As September draws to a close, it is a fitting time to mark the anniversary of a pivotal moment in the history of western civilization- the Battle of Salamis which occurred twenty-five centuries ago. It was our proverbial ancestors’ desperate struggle to maintain independence from the despotic Persian empire which preserved for posterity the ideals of self-rule and democracy. Had they failed, our lives would be much nastier and bleaker today – without philosophy or enlightenment – but rather an endless drudgery imposed by oppressive and unaccountable rulers at every corner of the globe. And despite later Hellenic setbacks, the historical reassurance that came from the victory at Salamis proved that might doesn’t always make right, and provided the psychological confidence to realize that struggles against tyranny aren’t always hopeless.
Historical Note of Dating
Professional chroniclers, historians, and amateur nitpickers dispute the precise date of the engagement's date. Barry Strauss, author of The Battle of Salamis, dates the battle to September 25th, but of course there is a difference of a few days between September 20th by the Gregorian calendar and the 25th in 480 B.C. on the Julian calendar, but which wouldn’t be invented for another four centuries. At any rate, this month either marks the 2,500th or the 2,501st anniversary of the battle, since there is no year zero in the common calendar. Books 6-8 of Histories by Herodotus (484 – 425 B.C.) provide the primary ancient source for the struggles between Persia and Greece and will be referenced herein. For further reading, consider an article in the journal of Harvard Studies in Classical Philology by William Goodwin’s which provides a compact summary of the events, or a video by the Great Courses which discusses troop and fleet movements.
Prelude to the Battle
In 510 B.C., Athens overthrew its tyrant Hippias and re-instituted democratic reforms among its land-holding aristocrats shortly thereafter. During negotiations, Persia demanded Hippias be restored as ruler, which Athens declined. In 495 B.C. several Ionian Greek city-states on the western coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) rebelled against their Persian master Darius I of the Achaemenid dynasty.
Although Athenian assistance prolonged the strife, by 493 B.C. Darius had reconquered the region. To avenge this insult against him, Darius led an invasion fleet and army to Greece, landing at Marathon in 490 B.C. Despite their tenuous supply lines, the Persians anticipated a quick victory, but instead were dealt an unexpected reverse of fortune. However, Darius would die in 486 B.C. before mounting a new attack, and his son Xerxes I (who appears in the Book of Esther as Ahasuersus) succeeded him. After suppressing a revolt in Egypt in 484 B.C. Xerxes made preparations to invade Greece
The Invasion Begins
Representatives of several city states met at Corinth in the late autumn of 481 B.C. to form an allied confederation. This Hellenic League elected to block land and sea approaches into southern Greece – the Spartan-led army would block the Pass at Thermopylae, while the Athenian-dominated navy sailed to Artemisium. In the meantime, Athens and the surrounding Attic peninsula were evacuated to the southwest as a precaution.
Meanwhile, Xerxes set out in the spring of 480 B.C. from Sardis in Anatolia with a fleet of war galleys called triremes. These were 100-ton three-decked ships that were some 120 feet long and had a bronze prow at the front with which to ram enemy ships. They had a total complement of about 200 (170 of which were rowers) but could also be outfitted with sails. He ordered that a pontoon bridge to be built by lashing triremes together in order to cross the Hellespont (the ancient name for the Dardanelles). A storm destroyed the bridge before the army could cross, so Xerxes had to wait for repairs before crossing over, but not before beheading the engineers in charge. The army that crossed over was comprised of soldiers from twenty-five nationalities across the empire from Ethiopia to India. After crossing Thrace and Macedonia, Xerxes collected tribute from among northern Greek cities.
Forces at Odds
The Greeks prepared to intercept Xerxes’ army by land at Thermopylae and by sea at Artemisium concurrently. At the outset, the Greeks mustered slightly more than three hundred ships, while the Persians gathered an armada almost four times as large, although after some major storms this superiority was reduced to three times. However, Persia was a land empire and delegated naval engagements to its subjugates which included ships and crews principally from Phoenicia, Egypt, Cyprus, Cilicia and Phrygia – along with a squadron from Halicarnassus led by their queen Artemisia of Caria.
The defending Spartan and Thespian contingents held Thermopylae for three days, in order to enable the escape of the remaining Greek soldiers, until being outflanked and massacred. Over three afternoons off Euboea Island, the Greeks inflicted significant losses on their opponents, reducing their morale but ending in a stalemate. After realizing that the Persian army had breached the pass at Thermopylae, the Greek fleet retreated south towards Athens to repair their ships and preserve their remaining assets for a more propitious opportunity.
Synchronization at Salamis
From its port in Piraeus, evacuation of Athens resumed as the Persian army marched south. Xerxes arrived in Athens in mid-September while his army slew its defenders and torched the citadel. The allied commanders voted to retreat but Themistocles, an Athenian hoplite who had fought at Marathon when Darius was in command, argued that doing so would forfeit their strategic advantage in the narrow waters against Persian numerical superiority. Eventually he persuaded the Spartan admiral Eurybiades to renew their commitment to fight together.
At the same time, Themistocles used a truthful ruse and informed the Persians of Greek disunity, which goaded Xerxes to direct his fleet westward from Phaleron Bay near Piraeus around either side of Psyttalia Island. Arranged from west to east beside the mainland shore, the Phoenicians and Ionians entered first followed by the Cypriots and Cilicians. The Athenian and Spartan forces ventured from Salamis’ eastern harbor, and battle ensued while Xerxes watched from Mount Aigaleo. To his majesty’s dismay, the Greeks with fewer but heavier triremes hemmed in his subjects’ combined flotilla against the Attic coastline and rammed their opposing number followed by hand-to-hand combat, overpowering their enemy and compelling retreat.
As a fitting finalé, the heavens themselves heralded the waning of Persian power when an annular solar eclipse passed across the Sahara a week later- although there is some controversy surrounding its mention as an oracle before the battle.
Following the clash, Xerxes and his army withdrew to Thessaly. The following summer his Persian armies were dealt decisive blows at the Battle of Plataea in Attica and the Battle of Mycale in Ionia, thus ending further military encroachment from the East. An eye-witness to these events, a playwright named Aeschylus, wrote and premiered his tragedy “The Persians” on the invasion in 472 B.C.
As an epilogue, Themistocles, whose sage advice helped win the battle at Salamis, was sent into exile by Athens almost a decade after Salamis and was appointed governor of Magnesia in the service of Persian king Artaxerxes I after the assassination of Xerxes. First century Greek historian Plutarch critiqued the character of Themistocles in his Parallel Lives biographical series.
Lessons of Salamis that Echo to Us Today
The Battle of Salamis is still remembered today for many reasons, not the least of which for those of us who cherish our Western heritage, that it contradicts what we might call the Borg ultimatum, that resistance is not Futile. Other lessons that we might absorb from this chapter in history are that a successful defense against a ruthless adversary obligates the defenders to more than wishful thinking. The Greeks prevailed because of their preparation, strategy, cunning and daring.
Their preparations were not merely in military arms and training, but incorporated avoidance of mass civilian capture by judicious relocation. Their strategy included adoption of a layered and coordinated defense with short supply lines with frequent communication. And their success required exploiting the invader’s cathartic and tactical vulnerabilities, as when Themistocles manipulated the Persians through logic, guile and deception to precipitate the conflict at arms at a time and place of his selection. The Greeks showed their willingness to challenge fate by unifying at a critical moment to cripple their foes.
Much as the inhabitants of Judah fostered an expectation of divine favor after the Assyrians, under Sennacherib, withdrew from Jerusalem more than two centuries earlier, so too the naval contest in the Salamis Straits among hundreds of galleys on that fateful day in 480 B.C. provides a roadmap from which we can gain inspiration for today. It reminds us that we must learn to say No! towards those who would use fear and brute force to demand unworthy domination over our freedoms.
Photo Credit: ancientgreeceloaded.com