Historic Battles Series: Battle of Salamis – 480 BCE

Battle of Salamis, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (detail).

This is part 4 of the historic battles series. Part 1 features Battle of Muye. Part 2 was a surprising battle between the Roman Republic and Carthag and part 3 explored Battle of Guandu which was a fight contested between the warlords Cao Cao and Yuan Shao in 200 CE in the late Eastern Han dynasty. Let’s investigate the Battle of Salamis today.

In Brief

The Battle of Salamis was a naval battle contested between an alliance of Greek city-states under Themistocles, and the Persian Empire under King Xerxes in 480 BC. It ended in a decisive victory for the outnumbered Greeks. The battle was contested in the channels between the mainland and Salamis, an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens. It is considered as the high point of the second Persian aggression of Greece.

The Build-Up

The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria had backed the disastrous Ionian Revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499-494 BC, led by the satrap of Miletus, Aristagoras. The Persian Empire was still comparatively young and prone to revolts amongst its subject peoples. Moreover, Darius was a usurper and had spent significant time annihilating revolts against his rule. The Ionian revolution threatened the integrity of his empire, and Darius thus vowed to punish those involved (especially those not already part of the empire). Darius also saw the opportunity to expand his empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece. A preliminary expedition under Mardonius, in 492 BC, to secure the land approaches to Greece ended with the conquest of Thrace and forced Macedon to become a client kingdom of Persia.

In 491 BC, Darius sent ambassadors to all the Greek city-states, asking for a gift of ‘earth and water’ in token of their resignation to him. Having had an exhibit of his power the previous year, the majority of the Greek cities duly obliged. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and then executed; in Sparta, they were simply thrown down a well. This meant that Sparta was also now effectively at war with Persia.

Darius thus put together an amphibious task force under Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC, which attacked Naxos, before receiving the submission of the other Cycladic Islands. The task force then moved on Eretria, which it blockaded and slaughtered. Finally, it moved to attack Athens, landing at the bay of Marathon, where it was met by a heavily outnumbered Athenian army. At the ensuing Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a striking victory, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Persian army to Asia.

Darius, therefore, began building a huge new army with which he meant to completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486 BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, frequently postponing any Greek expedition. Darius then died whilst preparing to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt and very quickly restarted the preparations for the invasion of Greece. Since this was to be a full-scale invasion, it required long-term planning, stock-piling, and conscription. Xerxes decided that the Hellespont would be linked to allow his army to cross to Europe and that a canal should be dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos (rounding which headland, a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 BC). These were both feats of extraordinary ambition, which would have been beyond any other contemporary state. By early 480 BC, the developments were complete, and the army which Xerxes had mustered at Sardi’s advanced towards Europe, crossing the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges.

The Athenians had also been preparing for war with the Persians since the mid-480s BC, and in 482 BC the resolution was taken, under the guidance of the Athenian politician Themistocles, to build an extensive fleet of triremes that would be necessary for the Greeks to fight the Persians. However, the Athenians did not have the manpower to fight on land and sea; and therefore combatting the Persians would require an alliance of Greek city-states. In 481 BC, Xerxes sent ambassadors around Greece asking for earth and water but made the very deliberate omission of Athens and Sparta. Support thus began to coalesce around these two leading states. A congress of city-states met at Corinth in late autumn of 481 BC, and a confederate alliance of Greek city-states was formed. It had the power to send envoys asking for assistance and to dispatch troops from the member states to defensive points after joint consultation. This was exceptional for the disjointed Greek world, especially since many of the city-states in attendance were still technically at war with each other.

Initially, the ‘congress’ agreed to defend the narrow Vale of Tempe, on the borders of Thessaly, and thereby block Xerxes’s advance. However, once there, they were advised by Alexander I of Macedon that the vale could be bypassed through the pass by the modern village of Sarantaporo, and that the army of Xerxes was overwhelming. So the Greeks retreated. Shortly afterward, they welcomed the news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont. A second strategy was therefore adopted by the allies. The route to southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnese) would require the army of Xerxes to travel through the very narrow pass of Thermopylae. This could easily be blocked by the Greek hoplites, despite the overwhelming numbers of Persians. Furthermore, to prevent the Persians from avoiding Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and allied navies could block the straits of Artemisium. This dual strategy was adopted by congress. However, the Peloponnesian cities made fall-back plans to defend the Isthmus of Corinth should it come to it, whilst the women and children of Athens had been relocated en masse to the Peloponnesian city of Troezen.

Famously, the much more diminutive Greek army held the pass of Thermopylae against the Persians for three days before being surrounded by a mountain path. Much of the Greek army retreated before the Spartans and Thespians who had continued to block the pass were surrounded and killed. The concurrent Battle of Artemisium was up to that point a stalemate; however, when news of Thermopylae reached them, the Allied fleet also retreated, since keeping the straits of Artemisium was now a moot point.

The Battle

The parts of the battle are sketchy as no one concerned would have had a view of the entire battlefield. Triremes were usually armed with a large ram at the front, with which it was likely to sink an enemy ship, or at least damage it by shearing off the banks of oars on one side. If the primary ramming was not successful, marines boarded the enemy ship and something comparable to a land battle ensued. Both sides had marines on their ships for this eventuality; the Greeks with fully armed hoplites; the Persians apparently with more lightly armed infantry.

Across the battlefield, as the first line of Persian ships was pushed back by the Greeks, they became caught in the advancing second and third lines of their ships. On the Greek left, the Persian admiral Ariabignes (a brother of Xerxes) was killed early in the battle; left disorganised and leaderless, the Phoenician squadrons seem to have been pushed back against the coast, many vessels running aground. In the centre, a wedge of Greek ships pushed through the Persians lines, cutting the fleet in two. According to Plutarch, Ariabignes was killed by Ameinias and Socles of Pallene. When Ariabignes attempted to board on their ship, they hit him with their spears, and thrust him into the sea. Plutarch also mentions that it was Artemisia who identified Ariabignes’ body floating among the shipwrecks and brought it back to Xerxes.

Herodotus reports that Artemisia, the Queen of Halicarnassus, and commander of the Carian contingent, found herself stalked by the ship of Ameinias of Pallene. In her urge to escape, she attacked and rammed another Persian vessel, thereby convincing the Athenian captain that the ship was an ally; Ameinias accordingly abandoned the chase. However, Xerxes, looking on, thought that she had successfully attacked an Allied ship, and seeing the poor administration of his other captains commented that “My men have become women, and my women men”. The friendly ship she sank was a Calyndian ship and the king of the Calyndians, Damasithymos was on it. None of the crew of the Calyndian ship survived.

The Persian fleet began to retreat towards Phalerum, but according to Herodotus, the Aeginetans surrounded them as they tried to leave the Straits. The remaining Persian ships staggered back to the harbour of Phalerum and the shelter of the Persian army. The Athenian general Aristides then took a detachment of men across to Psyttaleia to slaughter the garrison that Xerxes had left there. The exact Persian losses are not mentioned by Herodotus. However, he writes that the next year, the Persian fleet numbered 300 triremes. The number of losses then depends on the number of ships the Persian had to begin with; something in the range of 200–300 seems likely, based on the above estimates for the size of the Persian fleet. According to Herodotus, the Persians experienced many more casualties than the Greeks because most Persians did not know how to swim. Xerxes, sitting on Mount Aigaleo on his throne, witnessed the carnage. Some ship-wrecked Phoenician captains tried to blame the Ionians for weakness before the end of the battle. Xerxes, in a foul mood, and having just witnessed an Ionian ship capture an Aeginetan ship, had the Phoenicians beheaded for attacking “more noble men”. According to Diodorus, Xerxes “put to death those Phoenicians who were chiefly responsible for creating the flight, and loomed to visit upon the rest the punishment they deserved”, causing the Phoenicians to sail to Asia when night fell.

Aftermath

In the direct aftermath of Salamis, Xerxes attempted to build a pontoon bridge or causeway across the channels, to use his army to attack the Athenians; however, with the Greek fleet now boldly patrolling the straits, this proved futile. 

Herodotus tells us that Xerxes held a council of war, at which the Persian general Mardonius tried to make light of the defeat:

Sire, be not grieved nor greatly distressed because of what has befallen us. It is not on things of wood that the issue hangs for us, but on men and horses…If then you so desire, let us straightway attack the Peloponnese, or if it pleases you to wait, that also we can do…It is best then that you should do as I have said, but if you have resolved to lead your army away, even then I have another plan. Do not, O king, make the Persians the laughing-stock of the Greeks, for if you have suffered harm, it is by no fault of the Persians. Nor can you say that we have anywhere done less than brave men should, and if Phoenicians and Egyptians and Cyprians and Cilicians have so done, it is not the Persians who have any part in this disaster. Therefore, since the Persians are in no way to blame, be guided by me; if you are resolved not to remain, march homewards with the greater part of your army. It is for me, however, to enslave and deliver Hellas to you with three hundred thousand of your host whom I will choose.

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