The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry

I defy you to write about the Battle of Salamis without quoting Byron (or Aeschylus, for that matter but we’ll deal with him on another day). Why?

The Battle of Salamis According to Byron

Because in six short lines Byron captured the very 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)

For most people this is quite as much as they ever need to know about the Battle of Salamis (although I’m sure some would argue that they don’t need to know anything about the Battle of Salamis).

In addition to capturing the essence of the story, Byron’s six lines above are also a beautiful example of Romantic poetry, with all its salient characteristics – wild landscape, surging emotion and epic scale. The contrast between high and low, the juxtaposition of the physical and the emotional.

The king sitting high up



at the ships below,

parallelled with his pride in the morning turning to despair by the evening.

Shall we call this genius?

The View from the Xerxes’s Seat

The king who ‘sate on the rocky brow’, that is, on the hillside of Mt Aigaleo above the Straits of Salamis, was Xerxes, the ‘King of Kings’, the Great King of Persia of course.

As Herodotus told us, he was much in the habit of setting up his throne on hillsides to admire his army or his fleet. The last time he had done this was at Abydos before crossing the Hellespont at the beginning of his invasion – where he burst into tears at the thought of how the men of his mighty army all would be dead in a hundred years’ time. On this particular day in history – 28? September 480 BC – he did not burst into tears (although he well might have done when he saw the men of his mighty navy all dead in a mere day).

At least, he couldn’t complain of the view:

The Piraeus, Phalerum, and the Bay of Salamis from Xerxes’s Seat. By William Simpson (1880) © Trustees of the British Museum [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]
You may also like:
Salamis (Retold in Poetry II)Salamis (According to Herodotus)The Isles of Greece by Lord Byron

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