The sea battle of Artemision

The KNVTS has a proud tradition to connect its vision on the future with a view on the historic past of shipbuilding practice. Time for the chair of the KNVTS Ship of the Year Committee Rien de Meij to take a step back and reflect on the idea of “vision”. Here is the story of “The sea battle of Artemision”.

In the period of about 600 – 480 BCE, Ionian colonists emigrated from Attica to the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, which is modern Turkey. There they inhabited a narrow coastal strip from Phocaea in the north to Miletus in the south, including the islands of Chios and Samos. In this narrative, Samos’ role is the transitional stopover, the pivotal point, between Ionia and Hellas.

Persia (c. 540 BCE) conquered the cities of this area and appointed native tyrants [satrápēs] to rule for them. The rebellion of the colonists against the rule of these tyrants set off a train of events that ended in 490 BCE, when the first Persian invasion of Greece was stopped in a decisive Greek victory at Marathon.

When the news of the Greek victory at Marathon (490 BCE) came to the Persian king Darius the Great, he decided to take revenge and he sent heralds to Hellas, demanding “earth and water” – the usual token of submission – which he received from many cities of Greece (Herodotus, The Histories 7.131.1). He instructed Ionia and the islands to build ships and to enroll their best men for service against Hellas.


King Darius died in October 486 BCE and the royal power then descended to his son Xerxes. (Xerxes was born in the royal Persian family around 518 BCE, to the king of Persia, Darius I and Atossa. His mother was the daughter of Cyrus the great, which played a big role in his coronation as the king, despite not being the eldest son of Darius.) After being persuaded to send a second expedition against Hellas, Xerxes firstly marched against the Ionian rebels (Herodotus, The Histories 5). He subdued them and by 483 BCE, he arrived in Thrace, by land and by sea.

The Greeks had prepared themselves for the Persian invasion by forming the Hellenic League. Sparta and Athens both took leading roles in joining together 70 of the 700 city-states, many of which were still technically at war with each other. They were planning to stop the Persians that came by land at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. To prevent the Persians bypassing Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and Allied navies planned to block the straits of Artemision. The southern shore of this strait, on the northwest coast of Euboea, is a promontory which took its name from the ancient sanctuary of Artemis Proseoia.

The battles of Thermopylae and Artemision, 480 BCE (the Department of History, United States Military Academy, public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The Athenian Stratēgós Themistoklẽs had persuaded the Ekklèsia, the People’s Assembly of Athens, to build 200 triremes of the light áphract design; ostensibly to stay ahead of the rival and neighbor Aegina, but with a view to the future threat of Persia. In 483 BCE, when the second invasion had started, Athens had 180 triremes, while the Greeks of the federation against the Persians contributed about 200 triremes (Herodotus, The Histories 7.144).

Of the total contingent of 378 ships, the Athenians mobilised 127 to Cape Artemision, to counter the invasion of the Persians. (The total number of ships, besides the fifty-oared boats, was 380, but 2 deserted at Artemision (Herodotus, The Histories 8.48, 8.82).) The remainder of the fleet stayed at Salamis, in support of the backup plan, which was to defend the Isthmus of Corinth. The smaller parties of the Allied forces, mainly from central Greece, contributed nine pentēkónteroi at Artemision and, later, four at Salamis.

To preserve some cohesion in the alliance, the Athenians, who were the most capable of all Greeks in marine affairs, awarded the command of the fleet to Eurybiades of Sparta, thus entrusting the safety of the Athenian seamen to Spartan command (Herodotus, The Histories 8.2).

In the 5th century BCE, the trireme was the largest and most powerful battleship and it had evolved from the Archaic fifty-oared pentēkónteroi which was operated by one bank of rowers on each side of the ship. In the period between 700 and 600 BCE, the deck of this type of ship was widened in such a way that it could accommodate an additional file [stoikhos] of rowers on a slightly varied vertical level. A vessel with such two-level arrangement was called diērēs, or díkrotos, or later, in its Latinized form, bireme.

Another level of oarsmen

Anywhere between 600 and 525 BCE, another level of oarsmen was introduced. They were accommodated on an overhanging platform that was supported by an outboard structure; the parexeiresia. (Parexeiresia: outside the eiresia, the oarbank. The parexeiresia accommodated the thole pins [kleídes]. The later term for thole pin was skalmos; compare interscalmium, the space between one oar [eretmón] and another. The thongs of leather used to fasten the oars to the thole pins, were the dermatínoisi (Homeric Odyssey 4.781, 8.53).)

The oarsmen operating from the upper level were called the thranites. Their deck ran from the reinforced catheads [epōtides] in the forebody towards the steering station aft. The resulting ship, the triērēs, or trireme, was a large katáphraktos with three levels of oars on each side of the ship (even larger units came into use as of 399 BCE, when Dionysus of Syracuse introduced the tetrērēs; “fours” and the pentrērēs; “fives”). The displacement was about 50 cubic metres at a length of about 40 metres.

Designed for speed and manoeuvrability

Ship-to-ship contact was the preferred naval tactic of the Athenian Stratēgós Themistoklẽs. (In Athens the commander of the navy held the same title as the commander of the land forces; “stratēgós”. The title “návarkhos”, admiral, was used only in cities that lacked an established naval tradition, such as Sparta.)

For that reason, the ships of Athens were built for speed and manoeuvrability. The cutwater [steira] was appended with a bronze [chálkoma] or iron sheathed protrusion [émbolos]. A blunt secondary projection, the proembolion, would avoid excessive penetration during the intended collision and cause collateral damage to the enemy’s parexeiresia; the outboard structures on which the upper-level oarsmen, the thranites were seated. The early trireme, however, was a relatively unseaworthy hull, less suitable for harsh weather conditions.


The operators of the lower-level oars, named thalamites, were accommodated in an enclosed space [thalamos] and they operated their oars in darkness, through port holes in the hull, quite close to the waterline of the ship. The rowers in the middle row, the zygitai, were named after the beams [zygé] on which they sat.

Depiction of the position and angle of the rowers in a trireme. This drawing shows not only the position and angle of the rowers in a trireme, but also the form of the parexeiresia, projecting from the deck (cut of a Greek trireme, an antic combat galley, following the last archaeological discoveries about this type of ship; own work of Eric Gaba (2005); based upon a drawing of Jean Taillardat in La Trière athénienne et la guerre sur mer aux Ve et IVe siècles, 1968; Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.).

If every rowing bench [kleís] was manned, then the ship was operated by about twenty-seven thranite (upper-level oarsman) rowers, twenty-seven zygite, and twenty-seven thalamite (lower-level oarsman; the meaning of thalamos is “inner room, or chamber”, as Odyssey 1.425 (bedroom of Telemachus), Odyssey 4.310 (bedroom of Helen and Menelaos) and Iliad 6.288 (store room)) rowers, on each side of the ship, totaling to some 162 nautai on each Athenian “fast” trireme.

Each Athenian trireme carried a minimal number of fighting personnel, only ten marines [epibatai] and four archers. The marines would form the nucleus of any boarding- or landing party that would be needed during operations. The later trireme would evolve towards a troop-transporter, with an elevated deck for the soldiers [hoplites] and archers who then constituted the fighting force (Plutarch, The Life of Kimon 12.9). The marines and hoplites carried spear, javelin, bow and sword.


When the Persian Fleet started the invasion of Hellas, Xerxes’ plan was to form a number of bridges over the Hellespont to transport the Persian troops from Asia to Europe: ‘It is my intent to bridge the Hellespont and lead my army through Europe to Hellas, so I may punish the Athenians for what they have done to the Persians and to my father’ (Herodotus, The Histories 7.8B).

The length of the crossing and the strength of the local currents, however, made the building of the floating bridges an impossible task. The water depth would not allow the floaters to be anchored by upstream anchors, as is the usual way to do when building floating bridges in a current. Xerxes was enraged because of all the failures.

(Herodotus gives us the classic description of the autocratic ruler who presides in hate and cursing; who wants to destroy not only what opposes him, but also everything that annoys him. The other side of history remembers Xerxes for building palaces and monuments such as the Gate of All Nations and the Hall of Hundred Columns. He also built the Royal Road and provided architectural supremacy to his empire.)

‘When Xerxes heard of this, he was very angry and commanded that the Hellespont be whipped with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea.’

Xerxes’ alleged punishment of the Hellespont (Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany; public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

After these events, the army was transported across the Hellespont by the fleet and proceeded west, making for Cape Sarpedon and assembling at Thracian Doriskos. (Aeschylus deservedly ridicules the idea of the bridges in The Persians, 472 BCE: ‘Atossa: By a clever device he yoked the Hellespont so as to gain a passage. Ghost of Darius: What! Did he succeed in closing the mighty Bosporus? Atossa: Yes indeed. One of the divine powers must have assisted him in his purpose ‘(Aeschylus, The Persians 722–724).)

Here, Xerxes counted the numbers of ships and troops that were available to him. Herodotus, with his love for the numerical hyperbole, mentions 2.6 million troops accompanied by an equivalent number of support personnel (Herodotus, The Histories 7.186. Modern historians suggest more realistic figures in the order of 200,000).

Xerxes channel

The next event was a precaution to avoid the recurrence of what happened during the first Persian invasion, when Darius fleet was wrecked while passing the peninsula of Athos. For this reason, Xerxes spent three years excavating the Xerxes Canal across the Isthmus, to allow the unhindered passage of his invasion fleet. When all this had been done, the year was now 480 BCE, his fleet proceeded towards Central Greece, at first following the coastline of Thrace towards the Macedonian city of Therma.

The peninsula of Athos was on the invasion route of Xerxes, who spent three years excavating the Xerxes Canal across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet (Warry, J. 1998 Warfare in the Classical World p. 35). The city of Therma derived its name from the Greek thérmē/thérma, “(malarial) fever”. Therma was later restored and renamed Thessalonica by King Cassander of Macedon (315 BCE).

Slow advance

After that they navigated along the mountainous coast of Magnesia, where is also Mount Olympos. The Persian armada advanced slowly, taking regular stops to pull their ships ashore, to dewater them, to dry the leaky hulls and to resupply them with food and water. Fleet and army could only operate in close conjunction of each other, moving along the coast and taking city after city.

The season was not favorable to them, and while at anchor in the shallow waters off Mount Pelion, the fleet was hit by a “tempest” and partly shattered before the battle even began (Mount Pelion took its name from the mythical king Peleus, father of Achilles. Furthermore, it is said that Jason built the Argo at the foot of Mount Pelion):

‘The Persian fleet put to sea and reached the beach of the Magnesian land, between the city of Casthanaea and the headland of Sepia. The first ships to arrive moored close to land, with the others after them at anchor; since the beach was not large, they lay at anchor in rows eight ships deep out into the sea. They spent the night in this way, but at dawn a storm descended upon them out of a clear and windless sky, and the sea began to boil. A strong east wind blew, which the people living in those parts call Hellespontian.’

‘Those who felt the wind rising or had proper mooring dragged their ships up on shore ahead of the storm and so survived with their ships. The wind did, however, carry those ships caught out in the open sea against the rocks called the Ovens at Pelion or onto the beach. Some ships were wrecked on the Sepian headland; others were cast ashore at the city of Meliboea or at Casthanaea. The storm was indeed unbearable” (Herodotus, The Histories 7.188).’

 …To be continued.


This story could only be formed thanks to the support of the online community for Classical Studies of The Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University. The story was earlier published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license at The images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses.

Picture (top): Depiction of a Greek trireme.

Series of articles

This is the seventh in a series of articles written by Rien de Meij. An abbreviated version of this article was published in SWZ|Maritime’s July/August 2020 issue. The other articles are:

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.