Artemisia at war

War brings out the best and the worst in people. Or maybe it just brings out the worst, in many different shapes.

Construction and destruction of Troy, by Maître d'Orose [Public domain]

Construction and destruction of Troy, by Maître d’Orose [Public domain]

In the Ilias, Hector takes his leave from Andromache and their baby. If he doesn’t survive the war, his small son will be killed and his wife will become a slave.

“So speaking glorious Hector reached out to his child.

But the baby shrank back to the breast of his well-belted nurse

crying, panicking at the sight of his own father

frightened at both the bronze and the helmet with its crest of horse-hair,

thinking it was nodding dreadfully down from the crest of his helmet.

His dear father and mother laughed aloud.

Straightaway glorious Hector removed the helmet from his head

and laid it down, all shining, on the ground.

Then he kissed his beloved son and rocked him in his arms.

He spoke, praying to Zeus and the other gods:

“Zeus and the other gods, grant that this child of mine

may become, as I am, pre-eminent among the Trojans,

this powerful in strength, and rule over Ilion in strength.

And let someone say one day, “This fellow is much better than his father

when he returns from fighting. Let him kill an enemy,

bring back the bloody armour and delight the heart of his mother.””

(Iiad, book  VI)

Later, Hector is killed by Achilles, who triumphantly drags his dead body around the walls of Troy. Hector’s father is prepared to kiss Achilles’ hand just to be allowed to bury him. This is war, some 3000 years ago.

Hector brought back to Troy, Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Hector brought back to Troy, Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons

But surely today, war could also mean restoring law and order by dropping a few sophisticated bombs? No, it couldn’t. Our recent experiences in Somalia and Iraq show that this type of war will not lead to stability and democracy. War hasn’t really changed since ancient times. It still means atrocities on all sides, combined with huge doses of propaganda and misinformation. War means making horrible decisions.

In 480 BCE the Persians invaded Greece for the second time in a decade. After they ravaged the Acropolis in Athens King Xerxes and the Persians with their supporters met the Greeks for a showdown in a sea battle, in the narrow straits between the island of Salamis and the western coast of mainland Greece.

Bonnie MacLachlan, “Women in Ancient Greece, A sourcebook”, Bloomsbury

Queen Artemisia of Caria was a subject ally of Xerxes. When he asked his military leaders for advice, she spoke out against it:

“I am telling you this – spare your ships and make no battle at sea! For their men are as much stronger than yours at sea as men are stronger than women. Why should you put yourself at risk on all fronts in a naval battle? Don’t you have control of Athens for the sake of which you set out this campaign? And don’t you control the rest of Greece?”

Against all expectations, Xerxes did not have Artemisia killed for being disinclined to engage in battle. But he did decide to fight at sea and Artemisia found herself commanding a ship and being pursued by the Greeks, without room to manoeuvre because her way out was blocked by a Calyndian ship, fighting for Xerxes.

Tomb of Xerxes, Iran, by Roodiparse (Own work) [Public domain]

Tomb of Xerxes, Iran, by Roodiparse (Own work) [Public domain]

Artemisia did the only thing she could do to save her life: she rammed and sunk the friendly ship. The captain of the pursuing Attic trireme supposed that Artemisia was a Persian deserter fighting on the Greek side. He turned away. There were no survivors on the Calyndian ship to accuse her and Xerxes was so proud of her sinking what he thought was an enemy ship that he said:

“My men have become women, and the woman men!” (Herodotus, Histories 8.88 14-15)

Like Xerxes, I think war can change people profoundly. Maybe it’s wrong that we’ve now got professional armies, that we can bomb the enemy from navy vessels or from the air, guided by politicians who do not expect their wives to be violated and their children killed. But we shouldn’t forget that the percentage of civilians ending up dead has risen steeply since ancient times. And that the sorrows of war will last for generations.

The stories of Andromache and Artemisia were found in “Women in Ancient Greece, A sourcebook”, by Bonnie MacLachlan.


27 thoughts on “Artemisia at war

  1. I totally agree with you, well almost totally. Nobody really shines in war. It is a horrible thing. And yet if we hadn’t fought the Nazis, I guess they would have won and that would have been worse than a war?

    • Great question, butimbeautiful! I can’t answer that one. Personally, I’m a great believer in civil disobedience. Like when the Nazis demanded that the Jewish people would wear a yellow star and nearly everyone decided to wear a yellow star. Sadly, this is an exceptional story. So I guess there are cases when you need to engage in war. But not very often.

  2. So this is your new home! Quite a different feel from the old one. I read the War of Troy when I was really little and had forgotten all about Hector’s father kissing Achilles hand. I always found Greek mythology both disturbing and exhilarating.
    Anyway, just thought I’d drop by and say hi!

    • Thank you, David. It’s nice to hear from you again. I have the same feeling about the Greeks. I hope the new blog will come alive with time and I’m always happy to get comments from people who read the old one…

  3. Very good post and somber considerations. War hasn’t and won’t change, only the methods change, the basic premise is still the same. Professional armies were used throughout history, devastation of civilians the norm, though we’re so much better at it. Instead of evolving our inner being as a species, we evolve our capacity to give death en masse. One doesn’t have to scratch very deeply to find a chimp protecting his territory against possible usurpers or invading others because the grass looks greener. What we call basic human nature, I’m afraid, isn’t so very human at all.

  4. I would argue that oil and money are at the heart of every recent international conflict. The powers that be will only take up arms if there is something to protect or something to gain. If there were no oil reserves in the Middle East, how interested would the US be in advancing its interventionist/world’s watchdog policies?

    Peace, education, distribution of surplus wealth – these are truly admirable objectives but sadly there are too many vain and prideful egomaniacs across the globe to allow real social evolution to occur. Perhaps if frontline service was a condition of entering and remaining in politics there would be less inclination to advocate war as a solution.

    How many ‘children of Hector’ have been made fatherless in the last decade? What seeds of pain and torment have been sown in the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria? Where is this century’s Gandhi or Martin Luther King?

    • Thank you for your comment, Dara.
      I agree with your first point. I can’t remember anyone advocating to invade Birma and restore democracy there, even though there seems to be a grassroots movement that fervently wants it.
      I chose this particular fragment about Hector because he and his wife fully expected their baby son to come home with someone’s bloody armour some day. Hector’s wife was a victim of war, too. As you know, the Greeks thought there would always be war: if the Persians weren’t invading, the Athenians would go and fight the Spartans or any city state that wasn’t happy to contribute to the Athenian League. I surprises me that in recent years many people seem to share that view: there will always be something going on in the Middle East or elsewhere in Africa and the West will always intervene. Recent developments show that no-one was even looking for a solution of a different kind. Hence your rhetorical question: a Gandhi or MLK would be very welcome…

  5. The email after the notification of your post was a spam telling me how to make money out of a US strike in Syria by speculating on oil prices.

    There so many motivations behind war actions that they become irrelevant. I’m still waiting to see world leaders engage in massive acts of peace. Dropping a billion dollars worth of food and medical aid. Blowing massive budgets on schools and roads. I don’t believe despots can survive such detonations of peace. Artemesia indeed.

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals. Making money always seems to be an important aspect of war. I debated mentioning Aeschylus accusing the Athenian generals of going to war for business, but the blog would have become too long.

      I often think “if only we could make these war enthusiasts clean up afterwards, to go and find every last mine and remove it.” The cost would be enough to reconsider going to war, I guess. But your idea of a detonation of peace sounds even better. And I agree that any despot fears access to quality education more than all the powers of the UN. Great idea. We should invest in that.

  6. Hello lively, howdy my good friend.
    I just finished reading A.C Graylings’ The Good Book where he tells the story of this battle and as you say here, at the end of the war, the question is hardly never about who was right or wrong but who is left.
    Our technological advancements will also be our downfall. Politicians have been convinced by army generals that they need several stockpiles of nuclear warheads that can destroy the world several times over in their armies. One asks, why, would we need not, with the same advancement in technology haven’t we found a way to live peacefully with each other?

  7. I’m really glad to see you blogging again, pipteinpteron. I was just thinking yesterday how it had been a while since your last post. I don’t have much by way of comment on this post specifically, but I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your being back.

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