The Battle of Salamis: To Fight Or Not To Fight

This post has been updated. Go to: Salamis (According to Herodotus)

I don’t know about you but when it comes to famous naval battles, with me it goes: Trafalgar, Salamis, Lepanto… That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of other naval battles that are of interest but – perhaps because the outcomes of these three defined history for centuries to come – they are always the first that come to my mind. Certainly, in the second Greek-Persian war Salamis was the turning point, the decisive moment. And Herodotus pays the battle its due, gives it the full treatment: lots of details to get lost in.

So Part I of the Battle of Salamis.


The Muster at Salamis

After the Battle of Artemisium, the Greek fleet mustered on the island of Salamis, a large island in the Saronic Gulf, close to the mainland, just west of Athens. Herodotus begins the description of the battle, as is his custom, by enumerating the number of ships from the various city-states, bringing the total of the Greek triremes to three hundred and seventy-eight, plus four fifty-oared galleys.

VIII. 42. There were assembled accordingly now many more ships than those which were in the sea-fight at Artemision, and from more cities. Over the whole was set as admiral the same man as at Artemision, namely Eurybiades the son of Eurycleides, a Spartan but not of the royal house; the Athenians however supplied by far the greatest number of ships and those which sailed the best.

Against them were 1207 Persian triremes – or so Herodotus says, and Aeschylus, the Athenian playwright who fought in the battle, agrees with him. True to form, the Greeks assembled at Salamis were once again in a disagreement about whether they should fight or retreat. In a council with the other commanders, Eurybiades asked where they should make a stand:

49. …any one who desired it should declare his opinion as to where he thought it most convenient to fight a sea-battle in those regions of which they had command; for Attica had already been let go… And the opinions of the speakers for the most part agreed that they should sail to the Isthmus and there fight a sea-battle in defence of the Peloponnese, arguing that if they should be defeated in the sea-battle, supposing them to be at Salamis they would be blockaded in an island, where no help would come to them, but at the Isthmus they would be able to land where their own men were.

And once again, the majority was in favour of running away (to put it crudely). The only thing what was now needed was the news about the destruction of Athens:

56. …when it was announced to them how it had been as regards the Acropolis of the Athenians, were disturbed so greatly that some of the commanders did not even wait for the question to be decided which had been proposed, but began to go hastily to their ships and to put up their sails, meaning to make off with speed; and by those of them who remained behind it was finally decided to fight at sea in defence of the Isthmus.

“Now It Is in Thy Power to Save Hellas”

Of course Themistocles, as leader of the Athenians, had a different opinion (hardly surprising, given that the Athenians evacuated a large part of their population and possessions to the island of Salamis). After he succeeded to convince Eurybiades, a new meeting was called which Herodotus describes at some length. First of all, Themistocles gave an impassioned speech comparing the two options: retreating to fight at the Isthmus of Corinth or staying to fight at Salamis.

60. Now it is in thy power to save Hellas, if thou wilt follow my advice, which is to stay here and here to fight a sea-battle…
For hear both ways, and then set them in comparison.
If thou engage battle at the Isthmus, thou wilt fight in an open sea… which… is by no means convenient for us… seeing that we have ships which are heavier and fewer in number than those of the enemy.
Then secondly thou wilt give up to destruction Salamis and Megara and Egina, even if we have success in all else; for with their fleet will come also the land-army, and thus thou wilt thyself lead them to the Peloponnese and wilt risk the safety of all Hellas.
If however thou shalt do as I say, thou wilt find therein all the advantages which I shall tell thee of:—in the first place by engaging in a narrow place with few ships against many… we shall have very much the better; for to fight a sea-fight in a narrow space is for our advantage, but to fight in a wide open space is for theirs…

He concluded his speech with the remark that:

“…by remaining here thou wilt fight in defence of the Peloponnese as much as if the fight were at the Isthmus; and thou wilt not lead the enemy to Peloponnese, if thou art wise”.

Themistocles versus Adeimantos

We all know who Themistocles was; but has any of you ever heard the name of Adeimantos? The outcome of this particular contest can be judged by the simple fact that 2500 years later we still remember Themistocles but have no idea who his adversary was. Well, Adeimantos was the commander of the Corynthians at the battle of Salamis and he was the one who locked horns with Themistocles.

Although Eurybiades himself was persuaded, Themistocles’s speech otherwise didn’t meet with universal approval. In fact, the meeting was not unlike those heated Parliamentary exchanges for which certain countries are quite famous.

59. Themistocles spoke with much vehemence being very eager to gain his end; and as he was speaking, the Corinthian commander, Adeimantos… said:
“Themistocles, at the games those who stand forth for the contest before the due time are beaten with rods.”
He justifying himself said:
“Yes, but those who remain behind are not crowned.”

Not content with having compared Themistocles to somebody ‘jumping the gun’ in a race, Adeimantos then went on to make even more unseemly comments as Themistocles concluded his speech:

61. …the Corinthian Adeimantos inveighed against him for the second time, bidding him to be silent because he had no native land, and urging Eurybiades not to put to the vote the proposal of one who was a citizen of no city; for he said that Themistocles might bring opinions before the council if he could show a city belonging to him, but otherwise not.
This objection he made against him because Athens had been taken and was held by the enemy.
Then Themistocles said many evil things of him and of the Corinthians both, and declared also that he himself and his countrymen had in truth a city and a land larger than that of the Corinthians, so long as they had two hundred ships fully manned; for none of the Hellenes would be able to repel the Athenians if they came to fight against them.

Angry or not, Themistocles nevertheless understood fully well that Adeimantos was not important; the man he really needed to persuade was Eurybiades. So instead of wasting more words on the leader of the Corinthians, he next addressed himself directly to the Spartan commander-in-chief:

62. “If thou wilt remain here, and remaining here wilt show thyself a good man, well; but if not, thou wilt bring about the overthrow of Hellas…

And threatened him with the departure of the entire Athenian fleet unless he agreed to fight there and then:

“…ye, when ye are left alone and deprived of allies such as we are, will remember my words.”

What with the Spartans themselves not having more than sixteen ships to the one hundred and eighty Athenian ships, it’s not difficult to see why Eurybiades “was persuaded to change his mind”. In case anyone is in any doubt, Herodotus spells it out:

63. …I think, he changed his mind chiefly from fear lest the Athenians should depart and leave them, if he should take the ships to the Isthmus; for if the Athenians left them and departed, the rest would be no longer able to fight with the enemy. He chose then this counsel, to stay in that place and decide matters there by a sea-fight.

For a Spartan, Eurybiades does come across as a bit of a gawd-help-us, and for all that he’s the commander, he seems forever to do what Themistocles tells him. Luckily for Greece, Themistocles knew what he was about!

Doubts in the Persian Camp: Artemisia Advises Against the Sea Battle

The Greeks were not the only ones who had doubts about whether to fight at Salamis. While the Greeks debated the issue on the island of Salamis, the Persian fleet was laying at Phaleron Bay in the Saronic Gulf. (Phaleron had served as the port of Ancient Athens before Themistocles began to develop Piraeus as the new port after the Persian Wars.) Xerxes went down to the bay to visit his ships and sending his general Mardonius round the commanders and kings of each subject nation, “inquired, making a trial of each one, whether he should fight a battle by sea”. Not surprisingly, none dared to speak up against a sea battle – with one exception.

That one exception was Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, who commanded her five ships in person in the Battle of Artemisium and – yet to come – at Salamis. Herodotus speaks well of the queen but then Herodotus himself was from Halicarnassus so he might have been just a little bit biased in her favour.

68. So when Mardonios went round asking them, beginning with the king of Sidon, the others gave their opinions all to the same effect, advising him to fight a battle by sea, but Artemisia spoke these words:
“Tell the king I pray thee, Mardonios, that I, who have proved myself not to be the worst in the sea-fights which have been fought near Euboea, and have displayed deeds not inferior to those of others, speak to him thus:
…spare thy ships and do not make a sea-fight; for their men are as much stronger than thy men by sea, as men are stronger than women.”

Artemisia then went on to question what need there was to risk a sea battle, pointing out that Xerxes already had taken Athens (which was one of the two chief objectives of his campaign) and giving some sound advice on how Xerxes should progress from here. Like Demaratus before her, Artemisia displayed an understanding of the nature of the tenuous alliance of the Greek city-states: she knew that the best way to break up the troublesome alliance was by threatening the Peloponnese directly.

“If thou do not hasten to make a sea-fight, but keep thy ships here by the land, either remaining here thyself or even advancing on to the Peloponnese, that which thou hast come to do, O master, will easily be effected; for the Hellenes are not able to hold out against thee for any long time, but thou wilt soon disperse them and they will take flight to their several cities: since neither have they provisions with them in this island, as I am informed, nor is it probable that if thou shalt march thy land-army against the Peloponnese, they who have come from thence will remain still; for these will have no care to fight a battle in defence of Athens.”

But just like the advice of Demaratus before her, the advice given by Artemisia also went unheeded.

                                                                                     Continued with: The Battle of Salamis: Poetry & All
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