Sometime between September 20-30 480 BC the plans were laid for the great battle that the Greek combatants must have known would decide the fate of their country. Their best hope was to lure the Persian fleet into the narrow waters between Salamis and Attica. According to legend, on the eve of the engagement, as the Greek fleet manned by some 40,000 citizen rowers prepared for battle, Themistocles sent his own slave, Siccinus, on a mission to seek out Xerxes himself and warn him that the Greek fleet was preparing to flee the bay. The purpose of this ruse seemed to be three-fold. First, to prompt the Persians to prematurely man their ships in confusion during the night (while the Greeks slept soundly, the Persians spent the night at their oars); second, to compel them to divide their forces to cover all exits from the bay to block the supposed retreat, which would weaken the main body; thirdly, to prompt the Persians to attack right away, which would give the wavering allies no choice but to fight. (Some think Themistocles was also hedging his bets…if they lost, he could always claim to Xerxes he’d sent his man to tip him off about the “retreat”). Although it seems odd to us now that Xerxes would fall for such a ruse, given rumors of Greek infighting it wasn’t terribly far-fetched. Regardless, it had the desired effect. As far as the Persian king was concerned, all that was needed was to move his ships into a position to block the Salamis strait and prevent the Greeks from escaping. He would go all in and destroy the Hellenic navy. Once he was master of the sea, Xerxes could then land his army anywhere on the Peloponnese and finish his conquest of the impertinent Greeks before the weather turned. Such recklessness was playing right into Themistocles’ hands.
Some in Xerxes’ court, like the turncoat exiled Spartan king, Demaratus, argued they should let the Greeks go and fight another time, in a place of their choosing, preferably in more open waters where numerical superiority would be key. Another dissenting voice came from the only woman commander, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, a Greek now fighting with the Persians. “Oh King!” she said. “Spare your ships and do not risk a battle here. Are you not already master of Athens, for which you undertook this expedition?” Xerxes dismissed such timidity out of hand.
At first light, Xerxes sent his fleet sailing towards the Greeks to trap them in the bay, but not before dispatching a contingent of Egyptian squadrons to block the southern exits to the strait and cut off a Greek retreat that was just a deception. Perched on his throne high atop Mount Aigaleos where he could get a fine prospect of the bay and the imminent destruction of the retreating Hellenic fleet, Xerxes must have felt some disquiet when he saw the Greek triremes had not fled, but were rather waiting patiently for the wind to turn to their favor. Then in two lines of battle the Hellenic fleet began rowing en masse right at his ships. With some of his ablest seaman sailing south on a mission to head off a non-existent enemy retreat, the remaining Persian fleet, jammed in three lines in the narrow straits, were set upon by the Greek ships—the Athenians on the right, Spartans and other Peloponnesians on the left.
The trireme was a wooden vessel some 130 feet long and 20 feet wide. Although it had a mast and sail, its primary source of propulsion was from 170 highly trained oarsmen in three banks who could move the ship at up to eight knots. Its primary weapon was the bronze-sheathed ram on the bow that could tear a hole in an enemy ship below the water line and send it foundering to the bottom. Contingents of marines for firing arrows and boarding also accompanied the sailors on the narrow decks. The Persians, weary and surprised by the aggressive enemy action, soon found themselves part of a disorganized mass as the Greek triremes with their heavy rams slammed into one vessel after another, methodically sinking them in the shallow waters. While Xerxes watched in dismay from the safety of his high throne as his navy was being decimated, Themistocles was in the vanguard of the attacking triremes. Knowledge of the waters, heavier ships in their element in the narrow confines of the bay, and superior morale and drive with the knowledge that to lose this battle meant to lose everything they held dear, won the day for the allied fleet that inflicted horrific casualties on the Persian squadrons which eventually fell back in panic.
Little detail is known of what transpired during the actual battle itself; despite thousands of cheering Athenian spectators watching the battle from the hills overlooking the bay (to my knowledge there are no actual blow-by-blow accounts). But what is known is that with anywhere from 1,000 to 1,400 ships with some 200 men each engaged, over 200,000 sailors and marines fought at Salamis, making it one of the largest naval battles of all time. By the end of the day Xerxes would lose over 200 ships, and yet another brother. The Greeks just 40. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 Persian sailors were either killed, wounded, or missing, making it the most lethal one-day naval engagement in history…far deadlier than Trafalgar or Jutland.
Herodotus tells us the Persian fleet was ruined, and what remained of it limped back into port. They left behind in the blood-stained waters a scene of devastation and human suffering that defies the imagination. One can see in the mind’s eye the flailing Persian sailors (those who did not go down with their ships), many of whom ironically couldn’t swim, desperately clinging to the floating debris of of their wrecked ships, only to be clubbed with oars, skewered by spears, or shot with arrows as they begged for quarter from the Greek sailors who offered none before slipping beneath the waves. Although the Greeks offered a generous reward to anyone who captured the traitor Artemisia alive, she would escape. She was one of the lucky ones. Thousands of bodies washed up on the shore, “battered by the surf, lifeless, tossed here and there in their cloaks.” Submerged triremes rested on the shallow bottom, their masts and ornate bows still breaking the surface like so many nautical tombstones. Although still numerically superior, the Persian morale was shattered, and soon Xerxes would board one of his surviving vessels in a panic and sail off for Asia Minor. He would leave his army under the general Mardonius to carry on the fight, but he knew that without control of the sea he could never control Greece.
Salamis was a stunning victory, one which saved Greece, and with it, the dawn of Western civilization as we know it. The Athenians would re-enter their burned out city, only to be driven away one more time by the raiding army of Mardonius. But the next time the Persians met the Greek armies in battle in 479 BC, they faced not 6,000 hoplites, but 70,000, led by the full might of Sparta, on the field of Platea. Mardonius, along with his army, Xerxes’ last remaining vestige in Europe, was killed. The Persians were driven from the Greek mainland. This time for good. The allied Greeks defeated the Persians again at Mycale on the Ionian coast, effectively ending the Greco-Persian War. Athens would not be conquered by an eastern invader again until the Ottoman Turks entered the city in 1458, two millennia later.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can order his book here: