Posted by: Alastair Rosie | December 15, 2013

Captain Artemisia

A while back I penned a short story about how a young Danish slave encountered a vampire, Morganna at the old Saxon port of Southampton. The tale can be found and downloaded here and will hopefully form part of an anthology about my vampires, Clan Grey Raven. An upcoming novel with the working title ‘Cat’s Story,’ will introduce these new vampires but back to Sigrid’s Tale. In this story I introduced Morganna, the queen of Clan Grey Raven as the captain of a trading ship who encounters Oswine, a Saxon pimp for want of a better term, and ‘negotiates’ the release of his slaves at the point of a sword.
At the time of writing I thought I was veering into dangerously fantastical mythology having a female captain of a ship. After all, this was the time of King Alfred and although he was confined to the land of the West Saxons, the influence of the church was beginning to severely restrict the roles that women took. It would become much worse for women after the Norman invasion and occupation. Morganna and her companions are strong characters, not about to be cowed into submission by anyone, male or female.
Just recently however I picked up a book from Publisher’s Warehouse in Glasgow, Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism by Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles. It’s a hefty tome filled with dozens of stories of women from around the world who broke through the constraints imposed by society and took the lead. There are lots of pictures to go with the stories and at the very start is the story of Artemisia, a queen of the Persian satrapy of Caria (southwestern Turkey).
We first hear of her in the writings of Herodotus and that puts her firmly in the 5th Century BCE. Her father was the satrap (king) of Halicarnassus the largest city in Caria and her mother was from Crete. She took the throne after the death of her husband because her son was still a youth we are told.

She took the throne at a time when her overlord, Xerses I was embarking on his second invasion of Greece. He had been defeated a few years previously at the Battle of Marathon but this time he meant to try again. The battles that were fought have passed into legend, the heroic stand of the Spartans at the Pass of Thermopylae and the sea battles of Artemisium and Salamis. Our heroine was present at both these sea battles, we know this because a Greek writer, Herodotus wrote about her in his histories. The fact that he wrote about her is unusual, she was on the other side, and she was female. Herodotus was much maligned by his peers because he portrayed the non-Greeks in a more sympathetic light. This earned him the name, philobarbaros, literally lover of barbarians. A barbarian to the ancient Greeks was anyone who wasn’t Greek. It’s because of his critics that modern writers have paid more attention to his writings because he was mercifully free of the Greek xenophobia.
He describes her in his Histories Volume II.

Of the rest of the officers I make no mention by the way (since I am not bound to do so), but only of Artemisia, at whom I marvel most that she joined the expedition against Hellas, being a woman; for after her husband died, she holding the power herself, although she had a son who was a young man, went on the expedition impelled by high spirit and manly courage, no necessity being laid upon her.’

Interestingly enough he also credits her with being the only one of Xerses’ naval commanders to advise against a sea battle with the Greeks. She replied to his general, Mardonios in no uncertain terms.

Tell the king I pray thee, Mardonios, that I, who have proved myself not to be the worst in the sea-fights which have been fought near Euboea, and have displayed deeds not inferior to those of others, speak to him thus: Master, it is right that I set forth the opinion which I really have, and say that which I happen to think best for thy cause: and this I say, spare thy ships and do not make a sea-fight; for the men are as much stronger than thy men by sea, as men are stronger than women. And why must thou needs run the risk of sea-battles? Hast thou not Athens in thy possession, for the sake of which thou didst set forth on thy march, and also the rest of Hellas? and no man stands in thy way to resist, but those who did stand against thee came off as it was fitting that they should. Now the manner in which I think the affairs of thy adversaries will have their issue, I will declare. If thou do not hasten to make a sea-fight, but keep thy ships here by the land, either remaining here thyself or even advancing on to the Peloponnese, that which thou hast come to do, O master, will easily be effected; for the Hellenes are not able to hold out against thee for any long time, but thou wilt soon disperse them and they will take flight to their several cities: since neither have they provisions with them in this island, as I am informed, nor is it probable that if thou shalt march thy land-army against the Peloponnese, they who have come from thence will remain still; for these will have no care to fight a battle in defence of Athens. If however thou hasten to fight forthwith, I fear that damage done to the fleet may ruin the land-army also. Moreover, O king, consider also this, that the servants of good men are apt to grow bad, but those of bad men good; and thou, who art of all men the best, hast bad servants, namely those who are reckoned as allies, Egyptians and Cyprians and Kilikians and Pamphylians, in whom there is no profit

You can imagine the hastily drawn breaths after she finished talking. Xerses, as was the custom in those days, was a self styled god king and no man or woman could defy a god and expect to keep their head. Nevertheless when Mardonios relayed her message he was pleased with her reply and even commended her on her honesty.
Perhaps he should have taken her advice in hindsight. Artemisia turned out to be correct in her assessment. The Persian fleet was routed by the Greek triremes at Salamis. Artemisia was in the thick of the fighting and eventually found herself trapped and in danger of being sunk by a Greek vessel. In a bold move she turned and rammed a ship belonging to one of her allies, the Calyndians, their king, Damasithymos was on board. Herodotus states there had been bad blood between them before but as to whether that had influenced her we’re not sure. We do know that the Greek ship pursuing her turned away and Xerses was reported as saying. “My men have become women, and my women men.” With the benefit of hindsight it’s entirely possible in the confusion of battle no one knew she had sunk one of her own ships, there were no survivors.
In the aftermath of the battle Xerses seems to have come to his senses and called on her for advice and once again she didn’t hold back.

I think that you should retire and leave Mardonios behind with those whom he desires to have. If he succeed the honour will be yours because your slaves performed it. If on the other hand, he failed it will be no great matter as you will be safe and no danger threatens anything that concerns your house. And while you will be safe the Greeks will have to pass through many difficulties for their own existence. In addition, if Mardonios suffer a disaster who cares? He is just your slave and the Greeks will have but a poor triumph. As for yourself, you will be going home with the object for you campaign accomplished, for you have burnt Athens.”

Xerses heeded her advice and withdrew and with that we must leave Artemisia, we know she was richly rewarded by Xerses but as to her eventual end we only have the legend quoted by a patriarch of Constantinople some fifteen centuries later that has her falling in love with a younger man and going to an oracle to find out if she had the blessing of the gods. According to the myth the answer wasn’t what she wanted to hear and so she threw herself from a cliff. Personally I’d doubt that ending very much taking into account the sexism and bigotry that was creeping its way across Europe like a malignant cancer.
What do you think? If you’re an author, how would you portray her? Let me know in the comments box and in the next article we’ll talk about Telesilla. If you want to know a bit more about Artemisia please follow the links below and don’t forget to check out The Deepening Dark.


An exiled queen, a band of elves and the warrior cult known as the she bears are all that stands between General Bolksta and his conquest of Haydutia. Rhianna will need the luck of the gods if she is to hold back the tide of evil as an imperial army invades her country intent on turning Haydutia into just another province.


Histories of Herodotus Volume II is a free download from Gutenberg.

The Wikipedia article on Artemisia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: