Artemis I, queen of ancient Halicarnassus, is almost unknown to the general public. Certainly, Hollywood paid him a unique tribute in 300: The Birth of an Empire, the American film by Israeli director Noam Murro, in 2014. The sublime Eva Green lent her features in this graphic peplum with saturated colors. But this Artemise of cinema, poisonous lover of the Athenian strategist Themistocles, has little to do with reality.
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To touch it, we must return to the texts of Herodotus - more poet than historian - who recounts his achievements forty years after the battle of Salamis in 480 BC. between the Greeks and their Persian invaders. Artemis was the daughter of the king of Halicarnassus, Lygdamis. During his father's reign, his kingdom, located in Caria (in present-day Turkey), came under the rule of the king of kings, Darius I. Lygdamis retained his position in exchange for tribute.
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At that time, in the East, women could exercise power in the absence of male successors. On Lygdamis' death, Artemis inherited her father's crown. When Xerxes I, the son of Darius, decided to colonize mainland Greece, he included the sovereign in his military council. Although a woman, he held her in high regard for her wise advice. The Queen provided him with armed contingents and five warships.
Artémise 1st leaving at the battle of Salamis, by Juan Justo Huguet. AFP Forum
After a victorious Persian military campaign until the famous Battle of Thermopylae, where three hundred elite Spartan soldiers sacrificed themselves, Xerxes' fleet decided to attack the Greeks in the narrow bay of Salamis. The king of kings is not aware that the strategist Themistocles has set a trap for him by luring him into this inlet located between an arid island and the Attic coast. Themistocles had only three hundred war triremes against a thousand Persian ships, but in the heart of this cramped cape where great maneuvers were impossible, the Greeks gained the upper hand. Artémise herself commands her fleet aboard her flagship. An experienced sailor, she is bold on the battlefield. The queen knows that the Greeks have put a price on her head, because they cannot stand the idea that a woman can lead warriors and inflict defeats on them.
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Suddenly, Artemis' ship is chased by a Greek trireme trying to sink it. The queen ordered the withdrawal, but an allied ship blocked her way. Without any qualms, she orders to ram it. The Greeks then believe they have mistakenly pursued one of their own and change course. From the shore where he observes the battle, Xerxes is convinced that Artemis has sunk a Greek ship...
At sunset, the Persians note their defeat and leave the bay of Salamis. Xerxes, however, considers that only Artémis fought well. He offers her armor to thank her while he gives cattails to his other admirals. By emphasizing the value of Artemisia, he willingly humiliates his men.
Certainly, Artemis made history by a disloyal ruse that saved her life. She was nonetheless a respected warrior queen. What a woman must be to make the proud Greek hoplites tremble!
*Virginie Girod has a doctorate in history. Find her in the podcast Au cœur de l'histoire, from Europe 1 Studio, on your favorite listening platform.