3 Powerful Queens of Ancient Caria

The queens of ancient Caria were strong rulers who led armies and competed for power despite being part of a larger empire.

Feb 20, 2023By Trevor Culley, BA History & Classical Studies, MA Classics

furini artemisia ii ada queen mausoleum halicarnassus statue


With roots stretching back to the Bronze Age, the region of Caria occupied the liminal space between Ancient Greece, the Persian Empire, and the local Anatolian culture. Located in the southwestern corner of Anatolia, modern Turkey, Caria emerged as a key strategic position for battling empires in the 5th Century BCE. Many dynasties and political systems rose and fell over the following century, but Caria was unique. Unlike Greece, Persia, or even their immediate neighbors in Anatolia, there Caria had queens who ruled the land under Persian auspices and built their own legacies on and off the battlefield.


1. Artemisia I: The Carian Queen Who Outdid Kings

The Battle of Salamis (featuring Artemisia with a bow), by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868, via Bayerischer Landtag


Caria was conquered by Cyrus the Great and incorporated into the Persian Empire in the 540s BCE. Little is known about the early decades of Persian rule. Still, following the tumultuous rise of King Darius the Great twenty years later, all of Caria was placed under the control of Lygdamis I of Halicarnassus. Halicarnassus was the greatest of five cities known as the Dorian Hexapolis, Greek colonies on Caria’s western coast. Prior to Lygdamis, the Hexapolis did not control the inland region, populated by non-Greek Carians. Still, Lygdamis was elevated to a more powerful position by his Persian overseers, governing Caria as a sub-province within Lydia. He and his descendants, the Lygdamid Dynasty, ruled as tyrants, not because they were so cruel but because “tyrant” was the Ancient Greek title for any autocratic ruler who seized power from outside of an established monarchy.


Despite the technicalities of their title, Lygdamis’ daughter, Artemisia, was often called a queen anyway for her fame and power. Lygdamis himself tried to maintain an all-male line of succession by passing power to Artemisia’s husband after his death. However, he died so quickly and had such little impact on history that not even his name is remembered. Artemisia herself claimed the throne in the mid-480s BCE, just as the whole Persian Empire received a new ruler as well, King Xerxes I. Unlike many of the other Greek cities in Asia and even the native Carians, the Dorian Hexapolis remained loyal to Persia throughout Darius’ reign, which awarded Lygdamis and Artemisia a premium position in the regional hierarchy. When Xerxes marshaled his forces to invade Greece in 480, Artemisia was made the commanding admiral of the Carian Greeks in the Persian Navy.


The Carian queen was now an equal of King Tetramenetos of Sidon, commander of the Phoenician fleet, and Ariomardus, Xerxes’ own brother and commander of the Egyptians. Artemisia and her co-admirals led their ships to victory in the Battle of Artemisium, while their compatriots on land dislodged the Greek army in the more famous Battle of Thermopylae. The navy followed Xerxes and his army down the coast, rejoining them at Athens for a war council after the city was burnt to ruins by the invaders.

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The Battle of Salamis

Plan of the Battle of Salamis, by Barthélemy, 1798, via BnF Gallica


The Athenians and their allied navy took refuge on the nearby island of Salamis, separated from the mainland by a narrow straight. Xerxes wanted his generals and admirals to propose a strategy to continue the war. The other commanders, especially Tetramenetos and the Persian general Mardonius, wanted to wipe out the Athenians entirely with a final naval confrontation. Artemisia alone counseled against this, according to her cousin; the Greek historian Herodotus. As a Greek, she did not believe the Greek resistors would simply abandon their city. As a naval tactician she feared the narrow confines of the Strait of Salamis. She recommended blocking the Greek ships at either end of the strait and sending the army to assault the next Greek city. Xerxes’ praised her wisdom but ultimately yielded to the other commanders and ordered the fleet, including Artemisia, to assault Salamis anyway.


Carian coinage from Artemisia I’s reign featuring a winged woman, 470-450 BCE, via Classical Numismatics Groups


The resulting battle was a disaster for the Persian navy as a whole but a general success for Artemisia herself. Just as she feared, the narrow strait made it impossible for the huge Persian fleet to maneuver properly, crashing into one another just as often as they were able to ram enemy ships. From cliffs overlooking the battle, Xerxes and his court observed Artemisia and the others, lamenting as many ships, including Prince Ariomardus’ own, were destroyed, but praising Artemisia as she sank her foes. Xerxes supposedly exclaimed, “My men have become women, and my women, men!


When the odds fully turned against her, Artemisia was prepared. She ordered her crew to pull down their Persian flag and raise an obscure Greek banner in its place before ramming one of the other Persian ships to convince the Greek allies that it was one of their ships. That gave her the opportunity to retreat unimpeded, only returning to the Persian flag once she was out of harm’s way.


Artemisia After the Battle

Artemisia portrayed by Eva Green in 300: Rise of an Empire, via USA Today


After the Battle of Salamis, the Persian fleet was forced to withdraw from Greece entirely to make repairs, but before they left, Xerxes asked Artemisia for advice once again. She told the Great King to retreat, leaving Mardonius in Greece to carry on the fight. This way Xerxes could take credit for future successes but alienate Mardonius if he failed. Ultimately, this was a smart move because Mardonius died, and Persia was ousted from Europe altogether the following Summer.


Fearing the harsh conditions of a winter retreat, Xerxes also entrusted Artemisia personally with carrying two of his sons back to Caria as fast as she could to ensure the imperial line of succession. Xerxes did survive the retreat, but when that was in doubt, Artemisia commanded the most precious cargo in the Empire. For her service, Artemisia was given lavish gifts by the Persian king, including an ornate suit of Greek armor.


Even as many of the other Greek cities in Asia fell to Athenian invasions or rose up against Persia, the Carian queen remained loyal to Persia for 20 years before her death. According to the poet Sappho, she leaped to her death, trying to win the love of another great captain on the advice of an oracle, and Caria passed to her only son.


2. Artemisia II: Conqueror of Misogynists

Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of Her Husband, Mausolus by Francesco Furini, c. 1630 via Yale University Art Gallery


Artemisia I’s heirs were unable to replicate her success, and Halicarnassus and the Dorian Hexapolis fell to a pro-Athenian uprising in 454 BCE. For the next half-century, Caria was split between Persian rule on the interior and Athenian rule on the coast. Inland Caria was a patchwork of local dynasts and tribes led by a succession of Persian governors, which continued on after the Hexapolis was reclaimed during the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. The immediate aftermath of that conflict was a period of upheaval for Caria, which was dragged into Cyrus the Younger’s revolt and a Spartan invasion that spiraled into involvement in further wars in Greece and Cyprus.


Some time in this chaotic period, King Artaxerxes II of Persia decreed that Caria would become a distinct Satrapy and appointed the petty king of Mylasa, an inland Carian city, as the new Satrap. This was Hecatomnus, and his descendants formed the “Hecatomnid” Dynasty after his death. They may have been of mixed Persian and Carian descent because they adopted many Persian customs, including sibling marriage. Hecatomnus was succeeded by his son, Masuolus, who ruled until 353 BCE before passing power to his sister-wife Queen Artemisia II.


The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

Mausolaeum (The Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus), by Philip Galle, after Maerten van Heemskerck, 1572, via National Gallery of Art


The new Carian queen may have left an even greater legacy than her namesake. Mausolus restored Halicarnassus as the capital of Caria, and following his death, Artemisia ordered the construction of an elaborate tomb for her husband in Halicarnassus. It was one of the grandest graves ever constructed, considered a peer to the Pyramids of Giza, and was named the Mausoleum (the place of Mausolus). The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World by Antipater of Sidon 200 years later and lends its name to any tomb built in a similar style to this day.


This was not just an exercise in grand architecture. Mausolus had levied extreme taxes and suppressed several popular revolts in life. By constructing a grand monument and hosting lavish funeral festivities and celebrations around the Mausoleum, Artemisia recuperated the late king’s memory in Carian society. According to legend, Mausolus was never actually interred. Instead, Artemisia supposedly mixed his ashes into her drinks for the rest of her life so they would never truly part.


Artemisia II’s legacy was not limited to her husband’s tomb. She was also a conqueror. Polyaenus recorded the story of her defeat of Latmus, a rebellious Greek city in Caria. She engineered a distraction, stationing her soldiers in the forest outside the walls while she staged an impromptu religious ceremony at a sacred grove on the tree line. When the Latmians came out to participate, her army stormed the open gates.


Artemisia Outsmarts the Rhodians

A damaged statue of Artemisia II, from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, ca. 350 BCE, via The British Museum


By far, Artemisia’s greatest military triumph was the conquest of the independent Greek island of Rhodes. The ruling council on the island mocked the Carians for being ruled by an “unstable” woman, and called on the Persian authorities to dethrone her. Artemisia invited Rhodian diplomats to negotiate with her. They arrived with a sizable fleet as a show of force. To defend the capital during the earlier revolts, Mausolus had a secret harbor constructed near Halicarnassus, and Artemisia hid her navy there.


When the Rhodians saw that there was no threat, they let their guard down, and the ambassadors disembarked with their guards. The Carian navy swept up, capturing the Rhodian ships in the main harbor while Artemisia’s men slaughtered the Rhodians inside the city. She then boarded a ship and led her forces to Rhodes itself. Deprived of its fleet, the island fell quickly. Artemisia executed or exiled the ruling oligarchs and erected a monument to herself in the city center. By tying the wealthy island to Caria, the Hexapolis, and eventually the whole region, adopted the Rhodian currency standard for centuries.


All this occurred in just two years before Artemisia’s death in 351 BCE, passing the throne to her brother, Idrieus.


3. Ada: The Last Carian Queen

Queen Ada as portrayed in a statue from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, 350 BCE, via British Museum


King Idrieus carried on his sister’s legacy, conquering the island of Chios and building a number of new monuments in Halicarnassus, but he also chafed under Persian rule. Caria was increasingly carrying out military conquests. It was putting down minor revolts entirely independent of the Great King’s orders, and resented the financial demands placed on their Satrapy when King Artaxerxes III demanded that Idrieus lead the reconquest of Sidon in 351. Still, nothing dramatic happened before Idrieus’ death in 344, passing power to his own sister-wife, Queen Ada.


The second Hecatomnid queen was Idrieus’ co-ruler in all but name and continued many of his projects and policies, only to be challenged by her brother, Pixodarus. Hecatomnus’ third son was the only one to marry outside their immediate family and the only one of the five siblings to produce any children, ironically another Ada. Unlike his siblings, Pixodarus was a clear Persian loyalist and staged a coup against Ada in 340 BCE. A Carian civil war broke out, but with more imperial support, Pixodarus gained the upper hand, claiming Halicarnassus with ease and chasing Queen Ada to the city of Alinda. The city was fiercely loyal to its queen and prepared for a siege. Pixodarus assaulted Alinda, but could not break through the walls. His troops remained outside the fortifications for the rest of his life.


The ruins of Alinda’s agora, Ada’s fortress against Pixodarus via Andreas Konecny/ResearchGate


When Pixodarus died in 334 BCE, he also broke with the recent Carian tradition of female inheritance, instead handing the throne to his son-in-law, a fully Persian nobleman named Orontobates. However, this was probably the worst moment in the Persian Empire’s history to become a loyal satrap. Within months of Oronotbates’ ascension, Alexander the Great landed in Anatolia to begin his conquest of the Persian Empire. The Carian army abandoned Alinda and prepared to defend Halicarnassus.


Free of her nephew-in-law’s interference, Ada led her own troops to rendezvous with Alexander when he entered Caria, offering him Alinda and formally adopting the King of Macedon as her son. With no children of her own, Queen Ada effectively made Alexander the Great the legal heir to the Carian throne. In return, Alexander declared his adoptive mother Queen of Caria once more and besieged Halicarnassus, officially in her name. Orontobates could not withstand the Macedonian assault and fled, setting fire to the city on his way out. Despite the damage, Ada reclaimed her capital. Alexander moved on, entering nearby Cilicia, but his generals and admirals remained behind. The remaining Macedonian forces coordinated with Ada over the next year to defeat a number of Orontobates’ loyalists and holdouts across western Caria, ultimately securing Ada’s position in 333 BCE.


Carian coinage featuring Alexander the Great, 201 BCE, via British Museum


Alexander instructed his own Satrap of Lydia, Asander, to assist Ada militarily for the rest of her life, but allowed the Carian queen to govern independently. Ada, the last of the Hecatomnids, died in 326 BCE, officially passing the throne to Alexander while Asander’s subordinates took control of day-to-day operations. Before long, Alexander died, and Asander was made Satrap of Caria, using Ada’s throne in Halicarnassus as a springboard for his own ambitions in the Wars of the Diadochi.

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By Trevor CulleyBA History & Classical Studies, MA ClassicsTrevor is a historian and independent researcher dedicated to public presentation of ancient history. He holds an MA in Classics and a BA in History and Classical Studies. Trevor is also the host and producer of the History of Persia podcast, a serialized story of the political history and culture of ancient Iran from 700 BCE - 700 CE.