The Ashes-Eating Wonder Builder
The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria… You may have heard of some if not all of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but did you know that a woman was responsible for one of them?
Artemisia II of Caria ordered the construction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in honour of her late husband during her two-year reign as satrap (a provincial governor of the Achaemenid Empire) from 353 to 351 BCE.
In the ancient sources, Artemisia is primarily remembered for her role in constructing the Mausoleum and the power of her grief, probably because it goes nicely with the image of a woman as a suitably devoted wife. However, Artemisia was far more than a grieving widow…
We know little of Artemisia’s life before widowhood, but we know a bit more about her husband. Now you may be wondering why, on a website dedicated to women’s history, we should focus on Artemisia’s spouse, rather than Artemisia herself.
Well, it’s because Artemisia married her brother, Mausolus. Remember, this was a different time, and plenty of dynasties around the world – including members of European Royal families until fairly recently – kept power in their families by marrying their nearest and dearest. So, let’s not judge them too harshly.
The couple were living during a turbulent time for the Achaemenid Empire in which satraps could be assassinated or deposed at any moment, and military prowess was essential to maintain status. After ascending the throne in 377 BCE, Mausolus waged successful military campaigns across Asia Minor and fought and conquered a number of smaller Greek islands, including Rhodes.
We know little of Artemisia during the 24 years Mausolus ruled over Caria with Artemisia by his side, but we do know that the couple’s court at Halicarnassus attracted some of the greatest minds from across the ancient world, with the philosopher Eudoxus reportedly visiting.
Artemisia may also have spent her time during this period carrying out medical research. According to Pliny, in his encyclopaedic Natural History, Artemisia discovered the healing properties of a plant (previously called parthenis) which now bears her name.
Today, Artemisia refers to a family of plants which includes mugwort and wormwood. We’re not sure which plant in particular Artemisia discovered the properties of, but it was probably mugwort. This is based on Pliny’s writings in which compares the plant in question to wormwood, and a description of parthenis by Meleager which refers to its yellow petals, a feature of mugwort. According to Pliny, the plant was used to treat ‘women’s troubles’, by which Pliny means menstruation, but may have been used more generally as a form of pain relief. The plant is still in use to this day.
Beyond her research, Artemisia appears to have enjoyed a happy marriage as attested to by the fact that when Mausolus died in 353 BCE, Artemisia was left grief-stricken. However, Artemisia didn’t have time to properly grieve her brother-husband before facing a rebellion against her rule.
Upon Artemisia ascending the throne, the people of the island of Rhodes revolted against her, seemingly because they did not want a female ruler – although, having been conquered by Mausolus, the Rhodians may have seen his death as a chance to rebel anyway.
Not one to back down from a fight, Artemisia prepared for war.
The Rhodians quickly gathered a fleet and set off for Halicarnassus. As the Rhodians sailed into the outside harbour at Halicarnassus, nothing seemed to be amiss. They landed their fleet and began to disembark, unaware that they were walking into a trap cleverly orchestrated by Artemisia.
The citizens of Halicarnassus, peering from the city’s walls, offered their surrender and invited the Rhodians into the city. Meanwhile, Artemisia’s forces quickly and quietly captured the empty Rhodian boats and set sail for Rhodes.
The Rhodians entered the city, jubilant at their easy success, and reached the heart of Halicarnassus. Unaware that they had been led into a trap, they were surrounded by Artemisia’s troops and the people of Halicarnassus. With their ships missing, the Rhodians had no means of escape and they were massacred.
Meanwhile, Artemisia’s forces onboard the captured Rhodian ships were approaching Rhodes. Raising laurels to indicate a Rhodian victory, the ships were welcomed into the harbour. With the island ill-prepared for an attack, Rhodes was quickly taken, and Artemisia ordered the execution of the Rhodian leaders.
Having carried out her ingenious and ruthless plan to bring down the Rhodians, Artemisia could finally allow herself to grieve and commissioned the construction of a vast tomb in honour of Mausolus.
The Mausoleum (a word which derives from Mausolus’ name) was 140 feet tall, 63 feet wide, and had 24 different layers (just think of it like a massive wedding cake) featuring friezes and columns. Atop the structure stood a four-horse chariot. It was, to say the least, all a bit extra.
And speaking of extra, Gellius records in his Attic Nights (a compendium of interesting notes written in the 2nd century CE) that Artemisia drank her husband’s ashes. Whether true or not, this unusual habit – to put it politely – and the building of the elaborate tomb are what Artemisia remained best-known for over the centuries after her death.
But, as we now know, Artemisia was far more than the devoted, ashes-drinking wife the ancient sources focus on.
A few things to note:
- The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus still exists in some form to this day. Some of the friezes and a part of the chariot from the tomb are currently (and controversially) housed in the British Museum. Alternatively, if you’re ever visiting Bodrum in Turkey, make the trip to the ancient site of Halicarnassus where you can see the remains of the Mausoleum.
- Artemisia’s alleged drinking of her husband’s ashes has also inspired some truly fabulous 17th and 18th century paintings on the subject, which you may want to check out!
Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 3.75
Demosthenes, Orations 15. For the Liberty of the Rhodians 11-13, 27-28
Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History 16.36, 16.45
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.8. Eudoxus, 87-88
Gellius, Attic Nights, Book 10.18
Plutarch, Moralia. Lives of the Ten Orators: Antiphon 838B
Strabo, Geography 14.2.16-17
Vitruvius, On Architecture 2.14-15
Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book 4. Ext. 1