The situation for Greece was dire. Ten years before, they had beaten the odds and driven the Persians out of Greece at the Battle of Marathon. In 480 BCE, the Persians came back, and this time their army was ten times the size it was before. The Greeks were outnumbered by huge margins and had little hope for victory. Nevertheless, many of the city-states banded together and decided to give whatever resistance they could.
Then came the Battle of Thermopylae, and the simultaneous naval battle of Artemisium. The former was technically a defeat, and the latter was inconclusive. What they proved was that the Greeks were better soldiers on both land and sea. They weren’t sure if they could beat the Persians, but they knew they would inflict huge casualties on the Persians. The Battle of Salamis proved once and for all the skill of the Greek navy.
Prelude to the Battle of Salamis
In early 480 BC, King Xerxes’ massive army was ready to invade Greece. The Persian force was unlike any army that had come before. Hundreds of thousands of men made the journey across the ocean on ships or across the two immense pontoon bridges constructed across the Hellespont — a feat of engineering of which only the Persians were capable.
The Greeks decided to make a stand at the pass of Thermopylae, and with a relatively small force of a few thousand men, defended the pass for two full days before succumbing to the Persians on the third. To protect the land forces at Thermopylae, the Greek navy kept the Persian navy occupied in a series of engagements around Cape Artemisium. After the Persian victory at Thermopylae, however, it was prudent for the Greek navy to break off the attack and sail back to the port of Piraeus where they could help evacuate Athens. Although the Battle of Artemisium had seen the Persians lose 400 ships and the Greeks only 100, the Persian fleet was still powerful and held a massive superiority in numbers.
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The Greek navy was a conglomeration of ships from many city-states. Chief among them were the Athenians with 180 ships and then the Corinthians with 40 ships. The Greek historian Herodotus claims there were a total of 378 ships in this alliance, but his list adds up to 371. By contrast, the Persian fleet numbered 1 207 ships at the beginning of the campaign by Herodotus’ count. This number appears as early in the historical record as 472 BCE, and is supported by many ancient historians. While modern historians tend to accept this figure, some suggest a more conservative estimate of between 600 and 800 triremes.
In addition to the losses at Artemisium, the Persians lost many triremes to storms. It is difficult to determine how many went into battle against the Greeks at Salamis, but it can be safely assumed that the Persians held a very comfortable numerical superiority.
To protect the mainland from the oncoming Persians, it was decided that the Greek navy should take a position across the Strait of Salamis. The Corinthian general Adeimantus argued in favor of blockading the strait, but having learned the lessons at Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Athenian commander, Themistocles, argued in favor of deploying further back. His planned to lure the Persians into a narrow area where their numbers would work against them. This idea won out, and the Greeks prepared to put their plan in motion.
When the Persians were near, Themistocles sent out a messenger named Sicinnus to inform Xerxes that animosity within the Greek ranks was threatening to break the fleet apart and that the Peloponnesians were preparing to sail home. Themistocles added that he would rather see the Persians rule all of Greece and was willing to surrender. All the Persians needed to do was block the entrances to the straits. Knowing that Xerxes would not pass up the opportunity to crush the Greek fleet, this bluff was designed to lure the Persians into the narrow strait.
Meanwhile, Xerxes had set up his throne atop Mount Aigaleo overlooking the strait, and watched as the battle unfolded.
The Fleets Engage
Herodotus claims the Greek fleet stretched north-south across the strait. It is likely the fleet was formed in two lines. Little is known about the exact dispositions of the fleets and the battle itself, and the accounts of Herodotus are debated by modern scholars. As such, the events of the battle are educated suppositions rather than hard facts.
At dawn, the Persians sailed into the strait and began the attack while the Athenians had just made ready to receive them. Herodotus states that at this point, the Corinthian contingent sailed northwards. It is suggested by modern analysis that this maneuver was done for two possible reasons. Firstly, the Greeks needed to reconnoitre the other end of the strait to make sure the Egyptian contingent of the Persian fleet that was sent to block it wasn’t attempting to sail north to outflank the Greek fleet. Secondly, it gave the impression that the Corinthians were fleeing and served to goad the Persians into attacking. As the Persians attacked, the Corinthians rejoined the rest of the Greek fleet.
True to expectations, the Persian numbers worked against them, and the fleet became disorganized. The Greeks pulled back slowly, drawing the Persians in further until one Greek ship shot forward and rammed the nearest Persian ship. At this point, the rest of the Greek line followed suit and plowed into the oncoming Persians.
What happened next was chaotic. Rams smashed into the hulls of enemy triremes, while the marines on boats that were locked together fought vicious battles on the wooden decks. Across the battlefront, Persian ships pushed the Greeks back but were then ensnared by the loose second and third lines of Persian ships as they struggled to maintain what little cohesion they had.
The Greeks pushed the Phoenician squadrons back towards the shore, where many of the ships ran aground. Meanwhile, in the center, a Greek wedge drove through the Persian lines, splitting the Persian fleet in two. To add to their woes, the Persians lost one of their admirals, Ariabignes, who was a brother of Xerxes. Killed in a boarding action, he left a large portion of the fleet leaderless.
As the chaos spread fleetwide among the Persians and the losses began to mount, they turned to flee. Persian ships sailed back to the port at Phalerum near Athens but were ambushed by the Aeginetan contingent of the Greek fleet, and even more losses were inflicted.
The Aftermath of the Battle of Salamis
Like the records of the battle, the records of casualties are the realm of educated guesswork. Herodotus does not mention the exact casualties, but he states that after the battle, the Persian fleet numbered 300. It is assumed thus, that the Persians lost between 200 and 300 ships, while the Greeks lost only 40 ships.
In terms of human life, there are no exact numbers, nor any modern reckoning that isn’t subject to many unknown factors. Herodotus claims the Persians lost far more than the Greeks due to the fact that the Persians couldn’t swim.
Immediately after the defeat, Xerxes considered building a pontoon bridge across the strait, but the presence of the Greek navy patrols made this impossible. It was clear that the Greeks now held the upper hand in the seas around Greece, and thus the Persians would struggle to support the ground army. Fearing that the Greeks would try to destroy the pontoon bridge across the Hellespont (which was the bridge by which land armies could invade Europe), Xerxes resigned himself to the need to retreat and regroup in Ionia.
He left, in Greece, a large army commanded by his General Mardonius with which the conquest of Greece was to be achieved. This sizable force was far larger than any force the Greeks could muster. Yet, in one battle, it was eliminated near the town of Plataea.
Soon after, the Greeks caught the rest of the Persian fleet at Mycale, off the coast of Ionia, and struck another blow.
Battle of Salamis: Conclusion
The Battle of Salamis was the turning point in the Second Greco-Persian War. It gave the Greeks an ascendant position at sea and as a result, greatly reduced the Persian numbers that could be supported on land.
Like the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon, the Battle of Salamis is well-known in that it was a symbol of defiance against immense odds. Many historians cite the Battle of Salamis as being one of the most important battles in history, as it decided the fate of ancient Greece. It is argued that had the Persians won, the trajectory of European history would have been very different. This view is, however, subject to much debate. There are many historians who would argue that the role of Greece in European history is overstated.
Whatever the significance the battle represents to modern existence, what is very clear is that to the ancient Greeks, it was an incredible feat of defiance and resilience in the face of incredible odds. Like Thermopylae, Artemisium, and Marathon, the Greeks showed discipline, skill, and dogged determination that were uncommon, especially for a hodge-podge of city-states united only by a common enemy.