Day of Decision: The Battle of Salamis

Background

In 499 BC the Greek city states in Asia Minor that were subject to the rule of Persia rose in revolt. Athens, a Greek city state that had recently thrown out its tyrant and had established one of the first democracies, sent a fleet of twenty ships to support the revolt. The Athenians managed to take and sack the city of Sardis, the capital of Lydia, a satrap or province of the Persian Empire.

Nevertheless, King Darius of Persia managed to crush the Greek revolt by 495 BC. In order to punish Athens, Darius sent an army and fleet to conquer the city state with the aim of laying it waste and carrying the population away in bondage. However, the Athenian Army, comprised mostly of heavily armed and armored hoplites, defeated the more lightly armed Persians on the plain of Marathon, where the Persian armada had landed.

King Darius was not satisfied and vowed to crush the recalcitrant Greeks once and for all. Before he could finish his preparations, Darius died and it fell to his son Xerxes to complete the job of avenging Persian honor. A revolt in the Persian satrap of Egypt delayed matters further, but by 480 BC Xerxes was ready with a vast army and fleet gathered at a bridge of boats thrown across the Hellespont, the strait that separates Europe from Asia. Ancient sources number the army at over a million and the fleet at over a thousand. The real numbers were likely about two or three hundred thousand men and six hundred or so ships.

Meanwhile, the Greeks had not been idle. While the Athenians celebrated their crushing victory at Marathon, Themistocles, an Athenian statesman, persuaded his countrymen to use the profits of a newly discovered silver mine to build a fleet. By 480, the Athenian fleet numbered two hundred triremes, swift oared galleys with ship smashing rams. An alliance was formed among the Greek city states, including Athens and her main rival, Sparta, known for the skill and �©lan of her soldiers.

Representatives of the Greek city states met at Delphi to consult the Oracle. The prophecy the Oracle gave seemed dire. But there seemed to be some glimmer of hope in the “wooden walls.” Themistocles pointed out that the “wooden walls” could mean the hulls of the Greek ships. Thus heartened, the Greeks prepared to meet the Persian threat.

The Persian Army, which was comprised of soldiers from virtually all the nations under the control of Xerxes, crossed the bridge of boats and moved south. Meanwhile, the Persian Fleet, mainly from Persia’s Phoenician subjects, moved along the coast, matching the pace of the Persian Army so that the two could keep in close support of one another. The problem,
for the Persians, was that the countryside of northern Greece was hilly and filed with narrow valleys that could be used as choke points. The Greek coast featured small islands and straits that too could become choke points. Also the Aegean Sea was a violent, story place.

The Greeks took full advantage of these facts.

Thermopyle and Artemesium

Thermopyle or “the Hot Gates” was a narrow pass situated along the side of a cliff overlooking the sea. The Persian Army would have to pass through in order to get to the rest of Greece. Instead, they found a Greek army of about seven thousand men, including three hundred Spartan hoplites, led by one of the two Spartan Kings, Leonidas. Though the Persians outnumbered the Greeks many times over, they could not bring all of their forces to bear. The Persians demanded the surrender of the Greeks, commenting that their “arrows would blot out the sun.” Leonidas, with typical Spartan bravado, replied, “Then we shall fight in the shade.”

The Persians launched assault after assault. The Greeks, led by the three hundred Spartans, beat each of them back. Even the Persian Royal Guard, the Immortals, was driven back on the spears of the Spartans, considered at the time the best soldiers in the world.

In the meantime, the Persian Fleet, somewhat reduced due to storms, met the Greeks in the strait of Artemisium. Crowded in the narrow strait, the Persian ships were decimated and were forced to withdraw.

So things might have stood for a long time, but a traitor showed King Xerxes a narrow goat path that led around and to the rear of Thermopyle. Leonidas, having made aware of this development, sent the majority of the Greek Army in retreat, leaving only the three hundred Spartans and a force from the city of Thespia to hold the pass. The Persians attacked and every last Greek holding the pass was killed. That last stand was immortalized by the poem: “Go tell the Spartans, traveler passing buy, obedient to their orders here we lay.”

With the fall of the pass, the Greek Fleet was obliged to withdraw as well. All of Greece
to the Isthmus of Corinth lay at the feet of the Persians.

The Fall of Athens

Thebes almost immediately surrendered to the Persians, in order to avoid the destruction of their city state. Athens would get no such choice of mercy or death. Almost the entire population of Athens was evacuated across the Salamis
strait to the island of Salamis by the Greek Fleet. The Persian Army entered Athens and put it to fire and sword. The sacking of Sardis was at last avenged.

In the meantime, there was dissension in the leadership of the Greeks. The Greek Army, now reinforced by the entire Spartan Army and many allies from southern Greece, was fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth where they could hold against the Persians. The Spartan commander of the Greek Fleet, Eurybiades, proposed that the fleet fall back as well to support the Greek Army.

Themistocles knew that this move would result in disaster. There were no narrow straits near the isthmus that could be defended. The Persians would overwhelm the Greeks in open water. The place to fight the Persian Fleet was here, in the narrow straits of Salamis. But his arguments fell upon deaf ears.

Undaunted, Themistocles sent a slave to Xerxes with the news that the Greeks were going to withdraw and that the morning would be a good time to catch them in confusion. Then he let Eurybiades know what he had done. There was no more choice. The Greek Fleet would fight at Salamis.

Day of Decision at Salamis

When Xerxes sat on his throne on the hill of Aegaleos, overlooking the strait of Salamis, he must have been shocked to see the Greek Fleet ready in battle array as the Persian Fleet entered the strait. As the Persian ships, closed packed, their
oars entangled, became easy prey for the more nimble Greek ships, it is said that he leaped from his throne in horror.

As the morning progressed, the water became filled with the smashed kindling of sunken ships and the bodies of men spilled into the strait to drown. The Persian ships, seeing that they were being worsted, began to flee in disarray. Only the small contingent of ships led by King Xerxes’ ally, Queen Artemisia, continued to hold, forming a rear guard for the others to get away. Xerxes was heard to remark, “Today my men have become women and my women men.”

Aftermath

With the fleet routed, Xerxes decided to withdraw to northern Greece with the idea of continuing the campaign the following year. But the Greek Army, now numbering nearly fifty thousand, met the Persians under Xerxes’ best general, Mardonius at Plataea. Mardonius was killed in battle and the Persians routed. Afterwards, the Greeks formed the Delian League, under the leadership of Athens, to defend against any Persian return.

Consequences

To understand the consequences of what happened at Salamis, one could only imagine what would have transpired had the Greeks lost and Greece fallen to the Persian Empire. Athens was the cradle of that form of government we call democracy. Unique almost in the entire world, the free born men of Athens would meet in an Assembly to debate and decide the direction of their government. Had Persia won, the very idea of democracy and freedom itself would have been lost to history. There would have been no Golden Age of Greek art, theater and science that inspired people in subsequent eras. The future would have belonged to the absolute ruler, answerable only to the god or gods he worshiped. What was won that day at Salamis was our civilization, twenty five centuries later, and the idea of freedom and reason
that cements it.

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