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Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus

By Yona Williams    11/18/09

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While Persian king Xerxes was invading Greece, one of his allies happened to be a strong queen by the name of Artemesia, who ruled over Halicarnassus sometime around 480 BCE. In this article, you will learn more about the queen, who was regarded as a tough leader and warrior.

Women were not the ideal choice in rulers during ancient times, and it was only by default that Artemisia succeeded her father (Lygdamis) as the ruler of Halicarnassus – a Graeco-Carian city linked to the empire of Persian Achaemenids. Persian officials preferred their cities run by a single man, and often turned their noses at oligarchy they viewed as uncontrollable and democracies. Most of what we know about the queen comes from a Greek researcher (and fellow Halicarnassian) named Herodotus, who wrote about her in the 'Histories.'

In his writings, Herodotus tells of the Persian invasion of Greece led by Xerxes that took place in 480 BCE. It was Artemisia who commanded five ships originating from her small state, which involved her Graeco-Carian capital and Cos, Nisyros, and Calydna. When Xerxes' army made their way to Europe, it is said that the queen of Halicarnassus and the king of Calynda engaged in an argument – although the subject of their disagreement is unclear.

Herodotus states that Artemesia was a brave opponent when naval battles took place off of Artemisium. She also warned against a naval engagement at Salamis. When conflict did occur, the Persian fleet already encountered defeat. As Artemesia's ship attempted to escape from the Greek captain named Ameinias of Pallene, her vessel actually collided with the ship of Damasitheos, who did not sail away a survivor of the attack. According to Herodotus, Xerxes gave praise to Artemisia's courage; even though he did not known that the sinking ship was one of his own vessels.

Following the battle, Artemesia advised Xerxes not to stay in Greece, telling him the smartest thing to do would be to return to Asia. The queen makes another appearance in Herodotus' accounts in which she brings Xerxes' sons from Greece to Ephesus. The exact details of her life thereafter remain a mysterious, but there is evidence of the connection between the queen and Xerxes.

A trip to the British Museum reveals a calcite jar measuring nearly 30 centimeters high was uncovered in the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. This tomb belonged to an important leader named Maussolus, who ruled during a later period than Artemesia. Made in Egypt, the object possesses a rather brief inscription in Egyptian, Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite – which translates into "The great king Xerxes." While the inscription isn’t exactly something to brag about, it's the location where the jar was found. Since it was uncovered in the Halicarnassian Mausoleum, it shows a significant link to Xerxes.

Only the king himself could have gifted such an object bearing a royal signature considered in some circles as being holy. Researchers believe it was given to the ruler of Halicarnassus, queen Artemisia. Over the years, the valued gift passed along the Carian royal line and eventually played the role of funeral gift to Maussolus and his wife, who interestingly bore the name Artemisia and shared the warrior-like qualities of the queen before her.

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