25 September 480 BC: Greece defeats Persia, once and for all
Xerxes seethes as his navy is crushed by vastly outnumbered Greek forces
Daylight on 25 September 480 BC. As the Persian fleet sailed into the straits of Salamis, they heard the sound of their Greek opponents singing their battle hymn: “O sons of the Greeks, go, / Liberate your country, liberate / Your children, your women, the seats of your fathers’ gods, / And the tombs of your forebears: now is the struggle for all things.”
The battle of Salamis, fought between the invading fleet of the Persian ruler Xerxes and his allied Greek adversaries, has gone down as one of the most famous naval engagements in history. For Xerxes, this was the moment when he would crush Greek resistance and cement his control of the enemy mainland. But as the Persian ships sailed into the narrow straits, they were doing precisely what the Athenian general, Themistocles, wanted.
What followed was chaos. At first the Greek ships appeared to retreat from the Persians, as if afraid. In reality, however, the Persians’ overwhelming numbers worked against them. As one Persian line crashed inevitably into the next, some of their captains began to panic, and eventually morale cracked completely. Watching from his throne on Mount Egaleo, Xerxes looked on in impotent fury as his fleet fell back in disarray, the Greeks surging forward and singing in triumph. As the historian Herodotus recorded, many of the Persians could not swim, so the seas foamed with the bodies of drowning men.
Salamis is commonly seen as the turning point in the Persian Wars. Indeed, for generations of writers, it was a decisive moment in world history: the moment when the free cities of the Greeks definitely escaped the Persian yoke. This is probably an exaggeration. But had events in September 480 turned out otherwise, it is tempting to wonder how different our world might be.
25 September 1066
To the amazement of Harald Hardrada’s invading Norsemen, they are confronted by an English army along the River Derwent, led by King Harold Godwinson himself. After a ferocious battle, Hardrada lies soaked in blood on the ground – and the battle of Stamford Bridge enters English history.
25 September 1396
At Nicopolis, in modern-day Bulgaria, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I routs an allied Hungarian, Wallachian, French and Bulgarian army, cementing Turkish power in the Balkans.
25 September 1513
Shortly before midday, the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa stumbles up the hills above the Chucunaque River and glimpses a vast blue sea glittering in the distance. After a gruelling journey across the Isthmus of Panama, he has become the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean.
25 September 1690: Boston’s first newspaper is launched – and banned
Colonial authorities force closure of British America’s inaugural newspaper after just one issue
For the people of Boston, Massachusetts, 25 September 1690 brought an exciting new development: the first appearance of their own newspaper. Rejoicing in the catchy title Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, it was printed by a Boston resident, Richard Pierce, and edited by local coffee house owner Benjamin Harris who had previously been a publisher in London.
Perhaps surprisingly, the first paper produced in British America began with good news. “The Christianised Indians in some parts of Plimouth, have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities under their late want of Corn & for His giving them now a prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest,” announced the first story. “Their Example may be worth Mentioning.”
As is often the case in the newspaper world, however, Harris soon fell back on the kind of stories likely to give his readers nightmares. In Chelmsford, he reported, there had gone missing “a couple of Children belonging to a man of that Town, one of them aged about eleven, the other aged about nine years, both of them supposed to be fallen into the hands of the Indians.” And he also reported the advent of a “malignant Fever”, which “usually goes through a Family where it comes, and proves Mortal unto many”.
Harris had lofty ambitions for his paper. It would appear, he promised, “once a month (or if any glut of Occurrences happen oftener)”. Alas, the colonial authorities were not impressed and shut it down after just one issue. Harris was thrown into prison and the people of Boston had to wait until 1704 for their first successful newspaper, John Campbell’s Boston News-Letter. Still, Publick Occurrences had paved the way, and, compared with the turgid pomposity of some newspapers today, it makes for a cracking read.
25 September 1892
Derby-born educator Emily Ward opened the Training School for Ladies as Children’s Nurses in Norland Place, London. Because of its location the school soon became known as the Norland Institute.
25 September 1901
British General Sir Arthur Fremantle died aged 66. Fremantle served in the Sudan during the Mahdist uprising but is best remembered for his time as an unofficial observer with the Confederate army during the American Civil War.
25 September 1963: Thousands buy Profumo scandal report
The official account delivers more on sex than security
On 25 September 1963, the most hotly anticipated report in British history hit the shelves. Official reports, known as blue books, are usually dull affairs – but this was different. Public interest was so great, remarked The Spectator, that the Stationery Office “opened half an hour after midnight to satisfy the crowds who wondered just how blue a blue book could be”. In the first hour, 4,000 copies changed hands; in the first day, more than 100,000.
Lord Denning’s report into the Profumo scandal, which had gripped the nation during the summer of 1963, seemed like a cheap crime thriller. Even the section headings were reminiscent of an Edwardian penny dreadful: ‘Christine Tells Her Story’; ‘“He’s a Liar’”; ‘The Man in the Mask’; ‘The Man Without a Head’. Yet the implications of the report were rather less exciting than they seemed.
Three months earlier, Harold Macmillan had asked Lord Denning to examine the national security implications of the alleged affair between the Tory minister Jack Profumo and the young Christine Keeler. In fact, the security angle was non-existent. Instead, Denning had been sucked into the whirlpool of sexual gossip, wasting his time investigating rumours of “perverted sex orgies” that had nothing to do with the case at all.
For the embattled Macmillan, publication came as an immense relief. There was only the mildest imaginable criticism of the government, both MI5 and the police escaped scot-free, and Denning directed most of his fire at Keeler’s friend and protector Stephen Ward, who had since killed himself.
Macmillan was delighted. “All day long,” he recorded, “came messages of congratulation.” He was especially pleased to see his Labour rival Harold Wilson so disappointed. “There wasn’t much in it,” Wilson said sadly. By that, Macmillan noted gleefully, “he meant ‘not much in it for me’”.