When Herodotus opens his monumental nine-book history, he declares his intentions as follows:
ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται…
So that the things done by men should not fade with time…
Now, I use men here in the sense of ‘human beings’, which ἀνθρωπος can mean. To be fair, most of the deeds he records are done by men, but women are certainly not excluded from Herodotus’ work. I am not saying he was any kind of early feminist, but he certainly saw fit to record the actions of some impressive women, and I would like to perhaps the two most remarkable, and certainly, my two favourites with you in this article.
Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae
The story of Queen Tomyris’ dealings with Cyrus, King of Persia, occupy sections 205-214 in book 1 of the Histories. She became leader of the Massagetae tribe upon her husband’s death. The Massagetae were a nomadic Iranian people. Cyrus the Great set his sights on the territory of the Massagetae as the next addition to his kingdom, which he attempted to achieve at first by asking Tomyris to be his wife. Well, she saw straight through him, realising that he was really after the Massagetae lands, and she rebuffed his advances. Cyrus’ response was to march to the Araxes river and begin to make a bridge. Meanwhile a herald arrived from the queen, exhorting him to stop and leave the Massagetae be, as he could not guarantee a successful outcome in his favour. If, however, he did not agree to do so, she requested that her army be allowed to withdraw to a distance of three days’ journey from the river, or that he withdraw for the same distance and then receive the Massagetae into his territory. At first, Cyrus was uncertain what to do and took counsel with the leading Persians and Croesus. After some debate, he followed Croesus’ advice: allow Tomyris to withdraw and then attack in three days. However, this was not Croesus’ only advice. He had planned a trap for the Massagetae: leave behind an excellent feast, which the Massagetae cannot resist, and with the food leave an expendable part of the army.
The Massagetae, Croesus was quite right, could not resist the feast and easily overcame the lesser part of the army that had been left behind. Full of food and wine, the Massagetae were attacked by the superior part of the Persian army with many killed and many more taken prisoner alive, including Tomyris’ son, Sargapises, who was leading the army. Tomyris did not chafe or surrender. She sent Cyrus and angry message, saying that he should not be proud of overcoming the army by such a trick rather than in battle. She calls him ‘ἄπληστε αἵματος Κῦρε’ – ‘Cyrus who never has his fill of blood’. Powerful words. She told him to return her son and leave unpunished while he could. If he did not agree to these terms, she vowed she would see to it he got his fill of blood. (I really wouldn’t want to cross this lady on a dark night – her boldness in sticking two-fingers up to Cyrus makes her, in my opinion, very cool!).
When Sargapises asked to be released, Cyrus agreed, but the young man, shamed at his plight, slayed himself. Upon hearing what had happened, Tomyris gathered her army and marched out to meet him. After a long battle, the Massagetae prevailed and Cyrus fell in the battle. Like a proud victorious Homeric hero, she boasted over the dead king that she as a s good as dead after he took her son, but that she nevertheless had sated his bloodlust as she promised. She filled a wineskin with human blood and shoved his head inside. There are different stories about Cyrus’ death, but whatever the truth, I think we can be sure Queen Tomyris was a formidable woman.
(I named my little sea green car after this lady)
Like Queen Tomyris, Artemisia took over her husband’s rule upon his death, and she led her own contingent on the expedition against Greece, the one that came to an end against Salamis in 480 and Plataea 479 BCE. At 7.99, Herodotus gives us a mini-biography and, in fact, at the start of the section, he says he sees no need to name any of the captains apart from Artemisia. Already we know, she is going to emerge as remarkable. She is portrayed as willingly taken a military role and her ships were reputed to be second only to those from Sidon. She was also the best when counselling king Xerxes. Herodotus has given us a mini but epic catalogue of ships as events spiral towards Salamis. The fact that he ends this list with Artemisia is designed to impress her noteworthiness upon the reader.
She reappears at 8.68, when Xerxes’ commander Mardonius has been sent to question the commanders of the different groups in the navy. All advise engaging at sea apart from Artemisia, who tells him to spare his ships and not fight at sea. She says that the Athenian men are much stronger, and to engage at sea would risk everything. She urges him to advance staying near land as the Greeks cannot hold out for long without much food on the island. If he lead his army against the Peoloponnese, this will discourage allies from their from fighting with Athens. She also advises him that certain allies will make a negligible contribution and are of no benefit to him. Those who rated Artemisia hoped that she would not be harmed because of what she said, as the king seemed set on fighting at sea. Those who envied her, hoped this would finish her off, as they were irked by the great favour she was shown among the allied chiefs. Nevertheless, Xerxes was in fact pleased with her counsel. He had always been impressed by her wisdom and excellent character and how he praised her highly. However, he chooses not to follow her advice, believing that the poor performance of some at Euboea was because he was not there. He intended to be at this engagement in person.
We meet Artemisia again in the midst of the battle at Salamis (8.78), when she is singled out by Herodotus for her performance, which only further raised Xerxes’ esteem of her. With the king’s side in chaos, Artemisia was being pursued by an Attic ship and she was cornered. She then rammed the ship of a Persian ally, one in fact belonging to the Calyndians with their king Damasithymus on board. Herodotus says he does not know whether she chose this ship deliberately or simply took it down as the nearest to her. It sank. The Attic ship giving chase assumed she must be Greek or a Persian deserter. She escaped. Odd move though it may seem, her calculation proved effective. Thinking that the ship she rammed was an enemy ship, she received great praise from Xerxes who declared that ‘my men have become women, and my women are now men!’
At 8.101, after Salamis had been lost, Xerxes called a meeting to debate what to do next, and insisted on Artemisia’s presence after her advice at the previous gathering had proven correct. Mardonius has been urging him to attack the Peloponnesians by land or allow him to choose three-hundred thousand men to deliver up Hellas, whilst Xerxes marches home with the rest. He asks Artemisia which option he should choose. She advises him to allow Mardonius to say as he proposes, saying that it is better Mardonius be killes than he, the king. Xerxes was pleased and sent her to remove his sons safely to Ephesus.
That is the last we see of her, but she was clearly a woman of great foresight, sense, and courage, trusted by Xerxes himself, which perhaps shows he was not entirely devoid of judgement.
These two women wwre forces to be reckoned with. Is it significant that they were non-Greek? Women are conspicuous by their absence in Thucydides. Not one receives any mention, let alone an honourable mention. I think it may well be. Female rulers seem to be heard of far more often outside of Greece, and thus had greater opportunities to perform remarkable or striking acts that were put down in history. Not that their weren’t remarkable women among the Greeks. Aspasia, Pericles feisty other half (by no means like the silent, retiring, lasses he advises women to be in his funeral speech), the quarrelsome and querulous Xanthippe, Socrates assertive wife. But we have Herodotus to thank for showing two women who had great success at what was deemed a man’s sphere (and arguably still is).
(I hope you can now see why I named my car after Artemisia)