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Battle of Salamis

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of Salamis was a naval battle between the Greek city-states and Persia, fought in September, 480 BC off Salamis, a small island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens, Greece.

Background

Battle of Salamis
ConflictPersian Wars
DateSeptember, 480 BC
PlaceOff of Salamis, Greece
ResultGreek victory
Combatants
Greek city-statesPersia
Commanders
Eurybiades of Sparta
Themistocles of Athens
Adeimantus of Corinth
Aristides of Athens
Xerxes I
Ariamenes
Strength
371 ships1207 ships
Casualties
UnknownUnknown
The Athenians had fled to Salamis after the
Battle of Thermopylae in August, 480 BC, while the Persians occupied and burned their city. The Greek fleet joined them there in August after the indecisive Battle of Artemisium. The Spartans wanted to return to the Peloponnese, seal off the Isthmus of Corinth with a wall, and prevent the Persians from defeating them on land, but the Athenian commander Themistocles persuaded them to remain at Salamis, arguing that a wall across the Isthmus was pointless as long as the Persian army could be transported and supplied by the Persian navy. His argument depended on a particular interpretation of the oracle at Delphi, which, presumably thinking the Persians would be victorious, prophesized that Salamis would "bring death to women's sons," but also that the Greeks would be saved by a wooden wall. Themistocles interpreted the wooden wall as the fleet of ships, and argued that Salamis would bring death to the Persians, not the Greeks.

Preparations

The Greeks had 371 triremes and penteconters (smaller fifty-oared ships), under the overall command of Themistocles, but much of the actual fighting was handled by the Spartan Eurybiades. There were 180 ships from Athens, 40 from Corinth, 30 from Aegina, 20 from Chalcis, 20 from Megara, 16 from Sparta, 15 from Sicyon, 10 from Epidaurus, 7 from Eretria, 7 from Ambracia, 5 from Troezen, 4 from Naxos, 3 from Leucas, 3 from Hermione, 2 from Styra, 2 from Cythnus, 2 from Ceos, 2 from Melos, one from Siphnus, one from Seriphus, and one from Croton.

The much larger Persian fleet consisted of 1207 ships, although their original invasion force consisted of many more ships that had since been lost due to storms in the Aegean Sea and at Artemisium. The Persians, led by Xerxes I, decided to meet the Athenian fleet off the coast of Salamis Island, and were so confident of their victory that Xerxes set up a throne on the shore to watch the battle and record the names of commanders who performed particularly well.

Eurybiades and the Spartans continued to argue with Themistocles about the necessity of fighting at Salamis. They still wanted to fight the battle closer to Corinth, so that they could retreat to the mainland in case of a defeat, or withdraw completely and let the Persians attack them by land. Themistocles convinced him to fight at Salamis, as the Persian fleet would be able to continually supply their army no matter how many defensive walls Eurybiades built. During the debate, Themistocles sent an informer, a slave named Sicinnus, to Xerxes to make the Persian king believe that the Greeks had in fact not been able to agree on a location for battle, and would be retreating during the night. Xerxes believed Sicinnus and had his fleet blockade the exits of the gulf, which also served to block any of the Spartans if they were still planning to escape. Artemisia, the queen of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor and an ally of Xerxes, supposedly tried to convince him to wait for the Greeks to surrender, as a battle in the straits of Salamis would be deadly to the large Persian ships, but Xerxes and his chief advisor Mardonius pressed for an attack. Throughout the night the Persian ships searched the gulf for the Greek retreat, while the in fact Greeks remained on their ships, asleep. During the night Aristides, formerly an opponent of Themistocles, arrived to report that Themistocles' plan had worked, and he allied with the Athenian commander to strengthen the Greek force.

The Battle

The next morning (possibly September 28, but the exact date is unknown), the Persians were exhausted from searching for the Greeks all night, but they sailed in to the straits anyway to attack the Greek fleet. The Corinthian ships under Adeimantus immediately retreated, drawing the Persians further into the straits after them; although the Athenians later felt this was due to cowardice, the Corinthians had most likely been instructed to feign a retreat by Themistocles. Nevertheless none of the other Greek ships dared to attack, until one Greek trireme quickly rammed the lead Persian ship. At this, the rest of the Greeks joined the attack.

As at Artemisium, the much larger Persian fleet could not manoeuvre in the gulf, and a smaller contingent of Athenian and Aeginan triremes flanked the Persian navy. The Persians tried to turn back, but a strong wind sprang up and trapped them; those that were able to turn around were also trapped by the rest of the Persian fleet that had jammed the strait. The Greek and Persian ships rammed each other and something similar to a land battle ensued. Both sides had marines on their ships (the Greeks with fully armed hoplites), and arrows and javelins also flew across the narrow strait. The chief Persian admiral Ariamenes rammed Themistocles' ship, but in the hand-to-hand combat that followed Ariamenes was killed by a Greek foot soldier.

Only about 100 of the heavier Persian triremes could fit into the gulf at a time, and each successive wave was disabled or destroyed by the lighter Greek triremes. At least 200 Persian ships were sunk, including one by Artemisia, who apparently switched sides in the middle of the battle to avoid being captured and ransomed by the Athenians. Aristides also took another small contingent of ships and recaptured Psyttaleia, a nearby island that the Persians had occupied a few days earlier. According to Herodotus, the Persians suffered many more casualties than the Greeks because the Persians did not know how to swim; one of the Persian casualties was a brother of Xerxes. Those Persians who survived and ended up on shore were killed by the Greeks who found them.

Aftermath

The victory of the Greeks marked the turning point in the Persian Wars. Xerxes and most of his army retreated to the Hellespont, where Xerxes wanted to march his army back over the bridge of ships he had created before the Greeks arrived to destroy it (although they had in fact decided not to do this). Xerxes returned to Persia, leaving Mardonius and a small force to attempt to control the conquered areas of Greece. Mardonius recaptured Athens, but the Greek city-states joined together once more to fight him at the simultaneous battles of Plataea and Mycale in 479 BC.

The Athenian playwright Aeschylus, who participated in the battle, wrote a play about it in 472 BC (The Persians).

Sources