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.
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)
Themistocles Loses It
Themistocles stood up and gave an impassioned speech:
60. It is in your power to save Hellas, if only you will follow my advice: stay and fight a sea battle here…
Just listen and compare the two sides of the argument.
If you engage the enemy at the isthmus, you will be fighting on the open sea, which is least to our advantage as our ships are heavier and our fleet inferior in number to theirs…
On the other hand, if you do as I advise, you will find many advantages: first, if we engage the enemy in a narrow strait with our few ships against their many, then, if we can expect the laws of probability to govern the battle’s outcome, I believe we shall achieve a great victory; for fighting in a narrow straight is best for us, while fighting on the open sea is best for them.
A practised orator (euphemism for skillful politician), he left his most convincing argument till the end:
…by remaining here, your men will be fighting in defence of the Peloponnese just as much as if they were fighting at the isthmus, so if you are in your right mind, you certainly will not lead the Persians to the Peloponnese.
Sound reasoning, isn’t it? It’s sturdy good sense to fight your enemies far from home (better that their crops burn than your own). Nevertheless, Themistocles’s speech didn’t meet with universal approval. In fact, the meeting soon descended into the kind of heated exchange for which the Parliaments of certain countries are justly famous.
59. …Themistokles spoke out with great urgency, since he was now quite desperate. But as he was speaking, Adeimantos son of Okytos, the Corinthian commander, said,
“Themistokles, in the games, those who start off before the signal are beaten with a stick,” to which Themistokles replied,
“Yes, but those left behind are never crowned with the victor’s wreath.”
Not content with having compared Themistocles to somebody ‘jumping the gun’ in a race, Adeimantos then went on to make even more unseemly comments:
61. …Adeimantos the Corinthian again attacked him, ordering him to be silent since he had no fatherland, and forbidding Eurybiades to allow any man who had no city to propose a motion for a vote. He told Themistokles that when he could demonstrate that he had a city, then he should contribute his opinions. This reproach against Themistokles referred to the enemy’s capture and current occupation of Athens.
This time Themistokles replied at length, and with venom directed against Adeimantos and the Corinthians4; he declared that in fact the Athenians’ city and land were greater than theirs, as long as they had 200 ships of their own, fully manned, for none of the Hellenes could repulse them if they were to launch an assault.
Thoroughly cheesed off by now, Themistocles then turned to Eurybiades and explained to him in good and concise Ancient Greek that he could either fight here and now with the Athenians or go to hell alone without them:
62. As for you, if you remain here, you will be a good and noble man simply by remaining. But if you do not, you will be the ruin of Hellas… if you refuse to do as I say, we shall pick up and leave with our families, and without further ado go off to Siris in Italy… when you find yourself alone without allies like us, you will remember my words.
Eurybiades might have been a bit of a gawd-help-us but he was not stupid. Not to mention he could count. Athens, the greatest maritime state of Ancient Greece, boasted one hundred and eighty ships to the Spartan sixteen; without Athens, Sparta might as well not bothered taking to the seas at all. Sensibly, Eurybiades decided to side with Themistocles. As Herodotus commented:
63. Eurybiades was converted by what Themistokles said, chiefly, I suppose, out of fear that the Athenians would leave them if they transferred the fleet to the isthmus, since if the Athenians left, the rest of them would no longer be a match for the enemy. So he chose to follow the proposal of Themistokles to remain and wage the decisive naval battle here.
They made up their mind… (You think!)
Themistocles’s Ruse de Guerre
Unlike Themistocles, who had to beg and cajole, Xerxes enjoyed the privileges of an absolute ruler: he simply ordered his fleet to put to sea5. Unfortunately for him by the time the galleys arranged themselves into battle order, night fell (there are drawbacks to having too many ships). Having prepared everything for a battle in the morning, the Persians therefore prudently went to bed.
Not so 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 by6. 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…
Not another meeting, by Zeus!
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 Sikinnos, the Persians changed their battle plans.
76. The commanders, thinking the message creditable, responded by first landing many Persians on the island of Psyttaleia, which lies between Salamis and the mainland. Then when the middle of the night had come, they directed the western wing of the fleet to encircle Salamis, while those who had been posted around Keos and Kynosoura deployed their ships so that they now occupied the entire strait from Salamis to Mounychia. They did this in order to prevent the Hellenes from escaping; they intended to trap them at Salamis…
All these steps were carried out quietly, so that their opponents would not learn of them, but because of these preparations, the fleet’s crews were unable to catch any sleep at all that night.
While the Persians thus passed the night rowing and prowling around on Psyttaleia (where they expected any wrecks to wash up) instead of sleeping, the Greeks continued practising their somewhat dysfunctional democracy…
78. Meanwhile, the commanders at Salamis were now engaged in fierce wrangling. They were not yet aware that the barbarian ships had encirled them on the island; they assumed that they were all still in the same positions in which they had been observed on the day before.
79. Then, as the commanders were in the midst of their dispute, Aristeides son of Lysimachos crossed over from Aegina…
Aristeides first told his news in private to Themistocles:
79. “…Let me tell you that as far as the Peloponnesians are concerned, it makes no difference whether there is much or little talk about sailing away, for I have seen with my own eyes that even if the Corinthians and Eurybiades himself wanted to sail out of here, they could not possibly do so, because we are encircled by our enemies. Well, then, go in and tell them this news.”
Themistocles however, suspecting that he might not be believed, sent Aristeides into the meeting instead to deliver his intelligence himself.
81. So Aristeides went to meet with the commanders and told them the news, saying that he had just come from Aegina and had experienced great difficulty in trying to sail here and elude those who were now blockading them, because the entire camp of the Hellenes was now encircled by the ships of Xerxes. He then counseled them to prepare to defend themselves, and after saying this, he withdrew. And once a gain the dispute arose, for the majority of the commanders did not believe him.
82. They continued to distrust his report until a trireme of Tenian deserters arrived, commanded by Panaitos son of Sosimenes, which now, indeed, brought 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…
Since they could no longer avoid battle, all they had to do now was to fight and win.
England Greece Expects (And So Does Xerxes)
Bronze against bronze will then engage closely,
and Ares will colour the open sea red. (VIII. 77)
Dawn broke and in a final assembly, the Greek commanders exhorted their men to fight for all the things they held dear, with Themistocles being particularly eloquent.
83. Everything he said communicated a contrast between the better and the worse in human nature and circumstances, and he encouraged them to choose the better of these for themselves…
For his part, Xerxes didn’t waste his breath on making speeches. Instead, he set up his throne on Mount Aigaleo, overlooking the island of Salamis and admired his enormous fleet in the straits. No doubt he was feeling smug. Admittedly, the fight at Artemisium hadn’t gone as well as it could have gone but now that he was going “to watch them fight at sea”, his men were going to fight ever so much better.
83. …The Hellenes set sail with all their ships, and as they moved offshore, they were immediately attacked by the barbarians.
What happened next is a bit disputed, with Athenians and Aeginetans both claiming that they were the only ones not immediately turning to flight…
84. The rest of the Hellenes began to back water and turn their ships toward the beach, but an Athenian, Ameinias of Pallene, had advanced his ship farther out, and he rammed one of the enemy’s vessels. The two ships became entangled and could not be separated, so it was in that manner, when the others came to help Ameinias, that the battle started…but the Aeginetans say it was the ship that had gone to Aegina for the descendants of Aiakos that started it.
What is undisputed is that in the face of this immediate Persian attack, the Greeks did falter. And who knows what would have happened if one of the handy pantheon of gods and goddesses that Ancient Greece possessed did not show up?…
84. …And it is also said that an apparition of a woman appeared and urged them on so loudly that the entire force of the Hellenes could hear her, beginning with the reproach,
“What has gotten into you! How long will you continue to back water?”
Of course we could discount this woman with her amazing vocal powers and conclude instead that the Greeks pulled themselves together of their own accord, inspired by the courage of one or the other of their number. Or, as some commentators maintain, that the Greeks in fact were not fleeing in panic but retreating from the attacking Persians in order to draw them deeper into the narrow waters of the Straits of Salamis (but where’s the fun in that?).
85. The Athenians were facing the Phoenicians, whose ships held the west wing of the Persian line toward Eleusis; and opposite the Lacedaemonians were the Ionian ships, who formed the east wing of the Persian line over toward Peiraieus. Few of the Ionians, however, deliberately fought like cowards as Themistokles told tehm to do; in fact, the majority did not.
The account of Herodotus on the actual fight is indecently short; after all this lead up, you get a couple of measly paragraphs. This would be mainly due to the fact that the survivors from whom Herodotus gathered his material would have had no overview of the battle (it’s difficult to evaluate your admiral’s tactics while you’re trying to avoid to be hacked to pieces on a deck slippery with blood). Historians since have of course pieced together how the battle must have been fought but I draw the line at trying to fit in all those explanations in here as well. You’ll have to make do with Herodotus, who – I have to remind you – was not a naval officer.
86. …Most of Xerxes’ ships at Salamis were disabled, some being ruined by the Athenians, others by the Aeginetans. For since the Hellenes fought the naval battle in disciplined order and remained in their ranks, while the barbarians failed to hold their positions and made no moves that might have followed a sensible plan, the battle was bound to turn out as it did. The men in Xerxes’ fleet did, however, prove themselves better men by far on this day than they had off Euboea, since each man fought eagerly and in fear of Xerxes, thinking that the King was watching him.
Eventually the Persian fleet turned to flight. Their losses were heavy:
89. In this struggle the commander Ariabignes, the son of Darius and brother of Xerxes, lost his life, as did many other notable men of the Persians, the Medes, and their other allies….
Most of their fleet was destroyed when the ships in the lead turned to flee, because those deployed behind them were trying to sail past so as to perform some spectacular feat before the King, and they collided with the leading ships from their own side who were in flight.
Herodotus attributes the disparity in casualties at least in part to the fact that Greeks could swim while 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.
Xerxes Runs For It
At that time will Hellas see the day of its freedom… (VIII. 77)
Xerxes must have had the shock of his life that day. Numbers, he must have concluded rather ruefully, are not everything (a lesson he really should have learnt already at Thermopylae but some of us are slow learners).
Twelve years earlier, his father Darius had lost his fleet in a storm under Mount Athos (the Invincible Armada of Philip II wasn’t the first fleet to come an almighty cropper in adverse weather), so Xerxes went to all the trouble to cut a canal across the Athos peninsula, bringing his fleet safely to…
…to this debacle, in the straits of Salamis.
87. The King’s fleet had reached a state of mass confusion…
91. Those barbarians who had taken flight and were trying to sail out toward Phaleron were met by the Aeginetans, who were lying in ambush in the strait and who there performed noteworthy deeds. For while the Athenians in the midst of the melée disabled those ships that resisted or that attempted to flee, the Aeginetans did the same to those who were trying to sail out. So those ships which escaped from the Athenians ran right into the Aeginetans.
And from his high vantage point on Mt Aigaleo, Xerxes had an excellent view of it all. No wonder he lost heart.
97. When Xerxes realised the severity of the disaster that had occurred, he became afraid that one of the Ionians would advise the Hellenes (if they did not think of it themselves) to sail to the Hellespont and break apart the bridges, so that he would be trapped in Europe and in danger of perishing there. And so he made plans to flee.
103. …if all the men and women in the world had advised him to stay, he would not have done so, such was his state of utter terror.
The Legacy of Salamis
I started this post with saying that Salamis was a battle that defined history for centuries to come and I’ll finish with reiterating that. Why? Because although it took another year and more battles to drive the Persians completely out of Greece, Salamis was the turning point. Salamis was the moment when Xerxes fled, never to come back.
Greece survived, Greek culture flourished and certain Greek ideas – so earnestly championed by Herodotus in The Histories – passed down to us through the centuries to form the very core of our European identity today:
the rule of law
Notes: 1 Which you can find in VIII.42-48. The Greeks had 378 triremes plus 4 penteconters. 2 But then, the Spartans were landlubbers. (Just trying to be fair to Eurybiades here.) Not for nothing was the Peloponnesian War, the war between Athens and Sparta - at this point still in the future - described as the struggle of the Whale and the Elephant. Unfortunately for the Whale, by the end the Elephant learned to swim (you might like to look up the Spartan admiral Lysander and the battle of Aegospotami in 405 B.C. at this point). 3 Well, the majority did. Some of them did prefer to evacuate to Troizen. 4 A different (older) translation says, Then Themistocles said many evil things of him and the Corinthians both - a delightfully suggestive phrase that allows you to fill in all the expletives yourself. 5 He did hold a council of war where Queen Artemisia sensibly pointed out that he'd be a fool to engage in a naval battle at Salamis. Being an absolutist ruler, Xerxes of course ignored the advice (VIII.68-69). 6 You can read about the building of the wall in VIII.71-74. What I Left Out: (In addition to what's mentioned in the Notes above) ⇒ The Evacuation of Athens: VIII.40-41. ⇒ The Destruction of Athens: VIII.50-55. (Which is, however, subject of a post of its own - see the link below.) ⇒ The Omens: VIII.64-65. ⇒ Xerxes's Council of War: VIII.67-69. ⇒ Queen Artemisia's Battle Heroics: VIII.87-88. ⇒ The Rumours that the Corinthians Ran Away: VIII.94 You may also like: ⇒ The Sea Trials of the Trireme Olympias (a YouTube video of a modern day replica trireme) ⇒ The Destruction of Athens