Salamis, 480 BC: a horror at sea for the Persian empire

Themistocles’ crushing naval victory at Salamis defied the odds and saved Greece from Persian domination. Julian Humphrys explains how such an unexpected feat came about and why it mattered so much

Boats clash at sea in this illustration of the 480 BC battle of Salamis, fought between a Persian army led by King Xerxes I and the Greek army led by Themistocles

Xerxes, the King of Persia, was looking forward to this. For nearly 20 years the insolent ancient Greeks had been a thorn in the side of the mighty Persian empire, but now, finally, they were going to get their comeuppance. His soldiers had already reduced Athens to a heap of smouldering ruins, and now his ships had bottled up the puny Greek fleet at Salamis at the entrance to the Bay of Eleusis. All that remained was to finish them off. Keen to get a grandstand view of the action,  Xerxes had his throne set up on the headland overlooking the two fleets and settled down to enjoy what he thought would be a triumphant spectacle.

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The Athenians had first brought the wrath of the Persians upon Greece in 498 BC, when they had supported their countrymen in Asia Minor, who were in revolt against their Persian overlords.Once he’d suppressed the rebellion, Darius, the Persian king at the time, invaded Greece, but in 490 BC his forces suffered a devastating defeat at Marathon. Ten years later, Darius’s successor Xerxes returned – and he meant business. Gathering together an enormous army, he crossed the Hellespont (the modern-day Dardanelles) by two long pontoon bridges he’d ordered his engineers to construct, and marched down through Thrace and Macedonia towards Athens.

Faced with this huge invasion, the various Greek city states held a conference in Corinth. It was poorly attended because many had already concluded that their only option was to capitulate or even side with the Persians, but those who were there chose the warlike Spartans to take command of the defence of Greece. In late summer, while the Greek and Persian fleets fought an indecisive naval action at Artemisium, a brave attempt to block the huge Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae was overwhelmed. With the way to Athens now open to the Persians, the Athenian fleet was hurriedly used to ferry its inhabitants to safety on the island of Salamis. Athens soon fell to the Persians, the few inhabitants who had remained behind to defend it were massacred, and the city was burned to the ground.

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What led to the battle of Salamis?

Following this disaster, the Greeks were divided over what to do next. Many thought that their only chance of survival lay in retreating to the Peloponnese peninsula and building a wall across the narrow isthmus that joined it to the mainland. But Themistocles, the commander of the Athenian fleet, disagreed. He knew that so long as Xerxes had a powerful navy, he could easily land his men behind any wall the Greeks might build, and also supply his vast army by sea. The Persian fleet had to be destroyed. Themistocles believed that the best way to do that was to force a battle off Salamis, where the Greek fleet was anchored.

Persuading his fellow commanders was not so easy. Eurybiades, the commander of the Spartan fleet, was all for leaving Salamis with his ships and heading for the Peloponnese. When his own threat to withdraw the two hundred ships of the Athenian fleet failed, Themistocles took matters into his own hands. Everybody, including Xerxes, knew that the Greeks were a notoriously fractious bunch, and the Athenian commander played on this. Claiming to be a secret supporter of the Persians, Themistocles sent a message to the Persian king saying that the Greeks were in disarray and that they were planning to slip away from Salamis under the cover of night.

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A trieme is rowed towards a naval battle in a scene depicting the battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC

Hearing this, Xerxes ordered his fleet, perhaps 800 ships strong, to close in on Salamis, block off the Greek retreat and destroy them. Eurybiades would now have to fight, whether he liked it or not. The Persian plan seems to have been to threaten the Greeks from two sides. While two hundred Egyptian ships were ordered to sail around the west side of Salamis to prevent the Greeks from escaping that way, the main Persian fleet would attack through the narrow strait between Salamis and the mainland. This was just what Themistocles wanted. He realised that in such a confined space, the Persians wouldn’t be able to make use of their advantage in numbers.

To strengthen the illusion that his fleet was falling apart, he sent a squadron of ships northwards as if in retreat. Meanwhile, to draw the Persians further into the confined straits, the other Greek ships slowly backed their oars. The Persians took the bait. With Phoenician ships on the right, nearest to Xerxes, and Ionians on the left, the fleet surged forward.

What happened during the battle of Salamis?

It didn’t take them long to realise that things were going badly wrong. As their ships moved further into the confined channel, they began to collide with each other and all formation and order was lost. The Persian oarsmen became tired, and matters were made worse by a heavy swell that caused their ships to heave in the choppy water, exposing their vulnerable sides and hulls. It was the moment that Themistocles had been waiting for. He gave the order and the Greeks attacked. Pulling hard on their oars, they steered their vessels into the confused mass of Persian ships. Timbers splintered and oars shattered, as the bronze rams attached to the prows of the Greek ships hit home, and the first line of Persian ships was pushed back onto those following them.

One Greek trireme under the command of Ameinias, an Athenian from the village of Pallene, made straight for the flagship of the Phoenician fleet, a huge vessel commanded by Xerxes’ brother, Ariabignes. As the two ships came together, Ariabignes led a boarding party against the Athenian ship, but as he jumped down onto its deck he was skewered by a spear and tossed overboard. Left leaderless, the Phoenician squadrons fell apart, and as the Greeks drove a wedge into the heart of the Persian fleet, effectively cutting it in two, many of their ships turned and fled as best they could. Seated high up on his throne, Xerxes watched events unfold with growing anger. When a group of Phoenicians appeared before him after the battle and tried to lay the blame for their defeat on other contingents, he had them beheaded on the spot.

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Meanwhile, one of Xerxes’ vassals, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, was in command of her own ship in the front line of the Persian fleet. With an Athenian trireme bearing down on her, she decided discretion was the better part of valour and made her escape. When she found her way blocked by another Persian ship, she simply rammed it, sending it to the bottom of the sea along with all those on board. Thinking that she had changed sides, the Greeks let her go. Xerxes was also taken in by Artemisia’s actions. Unable to believe that she would actually sink one of his own ships, he concluded that the vessel she’d rammed must have been a Greek one. Seeing this as the only bright moment on a day of disaster, he’s said to have shouted: “My men have turned into women today, and my women become men.”

Xerxes had one more humiliation to suffer before the day was done. Before ordering his fleet to attack, he had posted four hundred of his best troops, including three of his own nephews, on the little island of Psyttaleia at the mouth of the Bay of Eleusis. His plan was that they should hunt down and slaughter any Greeks who were shipwrecked on its shores, but following the defeat of the Persian fleet, the hunters became the hunted. Greek slingers, archers and heavily armed hoplites swarmed ashore and killed the remainder of the enemy’s fleet to a man.

By the end of the day, the Persians were in full retreat. Pursued by the victorious Greeks, they fell back to their anchorage having lost more than 200 ships captured or sunk. The Greeks had lost just 40. The spectacle that had been so eagerly anticipated by Xerxes had turned into nothing less than a horror show.

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Illustration of Despite being outnumbered, the Greeks gained vital supremacy at sea over the Persians at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC

What happened after the battle of Salamis?

Concerned that other parts of his sprawling empire might rise up in rebellion when they heard the news of his defeat at Salamis, Xerxes took the remains of his fleet back to Asia Minor, leaving his army to winter in northern Greece. The following August, it was defeated by a Greek army led by the Spartan general Pausanias, and on the same day the rest of the Persian fleet was destroyed as it lay beached on the shore at Mycale in Asia Minor. Although nobody knew it at the time, mainland Greece would never again be threatened by the forces of Persia.

In 470 BC, Themistocles was ostracised by the Athenians who thought that he was becoming too powerful. He’d also been promoting an anti-Spartan policy, which led to conflict with those who thought that co-operation with Sparta was the way forward. Themistocles moved to the Peloponnesian town of Argos, but was accused by the Spartans of collaborating with the Persians. He ended up at the Persian court and spent his final years advising the new king, Artaxerxes I, on how to fight the Greeks.

What does the oracle have to do with the battle of Salamis?

Although ancient Greece was a male dominated world, its most powerful voice actually belonged to a woman. Known as the Pythia or Oracle, she was the priestess at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and for centuries the women who held that position would be consulted for predictions before major undertakings. These predictions could range from the clear-cut to the extremely ambiguous. When the Athenians consulted the Oracle about the forthcoming Persian invasion, she was initially pessimistic to say then least: “Fools, why sit you here? Fly to the ends of the Earth…”

But when they consulted her a second time,  she was less straightforward, saying that only a “wooden wall” would stand against the enemy and that “Divine Salamis” would be the ruin of many a mother’s son. What did she mean?

In the debates that followed, some suggested that the ‘wooden wall’ was a reference to the palisade around the Acropolis in Athens, and the Oracle was telling them to avoid Salamis and defend their city. Themistocles, on the other hand, claimed that the ‘wall of wood’ was the Greek navy and that the mothers’ sons in question were Persian, not Greek. And he was right.

Julian Humphrys is a historian and battlefields expert

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This content first appeared in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed