“I pass over all the other officers [of the Persians] because there is no need for me to mention them, except for Artemisia,”
wrote Herodotus of the ancient queen of the Anatolian region of Caria. Today, the region is part of modern Turkey. In the fourth century B.C.E., it was in the crossfire between the Persian empire and the independent Greek city-states.
Caria’s queen, Artemisia I, was also its naval commander. History has called her courageous, intelligent, an excellent strategist, shrewd tactician. Daughter of a king, mother to an heir, probably no older than thirty, she personally chose to fight alongside the troops of King Xerxes of Persia.
She first caught the king’s attention in the naval battle of Artemisium. It is said she achieved tactical victory by applying a clever ruse:
Her ships had two flags: Persian and Greek. If an enemy ship was near, she would raise the Greek standard, avoiding conflict until she could more advantageously position her fleet. As a result, she was able to either assault or escape as a function of circumstance. King Xerxes exclaimed:
“My men have turned into women and my women into men!”
She became one of his most trusted advisors and was appointed Admiral of the Navy. Her most famous exploit, however, was yet to come, in 480 B.C.E.:
The Battle of Salamis, which the Persian forces fought and lost against the Greeks. Prior to engagement, King Xerxes had asked many, including Artemisia for advice.
All were in favor, except for Artemis, the only woman on the council too. But when the king decided to go into battle anyway, she did not hesitate.
Her loyalty to him never wavered; she and her fleet of five ships joined, and though the battle ended in Persian defeat, she maintained control over her ships and returned most of them safely to Persia.
Artemisia was named after the Greek goddess of the wild and patron of the hunters. Her Persian equivalent was the goddess of productivity and values. This Banu (Persian for lady) admiral had many admirable values herself:
She dared, as a woman, counsel a king with honesty and integrity, and stood firmly by her advice even when she was outnumbered.
She understood military strategy and prioritized long-term success over short-term gains; she fought battles with the whole war in mind and valued the lives of her men.
Last, she stood by her ally even when he acted against her advice. She followed him into a losing battle and fought with courage and adroitness.
Little is known of Artemisia’s fate after the battle of Salamis. There are stories of a lovesick suicide, or more sea adventures, or even piracy. Her legend, whatever it is, lives on to this day, still inspiring Iranian culture. She is a model for every modern Persian female warrior. Her message: think, have courage, act.