- James Houser
480 BC - The Battle of Salamis
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
SEPTEMBER 23. 480 BC. Leonidas and his 300 are dead. Athens is gone, destroyed by the Persians, and King Xerxes has made his throne atop its sacred mount. All of Greece lies open to the eastern invader, and the only thing that stands in their way is a galley fleet – and even they are outnumbered two to one. This is not just a battle for Greece, but for the survival of the West. Welcome to Salamis: the crucible of history, the most important battle in human history.
I’ve discussed the leadup to Salamis in previous posts about the Battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. If you’ve already read them, on we go.
The Persians had attempted their first invasion of Greece in 490 BC under King Darius I, and it was this force that had been defeated by the hoplites of Athens in the famous battle of Marathon. The Greeks knew, however, that the Persians would return. Darius was not prepared to let their impudence go without a fight, and began planning a much larger invasion force after the defeat at Marathon. After his death in 486 BC, the planning fell to his son Xerxes, who continued his father’s work of assembling a massive army and fleet, as well as preparing an invasion strategy to finally show the Greeks who ruled the world.
These invasion plans were not quiet, and it was increasingly obvious to the Greek cities that they needed to prepare for the greatest invasion they had ever seen. Two cities in particular knew that due to past provocations, they would be in Persia’s crosshairs: Athens and Sparta. Athens was particularly worried. While Sparta was inland in the hilly country of the Peloponnese and had a famously large army, Athens was directly in the path of the Persian invasion by both land and sea. Not a military power of any kind, the leaders of Athens struggled to come up with a way to defend themselves – surrender was not an option, and the Persians were obviously out for blood.
It was at this point in history that Athens found its savior. Themistocles was a man of the people, a popular candidate in Athens who frightened the old oligarchs. Unusually in Athenian politics, he made his career as a lawyer for the commoners, which earned him fame as an orator and a persuader within Athens’ new democracy. Soon after the Battle of Marathon, Themistocles had become one of the most prominent politicians in Athens, rivaled only by the noble Aristides. Plutarch, a Roman historian, claims that they became such bitter enemies because of jealousy over a mutual young man they were both trying to woo, but that’s Ancient Greece for ya.
Themistocles had one overriding principle to his platform: sea power. Even before the Battle of Marathon, Themistocles had seen the rising power of Persia and reasoned that Athens’ only defense would be a powerful navy. Under his guidance, the Athenians began constructing the great port of Piraeus and began to build up their navy. After Marathon, this impulse only grew larger; the Persians had come by sea, and must be defeated by sea.
Themistocles was opposed by Aristides, though, for ideological and political reasons. Aristides, as a member of the old nobility, was part of the “hoplite class” – the upper class of Greek cities who fought as warriors in the phalanx. Aristides therefore favored a powerful army, and resisted wasting money on ships. Themistocles promoted the navy not only because he saw it as Athens’ salvation, but also for political reasons of his own. Any navy would have to be manned by the common citizens as rowers, which would place military power into the hands of the average Athenians, who formed Themistocles’ power base. In this case, military strategy was not just a matter of practical necessity, but also a matter of political principle – who held the power in Athens?
In 483 BC, as the dark cloud of Persian invasion loomed ever larger, the situation came to a head. The Athenian miners found a massive new stream of silver that gave them a temporary cash boon, and the citizens of Athens met to determine how it should be spent. Aristides declared that it should be split between the citizens of Athens; Themistocles, on the other hand, believed that it should be used to build a great navy to prepare for the Persian attack. After much political intrigue, Aristides was forced into political exile, and Athens began constructing their navy of 200 triremes – and not a moment too soon.
By 481 BC, the Persians had sent emissaries to every city in Greece demanding submission – except for Athens and Sparta, who would not even be given the chance to surrender. Many Greek cities did side with Persia, but those that did not convened in a conference and agreed to cooperate against the Persian invasion. The Spartans claimed command of the land forces – they always commanded combined Greek armies – and King Leonidas was appointed to lead the army when the time came. Though Themistocles lobbied for command of the fleet, other cities feared the rise of Athens and this was shot down; instead, the Spartan Eurybiades was given nominal command. Everyone knew, however, that Themistocles was *actually* in charge of the combined Greek fleet. He achieved this through sheer force of personality.
Themistocles is one of history’s truly great leaders, and this is mainly due to a singular ability: he not only knew the solution to the problem, but was able to convince other people that he had the solution, and as we all know those are not easy skills to possess. Massively ambitious, probably corrupt, and jealous of rivals, he was naturally brilliant and a truly magnetic leader. He was a man who grew stronger, not weaker, in a crisis. Themistocles possessed great subterfuge and cunning in addition to charisma, and these qualities combined to make him both a talented politician and a devious military leader. Greece could not have asked for a better man in their darkest hour.
It was Themistocles who proposed the initial Greek plan to stop the Persians. In north-central Greece, there was a geographic region where both the land and the sea narrowed into a pair of strategic chokepoints: the mountain pass of Thermopylae and the Strait of Artemisium. If Leonidas could hold the pass and Themistocles (um, I mean Eurybiades, sure) could block the strait with the navy, then maybe Xerxes’ army could be held off until winter, which would force it to retreat.
We all know it didn’t work out that way. When Xerxes’ colossal force did come piling down the coast of Greece, he came with a huge fleet of almost 700 ships. Eurybiades and Themistocles had led a scratch Greek force of 270 ships to Artemisium. Eurybiades wanted to retreat, but Themistocles (being Themistocles) took a large bribe from the local Greeks to stay and fight, and used part of this bribe to turn right around and bribe Eurybiades to stay and fight. From this point on, Themistocles was basically in charge of the combined Greek fleet.
The Greeks fought the Persians to a stalemate over three days. On the land, though, the Greeks were not so lucky. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans were overrun and killed at the Hot Gates while the rest of the Greek army escaped. With Thermopylae lost, the defense of Artemisium was now moot, and Themistocles ordered the fleet to withdraw.
When Themistocles returned to Athens, the city was in an uproar. With the fall of Thermopylae, the Persians were on their way, and it was clear that the city was indefensible. A recent event gave even more fuel to their fear. Athens had sent representatives to the Oracle at Delphi, asking for guidance in their darkest hour. The Oracle had commanded them to flee the city, that Ares was advancing towards Athens with fire and destruction, black blood would run down the rooftops, and the gods would sweat and shake. After this terrifying proclamation, the Oracle offered a glimmer of hope:
“Though all else within Attica’s border shall be taken
Even the secret places on divine Mount Kithairon,
Far-sighted Zeus will grant to Athena a wooden wall.
It alone shall come through uncaptured: good fortune for you and your
But do not wait for the host of foot and horse coming overland!
Do not remain still! Turn your back and retreat.
Someday you will yet oppose them.
O divine Salamis, you will destroy many women’s children
When Demeter is scattered or gathered in.”
When Themistocles heard this prophecy, he saw that it could be taken one of two ways. There was a wooden wall that stood atop the Acropolis of Athens, encircling the Temple of Athena; some Athenians took this to mean that they should flee Athens entirely, not looking back, and that the Gods would use the wooden wall only to protect their own temples.
Themistocles found another interpretation. He declared that the Wooden Wall was not the palisade, but the triremes. “Demeter scattered or gathered in” was a reference to the harvest, which was approaching; this meant that autumn would be the critical season for the war. It was Athens’ navy that would form her wooden wall. Athens should man her ships, not to flee, but to fight. And thanks to the prophecy (or his own intuition) he knew where the fight would have to be. It would be at Salamis.
With the Persians approaching, there was no time to lose. Every man, woman, and child was evacuated from the city; Athens was a people, not a place. Most of them were deposited on the craggy island of Salamis, just west of Athens, where the Allied fleet had assembled for its own protection. Themistocles also ordered that every Athenian man who could hold an oar would row. He recognized now that Athens was on the very brink of being wiped out as a city and as a people. To save his city, he not only had to persuade his allies; he would have to persuade his enemies.
First, Themistocles convinced the other cities’ squadrons that the straits of Salamis would be the best place to fight the Persians. With Xerxes’ army nearly on their doorstep, many wanted to flee and defend their own cities, but Themistocles pointed to the stalemate at Artemisium to argue that “battle in close conditions works to our advantage.” Through his persuasion, the Greek fleet remained at Salamis. The Athenian navy only made up half of the ships; others came from Sparta, Corinth, Megara, Aegina, and dozens of other cities. Some tiny towns only sent one ship. But they listened to the wily Athenian, and hoped he could deliver them.
Xerxes’ army was soon at Athens, and in a fury of vengeance for past defeats the Persians totally destroyed the city. The Athenians watched from Salamis as their homes, shops and temples were systematically destroyed by the invaders. Soon Xerxes ordered a throne built on nearby Mount Aigaleo, from which he could watch the battle that was about to come.
Xerxes did not *have* to fight at Salamis. At some point after capturing Athens, he held a council of war with his top generals and admirals to decide what to do next. The overall Persian strategy of 480 BC had been to overwhelm Greece with a massive, rapid invasion and complete the conquest in a single year. The Greeks, on the other hand, had sought to use restrictive terrain to make the most of their limited numbers and delay the Persians as long as possible. The simple fact was that the massive Persian invasion force could not be supported over the winter, and this placed a time crunch on their invasion. The battles at Thermopylae and Artemisium had delayed them, and Xerxes was already getting antsy. Being on the fringes of the empire for too long was bad for a Persian monarch; revolts tended to happen that way. So Xerxes was looking for a quick and clean solution to the problem posed by the continued Greek resistance.
Themistocles knew this, because he had an unlikely source in the King’s camp: his old rival Aristides, who may have hated his foe but was still loyal to Athens. With his intelligence, Themistocles used a devious mix of psychological warfare and deception. He sent a messenger to Xerxes, claiming that he was actually on the King’s side, that there was infighting in the Greek camp, and that some of the fleet was planning to escape that night; if the King attacked soon, Themistocles would switch sides in the middle of the battle. Themistocles also begged for mercy, just for good measure.
Of course, this was just what Xerxes wanted to hear, and he didn’t listen to the counsel of his advisors – especially Queen Artemisia of Hallicarnassus, who advocated a more indirect, long-term strategy. Instead, Xerxes sent his fleet haring into the straits of Salamis – just as Themistocles wanted.
With this coup in hand, Themistocles turned around and went to the Allied fleet to tell them that they’d better not try and run away, because they had to stand together or die. When they asked why, he basically said “Because I just told the Persian King that I was defecting and that you were trying to escape, so now you have to fight whether you want to or not.” After the cries of “You did WHAT” were over, the Greeks accepted the inevitable. They would fight – or they would die. The Persians (and Themistocles) had left them no other choice.
The crucible of history burned as the sun rose over the straits of Salamis. Reinforcements had brought the Persian force to a staggering 1,000 ships, with the Greeks mustering only 370 to face them – but the Greek ships were larger and heavier than the light and nimble Persian ships, and better built for ramming. Xerxes sent 200 of his ships around to the other side of Salamis to prevent the Greek “escape,” but the remainder of the ships rowed into the strait. Just as the Persians approached, Aristides rejoined the fleet with news that Xerxes had taken the bait. A grateful Themistocles gave his old rival command of the Athenian infantry. After delivering a speech to the Athenians, reminding them that they were fighting for their city, their liberty, and their families, the Athenians boarded their galleys and sailed to war. Their women and children looked on from the shores of Salamis as the men rowed off to defend their land.
For all that buildup, our sources are extremely sketchy on the actual course of the Battle of Salamis. No one on the ships would have had a view of the whole battlefield, so the battle falls to the usual problems of witnesses – everyone saw something different. What is clear is that the Persians charged into the strait, but their greater numbers became bunched up and their line fell into disarray. Seeing the Persian formation fall apart, the Greek ships charged forward at ramming speed. Greek triremes generally had a large iron ram on the front, which could either sink an enemy ship or disable it by shearing off the oars. Both sides also had armed infantry on board their ships. The Greeks not only had an advantage in their larger ships with their rams, but also in that their infantry were fully armed and armored hoplites rather than the light Persian bowmen.
As the Greeks plowed into the first line of Persian ships, the invaders were pushed back into their second and third lines; one of the commanders, Ariabignes (brother of Xerxes) was killed and his squadron fell into confusion. Queen Artemisia, leading her own squadron, managed to recover his body after a heroic feat of arms, causing Xerxes to remark “My men have become women, and my women men.” Either way, the Persian fleet fell into confusion, and in its attempts to flee only lost more and more ships. Xerxes, watching from Mount Aigaleo, witnessed the whole disaster. He would harshly punish those admirals who fled, but this would not change the course of events. The Persian fleet was dealt a crippling blow by the end of the day at Salamis.
Although Xerxes remained in Athens for a few days and gave the impression that he would renew the battle, he was really planning his retreat. Salamis had wrecked the Persian navy. They had lost between 200 and 300 ships, including most of their best fighting vessels; more importantly, the clock was ticking, the campaign season was ending, and winter was coming. Xerxes had to fear that not only would the Greeks destroy the rest of his fleet, but they might also destroy the boat bridge back in the Hellespont that was his only route back to Asia. Xerxes declared “mission accomplished” (Hey I burned Athens and killed the Spartan King, so I got my vengeance right?) and sailed back to Persia with half his army, leaving the other half to finish the job. This army would eventually be destroyed next year at Plataea, but the outcome was no longer in doubt.
The Battle of Salamis was the turning point of the Persian invasion of Greece. It was possibly the turning point in all European history, the moment when the very fragile light of Greek city culture, philosophy, and civilization could have been snuffed out in an instant. J.F.C. Fuller wrote that Salamis “stands like the pillar of the temple of the ages supporting the architecture of western history.” Without Salamis, there may have been no Aristotle or Plato, no Alexander, no Aeschylus or Homer, no democracy, no glory that was Greece. And from Greece flowed Rome, and from Rome, Europe. Salamis did not just save Europe, it made Europe possible. The foundation of all modern Western political belief, philosophy, and science could have died on the shores of Salamis with the cold, scared, hungry population of Athens in 480 BC.
The world would be an unimaginably different place if not for Themistocles’ bold gamble at Salamis. It may literally be the most important battle in history.