Ancient History & Civilisation


Salamis [END OF SUMMER, 480 B.C.]

Go, sons of Greece! Free your fatherland! Free
Children, wives, your forefathers’ graves,
Shrines of ancestral gods. Fight now for all!


FOR HOURS THAT NIGHT PERSIAN SENTRIES ON THE BEACHES at Aphetai watched the distant fires of the Greek camp while the crews and fighting men slept. Sometime after midnight the quiet was broken by the sound of oars approaching from across the channel. A small boat appeared on the moonlit water, rowing fast for shore. Out of the darkness a voice hailed them. A Greek on board the boat claimed to have a message for the Persian commanders. The boat landed, a Greek-speaking translator was roused from among the thousands of sleeping rowers and soldiers, and the man poured out his story to the officers in charge of Xerxes’ armada.

He told them that he came from Histiaea, a town on the Euboean coast west of Artemisium. Earlier that evening he had heard or seen the ships of the Greek fleet rowing past, headed west. Instantly the man had realized that they were retreating homeward, leaving the islanders to their fate. After the last trireme disappeared into the night, the watcher from Histiaea gathered a crew and crossed the channel with the news, hoping for a reward or at least favorable treatment for his town. If the Persians launched a pursuit at once, they might attack the fleeing Greeks from the rear and destroy them all.

To the Persians, the story seemed incredible. Only a few hours earlier they had watched the defiant Greeks rowing back to Artemisium, diminished but still dangerous after three days of fighting. Their blazing campfires were still plainly visible. Greeks were notorious for tricks and deceit: the tale was likely to be a trap. Were the Greeks hoping to lure them away from the safe havens at Aphetai, or to exhaust their crews with a night spent at the oar? Ignorant of Xerxes’ breakthrough at Thermopylae and fearful of making a mistake, the Persian commanders put the Histiaean under guard and sent a few ships south to check the truth of his story. Dawn was in the sky by the time the scouts returned with their report. They had found Artemisium abandoned: the only sign of life was the untended fires.

Themistocles’ deception was now exposed, but it seemed too late to pack up camp, marshal the scattered armada, and give chase. Far from destroying the Greeks down to the last fire-signaler, the Persian naval commanders had let the entire fleet slip through their fingers. Even worse, their mistrust of the nocturnal visitor had cost them a last chance of victory. How, exactly, would Xerxes punish them? The grim possibilities ranged from demotion to decapitation. Determined to have something to show for the days spent on their own, the Persians took the fleet across to the northern shore of Euboea, captured the helpless town of Histiaea, and pillaged the surrounding countryside.

They were still collecting loot when a royal messenger from Thermopylae finally caught up with them. He brought an invitation from Xerxes to cross over to the mainland for a tour of the battlefield, so that they could witness the fate of those who resisted the Great King. The mariners enthusiastically accepted the invitation and commandeered every available boat for the crossing, since the triremes could not land in the muddy shallows off Thermopylae. At the Hot Gates they saw no Persian casualties, only the corpses of the massacred Spartans and other Greeks. The centerpiece of the bloody display was the head of King Leonidas. Luckily Xerxes was so elated by his victory that he took little notice of the fleet’s dubious performance. The battlefield tour cost the Persians a day, and more days passed as the king’s forces gathered momentum for their next target: Athens.

Xerxes’ leisurely advance gave the Greeks time to catch a second wind. In the few precious days between the retreat from Artemisium and the arrival of the Persians, Themistocles set out to complete the evacuation of Attica. The Spartan admiral Eurybiades granted permission for the Athenian ships to detach themselves from the main fleet. They proceeded to ferry the remainder of the populace across to Troezen and other places of refuge. In the end, out of tens of thousands, only about five hundred stubborn souls refused to leave their homes.

Themistocles’ original bill before Artemisium had called for leaving the temples on the Acropolis to the care of Athena and the other gods. Xerxes would have found only the priestesses and temple officials on the citadel, along with some poor citizens who were willing to take their chances behind that other “wooden wall,” the thorn hedge. Matters looked different after the disaster at Thermopylae. Themistocles decided that the priestesses and the ancient wooden statue of the goddess should also be moved to safety. To overcome the opposition of religious conservatives, he persuaded the guardian of the sacred snake on the Acropolis to announce that the snake had abandoned its lair—a sign that the gods had departed and all others should follow. When the evacuation was complete, the Athenian crews rowed back to rejoin the Greek fleet, well entrenched in a seemingly impregnable position within the Salamis channel.

The rugged island of Salamis, legendary home of the hero Ajax, had been conquered by Athenians more than a century earlier in that epic action involving a fleet of fishing boats and one thirty-oared galley. A long waterway stretched between the northern coast of Salamis and the mainland, and the eastern reach of this channel formed the strait of Salamis. The island’s principal port lay between two natural harbors at a dogleg bend within the strait. Here the Athenian elders had been presiding over the city’s government and treasury ever since the evacuation began. Here too the Greek fleet would await the arrival of the Persians. Now that the original defensive line at Artemisium and Thermopylae had fallen, the Greeks had drawn a new line across the heart of Greece. One end lay at the Isthmus of Corinth, where the Peloponnesian army was toiling to block Xerxes’ land forces with a newly erected wall. The other end lay in the Salamis strait. All land north of this line had been yielded to the Persians.

Most Greeks were inclined to criticize Themistocles’ strategy. They argued that the fleet should withdraw to the Isthmus of Corinth and the protection of the army. To them, the straits looked like a potential death trap for the Greeks. But in Themistocles’ eyes the strait was a watery version of Thermopylae, a constricted space where natural features could nullify the overwhelming Persian advantage in numbers. There was still a hole at the center of his vision, however, for in one crucial point Salamis differed from Thermopylae. King Leonidas had needed no stratagems to bring Xerxes to the Hot Gates: the narrow pass was the only entry to central Greece. No such compulsion would force the Persian navy into the Salamis strait, since the main sea route to southern Greece lay across the open waters of the Saronic Gulf. Somehow Themistocles would have to lure the Persian ships into the strait.

At summer’s end the Persian hordes finally reached Attica, pushing their way through the passes of Mount Cithaeron and spreading across the deserted countryside like a river in flood. They quickly captured the local residents who had dodged Themistocles’ evacuation decree and shipped them off to distant Samos as prisoners of war. Athens was Xerxes’ for the taking, except for the Acropolis. There an Athenian garrison held out behind the old palisade, now reinforced with other timbers. The garrison rejected the blandishments of the Athenian exiles when the latter came to the foot of the Acropolis and called on them to surrender. They likewise defied a hail of flaming arrows from the Persian archers and rolled big stones down on anyone who tried to scale the slopes. Nature had barricaded the Acropolis with sheer cliffs and supplied its defenders with a spring of fresh water deep in the rock. Stymied by their resistance, Xerxes postponed tackling either the Greek fleet at Salamis or the Greek army at the Isthmus. Instead he pitched his royal pavilion at Athens and settled down to a siege of the Acropolis.

Meanwhile on Salamis, Themistocles faced a new crisis. The common citizens of Athens, the twenty thousand thetes, were running short of money on this, their first campaign on behalf of their city. Themistocles’ expanded navy called for the enlistment of all citizens, rich or poor. The horsemen and hoplites were men of means, who could afford to buy their own provisions while on campaign. But after almost a month of naval service the poorer citizens had exhausted their scanty savings. The city had no funds to help them and no stockpiles of food to dole out to relieve the shortfall.

In this time of need the rich Athenians who sat on the ancient council of the Areopagus or “Hill of Ares” came to the rescue. The council included Themistocles, who like all former archons was a member for life. In answer to the navy’s need, the Areopagites contributed enough from their private funds to provide a stipend of eight silver drachmas for each thete among the rowing crews. The crisis was averted, and the aristocratic council of the Areopagus earned itself a fund of goodwill from the democratic citizens that would endure for a generation.

A few days before the autumnal equinox the Greeks at Salamis saw a column of black smoke rising from the direction of Athens. Xerxes’ assault had succeeded at last, and the temples on the Acropolis were being put to the torch. Vengeance was taken for the burning of Sardis, and Darius’ vow that he would “remember the Athenians” was at last fulfilled. Xerxes had done what his father had failed to do. In the three months that had passed since the Great King crossed the Hellespont into Europe, he had killed a Spartan king, conquered Athens, and added all of northern and central Greece to his empire. The expedition was already a success. At once royal couriers were dispatched to carry the glad tidings back to Susa.

At about the time that the Acropolis fell, the sky watchers and diviners among the Greek and Persian armies observed the star Arcturus in the east just before dawn, visible for the first time since the beginning of summer. The rising of Arcturus marked the end of the seafaring season in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. Soon it would be time to draw boats and ships up on beaches and secure them against the winter storms. Should Xerxes miss the last of the fair days, his fleet would be weather-bound in Greece. He would then have more than a hundred thousand idle mariners eating their heads off at his expense for months. If his navy could not destroy the Greek fleet immediately, it would be better for the Great King to send his armada back across the Aegean to spend the winter in Asia. By spring the united Greek resistance at sea might well have disintegrated.

Though Xerxes could not know it, a violent conflict was already threatening to shatter the unity of the Greek fleet. As the days of waiting dragged on, the steady undertow of resistance to Themistocles’ strategy grew stronger. The Greeks were caught in the demoralizing position of sitting in full sight of an enemy that was concealed from them. A conical knoll on the mainland gave Persian scouts a bird’s-eye view of the Greeks’ every move. Xerxes’ fleet at Phaleron, on the other hand, was screened from Greek view by the heights of the Piraeus promontory at the eastern end of the strait.

When the Peloponnesian commanders saw the smoke from the Acropolis, they called for Eurybiades to abandon Salamis and fall back to the Isthmus while there was still time. The Spartan admiral called a council, and Themistocles impetuously began to argue against a withdrawal. The Corinthian leader angrily reminded him that at the games, runners who started too soon were beaten with rods. “Yes,” retorted Themistocles, “but those who start late do not win.” The Athenian then considered their odds of survival if they retreated. At the Isthmus, any naval battle would have to be fought in open water, where the huge Persian fleet could surround and destroy them. They were safer at Salamis. The strongest arm of the Greek resistance, Themistocles said, was the navy. And he reminded them again of the oracle of the Wooden Wall, which had named Salamis as a place of destiny.

To stop this impassioned flow of argument, the Corinthian commander declared that Themistocles should no longer be allowed to speak in the council. He was now a man without a country, a mere refugee. The insult goaded Themistocles to state, in the clearest terms, his belief in the Athenian navy. He told the Corinthian, a man named Adeimantus, that the Athenians had a greater city and a greater land than Corinth or any other Greek state as long as they had two hundred ships filled with their men. If the other Greeks abandoned Salamis, the Athenians would collect their families and voyage in their floating city to a new home in the west, far from Persians and Peloponnesians alike. Faced with this ultimatum, the allies agreed to stay where they were. Themistocles had won this skirmish, but time was running out. By what trick or contrivance could Xerxes be persuaded to fight in narrow waters that favored the Greeks? At last the great idea came. Themistocles shared it privately with the Spartan admiral and then, with his permission, put it into action.

Among Themistocles’ slaves was a daring and resourceful Greek named Sicinnus. His regular duties called for him to serve as pedagogue to the sons of the family, overseeing their education and leading them to and from their lessons. That night Themistocles put Sicinnus in a small boat and sent him down the channel to Phaleron, where the shore was crowded with the hundreds of triremes that Xerxes had brought to Attica. Sicinnus attracted the attention of some of the Persian naval officers and then called out the message that Themistocles had told him to deliver. The future of Athens, and possibly the freedom of Greece, depended upon how well Themistocles had judged Xerxes’ reaction.



Sicinnus identified himself as a secret envoy from Themistocles, leader of the Athenians. His master was eager to win the Great King’s friendship, as the Athenians were about to be betrayed. On the following night, Sicinnus said, the other Greeks planned to withdraw from Salamis and row away to their own cities. Yet the king could still have his victory if he prevented the would-be runaways from escaping. The allies were quarreling among themselves. Some already favored submission to Xerxes. As soon as the Persian navy appeared at Salamis, the Athenians and other disaffected Greeks would change sides. It was of course a barefaced lie, but like all good lies it had the virtue of incorporating many elements of the truth. Without giving the Persians a chance to ask troublesome questions, Sicinnus slipped away as soon as he had delivered the message and returned to Salamis.

History seemed to be repeating itself. Xerxes’ naval commanders had received just such a nocturnal message from the Greek turncoat at Artemisium. To their regret they had refused to believe the man, and so the Greeks had escaped. The Persians did not intend to make the same mistake twice. When told of the message, Xerxes agreed. He gave orders to prepare for an advance on Salamis the next evening. He also instructed his staff to have his chariot ready to convey him to the hilltop that looked down on Salamis. The king was convinced that his mariners would not have performed so poorly at Artemisium if he had been present to keep an eye on them. At Salamis he meant to watch the battle in person.

Next morning there was an earthquake. Xerxes, unshaken by the portent, ordered his fleet to sea. In battle array the Persians waited outside the strait, but no Greek ships ventured forth to answer the challenge. At midday the armada returned to the beach at Phaleron, and the crews climbed down the ladders to eat their dinners. Anticipating the movement into the strait that night, however, the rowers left their oars in place, looped tightly to the tholepins. At sunset Xerxes’ admirals called the men back to the ships.

The entire Persian fleet was to join in the unparalleled night maneuver. Some triremes would circle the southern coast of Salamis in order to block the narrow channel at the western end, near Megara. The main fleet, however, would row directly into the Salamis strait. Echoing his own command before he dispatched his fleet to Artemisium, Xerxes ordered that not one Greek rower or marine should escape. The men felt confident. As they settled into their places, the crews cheered one another on.

The Persian plan called for surrounding the Greeks under cover of darkness, either capturing or turning back any Greek ships that tried to break out into the open water. Dawn would find their fleet arrayed against the north shore of the Salamis channel, ready to pounce upon what promised to be a divided and disheartened Greek naval force. Thanks to Themistocles’ message, the Persians believed that the large Athenian contingent would desert their side. Victory seemed foreordained, as was only right when the Great King watched his subjects fight in person.

As the sunset faded in the western sky, only faint starlight illuminated the sea. The triremes moved slowly offshore and eased into line, three ships abreast. Knowing that they outnumbered the Greeks more than three to one, the commanders had decided that the main fleet would file into the strait in a triple formation. At midnight the moon soared up over the shoulder of Mount Hymettus, brilliantly attended by the planet Zeus, as the Greeks called Jupiter. The moon was four days past the full but still bright enough that the lookouts in the ships’ prows could guide the course of the triremes. The Phoenician ships that headed the three long files now began to row slowly westward. They rounded the curve of the Piraeus promontory, then passed the island of Psyttaleia to enter the Salamis channel. There was no more cheering. All were silent. In the wake of the Phoenicians came the rest of the fleet, an ever-rolling stream that flowed for miles along the Attic coast. Only the muffled beat of the oars and the glittering ripples of the wakes marked their passing.

The last to enter the strait, hours after the leaders, were the triremes of the Ionian Greeks, outnumbered in Xerxes’ fleet only by the Phoenicians. Most of the Ionian ships had come from the Greek cities of Asia Minor or the islands along the Asiatic coast. Only seventeen had been mustered from the Cyclades, the archipelago of rocky islands that dotted the Aegean Sea. In this squadron that brought up the rear of the mighty procession, one ship’s crew was fired with a desperate resolve. They were reluctant subjects of Xerxes from Tenos, an island east of Attica. The men from Tenos had privately agreed at this ultimate hour to desert the Great King and join the Greek side. They knew the odds; they knew what the Persians expected the morning to bring. Even so, the steersman swung his steering oars over and bent his course gently away from the steadily advancing column. The lone Tenian trireme then headed straight for the lights of the Greek camp at Salamis, and a few hours of honor and freedom before the end.

In the last hours of the night, transports ferried four hundred elite Persian troops, the pick of the army, across to Psyttaleia. The Athenians held this island to be sacred to the great god Pan, lord of goats, of wilderness, and of that irrational terror known as a “panic.” To the Persians it seemed no more than a strategic post for an auxiliary force. Should there be a battle, these soldiers would offer aid to any fellow warriors who fetched up on the island, and a quick death to shipwrecked Greeks.

The leading Phoenician triremes had by this time reached the point where the channel turns north toward Eleusis. As each set of three triremes reached its station, the ships swung around until their prows pointed toward the Salamis shore, a mile off and still invisible in the dark. The seemingly endless column in three files heading west was thus transformed into a compact battle line in three ranks facing south. The rear ranks were expected to reinforce the front line and prevent a diek plous on the part of the Greeks. Triremes could cruise by moonlight, but they could not attack. Lookouts and steersmen needed daylight to aim their ramming strikes and to distinguish friends from foes.

That night no one in the king’s armada was allowed to sleep. The Persians remained on the alert for any Greeks who might try to flee from Salamis. But the night wore away, and they saw no ships in motion but their own. Xerxes’ crews had already been rowing ceaselessly for hours. Even after they reached their stations, the cramped quarters within the triremes prevented any real rest for their weary limbs.

In the darkness before dawn Xerxes himself rode in his chariot to the knoll opposite Salamis harbor. The king’s servants had erected a seat for him on the crown of the hill. From this natural grandstand Salamis and the strait were spread out before him like a scene at a play. Members of the court surrounded him, and royal scribes were in attendance to record the day’s events. In his supreme confidence, the king had brought them along to write down the names of commanders who especially distinguished themselves in the course of destroying the Greek fleet.

As for the Greeks on the far side of the channel, their rowers and soldiers rested ashore through the night. It was a different story with the commanders. Themistocles still had no idea whether Sicinnus’ mission had succeeded. The possibility that the Persians would enter the strait, though known to Eurybiades, had been kept from the rank and file in the fleet. Confirmation came at last from an unexpected source. In the middle of the night Aristides (his ten-year ostracism cut short because of the crisis) arrived by boat from Aegina, bringing with him sacred images from the island. He had seen the Persian ships by moonlight as they entered the strait and had in fact almost been caught by the blockaders at the mouth of the channel. Aristides first took Themistocles aside to give him the news. He then joined the allied council and broke the news. Shortly afterward the trireme from Tenos arrived to confirm that the Greeks were surrounded. The Tenians could also recount all the Persians’ expectations for the day ahead.

After welcoming the Tenians and enrolling them in the alliance, the Greek leaders made a hasty battle plan. They decided to array their ships in a single line against the Salamis shore to prevent a Persian diek plous or periplous, just as they had done on the last day at Artemisium. The Greek trierarchs and steersmen would be instructed to keep good order in the line until gaps opened in the Persian formation. At that point they would use their rams to cripple as many enemy ships as possible. After that the outcome depended on the help of the gods. But thanks to Themistocles, the Greeks had already done everything possible to help themselves.

One last stinging disappointment awaited Themistocles. By order of Eurybiades, the post of honor on the right wing fell this time to the islanders of Aegina, bitter rivals of the Athenians, accompanied by the Spartans with the admiral’s flagship. From the Tenians’ report, the Greeks now knew that their right wing would face the Ionians at the eastern end of the battle line, nearest to the Piraeus and the mouth of the channel. The Athenian fleet was relegated to the left wing—indeed it would occupy the entire western half of the Greek line. Their principal antagonists would be the Phoenicians. Once the order of battle had been decided, the commanders dispersed to their own divisions to rouse the crews.

In the dawn light the fighting men assembled on the beach, clustering around their commanders for the inspirational speech that preceded every battle. Themistocles spoke to the Athenian trierarchs and marines, almost two thousand strong. That day, the nineteenth of Boedromion, was one of the holiest days in the Athenian calendar. If Xerxes had not driven them from their land, these men would have been making a fourteen-mile pilgrimage from Athens to the shrine of Demeter and her daughter at Eleusis. Sacrifices and mystical rituals would have ensured that a new harvest would grow from the dry seeds of the old; the pilgrims too underwent a life-changing rebirth of the spirit. It was not lawful to talk of these mysteries, but as Themistocles stood on the beach, he called on his fellow Athenians to think of the best that human nature and fortune could offer, and the worst. And he challenged them to take their destinies into their own hands that day and choose the best. Then he offered sacrifices for victory and sent them to their ships.

The triremes were already afloat, with only their sterns grounded in the shallows. The crews filed aboard and felt their way through the hulls until each man reached his own rowing thwart. The rowers of the lower tiers seemed enveloped in a well of darkness. As the side screens of tough hide were spread down the length of the rowing frames, the upper thranite tier too was blacked out. Fresh from Themistocles’ oration, the trierarchs and marines made their way to the forward decks above the rams. The mariners raised the ladders and anchors, the rowers pulled the first light strokes, and the ships began to move slowly away from shore.

The Persians were still as invisible to them as they were to the Persians. In any case, the rowers, now pulling away from Salamis with their backs to the enemy, would see nothing of the battle unless their ship was wrecked. The stars were fading as they left the shelter of the bays, though the channel still lay in shadow. Soon the light would be strong enough for the ships to burst out of their huddle and extend their battle line along the shore. As they waited, some of the marines began the war chant. Their song was the ancient paean that preceded every battle: Ie, ie Paian! Ie, ie Paian! “Hail, hail, healing Lord!” If by some miracle the Greeks were victorious that day, they would sing the paean again at battle’s end. The chant spread from ship to ship until the echoes came back from the hills, and the strait was filled with the sound of singing.

Amid the chanting, the trumpeter on the flagship turned the flaring bell of his instrument upchannel toward the distant Athenians. Lifting the bronze to his lips, he listened for the command from Eurybiades, who was waiting for daylight. At last the moment came when dawn spread right across the sky, and the lookouts could see the rocky coast. A deep breath, and—“Now!” from the admiral—the trumpet blew, and the Greek ships burst out into the open. At a sprint they raced along the Salamis shore. Frothing white water spurted from the oar banks at every stroke. For the first time the Persians saw them clearly. This was not the disorderly mob they had been led to expect. But Xerxes’ admirals did not hesitate. Each was desperately eager to shine in the eyes of the watching king. They too swept forward after the trumpet signal, the front line forging into the wide strip of unruffled water that still separated the two fleets.

Before the Persian onset could reach them, the Greeks broke off their dash along the shore and turned their rams toward the enemy. Then came the coxswains’ urgent orders for the crews to back their oar strokes and reverse the triremes away from the enemy and toward the rocky coast of Salamis. Up and down the line the steersmen adjusted their positions, each holding his trireme level with the ships on either side while leaving as little open water as possible astern. Beyond the onrushing enemy ships, the officers and marines could now see Xerxes enthroned in splendor on his hill.

The charge across the open channel broke the uniformity of the Persian front. As it neared Salamis, the line became ragged, toothed like a saw blade with gleaming bronze rams. Observing that one Phoenician ship had pulled clear of the rest, an Athenian trierarch named Ameinias ordered a ramming attack, the first action of the battle. His rowers dug their oars into the water, propelling Ameinias’ trireme out of the Greek line. At the last possible moment the steersman shifted his steering oars so that the ship veered into the oncoming Phoenician. The Athenian ram hit so hard that it smashed through the enemy hull and lopped off the entire stern section. Ameinias’ own ship was caught in the wreckage. The Athenians on either side surged forward to his aid, closing up their ranks, and battle was joined all along the line. Off to the east the Greek right wing engaged at the same time after an Aeginetan trireme struck an Ionian.

From his hilltop Xerxes found himself looking down on more than a thousand ships locked in a struggling mass that writhed like a monstrous snake along the Salamis shore. His fleet could not recover from the initial disorder of that first charge, when the fastest crews had outstripped the pack. Each commander was now fighting his own battle. In the narrow waters Xerxes’ ships did as much damage to one another as to the Greeks. Oar banks shattered, and rowers were thrown from their thwarts. There were even accidental rammings between ships of the armada. These collisions further weakened the Persian line. The two rear ranks feared that the king might accuse them of cowardice if they held back. Instead of maintaining open zones of water between the ranks, they pressed forward. Preoccupied with maintaining their own reputations, they gave no thought to the consequences for the forward line, now helplessly pinned against the Greek rams. Crippled triremes fought to back away and escape from the mayhem but found they could not avoid the Greeks. Gaps in the Persian line were multiplying, and the Greeks darted forward wherever they saw an opening.

Throughout the morning the thin Greek line held, resilient and unbroken. Like soldiers in the shield wall of a hoplite phalanx, the Greeks kept level with the ships on either side, whether stemming an enemy attack or shoving forward. The skill of the steersmen was critical, but when a trireme was at a standstill, the steering oars became useless. Then only the rowers, responding quickly to orders, could direct the ship to one side or another. Making a sharp turn in tight quarters called for the oarsmen on one side to row harder than their counterparts on the other, or even to row alone. Here the Greek crews with their long powerful strokes had the advantage.

Toward midday, when the sun climbed high enough to blaze down into the densely packed hulls, watchers on shore perceived a change in the configuration of the fleets. It began on the Greek left wing, where Themistocles commanded the Athenians. Since early morning there had been a steady seepage of damaged Persian ships toward the eastern exit as they sought shelter at Phaleron. With each departure, the pressure that the Phoenicians had been maintaining against the Athenians slackened. The time came when the westernmost Athenian triremes were able to push away from the shore and swing out into the open channel. With this move they outflanked the Phoenicians and began to force them into what remained of the Persian center. It was the turning point.

Now at long last the Greek line broke up. One Athenian trireme after another gave chase to fleeing Persians, and the allies followed suit. Eagerly they threaded their way through the roiling mass of ships, hunters seeking prey. The Persians moved sluggishly, their crews exhausted from lack of sleep and hours of hard rowing. Many evaded the Athenians only to encounter the Aeginetans who hovered near the mouth of the channel. As the battle disintegrated into a rout, even undamaged Persian ships crowded toward the exits on either side of Psyttaleia, like herd animals running from a pride of lions. The Greeks did all they could, but inevitably most of Xerxes’ ships slipped by them and escaped.

As sea room opened up in the strait, the battle entered a new phase. It became a series of duels, like the Homeric contests between Greek and Trojan heroes on the plains of Troy. This was the time of greatest danger for the Greeks. Once free of the line, every trireme had to look to its own defense. In open water even a successful ramming attack made the aggressor vulnerable in turn to the rams of passing enemies. In the course of these ship-to-ship actions, Xerxes’ scribes were kept busy. Now it was easier for a courageous and skillful commander to score a success. Two Ionian trierarchs from the island of Samos distinguished themselves for bravery in capturing Greek ships. Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus was also entered in the list after the king’s attendants saw her ram and sink a ship. Once they had assured Xerxes that the attack had really been made by Artemisia, whom they recognized by her insignia, the Great King exclaimed, “My men have turned into women, my women into men!”

The true story of Artemisia’s exploit would not have earned her a place on the king’s honor roll. Finding her trireme the target of an Athenian ship, Artemisia tried to escape through the crowded battlefield. She could not shake off her pursuer. The Athenian trierarch was the same determined Ameinias who had destroyed the first Phoenician ship that morning. Had he known that the ship ahead of him was Artemisia’s, he would have redoubled his efforts, for the Athenians had put a price on the queen’s head. As Ameinias closed in for the kill, Artemisia found herself blocked by a ship that lay broadside across her only path of escape. This obstacle was the flagship of the King of Calynda, an Asiatic ruler who served Xerxes and who was a local rival of Artemisia. Without hesitating, she ordered the steersman to maintain his course straight ahead, and the rowers to give her full speed. Artemisia’s ship rammed the hapless Calyndian so hard that it destroyed the ship and the entire crew drowned, leaving no one to tell Xerxes what had really happened. The queen was doubly lucky: Ameinias assumed from her attack on a Persian ship that she must be an ally, and let her go.

By late afternoon the collapse of the Persian battle line brought the Athenians and Aeginetans into contact, although they had started the morning on opposite wings. One spectacular action involved triremes from both Athens and Aegina. Looking east down the channel, Xerxes saw one of his ships, a Greek trireme from the island of Samothrace, ram an Athenian. As often happened, the bronze ram of the Samothracian ship was caught and stuck in the timbers of its victim. A passing Aeginetan then rammed the immobilized ship from Samothrace, so that all three were locked together. Trapped between the heavily armored marines from Athens and Aegina, the islanders appeared doomed. To Xerxes’ joy, however, the Samothracians fired a hail of light missiles at the Aeginetan foredeck to clear it of defenders. They then jumped across from the railing of their own sinking ship. In the fight that followed, they wielded their javelins so ferociously that the Aeginetan crew abandoned ship. Claiming the enemy trireme as a prize, the victorious islanders cruised off in search of further adventures.

At about this time a group of unhappy Phoenician commanders climbed up Xerxes’ hill for an audience with the king. All these men had lost their ships, and they blamed their misfortunes on the perfidious Ionians and other eastern Greeks, saying that they had betrayed the Persian cause. The Phoenician commanders had the bad luck to make their accusations just as the Greeks from Samothrace were simultaneously sinking one enemy ship and capturing another. Furious with the Phoenicians for criticizing such heroes, Xerxes made them scapegoats for the entire disaster and had them beheaded.

Themistocles was close to an Aeginetan trireme when it captured one of the Phoenician ships from Sidon. On board the Phoenician ship the Aeginetans discovered a fellow countryman. He was the soldier whom the Phoenicians had kept as a trophy ever since their engagement with the Greek scout ships at the island of Skiathos. For the men of Aegina, the liberation of this lonely prisoner was the greatest moment of the entire battle. Seeing Themistocles nearby, the commander shouted across the water to ask if he still claimed that the Aeginetans were friends of the Persians.

As Greek marines boarded enemy ships brandishing swords and spears, or simply pitched the Persians into the water, the Salamis strait became a killing ground. Among the victims was the king’s brother Ariaramnes, one of the four admirals. Most of the Persians who died simply drowned, spilling into the sea as their ships sank or swamped. Casualties were light among the Greeks. They all knew how to swim and simply stroked their way to the Salamis shore. Any Persians who clung to floating wreckage died also; as the crush of ships cleared the narrows, the Greeks rowed about the battlefield like fishermen circling a school of tuna, spearing survivors with weapons or even broken oar shafts. Wrecked and capsized triremes littered the sea; corpses covered the rocks and reefs.

Once the last Persian ships had been chased from the channel, the Greeks turned their attention to the troops on the islet of Psyttaleia. The hard-pressed Persian ships had been unwilling to risk their own survival to pick up these men. Four hundred of Xerxes’ best troops were now stranded, and the Greek navy prepared to avenge the massacre at Thermopylae. Led by Aristides, a Greek force made a landing on Psyttaleia. They rounded up the Persians with a barrage of arrows from the archers and a shower of stones from enthusiastic rowers who had jumped ashore to join the fight. When the lightly armored Persians were penned close together on the island’s central ridge, Aristides and the hoplites charged into the mass and butchered them all. The golden rays of the setting sun gilded the struggle, visible afar in the clear evening light. The tragedy at Salamis had now reached its final scene and, for the Persian king, its bitter climax. Xerxes tore his robe in grief, stepped into his chariot, and departed.

Themistocles’ strategy had succeeded. Fast and maneuverable Greek ships and the narrow waters of the Salamis channel had been the keys to victory. At battle’s end a west wind was carrying the wreckage past Psyttaleia, but the Greeks dared not follow it into the open sea. The main body of the Persian fleet still held Phaleron, and they still outnumbered the Greeks. Except for the minor losses on Psyttaleia, Xerxes’ army remained untouched. That evening the Greeks towed the salvageable wrecks back to their station at Salamis. On shore they built funeral pyres and burned the bodies of comrades who had died that day. Amid the mourning and uncertainty, however, rose the irrepressible joy of victory. After dedicating an offering of thanks to Zeus, the Greeks danced to celebrate their triumph with shouts and stamping feet.

For the next two or three days the fleet at Salamis remained in suspense as to the enemy’s next move. The Persians had not given up the struggle after their first loss at Artemisium, and there was no reason to think that they would be any less relentless here at Salamis. Unknown to the Greeks, however, on the day after the battle in the strait the Phoenicians—the backbone of the armada—had in fact slipped away to their home cities. The rest of the fleet left Phaleron shortly afterward under cover of darkness, bound for the Hellespont or for ports in Asia Minor and distant isles. Xerxes sent some of his illegitimate sons back to Asia under the protection of Artemisia. He himself retreated overland with part of his army. A large number of troops were left behind under the command of Mardonius, with orders to complete the conquest of Greece the following spring.

When word reached Salamis that the Great King’s ships had left for home, the Greeks immediately set out in pursuit. Out of the strait that had held them for so long, past the deserted beach at Phaleron Bay, and down the Attic coast they rowed, till Cape Sunium loomed up ahead of them. The ruined temple of Poseidon stood starkly atop the cliffs, burned by the vengeful Persians like the temples on the Acropolis. Still they caught no sight of the enemy. Nightfall overtook them near the island of Andros.

Themistocles urged that they row on to the Hellespont and break the bridges. He was overruled by Eurybiades, who expressed the majority view of the Peloponnesians: the sooner Xerxes was out of Europe, the better. Nothing should be done to impede his departure. Eurybiades’ decision was later confirmed by a dramatic omen at the Isthmus. At the moment when the Spartan commander Cleombrotus, brother of the fallen Leonidas, was offering a sacrifice for victory, an eclipse hid the sun. The omen was interpreted as a warning against taking the proposed action, so Cleombrotus and the rest of the Spartans abandoned their plan to pursue Xerxes.

It was high time for the Greeks to commemorate the glorious naval victory. Among the trophies were three intact Phoenician triremes. One of these they dragged up to the shrine of Poseidon on Cape Sunium. Another was sent to the Isthmus and dedicated in the sanctuary of Poseidon there. The third captured trireme stayed on Salamis, an offering to the hero Ajax. Other spoils from the sea battles at Salamis and Artemisium were divided among the cities, once they had first set aside a tenth of the bronze from the enemy rams and weapons. From this metal they cast a statue of Apollo eighteen feet tall and erected it in the sanctuary of the oracle at Delphi. Without the prophecy of the Wooden Wall, Themistocles might never have persuaded the Athenians to face the Persians at sea.

Before the Greeks left the Isthmus, the allied naval commanders cast votes to decide who had displayed the greatest merit in the war with the Persians. There were ballots for first and second choices. The matter was considered so important that they laid their votes on the altar of Poseidon. Every man felt honor bound to vote first for himself, so there was no winner. But when they counted the votes for second place, it was found that most had voted for Themistocles. With this last rite, united in their disunity, the Greeks launched their ships and rowed away to their homes.

Themistocles went south with Eurybiades to Sparta. There he received a crop of honors for his value as a loyal ally and architect of victory. The Spartans placed a crown of wild olive on his head as a prize for wisdom and cunning. They also assigned to Themistocles an honor guard of three hundred Spartan soldiers, thus treating him like another Leonidas. And as a more tangible token of respect, they gave this Athenian lover of horses the best chariot in the country.

While Themistocles was being lionized in Sparta, the rest of the Athenians returned thankfully to their own land. Someone climbed the hill where Xerxes had sat to watch the battle of Salamis and found the gilded footstool on which the Great King had stepped to mount his chariot. In their haste to pack up and return to the royal pavilion, the king’s attendants must have overlooked it. This most cherished relic—something touched by Xerxes himself!—was carried up to the scorched and desolate Acropolis and presented to Athena as an offering. The Athenians also held a victory celebration of their own with song and dance. The boy chosen to lead the dance was a handsome and talented youngster named Sophocles, at that time about sixteen years old. The great poet Simonides wrote memorable verses as epitaphs for the fallen and eventually composed odes on the naval battles at Artemisium and Salamis. These may have been performed at the dedication of a new temple to Boreas the North Wind, a hitherto neglected god who had earned the gratitude of the Athenians for his repeated attacks on the fleets of the Great King.

It was now autumn, season of chilly showers and mild blustery winds. At peace after so many trials, the Athenians returned to their beloved countryside. The time for planting crops was well advanced. From overhead in the clouds came the clacking of migrating cranes, southward bound for the lakes of Africa. Soon those misty sisters, the seven Pleiades, would vanish from the constellations of the evening sky, and winter would put an end to sowing. All over Attica farmers were camping out in their homesteads, yoking their oxen, and beginning the seasonal round once more. Callused hands that had pulled oars at Artemisium and Salamis now gripped the handles of plows.

The seeds sown that autumn would sprout and grow in a new world. For a little space of time, scarcely more than a month, the citizens of Athens had abandoned their ancestral land and compacted themselves, one and all, into the wooden hulls of their newly built triremes. Never had they been more of a city than when they had no city. Never had they been more formidable than when they set aside their shields and spears and submerged their differences of class and politics into one common effort—the navy. They had risked everything they possessed on one throw, and their daring had been rewarded a hundredfold. Above all, they had fulfilled Themistocles’ dream. Guided by his vision, the Athenians had raised their small city to stand among the most powerful on earth. The Athens that rose from the bare fields and ruined walls would be fired by their spirit for generations to come.

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