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The Graeco-Persian Wars: The Battle of Salamis

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The Graeco-Persian Wars
The Combatants | The Ionian Revolt | The Battle of Marathon | The Battle of Thermopylae | The Battle of Salamis | The Battle of Plataea | The Battle of Mycale

A king sate on 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?

- from Don Juan by Lord Byron

Although Salamis is far less well-known than Thermopylae, it is probably the most important battle of the Persian Wars. It was fought at the pivotal point in the conflict when things were looking grim for Greece, with Athens abandoned and only the Peloponnese remaining free. The engagement was supposed to be an easy victory for the Persians: their ships were better-designed and more numerous. Their crews were also more experienced and better-trained. However, it was Greek tactics and Persian over-confidence that changed the course of the battle, the result of which was thought by many to be a foregone conclusion.


Some time before the battle, even before Thermopylae, the Athenians had sent to the Oracle of Delphi to ask after their fate in the coming war. Her first answer was hardly the one they looked for. 'Get out of here, flee, flee, flee to the ends of the world! Go, go, leave the sanctuary, surrender to your grief!'. The Athenian delegation did indeed leave the sanctuary, and must have been busy surrendering to their grief when one of the priests urged them to approach the Oracle again. This time, she gave them a grain of hope. 'Athena cannot mollify the power of Olympian Zeus, although she begs him with all her eloquence and subtlety,' she began. Then:

And yet - this word I give you, adamant, a promise:
Everything within the borders of Attica shall fall,
Yes, and the sacred vales of nearby mountain ranges
But the wooden wall alone, the wooden wall shall stand,
That much Zeus grants to Athena, as an aid to you and your children.
Men on horses, men on foot, sweeping they come from Asia:
Retreat, for soon enough you will meet them face to face.
Divine Salamis - you will be the ruin of many a mother's son,
When the seed is scattered, or the harvest is gathered in.

It had been this prophecy which Themistocles, one of Athens' chief politicians and admiral of the fleet, had used to put forward his case for investment in the Athenian navy - a wooden wall. Now it would be put to the test.

In September, 480BC, the Persian King Xerxes was preparing for a great victory and the addition of a new satrapy to his Empire. He had (eventually) taken the Pass of Thermopylae and forced the Greek navy to retreat from its base at Artemisium. Now he was leading his army and fleet south to Athens, which had seemingly been abandoned by its Peloponnesian allies. On the way he stopped to sack Plataea and Thespiae.

The Council of War

Meanwhile, the Greek fleet had re-grouped off the Attic coast, not far from the Athens port of Piraeus. Themistocles had spent two days evacuating the Athenians to the island of Salamis, which was separated from the mainland by only half a mile of water, and then attended a council of war with the other admirals. Adeimantus of Corinth demanded that the fleet should withdraw to the Isthmus of Corinth, which the army was fortifying in preparation for the defence of the Peloponnese. Of course, this would mean abandoning not only Athens, but other cities such as Megara and Aegina. Themistocles opposed him strongly. What was the point of holding the Isthmus, he argued, when the Persian fleet was still at large? The Persian army could easily be supplied by sea and Isthmus's defences could be bypassed in an amphibious operation. He said it was possible not only to hold the Persians at Salamis, but to defeat them.

How much of this was his own conviction and how much was a desperate ploy to keep the fleet together, we do not know. Themistocles described his plan: at Artemisium, in straits two or three miles across, the fleet had held - just - against everything the Persians had thrown at them. The straits of Salamis were far narrower. If the Persian fleet could be lured into them, victory - and the crippling of Persian sea power - was possible. The leaders argued - in true Greek tradition - for a long while. At one point during the debate, spirits flared so badly that Eurybiades, the fleet's Spartan commander, raised his staff of office and threatened to strike Themistocles with it. Themistocles responded calmly: 'Strike, but also listen'. At length, despite the arrival of a messenger, mid-way through the council, telling of the Persian army burning its way through the fields of Attica, a decision was made to stay at Salamis - for the time being, at least.

In the couple of days between Themistocles's arrival and the attack of the Persians, the Athenian Assembly had agreed that the city should not be completely abandoned. Some priests and priestesses remained to guard the temples on the Acropolis, and with them were the Athenians who refused to leave the city. They stocked the towering, rocky plateau with provisions and erected barricades1 across the ramp which was the only access point.

The Taking of Athens and the Setting of Traps

As the admirals reached their agreement, and the Athenians on the Acropolis armed themselves, the Persian army arrived. They swiftly occupied the city, and set to work looting and sinking bore-holes for water (Athens was not short of water but the Persians clearly did not trust Greek supplies). Xerxes, having set up a command post on a hill near the Acropolis, ordered archers to burn the barricades across the ramp with fire arrows. He then sent Persian infantry detachments in to take the plateau, but the Athenians fought back fiercely. However, it required all the garrison's manpower to hold back the tide, and some elite mountain men2 were able to scale the cliff face at the opposite end of the Acropolis. Attacked from the rear, the defenders were slaughtered, even those seeking sanctuary in the Temple of Athena. Every building there was either torched or demolished. The flames would have broadcast the Persian victory to the Greek fleet at Salamis, and the Persian fleet waiting at sea until the ports of Piraeus and Phalerum could be taken.

At Phalerum Xerxes held a council with his admirals to establish a plan for fighting the Greek fleet. Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus advised him not to attack: leave it at a stand-off, and the Greeks would either starve through the autumn and winter, or else disperse. However, Xerxes wanted to finish the war before the end of the campaigning season, and so a battle had to be fought, and soon. Many commanders who had fought the Ionians knew how easy it was to divide a Greek force. Thirty thousand infantry were dispatched towards the Isthmus, with the intention only of intimidating the fleet, and Persian ships patrolled the sea, menacing the Greek fleet's escape routes. That night the patrols were suspended. The plan was to tempt the Peloponnesians into escaping, thus causing the whole fleet to disintegrate.

However, the redoubtable Themistocles was also scheming. He sent one of his slaves, Sicinnus, who could speak Persian, to Xerxes, saying that the Greeks, at each others' throats, were planning to escape that very night. The message also said that Themistocles was tired of Greek fractiousness and was now backing the Persians. Silently, the Persian fleet put to sea, planning to catch the Greeks by surprise as they sailed away. Two hundred Egyptian ships were sent around the island to block the only other escape route from the straits. Four hundred infantry were dropped off on the island of Psyttaleia to deal with those men and ships who would be swept onto the rocks of the island.

Themistocles must have been happy with his night's work. Even if the Greek fleet was defeated he had the favour of the King of Persia now, and a promise of a privileged position in the new satrapy. While hope remained, his loyalty was still to the Greek cause. Also, Aristeides, hero of Marathon and once Themistocles's political arch-enemy, arrived fresh from a mission to the island of Aegina3 to report that the Persians were moving out to sea in battle order. The plan had worked. With the straits blockaded there was now no chance of escape. We do not know whether the Greek fleet was truly on the point of breaking up or whether it was all part of the plan, but in the morning the Greek fleet was ready for battle.

The Greek Fleet

The Greek fleet was of a similar composition to that at Artemisium. Some ships had been lost, but more had arrived to replace them, including the odd ship or two from many of the Cycladean islands. Other cities had sent reinforcements as the situation became more serious after the retreat at Artemisium. Most historians (ancient and modern) agree that there were between 300 and 370 Greek ships. Herodotus's list is:

  • 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 Troezen
  • 4 from Naxos
  • 3 from Leucas
  • 3 from Hermione
  • 2 from Styra
  • 2 from Cythnus
  • 2 from Ceos
  • 2 from Melos

Including one each from Siphnus, Seriphus and Croton, the total number of ships was 366. Most of these ships were triremes4 but there were also some smaller 50-oared pentekonters present. Ambracia and Leucas were cities in the north-west of Greece, not far from the straits between Greece and Italy, while Croton was a colony on the mainland of Italy itself. They sent ships even though they were far away from the action.

The Persian Fleet

Thanks to the losses in storms and at Artemisium, the Persian fleet was a little depleted, but still a formidable force. Herodotus asserts that all losses were replaced by ships from Thrace and some of the Persian-held Aegean islands. The most conservative estimates put their numbers at 650 ships, while Ancient Greek historians claim over 1,000. A middle ground of around 800 ships seems sensible.

The Battle

The Greek fleet took to sea in the morning, singing these lines from Aeschylus:

Children of the Greeks go on
Free the motherland, also free
Children, women, and the altars of the gods
And the graves of your ancestors,
Now above all is the fight.

The Throne of Xerxes

On the Attic mainland, Xerxes and his entourage were riding out to the shoulder of Mount Aigaleos, which would give the Great King a perfect view of the straits of Salamis, and his expected magnificent victory. He had a throne erected so he could sit and note the names of the commanders who had fought well - and those who fought badly. He had told the ships' captains that if the Greeks should escape then those responsible would be executed. He had expected to see the fight almost done: the Greek fleet, caught unawares in the midst of their nocturnal escapade, destroyed, but instead he saw over 300 ships drawn up in the straits, ready for battle. Now he had to rethink his plan. He would know the danger of entering the narrow straits - that was why he had been trying to ambush the Greeks in the open sea - but now the pressing need for a quick victory and the belief that the Greeks were degenerating into a disorganised rabble, caused him to order the attack. He may have been helped along in his decision by the apparent flight of 50 or so ships, mostly Corinthian. They headed north-west, towards the Egyptian contingent blocking the other exit.

The imperial fleet rolled forward in its battle line. The Phoenicians made up the right wing and the Ionians the left, while the remainder, such as the Cilicians and Carians, made up the centre. They would have been able to hear the Greeks singing Aeschylus's lines belligerently, and would have thought that this was a strange way for a force on the point of disintegration to behave. However, the order had been given and there was no going back now. As they rounded the headland and entered the straits they would have seen the Greek fleet in a huge arc, the Athenians in the far north and the Aeginetans in the far south, and between them all the ships Greece could muster. The Greek line actually retreated slowly towards the shoreline of Salamis at the approach of the Persians, but then one ship charged headlong at the enemy. It was later said that its commander had been challenged by a female phantom who had spoken to them with such scorn that they were stung into the attack.

Battle is Joined

The fighting in the straits was not subtle. There was no room for sweeping manoeuvres or massive charges of whole squadrons. Nobody in the mile-long battle line could see the whole panorama of the battle, and so it is tales of individual heroism which have been passed down to us. Ameinias of Athens ordered his trireme into close combat immediately, ramming the Phoenician flagship and killing its commander, a brother of Xerxes.

Queen Artemisia's ship was one of the first to flee. Sound strategist though she was, in the heat of battle her courage must have failed because when Ameinias disentangled his ship from the wreckage and bore down on her, she turned tail and retreated. Her escape route from the narrow confines of the straits was blocked by one of her own ships, and so she rammed it in her desperation. Ameinias presumed the Queen to have changed sides and so did not pursue her any further. Xerxes, however, thought the ship Artemisia sank was Greek, and ordered his scribes to note down her name as one worthy of reward. So it was that he uttered the oft-quoted words: 'My men have turned into women, and my women into men'.

Now the Great King, who had positioned himself to get a good view of his victory, could easily comprehend the catastrophic nature of his defeat. The Athenians were battering the leaderless Phoenicians against the coastline and driving them onto the shore. The numerous Persian ships had had to cram themselves into the straits and this lack of space meant any manoeuvre other than ploughing straight forward was impossible. Some ships attempted to turn around and smashed into the sides of their neighbours in the line, or came too close and sheared off their oars. In the fighting on deck the heavy hoplites5 had the advantage over the Persian infantry, and Persian archers were inaccurate due to the rocking of the ships. Herodotus tells us that many more Persians were killed that day since many of the soldiers, coming from the far-flung inland area of the Empire, did not know how to swim.

The Corinthian ships, who had appeared to be fleeing, now turned back to the battle. They had been sent north to check whether the Egyptians had remained at the posts - which they had. Two hundred ships were obeying their orders, oblivious to the battle being fought at the other end of the straits. If they could have been brought upon the Greek rear the battle might still have been won, but no message was sent to them. Therefore the Corinthians could return to the fight and join the wedge which was busy cutting the Phoenicians off from the rest of the Persian fleet. Later the surviving Phoenician captains were executed for their defeat. It was not necessarily their fault, but Xerxes could not be expected to shoulder responsibility, so the Phoenicians had to become the scapegoats.

By midday the Persians had been driven out of the straits of Salamis and were being harried in their retreat across the open sea. As the sun was setting Aristeides led an attack on the 400 men who had been left stranded on Psyttaleia. They were slaughtered to the last man.


Some say that Xerxes lost half his fleet at Salamis, others put Persian losses at around 200. The Greeks are said to have lost only 40 ships. The figures are less important than the consequences of the crushing defeat. Many Persian ships were badly damaged, and the fleet was effectively crippled. It would take a long time to rebuild it into a fighting force. Xerxes tried to build a causeway to Salamis instead, but Greek archers on ships and shore saw this desperate project off quickly enough. Xerxes had bridged the Hellespont and turned the peninsula of Mount Athos into an island by carving a canal through it, but he had been stopped dead at Salamis.

The imperial navy was composed of ships from across the many nations of the Persian Empire. The Persian King prided himself in being the Great King - the 'King of Lands' - of all these nations, and this was a tremendous blow to his reputation. It was this that would lead to the decision to retreat from Greece - he did not wish to spend the winter in this war-torn land and govern the Empire from the burnt-out shell of Athens. So he headed back to his provincial capital in Asia Minor, Sardis, leaving Mardonius with an elite army charged with the pacification of the new territory and the conquering of the Peloponnese. Who needed a fleet to conquer what was on land?

Around this time, another great Greek victory was won, this time in Sicily. Gelon, the ruler of the immensely powerful city of Syracuse, had fought a battle against the Carthaginians in the north of the island, near the city of Himeria. Approximately 150,000 Carthaginians, half the army, lay dead beneath its walls. Their general, Hamilcar, committed suicide when he heard of the defeat. The Battle of Himeria was, according to Diodorus Siculus, fought on the same day as Thermopylae, but Herodotus asserts that it was on the same day as Salamis. Therefore, as the Phoenicians were being battered against the shore by the Athenians, so their kinsmen6 were being slaughtered by the Sicilian Greeks.

To this day the modern Hellenic Navy celebrates 12 September7 as Battle of Salamis Day.

A2522657A649983A753608BBC History - GreeksThe straits of Salamis todayMap of Ancient Greece
1These people had rejected Themistocles's interpretation of the Delphic prophecy and built their own 'wooden walls'.2Most likely Immortals - the same men who had climbed the mountains above the Pass of Thermopylae and sealed the fate of the Greeks defending it.3Possibly collecting the relics of old Aeginetan heroes to encourage the troops.4An ancient Greek or Roman galley, usually a warship, with three banks of oars on each side.5Soldiers in heavy chest, leg and head armour with large shields, javelins, heavy swords and spears.6Carthage began its life as a Phoenician colony and trading post before establishing its own Empire.7Although the battle may have been fought on 28 September.

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