The battle of Salamis

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 battle of Salamis”.

The Battle of Salamis was one of the defining moments in Europe’s history. Democracy would not have existed if the Greeks had not fought and won this sea battle. The 2500th anniversary of this event is commemorated this month.

In the last days of September of the year 480 BCE, after the Persian victory at Thermopylae, the land forces of King Xerxes went underway to Athens and also his armada moved southward for the final stroke.

Among the Persian naval contingent are 120 triremes from Thrace, 100 ships from Ionia, 60 ships from Aeolia including Lesbos and Samos, and an unspecified number of ships from the Greek islands, including the Cyclades, and lastly, the Dorians from Halicarnassus. After the conclusion of the Ionian revolt, these cities prospered under Persian rule and tyrannies had been replaced with democracies [1, 2]. Now the Ionians support the invasion of Hellas, aimed at the destruction of Athens and Sparta. The men of Tenos and Naxos, however, joined the Persians only reluctantly.

In the first Persian invasion, the main driver was revenge for the capture and burning of Sardis. Now insult was added to injury: the Athenians had thrown the Persian messengers into a gorge – the Spartans threw them into a well – in response to their request for “earth and water” [3].

Most of the Greek city-states north of Thermopylae submit to the Persians, when the time is there, to buy relative safety for their people. Athens is at war with the Aeginetans, while Thebes and Argos are ”medized”; neutral, more inclined to side with the Persians than with the Spartans, because of the iron fist with which the Spartans ruled the Peloponnese. Attica was lost.

Fated to work together

Athens, a young but powerful democracy, and Sparta, with accomplished warriors focused on military training and excellence, find themselves fated to work together and break the Persian threat to Hellas. Apart from Athens, the Peloponnesus, a few islands and a small fleet, nothing was left.

The Athenian leader Themistoklēs has left messages inscribed in the rocks of Artemision beach, inviting at least the Ionians to defect and join their fellow Greeks, and he deceives the Persians by leaving Artemision by night time [4]. He sends informers to the Persian to feed them with disinformation about his plans and activities. The Persians decide to ignore the messenger, which is perfectly in line with the strategy of Themistoklēs.

While the Greeks retreat from Artemision, the Persian marines lose time and energy by going ashore in the shallow muddy water at Thermopylae, to join the land forces in festivity and looting [5, 6]. When the Greek ships from Artemision arrive at Salamis, the rest of the Hellenic fleet departs from Pogon, the harbor of Trozen, to join them [7].

The following parties took part in the war that was now coming to its climax:

  • From the Peloponnese, the Lacedaemonians provided 16 ships; the Corinthians 40 ships; the Sikyonians furnished 15 ships, the Epidaurians 10, the Trozenians 5, the Hermioneans 3.
  • From the mainland outside the Peloponnese, the Athenians supplied 180 ships. The Megarians 20. The Ambraciots came to help with 7 ships and the Leucadians with 3. The Aeginetans supplied 30 ships. The Khalkidians came with 20 ships and the Eretrians with 7. From the Naxians 4 ships defected to the Hellenes. The Styrians provided 2 ships and the Kythnians 1 trireme and a 50-oared boat. The Krotonians came with 1 ship. The Seriphians brought fifty-oared boats. The Melians supplied 2; the Siphnians and Seriphians, 1 each. The total number of ships, besides the fifty-oared boats, was 378 [8].

Evacuation of Attica

Meanwhile Themistoklēs decreed the evacuation of Attica, including Athens. Did he persuade the guardian of the sacred snake on the Acropolis to announce [semainein] that the snake had left the polis, and all should follow quickly? [9]

The young statesman Kimon demonstrated his support for the strategy of abandoning Attica and resolving the issue in a battle at sea [naumachia]. With a group of companions he proceeded through the Kerameikos, up to the Acropolis, where he dedicated to the goddess Athena, the horse’s bridle which he carried in his hands, indicating that what the city needed was not brave knights, but sea-fighters. After he had dedicated his bridle, he addressed prayers to the goddess. Together with his companions he then went down to the sea, to participate in what would be the battle of Salamis [10]. After that fight, it would be Kimon who led the pursuit of the Median fleet.

The Athenian ships that returned from Artemision were released by the Spartan admiral Eurybiades to transport the Athenians to the refuge of Troezen, and some to Salamis and Aegina. Lastly, when the evacuation had been completed, including the removal of the ancient xoanon, the wooden image of Athena Polias, the Athenian ships returned to the main fleet which gathered in the Salamis Channel [11].

At the same time, Themistoklēs met with the Allied council, where Eurybiades and the Corinthian naval commander Adeimantus voiced the argument of a defensive strategy. They proposed the Allied fleet to prevent the Persian fleet from transporting troops across the Gulf of Aegina, from Attica to Argos. All land above this line, up to the Isthmus of Corinth had fallen to the Persians.

Close quarter battle

Themistoklēs aim, however, was to offensively destroy the Persians’ naval superiority. He argued with great virtue that a battle in close quarter conditions would work to the advantage of the Greeks. This strategy was a lesson learned, both at Thermopylae and Artemision: the only difference being that the Persians now had to be lured into the narrow waters firstly. Based upon his plea that Hellas could not be hold if they did not stick together, combined with the suggestion that otherwise the ships from Athens would leave for Italy, it was decided to station the Allied navy off the coast of Salamis.

Following the Allied agreement on how to proceed, Themistoklēs sent a secret envoy, Sicinnus, to the Persian King Xerxes who was now indulging in the destruction of Athens [12].

Sicinnus transferred the false message that the Greeks withdrew from Salamis and that each squadron was underway to its own city. According to his message, the remaining ships were ready to defect when the opportunity was there. The Persians remembered too well that if they had listened to the turncoat at Artemision, they would have had a chance to intercept and destroy the Allied navy. What a hard decision to again ignore a defector! Xerxes agreed with the messenger and changed his plan; he decided to attack next evening – even without knowledge of his enemy’s powers and terrains – instead of waiting for the Greeks to initiate the battle.

The battle of Salamis (map dated 2005).

Locked in

In the morning before the battle there was an earthquake. Xerxes ordered his fleet to take station outside the strait of Salamis, waiting for the Greek ships to defect, or to attempt escape. During the day, the Persian sailors went ashore at Phaleron for having dinner. At sunset they climbed the ladders to their ships again, expecting action to start that night. Part of the Persian fleet, the Egyptian continent, circled the coast of Salamis and barred the narrow access at the western side of Salamis, near Megara, thus effectively locking in the Greek naval force.

The main fleet of the Persians kept station to the east of Salamis. They were manned by a heterogeneous collection of troops supplied by the Phoenicians, Cyprians, Cilicians and Pamphylians. They were large in number and moved slowly, possibly in a triple line. Three-to-one was the ratio in which they outnumber the Greek navy.

During the night, lightened by a bright moon, not too much happened and the large contingent of Phoenician ships that headed the three-line formation, started moving slowly into the Salamis channel. The Ionian ships were the last to follow. The Persians transported 400 soldiers to the island of Psyttaleia, located in the middle of the access to the Strait of Salamis. While the night wears away, the rowers of the Persians did not come into action, but also, they did not have a rest.

A ship from Tenos, deserted the Persians to join the Greek side. They transferred their understanding of the Persian plans and actions to Eurybiades and Themistoklēs. In the middle of the night also Aristides, the Athenian rival of Themistoklēs, arrived by boat, bringing with him the religious tokens from the island of Aegina. He offered loyal support to the Allied council and later he would crown the Greek victory by landing Athenian infantry on the island of Psyttaleia.

Tactical manoeuvres

After having received the situation reports of the Tenians and Aristides, the Greek leaders decided to set the scene for the battle by positioning their ships in a single line in front off the coast of Salamis. This array prevented the Persians from sailing around the Greek fleet in the tactical manoeuvre named períplous, which would allow them to wipe out the Greek galleys when they passed them [13]. Also, due to the lack of sea room the Persians, would not be able to sail through the enemy’s line, in the maneuver called diékplous [14]. After sailing through the lines they would attempt to turn back again, in the manoeuvre called anastrophe, attack the curved sterns of the Greek ships, while shattering the steering- and rowing oars.

The Spartan leader Eurybiades assigned the right wing of the formation to the Aeginetans, thus giving the post of honor to Aristides, the rival of Themistoklēs. The islanders of Aegina would firstly counter the ships from Ionia, but they were eager to prove that they were no friends of the Persians and captured many a Phoenician ship as well [15]. Also, there was some expectation that the Ionians might follow the instruction that Themistoklēs left on the beach of Artemision, advising the Ionians to defect, or to fight as kakoi, cowards, but the majority did not. The Athenians, on the western end of the battle line, would take the first confrontation with the Phoenicians.

In the early morning of the nineteenth of Boedromion, a holy day for the Greeks, on which they should be underway on a pilgrimage to Eleusis, carrying out the usual rituals and sacrifices to Demeter – thus ensuring the harvest of next year to replace the dry seed of today – the Greeks were found offering sacrifices on the beach of Salamis. After having prayed to all the gods, and also for the support of the shades of Ajax, Telamon and Aiakos and the other Aiakidai, they went aboard their fenced ships, the katáphraktoi on which the oarsmen operate their oars in darkness, even during day time [16]. A cloud rose above Eleusis and floated towards Salamis, to the camp of the Hellenes; a good omen in the form of a wind that came from the north again.

Spread panic and chaos

Chanting a song – calling for the assistance of Apollo, or Paieon himself, the physician of the gods – and following the instructions that came through the sound of the trumpet on the flagship of Eurybiades, they proceeded at high speed to their line positions along the north coast of Salamis [17, 18]. The aim of the Athenians to spread panic at the break of day was given some authority because the island of Psyttaleia was sacred [hieros] to the god Pan, the lord of the irrational thing called panic [19].

Immediately the barbarians attacked them. The Hellenes, possessed by fear, firstly began to back water and tried to beach their ships again [20]. Soon after, however, the Hellenes fought in order by line, attacking the curved sterns of the Persian ships, by sailing through the enemy’s fleet [diékplous] and turning back again [anastrophé]. After that they would shear-off the steering and rowing oars of the Persian ships, while the barbarians were no longer in position and did nothing sensibly.

Kaulbach, Wilhelm von – Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis – 1868.

In the fast-spreading chaos, the Greeks were able to penetrate the hulls of the Persian ships, causing flooding and loss of stability. As the vessels began to sink, the rowers [nautai] were forced into the water and came to their sad end by drowning:

‘It was a ship of Hellas that began the charge and chopped off in its entirety the curved stern of a Phoenician boat. Each captain drove his ship straight against some other ship. At first the stream of the Persian army held its own. When, however, the mass of our ships had been crowded in the narrows, and none could make another aid, and each crashed its bronze prow against each of its own line, they splintered their whole bank of oars. Then the Hellenic galleys, not heedless of their chance, hemmed them in and battered them on every side. The hulls of our vessels rolled over, and the sea was hidden from our sight, strewn as it was with wrecks and slaughtered men’ [21].

A remarkable role was played by Artemisia, Queen of the Carians and ruler of Halicarnassus, who fought as an ally with Xerxes. In the aftermath of Salamis she hoisted the Greek colors, rammed a Persian ship, after which the confused Greek gave up the pursuit, thus allowing her to escape. Herodotus, himself a native of Halicarnassus (484 BCE), a Carian, tells the story with flavor [22, 23].

The Battle of Salamis still plays a role in Greek national and European consciousness, because at that time a collection of independently operating city-states achieved a degree of cooperation that before and after had never been shown, thus marking the transition from Archaic to Classic Greece.

On land the Spartans, the first military power in Hellas, gained a name of great fame [kleos] [24]. At sea, the Hellenes with the best reputation, the aristoi, were the Aeginetans, then the Athenians. The latter, however, played the leading role, preluding what would be the Golden Age of Athens [25].

The maritime supremacy of Athens and the development of the democracy went hand in hand: the concept that the fleet and democracy were complementary was replaced by the idea that the one could not exist without the other. The navy needed people to man the triremes, and the functioning of the mainly direct democracy required common people to have a vote. The logical step was to provide the right to vote to the lower class Athenians [thētes] who served as crews on the triremes [26]. Serving on the triremes became attractive; the complement of these superior ships was well-paid and had a democratic vote that would otherwise not be available to them. During the late 6th and early 5th centuries, in Athens, the contribution of the thētes had become crucial, both for the rise of naval power and for the development of the democracy [27].

View of Athens and the Areopagus.

The victory of the states that had been threatened by the Persian expansion policy was sealed with an agreement on collective defense, whereby its independent member states agreed to a mutual defense [epimachía] in response to a potential repeated attack.

Picture (top): The Warriors of Salamis. Salamina monument.

References

  1. ‘In 493, when the Ionian revolt was over, the Persian satrap of Sardis compelled the Ionians to make agreements among themselves that they would abide by the law and not rob and plunder each other’. [Herodotus, The Histories 6.42.1].
  2. ‘The Milesian geographer Hecataeus persuaded Artaphrenes to restore the constitution of the Ionic cities’. [Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History 10.25].
  3. ‘When Darius had previously sent men with this same purpose, those who made the request were cast at the one city into the Pit and at the other into a well, and bidden to obtain their earth and water for the king from these locations’. [Herodotus, The Histories 7.133.1].
  4. This was what the writing said: ‘Men of Ionia, you do wrongly to fight against the land of your fathers and bring slavery upon Hellas…’. [Herodotus, The Histories 8.22].
  5. “Thermopylae” means “hot gates”. The river is hot and rich of Sulphur springs since the day that Hēraklēs jumped into it, to clear himself off the Hydra poison infused into his cloak.
  6. ‘Men of our allies, King Xerxes permits any one of you who should so desire to leave his place and come to see how he fights against those foolish men who thought they could overcome the king’s power’. [Herodotus, The Histories 8.24].
  7. ‘A story is told of one of these, the dog of Xanthippus the father of Perikles, how he could not endure to be abandoned by his master, and so sprang into the sea, swam across the strait by the side of his master’s trireme, and staggered out on Salamis, only to faint and die straightway’. [Plutarch, The Life of Themistoklẽs].
  8. ‘When the priestess interpreted the significance of this, the Athenians were all the more eager to abandon the city since the goddess had deserted the Acropolis’. [Herodotus, The Histories 8.44-48]. Themistoklẽs put the story into their (the priests) mouths. [Plutarch, The Life of Themistoklẽs].
  9. This was what the writing said: ‘Men of Ionia, you do wrongly to fight against the land of your fathers and bring slavery upon Hellas…’ [Herodotus, The Histories 8. 41].
  10. Plutarch, The Life of Cimon 5.2-3.
  11. The ancient xoanon of Athena survived the war, and had presumably been carried away to Salamis. [Kleidemos, Frag. Gr. Hist., III B, -No. 323, Frag. 21, mentions the loss of the gorgoneion from the statue at the time of the manning of the ships. [Jameson, M.H. 1960].
  12. This Sicinnus was of Persian stock, a prisoner of war, but devoted to Themistoklẽs, and the paedagogue of his children. [Plutarch, The Life of Themistoklẽs].
  13. The períplous is a naval tactic referred to by Thucydides: ‘But the Athenians with their galleys ordered one after one in file went around them [peripleon] and shrunk them up together by wiping them ever as they passed’. [Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 2.84].
  14. The diékplous is a naval tactic referred to by Polybius: ‘Moreover, that most effective of all maneuvers in sea fights,—sailing through [diekpleῖn] the enemy’s line and appearing on their stern while they are engaged with others’ [Polybius 1.51.9].
  15. The Aeginetans may have played a larger part than is conceded to them by the Athenian tradition. [See also Herodotus, The Histories 8.91.1].
  16. Herodotus, The Histories 8.64, tells of the images of the Aiakidai being sent for from Aegina, before the battle. The sacred images would protect as well as be protected.
  17. ‘At once from ev’ry Greek with glad acclaim, Burst forth the song of war, whose lofty notes, The echo of the island rocks return’d.’ [The Persians, Tragedy by Aeschylus].
  18. In Homer, Paieon was the Greek physician of the gods: ‘He [Arēs] then bade Paieon heal him, whereon Paieon spread pain-killing herbs upon his wound and cured him’. [Homeric Iliad 5.900].
  19. ‘Full against Salamis an isle arises, of small circumference, to the anchor’d bark, Unfaithful; on the promontory’s brow, That overlooks the sea, Pan loves to lead, The dance’. [The Persians, Tragedy by Aeschylus].
  20. The “luring” of the Median Fleet was played so convincingly that a story is told that the phantom of a woman appeared to them, who cried ‘Men possessed [daimonioi], how long will you still be backing water [prýmnan anakroúesthai]?’
  21. Aeschylus, The Persians 410-420.
  22. It could be argued that Carians were the inheritors of a proud thalassocratic, Minoan, tradition that once covered the Cycladic Islands. This may be the background for Herodotus’ speaking about the Ionians with disdain.
  23. ‘While she was being pursued by the Athenian ship she charged with full career against a ship of her own side manned by Calyndians and in which the king of the Calyndians Damasithymos was embarked’. [Herodotus, The Histories 8.87].
  24. At the end of the one stood Athens, at the head of the other Lacedaemon, one the first naval, the other the first military power in Hellas [Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.1.18].
  25. The expression “Golden Age” cannot be read without the reflection that comes with reading words like “Age of Enlightenment”, “Renaissance”. The qualification on the Golden Ages in history is that they were based on what some describe as pleonexia: “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others”. Still, the described developments in this period may justify the use of the word.
  26. The “thētes” were the lowest social class of citizens.
  27. Butera, C.J. 2010, Ruschenbusch 1979, pp. 106 & 110, Sargent 1927, pp. 266–268.

Acknowledgements

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 https://kosmossociety.chs.harvard.edu/?p=41265. The images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses:

  • Figure 1 – The Warriors of Salamis. Salamina monument. Photo Achilles Vasileiou. Creative Commons CC BY 3.0. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
    Map 1 – The battle of Salamis (Map dated 2005). The Department of History, United States Military Academy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Figure 2 – Kaulbach, Wilhelm von – Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis – 1868. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Figure 3 – View of Athens and the Areopagus. von Klenze, L. Ideale Ansicht der Acropolis und des Areopag in Athen, 1846. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Neue Pinakothek München. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Series of articles

This is the eighth in a series of articles written by Rien de Meij. An abbreviated version of this article was published in SWZ|Maritime’s September 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.