When the outnumbered Greek feet outfought Xerxes’s great navy in 480 BC, the Persians’ only winner was Artemisia, history’s first known female admiral.
In 411 BC the Greek playwright Aristophanes staged his famous play comedy in which the female title character led the women of Greece in a sex strike to force their husbands to put an end to the disastrous Peloponnesian War that had been tearing Greece apart. Lysistrata and her band of militants even went so far as to occupy the Lysistrata in Athens. It was a ribald Acropolis and beat up any men who attempted to force them out of the temple areas. After one such humiliating encounter the men’s chorus lamented:
If once these women get a semblance of a start,
Before we know, they’ll be adept at every manly art.
They’ll turn their hands to building ships,
and then they’ll make a bid
To fight our fleet and ram us, just like Artemisia did.
There was good reason why Artemisia was a role model for Lysistrata and her band of renegades. Artemisia was history’s first known female fighting admiral, and if King Xerxes had followed her strategic advice, Persia just might have conquered Greece, and the subsequent arc of what we today call Western civilization might have bent in a different direction.
In an era and culture where women were almost invisible in public life, Artemisia was unique. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, she was born near the end of the sixth century BC. Her father, Lygdamis I, was the Persian satrap— provincial governor—of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum), an ethnic Greek colony on the southwest coast of Asia Minor. Artemisia’s mother was from Crete. After Lygdamis died, Artemisia’s husband assumed the throne, but when he died, Artemisia became queen in her own right. Although she had a young son named Pisindelis, she retained the throne even after he reached adulthood. That was a most unusual situation and would not have been possible without the direct approval of Xerxes the Great, king of Persia. The royal confidence in Artemisia also must have been immense, because as Xerxes’s empire was threatened, she was entrusted with the command of warships in battle.
As early as the eighth century BC the city-states of mainland Greece had started establishing colonies around the rim of the Aegean Sea, especially on the western coast of Asia Minor and the nearby islands. Around 550 BC King Cyrus the Great of Persia started pushing the boundaries of his kingdom westward, and within a few years the Ionian Greek cities along the west coast were under his control. In 499 BC the Ionians revolted with strong support from mainland Greece, particularly from Athens. Darius I of Persia had crushed the revolt by 493 and decided to exact revenge on Athens for supporting the rebels.
Three years later Darius launched an amphibious expedition against the Greek mainland. Historians today generally agree that it was more of a reconnaissance in force than a full-blown invasion. Nonetheless, the Persians landed at Marathon just north of Athens in late August or early September of that year. In one of the greatest battles of ancient history, a force of only 10,000 Athenians decisively defeated a much larger Persian force of at least 25,000, possibly as large as 100,000. The first invasion of Greece failed, and the Persians withdrew to their base in Asia.
Darius immediately started to raise a new army, fully intending to return in strength to Greece. In 486, however, Egypt revolted, forcing Darius to deal with that problem. Darius died that same year, but his son Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt and then resumed his father’s plans to conquer Greece. This time the Persians intended to invade with two mutually supporting columns—a land force proceeding along the coast and a naval force paralleling it offshore. Ancient sources vary widely on the size of the Persian army and modern estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000 ground troops. Whatever the actual size, it was the largest army and fleet ever assembled in antiquity, including soldiers and sailors from every corner of the empire. Persia had no real maritime tradition, so warships from the conquered territories of Phoenicia, Egypt, and Ionia composed the bulk of its fleet of 1,200. Five of those ships—from Halicarnassus, Kos, Nísyros, and Kalymnos— were commanded by Artemisia.
The Greeks, meanwhile, anticipated that the Persians would invade again. Fortunately for Athens, large silver deposits had been discovered close to the city in 483 BC. Themistocles, an Athenian archon (city magistrate), convinced the populace to use the newly found wealth to build a war fleet of 200 ships that would make Athens the world’s first great naval power. (Ultimately, only 100 ships were built.) The principal warship of the day was the trireme, a 135-foot vessel propelled by three banks of oars. A typical trireme crew had 170 rowers and 15 deck hands. Each trireme carried up to 40 heavily armed hoplite infantrymen and assorted light troops, such as archers and slingers. Contrary to popular belief, the rowers in the Greek ships were not slaves but full-fledged citizens of their cities. Each trireme mounted a heavily reinforced bronze prow for ramming, which was a primary method of naval combat in the ancient world. The other method was grappling and boarding by the infantrymen.
Xerxes had a major advantage in the coming fight. The Persian Empire was a monolith controlled by a single ruler. Greece was a conglomeration of city-states, each one sovereign and fiercely independent. Few of the cities had standing armies; some had navies, but only Athens and Corinth had fleets of any significance. Moreover, the various Greek citystates normally spent as much time fighting each other as they did doing anything else. When faced with an overwhelming threat from an external enemy like Persia, their only possible course of action was to form a “coalition of the threatened.” Coalition warfare even today is a tricky business, and 2,500 years ago there was almost no blueprint for such an effort. Many of the citystates, especially those in northern Greece, capitulated to Persia even before Xerxes started marching. Thus, when a pan-Hellenic congress was held in the autumn of 481, only about 70 of the approximately 700 Greek city-states sent representatives. Nonetheless, an alliance under the leadership of Athens and Sparta was formalized.
Meanwhile, the Persian force was under way. Xerxes accompanied the expedition, but Mardonius commanded the main army; Xerxes’s brother Ariabignes was one of the fleet commanders. In the spring of 480 the Persian army crossed the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) on two massive pontoon bridges. Once on the European side, the Persians started working their way along the coast of Thrace and Macedonia, with the fleet following just offshore.
The Greeks sent their own army and fleet north, with the ground force of approximately 7,000 commanded by the Spartan king, Leonidas I. The Greek plan was to block the Persian army at Thermopylae, a strategic pass on the southeastern coast of the Balkan Peninsula, while the Greek fleet blocked the coastal straits at Artemisium. As the opposing forces converged, however, the Greeks made fallback preparations to evacuate the noncombatant population of Athens to the Peloponnesian city of Troezen, then to defend at the Isthmus of Corinth as the Spartans originally recommended. The soldiers and the city elders withdrew to the island of Salamis.
Thermopylae in early September 480 BC was one of the epic battles of ancient history. The Greeks held up the Persian advance for four days, before the Persians attacked to force the pass. After the third day of brutal fighting, when Leonidas realized it was only a matter of time before the Persians outflanked his position, he ordered the bulk of the allied army to withdraw, while he continued to hold the pass with a rearguard of 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. By the third day Leonidas and his force had been annihilated, but they had given the Greek main force time to escape to fight another day. More important, the death of Leonidas provided the Greeks with a much-needed symbol of sacrifice to rally behind. Meanwhile, the two fleets at Artemisium fought for three days, with the much smaller Greek fleet successfully blocking the straits. The Persians put up only a lackluster fight at sea, but when the Greeks learned of their own army’s defeat on shore, holding the straits no longer made strategic sense. The Greek navy withdrew to Athens in time to link up with their retreating army.
The Persian army continued its advance south, took Athens, and burned the temples on the Acropolis. The main force of the allied army withdrew to the Isthmus of Corinth and started preparing defenses. The Spartans and Corinthians wanted to assemble the allied fleet to block the Persians from landing behind the main Greek land defenses. Themistocles advocated a more offensive strategy designed to defeat the Persian fleet decisively. He wanted to lure the Persians into the straits between the island of Salamis and the shore of the Greek mainland, just west of Athens. At their narrowest point the straits were little more than a mile wide. Pointing to the experience at Artemisium, the Athenian commander argued that fighting in the restricted space would again neutralize the Persians’ numerical superiority. Themistocles’s argument ultimately prevailed, but not without misgivings among the allies.
Sources conflict on the sizes of the opposing fleets. Herodotus reports that the Persians earlier had lost up to 400 triremes during a storm off the coast of Magnesia and perhaps another 50 at the Battle of Artemisium. But he also claims that those losses had been replaced by the time of Salamis, and the Persian fleet still stood at 1,200. Other contemporary sources report the Persians as being down to about 900 ships. Either way, they still vastly outnumbered the Greeks. The allied fleet only had about 370 ships from 21 different city-states. With 180 ships, the Athenian contingent was by far the largest. The next largest was Corinth, with 40 ships, followed by Aegina with 30. Sparta provided only 16 ships. A political compromise had resulted in the Spartan Eurybiades being designated the official commander of the combined fleet—even though the Spartans had no real naval expertise. As official second in command, however, Themistocles was the de facto fleet commander.
As the Persians considered their next move, Artemisia reminded Mardonius that she and her five ships had fought well at Artemisium. Then she told Mardonius to tell Xerxes not to fight a naval battle, “because our enemies are much stronger in the sea than us, as men are to women.” With exacting strategic logic, she argued that a naval battle made no sense, because the Persians already had Athens, and the Greeks could no longer hope to hold out against the main Persian army. For one thing, the Greeks did not have enough food stored up for a long siege. And once the Persians started to move toward southern Greece, the various Greek contingents from the Peloponnese would withdraw immediately to defend their own cities, leaving the Athenians on their own.
Many of the Persian commanders, jealous and resentful of the only female commander on either side of the war, were secretly happy with Artemisia’s advice, assuming it would discredit her completely with Xerxes. But to their chagrin, he commended Artemisia for her sound reasoning.
Still Xerxes was undecided. To provoke him into attacking, Themistocles sent a messenger to the Persian king telling him that the Greek alliance was falling apart under the pressure from Persia and that some of the Greek forces intended to abandon the Athenians. The messenger also reported that Themistocles himself was hoping for a Persian victory. If Xerxes moved his fleet quickly to block both ends of the narrow straits, he could bag the entire Greek navy almost without a fight.
Xerxes had Mardonius poll his senior commanders for their recommendations on a course of action. With only one dissenting voice, they recommended a sea battle to eliminate the Greek navy once and for all. The one negative vote came from Artemisia. Xerxes decided to accept the majority recommendation. He was convinced that his fleet had fought poorly at Artemisium because he had not been on the scene watching them. This time it would be different. Xerxes intended to observe the entire battle from a high hill on the coast of the mainland side of the straits. From there he would be able to see everything. Scribes accompanying him would record all the ships’ captains who fought well and those who did not. The latter would later be put to death.
Assuming they were going to have an easy time of it facing a disorganized and deteriorating enemy, the Persian fleet moved into the straits during the night, hugging the friendly north- east shore. They formed three echelons, sterns to the shore, and waited for dawn. But as it started to turn light, the Persians could hear from the far shore the sounds of the paean, the traditional Greek battle hymn. That was the Persians’ first indication that the Greeks were hardly preparing to run or surrender. Coming out from both sides of a small peninsula on the island of Salamis, the Greek ships fanned out along the southwest side of the straits and turned to face the Persians. Then the Greek ships back-watered, almost up against the rocky shore, making it impossible for the Persians to get in behind them. Each Greek trireme allowed itself plenty of room to maneuver.
The Persian fleet rushed forward. With Xerxes seated on the hill to their rear watching and his scribes taking names, none of the ships’ captains wanted to look like a laggard. The rear echelons pushed forward so hard that they started to run into the rear of the ships in the lead echelon, colliding with them and disabling their rudders. The Persian ships had no room to maneuver right or left, forward or reverse. They were in a state of total chaos even before they made contact with the first Greek ship. Almost 1,900 years later at the land Battle of Agincourt, the French army attacking in too densely packed formations against the English would make the same mistake—and pay the same price.
Xerxes, sitting on his golden throne on the high hill, could only watch helplessly as the disaster played out. As the Persians were going down to defeat, Artemisia’s ship came under attack by an Athenian trireme. But Artemisia was blocked in on all sides by her allies. With nowhere to go, Artemisia purposely rammed one of the Persian ships, which then sank. When the Athenian captain saw that, he broke off his own attack, either assuming that Artemisia’s trireme was a Greek ship or a Persian one that had switched sides during the battle. Either way, Artemisia made her escape. Watching all this from the hill, one of Xerxes’s scribes said: “Master, dost thou see Artemisia, how well she is fighting, and how she sank even now a ship of the enemy?”
Believing that Artemisia really had sunk an enemy ship, rather than one of his own, Xerxes famously replied: “My men have become women, and my women men.” After the battle the great king personally presented Artemisia with a complete suit of Greek armor as a battle trophy.
If the captain of the Athenian trireme had known that he was chasing Artemisia’s ship, he almost certainly would not have broken off his attack. The Greeks were outraged that they were forced to fight against a female commander, and the allies had even put up a bounty of 10,000 drachmas for any man who could take her alive. (In the fifth century BC one drachma was the standard day’s wage for a skilled worker or for a hoplite infantryman.)
As the battle progressed, the left end of the Greek battle line flanked the Persian right wing, and the Greeks methodically pushed the surviving Persian ships out of the eastern end of the straits and back into the Aegean. By the time the battle was over, the Greeks had lost only 40 ships to the Persians’ 200 to 300. Many more Persian ships were severely damaged. Most of the Greek crews who went into the water made it back to the shore on Salamis Island. Many of the Persian crewmen could not swim, and most of those who went into the water drowned. No one survived from the ship that Artemisia rammed and sank.
Among the Persian dead was Ariabignes, Xerxes’s brother. According to the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, it was Artemisia who spotted Ariabignes’s body floating in the wreckage and recovered it, returning it to Xerxes.
Xerxes was bewildered by his unexpected defeat. His large army depended on resupply by sea, but his fleet had been decimated. He had two options: Take command of the Persian army personally and attempt to fight a way into the Peloponnese or return to Persia and leave Mardonius in command of about 300,000 troops to mop up the Greeks. Once again speaking her mind, Artemisia told Xerxes that since he had accomplished his original objective of punishing Athens, he should return to Persia and let Mardonius continue the war. If Mardonius succeeded, the glory of the victory would still belong to Xerxes. But if Mardonius failed, Xerxes could blame it on an underling. Confident he could crush the Greeks, Mardonius was only too happy for the opportunity. Xerxes accepted Artemisia’s recommendation. With about half his army and the remnants of his fleet, Xerxes started back toward the Hellespont.
Things did not work out well for the Persians. In summer 479 the main Greek army under Pausanias of Sparta decisively defeated Mardonius at the Battle of Plataea. The following month the Greek fleet operating off the coast of Ionia captured almost everything that was left of the Persian fleet at the Battle of Mycale. The second Persian invasion was over and Greece was safe from internal threat.
Greece, however, was still internally divided. Almost 20 years after the Battle of Salamis, the Greeks blundered into the first of the two disastrous Peloponnesian Wars that pitted Athens and Sparta and their respective allies against each other. For the next 56 years Persia largely sat on the sidelines but took every opportunity to meddle in the conflict and keep it going. The struggle between Greece and Persia finally ended after Alexander III (the Great) of Macedon took the war directly into the empire’s Asian heartland and defeated Persia in 330 BC.
When Xerxes had started marching back to Persia after Salamis, he had entrusted Artemisia to transport his sons from Greece to Ephesus near Halicarnassus. After that, Artemisia disappears from the historical record. Her grandson Lygdamis II became king of Halicarnassus and forced the young Herodotus and his family out of town when they ran afoul of him. But that did not keep Herodotus from writing favorably of Artemisia. In his Histories, he devotes a lengthy passage to her, calling her an officer “at whom I especially marvel, who being a woman went to war against Greece….She took part in the expedition on account of her daring and manly courage, and not under any compulsion.”
Major General David T. Zabecki (U.S. Army ret.) is the chief military historian for the Weider History Group. He holds a doctorate in military history from Britain’s Royal Military College of Science and has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.