Just six weeks after the brazen shields and deadly spears of Leonidas’ 300 Spartans failed to stop Xerxes at the pass of Thermopylae, Greece found salvation behind the “wooden walls” of the Athenian navy!
IN 480 BC there occurred one of those turning points where the trajectory of history and the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance. That event was the Persian invasion of Greece.
The roots of this conflict went back twenty years.
Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of modern Turkey, then called Ionia, into his dominions. But in 500-499 B.C., the Ionian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. The rebels were aided by the Ionian “Mother City”, Athens, and by the small city of Eretria, on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived, but Persian memory was long.
In 490 B.C., Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary force to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but the ground force (fleet aside) was likely around 50,000 men, transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.
The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. Their army then embarked again and landed on the Greek mainland, at the beach of Marathon, only 25 miles from Athens. After appealing in vain for Spartan aid, the Athenians (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea) engaged the Persians at Marathon.
The Battle of Marathon showed the world for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarter fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.
Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, launched a second invasion. This one was far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition. Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire.
Building a pontoon bridge of boats across the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles), the vast Persian host marched into Greece; the Persian fleet maintaining their supply line from Asia. So great were their numbers that as they advanced the Persian horde drank “rivers dry”. All the peoples of Thrace and northern Greece submitted to Xerxes, rather than attempt to fight.
The Persian army reached Thermopylae in August. The battle at the “Hot Gates” against the Greek blocking force took three days. While it was raging, the Persian fleet engaged the Athenian and allied Greek naval squadrons at Cape Artemisium. This was the first time the Greeks were able to test their naval tactics against Xerxes’ Phoenician, Ionian, and Egyptian squadrons. On the whole, the Greeks held their own. While not as maneuverable as their “saltier” Phoenician opponents, the Greek ships were sturdy, fast and the Greek hoplite-marines more than a match for their counterparts on the Persian decks.
When news reached the fleet from Thermopylae that the pass must soon fall, the Greek fleet at Artemisium broke off the engagement and retreated south into the Saronic Gulf. Meanwhile, after breaking through at Thermopylae, Xerxes’ horde passed through Boeotia on its way to Athens. Thebes, leader of the Boeotians, surrendered and “Medized“, becoming subjects of the Great King. The Persian fleet (600+ triremes strong) made its way down the Euboean Channel, carrying vital food supplies for the Great King’s vast army. As they passed Marathon on their way south some at least of the Phoenician mariners who had been part of that earlier expedition must have experience mixed feelings of vindication and trepidation.
In Athens, the people (demes) debated in the Areopagus, the Athenian democratic Assembly, whether to submit to Xerxes, defend the city, or flee. Themistocles, under whose farsighted leadership the city had built its strong fleet of 180 triremes, urged the population’s evacuation to Salamis Island off the Attica coast; and to trust to their fleet to turn-back the Persian invasion.
Themisticles had reason to trust the defense of Greece to the Athenian and allied Greek navies. On the eve of the Persian invasion, the Athenians had in desperation sent an embassy to Delphi. There the Delphic Oracle had promised that Athens’ salvation lay in her “wooden walls”. Some citizens argued that the Acropolis, Athens’ ancient citadel and center of religious and civic life, be fortified with a wooden palisade, behind which the Athenians could make their stand. However, Themistocles insisted that the “wooden walls” the Pythia referred to were the wooden hulls of the city’s fleet of new triremes. In the end, the population was indeed evacuated to Salamis island, with the Greek fleet basing itself there as well. A small number of skeptics chose to hold the Acropolis, behind their wooden palisade.
Xerxes’ forces crossed Mount Cithaeron into Attica, and soon arrived at Athens. The Acropolis was stormed with overwhelming force after a few-day’s struggle, and all its defenders slain. When the Persian armada rounded Cape Sounion, they beached at Phaleron, south of the city. There, on the Attic plain outside Athens, the Great King massed his forces and prepared for his next move.
In the Greek allied camp there was division. The Peloponnesians (particularly the Corinthians and Spartans) were for retreating to the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow choke point they could hold against the Persian masses and prevent them marching directly into the Peloponnese. But Themistocles warned that with control of the sea, the Persians could simply land forces anywhere along the Peloponnesian coast, ignoring the defenders of the Isthmus. He urged a naval battle, instead; meeting the larger and more experienced Persian naval forces in the narrow Salamis Straits. He further threatened that if the Peloponnesians retreated to the Isthmus, abandoning Athens and the rest of Greece to the north, that he and the Athenians would abandon Greece entirely. That they would take ship and sail west to Sicily and found a new city. As the Athenian fleet was by far the largest contingent in the allied forces this threat decided the Peloponnesians to stand and fight at Salamis.
To lure the Persians into the narrow straits, where their numbers could not be brought to bear, the wily Themistocles sent word to Xerxes. Pretending to be ready to betray the Greek cause in return for the restoration of Athens, he warned Xerxes that the Greeks were preparing to flee. But that if he struck now, moving against the Greeks while they were retreating out of the Salamis Strait, he would catch the Peloponnesian contingents retiring south and destroy them piecemeal.
There was mixed council in the Persian camp as well. Many of Xerxes commanders were for immediate attack into Salamis Strait. Others argued for marching overland against the Isthmus. Only the Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemesia (who was not only a brave leader, commanding her own naval squadron, but was also mistress of the Great King and one of his canniest advisers) argued for caution. Artemesia explained that the Greeks lacked supplies on Salamis, and if the Great King only waited would be forced to withdraw south. In the open waters further south, nearer the Isthmus, the larger and more experienced Phoenician mariners would have an advantage in a battle of maneuver. Finally, she counseled, it was unnatural for the Greeks to work together. That if Xerxes would only be patient, the alliance would fall apart and the cities would be left to their own individual devices. Some would make peace, and those who refused could be picked-off one-by-one.
Xerxes decided to compromise: while sending 30,000 troops toward Megara and Isthmus, he also took Themistocles’ bait. The Persian armada rowed out from Phaeleron and into the Salamis Straits.
The numbers of ships involved have been estimated as 600-900 Persian triremes verses 220-390 Greek triremes. Herodotus states that at the start of the war Xerxes fleet numbered some 1,200 ships. 600 of these were sunk in storms off the Thessalian and Euboean coast. That left 600 ships; and some 50 of these were lost during the naval skirmishes around Cape Artemesium at the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae. Herodotus says that Xerxes was reinforced by 120 ships from Thrace and the Islands. This would seem to put the Persian fleet at approximately 670 ships. The Greek fleet was certainly outnumbered by as many as 2-1 and if the lowest number for the Greek fleet is accepted (given by Hyperides), then the Greeks were outnumbered by 3-1 (See note 1 at bottom.)
The trireme was the Ship-of-the-Line of its day. Fast, agile and deadly it was propelled by three banks of oars rowed by 170 oarsmen. Contrary to popular myth these were not slaves, but freeborn citizens (or subjects, in the case of the rowers on the Persian vessels). The trireme’s main weapon was its bronze-sheathed ram at its bow. In battle the ship’s crew and captain attempted to maneuver the trireme into position to ram an enemy ship. Various tactical maneuvers were practiced to achieve this. In succeeding generations the Athenian crews became the elite of the ancient world; experts at out-maneuvering an opponent and getting into position to ram and sink them. If the trireme found itself entangled with another, or its ram stuck in the side of its prey, it carried a compliment of 15 marines to either board or repel boarders. In the Greek fleet these were citizen hoplites. On Persian vessels they could be Persian, Phoenician, Ionian Greeks, or Egyptian soldiers.
The Olympia, a modern Greek reconstruction of an ancient Athenian trireme. In testing, Olympias achieved a speed of 9 knots (17 km/h) and was able to execute 180 degree turns within one minute, in an arc no wider than two and a half (2.5) ship-lengths. These results, achieved with an inexperienced crew, suggest that the ancient writers were not exaggerating about the nimbleness and agility of such vessels. With an experienced crew of hardened, professional rowers these numbers would no doubt be even more impressive.
Ethnically, the Persian naval contingents were supplied by the Persian subject peoples of Phoenicia, Egypt, Caria, and the Greek cities of Ionia. The Greek squadron from the city of Halicarnassus in Caria was commanded by Queen Artemesia herself. The cream of Xerxes fleet was the contingent provided by the Phoenician cities, master-mariners of the Levant.
As the Persian armada came on in column, entering the Straits, they were led by the proud Phoenicians, followed by the Ionian Greeks and then the other subject peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. Eager to trap the Greeks fleet they erroneously believed were attempting to withdraw Xerxes’ admirals sent the Egyptian squadron around the Island to block the opposite exit, near Megara. To help rescue ship-wrecked crews or capture floating enemy survivors, a Persian garrison was landed on the tiny Island of Psyttaleia, at the entrance to the channel.
As the Phoenicians rowed majestically down the channel, to their right lay the cliffs of the Attic coast. Two-hundred feet above, on a golden throne, the Great King sat surrounded by his courtiers, observing the action below. Every man in his fleet was aware that their master’s eye was upon them; and that his scribes would note both achievements to be rewarded and failure to be punished. (In fact, after the battle, certain captains who distinguished themselves were given land grants or high positions in the governance of the empire, while others lost their lives for perceived failure or cowardice.) To the left of the Persian fleet lay the shores of Salamis Island. Of the Greek fleet they could see nothing except sails in the distance, withdrawing as expected toward the Bay of Eleusis.
These departing ships were in fact the Corinthian squadron of the Allied fleet. They were the bait to “sell” the notion that the Greeks were fleeing, drawing the Phoenician vanguard well-and-fully into the trap. What no Persian captain could see was that the bulk of the Greek fleet was waiting in hidden coves and behind promontories along the Salamis shore.
Then, at a signal or predesignated moment the Corinthians furled their sails and dropped their masts (no galley in the ancient world went into battle with their sails hoisted), and turned about. Now, rams towards the enemy, they fell upon the head of the Phoenician column. Simultaneously, from Salamis on their left flank, the Phoenicians were suddenly assailed by the Athenians. The sleek Greek triremes darted forward, their crews raising the paean (battle hymn). The vanguard of the Persian fleet found itself unexpectedly enveloped and assailed from the flank; and in the narrow waters in such close-order even such experienced mariners as the Phoenicians could not maneuver or avoid fouling each other. This sudden melee at the head of the Persian column brought the whole to a halt, and more of the Persian ships coming up behind crowded and fouled each other.
Now, from all along their left flank, the Persian fleet was surprised by flank attacks by the darting Greek triremes, rowing rapidly from coves along the Salamis coast. In the resulting melee, many Persian ships were rammed and holed, or capsized and sunk. None of the Persian squadrons were able to maneuver or work together, while the Greek triremes acted in concert, dashing in-and-out, holing their enemy and just as quickly back-rowing and withdrawing to allow their prey do sink or capsize.
As the battle raged below, Xerxes watched from his throne on the cliffs above. Instead of observing his triumphant fleet finish off the fleeing Greeks, he watched in horror as one Persian ship after another was rammed and sunk.
Herodotus suggests that the Greek triremes were “heavier” built than those of the Phoenicians (who he states were superior seaman than the Greeks). This may have given them an advantage in the ramming battle in the Straits. In boarding actions, the Greek hoplites proved the better fighters, capturing those Persian ships they were able to grapple. (The exception was the Egyptian ships: their marines were armed with a weapon similar to the Medieval European halberd, which proved deadlier in boarding action than the Greek spear.)
As the battle clearly turned into a disaster Queen Artemesia ordered her ship to withdraw. As she was fleeting from the Straits, several Greek triremes began to pursue: the Greeks had placed a bounty on the Greek queen they considered a traitor to Hellas. To throw the hunters off the scent, Artemesia ordered her ship to ram a nearby Phoenician trireme; thus fooling her pursuers into thinking she was one of their own.
Xerxes would later approve of her action, saying that his men that day behaved like women, and his woman like a man!
The day ended in a complete and decisive victory for Themistocles and the Greek fleet. The Persian losses were somewhere between 200-300 triremes: a third to half of their fleet. The survivors limped back to the beaches of Phalerum, sheltering in the shadow of the Persian army. Herodotus says the Persians suffered many more casualties than the Greeks because most Persians did not know how to swim. Some Phoenician captains tried to blame the battle’s loss on the Ionian Greek contingent’s supposed cowardice during the battle. Having just watched from his cliff-high throne as an Ionian ship captured an Aeginetan ship (from the nearby Greek island of Aegina), one of the few Persian successes during the battle, as well as the intrepid courage of Queen Artemesia; Xerxes had the complaining Phoenician admirals beheaded for slandering “more noble men then themselves”.
Xerxes watches the battle from a throne placed on the cliffs above the straits, as his fleet is defeated below.
Even the Persian garrison left on Psyttaleia was not spared the disaster: toward the end of the day, the Greeks landed on the island and slaughtered all they found.
With the Greek fleet now supreme, Xerxes position was perilous. His supply line was dependent on seaborne supplies from Asia, and his line of retreat was only maintained by a bridge of boats across the distant Hellespont (Dardanelles). Knowing he could no longer feed so vast a horde in Greece, and fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridge across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes now withdrew with the bulk of his forces. He left in Attica a picked army of some 120,000 of his best men under the command of his brother-in-law, Mardonius; a force large enough to complete the conquest of Greece, while small enough to sustain itself off of local supplies.
In this task Mardonius would fail, and his army would be destroyed the following year at the Battle of Plataea, ending the threat of Persian conquest. But Salamis was the turning point, tipping the balance in favor of the Greek city-states. As the Oracle predicted, Athens (and Greece) had found its salvation in its “wooden walls”.
The battle was a tipping-point, and had it gone the other way the history of the Western World would have been far different. A Persian-ruled Greece would have been unlikely to have birthed a Golden Age as was seen in the century that followed. The flowering of arts, architecture, philosophy and democratic self-governance that marked Classical Greece, and which were handed down first to Rome; then to modern man via the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and which are at the core of Western Civilization, would have been stillborn. Rome may still have dominated Europe and the Mediterranean, but it would have lacked the “civilizing” influence of Greece and Hellenic civilization. Its legacy without this would have been much harsher and less enlightening for the world.
For further reading, see:
- The number given for the Greek fleet varies with the sources: Herodotus reports that there were 378 triremes in the Greek fleet, and breaks-down the numbers by city-state (polis). In this table, Athens contributes 180 ships. However, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus (who actually fought at Salamis) states that the Greek fleet numbered only 310 triremes, the Athenian contribution being 110; a number supported by Ctesias. Hyperides numbers the Greek fleet at only 220 triremes. As it reflected better upon themselves to inflate the Persian numbers and downplay their own, one should look with skepticism upon Hyperides’ numbers and give Herodotus greater due.
- Megara and Aegina, two other non-Peloponnesian naval states, supported Athenian strategy as well, having the most to lose should the Greek fleet abandon them.
- Considering that the Persian mariners were mostly from seafaring peoples, this statement seems doubtful; though may have been true of warriors from inland peoples acting as marines aboard ship.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.