Salamis (According to Herodotus)

Salamis – an island in the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, opposite Mount Aigaleo, 16 kilometres west of Athens.

Salamis – a battle that defined history for centuries to come.

The Warriors of Salamis (Achilles Vasileiou), battle monument on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
The Warriors of Salamis by Achilles Vasileiou, on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]


480 BC, Second Greco-Persian War

It’s 480 BC and the Persians are well into Greece: they already wiped out the Spartans at Thermopylae, jostled with a handful of Greek galleys at Artemision, burned and looted half the city-states and temples of Northern Greece – and are, at this moment in time, massing under the walls of the Acropolis of Athens. Things are not going well for the Greeks, whose naval forces are slowly gathering on the island of Salamis. It looks like Xerxes, the king of Persia might well be on his way to realising his ambition to create an empire on which the sun never sets.

But let’s leave aside Xerxes’s overreaching and not very laudable ambition to enslave the entire known world and ask Herodotus about what happened at Salamis.

History Repeats Itself

When you get as far as the battle of Salamis in Book VIII of Herodotus, you can’t help noticing that his account of the battle of Salamis begins exactly along the same lines as the ones about Thermopylae or the battle of Artemision (the battle of where?!):

  • The gathering of the forces in dribs and drabs √
  • The squabbling of the commanders √
  • The decision to run away √

You see how Herodotus might have acquired a reputation for being boring? However, it’s not his fault: he wrote a history, and history, as we all know, repeats itself…

The Catalogue of Ships

Moreover, the description of a battle of course couldn’t be complete without the muster of the forces – in this case, the navy. And not just because Herodotus, after all, wrote his book to record the Greek heroes for posterity but also because that’s the example Homer set in the Iliad. To the ancient Greeks, Homer was the shining example of all that is good and great in literature; so much so that Aristotle dedicated a considerable number of pages of his Poetics to show why Homer was a genius (and everybody else a plodder).

Herodotus, therefore, dutifully began his account of the battle by enumerating the ships from the various city-states, bringing the total to 382 (I spare you the details¹). A pleasing increase, at least from the Greek point of view, in the numbers from Artemision.

So now there assembled far more ships than had fought at Artemision, and from many more cities… The most numerous ships by far, and also the best, were furnished by the Athenians.

(Herodotus: The Histories, VIII. 42)

Against them were 1207 Persian triremes.

The Greeks were somewhat outnumbered, wouldn’t you say? No surprise then that several Greek galley captains were of the opinion that it would be prudent to withdraw to more peaceful waters!

A Bit about Leadership

This, of course, is where they needed a firm and courageous leader…

Their commander was the very same man who had commanded them at Artemision, Eurybiades son Eurykleides; he was a Spartan, though not of royal lineage. (VIII.42)

Just as well, you think, for the good of Greece, that they were under the command of a Spartan admiral – the Spartans are not renowned for running, right?

Er… well. It’s not Leonidas who’s in command here (he being dead by now) but Eurybiades; and every time admiral² Eurybiades pops up on the pages of The Histories, he comes across as a bit of a gawd-help-us (especially for a Spartan). He forever calls meetings to decide what to do… and then allows himself to be swayed from the meeting’s decision by Themistocles, the cunning leader of the Athenians.

So, needless to say, Eurybiades called a meeting.

49. …Eurybiades proposed that whoever so wished should express his opinion about which of all the places remaining under their control would seem most suitable for a naval engagement; for since Attica had now been given up for lost, he was enquiring about the other territories.

The majority of those voicing opinions favoured sailing to the isthmus and fighting there in defence of of the Peloponnese, arguing that should they be defeated in battle at Salamis, they would find themselves besieged on an island where no one would appear to help them, but if they were defeated at the isthmus, they could go ashore to their own people.

(Nothing like a little positive thinking.)

Things were definitely not looking too bright for the Athenians, who had all evacuated to Salamis³ and really had nowhere else to run. The last thing Themistocles needed at this point in the proceedings was bad news from the mainland, but that’s exactly what he got. News from home, or rather from what had once been home, Xerxes having burned Athens to the ground.

When the news of what happened to the Athenian Acropolis was announced to the Hellenes assembled at Salamis, they became so deeply disturbed that some of the commanders did not even wait for the business under discussion to be resolved, but dashed to their ships and hoisted their sails to take flight.

Those left behind ratified the decision to fight a sea battle in defence of the isthmus, and when night fell, they all dispersed from the conference and boarded their ships.

Eurybiades, probably greatly relieved, retired to his ship, thinking that was that – only to find himself dogged by Themistocles and getting his ear chewed off. Ever the decisive leader, Eurybiades called a new meeting.

I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?

(Usually attributed to Benjamin Disraeli)

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