Events of the Battle of Salamis

The Greek navy had been forced back to the Island of Salamis not so much because of the overpowering force of the Persian fleet, but because they needed a base of operations and as the army of Xerxes advanced, the options for overnight harbors and resupply began to diminish.

An Athenian Trireme

Salamis is an island in the southwest portion of Attica (the territory within which Athens was situated). It was fairly close to the coast, but held a very good harbor and was separated just far enough from the mainland to protect the bulk of the citizens who had abandoned the city of Athens even as Xerxes moved into it.

Xerxes had burned the city. Presently his fleet was keeping an eye on the Athenians and had Piraeus and Phaleron bay as a base of operations. Xerxes was anxious to bring the threatening Athenian fleet to bay, even though one of his squadron commanders, Artemisia (one of the few female admirals in history), advised him against it.

On the Greek side, many thought that trying to save Attica was hopeless and were all set to head off to the Corinthian peninsula where they hoped the might of the Spartan hopylites combined with the navy could stave off a successful conquest of the rest of Greece. Themistocles, the Athenian commander thought that the time for battle was now. The small bay within which they were enclosed would take away the Phoenician advantage in speed and though the Greeks were outnumbered, he felt they could destroy a large part of the Persian fleet.

On the day before the battle, the Persians came out to challenge the Greeks. They Greeks stayed within their harbor. But that night (probably in September of 480 B.C.) with part of the fleet contemplating abandoning Salamis to the Persians, Themistocles did something desperate. He sent a messenger to the Great King Xerxes. This messenger told the King that Themistocles was ready to switch sides and deliver his fleet into the hands of the Persians.

To modern ears it seems amazing that Xerxes might believe this. However, this method of using Greek turncoats has stood the Great King in good stead. Many Greek states had already come over to him and the momentous battle of Thermopylae had been decided in a similar manner. It would almost have been more logical for the Greeks to surrender than to try to fight on.

Because of this message from Themistocles, the Persian fleet was just coming back to base when Xerxes ordered them out again, to be ready to fight the Greeks first thing in the morning. It seemed a sure thing. The entire Persian fleet allied with the Athenians would surely defeat the remnants of the Greeks. Imagine, now, the condition of these rowers who had been out all day and who were forced to turn about and go back to battle stations again. By the time they returned to the bay at Salamis they had been up all night rowing and were pretty much exhausted.

Whether Themistocles intended this consequence or not, no one is quite certain. What is likely is that he wanted the Persians to keep his own allies bottled up with him so that they would be forced to fight (and not run off to Corinth), and fight they did.

With the Athenians and possibly the Corinthians on the left, the Aegenitans and other allies in the center and the Spartans on the right, the fleet came out and attacked. On shore the two armies were massed waiting to rescue their own men who might fall into the water and to kill any enemy so unfortunate to be washed up on their shore.

With the fresh Greeks in their larger triremes attacking the exhausted Persians and their allies in confined waters where the Persians could not get around the Greek flank, the battle quickly flowed in favor of the Greeks. Their rams played havoc among the Persians sinking and capturing probably more than a hundred. Yet their was another factor, a wind came up and tossed about the lighter Persian ships. The Persian admirals finally decided on retreat out of the bay. But they were closely pursued by the Greeks who turned the retreat into a rout, destroying perhaps half of the Persian fleet.

< Triremes | Aftermath of Salamis >

Interesting Fact:

Ultimately, it would be the Greeks who would conquer Persia. In 333-332 B.C. Alexander the Great took Persia in his bid to rule the world.

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