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Key Battles of History Part 1: Salamis 480BC

In this series I will be considering some of the key battles in the history of humanity. These battles that I have chosen are critical for the flow of human history as we know it. There may be other, more famous or interesting, battles that have not made it into this series for the simple reason that not all battles shape the course of history. Thus, I will be considering battles such as Thermopylae, Cannae, Badger's Pass, Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Somme, Pearl Harbor, and the Battle of Britain to name a few. These battles have shaped our world.

 

This series will follow a similar pattern: We will consider the geopolitical context surrounding the battle, then a brief retelling of the events, before concluding remarks concerning the implications of the battle and why it matters.

 

We will begin with what is perhaps the most important battle in the history of the Western world, Salamis (although a strong argument could well be made for the Battle of Marathon 10 years prior). This battle is really part of a series of vital conflicts. Without Marathon there would be no Salamis. Without Salamis there would be no Plataea. So although broken up into a number of posts, we are really considering the two conflicts of 490 and 480-479 BC as one, large, battle between Europe and Asia. This post considers the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC.

 

Most will be somewhat familiar with Thermopylae, where Leonidas and his bodyguard of 300 Spartans, along with 10,000 other Greeks, barred the entrance to Greece from the advancing Persians. The armies of Xerxes of Persia faced them but failed to win a way through until Leonidas and the Greeks were betrayed by Ephialtes. This Leonidas made his sacrificial stand in an effort to demonstrate Sparta's resolve to defend Greece and to embolden the other Greek states that, though outnumbered, they were absolutely capable of standing toe-to-toe against the vast numbers of the Persia forces. I will be covering Thermopylae and Marathon in future posts, as they were also vitally important battles.

 

I suspect, however, that most of us will not be quite as aware of the two battles that shaped this particular conflict: Salamis and Plataea. These battles, though perhaps less famous than the heroic martyrdom of Leonidas and the Spartans, were nevertheless as important to the survival of the Greek city states (and thus 'democracy' and European independence from the empires of the East) as Thermopylae. It is to the first of these other battles that we now turn.

 

For the historical texts concerning the entire Greco-Persian conflict, read Herodotus and Thucydides, whose retellings are surprisingly accurate (except, perhaps, with regards to the numbers of troops), readable, and captivating.

 

Geopolitical Context

The history concerning this massive conflict is multi-faceted and covers many different points. For the purposes of our battle, however, we will focus on the three essential protagonists and the major battle of Marathon.

 

Greece

For background context, it is important to realize that Greece as we currently know it (i.e., a unified nation) did not exist in the ancient world. There was a Greece of sorts, but it is better to think of it as a conglomerate of states who shared a similar culture. They were Hellenic more than they were Greek. Every large city was its own completely independent state, with differing forms of government. There was no single leader of Greece. In Athens, there was a form of democracy, whereas, for example, in Sparta, there was a dual monarchy that ruled alongside a council of elders. At the time of this conflict, however, the most important city states, begrudgingly recognized as such by the other states, were Athens and Sparta.

 

Citystate: Athens

There was a battle within my college peer group over which of the two Greek city states was the superior entity. On the one hand, there was the Athenian faction, who argued that Athens had the superior culture, intellect, and philosophic worldview. On the other hand, however, there was the Spartan faction who revelled in the military might, prowess, and bravery of the Spartan soldiers. Both sides made valid points (and highlighted just how much a nerdy business the study of history can be!).

 

Athens was indeed the cultural leader of Greece at this time. After the battle of Marathon, Athenian hegemony developed at a swift pace. Her navy began to grow and expand in ways that, ironically, started to suggest an empire was dawning. By the mid-480s it was decided by the great leader, Themistocles, to build a large Athenian navy with which to go to war against the Persians. This had followed about 15-20 years of needling, prodding, poking, and generally riling the Persian bear. 

 

The Athenians, however, were unable to lead both a navy and a successful land contingent. Their skillset was the sea. They were able sailors, freedmen, whose position in the triremes was not as slaves forced to fight, but patriots eager to defend their homeland. The reality, however, was that, although they had defeated Darius in 490, they would be unable to withstand an assault brought by the combined might of the various nations that comprised the Persian Empire. And, rumours were going about that Xerxes was amassing an army and navy the like of which the world had not seen since the days of Babylon's height. And Athens was one of the leaders of the Greeks. She would be right in the middle of Persia's crosshairs (more of which, below).

 

It was becoming clear to the Athenian leaders that this time a Hail Mary battle such as at Marathon would not be sufficient. Greece's survival required a unified approach. Somehow, against all the odds, the many city states were going to have to unite. Not only unite together, but of course, unite under a leader. But such a compromise would not fly with many Greeks, not least the undisputed military leader of the Peloponnese: Sparta.

 

Citystate: Sparta

In contrast with Athens, Sparta is often seen as a pathetic, barbaric, backwater people. And, in some ways, this is true. Athens was indeed more 'enlightened' when it comes to power-sharing and philosophy. Sparta was, truthfully enough, a military society that oppressed a vast population of slaves called Helots, and the hierarchy was very much built upon an aristocracy. (There is evidence that women had greater freedom and rights under Spartan rule than in Athens, however, though that was to do with a policy that men were to live in the barracks while they served in the army). 

 

What cannot be disputed, however, was that the Spartan military machine was a fearsome, well-oiled, army of trained soldiers who considered it an honour to die for their country. They were not merely skilled soldiers; Spartans have become a byword for an elite warrior that even today penetrates our cultural psyche in computer games and military equipment.

 

The amazing success of the Athenians at the battle of Marathon stung the Spartan pride. How was it, they felt, that the Athenians had done what Sparta had thought impossible, and not only won the battle, but sent Darius scurrying home with his tail between his legs. And, most insultingly of all, in a land battle without Spartan help! Sparta, it was universally acknowledged, was the supreme Grecian army. Granted, they weren't a naval power. But when it comes to land fighting, the Spartans were the elite.

 

So this time, it was quite clear, the Spartans would join the fight. They would bring the gods a battle not seen in this world since Zeus ended the war against the Titans! The problem, however, was this: no Spartan was going to submit to Athenian leadership. Especially on the land. And no Athenian was going to submit to Spartan leadership. Especially on the sea.


So. What was to be done? 

 

Well, as we shall see in a moment, Xerxes understood that the largest threat to his victory were these two nations. The Greeks, however, understood that if they were to survive, they needed to work together, and, crucially, Athens and Sparta needed to be united. The offer, then, at the city of Corinth in 481 was this: Sparta would lead, in principle over the entire conflict but de facto Athens would lead the combined Grecian navy in the naval battles, and Sparta the combined Grecian armies. Thus, any Spartans on the sea would, in reality, submit to Athenian leadership while any Athenians on the land would submit to Spartan generals. This was a remarkable achievement for the fractured Hellenic city states and particularly for the two competing nations of Athens and Sparta. It wouldn't be a perfect alliance of leadership (there would be conflicts of opinion and direction) but, for the most part, was a startling, and surprising, success.

 

Empire: Persia

Of course, every story needs a bogeyman. And in this narrative we have the Persian Empire under King Xerxes. The Persians had long desired to bring Europe into their sprawling empire. Before Xerxes, King Darius had made an effort to do just that, but was defeated by the Athenians at the battle of Marathon, which will be considered below.

 

Under Darius, the fledgling empire was struggling to maintain its own meteoric rise to prominence. He is a fascinating figure and one worthy of significant study. He overthrew the rightful heir of the Achaemenid kingdom and became king. He faced revolts on many sides as a result of his coup. One revolt in particular would prove to be a significant one. In 499, Athens supported the Ionian Revolt, which entailed the Hellenic cities of Asia Minor rising up to take advantage of the new empire's weaknesses. It was, however, eventually supressed, and Darius pledged that all those who had aided in this revolt would feel the wrath of his fury and vengeance. One such supporter of the revolt was none other than the city state of Athens, whose own foreign policy was to try to coerce those same Ionians to fall under Athenian hegemony. Darius would not forget.

 

Thus, his own empire now subjugated to an acceptable amount, he sent his general, Mardonius, into Greece as an expeditionary force. Mardonius defeated Thrace and Macedon (nations north of Achaea, where Athens was located) and secured a successful entrance-point for an armed assault the next year. In preparation for this assault on Greece, which would have the dual benefit of punishing the rebels and bringing Greece into the Persian fold, Darius sent embassies to many Grecian city states with an offer of peace...if they submitted by giving him a tribute of land and water.

 

The success of Mardonius in the previous year caused most Greeks to submit to Darius. He was, after all, preparing to attack. Peace is preferable to a costly war. Tribute is preferable to death.

 

In Athens, however, these embassies were put on trial and summarily executed. In Sparta, rather more harshly, they were hurled down a well and left to rot. As such, both Athens and Sparta were now, technically, at war with Darius and his Persian Empire. But most of Greece had submitted.

 

The consequence of these acts of rejecting the embassy was to impact Greece for centuries. Until Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, in fact. But that's another battle for another post.

 

Darius assembled his forces and attacked Naxos and Eritrea, defeating them, and landing at the bay of Marathon whereupon he prepared to finally humble the upstart Athenians for their insolence. Presumably he intended to march through the Isthmus of Corinth afterwards and defeat Sparta and thus subjugate all of Greece. Whether he would have, or could have, we will never know. Because at the bay of Marathon, Darius finally faced the mighty men of Athens. 

 

Marathon 490BC

Because there will be a subsequent post on the Battle of Marathon we will brush past the events of the battle and highlight, primarily, the immediate implications of the Athenian victory. Suffice it to say, the consequences of the battle were vast in the immediate term. Athenian reputation grew throughout the Aegean Isles as the smaller nation states began to submit to Athenian supremacy. This victory began a golden age for Athens which, ironically, was sealed by the subsequent victories over Persia in the following decade.

 

Further, the victory demonstrated the importance of Athenian self-belief as a democracy. Unlike the Spartans who ruled through a mixture of fear, violence, and brainwashing, the Athenians valued freedom (for Athenians) and intellect. The victory at Marathon taught Athenians that there was more to victory than merely having the numbers: you had to have the wisdom of Athena joined with the might of Ares.


The final, extremely important point that developed from this victory was the Grecian faith in the hoplite soldier. The phalanx would become a critical unit throughout the history of Greek warfare right through to the rise of Rome and the centurion (and arguably the 19th Century Square formation that was used to drive off cavalry attacks bore similarities). Although the phalanx had been employed in Greece for quite some time, it had never been tested on less skilled, and poorly armored, troops before. Darius had been relying on the sheer weight of numbers and the terror of the size of the army to bring Athens to its knees. But when it came to actually fighting, the Greek hoplites were better armored, had a cause to fight for, and drilled to a military perfection. It was no contest.

 

Darius' initial efforts were bested. Athens showed Greece, and the world, that brain really could beat brawn. This resulted in the already precarious hold of his empire being further weakened and Darius, who had to retreat, began to prepare for an all out invasion of Hellas. However, emboldened by Athenian resilience, as well as internal reasons, the Egyptians took their chance to revolt from the weakened Darius in 486BC. This caused Darius to transfer his attention to his southern flank to suppress the rebellion, delaying his desire to humiliate the Greeks.

 

His death, however, did nothing to stop the westward gaze of a gluttonous empire. Xerxes I became king and, having defeated the upstart Egyptians, turned his attention back to the West. Back to Athens. Back to glory.

 

Setting the Scene

The new king had inherited the Persian Empire at its zenith. It was the undisputed world power at the time. For millennia, Egypt had been the power in Africa while the Empires of Akkadia, Babylon and Assyria, amongst others, battled it out. But by 486, when Darius died, Persia was in the process of building an army to bring Egypt back under control. This task now fell to Xerxes who pounced on Egypt with a ruthlessness that brought about swift restoration of the status quo.


Shortly thereafter, he angered Babylon, who also rebelled and who also, therefore, had to be subdued. Xerxes did so, again with ruthlessness. These conquests fed his ego and his confidence, soon calling himself King of Nations. He felt invincible. But he had not yet bested Darius. He had regained Persian territories and dominance, but he, Xerxes, would succeed where Darius had failed. He would expand the empire to the west and bring those boisterous, arrogant, independent Greeks to heel.

 

There is, perhaps, a philosophic and cultural argument here that is often left unconsidered. For the Persian mind, the king had absolute power. A power that was given by the gods and was, therefore, undeniably, a religious position. This idea can also be seen in Egypt in the cult of the Pharaoh. For the Greeks, therefore, to be able to rebuff, defeat, and humiliate the Persians was not only a blot on their ledger but suggested a flaw, or error, in their worldview. The king was sovereign, all-powerful. Victory was his by right. The notion of Greek independence, and, even more blasphemous, democracy, was dangerous to an empire. The impending invasion wasn't merely about pride. It was about power, it was about religion, it was about philosophy and worldview. Could a nation truly survive without a larger entity overwhelming it? Could democracy really work in a world of kingdoms and empires?

 

Xerxes believed not. The empire would strike back. Athens, and all of Greece, would fall. Because an empire must be greater. The sum of all the parts must be greater than individual components. A king must be greater than a cabinet. So his army would come to Greece.

 

Meanwhile, of course, the Athenians were following the details of the Persian rebuilding project carefully and knew that Persia would return. Darius, when he had retreated, had made it clear he would seek vengeance by raising up an army the like of which the world had never seen. The Egyptian rebellion offered a reprieve while Darius' death brought about momentary hope for a different trajectory. But when Athens saw the aggression of the new king, and heard the rumblings of a mighty force being prepared, it was clear that war was coming. 

 

By 482, the great Athenian general, Themistocles, was convinced that Athens needed a strong navy. Sparta was the hegemon of the Peloponnese. To access the Peloponnese, an invading army would have to pass through the Isthmus of Corinth which could easily be defended because it was narrow. Athens, however, didn't have such a luxury. Once Thessaly fell, the Persians would flow south into Achaea and besiege Athens. Thus the Athenians needed a navy. For two reasons. Firstly, to, if necessary, evacuate the city. After all, this was a democracy. The people were the city! But secondly, if the Greeks were to be convinced to fight in a unified army, they needed assurance that the Persians wouldn't simply sail around and land behind them. This was indeed the Spartan fear. That if they left the security of the Peloponnese to defend Athens, Xerxes would drop a large contingent behind them and destroy Sparta.

 

Thus it was, then, that the Athenians understood the importance of a navy. The Greeks had evidence enough they could outfight the Persians, provided they chose the battlefield carefully. They had to also outthink them, however. This, in itself, would be a vital contribution to the war effort. And it just so happened that the city of Athens had plenty of skilled thinkers as well as skilled strategoi. But none moreso than the genius Themistocles. 

 

In the dawning of 481 Xerxes, like his father before him, sent emissaries to the Greek states. Like Darius, he asked for a tribute of earth and water. This demand would act as a demonstration of their submission to Persian rule. In essence, it was to acknowledge that Xerxes was king over the land and sea. It also meant, however, that when the soldiers of Xerxes marched, they would not meet any resistance from such a state. Further, they were pledging their soldiers to Xerxes' army.

 

Noticeably, Xerxes refused to send an emissary to either Athens or Sparta. This had the ironic effect of solidifying their leadership over the resistance and made surrender impossible. As much as most Greeks hated each other, many were unprepared to surrender and allow the death of two of their great cities. With the reality of war now imminent, the Greek states formed a confederacy against the Persians giving the council of leaders power to send member troops out to fight.

 

Greece was ready. And Persia was coming. News reached the Greeks that Xerxes had, eventually, crossed the Hellespont, where Asia meets Europe. The Persians had arrived. 

 

Key Personalities

There are a few key personalities that need to be considered. The first is Xerxes. By all accounts, Xerxes was an ambitious young man. As with any powerful empire, the court of the monarch breeds conspiracies and violence. The Persian court was no different. Xerxes was favoured by Darius and actually named successor. However, upon the death of the king, a rival claimant to the throne took power: Artobazan. He was the firstborn of Darius' legal children and therefore claimed the throne was rightfully his.

 

Obviously, Xerxes disagreed. And Xerxes had a special card up his sleeve: He was descended from Atossa. Most of us probably haven't heard of Atossa, but she was the daughter of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was the great king who had freed the Persians from their own bondage before establishing the vast empire that Darius would inherit. Cyrus defeated the Median, Lydian and the Babylonian empires to become the strongest leader in the East. Read the Nabonidus Cylinder to discover his exploits. Darius, you will remember, was not the legitimate king because he became king through a coup. In an effort to legitimise his ascent to the throne, he married Atossa and she bore him Xerxes.

 

Thus Xerxes was able to claim the throne because he was a 'son' of Cyrus, the great Persian empire builder. Just the sort of bloke you'd want to emulate by adding to the empire yourself, right? An interesting idea as to why Darius chose Xerxes as his successor and not his eldest son (besides, perhaps, a fatherly intuition concerning ability) is that Xerxes was born to Atossa when Darius was the undisputed king, whereas Artobazan was the son of Darius the client king. Regardless of the reason, there was enough sway within the court to eventually ensure that Xerxes was crowned. He subdued the Egyptians and the Babylonians before marching west.

 

His earlier conflicts had demonstrated the need for a prepared army. Thus, as early as 483, he had his slaves dig out the Xerxes Canal and fill provision stations throughout the Westward journey so that his vast army would have the food to survive an elongated campaign if necessary. Then he had his engineers build a bridge over the Hellespont to ensure his march could continue unabated. (Herodotus tells the popular story that the first bridge failed and Xerxes, in a blind rage, had the river whipped as punishment. He was, after all, meant to be god over the sea, so the impudence of Poseidon had to be rebuked.)

 

The second key figure is Themistocles. Themistocles is perhaps my favourite Athenian during this conflict. He has guile, genius, and subterfuge that Odysseus would be proud of. Themistocles was a politician who was beloved by the people and generally hated by the nobility. One story goes that, fearing he was to be ousted from a position of leadership, he caused a riot amongst the poorer classes. He was elected an Archon in 493 and fought at Marathon in 490, most likely as one of the strategoi. Themistocles consistently clamoured for the development and strengthening of the Athenian navy because he understood its vital importance to trade, development, power, and most importantly, protection. As mentioned above, in 483 he pushed through the building of 200 triremes in preparation for the Persian invasion.

 

During the war with Persia from 480-479 he was effectively in charge of the Greek navy (though, not technically). He was extremely popular and beloved by many, especially in Athens, but he was not loved by all.  After the defeat of Persia, he enjoyed great success before his arrogance led to his being ostracized from Athens, whereupon he fled to the Persian court and actually became a governor of the empire. He lived quite an extraordinary life and was indisputably a genius politician, general, and thinker.

 

The third key, or, at least interesting, figure is Adiemantus. He was the Corinthian admiral with whom Themistocles argued prior to the battle of Salamis. Corinth was the other major naval power within the Greek states. Unable to match Athenian numbers of might, the Corinthian contingent was nevertheless extremely important. As will be discussed in a moment, he was insolent in his disagreement with Themistocles at the council of admirals and threatened to leave the Greeks weakened by retreating. His is not a story covered in glory.

 

Other important figures are Leonidas and Mardonius. We will cover them as they pop up in the narrative.

 

Numbers

The numbers of the ships involved in the battle are disputed. Herodotus suggests about 380 ships belonged to the allies under the command of Eurybiades, the nominal Spartan admiral. This had been agreed at the conference of allies in 381 because the other naval powers didn't want to submit their ships to Athens or Themistocles. Thus, the non-naval nation of Sparta was given nominal lead, but in reality Themistocles was the de facto ruler. I suspect that a wink wink nod nod agreement between Sparta and Athens on this point was mutually understood.

 

Regarding the numbers, it appears that the allied fleet probably sat somewhere between 200-350 ships on the day of battle.

 

Facing them, the Persians had set out with over 1200 ships of varying sizes (according to Herodotus), but by the day of battle probably only had about 600. These figures, it has to be noted are hotly debated even amongst ancient sources. Most likely they had about 700 or so battle worthy warships at Salamis, considering losses, support ships, and battleplans.

 

Key Events in the Build Up

Initially, the plan had been to hold the Persians off at a narrow piece of land to the northern part of Thessaly. This proved a poor decision because the Persians could easily bypass and encircle the Greeks. Thus the Greek contingent of soldiers decided to hold a position further south, at Thermopylae. This was a very narrow path which would nullify the Persian numbers and ensure that the superior armour and skill of the Greeks would bring about victory. Of course, all is fair in love and war, and so the Peloponnesian troops had back up plans to defend the Isthmus at Corinth should they be defeated in Thessaly. For their part, the Athenians knew that their city was likely to be lost should Persia break through, and so the citizens of Athens were evacuated to the Peloponnese where the last stand would take place. But that was the back up. Hopefully their battle plan would succeed.

 

For this strategy to be successful, however, two things had to happen. Firstly, the Athenians had to play their part by protecting the land forces from a naval encirclement. It would not be good for the Spartan hoplites to hold Thermopylae if the Persians could just load thousands of troops onto their ships, sail around, and trap the Greeks between the hammer and the anvil of an assault.

 

The second thing that had to happen was that the Persians had to be made to face the Greeks here and not search for another path around them. There were other routes, but the path through Thermopylae would be the quickest, and would bring the all-conquering Xerxes face-to-face with his enemies sooner. A brief victory over these blasphemous, arrogant Greeks would solidify his position as undisputed king of kings.

 

Needless to say, the Greek plan failed. Betrayed by Ephialtes, the Spartans and Thespians were slaughtered and the Persian march continued. This had the unfortunate effect, for Xerxes, of emboldening the Greeks. For all the vaunted numbers of the Persians, it took three days, and treachery, before they fell. Inspired by Leonidas the Spartan king whose bodyguard died beside him, the Greeks realized that the Persians could be defeated. Bearing in mind the two-pronged defense, it must be noted that a vital skirmish happened simultaneously on the sea.

 

At the naval battle of Artemisium the Greek allies and the Persians had a stalemate. This skirmish, however, was extremely important for the Battle of Salamis. Why? Because one of the admirals at the battle realized a critical factor (one that would be equally important in the Roman conflict between Octavius and Cleopatra). Size can be a hindrance. Particularly when it comes to naval warfare. Big ships can be scary to look at. But if you are smaller, faster, and more skilled, big ships become sitting islands, easy to pick off. 

 

Thus, although Thermopylae had fallen, and the naval fleet had to retreat because there was no point defending the Straits if the army was dead, valuable lessons had been learnt. The battle for the heart and passion of Greece was alive and well in the Greek corner. It had been shown that the Persians could be defeated by good tactics. Sparta had proven that they weren't simply planning to defend their own territory of the Peloponnese but had left one of their kings, dead, on the battlefield to defend the Greeks. Hellas was unifying.

 

War had come. The Greeks had united. Xerxes was here. But was he ready?

 

With the Persians once again on the march, Xerxes and his troops burned and looted as they moved south. One such city that felt the thrust of Xerxes' rage was Plataea. We will hear of this city in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, as Xerxes was burning and slaying, the Greeks were making efforts to prepare to defend the Isthmus of Corinth.

 

This strategy, likewise, required a concerted effort. The defence of the isthmus could only be effective if the navy prevented encirclement. Thus, while the Spartans and Corinthians and most of the other Greeks were preparing for their last stand at the narrow pass that would lead into the Peloponnese, it was assumed, and expected, that the navy would come and enforce the blockade. Thus, united, though Xerxes could maraud through Achaea and even burn Athens, he would find the city empty and the Greeks hiding on the Peloponnese. He would not be able to pass, nor encircle, and would, eventually, have to leave, after which the Greeks would emerge and reclaim their land. 

 

This was the plan. For most. But not for Themistocles. He had been paying attention to the Persian navy at Artemisia and had realized that if he could force a battle in a compressed area, say, between some islands, the balance of power would shift from numbers to nuance, from mass to manoeuvrability. 

 

He brought his ideas to the council of admirals. He met with stringent opposition from Adiemantus, the Corinthian admiral, whose desire was to return to the Corinthian Isthmus and aid in its defence. Athens may fall, but the people were safe, and besides, he was a Corinthian. He had little love for the Athenians! Adding to the heat of the moment, the two views were both clearly sound strategic advice. 

 

In the one corner, Adiemantus was arguing that they follow the plan and not risk the navy. If the navy suffered a huge defeat it would be the death of all Greece. But the mere presence of the fleet would be a deterrence in and of itself. There was not necessarily a need to fight at all. If it did come to war, then it is better that it happens where the territory is favourable.

 

In the other corner, however, Themistocles plied his trade as a rhetorical sage. He argued that the Persians would continue to try, and honestly, would eventually succeed, so long as they were able to harry and threaten. Whilst what Adiemantus said sounded reasonable, it was merely delaying the inevitable. What had to happen was that one of the pincers of the Persian crab had to be nullified. The army couldn't hope to attack the Persians, not realistically. They were an army who could hold a position, but they simply didn't have the numbers to attack and rout the vast Persian array of armed forces. This meant that it fell to the allied navy to launch a critical blow. If they could force the Persians to a naval fight that would lead to an overwhelming victory for the Greeks, then the campaign as a whole would immediately swing in favour of the defence. 

 

The council was a heated affair. Eventually, however, despite Adiemantus' threat to leave the Athenians on their own, Themistocles had his way and it was decided that they would try to goad the Persians into battle. After sacking Athens, Xerxes held his own council where he defied the wisdom of others and pressed for an attack at Salamis where the Greek fleet was stationed. 

 

In due course, news began to filter to the Persian camp that there was dissatisfaction within the leadership and ranks of the allies. Apparently the Peloponnesian troops wanted to evacuate while they could. Perhaps this was because, at Salamis, they were watching the Persians destroy and enjoy Athens. This was Greek territory. Very much a public display of 'Nyea Nyea Ne Nyea Nyea!'

 

Battle Stations

Xerxes, hearing the news of infighting, decided to force the hand of the Greek navy. He sent about half his force to block off the exit to the Straits. This occurred during the day. At dusk, however, he ordered them to retreat, thereby opening up an escape route. The implication appears to be that if you don't leave now, you will be trapped tomorrow. Perhaps it was his intent to create fear so that the apparently-ready-to-retreat Peloponnesian troops would accept the offer, thus weakening the entire fleet by splitting it in half. Or perhaps he hoped that the allies would leave swiftly and not in any coherent order, thereby ensuring they could be easily picked off by his superior forces.


Regardless, the allies had their own misinformation plot brewing. On the night of the battle, Themistocles sent a messenger to the court of Xerxes saying he wished to defect and that he had plans afoot that the king could exploit. (This wasn't his first subterfuge. After Artemisium, he had the cliffs of the coastlines heading south graffitied with appeals to the Ionian Greeks to revolt and join the allied cause. Thus, as each sailed past the cliffs, they would be forced to rethink their loyalty. Such bugs in the ear often are difficult to remove and doubt about Ionian loyalties began to fester.) Themistocles' messenger told Xerxes that the Greeks were attempting an evacuation because of the infighting and all Xerxes had to do was to blockade the exit and he would be able to defeat the Greek navy easily. Convinced by this, Xerxes had a throne placed at a good vantage point where he could see which of his commanders would fare best. After all, if Athens were to withdraw their 200 triremes from the fight and submit to him, the rest of the fleet would fall momentarily, and, after Athens, all of Greece.

 

It appears that Themistocles was hoping to lure the Persians into the Straits and to spend the entire night at sea while the Greeks rested and prepared for the next day. Despite this misinformation, Herodotus does record that the council of allied admirals were very divided on the way forward. It wasn't until an Athenian general arrived who had deserted Xerxes that the decision to fight was made. Why? Because apparently Xerxes had sent his fleet out to block the southern exit! Funny, that. Thus, escape for the Peloponnesian ships was no longer an option. (There is a strong argument that some of the Peloponnesians were in on the plan because immediately after this news they agreed to fight without any pushback or resentment.)

 

The plan succeeded. Xerxes kept his navy out all night. No doubt it became clear that an evacuation was not about to take place and yet the fleet remained on post. After all. What if the Greeks were waiting for the Persians to retreat? The little bug in Xerxes' ear meant that he had to leave them out all night. Just in case.

 

The allies positioned themselves to the north of the Straits with the Athenians holding the left flank and either the Spartans of the Megareans on the right. I suspect it was the Spartans. They lay north-to-south facing in two ranks. Opposite them was the larger array of Persian ships in three ranks with the Ionians on the left flank and the Phoenicians on the right.


The Persians began the assault at daybreak. Apparently the Greeks were caught off guard, and, according to Herodotus, the Corinthians attempted to flee north (though this appears to be mere Athenian propaganda). If this did occur, it probably spurred the Persians on, believing that the allies were indeed splintering and falling apart.

 

As the Persians entered and progressed through the Straits it soon became clear that the allies were not unprepared and evacuating, but were set up for battle, and that the Straits were narrow. This made movements of the larger ships difficult and served the allied ships much better than the Persian fleet.

 

Uncertainty drove through the allies however, and it appears they began retreating. One ship, apparently unwilling to be considered cowardly, darted forward and attacked the Persian line, ramming the nearest ship. Thus emboldened, the entire Greek lines moved forward to attack the Persians.

 

The details of the battle are difficult to understand. What is clear is the planning for the battle. There were two ways to defeat an enemy ship in the ancient world. The Greek triremes were built with a powerful ram at the front. They would row faster and faster and intentionally crash into the side of the enemy ship making a huge hole through which sea water would pour, simultaneously disabling and flooding the ship. The trireme would reverse and go elsewhere. If they enemy ship was able to turn fast enough to avoid the intended collision, the trireme would then simply keep going and sheer the oars off the opponent ship, leaving them stranded. 

 

In the event that the ship wouldn't sink, marines would disembark from the attacking trireme and engage in a battle. The Greeks had armoured hoplites while the Persians had less armoured troops. Such a battle would typically lead to a ship falling into the hands of the Greeks. 

 

As the first line of Persians began to retreat, a brother of Xerxes, acting as an admiral, was killed. Panic was immanent. This first line became trapped by the second and third lines, causing further chaos and confusion. With a key leader gone, the Phoenicians began to lose heart, were pushed back, and eventually grounded on the coast. Meanwhile, in the centre, the Greeks formed a wedge and, in a macro demonstration of what each individual trireme was built to do, they rammed through the Persian lines splitting them in half.

 

By this stage, barring the dubious heroics of Queen Artemisia, the Persians were well and truly bested. They began to retreat and were pursued by ebullient Greek ships. Suddenly victory was very much in their grasp. As the retreating Persians left the Straits, Herodotus says that they were ambushed by the rest of the Greek fleet, causing further damage to their numbers. Xerxes had gotten his first real battle with Athens. Already bloodied by Sparta, he had now lost the majority of his navy to Athens, and his entire battle plan was hanging by a thread.

 

The Persian navy retreated, bloodied, though not completely routed. Estimates would imply that between 200 and 300 ships were defeated and lost, suggesting that probably just under half had been destroyed or taken. For one, single, battle, those losses were huge. Such a defeat caused fear and uncertainty in the troops of Xerxes. Numbers, it was now clear, didn't make up for lack of an actual plan of battle. Relying on numbers and size was all well and good for lesser forces. But, throughout history, it has been shown time and again that a skilled army with a clever general can outwit such lazy, hopeful, thinking.

 

Xerxes had suffered another significant defeat. But, unlike at Thermopylae, there was no silver lining. His navy had been bested, his admirals outthought, and his fleet decimated. The Phoenicians fled during the night. This was because they had been threatened by Xerxes for beginning the retreat and slandering the Ionians whom they considered 'unreliable' because of Themistocles' cliffside implorings.

 

Meanwhile, the Athenians landed a contingent of hoplite marines to destroy the troops on the island that Xerxes had placed there in order to kill any fleeing Greeks.

 

Thus, with his navy in retreat, the Greeks holding the Straits, and his pride dented, Xerxes returned to his camp and called a council of war. His navy was battered, but not destroyed. His army remained in tact and ready to march. Time was of the essence. This conflict was taking too long and the vast army required feeding lest the men become mutinous. Particularly if they kept eating defeat.

 

Consequences and Implications

As this is a series that is considering the key battles in world history, we must finish with an analysis of the importance and implications of the battle. As mentioned at the start of this post, the Battle of Salamis cannot be properly understood on its own; it must be assessed in conjunction with Marathon, Thermopylae, and Plataea. Nevertheless, it was the main naval conflict and as a naval battle it has, itself, unique distinctives as well as the broader distinctives that apply to the entire conflict.

 

This said, then, there are three primary consequences that flow from Salamis that are important, historically. The first of these is the growth of Athenian naval power. After the defeat of the Persian navy it finally dawned on the majority of the Athenians that he who holds the seas holds the cards. Whilst there is also a need for a land army, it was now abundantly obvious that for a nation eager to grow, exert its influence, and protect the entirety of its coastline borders, a strong navy is essential. Athens, after the Persians are sent packing, continues to invest in its navy which directly leads to the Delian League. This League becomes the legal structure through which the Athenians begin to, ironically, develop their own empire that spreads throughout the Aegean and into Asia Minor. 

 

Down the decades, this Delian-League-turned-Athenian-Empire becomes embroiled in a long conflict with Sparta which ebbs and flows (pardon the pun) due to the difficulty of waging war as a naval power against an enemy who is superior on land. Thus, the other Greek states become allies (or subjects) to Sparta or Athens leading to a tumultuous and vicious internecine war that eventually climaxes with Athenian defeat at the hands of Persian-funded Sparta in 404 BC. (My, how the tables turn!) Nevertheless, the Athenian dependence on the navy would dramatically change the nature of Grecian warfare and would therefore impact the actions of military conflict in the west for centuries.

 

The second unique consequence from the Battle of Salamis is the growth of Athenian Imperial Hegemony. Athens, albeit a kind of democracy, was only able to survive as a democracy by ensuring its people thrived. This meant that the people had to have food and wealth. As such, the free sailors, who had, after all, just beaten the vast fleet of the Persians, would become the backbone of the Delian League. Initially, the purpose of the League was to move through the islands in the Aegean, chasing the Persians away and punishing any Greeks who had betrayed Hellas by siding with the Persians.

 

Of course, being that the largest contingent of ships in the League belonged to Athens, leadership naturally fell to the Athenian generals and admirals. In due course, this became a conduit for the Athenian Empire to exert its force throughout all of Greece. The naval power opened up trade, and he who controls the seas would control the gold. Athens became the very thing which she had vowed to destroy. Not even Athenian democracy could stem the tide of dictatorship.

 

The third and final immediate consequence of this naval victory is the retreat of Xerxes and the remaining forces under Mardonius. The defeat of Persia was not guaranteed by Salamis, but it very definitely led to the balance shifting in favour of the Greeks. Suddenly, the Persians felt fear while the Greeks felt confidence. The Persians had lost their left hand, leaving the rest of the boxing match to a handicapped right while the Greeks could pummel away at will, delivering blow after blow, if they so wished. Suddenly the swift overwhelming of the Greeks that Xerxes had hoped for was no longer plausible, and so long as the Greeks could hold the Isthmus, they could sally forth, or sail round the Persians, at will, causing fear and damage. All while the Persians had to figure out they were going to feed their army and Ionian desertions multiplied.

 

Xerxes reaction from this defeat, then, was to speak to his chief commander, Mardonius, who had acted as the nose of the Persian dog. He would choose 300,000 elite warriors from the massive army and they, under his leadership, would remain in Greece, and finish off the Greeks while Xerxes could return home, ostensibly a hero, but in reality, a failure. He would claim victory as he had, indeed, burnt the city of Athens, but all would know it was a hollow, hollow chant.

 

Moving to the broader implications of the victory, there is the eventual defeat of the Persians and the growth of a Spartan myth. Mardonius remained and set about planning how to best defeat the Greeks. 300,000 was still a vastly superior number to the Greeks and he, himself, had not been the commander at Salamis or Thermopylae. He would do better and prove he was the best general in the entire world. Riches, gold, power, and position would be his.

 

Unfortunately, for Mardonius, the Greeks were in no mood to grant him a battle on his terms. They had learnt the vital importance of using the terrain to negate the superior numbers of the Persians as well as the importance of guile and subterfuge in outfoxing the opponent. In these mind games, Mardonius was a novice whereas the Greeks had been trained in these arts for decades.

 

During the next campaigning year, 479, the Greeks and Persians met at the Battle of Plataea, this time the on-field leaders were very much the Spartans. Land battles were what they trained for their entire lives. This was where they would shine. And, in what would be the decisive battle of the immediate conflict, the Greeks defeated the Persians and sent them running back across the Hellespont.

 

Because of the Spartan leadership at Thermopylae and at Plataea (not so much Salamis, which was very much a Themistocles victory), a myth about the Spartans grew up that invaded the entire Zeitgeist of Ancient Greece. The idea of facing the Spartans in battle had a similar effect as Napoleon on the Prussians: you felt defeated before the battle began. They became renowned for victory at all costs, dying for the state, and being the absolute elite of the elite. This myth lasted for about 30 years in Greece, in its strongest form, though it can be seen throughout the ages, even today. To be a Spartan is synonymous with strength, courageous, and a ferocious will to win.

 

The second broader consequence of these battles is the eventual change in Persian foreign policy. The Persians never again tried to invade Greece. Instead they threw their lot, eventually, into the darker world of politics. Rather than trying to subjugate Greece, the Persians tried to become kingmaker. During the subsequent Peloponnesian War, where Athens fought against Sparta, the Persian gold eventually swung the conflict in Sparta's favour, whilst simultaneously weakening both. 

 

By the time the legacy and awe of Salamis and Plataea had diminished, however, Persia was a spent force, weakened herself by constant warfare, bloated by an expensive bureaucracy, and ripe for the picking. This task would eventually fall to the rising Grecian power, Macedonia, and its ambitious new king, Alexander. It would fall to the Macedonians to humble Athens and Sparta, and finally finish what Athens had started all those years ago, by instigating the Ionian Revolt against Darius. But that was many years later.

 

The final big-picture consequence of these battles is the survival of the idea of 'democracy' in its ancient Athenian form, and its position as a plausible form of government (albeit debateable over a period of time due to demagoguery). Many commentators, historians, and military historians, myself included, hold that Salamis is the most important battle in the history of Western Civilisation (perhaps only rivalled by Marathon ten years earlier). Whilst it is true that Plataea was the decisive battle of the campaign, it is indisputable that Persia would eventually have succeeded in the conquest of Greece had their navy not been defeated. Sure, they could have, probably would have, lost other land battles. But so long as they had a navy, they could threaten to encircle the Greeks who were now trapped in the Peloponnese, and they could send ships back and forth to Persia for supplies to feed the army. Without the navy, they were forced into another critical battle that, when lost, shattered their resolve and led to a hasty, long, and arduous retreat.

 

An offshoot of this idea is that Western Civilization itself was able to develop as it did solely on the basis of the Persian defeat. Had Darius won at Marathon in 490, or Xerxes at Salamis in 480, the entire history of the Western world would have been different. (This view presupposes that our world has a foundation of Grecian impact, an argument that I, personally,  find very compelling.) The flourishing of Grecian philosophy and ideology that would eventually inspire the French Revolutionaries and the American framers would never have been written. Our Western, 'modern,' ideas of personal rights, the limit of government, democracy, science, warfare, worldview, philosophy, amongst many others, are, at foundational level, rooted in one of two places: Ancient Greece or The Old and New Testaments. Consider, as a simple example, the architecture in Paris, London, and Washington. Great empires emulated Rome which, in turn, strove to prove it was as enlightened as Athens and as powerful as Sparta. The legacy of Leonidas and Themistocles lives on in our monuments, our architecture, our history books, our constitutions, our munitions, and our concepts of political and sociological ideals, to name but a few. Had Xerxes succeeded, all of these things would have developed very differently. Rather than tributes to independence and democracy, there would have been poems of worship to the King of Kings in Persia and platitudes akin to those offered by the defeated Babylonian and Egyptian generals. Freedom would be mocked as the fevered dream of suicidal rebels.

 

Indeed, further still, it was Salamis that, I argue, realistically began the shift of the balance of global power from the East to the West. Previously, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia had all dominated as world players. That momentum was beginning to move westward (though our history is shaped by our history-writers so we must be careful of only considering a European reading of history. Nevertheless, it is difficult to refute the idea that Western Civilization has dominated the globe in a way that Eastern Civilization has not. It is perhaps only now that we are, finally, seeing that balance of power once again shift eastward, as India, Russia, and China become dominant players on the world stage.). Salamis was a critical part in that catalyst. 

 

Instead, in the aftermath of the victory at Salamis, as Themistocles and his courageous heroes rowed back to the Corinthian Isthmus, a future grander than even the genius of that old Athenian strategoi could imagine lay before them. The task wasn't finished. More blood would be spilled before the Persian dog was finally put down. But, by taking the fight to them on the foamy waters of the Straits of Salamis, the world would never be the same.

 

Athens and Sparta, united by a common enemy, would send that enemy running, and secure the development of the Western World. But first, Mardonius was beckoning for a reckoning.

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