Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus: Wonder of the World

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There were actually two queens of Halicarnassus called Artemisia. In the 4th century BC, one built a mausoleum to her husband, that was so beautiful that it became acknowledged as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but she was the later, and at least for our purposes, the secondary holder of the name. Her predecessor’s time in the spotlight came during the Battle of Salamis, in the year 480 BC – the story of how she arrived there, leading a squadron of ships, would occupy the bulk of the movie, with the battle as the climax. Artemisia had married the King of Halicarnassus about twenty years earlier and when he died a few years later, took the throne for herself.

There is more speculation involved than historical fact, but since very little – not even the King’s name! – is known for sure, and nobody suggested making a documentary, we can be forgiven some dramatic license in the next couple of paragraphs. I think portraying him as an older man, who takes Artemisia as a young trophy wife, would be a credible assumption. I see him being sick for a time before death, so she runs the state in his name and makes a really good job of it. After he passes, Most of the nobles, all the people and even the Persian overloads are keen for her to continue, but nothing is ever that easy.

Every film needs a villain, so let’s have some evil characters in the background. Give the old King a son from a previous marriage; a real nasty type, with a beautiful (but even nastier!) wife. They expect to rule when the King dies, but make no attempt to help Artemisia in running the place – indeed, quite the opposite, they cause nothing but trouble. With little home support, the stepson gets some from a nearby enemy city. The two sides battle for control, Artemisia wins, and her rivals for power flee into exile. It is safe to assume that she didn’t get the throne without some kind of a fight, and if we include Persian assistance for our heroine, this would explain why she later supported their cause, in gratitude for their help.

Now back to historical fact. Halicarnassus was one of the Ionian Greek States on the West coast of what is now Turkey. It is known that Artemisia led her ships in action against other Greek city-states long before the main battle. There is nothing unusual in this as the Greek states often fought amongst themselves. She gained enough success to become a military advisor to King Xerxes of Persia, the world superpower of its day.

The Persian Empire was a huge collection of diverse races united only in the tributes they paid to Xerxes. A select group of these subservient allies plus some of his own officials made up his military council. Artemisia was a member of the council and she alone spoke against taking on the Athenians in a naval battle. She advised him that the fleet would be better employed in supporting the army. Athens had already been occupied, and the whole of Greece lay open, but if the Persian fleet were decisively defeated, most of the army would have to withdraw as it could no longer be supplied from the sea. She wasn’t predicting disaster – but she wasn’t ruling it out either and considered it not worth the risk.

This would make a very dramatic scene, and would also be historically accurate. Xerxes liked her and listened to what she had to say, but went ahead and tried to smash the Athenian fleet anyway. Over-confident to the point that he set up his golden throne to watch the battle, Xerxes was to be disappointed. Although heavily outnumbered, the Greeks out-thought, out-manoeuvred and then out-fought their foes, gaining in the process one of the most important and decisive naval victories of all time. The battle itself was of enormous importance and if the Greeks had lost, it is quite possible that their civilization as a separate entity would have been extinguished. In the past it has been impossible to do such battles justice, but in the era of CGI, it can be done.

Artemisia’s part in the battle is well documented, although there does seem to be some minor variations. I have tweaked my favourite version for the purposes of the movie version. She is in the thick of the battle and her ships have been holding their own. Elsewhere things are going badly for the Persians as the allied fleet, starts to disintegrates. Realising that the cause is lost and that it is now time to abandon her rearguard action and look to her own survival, Artemisia plans her escape. With a Greek trireme bearing down on her ship, and her escape route blocked by the confused melee of ships she increases speed and heads straight for them. If a collision was inevitable, it will be on her terms. She lines up the ship of her hated enemy, King Clamasithymus who, while nominally on the Persian side, was the one who aided her stepson and gave him refuge. At full speed she smashes into the King’s vessel, her trireme’s underwater ram punching a hole in it below the waterline. The trireme backs off and as its victim sinks, Artemisia notices with some satisfaction that her stepson is on board. Convinced that the Queen has changed sides, the Greeks let her withdraw her squadron from the battle.

It has been recorded that Xerxes watched from the beach and when Artemisia rammed her rival exclaimed, “The men behaved like women, and the women like heroes.” It has been suggested that Xerxes was unaware of who she rammed, but I don’t buy this. Calling it a Persian fleet is done as a convenience, because describing it as a combined Phoenician, Egyptian, Cypriot, Cilician and Ionian-Greek fleet, is so cumbersome. Persia was a land empire and called on its allies and vassal states to provide ships. These were peoples who were natural rivals most of the time and would need little incentive to start fighting each other, especially as they try and escape the Greek trap. Artemisia only did what everyone else was trying to do – she just did it with style. The recognised facts support this view: after the battle, she remained on good terms with Xerxes while most of the fleet, and Xerxes himself, returned to their home countries

Meanwhile, back at the movies, how should the character of Artemisia be played? I see a beautiful lady who exudes an air of quiet dignity when required for ceremonial purposes, but is firm and decisive when decisions need to be made. In council she would command respect with her delivery of articulate intelligent argument. In battle she would be tough and ruthless, but fair and willing to give credit where it is due. The sort of commander men will follow into the jaws of hell. There may well be others that could do justice to the role, but if it was up to me, I would give it to Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Although it has been suggested, I’d prefer not to include a full-blown relationship between Xerxes and Artemisia. Xerxes was a man who would not have been short of mistresses, but would never dream of bringing one to a war council. It is quite possible that he liked the idea of putting Artemisia to the sword (so to speak!), leading to some unresolved sexual tension, but I much prefer the idea that she was there entirely on her own merits. Someone like John Rhys-Davies, might make a good Xerxes.

Since Artemisia was fighting on what is historically regarded as “the wrong side,” some time will have to be spent on her motivation. I think it reasonable that she believes that the Greeks and Persians should be united – she was after all a Greek living under Persian rule. At the end of the film, a narrator could mention that it was 150 years later that this happened, but not in the way that Artemisia expected. Oliver Stone notwithstanding, it took the genius of Alexander the Great to conquer both Persia and Greece, bringing them together at last.

Further reading: Herodotus on Artemisia

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