The Battle of Salamis: Poetry & All

Previous: The Battle of Salamis: To Fight Or Not To Fight

I defy you to write about the battle of Salamis without quoting Byron. (Or Aeschylus, for that matter, who’ll have his turn in due course!) Because in six short lines Byron captured the essence of the story from Herodotus to perfection.

A king sate on the the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis:
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations; – all were his!
He counted them at break of day –
And when the sun set where were they?
             (Lord Byron: The Isles of Greece)


A beautiful piece of Romantic poetry too, with all its classic characteristics. The evocation of the landscape. The contrast of the king up high and the ships below. The surging emotion… The king who ‘sate on the rocky brow’, ie. Mount Aigaleo, from which he had a clear view of the Straits and the Island of Salamis, was Xerxes of course.

The Omens

VIII. 64. …and as day was coming on, at the same time when the sun rose there was an earthquake felt both on the land and on the sea…

It goes without saying that 2500 years ago you couldn’t possibly have an earthquake directly preceding a momentous battle without it being interpreted as an omen. The question of course was… good or bad?

In response to the omen, the Greeks prudently decided to pray to all their gods and in particular to invoke the help of a local one: the mythical hero Aeacus – son of Zeus and grandfather of the great Achilles – who was born on the nearby island of Aegina which took its name from Aeacus’s mother.

In the meantime, on the mainland, two exiled Greeks, now in the service of Xerxes, the Spartan Demaratus and the Athenian Dicaios happened to be wandering on the Thriasian plain…

65. …[they] saw a cloud of dust going up from Eleusis, as if made by a company of about thirty thousand men, and they wondered at the cloud of dust, by what men it was caused. Then forthwith they heard a sound of voices, and Dicaios perceived that the sound was the mystic cry Iacchos…

Iacchos – an epithet of the god Dionysus – being a ritual cry during the annual festival of the Eleusinian mysteries. There would have been nothing strange in this had the festival at Eleusis was ongoing at the time; but Attica had been evacuated. Demaratus, being a Spartan, was not familiar with the Eleusinian mysteries in any case and had to rely on Dicaios for an explanation:

“Demaratos, it cannot be but that some great destruction is about to come to the army of the king: for as to this, it is very manifest, seeing that Attica is deserted, that this which utters the sound is of the gods, and that it is going from Eleusis to help the Athenians and their allies: if then it shall come down in the Peloponnese, there is danger for the king himself and for the army which is upon the mainland, but if it shall direct its course towards the ships which are at Salamis, the king will be in danger of losing his fleet.”

You couldn’t be in the service of Xerxes and trust to stay alive if you went to the man with bad news or advice that he didn’t like. Or at least, so did many of Xerxes’s subjects think (friends and enemies alike thought Artemisia dead meat when she dared to speak up against the sea battle) and Demaratus was no exception. He said:

“Keep silence and tell not this tale to any other man; for if these words of thine be reported to the king, thou wilt surely lose thy head, and neither I nor any other man upon earth will be able to save thee: but keep thou quiet, and about this expedition the gods will provide.”

As for the cloud of dust and the sound of voices? You’ve guessed it: they went towards Salamis. And so Demaratus and Dicaios learnt that…

…the fleet of Xerxes was destined to be destroyed.

Which knowledge they wisely kept to themselves.

 The Night Before

Xerxes ordered the fleet to put to sea but by the time the Persians got their ships in position along the shore according to their orders, night fell. They therefore made preparations to fight on the following day, occasioning a bad night for the Greeks…

70. Meanwhile the Hellenes were possessed by fear and dismay, especially those who were from Peloponnese: and these were dismayed because remaining in Salamis they were to fight a battle on behalf of the land of the Athenians, and being defeated they would be cut off from escape and blockaded in an island, leaving their own land unguarded. And indeed the land-army of the Barbarians was marching forward during that very night towards the Peloponnese.

Herodotus here holds up the story of the battle of Salamis for a bit to describe the defences of the Isthmus of Corinth, the details of which we will reluctantly pass by. Suffice it to say that as soon as the news of Leonidas’s death reached the Peloponnesians, their armies, commanded by Cleombrotus, Leonidas’s brother, marched immediately to the isthmus and they were now engaged in building a defensive wall across it. Nevertheless, their compatriots at Salamis were not happy:

74. …those who were at Salamis, though informed of this work, were yet dismayed, not fearing so much for themselves as for Peloponnesus. For some time then they spoke of it in private, one man standing by another, and they marvelled at the ill-counsel of Eurybiades; but at last it broke out publicly. A meeting accordingly was held, and much was spoken about the same points as before…

It’s the night before the battle and they are still squabbling!

Themistocles’s Ruse de Guerre

Some fiend or madman—whence he came, who knows?—
Greek-seeming, from the Athenian ranks drew near
To Xerxes’ self, and whispered in his ear
That, once the veil of hiding night should fall,
The Greeks would wait no more, but one and all
Leap to their oars, and, scattering left and right,
Make off to save their lives in headlong flight.
Xerxes gave ear, and reckoning not the while
Of heaven’s malignity or Grecian guile…
                                                   (Aeschylus: The Persians)

I said we would come to Aeschylus in due course, and there you go. Survivor of both the battles of Marathon and Salamis, Aeschylus won first prize in the dramatic competition in Athens with his play The Persians in 472 B.C. (eight years after the battle of Salamis). It’s “the oldest surviving play in the history of theatre, and also the only extant Greek tragedy that is based on contemporary events”. (If you ever see it on a bill of a theatre near you…)

But to give the word back to Herodotus.

While his fellow Greeks continued to squabble, Themistocles had ideas of his own. He put one of his servants, Sikinnos, the tutor of his children, in a boat and sent him to the Persians with the following message:

75. “The commander of the Athenians sent me privately without the knowledge of the other Hellenes… to inform you that the Hellenes are planning to take flight, having been struck with dismay…”

Having delivered his message, Sikinnos prudently made himself scarce; and I’m sure you’re delighted to learn that he lived to tell the tale and was afterwards richly rewarded by Themistocles.

Deceived by the message, the Persians changed their battle plans. They landed troops on the small island of Psyttaleia nearby where they expected any wrecks to wash up; and their fleet sailed into the straits to prevent the expected flight of the Greeks.

76. …and they, thinking that the message deserved credit, landed first a large number of Persians in the small island of Psyttaleia, which lies between Salamis and the mainland; and then, as midnight came on, they put… their ships to sea; and they occupied all the passage with their ships…  And for this reason they put out their ships, namely in order that the Hellenes might not even be permitted to get away…

A flight, which however, didn’t materialise:

All the long night through
Each captain rowing, rowing, kept his crew;
And night wore on, and never sound nor sight
From the Greek fleet gave sign of secret flight;
                                     (Aeschylus: The Persians)

While the Persians thus passed the night sailing instead of sleeping, the Greeks passed it quarrelling… Until word reached them of the Persian manoeuvres.

78. Now between the commanders that were at Salamis there came to be great contention of speech and they did not yet know that the Barbarians were surrounding them with their ships, but they thought that they were still in their place as they saw them disposed in the day. 79. Then while the commanders were engaged in strife, there came over from Egina Aristeides the son of Lysimachos, an Athenian…

Aristeides first told his news in private to Themistocles:

“I tell thee now that it is indifferent whether the Peloponnesians say many words or few about sailing away from hence; for having been myself an eye-witness I tell thee that now not even if the Corinthians and Eurybiades himself desire to sail out, will they be able; for we are encompassed round by the enemy. Go thou in then, and signify this to them.”

Themistocles however, suspecting that he might not be believed, sent Aristeides into the meeting instead to deliver his intelligence himself.

81. Aristeides accordingly came forward and told them this, saying that he had come from Egina and had with difficulty escaped without being perceived by those who were blockading them; for the whole encampment of the Hellenes was encompassed by the ships of Xerxes; and he counselled them to get ready to defend themselves. He then having thus spoken retired, and among them again there arose dispute, for the greater number of the commanders did not believe that which was reported to them:
82. and while these were doubting, there came a trireme manned by Tenians, deserting from the enemy, of which the commander was Panaitios the son of Sosimenes, which brought them the whole truth.

It took a deserter from the enemy, no less, to finally convince them. If it wasn’t for Themistocles’s ruse, they really all would have – you can’t help thinking – run away…

Xerxes on the ‘Rocky Brow’

View of Mount Aigaleo from Salamis
View of Mount Aigaleo from the island of Salamis. Source: Wikipedia

The last time Xerxes inspected his fleet and his army he had been sitting on a hillside above Troy and he wept at at the sight of them. Now he set up his throne on a hillside overlooking the island of Salamis and admired his enormous fleet. He had conquered half of Greece already, he was victorious at Thermopylae, he had burned Athens down. His ships outnumbered the Greeks three to one. Admittedly, the fight at Artemisium hadn’t gone as well as it could have gone but now that he was going “to look on while they fought a sea-battle”, his men were going to fight ever so better. It’s safe to assume that Xerxes considered the battle as good as won. He’d been hardly likely to set himself up to sit on his throne on Mount Aigaleo otherwise.

“In Splashed Their Foaming Oars…”

At dawn, the Greeks had yet another assembly where their commanders exhorted them to fight for all the things they held dear, with “Themistocles making a speech which was eloquent beyond the rest”. Then they embarked and battle begun immediately:

In splashed their foaming oars, and straining stirred
The briny furrows at the helmsman’s word,
And all the ships were out and clear to view.
The right wing led the van, in order due,
Behind it the whole fleet, prow after prow.
Then one great shout: “Now, sons of Hellas, now!
Set Hellas free, set free your wives, your homes,
Your gods’ high altars and your fathers’ tombs.
Now all is on the stake!”
                                        (Aeschylus: The Persians)

Unlike Aeschylus, Herodotus puts a slightly less heroic spin on what happened at the beginning of the battle:

84. Then the Hellenes put out all their ships, and while they were putting out from shore, the Barbarians attacked them forthwith…

In the face of this immediate attack, the Greeks faltered; but then miraculously:

…an apparition of a woman was seen by them, and that having appeared she encouraged them to the fight so that the whole of the army of the Hellenes heard it, first having reproached them in these words: “Madmen, how far will ye yet back your ships?”

Miracles are all very well but it’s entirely possible of course that the Greeks were not fleeing in panic… rather, they retreated from the attacking Persians in order to draw them deeper into the narrow waters of the Straits of Salamis. I’m not a naval officer, however – nor was Herodotus, I’d like to point out – so we’ll leave the speculation to those more qualified. The account of Herodotus on the actual fight is relatively short; after all this lead up, you get a couple of measly paragraphs!… This is probably due to the fact that if Herodotus was gathering his material from survivors and relatives of survivors – which we know he claimed to do – then none of those people would really have had an overview of the fight. It would have been a confused melee of ships engaging each other and any of the survivors afterwards would have been only able to recount what happened right around them. Historians since have of course pieced together how the battle must have been fought but while I’m not averse to quote the odd bit at poetry you, I draw the line at trying to fit in all those accounts and explanations in here as well. So you’ll have to make do with Herodotus…

Who, after telling us how the opponents were arranged:

85. Opposite the Athenians had been ranged the Phenicians, for these occupied the wing towards Eleusis and the West, and opposite the Lacedemonians were the Ionians, who occupied the wing which extended to the East and to Piraeus…

Sums up the battle in a few sentences:

86. …but the greater number of their ships were disabled at Salamis, being destroyed some by the Athenians and others by the Eginetans: for since the Hellenes fought in order and ranged in their places, while the Barbarians were no longer ranged in order nor did anything with design… Yet on this day they surpassed themselves much more than when they fought by Euboea, every one being eager and fearing Xerxes, and each man thinking that the king was looking especially at him.

And finally tells us a lot about how Artemisia conducted herself in the fight – well. So well, in fact, that when they reported this to Xerxes, he replied:

“My men have become women, and my women men.”

Eventually the Persian fleet turned to flight. Their losses were heavy, including a brother of Xerxes, and “many others of note”. Herodotus attributes the disparity in casualties at least in part to the fact that Greeks could swim but the Persians couldn’t. In addition, Aristeides, who originally brought news of the Persian manoeuvres to Themistocles, took some Athenian hoplites over to the islet of Psyttaleia, and killed all the Persians – some four hundred – who had landed there.

There remains nothing more than trying to wind the history up as quickly as possible…

Did the Corinthians Run Away?

Themistocles had some unpleasant arguments with Adeimantos, the commander of the Corinthians. Adeimantos didn’t want to fight at Salamis. But did he actually attempt to run away from the battle once it began?

94. As regards Adeimantos the commander of the Corinthians, the Athenians say that forthwith at the beginning when the ships were engaging in the fight, being struck with panic and terror he put up his sails and fled away; and the Corinthians, when they saw the admiral’s ship fleeing, departed likewise…

But, supposedly, he returned to the fight after some divinity interfered and told him to go back.

Such is the report spread by the Athenians against these: the Corinthians however do not allow this to be so, but hold that they were among the first in the sea-fight; and the rest of Hellas also bears witness on their side.

Well, whether or not Adeimantos came across as a lovable bloke before, I suppose we’ll have to take the testimony of ‘the rest of Hellas’: ie. that the Corinthians didn’t run away.

Xerxes Decides to Retreat

97. When Xerxes perceived the disaster which had come upon him, he feared lest some one of the Ionians should suggest to the Hellenes, or they should themselves form the idea, to sail to the Hellespont and break up the bridges; and so he might be cut off in Europe and run the risk of perishing utterly: therefore he began to consider about taking flight.

And on this happy note, I’ll leave you with the original text of Aeschylus from The Persians:

ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε
ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ
παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη,
θήκας τε προγόνων: νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.

O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.

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