 480 b.c. Unusually, Artemisia decided to command the ships herself instead of appointing a male deputy; thus, she is the first known female admiral.

The Greek historian Herodotus, himself from the Carian city of Halicarnassus and in a good position to get information, was deeply impressed by Artemisia’s role in the invasion of Greece, for which he is the sole source. He tells that her ships proved their worth by capturing a Greek scouting trireme. Despite the Persian fleet’s large numerical superiority, however, Artemisia advised Xerxes against meeting the allied Greek fleet at Salamis. Her advice was overridden but, in hindsight, was clearly prophetic: through a combination of trickery, luck, and intimate knowledge of the sea around Salamis, the Greeks defeated the Persian fleet. In particular, the Persian fleet especially displayed tactical weakness by advancing in tightly packed lines of ships that proved to be unmaneuverable during the battle. After the tide of battle had turned, Artemisia found that her way of escape was blocked by another contingent of Persian ships. Thinking fast, she ordered her ship turned and rammed one of her own allies—the Greek ships that had been pursuing her thus thought she was on their side and left her alone. Ironically, Xerxes, watching from land, also saw Artemisia’s ship fiercely attacking but did not realize that it was one of his own vessels that was being destroyed. He is said to have exclaimed admiringly at the sight of Artemisia’s boldness: "My men have turned into women, my women into men" (Herodotus 1972, 8: 88). Luckily there were no survivors of the ship Artemisia sunk to accuse her. It is also fortunate that Artemisia was not captured by the Greeks, who resented the fact that a woman was bearing arms against them and had offered an enormous reward of 10,000 drachmae for anyone who captured her alive.

After the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia advised Xerxes to retreat from Greece, and this time he listened to her advice. As a further sign of his trust in her, Xerxes entrusted those of his children who had gone on the expedition to her care for the return to Asia Minor. After this, Artemisia vanishes from the historical record.

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