The Battle of Salamis
As part of their assessable work, my senior students were asked to look at Herodotus, Plutarch and Aeschylus’ accounts of the Battle of Salamis.
After some careful source work, detecting bias, exaggeration and other historiographical questions, they were asked to write a written account of the battle.
Find below one of the responses.
The Battle of Salamis
In 480 BC an advancing Persian force, the dominant power in Asia Minor at the time, led by the King Xerxes had taken most of Greece and was intent on conquering the entire country. The Greek forces, combined in what was known as the Hellenes, had decided to evacuate lost settlements, the now capital of Athens was even abandoned, and stage a last stand with approximately 370 triremes in the Saronic Gulf. The exact numbers of the Persian fleet is hard to decipher but the writer Plutarch claims “Xerxes, as I know well, had one thousand ships,” his Greek origin and hence his bias towards the Greek’s action would have made him exaggerate the facts. However it is impossible to maintain an exact perspective of the numbers.
The Persian’s had moved to block the exits from the gulf whilst the Greek’s waited in an inlet off the shore of Salamis. The two forces stayed positioned out of direct contact and eyesight for what is thought to be at least a week, the Persians were hesitant to proceed into shallow water when the exact position of the enemy was unknown.
The leader of the Hellenes, an Athenian statesman Themistocles had decided on both the location and had expressed the need for the battle to be a naval force, ordering prior to the invasion increased building of triremes. His opinion was held in high esteem among the Greeks “The Greek captains kept a watchful eye on Themistocles, because they felt that he saw most clearly what were the right tactics to follow”¹ (Plutarch, Themistocles) Plutarch’s observations display the reverence that was given to Themistocles. This is exceedingly notable, as the Greek’s were normally a highly segregated culture with many different sects disagreeing. Most notably the Spartans who constantly valued their military skills over all others. They believed that they were the perfect race and displayed particular disdain towards Athenians naval prowess. Themistocles understood the importance of stopping the naval force of the Persians as it supplied and aided the massive land army that was moving through Greece. By cutting of the supply route, the Persian force would be weakened and more able to be defeated.
This being said the Persian force greatly outnumbered the Greeks and with this vast upper hand and the success in previous campaigns brought a large confidence when facing an opposition of this size. Xerxes expected to win easily and being so confident in this fact he ordered for his throne to be placed nearby so he could watch the battle and the Historian Herodotus expressed this “Xerxes watched the course of the battle form the base of Mt Aegaleos, across the strait from Salamis”. This quote also highlights the confidence of the King as Herodotus continues in describing that Xerxes took the names of those who did significantly well in the battle for rewards, suggesting he deemed the battle was an assured victory.
Close to a week had passed and the Persians finally entered the strait, although the reason is uncertain many sources suggest that Themistocles lured in the Persians with false claims of surrender. By making the Persian’s enter the small strait the upper hand was instantly given to the Greeks, who with smaller numbers could easily manoeuvre through the confined space whilst the Persian’s huge force became bottled up in the small area. Even causing severe damage to their own ships, stated in a dramatic work by Aeschylus “Our ships were jammed in the hundreds; none could help another. They rammed each other with their prows of bronze; and some were stripped of every oar.” And is highlighted as a strong factor in the Hellenes victory. The strategic knowledge of the Athenians is suggested as the strong part of the victory as Themistocles is given great commendation on his decisions in Plutarch’s account “He was careful not to let the triremes engage the barbarian ships head on, until the time of day when the wind usually blows fresh from the sea and sends a heavy swell rolling through the narrows.” This suggesting that by controlling his forces strictly Themistocles was able to deliver an important blow at a strategically significant time in the battle. The large ships of the Persian navy were also affected far worse by the weather allowing for the wind to toss them about and the Hellenes to attack at the flanks of the ships and the battle became extremely one sided quite fast with the large numbers becoming a hindrance rather than an advantage.
The battle was fought hard by both sides, with the Herodotus noting the valour of the Persian’s “None the less they fought well that day” going on to say “Every man did his best for fear of Xerxes” to take note that this was stated by a Greek suggests that the Persians fought a very tough battle but also highlights the opinion that Xerxes treated his forces with a very harsh disciplinary manner. The worst befell the Persian force when as realisation of the defeat began to become known to the captains of the most advanced ships began to flee they turned and were caught by the advancing mass of their own ships that were desperate to prove their worth to Xerxes. The chaos caused by this meant many ships were felled by their fellow soldiers and it is claimed excessive casualties was caused by the inability of the Persians to swim. Herodotus’ account states “There were also Greek casualties, but not many; for most the Greeks could swim, and those who lost their ships, provided they were not killed in the actual fighting, swam over to Salamis. Most of the Enemy, on the other hand, being unable to swim, were drowned.”
All these factors accentuated the Hellenes far superior naval power and shaped the outcome of the battle. Only few of the Persian vessels gained notable success in the historical accounts and these included Artemisia, Theomester and Phylacus (the latter two Samians). Artemisia is suggested to have gained a high standing with Xerxes through this battle and Herodotus claims it was by either mistakenly or deliberately ramming one of Persia’s own vessels making it appear that she had sunk an enemy.
Finally the Persians were routed and the Athenians gave chase, destroying any vessel that gave resistance or tried to escape whilst the Aeginetans caught any who managed to escape the Athenians, causing a panic in the Persian ranks as it seemed there was no sanctuary.
The victory was of great importance as it not only halted the Persian invasion but eventually weakened the Persian Empire, signalling its eventual downfall and allowed Athens to enter what is referred to as its golden age. This proved monumental in the creation of our current civilisation and its theologies as the western cultures rise can be attributed to this turning point in ancient history.
1 Themistocles, Plutarch
2 Histories, Herodotus
 The Persians, Aeschylus
 Themistocles, Plutarch
 The Histories, HerodotusThe
 The Histories, Herodotus