The Battle of Salamis
The Battle of Salamis was a naval battle between the Greek city-states and Persia, fought in September, 480 BC in the straits between Piraeus and Salamis, a small island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens, Greece.
The Athenians had fled to Salamis after the Battle of Thermopylae in August, 480 BC, while the Persians occupied and burned their city. The Greek fleet joined them there in August after the indecisive Battle of Artemisium. The Spartans wanted to return to the Peloponnese, seal off the Isthmus of Corinth with a wall, and prevent the Persians from defeating them on land, but the Athenian commander Themistocles persuaded them to remain at Salamis, arguing that a wall across the Isthmus was pointless as long as the Persian army could be transported and supplied by the Persian navy. His argument depended on a particular interpretation of the oracle at Delphi, which, in typical Delphic ambiguity, prophesized that Salamis would "bring death to women's sons," but also that the Greeks would be saved by a "wooden wall". Themistocles interpreted the wooden wall as the fleet of ships, and argued that Salamis would bring death to the Persians, not the Greeks. Furthermore some Athenians who chose not to flee Athens, interpreted the prophecy literally, barricaded the entrance to the Acropolis with a wooden wall, and fenced themselves in. The wooden wall was overrun, they were all killed, and the Acropolis was burned down by the Persians.
The Greeks had 371 triremes and pentekonters (smaller fifty-oared ships), effectively under Themistocles, but nominally led by the Spartan Eurybiades. The Spartans had very few ships to contribute, but they regarded themselves the natural leaders of any joint Greek military expedition, and always insisted that the Spartan general would be given command on such occasions. There were 180 ships from Athens, 40 from Corinth, 30 from Aegina, 20 from Chalcis, 20 from Megara, 16 from Sparta, 15 from Sicyon, 10 from Epidaurus, 7 from Eretria, 7 from Ambracia, 5 from Troizen, 4 from Naxos, 3 from Leucas, 3 from Hermione, 2 from Styra, 2 from Cythnus, 2 from Ceos, 2 from Melos, one from Siphnus, one from Seriphus, and one from Croton.
The much larger Persian fleet consisted of 1207 ships, although their original invasion force consisted of many more ships that had since been lost due to storms in the Aegean Sea and at Artemisium. The Persians, led by Xerxes I, decided to meet the Athenian fleet off the coast of Salamis Island, and were so confident of their victory that Xerxes set up a throne on the shore, on the slopes of Mount Aegaleus, to watch the battle in style and record the names of commanders who performed particularly well.
Eurybiades and the Spartans continued to argue with Themistocles about the necessity of fighting at Salamis. They still wanted to fight the battle closer to Corinth, so that they could retreat to the mainland in case of a defeat, or withdraw completely and let the Persians attack them by land. Themistocles argued in favor of fighting at Salamis, as the Persian fleet would be able to continually supply their army no matter how many defensive walls Eurybiades built. At one point during the debate, spirits flared so badly that Eurybiades raised his staff of office and threatened to strike Themistocles with it. Themistocles responded calmly "Strike, but also listen". His eloquence was matched by his cunning. Afraid that he would be overruled by Eurybiades despite the Spartan's total lack of naval expertise, Themistocles sent an informer, a slave named Sicinnus, to Xerxes to make the Persian king believe that the Greeks had in fact not been able to agree on a location for battle, and would be stealthily retreating during the night. Xerxes believed Sicinnus and had his fleet blockade the western outlet of the straits, which also served to block any Greek ships who might be planning to escape. Sicinnus was later rewarded with emancipation and Greek citizenship.Artemisia, the queen of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor and an ally of Xerxes, supposedly tried to convince him to wait for the Greeks to surrender, as a battle in the straits of Salamis would be deadly to the large Persian ships, but Xerxes and his chief advisor Mardonius pressed for an attack. Throughout the night the Persian ships searched the gulf for the Greek retreat, while in fact the Greeks remained on their ships, asleep. During the night Aristides, formerly a political opponent of Themistocles, arrived to report that Themistocles' plan had worked, and he allied with the Athenian commander to strengthen the Greek force.
The next morning (possibly September 28, but the exact date is unknown), the Persians were exhausted from searching for the Greeks all night, but they sailed in to the straits anyway to attack the Greek fleet. The Corinthian ships under Adeimantus immediately retreated, drawing the Persians further into the straits after them; although the Athenians later felt this was due to cowardice, the Corinthians had most likely been instructed to feign a retreat by Themistocles. Nevertheless none of the other Greek ships dared to attack, until one Greek trireme quickly rammed the lead Persian ship. At this, the rest of the Greeks joined the attack.
As at Artemisium, the much larger Persian fleet could not manoeuvre in the gulf, and a smaller contingent of Athenian and Aeginan triremes flanked the Persian navy. The Persians tried to turn back, but a strong wind sprang up and trapped them; those that were able to turn around were also trapped by the rest of the Persian fleet that had jammed the strait. The Greek and Persian ships rammed each other and something similar to a land battle ensued. Both sides had marines on their ships (the Greeks with fully armed hoplites), and arrows and javelins also flew across the narrow strait. The chief Persian admiral Ariamenes rammed Themistocles' ship, but in the hand-to-hand combat that followed Ariamenes was killed by a Greek foot soldier.
The Battle of Salamis
Only about 100 of the heavier Persian triremes could fit into the gulf at a time, and each successive wave was disabled or destroyed by the lighter Greek triremes. At least 200 Persian ships were sunk, including one by Artemisia, who apparently switched sides in the middle of the battle to avoid being captured and ransomed by the Athenians. Aristides also took another small contingent of ships and recaptured Psyttaleia, a nearby island that the Persians had occupied a few days earlier. It is said that it was the Immortals, the elite Persian Royal Guard, who during the battle had to evacuate to Psyttaleia after their ships sank: they were slaughtered to a man. According to Herodotus, the Persians suffered many more casualties than the Greeks because the Persians did not know how to swim; one of the Persian casualties was a brother of Xerxes. Those Persians who survived and ended up on shore were killed by the Greeks who found them.
Xerxes, sitting ashore upon his golden throne, witnessed the horror. He remarked that Artemisia was the only general to show any productive bravery ramming and destroying nine Athenian triremes, saying, "My female general has become a man, and my male generals all become women."
The victory of the Greeks marked the turning point in the Persian Wars. Xerxes and most of his army retreated to the Hellespont, where Xerxes wanted to march his army back over the bridge of ships he had created before the Greeks arrived to destroy it (although they had in fact decided not to do this). Xerxes returned to Persia, leaving Mardonius and a small force to attempt to control the conquered areas of Greece. Mardonius recaptured Athens, but the Greek city-states joined together once more to fight him at the simultaneous battles of Plataea and Mycale in 479 BC.
Because the Battle of Salamis saved Greece from being absorbed into the Persian Empire, it essentially ensured the emergence of Western civilization as a major force in the world. Many historians have therefore ranked the Battle of Salamis as one of the most decisive military engagements of all time.
Return to The Molossian Military Academy