- December 2002
Battle of SALAMIS 480 B.C.
By Paul Morrison.
& Marine Corps Museum Int
modern replica of a Greek Trireme that fought at the Battle of Salamis
in 480 BC against the Persians.
sea battles have changed the course of a campaign and even a war - very
few change the course of world history. One such battle was fought nearly
2,500 years ago. The victory gained by this battle was to give prominence
to sea power - for it was perhaps the first time that dominance in maritime
power altered the outcome of a war and world history. Nearly all the
wars fought up to that time had been decided by large armies, but in
480 B.C. Greece had no large armies when she was threatened by the greatest
military power in the ancient World - Persia.
The events of 480 B.C. were later recorded in detail by the Greek historian,
Herodotus, who was born sometime around 490 B.C. As a young man Herodotus
travelled widely throughout Greece and the Mediterranean world, compiling
his book, 'The Histories'. During his travels he would have spoken with
some of the veterans who took part in the sea battle of Salamis. His
chapters on this battle not only give an interesting insight into Naval
tactics of the time but also the politics of war.
Plans for Invasion
Revenge was one of the main reasons for Persia's plan to invade
Greece in 480 B.C. Ten years previously the Persian King Darius had
decided to punish the Athenians for their support of the Greek city-states
in Asia Minor. These city-states had risen up in revolt against their
Persian rulers. After ruthlessly putting down the revolt Darius made
plans to destroy Athens.
A large Persian army was landed on the plain of Marathon to the, south
of Athens. An Athenian army of 9,000 men under General Miltides hurriedly
marched to meet them (their physical stamina saw them cover approximately
33kms in quick time with armour, hence the term Marathon to describe
a modern long distance race)- surprising the Persians as they were setting
up camp near the beach. Herodotus writes, "In the Battle of Marathon,
some 6,400 Persians were killed, the losses of the Athenians were 192".
The Persians fled to their ships.
Ten years later in 480 B.C. Darius' son Xerxes, who was now king on
the death of his father, decided to avenge the loss at Marathon with
another invasion on a far greater scale. The army was immense - numbering
more than 180,000 fighting men, with the fleet accompanying the army
around the coastline of Asia Minor and into Greece consisted of some
800 triremes, as well as smaller warships and a large number of supply
ships. Triremes were the largest warships of the period and the 'capital
ships' of their day. They consisted of three banks of oars and carried
a crew of more than 200. A contingent of up to 50 fighting men was also
carried onboard. Logistics support for the massive land army in and
around the rugged mountains and valleys of Greece would be impossible
to transport by land but achievable by sea. The Persians thus relied
greatly on their supply ships, which the warships had to defend if Xerxes
was to succeed.
Acting on advanced warning the Greeks were determined to stop the
Persian land advance at Thermopylae, a narrow pass between the sea and
the mountains in northern Greece.
A fleet of 271 Greek triremes under the dual command of Themistocles
(Athens) and Eurybiades (Sparta) was quickly assembled at Artemisium,
between the island of Euboea and the mainland to protect the sea approaches
to Thermopylae. Here they engaged the Persian warships that were supporting
Xerxes' army down the coast. A storm had struck the Persian fleet a
few days before, causing losses to both warships and supply ships. Herodotus
describes the confusion that took place amongst the Persian ships. "After
the wind had dropped and the sea had gone down, the Persians got the
ships they had hauled ashore into the water again, and proceeded along
the coast... Fifteen of the Persian ships were far behind in getting
under way, and the men aboard, happening to catch sight of the Greek
ships at Artemisium, mistook them for their own, and on making towards
them fell into the enemies' hands."
The Greek land forces at Thermopylae numbered some 7,000 Hoplites and
they were under the command of the Spartan king, Leonidas. Hoplites
were heavily armoured infantry - unusual in that most infantry of this
period were only lightly armed and wore little if any armoured protection.
The Hoplites were equipped with heavy shields, plumed helmets, breastplates
and greaves. They carried long spears and short swords and fought in
closed ranks or in a novel formation called a phalanx. This method of
warfare was well suited to the valleys and mountains of Greece where
it was difficult to deploy large numbers of soldiers and cavalry in
An old wall in the centre of the Thermopylae pass was quickly repaired,
and for several days Leonidas and his men halted the Persian attempts
to break through the pass - a pass too narrow for the Persian king to
deploy his cavalry and chariots as well as take advantage of his superior
numbers (180,000 vs. 7,000). Xerxes was even forced by desperation to
deploy his own elite bodyguard, the Immortals into the battle but they
too were forced back. It was only when a Greek traitor, Epialtes, led
elements of the Persian Army along a hidden mountain trail behind the
defenders that the battle was decided.
Leonidas now ordered the Greeks to withdraw from the pass before they
could be encircled while he and his 300 Spartans fought a rearguard
action. Herodotus recorded the final stages of the battle, "As the Persian
Army advanced to the assault, the Greeks under Leonidas, knowing that
they were going to their deaths, went out into the wider part of the
pass much further than they had done before; in the previous days' fighting
they had been holding the wall and making sorties from behind it into
the narrow neck, but now they fought outside the narrows. In the course
of that fighting Leonidas fell, having fought most gallantly, and many
distinguished Spartans with him...
"They withdrew again into the narrow neck of the pass, behind the wall,
and took up a position in a single compact body. Here they resisted
to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with
their hands and teeth, until the Persians coming on from the front over
the ruins of the wall and closing in, from behind, overwhelmed them."
When news of the land defeat reached the Athenian fleet, the ships quickly
weighed anchor and sailed south. They had successfully held the sea
approaches that guarded Leonidas' flank, sustaining losses in a series
of small engagements with the Persian fleet - now there was nothing
more they could do. The Persians controlled the Thermopylae pass which
led on to the open plains of Attica, and beyond these plains to Athens.
The Athenian Navy
When the Athenian warships returned to Athens they found that the
cities of the Peloponnesian Peninsula to the south were building a defensive
wall across the narrow isthmus that divides northern and southern Greece.
Athens lay to the north and outside of this wall. The Athenian Army
was too small to defend the city but Athens had a strong Navy - the
largest in Greece.
bronze ram fitted to the bow of a Trireme was designed to punch
a hole in the enemy's ships in order to sink them. The bow of Greek
Triremes were also painted with a set of eyes as the Greeks believed
this gave the ship mythical vision at night and in bad weather.
was Themistocles, an Athenian statesman who had convinced the city a
few years before to build this fleet. Herodotus writes, "The Athenians
had amassed a large sum of money from the produce of the (silver) mines
at Laurium, which they proposed to share out amongst themselves; Themistocles,
however, persuaded them to give up this idea and, instead of distributing
the money, spend it on the construction of two hundred warships....
The Athenians also found it necessary to expand this existing fleet
by laying down new ships.... and meet the invader at sea with all the
force they possessed, and with any other Greeks who were willing to
The Athenian warships were triremes - more than 100 feet (33 metres)
in length and with a beam of no more than 14 feet (3 metres); they had
a shallow draught to allow them to be beached at night. The bow was
armed with a bronze ram under the waterline, and in the upper bow above
the main deck was a fighting deck from where soldiers could board or
fend off attacks from any vessel it had rammed. To board an enemy vessel,
two boarding gangways or apobathra were lowered from either side of
the bow. A large pair of eyes were also painted on the bow to give the
ship 'vision' during storms or at night.
There were three banks of oars and the rowers were not slaves but free
men. They were assisted in their rowing by a flute player (Auletes)
to give timing to the oar strokes. A ship would not normally exceed
four knots, but for limited periods as in battle the ship could exceed
10 knots. There were sailors onboard as well as carpenters, and between
forty and fifty soldiers. The ship's Captain was called a Trierarch
(Captain of trireme), and there were also four other ship's officers:
Kubernetes (helmsman), Keleustes (in charge of rowers), Proreus (bow
officer), and Pentekontarchos (Junior officer).
Herodotus writes that the Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi (a
temple where offerings where made in exchange for information about
the future) as to what they should do against the Persian invasion.
The Oracle told them of the death and destruction they would face, but
also added, "That the wooden wall only shall not fall..." The Athenians
after some debate, for there were those amongst them who thought that
the wooden wall was a reference to the wall around the Acropolis, the
fortified section of the city, now realised "that by this expression
the oracle meant the ships, and they urged in consequence that everything
should be abandoned in favour of the immediate preparation of the fleet"
Strength of the Greek Fleet at Salamis
Herodotus gives the following number of ships for the Greeks - "the
Athenians with 182 ships, half the whole fleet, - 40 from Corinth; 30
from Aegina; 20 from Megara; 20 from Chalcis; 16 from Lacedaemon (Sparta),
15 from Sicyon; 10 from Epidaurus; 7 from Ambracia; 7 from Eretria;
5 from Troezen; 4 from Naxos; 3 from Hermione; 3 from Leucas; 2 from
Ceos; 2 from Styra; 1 from Croton; and 1 from Cynthnus. The total number
of warships was 368.
"It was under the commander, Eurybiades, a Spartan but not of royal
blood... For the other members of the confederacy had stipulated they
would not serve under an Athenian. The Athenians waved their claim (to
command the fleet) knowing that a quarrel about the command would certainly
mean the destruction of Greece."
Strength of the Persian Fleet at Salamis
Herodotus mentions that there were 1,327 warships from the Persian
allies and subjugated states present at Salamis. These included 300
from Phoenicia; 260 from the Greek cities in Asia Minor; 237 from the
Greek cities allied to the Persians; 200 from Egypt; 150 from Cyprus;
100 from Cilicia; and 80 ships from various other cities.
Herodotus also writes. "The fastest ships were the Phoenician. All the
ships carried Persians and Medes as marines..." Most of these marines
would have been archers using composite bows for the Persians relied
greatly on the bow in their battles. Ancient Greek historians later
referred to the war with the Persians as the 'War of the Spear against
the Arrow'. Against the armoured Greek hoplites with their large round
bronze shields, in their closed ranks, and who were trained to move
swiftly, the Persian archers would have been at a great disadvantage
once their ship was rammed and boarded as the stand off range and killing
power afforded by the bow would be negated.
Prelude to the Battle
The Athenians evacuated most of their civilian population to the
large island of Salamis, out in the bay and not far from their city.
A small group of hoplites stayed in the city to defend the natural fortification
and temple complex which was the Acropolis - for even in such overwhelming
circumstances the Greeks refused to abandon their gods. The defenders
on the Acropolis though were quickly overwhelmed and the city was burnt
by the invading Persian Army. "Having left not one of them alive, they
stripped the temple of its treasures and burnt everything on the Acropolis.
Xerxes, now absolute master of Athens, despatched a rider to Susa (his
own capital) with news of his success."
A council of the Greeks was hurriedly convened on Salamis. Many in the
council argued that the fleet and the population should withdraw behind
the wall then building on the Isthmus to the south, but Themistocles,
whose idea it was to build the fleet persuaded them to fight at Salamis.
"We shall be fighting in narrow waters, and there, with our inferior
numbers, we shall win. Fighting in a confined space favours us but the
open sea favours the enemy."
Opening Phase of the Battle
The island of Salamis straddles the entrance to the Bay of Eleusis.
There are only two narrow channels around the island which lead into
the bay, both of which can be easily blockaded. The Persians blockaded
the western entrance with their Egyptian warships whilst assembling
most of their fleet in the wider channel to the east. The Greek fleet
lay at anchor in a bay of the island inside this eastern channel. "The
Greeks were in a state of acute alarm, especially those from the Peloponnese;
for there they were, waiting at Salamis to fight for Athenian territory,
and certain, in the event of defeat, to be caught and blocked up in
an island, while their own country was left without defence, and the
Persian Army that very night was on the march for the Peloponnese."
Aeschylus, an eyewitness to the battle later wrote that the Persians
were drawn up in three lines outside the entrance to the channel. On
the mainland nearby, a throne was erected from where the Persian King
Xerxes could watch the battle.
On 20 September 480 B.C. at the break of day, the Persian fleet began
its advance through the eastern channel. The lines formed up into columns
with the Phoenicians leading. "The Athenian squadron found itself facing
the Phoenicians on the Persian left wing." As the Phoenicians came through
the channel, which was about 4 miles (6.4kms) wide, they faced the Greek
fleet which was in an 'L' formation. The Greek ships suddenly began
to back water, leading the Persian fleet further into the narrowing
channel. "The Greeks checked their way and began to back astern; and
they were on the point of running aground when Ameinias of Pallene,
in command of an Athenian ship, drove ahead and rammed an enemy vessel.
Seeing the two ships foul of one another and locked together, the rest
of the Greek fleet hurried to Ameinias' assistance, and the general
action began. Such is the Athenian account of how the battle started."
Other ships lay in wait in the bay and now ambushed the Persians on
their left flank, driving them towards the shore of the mainland. In
the ensuring confusion, the Persian ships began to crowd the narrow
channel which was now only about 2 miles wide. Herodotus wrote, "The
Greek fleet worked together as a whole, while the Persians had lost
formation and were no longer fighting on any plan. None the less they
(the Persians) fought well that day - far better than in the actions
off Euboea. Every man of them did his best for fear of Xerxes, feeling
that the king's eye was on him"
Main Phase of the Battle
The Persian ships in the narrow channel had difficulty in turning
to meet the enemy. Their speed would have been slow and in many instances
they would have been broadside to the ramming Greek ships.
Herodotus recorded, "The greatest destruction took place when the (Persian)
ships which had been first engaged turned tail, for those astern fell
foul of them in their attempt to press forward. The enemy was in hopeless
confusion; such ships as offered resistance or tried to escape were
cut to pieces.... Such of the Persian ships as escaped destruction made
their way back to Phalerum and brought up there under the protection
of the army."
By sunset the battle was over. "Amongst those killed was the son of
Xerxes' brother, and many other well-known men from Persia. There were
also Greek casualties, but not many; for most of the Greeks could swim.
Most of the enemy, on the other hand, being unable to swim, were drowned."
Though Herodotus names many of the Persian commanders killed in the
battle there is no mention of ship losses. "After the battle the Greeks
towed over to Salamis all the disabled vessels which were adrift, and
then prepared for a renewal of the fight, fully expecting that Xerxes
would use his remaining ships to make another attack..." But the Persians
were defeated and Xerxes, realising his sea borne logistics lines were
no longer safe, reluctantly ordered his fleet, and thus the army, to
withdraw. The losses suffered by the Persian fleet were thought to be
a third or more of its total strength (450 ships). Although not a decisive
defeat it was enough though to force the Persians on the defensive.
A year after the Battle of Salamis, they were decisively defeated in
a land battle at Plataea which brought the Persian invasion to an end.
What would have happened if the Battle of Salamis had been lost?
The Athenians had already made plans in the event of such a loss. Transports
and warships were ready to evacuate the Athenian population from the
island under cover of darkness. They were to be resettled in the Greek
colonies in either Sicily or Southern Italy. It was possible that other
Greek cities faced with defeat by the Persians would have followed,
for it is doubtful that the wall across the Isthmus between northern
and southern Greece would have stopped the invaders. Athens and her
allies would have dominated Italy, and perhaps there would have been
no Rome - western history would therefore have taken a different course.