Salamis (According to Herodotus)

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Themistocles Loses It

Themistocles. By Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Themistocles. By Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
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.

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