Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.
So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?
The Usual Greek In-Fighting
Which, by now, should come as surprise to no-one. Bickering Athenian generals at Marathon, bickering city-states unable to agree where to fight, when to fight or even whether to fight at all, bickering allied commanders at the pass of Thermopylae… yes, this cannot come as a surprise to anybody. Not for nothing did Herodotus remark:
…disagreement between those of the same race is worse than war undertaken with one consent by as much as war is worse than peace. (VIII.3)
Naturally, the bickering had started before the navy even sailed to Artemisium: although the Athenians supplied most of the ships (127 out of the 271 that originally went to Artemisium against a mere 10 by Sparta), the fleet in the end was placed under the command of the Spartan Eurybiades “since the allies said that they would not follow the lead of the Athenians, but unless a Lacedemonian were leader they would break up the expedition” (VIII.2). And so…
VIII. 3. … the Athenians yielded, having it much at heart that Hellas should be saved, and perceiving that if they should have disagreement with one another about the leadership, Hellas would perish: and herein they judged rightly…
The first hurdle was cleared then, but only so that they could confront the next one: for the sight of the Persian navy, so vastly outnumbering their own, duly unnerved the fleet commanders:
4. …these Hellenes also who had come to Artemision, when they saw that a great number of [Persian] ships had put in to Aphetai and that everything was filled with their armament, were struck with fear… and they deliberated about retreating from Artemision…
Well, you’d say things could only get better from here on, surely? Or maybe not. In this part of the world, what else could now follow but:
A Little Old-Fashioned Bribery
Artemisium, or to give it its Greek name Artemision, is a cape in the north of the island of Euboea (nowadays known as Evia). Needless to say, the Euboeans were not thrilled to hear on the grapevine that the fleet was not going to offer battle…
And the Euboeans perceiving that they were so deliberating, asked Eurybiades to stay there by them for a short time, until they should have removed out of their land their children, and their households; and as they did not persuade him, they went elsewhere and persuaded Themistocles the commander of the Athenians by a payment of thirty talents, the condition being that the fleet should stay and fight the sea-battle in front of Euboea.
Nothing like a little bribery when all else fails. I don’t know about you but this is one of the reasons why I so like Herodotus: he tells it as he heard it, warts and all. None of that blind patriotism on the pages of The Histories. The brilliant Themistocles was not averse to accepting a little money on the side. The self-sacrificing hero Leonidas might have had a brother’s murder on his conscience. Miltiades, who spoke so eloquently about the freedom of Greece, was a tyrant… Heroes they all might have been, but they were certainly human.
5. Themistocles then caused the Hellenes to stay in the following manner:—to Eurybiades he imparted five talents of the sum with the pretence that he was giving it from himself; and when Eurybiades had been persuaded by him to change his resolution, Adeimantos son of Okytos, the Corinthian commander, was the only one of all the others who still made a struggle, saying that he would sail away from Artemision and would not stay with the others: to him therefore Themistocles … sent … three talents of silver. So these all had been persuaded by gifts to change their resolution, and at the same time the request of the Euboeans had been gratified and Themistocles himself gained money; and it was not known that he had the rest of the money, but those who received a share of this money were fully persuaded that it had come from the Athenian State for this purpose.
Not only did Themistocles manage to bribe the others and at the same time, keep most of the money for himself; he even made everybody believe that he himself was purer than driven snow… (Politicians all around the world, this is how you do it.)
Well, we had the bickering, we had the bribery, it’s time for the battle…
A Gothic Horror Story
“Thus they remained in Euboea and fought a sea-battle,” (VIII.6) carries on Herodotus, plunging into details of the fight. Which by and large I will skip. It can be summed up as a series of inconclusive encounters between the Greek fleet, operating out of Artemision, and the Persian, operating from Aphetai. Each day the boys came out to play – I mean the ships came out to fight – and each night they returned to their respective bases. There were a lot of dead men on both sides, a lot of sunken ships and no clear winner.
On the first day of the battle, the Persians sent a contingent of 200 ships – quite a significant part of their fleet – to sail round Euboea hoping the encircle the defenders completely but Zeus decided to take a hand in the game: a storm rose from Mt Pelion during the night and the Persian fleet was driven onto the rocks in the so-called “Hollows” of Euboea. Herodotus treats us to a description of the storm in the manner of the best Gothic horror stories:
12. When the darkness had come on, although the season was the middle of summer, yet there came on very abundant rain, which lasted through the whole of the night, with crashing thunder from Mount Pelion; and the dead bodies and pieces of wreck were cast up at Aphetai and became entangled round the prows of the ships and struck against the blades of the oars: and the men of the army who were there, hearing these things became afraid, expecting that they would certainly perish, to such troubles had they come; for before they had had even breathing space after the shipwreck and the storm which had arisen off Mount Pelion, there had come upon them a hard sea-fight, and after the sea-fight a violent storm of rain and strong streams rushing to the sea and crashing thunder.
Before there ever was The Castle of Otranto, there was Herodotus…!
An Entertaining Aside: The Great Greek Dive
There was a Greek called Skyllias, “as a diver the best of all the men of that time”, in the Persian navy who was looking to desert the Persians as soon as the opportunity arose. Having helped the Persians to save their goods from a shipwreck, (and acquiring many of those goods for himself while he was about it), Skyllias now finally saw his chance to escape:
8. …it is said that he dived into the sea at Aphetai and did not come up till he reached Artemision, having traversed here somewhere about eighty furlongs through the sea…
“It is said,” says Herodotus, trying to keep a straight face as he dutifully evaluates this hearsay before concluding:
…about this matter however let it be stated as my opinion that he came to Artemision in a boat.
Themistocles’s Message to the Ionians
In due course the fleet at Artemision heard what befell the army at Thermopylae:
21. …there was with Leonidas Abronichos son of Lysicles, an Athenian, ready to carry news to those at Artemision with a thirty-oared galley, if any disaster should happen to the land-army. This Abronichos then had arrived, and he proceeded to signify to them that which had come to pass about Leonidas and his army; and then when they were informed of it no longer put off their retreat, but set forth in the order in which they were severally posted, the Corinthians first and the Athenians last.
Not wanting to leave food for the Persians, however, Themistocles first assembled the generals and ordered that “every one must slaughter of the flocks of the Euboeans as many as he wanted, for it was better that their army should have them than the enemy”. Moreover, Themistocles thought that if they could only convince the Ionians (who after all were Greeks and in whose cause Athens had originallly gone to war) and the Carians to desert the cause of Xerxes, the allied navy should “be able to overcome the rest”:
22. Themistocles however selected those ships of the Athenians which sailed best, and went round to the springs of drinking-water, cutting inscriptions on the stones there, which the Ionians read when they came to Artemision on the following day. These inscriptions ran thus:
“Ionians, ye act not rightly in making expedition against the fathers of your race and endeavouring to enslave Hellas. Best of all were it that ye should come and be on our side; but if that may not be done by you, stand aside even now from the combat against us and ask the Carians to do the same as ye. If however neither of these two things is possible to be done, and ye are bound down by too strong compulsion to be able to make revolt, then in the action, when we engage battle, be purposely slack, remember that ye are descended from us and that our quarrel with the Barbarian took its rise at the first from you.”
Themistocles wrote thus, having, as I suppose, two things together in his mind, namely that either the inscriptions might elude the notice of the king and cause the Ionians to change and come over to the side on which he was, or that having been reported and denounced to Xerxes they might cause the Ionians to be distrusted by him, and so he might keep them apart from the sea-fights.