The Battle of Salamis

  September 30, 2009 at 10:19 am by

The Battle of Salamis took place in September of 480 BC: the exact date is unknown (although presumed to be some time between September 20-30) but the great implications it had are easy to trace.

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The Battle was fought between the Persian Empire and the Alliance of Greek cities. It followed the Battles of Thermopylae (the Battle of 300 Spartans) and the Battle of Artemisium, where the Persian side was victorious, although they suffered disproportionally heavy losses. The Battle of Salamis was a turning point in the entire course of the Greek-Persian Wars: this victory, along with the next year’s victory at the Battle of Plataea, permanently halted any attempt by the Persian Empire to conquer any of the Greek city-states.

The Battle of Salamis is often considered one of the most significant battles in human history: had the Persian side been victorious, they would most likely succeed in their quest to conquer the entire Greek mainland. That would have halted the progress of the Ancient Greece, which, in turn, would have disastrous effects on the development of the European (western) civilization.

Herodotus places the Battle of Salamis soon after the Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, and immediately after the evacuation of Athens. The Allies had some time to make preparations because of the slow advance of the Persian army: Xerxes severely punished all those cities who had refused to submit to him, burning and destroying most of them, including Plataea and Thespiae. Once they reached Athens, they burned down many of the city’s temples, including the Temple of Athena; many historians and poets have described the “pain and anguish of the Athenians, forced to watch their beloved city engulfed in flamed”.

According to legend, when Alexander the Great captured Persepolis, the legendary capital of the Persian Empire, Athenian hetaerae Thais urged him to burn it down, to repay for burning of the Athens: “When Alexander had caught fire at her words .. many torches were gathered … Thais the hetaerae leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the King, to hurl her torch into the palace… It was remarkable that the … act of Xerxes against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it…” Thais would later become the wife of Ptolemy I Soter, King of Egypt.

Тhe Greek generals were divided in their strategy: Themistocles, the Athenian General and Politician, was for an offensive strategy, while most other generals favoured evacuating and waiting for a more convenient opportunity to attack the Persians. A brilliant diplomat and orator, Themistocles eventually managed to push though his plan and the Allied fleet remained off the coast of Salamis. There was no such division on the Persian: alone of his commanders, Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, advised Xerxes not to meet the Greeks at sea to do battle. On the other hand, Mardonius, Xerxes’s chief advisor, and all other generals were for attacking the Greek fleet and the King Xerxes preferred to listen to them. Still, they couldn’t agree as to when exactly attack the Greeks and Themistocles was afraid that if the Greeks were to be braced for a long wait, the other Generals would insist on complete evacuation. Therefore, he decided to use disinformation to make Xerxes take an early step; he sent a loyal servant to the King with a message, telling he was on Xerxes’s side, that the Allied command was too busy with in-fighting, that the Persians would be wise to block the Straits (which would make evacuation impossible) and that immediate attack would insure the Persian victory. That was precisely the kind of news Xerxes was waiting for; he ordered immediate attack and positioned his Throne on the slopes of a nearby mountain, to watch the battle and note his commanders who would perform particularly well.

The Greeks were heavily outnumbered but they had he moral advantage; the Allies knew they had no way back, that they were the “last line” and that if they were defeated, all the Greek states would be doomed. Another advantage that proved crucial for the outcome was the location of the battle: the narrow Straits were ideal for the small and quick Greek ships, while the huge Persian vessels, as well as their great numbers, were only a hindrance. Once the first line of the Persian ships was pushed back, a chaos ensued, with the Persians sinking their own ships from the second and third lines. Early on the battle, Ariabignes, Persian admiral and Xerxes’s brother, was killed, which left the fleet under his command (that is, the entire left flank of the Persian fleet) disorganised and leaderless. Athenians scored another major victory when several vessels managed to push through the centre of the Persian lines, dividing the fleet in two and making it easier to defeat. The Persians tried to retreat but were ambushed by the Aeginetans.

Xerxes was enraged to see the defeat of his fleet in what he had thought to be a certain and easy victory. One story recounts how he ordered to behead some of his captains for slander against “more noble men”, when they tried to blame the Ionians for “cowardice”: Xerxes had just witnessed a small Ionian ship capturing an Aeginetan vessel. Herodotus also recounts how Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, escaped the wrath of both the Allies and the Persians: when the Athenian ships were already on the point of capturing her trireme, Artemisia rapidly turned and sank a Persian vessel. That convinced the Athenians that she had “switched sides” and was fighting for the Allies, so they left her alone. Xerxes, on the other hand, saw how she sank a vessel but thought it to be an Allied ship, and bitter at the poor performance of his other commanders, exclaimed, “My men have become women, and my women men!”. It is not clear whether Artemisia did the sinking on purpose but it was certainly a stroke of luck: Xerxes honoured her above all his other generals, even sending her Ephesus to take care of his sons, while the Allies didn’t seek to punish either her, or Halicarnassus.

The Battle of Salamis was a crucial turning point in the Greco-Persian wars: the Persians suffered heavy losses and their reputation of an “undefeatable army” was ruined. After the Battle, Xerxes resolved to return to Persia, leaving Mardonius with 300,000 men to “crush” the Greeks: one of the main reasons for this decision was his fear that the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in the Greek mainland. Mardonius decided to avoid fighting the Greeks in a naval Battle; instead, he opted to lure them into open ground. The two sides eventually clashed the following year at the Battle of Plataea, with the naval Battle of Mycale taking place at the same time. The Greek’s decisive victory at both battles was all but final chapter in the Persian attempted invasion of the Greek states; from that time on, the Greeks were the offensive side, which culminated in Alexander the Great’s conquests.

This battle has earned its place in the same row of the other legendary Battles – Marathon, Thermopylae, Artemisium and Plataea, and so did the participants: Themistocles, for example, is often credited with the positive outcome of the battle, for if it weren’t for his ruse of disinformation, Xerxes wouldn’t have rushed into battle in unfavourable conditions. Along with Marathon and Plataea, the Battle of Salamis is often called one of the most significant battles in the entire course of human history; if the Persians prevailed, the European (western) civilization as we know it wouldn’t exist: western science, philosophy, democracy and society itself are rooted in the legacy and traditions of Ancient Greece.

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