Throughout human history, conflicts have been fought for land, resources, plunder, religion and for power. It is an unfortunate reality that war has often been the greatest driver of history and decisions made and actions taken in the midst of conflict all too often shape the course of the future. The purpose of this series is to shine a spotlight not on certain conflicts that have determined the course of history, but on specific instances where the outcome of a single battle has defined the future not just for those directly involved, but for greater mankind.
For this first article, I have chosen to give an account and analysis of what is perhaps one of the more obvious cases of a battle that shaped history. It was a defining moment, in which an alliance of Greek cities stood against the might of the world’s first superpower, the Persian Empire.
The year was 480 BC and it was the Battle of Salamis.
The conflict during which the battle was fought, the Second Persian invasion of Greece, had its roots in the first invasion ten years earlier. In that war, a Persian army, sent by King Darius I to punish Athens for its role in the Ionian Revolt, was decisively defeated by an outnumbered Athenian force at the Battle of Marathon. The second invasion, led by King Xerxes (Darius’ son), was a direct response to this failure. Darius himself had been planning the campaign but had died before it could be put into action. Ten years after Marathon, Xerxes was finally ready to finish what his father had started.
To ensure that the invasion was successful, Xerxes mustered an army of colossal proportions. The exact number of troops has been debated almost since the time of the invasion itself, largely as a result of the incredible figures provided by the ancient sources. According to Herodotus, the main source for the Greco-Persian wars, the Persian army numbered around 1.8 million men. This land force was accompanied by a massive navy of 1,200 warships (triremes) and a further 3,000 transport and supply ships. Understandably, modern historians have treated these figures with a great deal of scepticism, if not outright rejection. Modern estimates tend to be based on knowledge of Persian military systems, the logistical capabilities of said systems, the terrain of Greece itself (particularly the availability of fresh water in the form of rivers) and the supplies available to the army along its line of march. Although universal agreement will never be achieved, the general consensus is that Xerxes’ land army numbered around 100,000-250,000 men. In any case, this was a force of incredible proportions.
The size of the Persian fleet is the subject of far less debate, primarily due to the fact that there is an unusual amount of consensus among ancient sources. Herodotus gave 1,200 warships. Diodorus also claims 1,200, as does Lysias. Aeschylus, who actually fought at Salamis, claimed he faced 1,207 Persian warships there. Others, such as Ctesias and Plato, refer to 1,000 ships and more. In light of this consistency, most modern historians accept that the Persian fleet probably numbered around 1,000-1,200 warships, possibly the largest fleet the world had ever seen at the time.
In response to this gathering storm, the Greeks had not been idle. They were aware of Darius’, and later Xerxes’, preparations during the 480s. Athens, in particular, had been making its own preparations for the coming war. When a massive vein of silver was uncovered in the mines at Laurium in 483, Themistocles, one of the leading Athenian politicians and generals at the time, recommended that the silver be used to fund a massive shipbuilding program.
Famously, Themistocles, determining that the Persian threat was still years away and thus was unlikely to be convincing, argued that the proposed fleet could be used to finally end Athens’ long-running war with Aegina. He made no mention of Persia at all. The motion was passed, easily, and 100 triremes were slated for construction. Later, when the Persian threat became clear, this number was expanded beyond even what Themistocles had envisioned.
However, with Athens dedicating most of its manpower to the manning of its new fleet, they did not have the strength to fight the Persians on land. This responsibility was left to an alliance of Greek city-states. Sparta, legendary for the quality of its soldiers and the dominant city in the Peloponnese, quickly emerged as the unofficial leader of this coalition. However, the alliance did not form a standing, combined army to oppose the Persians. Since almost all Greek city-states relied on citizen-soldiers to form the bulk of their armies, the cities would muster their hosts when and if the need arose.
In the spring of 480 BC, Xerxes’ giant army used a massive pontoon bridge to cross the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles) and began the overland march towards Greece. Meanwhile, the fleet shadowed the route of the army off the coast.
When all of Thessaly submitted to the Persians, Themistocles proposed a strategy to block the Persian advance. To enter southern Greece, the Persian army would have to travel through the narrow pass at Thermopylae. Themistocles proposed that a Greek force block this pass. The terrain at Thermopylae was ideally suited for the Greek phalanx, as the narrowness of the pass would nullify the overwhelming Persian numerical advantage. However, the Persian fleet could still bypass Thermopylae and land troops behind the Greeks, so a Greek fleet would occupy the straits of Artemisium, just off the coast. This dual strategy was agreed upon by the alliance.
However, when it became clear that Xerxes was advancing towards Thermopylae, the Greek world was in the middle of the sacred truce period that accompanied the Olympic Games. To make matters worse, it was also the Spartan festival of Carneia. To make war in either period was sacrilegious. Nonetheless, the Spartans considered the Persian threat so grave that King Leonidas, accompanied by his personal bodyguard of 300 men, was sent to occupy the pass at Thermopylae. Leonidas was joined along his march north by contingents from Peloponnesian allies as well as from other cities further north. By the time it arrived at Thermopylae, this force numbered around 7,000 men. Meanwhile, the Greek fleet that blocked the straits of Artemisium numbered 280 warships, including 127 Athenian triremes. While the Athenians had initially requested to led the fleet, nominal command was given to the Spartan Eurydiades in order to preserve unity. In practice, though, Themistocles had effective command of the fleet.
In August 480, the Persian army arrived at Thermopylae. After three days of inaction, they attempted to force the pass. Simultaneously, the Persian fleet arrived off Artemisium. Upon their arrival, the Persians dispatched a large naval contingent (up to 200 ships) to sail around the island of Euboea, in order to cut of the Greek fleet’s line of retreat. Most of these ships were wrecked in a storm.
Just as the Spartans and their allies contested the pass for three days, so to did the Greek fleet defend the straits. When the Greek force at Thermopylae was destroyed, the reason for the Greek fleet’s presence in the straits no longer existed and three days of battle had taken its toll. In dire need of repair, the fleet retreated from Artemisium to the island of Salamis.
The Persian victory at Thermopylae resulted in Boeotia and then Attica falling to the invaders. In Boeotia, Xerxes made a point of razing two cities that had resisted him to the ground. Meanwhile, the Greek fleet evacuated the population of Athens to the island of Salamis. Athens fell to the Persians a few days later and the city was put to the torch.
Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies had retreated to the Isthmus of Corinth, where they began the construction of a wall across its width. This was, in effect, an attempt to recreate the conditions that had proven so advantageous at Thermopylae. The Isthmus created a natural bottleneck that, defended by a substantial Greek force, could be held almost indefinitely. Provided, that is, that the Persian fleet was not able to bypass the defences and land troops to the rear. This became the heart of the challenge facing both the Greeks and the Persians.
Xerxes had learned from the experience at Thermopylae that dislodging a few thousand Greeks from an easily defensible position was enormously costly, let alone trying to oust a force numbering in the tens of thousands. Thus the Persian fleet became to the key to the success of his invasion and that meant that the Greek navy would have to be destroyed. Conversely, Themistocles reckoned that if the Greek fleet could avoid destruction or, even better, could destroy or cripple the Persian fleet, a Persian conquest could be averted. Both sides, therefore, were intent on a decisive engagement that would, in effect, decide the outcome of the war.
In September of 480 BC, Themistocles had under his command at Salamis the largest Greek fleet ever assembled until that point. Still, the ancient sources differ as to exactly how many vessels were present. Herodotus gives us 371 warships, including 180 Athenian vessels. Aeschylus gives 310 ships, with the difference being the number of Athenian ships.
Modern historians generally accept Herodotus’ numbers. Almost all of the warships in the fleet were of the trireme type. These were oared vessels with three banks of rowers on each side (trireme literally means ‘three rower’).
The primary weapon of the ship was a bronze ram at the prow, at or just below the water line, designed to breach the hull of an enemy ship or render it immobile by shearing off the oars on one side. If the vessel was unable to manoeuvre or build enough speed to ram, the ship’s complement of marines would initiate a boarding action, effectively turning the fight into a land battle for control of an enemy ship.
On Greek triremes, these marines tended to be fully equipped hoplites, the standard Greek heavy infantry, while on Persian vessels it is generally assumed that marines would be light infantry (as the Persians had no tradition of heavy infantry). If it came to a boarding action, the Greeks had a clear advantage.
As seems to be the norm, the size of the Persian fleet at Salamis is the subject of more debate than their Greek counterparts. Herodotus reckons that the Persians had lost a third of their original 1,200 vessels to storms and in battle, but that these losses had been fully replaced. Aeschylus, the veteran of Salamis, believed that he faced the full Persian fleet of 1,207 warships in battle. Most modern historians are willing, due to the general consensus among ancient sources, to accept the number of 1,200 for the Persian fleet at the outset of the war, but are generally unwilling to accept that same number for the battle of Salamis. Most estimate a more (relatively) modest but no less formidable 600-800 Persian warships were present at Salamis. This would take into account the losses to storms and combat action as well as the general attrition that occurs on campaign. In any case, the Greeks at Salamis were heavily outnumbered.
Themistocles realised that, if the Greeks were to achieve a decisive victory, they would need to choose a battlefield that would nullify the Persian advantage in numbers. Following the same strategy as had been used at Thermopylae, Artemisium and that the Greek army was preparing at the Isthmus of Corinth, he identified the straits of Salamis as an ideal location for the final battle. They were much narrower than at Artemisium, providing even more of an advantage than the Greek had enjoyed there.
Understandably, the Persians preferred the open water, where they were able to manoeuvre and use their numbers to full effect. The straits of Salamis was just about the last place that they would want to engage the Greek fleet. The Persians knew it and Themistocles knew it. He knew they would not enter the straits unless they had a proper incentive. If they had no such incentive, they would be content to simply block both ends of the straits, bottling up the Greek fleet, a situation that was particularly problematic for the Greeks due to the fact that the Persians had enough ships to block the straits and transport troops around the Isthmus at the same time. Thus, Themistocles needed to find a way to lure the Persians into a fight within the narrow confines of the straits.
How Themistocles achieved this appears to be a supremely successful example of disinformation. According to Herodotus, the night before the battle took place, Themistocles sent a secret message to Xerxes. In it, he proclaimed that he was “on the King’s side and prefers that your affairs prevail, not the Hellenes”. Further, he also claimed that the leaders of the Greek fleet were fighting amongst themselves, the Peloponnesians were planning to abandon their allies that same night and that all that was required for a Persian victory was for them to block the straits.
Evidently, this was exactly the kind of news that Xerxes wanted to hear. It now seemed that he had an opportunity to utterly destroy the Greek fleet, which would be massively weakened by the apparent defection of the Athenians. As for Themistocles’ recommendation of simply blocking the straits, Xerxes was having none of that. His great armada would sail into the straits and annihilate the divided Greek fleet. Most historians agree that this was probably the outcome Themistocles was trying to achieve by his subterfuge. He clearly had no intention of submitting to Xerxes and something must have convinced the Persians that it was a good idea to enter the straits.
The same night Xerxes received the message, the Persian fleet moved into position, deploying in three lines across the entrance to the straits. The Great King himself had a throne set up on the slopes of Mount Aigaleo, overlooking the straits, so that he could watch the upcoming battle. The Persians had taken the bait.
Meanwhile, the Greeks were able to spend the night preparing for battle. Early the next morning, the fleet deployed in two ranks and awaited the Persians as they entered the straits.
As soon as it entered the crowded straits, the Persian fleet became disorganised and cramped. To make matters worse, it was now apparent that the Greek fleet was not disintegrating as they had expected. Indeed, they now found the Greeks deployed in orderly ranks, ready to attack. However, as the Persians approached, the Greeks seemed to back their vessels away. Plutarch records that, while the fleet backed water, a single trireme broke ranks and charged, ramming the nearest Persian ship. It was at the moment that the entire Greek fleet followed suit and sailed straight at the chaotic Persian line.
Details about the course of the battle from then on are somewhat unclear. It seems that the first Persian line was pushed back by the Greeks, creating further chaos as they collided with the approaching second and third lines. Given how cramped the straits would have become at this point, it seems unlikely that ships of either side would have been able to manoeuvre well enough to effect a ramming action. Therefore, it seems more likely that much of the battle was fought in ferocious boarding actions, where the Greeks held an advantage. One Persian admiral, Ariabignes, who was also the brother of Xerxes himself, was killed during one such action early in the battle. As a result, the Phoenician contingent of the Persian fleet was pushed back against the coast, with many of their ships running aground.
Eventually, the entirety of the Persian fleet began to retreat, pursued vengefully by the Greeks. The Persians returned to safety in the harbour at Phalerum. Their losses had been massive. Although the ancient sources do not give any exact numbers, modern historians believe that, based on the estimated size of the Persian fleet at the outset of the battle, losses of 200-300 triremes would appear reasonable, especially since Herodotus records that at the Battle of Mycale the next year, the Persian fleet numbered only 300 ships. To put that in perspective, a trireme had a crew of around 200 men. At the high-end of the estimated losses, that would mean the Persians lost around 60,000 men in less than a single day’s fighting. In contrast, the Greeks are believed to have lost only around 40 ships.
Understandably, watching from high on his throne, Xerxes would not have been a happy man.
How it shaped history
So, now we must ask how this unexpected Greek triumph shaped the course of history. In the immediate sense, the battle decisively altered the course of the war, as Themistocles had hoped.
Fearing that that victorious Greek fleet might now sail north to threaten his pontoon (the only means of transporting his host back to Asia Minor) across the Hellespont, Xerxes withdrew with the bulk of his massive army. He did not abandon the war completely. Indeed, he left his most able general, Mardonius, in command of a much reduced but still formidable force of hand-picked troops. This army was decisively defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea a year later, effectively ending the war. However, if the Persians had triumphed at Salamis, the Greeks would not have even had the opportunity to test their full might against the Persian horde. With the Greek fleet destroyed, Xerxes would have bypassed the defences at the Isthmus of Corinth. This would have effectively ended the war in his favour. Given how he had treated the Boeotian cities that had defied him at Thermopylae (razing two of them to the ground) as well as the torching of Athens, it would be reasonable to expect that he would visit a similar fate upon the Peloponnesians. The Spartans, in particular, would likely have suffered at Persian hands.
In order to reveal how the battle of Salamis shaped the course of history, one need only look at the legacy that Ancient Greece has left us. Things such as Western philosophy, science, mathematics, the concept of citizenship and, most importantly of all, democracy all have their roots in Ancient Greece. Most of the Greek developments in these fields occurred after the end of the war. Whilst it is a matter of debate as to whether the basis of Western civilisation is rooted in Ancient Greece (as there are many other influences), there is no doubt at all that the legacy of the Greeks has been hugely influential in the development of that civilisation. Thus, it can be said that the Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis shaped the course of history.