Ancient history

Battle of Salamis

The battle of Salamis is a naval battle which opposed in 480 BC. AD the Greek fleet led by Eurybiades and Themistocles to the Persian fleet of Xerxes I.

The situation on the eve of the battle and Themistocles' strategy

The Greek fleet is at anchor at Artemision when the Battle of Thermopylae begins. She must also repel an assault by Xerxes' fleet during a very indecisive battle where several dozen ships are lost. Also the Greek leaders unanimously decide to leave the Artemision, especially since Leonidas is dead and the land army of the united Greek cities is withdrawing towards the south. In the night, surreptitiously, the fleet led by Eurybiades takes the Euboea Canal and sails south.

The situation for the Greeks is not encouraging, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily. The defeat of Thermopylae, the submission of Boeotia, the capture of Athens sow discouragement in people's minds. Cleombrote I, brother of Leonidas and king of the Spartans, thinks only of protecting the Peloponnese by building a wall towards the Isthmus of Corinth. As for the fleet, it moved to Salamis at the request of Themistocles. This plan, to hold the Isthmus of Corinth and the Gulf of Salamis, implies the total abandonment of Attica, which also explains the capture of Athens, abandoned by its inhabitants on the advice of Themistocles.

Themistocles has a precise plan which he imposes against the advice of Eurybiades. It is a question of fighting in the narrow bay of Salamis because he is convinced, rightly, that the Persians will not be able to undertake the maneuver of encirclement by the wings sketched out at the Artemision. Moreover, he is convinced that in this narrow pass the enemy ships will interfere with each other and will be as many prey for a boarding or a ramming by the solid Greek triremes. Finally he is convinced that by cutting the Persian army from its fleet it will turn around. He says the following, reported by Plutarch:

“You will never be able to stop the flow of this immense army on earth. What is needed is to cut him off by destroying his transport fleet. Reduced to starvation, she will have no choice but to turn back. This is your only chance of salvation. »

Eurybiades prefers to defend another, more cautious point of view. Now that the Greek fleet has ensured the evacuation of Attica, it is necessary to return to the proximity of the land forces in order to undertake combined actions. This point of view is shared by the Corinthians, the second fleet of the coalition. Themistocles however receives the support of Aegina and Megara, it is true directly threatened in the event of withdrawal on the Isthmus of Corinth of the Greek fleet. It was then that Themistocles, according to Plutarch and Herodotus, used trickery and sent a message to Xerxes, through the intermediary of a Greek probably originating from Ionia named Sicinnos, informing him of the desire to flee of a part of the Greek generals by the western pass of the still free bay of Eleusis. This maneuver, we would say disinformation today, works fully and part of the Persian fleet ends the encirclement of the Greeks while the islet of Psyttalia is occupied by a detachment with the objective of collecting the Persian crews and finishing off the Greeks when the battle breaks out.


How many troops were involved in the Battle of Salamis? Difficult to answer precisely.

* For the Greek forces we can consider that the figure of 350/380 triremes is credible, which represents almost the entire Greek fleet. In addition to the ships of Athens, more than half of the fleet, we have 40 ships from Corinth, about thirty from Aegina, between 15 and 20 for cities like Megara, Sicyon,... the rest being negligible.

* It is for the numbers of the fleet of Xerxes that it is more difficult to decide. Ancient historians, such as Herodotus, Diodorus of Sicily or the Panegyric of Athens by Isocrates give the figure of 1200 ships. These figures are fanciful and do not seem to take into account the losses suffered during the storms and during the battle of Artemision. In addition, it must be considered that the Persian fleet must ensure the supply of the army, guard the neuralgic points (straits, depots, etc.). We must probably admit a figure of 500 to 600 ships at least, which allows Xerxes to keep the numerical superiority and to compensate for the inferiority in combat of his troops.

Weapons Vigil

While the Persian fleet ends the encirclement of the island of Salamis in the night, the Greek generals are still procrastinating. However, Aristides arrives from Aegina, having managed to get through the Persian blockade, and informs Eurybiades and Themistocles that the blockade is total and that the fleet has little choice left. From now on, all possibility of retreat being cut off, you have to fight. Themistocles' ruse has just succeeded. The tactic used is simple. The narrowness of the strait means that only the first lines of ships will fight, which annihilates the numerical superiority of the Persians. Previous land battles have shown that the combat value of the Greeks as well as the armament are superior, which in the case of boarding enemy ships is an advantage. Finally the Persian crews, in fact especially Phoenicians or Ionians, will be tired because having traveled an average distance of about ten kilometers for some from their anchorages in Phaleron.

Two imperatives are imposed on the Greeks. First of all settle slightly below the strait so that the Persian mass settles in the bottleneck, but also do not retreat too much so that the Persian ships cannot take advantage of their numerical superiority. It is also necessary to avoid a Persian landing at Salamis where a large number of Athenians have taken refuge, protected by a detachment of hoplites commanded by Aristide.

The Persians are also preparing for battle with in particular this incredible installation of the throne of Xerxes on the slopes of Mount Aegalee which dominates the strait. Shortly before dawn on September 29, 480, Xerxes installed himself on his throne with his ministers and officers, his secretaries responsible for noting brilliant actions and faults to be punished, and his guard of Immortals. At the same time the fleet moves into position. On the right are the Phoenicians of the fleets of Tyre, Sidon led by the Persian generals Megabazus and Prexaspes. In the center the battle corps is led by Achaemenes, half-brother of Xerxes, who holds the role of Grand Admiral and directs more precisely the fleets of Cilicia and Lycia. Finally on the left wing are the fleets of Ionia, Pontus and Caria led by an Achaemenid prince, Ariabignes and where Artemis I, queen of Halicarnassus, is fighting, the only one who dared to tell Xerxes, a few days before, that 'it was better to avoid the fight.

The battle

Right from the start, the Persians make a mistake described by Diodorus of Sicily as follows:

"The Persian ships kept their rank as long as they sailed out to sea, but on entering the channel they were obliged to draw some of their ships out of line, which caused great confusion. »

The Persians make a mistake out of overconfidence and are disorganized from the start of the battle. It was then that the Greek fleet appeared and, without breaking its lines, descended on the Persian ships. There remains a point on which historians are still in disagreement, and that is to know what was the axis of the two lines of ships at the time of the impact. For some it is assumed that the Greek fleet is backed by the island of Salamis and that the Persian fleet is aligned more or less parallel to the shore of Attica. For others, on the contrary, the Greek fleet completely bars the strait, which then gives a battle axis perpendicular to the axis of the strait. This second hypothesis seems to be the most commonly accepted at the present time. In any case, whatever the alignment of the fleets at the start of the battle, the main action takes place in the strangulation of the Strait of Salamis and in the two channels provided by the islet of Psyttalie between Salamis and the 'Attica.

The Greek right wing, led by Eurybiades, and made up of Lacedaemonian, Corinthian and Aeginetan ships, flinched at the start and retreated temporarily, under the probable boos of the civilians massed on the shores of the island of Salamis. Themistocles directs the rest of the fleet, namely in the center the fleets of Megara, Chalcis and Athenian ships, and especially on the left wing a homogeneous fleet of about 120 Athenian triremes. Facing them stand their old adversaries, the Phoenicians.

Herodotus recounts the outbreak of this battle as follows:

“The Athenian Aminias of Pallene, sailing outside the line, struck a Persian vessel and could not extricate himself; the rest of the fleet coming to his assistance, the melee began. But, on the other hand, the Aeginetans claim that it was the ship sent to Aegina which started the fight. »

This rivalry of glory is the translation of an ancient conflict between the two cities but also the translation of a proven fact:Athenians and Aegineti were the most ardent of the Greeks during the battle. It should not be believed, moreover, that bravery is on the side of the Athenians and their allies alone. The presence of Xerxes I who watches over the battle, his severity in the repression of cowards or incompetents, the rivalries between Greeks, make the Greeks of Ionia serve the Persians very loyally and fight fiercely. Sailors from Samos like Theomestor or like Phylacos, the son of Histiae, sink Greek ships and will later receive many rewards from Xerxes. It takes all the skill of the sailors of Aegina to contain the assault of the ships of Ariabignès.

However, the fighting spirit of the Greeks of Ionia, or the Phoenicians against Themistocles on the left wing, was not enough to counterbalance the initial error that had been the disorder introduced into their lines before the attack. The jostling, the panic lead many Persian ships to present the side instead of the bow which in a fight at the spur is prohibitive especially against the Greeks who manage to hold their alignment. The Athenians apply a particularly effective sawing maneuver - a thrust forward then retreat to gain momentum and move forward without deviating from the axis of attack - which sows devastation in the Phoenician ranks. /P>

The battle is already engaged when a sea breeze rises - according to Plutarch - which does not bother the Greek ships whose superstructures are low but clearly disadvantages the Phoenician ships in particular whose stern is high and the deck is raised. If it is implausible that Themistocles waited for this breeze to approach the Persian fleet, especially since he had no choice of the time of the engagement, it is on the other hand very possible that he waited this propitious moment to engage its reserves which, with the help of the breeze, complete the confusion in the opposing ranks.

The disaster proves irremediable when during the fight the fleet of Xerxes loses one of its admiral commanders Ariabignès, the brother of the Great King, killed by a javelin while boarding a Greek trireme. His body is fished out by Queen Artemis of Halicarnassus who will take it to Xerxes. This woman, who had advised against the battle, realizes that all is lost. But she is full of resources, if not scruples, and does not hesitate to free herself from sinking the ship of Damasithymos, king of Calynda (in Lycia). Most surprisingly, she received praise from Xerxes for this feat of arms because in the confusion it appeared that she had just sunk an enemy ship. It is unlikely that many Calydians survived to accuse him. It is about this episode that Xerxes is credited with the famous phrase:

“My men became women and my women became men. »

On the evening of the battle

The rescue-who-can becomes general but the problem is to be able to get out of the trap that constitutes the tangle of ships in the narrow neck of Salamis to reach the anchorage of Phaleron. The reflux of the Persian boats took place in the most complete disorder at the end of the day, the battle having lasted about twelve hours. Aristide, at the head of a detachment of hoplites, lands on the islet of Psyttalia and annihilates the troops that Xerxes had installed the previous night. As for Xerxes himself, he must have left his observatory rather quickly because the Athenians seized his throne in the evening, which many years later was proudly shown to pilgrims in the Parthenon.

However Themistocles does not wish to pursue the Persian fleet on the high seas because despite the disaster it probably retains its numerical superiority. It seems that the Greeks do not immediately understand the scope of their victory and that they expect a new assault the next day. The Persian fleet is unable to do so, demoralized by this disaster. The crews took refuge in Phaleron under the protection of the army while the Egyptian ships which had bypassed the island of Salamis from the south to block the western entrance to the strait also returned unmolested. In the evening, silence returns to the place of this battle, as Aeschylus writes in Les Perses:

"A moan mingled with sobs reigns alone over the open sea until the hour when the dark-faced night comes to stop everything. »

During this battle, the Persians lost at least 200 triremes, not counting those that fell into the hands of the victors, and the Greeks about forty...

The aftermath of Salamis

The situation after the bitter defeat of Salamis is not however hopeless for the Persians. Their army is intact except for the small troops massacred on the islet of Psyttalia by Aristide's hoplites. The Persian fleet remains, despite its losses, superior in tonnage and the immense resources of the empire can allow the construction of many ships while for the Greeks, the destruction of the Attica shipyards is an irreplaceable loss. This is why the attitude of Xerxes I after the battle raises many questions and this from Antiquity where we speak of the pusillanimity of the Great King. Indeed, leaving the command of his army to Mardonios, his brother-in-law, the one who already led the expedition of 492, Xerxes abandoned his troops to return to his capitals Susa and Persepolis.

In this he follows the advice of Mardonios and Queen Artemis I of Halicarnassus, namely to leave a large army in Greece, Herodotus speaks of 300,000 men which is undoubtedly excessive, who will winter in mainland Greece, then attack the Peloponnese in spring. As for Xerxes, his presence is no longer useful, since his main objective is achieved, namely the destruction of Athens. This presentation of the facts allows the Persian king to keep up appearances and not return to his empire defeated. Xerxes crosses the Hellespont in the last days of the year 480 not without difficulty because the Thracians, enraged by the requisitions of the summer, launch numerous raids on the Persian troops.

As for the winners, they are surprised by the inaction of the Persians and do not seem to understand at first the extent of their success. When it appears that the Persians are retreating, Themistocles in the euphoria of victory proposes to cut off the road to Asia from Xerxes by crossing the Aegean. But Aristide and Eurybiades object caution. Moreover the Greeks lost more than 40 ships at Salamis and cannot replace them as quickly as their adversaries. Finally, sending the entire fleet so far from Greece while the refugees from Athens are still on the island of Salamis and the Greek coasts are unprotected is quite risky. The season finally becomes dangerous for navigation. For Aristide, a possible defeat of Athens would play into Sparta's hands, especially since Sparta is in the process of finishing the wall which bars the isthmus of the Peloponnese and therefore no longer feels the Persian threat with the same acuity.

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