The Battle for Salamis
HNRS 2210: Blog Post 1
Josiah Oldham, Preston Hodson, Troy Esquibel and Nathan Blue
Introduction [Josiah Oldham]
As the first rays of sunlight crept over the horizon, the gulf seemed almost too peaceful. Each trireme rocked gently in the water, creaking as the waves lapped across their bows. Soldiers shifted in their armor as they adjusted their helmets or polished their weapons. The tiers of oarsmen below-decks waited nervously, prepared to row with all their strength at the first command. Commanders and subordinates alike, they all waited for the first sign of their mortal enemies.
At last, a call echoed throughout the Greek fleet as the first of the Persian ships appeared on its path towards the fleet. Followed by another, and another, yet another, they funneled past the island on both sides, each minute increasing their numbers, yet not their advantage. The lack of room to maneuver, the constricted waters, would be their downfall. A lone Greek ship sped forward, taking advantage of the confusion and ramming the closest enemy. The day-long conflict had begun.
This is the battle of Salamis, a great Greek naval victory, and the major turning point in the second Persian invasion of Greece.
Main Combatants [Preston Hodson]
The Battle of Salamis was one of the most important and decisive military victories for the Greek army during the Greek and Persian War. Themistokles, who had previously convinced the Athenians to invest a large amount of silver to improve their navy, was a key leader and strategist for the Greeks in this battle. After Themistokles had convinced Eurybiades, the Spartan leader of the allied forces and his soldiers to stand their ground and fight at Salamis, the Greeks were prepared to take on a far greater Persian fleet using an advanced strategy which involved luring the Persians into the strait where their larger, slower boats would not be able to maneuver rapidly which would leave them vulnerable to an attack from the smaller, swifter Greek fleet which was composed of triremes such as those illustrated in the following image. (Herodotus, 622-625)
The Persians, led by Xerxes I, on the other hand were more than confident in their ability to easily defeat the Greek feet and continue on to capture the Isthmus of Corinth. Xerxes himself was so confident that he set up a throne on the shore to be able to have an advantageous viewpoint of the battle. Artemisia of Halicarnassus, one of the fiercest war generals for the Persian side, and trusted adviser of King Xerxes, actually went against the common Persian opinion and counseled him to hold his position and not attack, stating that they had already accomplished what the y set out to do, and that they could claim victory much more efficiently by closing in on Peloponnese instead of engaging in direct naval combat with the Greeks. Unfortunately for the Persians, Xerxes decided not to heed the warnings of his adviser as Eurybiades had done, and this fatal mistake eventually led to a brutal loss for the Persians. (Herodotus, 627-629)
Other Combatants [Josiah Oldham]
In addition to the primary forces from Athens, Corinth and Aegina, the Greek allied forces consisted of small groups of ships from several city-states, including many of the Peloponnesian ones. Between the writings of Herodotus, Aeschylus and Thucydides, we infer and estimate forces from the following places: Megara, Sparta, Sicydon, Epidaurus, Eretria, Ambracia, Troezen, Naxos, Hermione, Leucas, Styra, Ceos and Cynthos.
The Persian fleet was nearly as diverse, containing triremes from several locations other than Phoenicia and Egypt. In addition to hundreds of home-built and allied vessels, the Persians utilized captured triremes from conquered cities as well as ships from sympathizers. These locations are Cyprus, Cicily, Ionia, Hellespontine, Cria, Aolia, Lycia, Pamphylia, Doria and Cyclades.
Now, while we are aware of the sources of the Greek and Persian armadas, scholars remain partially unsure of their numbers. Herodotus claims that the battle pitted 380 Greek ships against 1,207 Persian ships. This would place 200 ships each under the command of 6 Persian admirals- 1200 ships- plus one ship for each of those commanders- 6 ships- and one last ship from which Xerxes would watch the battle, for a total of 1,207. However, this is somewhat uncertain based on what we know about Persian activity and losses prior to the battle at Salamis. Scholarly evidence and research ranges from 500 ships, to 800 ships, to the 1,207 reported by Herodotus, Darius, Lysias and others. Overall, despite the wide range of possibilities for the size of the Persian navy, the Greek forces were severely outnumbered, making their tactical victory all the more impressive.
Casus Belli [Troy Esquibel]
The reasons and motives that existed prior to the battle of Salamis, are long and complex, so I will try to explain the situation as concisely and with as much brevity as possible. The tension first arose with the Athenian support of the Ionian Rebellion against Darius the 1st in 499 B.C. and was further exasperated by the execution of Persian ambassadors by Athens and Sparta in 491 B.C. After the death of King Darius, his successor, Xerxes, continued the battle against the Hellenes and rampaged his way from Thrace (modern-day Northeastern Greece), all the way through the Greek mainland and eventually into Athens. The reasons and motives for the Greek speaking world were clear; their language, culture, and political way of life were at risk of extinction by the encroaching Persian empire. The motives for the Greeks was not only personal survival, but cultural survival.
Location [Nathan Blue]
The battle of Salamis took place in the inside and around the Strait of Salamis outside of Athens. The straight is 1.73 miles long, and 1 mile across. While the Greek Allies had maneuverability with a small fleet, the larger numbers of the Persian fleet prevented them from navigating the waters during the battle as smoothly. Roughly only 600 ships total could get through the natural bottle neck, they had to come into the battle moving west. The Greek ships could be stationed facing the north along the coast, giving them the advantage hitting many ships from the side. The rising sun would have not been problematic for either fleet other than general low visibility at dawn, and with the battle ending at night, once again no issues for either side in particular. The battle would have to be fairly closely packed with the shores of either side of the straight being risky to row nearby.
The battle outside of Salamis might have been a different story. The Persians had a ground advantage should they have chosen to march on foot, and outside of the straight the Persians had at least the open ocean to take advantage of.
Strategy and Tactics [Troy Esquibel]
One of the most brilliant examples of pre-emptive strategy was the foresight of Themistocles to build a new naval fleet. Newfound silver mines in Attica presented a surplus of resources in Athens, and Themistocles persuade the citizenry that it would be in their best interest to build 200 triremes to better defend themselves against the imminent Persian retaliation. As the Athenians evacuated the city, and watched the Persians raze the city, the naval fleet held in wat, protected by the thin Isthmus of Salamis, waiting for the Persians to commit to a naval battle in the thin confines of the strait. “if you do as I advise, you will find many advantages: first, if we engage the enemy in a narrow strait with our few ships against their many, then, …we shall achieve a great victory; for fighting in a narrow strait is best for us, while fighting on the open sea is best for them” (Histories p.624). This proved fruitful, as the long, slender, battering ram style ships proved invaluable in their ability to outmaneuver and outperform the over encumbered Persian fleet in the strait of Salamis.
From the Persian perspective, they had already rampaged their way across the majority of the Greek world. Victory was at hand, and persuaded by his main advisor, Mardonios, Xerxes pressed for an unnecessary risk at Salamis rather than heading for the Peloponnese as suggested by his other advisor, Artemisia. “’My lord, it is right and just that I express my opinion, and what I think is best regarding your interests. Here is what I think you should do: spare your fleet; do not wage a battle at sea. For their men surpass yours in strength at sea” (Histories p.628). This could be the turning point in Western civilization. Had Xerxes pursued battle at the Peloponnese and came back to defeat the Greek naval forces at open sea, the course of world history could be entirely different.
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Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Andrea L. Purvis, Anchor Books. 2009.
Lendering, Jona. “Salamis.” www.livius.org/articles/battle/salamis-480-bce. Accessed September 20, 2016.
Google Earth Version 6.2. (4/12/2016) The Strait of Salamis. Lat 34.94N Lon 23.57E, 43539 ft. Places Layers. Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO http://www.google.com/earth/index/html (Accessed September 20, 2016)
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