Queen Artemisia I

Queen Artemisia I Of Halicarnassus, also known as Artemisia of Caria is thought to be one of the first, if not the first female pirate from the Mediterranean. We know little about her other than that which was recorded in Herodotus’s Histories and Polyaenus’s Statagems of War. Tracing her life and achievements is complicated by the lack of primary sources and the need to separate fact from fiction, a process that has been further complicated due to her story receiving the ‘Hollywood treatment’ in the graphic novel and film 300 and its squeal 300: Rise of an Empire of which she was the focus. This post is going to look at her life, her piracy and her military successes. First though, it is going to look at why we know so little about female pirates, and what piracy looked like in Artemisia’s time.

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Piracy is one of the oldest professions in the world, and whilst we tend to think of it as the career of men with eye patches, wooden legs and parrots, Laura Sook Duncombe, writes that “Female pirates have fought alongside and, in some cases, in command of their male counterparts since ancient times…”. In spite of the superstition held by sailors that women at sea were bad luck, female pirates have existed everywhere and in almost every period of pirate history. So, why then do we know so little about them? 

The first and biggest issue is that piracy has been recorded by and from the perspective of men and has therefore come to be seen as uch is seen as a male pursuit. The sea, and ships are seen as female, uncharted islands are virgin territory for men to conquer, and so admitting women sailed on and controlled it upsets the status quo. The second issue is that there is little to no documentary evidence supporting the existence of female pirates, newspaper reports and court papers are rare and to date, no first-person account from a female pirate has ever been discovered. This is especially problematic for those women of ‘low birth’ whose early  lives were of no interest and therefore not recorded, so their stories have been lost. 

At the time Artemisia sailed, piracy was different to the accepted picture we have today, Laura Sook Duncombe described them as “…more like enemy powers who raided other city-states on both land and sea…more like intertribal warfare than nationless piracy.” The methods they employed, such as lying in wait for the quarry, plundering large merchant ships, and using the geography to their advantage were techniques that continued to be used by those who came after them.  Just as the pirating in Artemisia’s time was different, so were the ships they used, bearing “…little resemblance to the tall-masted ships with billowing sails depicted in movies and television.”  The most common ships of the period were gallery ships known as biremes and triremes, which were thought to have been invented by the Phoenicians. 

(Bireme warship-image from:https://sirusblog.wordpress.com/bireme-phoenician-warship/)

They were made of wood and measured between 80 and 130 feet long and had either two (bi) or three (tri) banks of oars. They were made for speed and were easy to manoeuvre, when the weather was favourable they might use a single, but their main power came from rowers. Each ship needed between 100 and 200 rowers, who were more often than not slaves. Biremes and triremes had sharp, pointed bows, which were sometimes covered in metal making them perfect for ramming other ships. It was common for large eyes to be painted on the bows so they could “see” their prey, depictions of them can be seen on pottery.

Pirates would pick ships which were smaller, making them asker to hide and maneuver and faster versions of the biremes and triremes, which were light enough to travel in shallow waters. A pirate ship had no chance against a ramming bireme, so to be successful they needed to be able to outrun and out maneuver the larger ships. Illyrian pirates were said to have invented their own type of ship called lembi, they had a single bank of oars and no sails, so they were small and very fast, allowing them to sneak up on larger ships, attack them, and then then zip away to shallower and safer waters. Less sophisticated pirates sailed in dugout canoes and on raft-like crafts. 

We do not know exactly when Artemisia was born, just that it was sometime in the 5th century, her name is derived from that of the Greek goddess Artemis. She was the daughter of King Lygdamis of Halicarnassus, and a Cretan mother, whose name is unknown, nothing is known about her childhood, other than it was spent in Halicarnassus. In 500 BCE she married the king of Halicarnassus, whose name has been lost to history (holy plot twist, Batman). The couple were married just prior to the Ionian Revolt, which was partly responsible for triggering the war between Greece and Persia. When her husband died, Artemisia took the throne of Caria acting as regent for their son Pisindelis. 

What Artemisia’s day to day life would have been like is not known nor do we know for certain when she began her pirating career, and care must be taken as some have attributed accomplishments to her when they were actually the accomplishments of Artemisia II. For women in Greece, where they lived impacted how they lived, and how much freedom they had outside of the house. A Halicarnassian marble relief sculpture dating from the first or second century BCE, shows two female gladiators locked in combat, suggesting women had power outside of the domestic sphere. As Laura Sook Duncombe writes, “Rather than depicting women washing dishes or lying around in perfumed robes, the Halicarnassian artist presented women as warriors.” Artemisia certainly acted as a warrior, as a queen she could have simply given her fleet orders from the safety of land instead she waged war “…with relish, not just commanding her fleet but actually taking the helm of her own ship.” 

We know Artemisia was sailing for Xerxes I, by the time of the Battle of Salamis, which took place in 480 BCE. Xerxes I, was a Persian king who wanted to conquer all of Greece. With her homeland, Caria under Persian control, Artemisia sailed with the Persians, although some have speculated that secretly she was sympathetic to the Greeks and disliked the Persian’s. However, evidence shows she plundered ships belonging to both nations, so perhaps her loyalty was only to herself and her people. 

Xerxes wanted revenge on the Greeks for the defeat suffered by Persian forces in 490 BCE at the Battle of Marathon. The Persian force was reported as being “…the largest ever assembled in the world up to that point” as queen Artemisia did not need to be at the battle in person, her decision to lead her troops was her own. Herodotus wrote of her exploits;

“I pass over all the other officers [of the Persians] 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…” – Herodotus 

Artemisia, distinguished herself as a brilliant commander and military strategist during the naval battle of Artemisium. It’s said she would sail with two standards and would display whichever would give her the greatest advantage, such as using the Greek standard as a way to avoid being attacked until she was in a favourable position, or changing it if she needed to make her escape. Such was the impression she made, following the battle the Greeks placed a bounty of 10,000 drachmas on her head. Not that it stopped her taking part in the next battle. 

The Battle of Artemisium, was considered a “…tactical Persian victory…” as after three days the Greek fleet retreated, which gave the Persian fleet the opportunity to regroup and plan their next step. After the defeat of the Greek forces at Thermopylae, the Persian army marched from their base at the Hellespont across the mainland of Greece and razed Athens. Xerxes called a war council to determine his next move, his options were to meet the Greeks in a sea battle in hopes of scoring a decisive victory, cut off their supplies or harassing their communities until they had no option but to sue for peace. Xerxes sent his lead general, Mardonius to speak with his gathered allies, all except Artemisia, agreed that they should engage the Greeks at sea.  Herodotus gives an account of Artemisia’s role at the council and the respect Xerxes placed on her opinion:

“So here is my advice: do not commit the fleet to battle, because at sea your men will be as inferior to the Greeks as women are to men. In any case, why should you have to run the risk of a sea battle? Have you not captured Athens, which was the point of the campaign? Do you not control the rest of Greece?…do not rush into a sea battle, master, but keep your fleet here close to shore, all you need do to gain all your objectives without any effort is either wait here or advance into the Peloponnese. The Greeks do not have the resources to hold out against you for any length of time; you will scatter them and they will retreat to their various towns and cities.”-Herodotus.

Herodotus, goes on to say there was fear amongst Artemisia’s friends that her words would anger the king who would punish her, but that those who “…envied and resented her prominence within the alliance were pleased with her reply because they thought she would be put to death.”  Xerxes, who already had a high opinion of Artemisia, was pleased with her suggestion, however, he ordered  that the majority view was the one to follow.

Despite not agreeing with the strategy, Artemisia was at the helm of her ship, the Lykos, when the battle began. Some sources say she was positioned in the second Persian line toward the southern side of the battle, near the Gulf of Aegina. The Greeks feigned a retreat luring the Persian fleet into the straits of Salamis where they launched a surprise attack. Which was to their advantage as the Greek ships were more agile and therefore able to inflict great damage on the larger Persian ships which were unable to navigate the narrow confines due to their size. 

Surrounded by the remenints of Persian ships, bodies of the dead and the screams of dying Artemisia knew her prediction had come true, and with no interest in joining the dead she knew it was time to make her escape. The problem was she was in the centre of the battle, with her path to safety blocked by allied Calyndian ships and the Geeks quickly advancing. Artemisia’s solution was to slam her ship into an ally ship at full speed, with some sources claiming that before she made her move, she lowered her Persian flag and raised a Greek one to confuse the Greek fleet. Xerxes, who had been watching the battle from a hill high above the bay with some of his advisors, when one of his advisors saw Artemisia’s move, he incorrectly assumed she had sunk an enemy ship and informed the king of her victory. In response, Xerxes is reported to have said, “My men have become women and my women have become men.” According to Herodotus, Xerxes never discovered that Artemisia had actually sunk a Persian ship because nobody from the Calyndian vessel lived to tell the tale of her treachery. But the Greeks knew, and assumed she was either Greek or she had deserted the Persians and changed direction allowing her to make her escape. 

In the face of defeat, Xerxes general Mardonius, suggested he remain in Greece with 300,000 men and subdue the Greeks while Xerxes returned home. Before he decided, Xerxes called another council to determine if it was the best plan as Mardonius had been one of those who supported the ill-fated sea battle. He made sure to invite Artemisia as she was the only one who suggested a realistic plan of action. She agreed with Mardonius’s plan, Herodotus once more provides the details: 

“I think you should pull back and leave Mardonius here with the troops he’s asking for, since he’s offering to do that of his own free will. My thinking is that if he succeeds in the conquests he says he has set himself, and things go as he intends, the achievement is yours, Master, because it was your slaves who did it. But if things go wrong for Mardonius, it will be no great disaster as regards your survival and the prosperity of your house.” – Herodotus. 

This time, Xerxes followed her advice and  withdrew from Greece, leaving Mardonius to fight the rest of the campaign for him, Mardonius was killed at the Battle of Platae the following year, in what was another decisive victory for the Greeks ending the Persian invasion of Europe.

(Coin from the time of Artemisia-image from:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CARIA_Circa_480-460_BC.jpg)

Artemisia was tasked with escorting, Xerxes’ illegitimate children to safety in Ephesos, and after this she seems to vanish from the historical record. There are differing versions about what happened to her, one suggestion is that she gave up her seafaring ways and lived out her days as a surrogate mother and teacher to the boys.  An idea which Laura Sook Duncombe, suggests is “…popular with male historians as a way of diminishing the power of a warrior woman’s legend.” It is possible, she retired and chose to lay low in fear of Xerxes discovering her treachery.

Another story, which was written by Photios, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in the first century CE, claimed that after her arrival in Ephesos, Artemisia fell in love with a prince named Dardanus, who for unknown reasons, rejected her love. This rejection caused Artemisia, such despair that she threw herself into the sea and drowned. There is no evidence to support this version of events, nor is there evidence it did not happen, “…save the character of the woman as depicted in the ancient histories.” So what happened to her remains a mystery. 

Most of what we know of Artemisia’s story comes from Herodotus, but how reliable is he as a source? There is no reason to believe that his general outline is anything but accurate, i.e. that the Persians were defeated in the naval battle at Salamis. However, it seems impossible that he was privy to the Persian discussions, how Xerxes came to arrive at his decisions, or what he thought of Artemisia, and therefore, “Whatever he puts into the mouths of Xerxes, Artemisia, or Mardonius is almost certainly a fabrication.”

Artemisia’s exploits show she was brave, smart and a respected military tactician, this has caused her to be remembered when her husband has long been forgotten. Whilst she might not fit with our idea of a pirate, her techniques would be used by those who came after her. A pirate and a warrior, she was truly a formidable woman who deserves to be remembered and celebrated. 

Author- Gemma Apps.


Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas By Laura Sook Duncombe. (2017)

Pirates: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. By Charles Johnson. (2012)






Encyclopaedia Womannica Podcast.


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