The battle of Salamis of Cyprus (306 BC) was a decisive naval victory during Demetrius I Poliorcetes’s invasion of Cyprus (Fourth Diadoch War). The island had been held by Ptolemy I for at least a decade, and had been used as a base for attacks on Antigonus Monophthalmus’s (Demetrius’s father) possessions on the coast of Syria and Asia Minor.
Demetrius landed in the north east of Cyprus, from where he marched towards Salamis, the most important city in the west of the island. He then began the first of his great sieges. Ptolemy responded by leading a relief expedition to Cyprus, landing at Paphos on the west coast, before moving east to relieve the siege of Salamis. The decisive battle would come at sea between the two war fleets, led in person by Demetrius and Ptolemy.
Ptolemy had a more uniform fleet, containing 140 ships, made up quadriremes (fours) or quinqueremes (fives). His brother Menelaos had another sixty ships trapped in the harbour at Salamis. Ptolemy also had a fleet of 200 transport ships carrying 10,000 infantry. He had landed at the western tip of Cyprus, and advanced along the south coast to Kition.
Ptolemy decided to make a dash to Salamis, hoping to surprise Demetrius, and combine his fleet with his brother’s sixty ships. He would then outnumber Demetrius. His best hope of that was a night dash from Kition, around the south eastern headland of Cyprus and north up the coast to Salamis.
The main weakness of this plan was that the land route from Kition to Salamis was much shorter than the sea journey. Demetrius learned of Ptolemy’s move on the day he departed Kition, and was able to prepare to meet Ptolemy in battle.
Demetrius formed up outside Salamis, to prevent Menelaos from leaving the harbour. He placed his stronger ships – the sevens, sixes and fives, on his left, farther out to sea, and armed them with some of his siege weapons. His plan was to defeat Ptolemy’s right, forcing the Egyptian fleet onto the shore, where his army was waiting. Demetrius took up a position on his flagship, a Phoenician seven.
Ptolemy came into view just after dawn on the day of the battle. Seeing Demetrius formed up ready for battle, Ptolemy responded with the same formation, placing his strongest ships, under his own command on his left. Each commander hoped to defeat his opponent’s right before his own right suffered the same fate, and then use their victorious left to attack the rest of the enemy fleet. Ptolemy could also hope that his brother would be able to fight his way out of Salamis and join in.
The battle look place a little way south of Salamis. Demetrius took a gamble and only left a force of ten quinqueremes to blockade Salamis. Menelaos was eventually able to force his way past those ships, but too late to take part in the battle.
Both commanders won their battle on the left, but Demetrius achieved his victory first. He was then able to turn on Ptolemy’s centre while Ptolemy was still engaged on his left. Ptolemy had no choice but to retreat, having lost the bulk of his fleet. Of the 140 warships he started with, only twenty are said to have escaped. Demetrius captured 40 intact and 80 damaged ships, as well as 100 transport ships and the troops they carried. Unusually in this largely mercenary age most of the captured troops refused to change sides, possibly because they had been granted land in Egypt.
Ptolemy was forced to retreat back to Egypt. Menelaos surrendered, and was sent back to Ptolemy. Demetrius took control of the rest of Cyprus without a problem. When news of the victory reached Antigonus, he finally assumed the title of king, the first of Alexander’s successors to do so. Demetrius was rewarded with the same title.