Disastrous news reached the Athenians in early August 480 BC. King Leonidas, his 300 Spartan bodyguard and his Greek allies were dead – annihilated by the Great King Xerxes’ enormous army at the Pass of Thermopylae following days of resistance.
Similarly dismal news arrived about the war at sea. As the Battle of Thermopylae raged, a combined Greek fleet had been engaging Xerxes’ accompanying armada off Cape Artemisium in northern Euboea.
Despite initial success, the fleet had been forced to retreat south in the hope of holding the enemy fleet at a new location.
The only question was: where?
Retreat to the Isthmus
The Spartan-led land forces had already made their decision. They had resolved to fight at the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow entrance to the Peloponnese. There they would construct a defensive wall and fend off the Persian threat.
But such a course of action had consequences. Many Hellenic communities north of the Isthmus were now all-but sacrificed as the Persian force swept south into Boeotia. Not wanting to face certain oblivion, many city-states simply joined Xerxes as he progressed south.
But what about Athens? What about this city that had been the bane of King Darius I – the victors at Marathon a decade earlier. For the Athenians there would be little chance of mercy from this new Persian army.
What followed was a mass evacuation. Floods of Athenian refugees were shipped over to safe havens such as the islands of Salamis and Aegina, as well as Troezen further south.
A few citizens did stay behind, erecting a wooden wall on the central Acropolis in the hope of defying insurmountable odds and fending off the Persian assaults.
It failed. Having entered the city, the Persians laid siege to the central citadel and, although the resistance lasted many days, the Persians ultimately overwhelmed the defences. None were spared; the Acropolis was razed to the ground.
Where to fight
The Greek fleet watched on from Salamis as the Acropolis burned. They had assisted the city’s evacuation on their retreat from Artemisium.
Among its ranks were ships hailing from Hellenic city-states all across the Mediterranean: from Athens to Ambracia, from Chalcis in Euboea to Croton in southern Italy and from Sparta to the small Aegean island of Siphnos.
Of all these contingents, by far the biggest was that belonging to the Athenians – 110 triremes, manned by citizen rowers.
The admirals gathered to decide where the fleet should make their stand. Flight was a favoured option among many – head to the Isthmus and fight there. Yet Themistocles, head of the Athenian contingent, disagreed.
He encouraged them to stay rather than flee: to fight the decisive sea battle at Salamis.
In the end the assembly sided with Themistocles, no doubt aided by the latter’s threat that he and his Athenians would abandon their cause if they favoured flight.
Taking the bait
As the Persian armada closed in, parts of the Greek fleet panicked. Once more they considered flight.
Themistocles, wary of the danger, acted fast. He dispatched a trusted slave to sail across to the Persians and convince them that Themistocles intended to desert his brethren.
At the same time the slave relayed Themistocles’ warning that the Greek fleet was about to flee. If they wanted to achieve a crushing victory, they had to take the initiative. Attack now.
The Persians took the bait.
They sailed into position to the south of Salamis, determined to prevent any chance of a Greek retreat. Egyptian ships sailed around the island to block off the northern escape route.
It was only later that night that the Greeks discovered the extend of Persian movements. No longer could they contemplate escaping to fight another day. They were trapped; they now had no choice but to battle this mighty armada.
The Battle of Salamis
In the early morning of 22 September 480 BC, high above on the shoreline of Attica, King Xerxes watched as his fleet tightened the noose on the Greek ships.
We are told that the Persian fleet numbered around 1,000 ships – hailing from regions all across the eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, Phoenicia, Cilicia, Cyprus as well as the subjugated Greek city-states of Asia Minor.
Themistocles’ fleet was considerably smaller: c. 300 ships in total.
Eurybiades, the Spartan commander, officially led the force. Prominent commanders like Themistocles and Aristides provided invaluable support.
Ready for battle, the Greek fleet sailed out to combat the approaching Persian armada in the Salamis strait. To oppose the enemy Egyptian contingent to their north, Corinthian ships headed north to hold them off for as long as possible.
Clash of titans
The Persian fleet advanced into the narrow channel, but its large size soon caused confusion. This worked to the Greeks’ advantage, allowing them to form up in their battle lines before launching an attack against their disorganised foe.
The first ships clashed into each other on the left – the iconic, swift Athenian triremes leading the way. Soon the rest of the fleet joined the action. Making full use of their foe’s disorder, triremes were sent smashing into the ships of their foe, causing great damage.
Oars were shattered; carnage was total. Marines struggled amidst the melee to achieve victory.
It was not long before the larger Persian ships became locked – immovable in the narrows. Against those enemy vessels that they had been able to board their marines made progress.
Elsewhere the story was very different. As the Persian ships came to a halt, the swifter Greek triremes sailed around their sides and struck from all directions.
Surrounded and hemmed in, what followed was a massacre. Persian sailors stood no chance, speared by their foe either on their ships or in the water.
Further good news followed in the north. Despite being greatly-outnumbered, the Corinthians had held off the Egyptian contingents opposing them, preventing encirclement.
The Persians in flight
The Persians that could escape were now in full flight, but there would be little respite. The Aeginitans had broken through in the meantime on the right. Now, they turned to oppose any Persian ships trying to flee.
To complete the victory, the Greek ships surrounded the small island of Psyttaleia. Xerxes had placed a small Persian force on the island before the battle. Now these men watched on in horror as they saw their fleet destroyed and their enemy approaching in large numbers. Annihilation ensued.
The Battle of Salamis was a heroic success for the Greek fleet. Overall they lost 40 ships. The Persians meanwhile lost c. 200.
Following the battle, Xerxes retreated from central Greece. He spent the winter in Thessaly before he and a large part of his great army returned to Asia.
It is difficult to understate Salamis’ importance. The relentless Persian advance into the Greek mainland was repelled, ultimately leading to its complete defeat a year later at Plataea. The victory was vital, paving the way for the start of Greece’s golden age.
Athens would rise to become an ancient maritime superpower – maintaining its reputation as a prominent naval power for more than 150 years.