The Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. – fought in the Strait of Salamis with triremes, oarsmen, and marines – changed the course of world history. Learn about the Persian Empire, Greek city states, ancient navies, the battle, and its outcome in today’s blog post.
King Xerxes & The Persian Empire Fleet
Xerxes I took the Persian throne in 486 B.C. after his father’s death. Revenge and desire for conquest burned in his mind; his father had been defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon four years earlier, and the new king wanted to teach the upstart rabble countries who was “world master.”
The Persian Achaemenid Empire centered in modern-day Iran and encompassed most of the Middle East, Egypt, and Turkey. It took several years for Xerxes to solidify his grip on his kingdom and plan a war expedition to conquer the Greek states.
The Persians traditionally fought on land, so they relied on their states – like the Phoenicians and Egyptians – to help with the naval aspect of the planned invasion. Xerxes assembled a huge army and navy, bridged the Hellespont, and marched into Greece. Greek Spartan warriors held the Persians temporarily at the fabled Battle of Thermopylae. Since the Battle of Salamis was a naval battle we’ll focus on those details – just know that Xerxes brought an army with him too.
The Persian Empire Navy (we’ll call it that since the Persians were involved, but also relied heavily on their ally states) used trireme battleships, designed with full decks and high sterns and bows which placed most of the vessel’s weight above water, making it top heavy in stormy weather. Each ship carried marines, oftentimes these were Persian warriors; at the Battle of Salamis, it seems like the Persians put about thirty marines on each ship.
Estimates and accounts of ancient battles are challenging, but one researcher estimated the Persian fleet had close to 700 triremes at the Battle of Salamis, which would mean 119,000 oarsmen and 21,000 marines could’ve been involved in the conflict.
Themistocles, Eurybiades, & The Greek Fleet
Themistocles was the not Greek admiral at Salamis; that honor belonged to the Spartan warrior, Eurybiades. However, Themistocles master-minded the Athenian navy and coaxed, tricked, plotted, and schemed to keep the Greek navy together and fight the battle at Salamis.
Greece wasn’t a united country. City-states bickered with each other, developed their own unique cultures and influences, honored different sets of values, and rarely agreed on anything. However, they managed to pull together a fleet to impede the Persian advance. Athens formed the “backbone” of the Greek fleet and had spent the last decade building ships owned by the “people” – afterall, Athens supported and fostered democratic ideas.
Estimates suggest that the Greeks had about 310 triremes at Salamis. They built their ships to ride lower in the water and may have been a little more maneuverable. There were approximately 52,700 oarsmen and 4,300 marines.
As the Persians advanced, the Greeks met their navy at an early battle or sea skirmish, which ultimately didn’t stop the Persians, but gave the fledgling cities’ fleet an opportunity to gain confidence. The Greeks pulled back to the bays in the island of Salamis and helped evacuate the civilian population from Athens; the Persians took that city and burned it. The Greek fleet threatened to break apart, each group wanting to run home and defend their own territory. Themistocles managed to keep them together, insisting it would be easier to defeat the Persians if the Greeks remained united.
Battle of Salamis
Shadowy history hints that Themistocles laid a trap for Xerxes’s navy at the end of September 480 B.C., sending a false message that part of the Greek fleet planned to escape leaving “frustrated” Themistocles willing to turn traitor. Whether or not this happened, the Greeks lured the Persians.
The Greeks either sailed part of the fleet into the Salamis Strait and pretended to flee or just tempted the Persians by lining up in the battle array. Either way, the Persians took the bait and entered the strait. Seated in magnificent splendor on a nearby mountain-side King Xerxes anticipated watching his fleet smash the Greeks. However…
The straits limited the maneuverability of the Persian Empire fleet and their ships broke formation, jostling together. The Greeks attacked – taking advantage of surprise; they weren’t running away! The close compaction of the Persian fleet offered plenty of targets and the front line ships couldn’t withdraw because the vessels behind them continued to press forward. Xerxes watched for hours as his fleet struggled in the straits. Changing tides may have caused trouble for the top-heavy Persian ships.
Finally, toward the end of the day, the Persians started retreating, but a Greek contingent had hidden in the rear of the Persian fleet and captured or wrecked the fleeing ships. Most of the Persian Empire oarsmen and marines couldn’t swim, making their casualty rates higher than the Greeks.
Estimates place Greek ship losses at forty ships while the Persian Empire lost around two hundred ships. Xerxes wasn’t a happy king…to say the least.
Clash of Ideas
The Battle of Salamis was not end of the Greek-Persian conflict, but it was significant turning point. Xerxes took his fleet and army and began to retreat. He would leave the army to fight longer, but turned his own attention to other conflicts and projects in his kingdom.
Ideas and armies clashed during the Greek-Persian wars, turning in Greek favor at Salamis. Persian ideals called for a strong king, ruling a multi-national empire and enforcing his will on conquered subjects. Greek ideas – particularly at Athens – supported democracy, which (in its perfect form) is rule by the people. With the Athenian navy established and victorious at Salamis, it allowed democracy’s advocates to begin building their own “empire” and ushered in the classical era of Greek history which fostered advancements or developments in philosophy, sciences, and literature.
The Battle of Salamis helped ensure the foundations of “western civilization.” Greek city-states would remain independent for now and would produce ideas that would influence the world for centuries to come. If the Greeks had lost Salamis, world history wouldn’t have been the same.
P.S. King Xerxes at Salamis is the same King Xerxes in the Book of Esther (in the Bible). Interesting, huh?