Artemisia, a Greek Admiral

Logo_smallArtemisia was queen of Halicarnassus (today’s Bodrum in Turkey) in the 5th century BC. Her kingdom was subject to the Persian empire, so when Xerxes mounted his invasion of Greece, she contributed a squadron of five triremes (galleys with three tiers of oarsmen and a crew of about 200). Herodotus reports that Artemisia’s squadron was the second best of the fleet (after the Phoenician). There is no doubt that Xerxes held her in high esteem and valued her opinion as a military leader: “But when the counsels were reported to Xerxes, he was greatly pleased by Artemisia’s opinion. Even before this he had considered her of excellent character, and now he praised her much more highly.” (Herodotus, Histories 8.69)

A Greek trireme.
A Greek trireme.

She was the only commander speaking out against attacking the Greek fleet at Salamis, invoking sound reasons that show a thorough understanding of the tactical as well as the strategic situation. Xerxes, however, did not follow her advice. As we know, the battle of Salamis was a disaster for the Persians: Their squadrons were first caught in an ambush by Greek galleys bolting out from a bay on the Persian flank and than impeded by the choppy sea, which favoured the low-lying Greek triremes.

Relief of a trireme
Relief of a trireme

When the Persian fleet turned to flight, Artemisia’s way was blocked by several friendly ships belonging to Damasithymos, king of the Calyndians. Chased by Athenians, Artemisia was in a tight spot. There seems also to have been some quarrel between her and the Calyndian king, so Artemisia seized the opportunity and rammed and sank Damasithymos’ trireme. This had the double effect of throwing the Athenians off her trail – they thought she was one of their allies, having just wrecked a vessel of the Persian fleet – as well as earning her praise from Xerxes, who watched the scene and assumed that she sank an Athenian ship.

We should not interpret this story as depicting Artemisia as an especially ruthless and devious person. In fact, Herodotus reports that numerous collisions occurred between the Persian ships when the first line started to retreat while the second advanced:

“Most of the ships were sunk when those in the front turned to flee, since those marshalled in the rear, as they tried to go forward with their ships so they too could display some feat to the king, ran afoul of their own side’s ships in flight.” (Herodotus, Histories 8.89)

Whatever we make of her motivation, the story shows that Artemisia was a competent commander who could seize an opportunity and knew how to use her ships to best effect.

Most wargames of Artemisia’s naval actions would not necessitate a figure representing her personally – her ships would be sufficient. Fortunately, early Greek triremes of the aphract type (meaning that the oarsmen were only partially protected) are available in many scales. More on the skirmish side of things are the stately 1/300th models offered by Langton Miniatures as well as the 1/600th triremes produced by Xyston and Skytrex. Langton and Navwar offer 1/1200th triremes, which would perhaps be more practical for fleet battles. The same goes for the 1/2400th models by Tumbling Dice. For those who want to recreate the battle of Salamis in 1:1 without spending a fortune, there are also the tiny 1/3600th ships from Outpost Wargames.

If you desperately want a figure representing Artemisia in person, there isn’t really anything out there. You might convert one of the 28mm Greek civilians, such as those offered by Warlord Games. In 15mm, the Parthian queen offered by Xyston could be pressed into service. If you find one, you could put her in command of the 28mm galleys made by Scheltrum Miniatures or by Old Glory, or of the 15mm vessels offered also by Old Glory.

Bibliography

Herodotus, The Histories, ed. A. D. Godley (available online)

Nelson, Richard: The Battle of Salamis, London: W. Luscombe 1975 (contains not only historical background but also very useful ideas for wargaming the battle)

Strauss, Barry S.: Salamis. The greatest naval battle of the ancient world, 480 B.C., London: Arrow 2005

 

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2 thoughts on “Artemisia, a Greek Admiral

  1. daggerandbrush April 20, 2015 / 1:35 am

    Highly interesting article. I did not know about Artemisia (maybe I heard of her once, but I can’t remember). I also enjoyed the clip of a working trireme. Very cool indeed.

    • cptshandy April 20, 2015 / 8:13 am

      Thanks! Yes, the Olympias is cool, I’d love to see her live in action…

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