The battle of Salamis (23 or 24 September 480 BC) was the decisive battle of Xerxes's invasion of Greece, and was a major Greek naval victory that left the Persian army dangerously isolated in southern Greece. In the aftermath of the battle the Persians retreated back to Thessaly, and Xerxes returned home with most of the army leaving a sizable force to continue the campaign in the following year (Greco-Persian Wars).
Xerxes's father Darius had carried out two invasions of Greece, in order to punish Athens and Eretria for their support of the Ionian Revolt. The first, in 492 BC and led by his son in law Mardonius, had been wrecked by a storm off Mt Athos on the coast of Thrace. The second, in 490 BC, had ended in defeat at the battle of Marathon (12 September 490 BC). Darius died before he could carry out a third invasion.
Xerxes decided to continue with his father's campaign. He spent several years preparing for the expedition, having a canal dug to avoid the trip around Athos and building up a powerful fleet. Finally, in the spring of 480 BC Xerxes and his grand army left Sardis and began the long march around the Aegean coast.
The Greeks were split between those who wanted to resist, led by Athens and Sparta, and those who decided to come to terms with the Persians. Thrace had been in Persian hands for some time. Macedon had little choice other than to join the Persians. Thessaly originally chose to resist, but changed its minds after the Greeks had to abandon their first defensive position at the Vale of Tempe.
The Greek allies decided to make a stand at Thermopylae, at the southern end of Thessaly. Two battles were fought over the same three days. To the east the Greek fleets fought a costly but inconclusive battle at Artemisium, while on land King Leonidas of Sparta famously led the defence of Thermopylae. On the third day the Persians got behind the Greek position, leading to the famous last stand of the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians. By the end of the day the Spartans and Thespians had been wiped out.
The Persian victory at Thermopylae had three results. First, it exposed Phocis, Boeotia and Attica to the Persians. Phocis was looted by the passing Persians. Boeotia was left along as the Boeotians had decided to side with the invaders. Attica was sacked, and Athens was captured. A small force of Athenians, who had interpreted the famous prophecy about the city being saved by 'wooden walls', attempted to hold out on the Acropolis but were defeated.
Second, the Peloponnesians decided to try and defend the Isthmus of Corinth. The Peloponnesian armies began to dig in just to the north-east of Corinth, and showed no signs of any intention to move north and try and defend Attica.
Third, the Greek fleet retreated along the strait between Euboea and the mainland, and then put in at the island of Salamis, off the coast to the south-west of Athens. The Athenians requested this move, partly to cover the evacuation of Attica and partly to prevent the rest of the fleet from slipping away to the Peloponnese. This move was a success, and the rest of the Greek fleet moved up from a port on the north-eastern corner of the Peloponnese to join the survivors of the battle of Artemisium.
The Persian Fleet
According to Herodotus the Persians began the war with 1,207 triremes. They gained another 120 Thracian ships early in the campaign. Just before Artemiusum 400 warships were lost in a storm. Another 200 were lost in a storm during the battle, and at least 50 during it. However Herodotus then lists a number of Greek powers who provided reinforcements to the Persians as they advanced south, and records that the Persian force during the invasion of Attica was just as big as it had been at the start of the campaign.
The Persians had three main sources of ships. The most important was Phoenicia, home of famous maritime cities. Second were the various Greek areas under Persian rule, including Ionian, Cyprus and many Aegean Islands. This included a contingent of five ships under Queen Artemisia I of Halicarnassus. Finally there was a large continent from Egypt, commanded by Achaemenes, the brother of Xerxes I.
Most Ancient sources suggest that the Persian fleet at Salamis contained at least 1,000 ships. The modern consensus is that the true figure was lower, perhaps 600, but that can only be a guess.
The Greek Fleet
The Greek fleet was larger than it had been at Artemisium. The Lacedaemonians contributed 16 ships (up from 10). The Sicyonians contributed 15 (up from 12), the Epidaurians 10 (up from 8). The Athenians provided 180 ships, up from 127. At Artemisium some of these ships had been manned by the Plataeans, but they missed the battle of Salamis as they were concentrating on evacuating their homeland). The Aeginetans provided thirty (up from 18).
Some states provided the same sized contingents as at Artemisium. These were Corinth (40), the Troesenians (5), the Megarians (20), the Chalcidians (20), the Eretrians (7), the Ceans (2) and the Styrians (2)
There were also some new contingents. The Ambraciots provided seven ships, the Leucadians three, the Hermioneans three. Naxos provided four, originally intended for the Persian fleet but diverted to the Greek side by the efforts of Democritus. Cythnos sent one trireme and one pentaconter. Finally Croton sent a single ship.
There were also contingents from Seriphos, Siphnos and Melos in the Aegean islands, although Herodotus didn't give the size of these contingents, which were made up of penteconters.
These contingents add up to 366 triremes. Unfortunately Herodotus then states that the fleet contained 378 triremes, a difference of 12. Several alternative reasons for this gap have been suggesting, including the possibility that not all of the 378 fought in the battle, or the possibility that these gap is made up of ships left to guard Aegina.
Build-up to Battle
In the days before the battle both sides held councils of war. On the Persian side almost everyone supported the idea of fighting, in the belief that this was Xerxes's preferred option. Only Queen Artemisia disagreed. Her argument was that Xerxes had already achieved his official war aims, punishing Athens for its role in the Ionian Revolt and the battle of Marathon. Her view was that Xerxes should either remain where he was, or advance on land towards the Peloponnese. In either case the Greek fleet would collapse on its own accord, probably because of a lack of supplies on Salamis. If the Persians moved towards the Peloponnese the Greeks would probably try to move south. There was thus nothing to be gained from a battle, while a naval defeat would leave the army dangerously isolated. Xerxes welcomed this advance, but chose to side with the majority view.
The Greek councils were more divided. Herodotus records a series of meetings. At the first meeting those who wanted to retreat further south were winning. Themistocles, the Athenian leader, decided to provide Xerxes into an attack. He sent a messenger to the Persians claiming that he actually favoured their side and wanted them to win. He told Xerxes that the Greeks were about to retreat, and that unless he attacked quickly he would miss a chance to win a major victory. Finally he suggested that the Greeks could end up fighting each other. This ruse is said to have convinced Xerxes to attack immediately, and that night he ordered his fleet to put to sea. This news soon reached the Greeks. First to bring it was Aristides the Just, an Athenian who had been recalled from exile just before the battle. He had only just managed to reach the main Greek fleet, having eluded the Persians. Aristides brought that news to the Greek leaders, but many refused to believe him. They were finally convinced when a Tenian ship deserted, confirming the news.
Themistocles wanted to fight at Salamis for two reasons. First, he believed that the Greek fleet would probably dissolve into its individual contingents if the retreat continued. Given the divisive nature of Greek politics he was probably correct in this view. Second, he wanted to fight in narrow waters, where the Persians would be unable to take advantage of their superior numbers, or their superior manoeuvrability.
Course of the Battle
Sadly Herodotus doesn't give us much detail of the battle itself. The Persians moved first. A sizable Persian force was placed on the island of Psyttaleia, which lies between Salamis and the mainland at the eastern end of the straits. The fleet then split in two. The western wing sailed on a 'wide curve for Salamis', while the rest of the fleet took up a position at Ceos (probably an island, although which one is unclear) and Cynosura (probably a peninsula on the eastern shore of Salamis that formed part of the entrance to the straits. This part of the fleet was said to have blocked the straits as far as Munichia, a hill some way to the east at Piraeus. This was done in order to trap the Greeks and prevent them escaping, so it is possible that the western wing was sent all the way around the island, to approach the straits from the west. Herodotus makes it clear that the Greeks had been surrounded by the Persian fleet, so this seems likely. The Greeks take some time to realise that they are trapped, and only finally decide to fight once they realise the situation.
An alternative view is that the two wings of the Persian fleet were rather more widely scattered. The western wing was the part of the fleet posted at the main anchorage of Phalerum. The eastern wing was scattered along the coast to the east, in the direction of the island of Ceos in the Cyclades.
According to Herodotus the Phoenicians, on the western wing of the Persian fleet, were in the direction of Eleusis, on the mainland to the north of Salamis island, in the widest part of the straits between the island and the mainland, while the Ionians made up the eastern wing, in the direction of Piraeus. The Athenians faced the Phoenicians and the Lacedaemonians faced the Ionians. The battle is normally considered to have taken part in the narrow eastern end of the straits, with the Persian fleet formed up several lines deep.
The accepted view of the formations during the battle is that the Phoenicians made up the right and the Ionians on the left. The Athenians were thus on the Greek left, the Lacedaemonians on the Greek right. There is an obviously discrepancy between the original placement of the Phoenicians as the western wing but then as the right wing in a fleet moving either north or west, but perhaps it indicates that they were nearest to the mainland, with the aim of reaching Eleusis, or perhaps that this was the order the fleet moved in during the night before the battle, but not the formation during the battle.
At first the Greeks backed off from the Persians, heading for shore. The battle began when one Greek ship charged the Persians, either an Athenian ship captained by Ameinias of Pallene or a Aeginetan ship. This may reflect a deliberate tactical decision to draw the Persian force into the narrowest part of the straights.
Herodotus tells us that most Persian ships were destroyed by the Athenians or the Aeginetans, although he doesn't tell us where the Aeginetans were at the start of the battle. Later in the battle they intercepted the Persians attempting to escape through the straits. Simple numbers suggest that most of the non-Athenian contingents fought on the Greek right with the Peloponnesians. The Greeks won because they kept their discipline, while the Persian formations broke up. Herodotus also records a moment where the Persian first line attempted to turn and flee and ran into the second line, which was still coming up the straits.
One alternative interpretation of Herodotus is that the Persian fleet did split in two. The Phoenicians sailed all the way around the island, and attacked the Greeks from the north/ north-west. The Ionians approached from the east. The Greek fleet would thus have to fight in two contingents, facing back-to-back. If seen from Salamis Island the Athenians would have been on the left, the Lacedaemonians on the right. When the defeated Phoenicians attempted to fleet east towards the Persian army, they would have passed through the Greek right, and perhaps then run into the Aeginetans.
Diodorus provides us with an account of the battle. Here the Phoenicians form the Persian right and the Greeks on the Persian side the Persian left. The Athenians faced the Phoenicians, so formed the Greek left and the Lacedaemonians formed the Greek right. Diodorus provided more details of the Greek disposition than Herodotus, placing the Aeginetans and Megarans on the left with the Athenians, and the other contingents in the centre.
The Persian fleet kept its formation while in open sea, but soon got disrupted in the straits. The Persian admiral was killed in the early fighting, causing some confusion. The Athenians forced the Phoenicians and the Cyprians to flee, then turned in to deal with the Cilicians, Pamphylians and Lycians, who were next in the Persian line.
The Ionians were fighting well on the Persian left, but the defeat of the rest of the fleet forced them to flee. The Greeks lost 40 ships in the battle, the Persians lost 200 sunk and more captured intact.
Aeschylus, The Persians
The tragedian Aeschylus, who fought at Salamis, included a description of the battle in his play The Persians. The play is set at Susa, and the battle is described by a messenger who had returned from Greece with news of the defeat.
According to the messenger the Greeks had 300 ships, in ten squadrons of 30. The Persians had 1,207, the number given by Herodotus for the entire fleet at the start of the expedition.
Aeschylus records the messenger who went to Xerxes to report that the Greeks were planning to flee, tricking him into attacking. Xerxes ordered his fleet to sea. Three divisions were ordered to guard every outlet to the sea (presumably the two straits at each end of the island), while other ships were to surround the island. Persian morale suffered early in the day when it became clear that the Greeks didn’t intend to flee but were ready to fight.
At dawn the Greeks advanced to battle, led by the squadron on the right. The battle began when a Greek ship clashed with a Phoenician ship (reflecting Herodotus's account of the battle starting when an Athenian or Aeginetan ship clashed with a Persian ship).
At first the size of the Persian fleet gave them the advantage, but soon they were unable to manoeuvre in the narrow seas, and became victim to the Greek rams. Persian ships hit each other, damaged each other's oars, and left them vulnerable to Greek attack. The battle finally ended at nightfall.
Aeschylus also records the fighting on the island of Psyttaleia. The Persians posted a force here to kill any Greeks forced to take shelter. After the naval victory the Greeks attacked this island, and destroyed the isolated Persian force. Xerxes stayed long enough to watch this part of the battle, but then ordered the retreat.
Incidents of the Battle
Both Diodorus and Herodotus report that Xerxes watched the battle from a hill on the mainland. He made notes of who performed well and who performed badly, and later inflicted punishment or issued rewards depending on his perception of the battle.
One of the most famous incidents involved Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, who was fighting on the Persian side. The Athenians had placed a bounty of 10,000 drachmas on her head, apparently because they were angered by having a woman attack their city. After the Persian formation had broken down Artemisia was being chased by an Athenian ship commanded by Ameinias of Pallene. She found her way out to the open sea blocked by friendly ships, and decided to ram the ship of Damasithymus, king of Calynda in Caria. The entire crew of the Calyndan ship were killed and the ship sank, creating a gap for Artemisia. Her action also convinced Ameinias that he had either been chasing a Greek ship or an Ionian ship that had decided to change sides. All of this happened in full view of Xerxes on his hilltop, but while Artemisia's ship was identified, Damasithymus was taken for a Greek. As a result Artemisia rose in Xerxes's regard.
While the battle was going on a group of Phoenicians who had already lost their ships came to Xerxes to complain about the performance of the Ionians. Just as they made their complaint an Ionian ship sank an Athenian ship and was in turn sunk by an Aeginetan ship, but her managed to capture the Greek ship. Xerxes witnessed this, took against the Phoenicians and had them executed. Diodorus also records the execution, but says that it was because the Phoenicians were first to flee the battle.
Herodotus both records and dismisses a story that the Corinthians fled at the start of the battle, and then returned too late to late part. According to this story, which was recorded in Athens, the Corinthian commander Adeimantus fled in a panic at the very start of the battle and was followed by the rest of his contingent. The Corinthians reached the sanctuary of Athena Sciras (possibly at the northern end of the eastern straits), where they were intercepted by a small boat that told them the battle was being won. The Corinthians turn back, but arrived too late to take part in the battle. Herodotus says that every other part of Greece denies this story. By the time Herodotus was writing Athens and Corinth were bitter rivals, and the story probably arose at this later date. The remains of a grave listing Corinthian dead from the battle has since been discovered in Attica, suggesting that the Athenians acknowledged the Corinthian role in the battle at the time and only changed their story later on.
Although the Persian fleet was still larger than the Greek fleet, Persian morale had been badly damaged. Amongst the dead was Ariabignes, one of Xerxes's brothers, along with a sizable number of other notable members of the fleet (not least the unfortunate Damasithymus). Both Diodorus and Herodotus record that one of Xerxes's biggest fears was that the Greek fleet would sail up to the Hellespont to cut his bridge to Asia. He began to consider ordered a retreat, but in order to keep this secret ordered work to begin on a bridge of ships to connect the mainland to Salamis, and acted as if he was planning another sea battle.
Xerxes now began to get fresh advice. Mardonius suggested that the Persians could either attack the Peloponnese or stay where they were, but offered to take command of a 300,000-strong army and complete the conquest of Greece if Xerxes wanted to withdraw. Xerxes called another meeting of his advisors, but according to Herodotus then held a private meeting with Artemisia. She supported the idea of leaving Mardonius behind with 300,000 men, on the grounds that Xerxes could take the credit for any victory, but wouldn’t be to blame for any defeats.
Xerxes decided to adopt Mardonius's plan. According to Herodotus he then ordered the fleet to rush back to the Hellespont to guard the vital bridge. According to Diodorus Xerxes's execution of the Phoenicians triggered a flight of his other naval contingents. Whichever case is true, the Persian fleet still suffered from low morale in the following year, when it refused to fight at sea at the battle of Mycale (479 BC). The Greeks did consider an attack on the bridge, but decided that it would be more dangerous to trap the Persians in Greece than to give them an escape route.
A few days after the battle the entire Persian army withdrew into Boeotia, and then into Thessaly. Once they were in Thessaly Mardonius selected his 300,000 men, and the rest of the army moved on. Herodotus records a retreat similar to that of Napoleon in Russia, with it taking the Persians 45 days to get from Thessaly to the Hellespont, suffering from starvation on the way. Once back in Asia they found more food, but the starving survivors gorged themselves and many more died (again similar to the retreat from Moscow in 1812). The Persians are said to have suffered very heavy losses during this retreat.
A number of famous Greeks fought at Salamis. Amongst them was the Aeschylus, the first great Athenian writer of tragic plays. The Persian defeat was later portrayed by Aeschylus (in the Persians) as a result of hubris. By building bridges across the Hellespont Xerxes had been attempting to turn the sea into land. He was punished with a defeat at sea.
At the end of 480 the Persians still controlled Thessaly, Thrace and Macedonia. During the campaign of 479 Mardonius even managed to sack Athens for a second time, but he was eventually defeated and killed at the battle of Plataea (27 August 479 BC), ending the direct Persian threat to mainland Greece.