Salamis (According to Herodotus)

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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.

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

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?).

The Olympias, reconstruction of an ancient Athenian trireme. Note the ram on the bow. Photo by Yannis (2011) via Flickr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
The Olympias, reconstruction of an ancient Athenian trireme. Note the ram on the bow. Photo by Yannis (2011) via Flickr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

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.

Death of the Persian Admiral [brother of Xerxes] at Salamis by William Rainey. Via Wikipedia [public domain]
Death of the Persian Admiral [brother of Xerxes] at Salamis by William Rainey. Via Wikipedia [public domain]

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


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

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