Stifling in the August heat, even at night, Artemisium is a hub of activity. Seen by the light of bonfires, fifty thousand men are at work: here racing to patch damaged equipment, there hauling the bodies of the dead onto pyres, at one point filling water jugs and wine-skins at the spring, at another point leaving messages as disinformation for the enemy, who is close behind them. Some men are buckling on bronze helmets, others are tightening the leather straps of the arrow cases they carry on their backs, while most are holding nothing more than a seat pad made of sheepskin. As the men work, the area’s familiar scents of brine, thyme, and pine needles mix with the odor of sweat and the stink of corpses.
The cove is lined, at the shore’s edge, with about 250 triremes, moored stern first. From each ship, a pair of ladders comes down and a horde of blistered hands grabs onto the rungs, as the rowers pull themselves up toward their seats. The rowers’ grunts mix with the crackle of firewood, while the cries of the rowing masters drown out other sounds. The Greek navy is pulling out.
Of all the men crowding the beach, only one could fully make sense of the scene. Chief strategist of the Greeks, that man had planned for years for war with Persia, and now his hour had come. That man was Themistocles.
He cut a forceful presence that night. At about forty-five years of age, Themistocles of Athens, son of Neocles, was a veteran warrior. He would have worn a bronze helmet, a bronze breastplate over a linen tunic that reached to midthigh, greaves (bronze shin guards), and boots. Without his helmet he would have had a fleshy face framed by close-cropped hair and a thick beard and mustache. His forehead was deeply creased; his eyes were large, prominent, and a bit off-kilter. His high cheekbones flanked a blunt nose. His jaw was dominated by a mouth that represented the triumph of utility over grace.
It was the face of a monk or a mercenary. It is preserved in an ancient portrait bust whose inscription identifies this far-from-classical countenance as that of Themistocles. We do not know whether it is an accurate likeness, but if it is an invented portrait, it is inspired. The bust conveys irresistible force, as if of a powerful and intelligent man who needed only his will to wrest an enemy into submission.
For three days, from August 27 to 29, Themistocles led the Greek navy in its first test against the much more experienced Persians. The Greeks were based at Artemisium on the northern tip of the island of Euboea; the Persians were about ten miles away, across the channel, on the mainland. Although outnumbered more than two to one, the Greeks held the enemy to a standstill. Never mind the need to retreat, now that the defenses of the nearby pass of Thermopylae were pierced and the Spartan king Leonidas was dead; never mind the problem of evacuating more than a hundred thousand people from Athens; never mind the smoke and ruin of the Persians’ advance: Themistocles had reason to be happy.
In three years he had turned Athens from a backwater into the first sea power in Greece, the proud possessor of two hundred triremes. He had built a fleet and hammered out a plan to save the city from the Persian invasion that he saw coming. And he had turned himself into both the first man in Athens and the kingpin of the Greek navy. Not bad for a man who came from outside the charmed circle of the Athenian aristocracy, a man who put his pragmatism bluntly:
I may not know how to tune the lyre or to handle the harp but I know how to take a small and unknown city and make it famous and great.
Not bad for a man who appalled the old guard, a man about whom the philosopher Plato later complained that he turned the Athenians from steadfast infantrymen into a sailors’ rabble. But then, Themistocles was a champion in the game of broad-shouldered, no-holds-barred fighting that was Athenian politics. It was a new game, invented when Themistocles was just a teenager. In 508 B.C., a revolution had turned Athens into one of history’s first democracies.
Only a democracy could have put together the manpower to staff two hundred triremes—forty thousand men—and the willpower to use them well. As Herodotus says, democracy energized Athens:
When the Athenians lived under a tyranny they were no better at war than any of their neighbors, but after they got rid of the tyrants they were the first by far. This proves that when they were oppressed they fought badly on purpose as if they were slaving away for a master, but after they were liberated they each were eager to get the job done for his own sake.
Themistocles was that rare thing in a democracy, a leader. He had no fear of speaking truths to the people. By the same token, he knew that a straight line is not always the shortest distance between two points. He was known for his shrewdness and his shock tactics, or what the Greeks called deinotes (pronounced “day-NO-tays”). Deinotes can mean a quick remark or a catastrophe; it can be applied to an orator or a lightning bolt; it can be used as a compliment or a criticism. All of these shades of meaning fitted Themistocles.
Themistocles was brilliant, farsighted, creative, tireless, magnanimous, courageous, and eloquent. Yet it is also true that during the course of his career he lied, cheated, blustered, and threatened; grabbed credit for others’ ideas; manipulated religion; took bribes and extorted protection money; served up insult and pursued vendetta; and ended his days in exile, a traitor. In short, Themistocles was no angel, but seraphim could not have saved the Greeks.
In the spring of 480 B.C., the members of the Greek alliance against Persia, the Hellenic League, met at the Isthmus of Corinth to chart strategy. The Persians were coming, invading Greece in force. It was the latest stage in a war that had already lasted a generation.
The war began when Athens insulted the mighty Persian Empire by promising to become its ally around 508 B.C. but then reneged. Athenian ambassadors to the empire made a symbolic gift of earth and water as a sign of submission, but the Athenian government refused to support them. The quarrel worsened when Athens later threw two Persian ambassadors into a pit for condemned criminals, which was probably the prelude to execution. Much worse, Athens next provided military aid to the Ionian Revolt of 499 to 494B.C., a rebellion of Persia’s Greek and Carian subjects in western Anatolia. The Greeks had lived in Anatolia for centuries; the Carians went back even further, and might have been related to the Trojans. In the Ionian Revolt, the Athenians briefly captured the Persian provincial capital of Sardis and started a fire there that burned out of control and destroyed the temple of the goddess Cybele.
Persia put down the Ionian Revolt in 494 B.C. The decisive battle was fought at sea near Lade, an island off the coast of Anatolia and near the Greek city-state of Miletus, the ringleader of the revolt. Now it was time for revenge on Athens. King Darius of Persia sent an armada across the Aegean Sea to invade Athens in 490 B.C. But at the battle of Marathon, in Athenian territory twenty-four miles from the city of Athens, Athenian infantrymen crushed Persia’s soldiers and saved their country. Themistocles was one of the Athenians in the line of battle.
Now, ten years later, the Persians were coming back, this time in massive numbers. The Greeks who met at the Isthmus of Corinth in the spring of 480 B.C. came up with a defense strategy that had three basic elements. First, since Persia would attack both by land and sea, the Greeks would respond with an army and a navy. The Peloponnese would provide most of the infantrymen, since Athens would devote all its manpower to its big navy. Second, since Persia was attacking Athens via northern Greece rather than by island-hopping across the Aegean, the allies would mount a forward defense in northern Greece. It was better to try to stop Persia there than at the gates of Athens. Third, time was on the Greeks’ side. For political reasons, the Persian king wanted a quick victory, and for practical reasons, the Persian quartermasters could not supply their huge force for very long. Therefore, the Greeks might well have intended to drag out the war until the Persians gave up.
The Greeks began their defense in the north. Their first thrust consisted of an army of ten thousand men to hold the mountain pass known as the Vale of Tempe, which runs between Macedonia and Thessaly. Themistocles led the force. But when he got to Tempe in June or July of 480 B.C., he discovered two other passes nearby. Since it would be impossible to close all three passes to Persia, he withdrew southward. Tempe had been a failure of intelligence—a sign of how little the Greeks knew about their own country and how much darkness ancient strategists often worked in.
But Artemisium was a strategist’s triumph. If Themistocles did not choose it as a base, he quickly grasped its importance. It was close enough to Thermopylae to allow a coordinated land-sea strategy. The Greek fleet at Artemisium would keep Persian reinforcements from arriving by sea and cutting off the Greek army holding the pass at Thermopylae.
The Greeks could have stationed their fleet closer to Thermopylae, which is forty miles away from Artemisium. But nearness was not the only issue. Nor was the potential battlefield, since the straits at Artemisium are ten miles wide, and the Greeks might have preferred fighting in narrower waters, where Persia could not deploy its full number of ships. Yet Artemisium offered other advantages.
Artemisium was the region’s best harbor because it was large, sheltered, and rich in sources of drinking water. By occupying it themselves, the Greeks denied Artemisium to the enemy. That meant that the Persians could not land on the strategic island of Euboea without a challenge from the Greek fleet. Nor could the Persian fleet bypass the island without risking a Greek challenge.
Since triremes were both too fragile and too uncomfortable for a long stay at sea, trireme fleets did not mount blockades in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they moored in a harbor near the enemy and ventured out to challenge him. In order to be ready, they used scouts both on land and sea to follow enemy movements and to signal information.
From Artemisium the Greeks could challenge the Persian fleet’s southward advance in either of two directions. The rocky east coast of the island of Euboea is hostile to sailors, so the Persians were likely to avoid it. The west coast of Euboea is gentler. Its harbors open onto an inland waterway between Euboea and the Greek mainland, a sheltered passage for the Persian navy from northern Greece to Athens. It is completely navigable even if, at about its midpoint, the channel narrows to a width of forty yards of water, a sound called the Euripos. Hence, the Greeks at Artemisium expected a Persian move to the southwest.
Recognizing the Greeks’ plan, the Persians coordinated their attack on Artemisium and on Thermopylae. Although they had not planned matters quite so precisely, the land and sea battles there turned out to be fought on precisely the same three days in late August, 480 B.C.
The Greeks would have rejoiced to stop Persia via the joint operations at Thermopylae and Artemisium. But they did not need to fulfill that tall order; merely bloodying Persia and slowing it down would be a Greek success. To force casualties and delay would shake Persia’s resolve while it would give the Greeks a taste of Persian tactics—invaluable knowledge for use in the next battle. And so, the Greek navy sat at Artemisium and waited for the barbarian.
Artemisium was usually a sleepy place: a scene of blue water, a sandy beach, and dark green and silver-gray groves of pine and olive, in August dotted with orange clumps of late-blooming crocuses. The nearest town was eight miles away, but on a hill beside the bay (today’s Pevki Bay) stood a little temple of Artemis Proseoia, that is, Artemis Who Looks Toward the East, and the name suited Greece’s chief naval base against the threat from the East.
Yet like all forward bases, Artemisium offered advantage and danger in equal measure. If the Greek fleet faltered, its men would be adrift in hostile country. That is, if they survived. Persia wanted to smash the enemy navy and gain control of the sea-lanes southward, which meant crippling Greece’s boats and killing its sailors. The Persians wanted to wipe out every last Greek, down to the Spartan priest whose job it was to keep alight the sacred fire brought from the altar of Zeus back in Sparta.
The Greeks’ exposed position was risk enough, but worse still was the Greek navy’s size. In 480 B.C., the Greek world stretched from Anatolia to the Bay of Naples; there was even a smattering of Greeks as far east as the Caucasus and as far west as Spain. All told, there were fifteen hundred Greek city-states. Yet only a relative handful—only thirty-one city-states—joined the coalition against Persia.
In fact, more Greek city-states fought on the other side. Persia was too strong and loyalty to the idea of Greece too weak to make the Hellenic League any more powerful. Athens, Sparta, and the few other city-states that stood up to Persia spoke harshly of Greek traitors, but most Greeks would have shrugged their shoulders at the charge.
Of the thirty-one members of the Hellenic League, a mere fourteen city-states manned the warships at Artemisium, for a total of 280 warships—271 triremes and 9 penteconters. Later, Athens sent 53 ships as reinforcements, making a total of 333 warships. Athens provided 180 ships at Artemisium, by far the largest contingent; the ships were partly manned by Athens’s allies in Plataea. The next largest unit was the 40 ships from Corinth, followed by 20 from Megara, 20 more from Athens manned by crews from Chalcis, 18 from Aegina, and eight smaller contingents.
Opposite the Greeks sailed a navy that vastly outnumbered them. The Persians had no fewer than 1,207 triremes when they set out on their expedition, and another 120 joined them as they added new allies on their advance through northern Greece toward Artemisium—for a total of 1,327 ships.
Both fleets had to cope with the strains and cracks of multinational armadas. But the differences among the Greek city-states were small compared to the contrasts in the floating tower of Babel that was the Persian fleet. It combined Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Cypriots, and various non-Greek peoples of Anatolia, from Carians to Pamphylians. With all its different languages, communication alone was no small problem for the fleet, let alone coordinating operations at sea.
Four Persian nobles, including two princes, held the supreme command. Yet there was not a single Persian ship in their navy. Every ship carried a mix of marines and archers, including some Persians, but not one of the rowers or seamen was Persian. The Persians were not seafarers.
The Greeks, by contrast, practically had salt water running in their veins, so wedded were they to the sea. The Odyssey, that quintessential sailor’s story, was one of the two national epics known to every Greek boy. But the Greek coalition against Persia was led by a land power—Sparta. By tradition Greece’s greatest city-state, Sparta prided itself on its military virtue. The Greek alliance was known as the Hellenic League. Sparta insisted on holding the supreme command at sea, as it did on land. In the interests of Greek unity, Athens agreed. Yet with its two hundred warships, Athens had by far the largest and strongest Greek navy. Although a Spartan named Eurybiades son of Eurycleides was commander of the Greek fleet, Themistocles amounted to its main strategist.
But his genius was hardly evident at the outset. In the first naval clash of the war, the Greeks sent three ships north to reconnoiter; they were based on the island of Sciathos, about fifteen miles northeast of Artemisium. A Persian contingent advanced toward them, and the Greek ships fled at the first sight of it. Two of them were captured, and the third was beached and abandoned by its crew. The abandoned ship was Athenian, and the two captured ships were from Aegina and Troezen. The Persians focused on the Troezenian ship, because it was the first captured Greek vessel of the war. They picked through the dozen marines until they found the best-looking one. Then they hauled him to the prow and slit his throat. They considered it lucky to sacrifice the best-looking man among their first prisoners. Besides, the victim’s name was Leon, “lion,” and it was auspicious to kill the king of the beasts.
The fleet at Artemisium learned the news via fire signals transmitted from a mountaintop on Sciathos to a mountaintop on Euboea. In the clear skies of the Mediterranean, fire signals could be seen from far off. They were visible as smoke signals during the day and as beacons at night. Modern tests show that the signals were visible between mountaintops up to a distance of two hundred miles.
Having seen the signal, the fleet withdrew southward into the Euboean channel, all the way to the city of Chalcis. They left scouts in the hills above Artemisium to report Persian movements to them. Scouts had to be fast runners and good horsemen—for those occasions when horses were available. They had to travel light and not call attention to themselves, so they might be armed only with a dagger.
Where, we wonder, was the bold Themistocles? Herodotus says that the Greek move was just plain panic. If he is right, then presumably Themistocles had been overruled by the other generals. But there may be other explanations of the Greek withdrawal. Perhaps the Greeks suspected a bold Persian move via Sciathos down the east coast of Euboea, and they were racing to beat them. Another possibility might be that, with their local knowledge, the Greeks could tell that a dangerous storm was brewing and so had withdrawn to a sheltered position.
Meanwhile, the Persians were heading toward Artemisium, sailing southward down the coast of northeastern Greece, opposite Mount Pelion. The rugged Pelion peninsula rises abruptly from the sea. Unable to find a harbor large enough for all their ships, the Persians were forced to moor their fleet in eight lines parallel to the coast, near Cape Sepias. That in turn left them vulnerable to what Herodotus calls a “monster storm.” It lasted three days, until the heavens bowed to the prayers of Persia’s priests. Most Greeks saw the storm as the work of Boreas, god of the north wind.
For months after the storm, gold and silver cups and even treasure chests washed up on shore, making one local Greek landowner a millionaire. Herodotus reports that, by conservative estimates, the Persians lost four hundred warships and innumerable sailors. The size of the fleet had been reduced from 1,327 to about 927 warships. It was a terrific blow, but the Persian fleet was still enormous.
Having recovered, the Persian fleet rounded the Pelion peninsula and arrived opposite Artemisium, at a harbor called Aphetae, the legendary starting point of Jason and the Argonauts. Aphetae is probably best thought of as the Persians’ naval command post; their fleet was too bulky for any one harbor and so was probably spread out over several.
By now their scouts had rushed news to the Greeks at Chalcis of the disastrous storm. No doubt, the tale grew with the telling. Convinced that the Persians were ruined, the Greeks said a prayer of thanksgiving to the god of the sea, Poseidon, whom they now dubbed Poseidon the Savior. Then they hurried back north to Artemisium. They were in for a shock.
When the Greeks at Artemisium looked across the straits at the enemy and saw how big Persia’s fleet remained in spite of the storm, they panicked. There was talk of a retreat, and that, in turn, galvanized the local Euboeans. Unable to convince Eurybiades to stay long enough for them to evacuate women and children, the Euboeans turned to Themistocles. He proved willing to stay—for a price. The Euboeans paid him the huge sum of thirty talents of silver, enough money to employ a hundred workmen for six years, or to buy a thousand slaves, or to pay the crews of thirty triremes for a season’s work. After turning over five talents to Eurybiades and three talents to the Corinthian commander, Adimantus son of Ocytus, Themistocles had twenty-two talents left for himself, a fact that he did not advertise. The Greek fleet stayed at Artemisium.
We might say that the Euboeans paid Themistocles and his colleagues a bribe, but the ancient Greeks would have called it a gift. Their language had no word for bribe, but their culture valued gift-giving. Homer’s heroes heaped up gold, bulls, and women for their feats of prowess; Herodotus’s politicians expected to have their palms greased. Contemporaries accepted the practice; indeed, Athenian law winked at a public servant who took private money as long as he used it in the best interests of the people.
Around this time, the Greeks at Artemisium got a windfall. Fifteen Persian stragglers mistakenly made for Artemisium instead of Aphetae and so sailed right into enemy hands. The Greeks got not only fifteen triremes but also three important Persian commanders, including the governor of Aeolis, a region in northwest Anatolia that included the city of Cyme, a major naval harbor, as well as a Carian tyrant and a commander from Cyprus. After interrogation, they were shipped off in chains to the Isthmus of Corinth.
Meanwhile, the Persians at Aphetae came up with a battle plan. They needed a stratagem, they reasoned, because if they simply came out and fought, the terrified Greeks would turn and flee. So, to prevent a Greek escape, the Persians set a trap. The Persians would send two hundred ships around the east coast of Euboea; once they rounded the southern tip of the island, they would double back along the west coast and emerge west of Artemisium. Then, at a signal, the main Persian fleet would pounce.
Clever though it seems, their plan betrays a landlubber’s mentality. It was one thing to turn an enemy’s flank on a level plain, quite another to do so along Euboea’s windswept and treacherous eastern coast. Besides, a deserter warned the Greeks what Persia was up to. Scyllias of Scione was a northern Greek in Persia’s service who was known as the best diver of his day. Herodotus scoffs at reports that he swam the tenmile straits—underwater!—to reach the Greeks; instead, he says, Scyllias probably stole across in a boat. But the Greeks had primitive snorkels, and perhaps by surfacing every now and then, Scyllias did manage what was mainly an underwater swim. In any case, he delivered the news both of Persia’s losses in the storm and of the dispatch of the two hundred ships.
Before deciding on their next move, the Greeks went through a long and barely decisive debate. They finally agreed to launch their ships at midnight to meet the Persian contingent of two hundred ships. Presumably they planned to sail southward and attack the ships in isolation. That was a bad idea because it would have drawn the main Persian fleet out after them, and fortunately, the Greeks never followed through. By the afternoon, with no sign of the two hundred Persian ships, the Greeks changed their minds. They would attack the main body of the Persian fleet.
It was a crazy plan, or so it seemed. Ancient navies rarely chose to fight without a friendly shore nearby, but the Greek fleet had purposely left its base at Artemisium to head across the channel. The Greeks, moreover, had 271 warships, the Persians over 700, plus the menacing 200 ships from the south. On top of that, Persian triremes were faster than Greek triremes.
Supreme in numbers and speed, the Persians could hardly believe their eyes when they saw the Greeks bearing down on them. The Persians quickly manned their ships to meet the attack. The Persian crews were confident of success, and they competed for the honor of being the first to capture an enemy ship, especially a ship from the best Greek contingent, the Athenians. The Ionian Greeks in the Persian fleet pitied their fellow Greeks on the other side. The way the Ionians saw it, not a single man in the Greek navy would make it home.
The Greek attack was as crazy as it was cunning and calculated and courageous. It bears the hallmark of that master tactician Themistocles. The Athenian single-handedly overcame all opposition and talked the Greeks into taking the offensive. Who else could have conceived such a brilliant use of timing, precision, and shock?
Themistocles carefully planned the attack for the evening. Ancient navies reluctantly traveled in the dark, but they dared not fight in the dark, so the engagement would be brief. It would, in fact, be less of a battle than a raid, and indeed, an experiment. Under carefully controlled conditions, the Greeks would be able to test the enemy’s battle skills, particularly at the maneuver known as the diekplous.
Diekplous means “rowing through and out.” In this dangerous maneuver, a single trireme or, preferably, a line of triremes rowed through a gap in the enemy line and attacked. The decks would be lined with soldiers and archers at the ready, but their role was mainly defensive. The main weapon was the attacking ship’s ram: it was used to smash into the quarter (the stern part) of the enemy trireme. The Phoenicians were especially good at this maneuver, as an ancient source notes:
When the Phoenicians are lined up opposite the enemy face-to-face, in line abreast, they bear down as if to ram head-on, but instead of doing so they row through the enemy’s line and turn and attack the exposed sides of the enemy ships.
Another tactic in the diekplous was to shear off the oars of one side of an enemy trireme, thereby crippling it. The inertial force would wound or possibly kill rowers on the enemy vessel. Meanwhile, the rowers of the attacking ship had to pull in their own oars at the crucial last minute in order to keep from damaging them.
The diekplous was a deadly dance and as complex as any ballet. The Greek fleet needed to stop the enemy’s dance and to answer it with a maneuver of its own. Success came only with experience, and few rowers in the Athenian fleet had ever executed maneuvers in battle. They had no doubt practiced during the two summers since the building of Athens’s new fleet, but those were only rehearsals. Nor had the entire Greek fleet fought together before. That first evening at Artemisium marked the debut of the Greek fleet—and it was brilliant.
Just before launching their ships, the Greeks no doubt took care of the customary pre-battle rituals. The priests who took part in every city-state’s forces—just as chaplains accompany modern armies—sacrificed animals in order to gain the gods’ approval. Then, as they launched their ships and rowed toward the enemy, the trumpets sounded, and some if not all of the crews bucked up their spirits by singing a battle hymn, or, as the Greeks called it, a paean.
A well-rowed and carefully coordinated fleet would have made a stunning impression. Themistocles was in the thick of things. Ancient generals did not lead from the rear. As an Athenian commander, Themistocles would have directed the attack from a well-marked flagship, perhaps flying a purple flag at the stern. He would have sat in a raised position on the quarterdeck, from which he could follow events and issue orders. But it was a vulnerable position: in a battle at a later date, for example, a Spartan general was thrown from the deck when his ship was rammed, and he drowned.
It was the general’s responsibility to make a battle plan and then to see that his ships carried it out. He had to see to it that the ships stayed in line. A general gave the orders to advance and to retreat, to spread out or to pull into a more compact formation. If the enemy behavior proved to be different from what had been expected, it was up to the general to change battle plans and to inform his lieutenants to spread the word.
As surprised by the Greek attack as they were contemptuous of it, the Persians, a superior force, did the obvious thing: they surrounded the enemy. With their huge numbers and a channel ten miles wide, they could easily outflank the Greek line. In fact, as Herodotus reports, the Persians actually encircled the Greeks. But they had played right into Themistocles’ hands.
The Greek commanders ordered a prearranged signal. Signaling at sea was often done by flashing sunlight off a burnished shield; a mirror or even a cutlass could be used as well. If the sun was too low at this late hour, and if the light was wrong for waving a white or scarlet linen flag—another means of signaling—then the signal was probably called by the sound of trumpets rising above the din.
At the signal, the Greeks followed their plan and arranged their boats in a defensive circle. They might have carried out the maneuver by having each of the two wings of their line back water, that is, to continue to force the enemy but row backwards, stern first; meanwhile the center maintained its position. Now every boat faced prow out, with the sterns drawn close together. The ring was too tight for the Persians to penetrate. Meanwhile, the self-assured Persians probably felt no need to keep their ships in so strict an order.
The ships of the two fleets could hardly have been closer to each other; they stood prow to prow or, to use the ancient Greek expression, mouth to mouth. To put it differently, the two fleets would fight in an artificially created narrow space. Themistocles had maneuvered the enemy precisely where he wanted it, where Athens’s heavier ships could do the most damage. We can only speculate as to whether Themistocles had also chosen a moment when the wind was favorable.
On deck, the soldiers and archers kept at the ready, careful not to shift position and unbalance the boat. The pilot loosely held the two rudder oars, waiting for a call to action. Meanwhile, below deck, the rowers, arranged on three levels, sat silently on their benches, ears pricked for the piper, whose rhythm their strokes would soon follow.
The rowers sitting on the top level might catch glimpses of the scene outside by peering between the ship’s wooden posts and the horsehair screens set up for the battle to protect them from enemy arrows. The lower two levels of rowers could only imagine what lay outside. As they headed for an appointment with death, their world consisted only of the 170 men within the wooden walls. It was a world permeated by the odors of pine, from the resin pitch used to protect the hold from seawater, and of mutton, from the sheep tallow used to lubricate the leather sleeves through which the oars passed. And everywhere was the smell of sweat and flatulence and occasionally of vomit.
Now came Themistocles’ coup. At a second signal, selected Greek triremes darted out of the circle, went through the loose enemy line, picked off vulnerable Persian triremes, and escaped. The preferred Greek tactics were either to ram a Persian vessel and then back off or to shear off the enemy’s oars on one side and then turn and flee. In either case, this superbly executed countermaneuver stopped the enemy’s diekplous and yielded the Greeks thirty enemy vessels as well as another important captive, a notable man in the Persian forces named Philaon son of Chersis, the brother of King Gorgus, king of the city of Salamis in Cyprus (a different place from Athens’s island of Salamis). An Athenian captain, one Lycomedes son of Aeschraeus of the deme of Phyla, won the prize for bravery because he was the first Greek to capture a Persian warship. A Greek ship in Persian service, captained by Antidorus of the island of Lemnos, defected to the Greek side. Two years of hard training had paid off for the Athenians. The Persians probably never knew what hit them.
The dispirited Persians headed back to their base at Aphetae, but their troubles were not over. That night saw a loud and violent thunderstorm, unseasonable in the Greek summer. The weather played havoc with Persian morale, as Herodotus reports:
Corpses and the wreckage of the ships were carried to Aphetae, where they clustered around the prows of the ships and got in the way of the blades of the oars. The crews grew frightened when they heard about this, and they expected that they were going to die, given all the troubles they had encountered.
The morning brought worse news. The same rainstorm that frightened the men at Aphetae had also wrecked the two-hundred-ship Persian contingent that had been sent around Euboea’s east coast. Survivors hurried back to Aphetae with the news. There would be no entrapment of the Greeks at Artemisium.
As if to drive the point home, the Greeks attacked the Persians again that very afternoon, waiting once more until the hour was late. Greek spirits were buoyed by the news of Persia’s disaster around Euboea and by the arrival of fifty-three triremes from Athens as reinforcements. Information is scanty about the second engagement off Artemisium, but we may speculate that the Greeks pounced on a Persian squadron rather than the whole fleet. At any rate, the Greeks destroyed some ships from Cilicia (a region in southern Anatolia) and then sailed back to Artemisium.
Finally, on the third day, Persia’s frustrated commanders initiated their own attack. By now they were worried about soon having to face the anger of their absent king, who was off directing the fighting at Thermopylae but would hear the news from Artemisium. They sailed out around midday. The commanders exhorted their men: “Destroy the Greek fleet and gain control of the waterway!”
As the Persians rowed across in battle order, the Greeks kept calm, embarked on their ships, and kept close to Artemisium. Their generals too exhorted their men: “The barbarians shall not pass into the heart of Greece!”
The Persians arranged their ships in a semicircle, hoping to surround the Greeks and crush them. But it did not work out. We do not know precisely how they did it, but somehow the outnumbered Greeks once again made their quality equal the quantity of the enemy. Maybe the battle took place at the entrance to the bay where the Greek triremes were moored; a narrow space that worked to the advantage of the heavy Athenian vessels. Maybe the Greeks arranged their ships in a double line as a defense against the enemy’s diekplous. The ships in the second line would try to pick off any Persian ship that broke through before it could turn and ram a Greek ship in the front line. We know that a man named Heraclides of Mylasa, a refugee from Persian rule, used precisely this tactic against Phoenician ships in a battle of Artemisium. But Artemisium was a common name, and we do not know if the anecdote about Heraclides refers to this battle.
However they did it, the Greeks managed to put the enemy off balance. Instead of helping, Persia’s superiority in number of ships hurt. The ships of the enormous fleet kept falling afoul of themselves, as boats could not avoid colliding with one another.
Still, the Persians refused to yield. They were too proud to let so small a fleet make them turn tail. The battle continued until nightfall, when both sides were bruised enough to be eager to end it. Herodotus reports that both sides lost many ships and men. But there was bad news for Persia even so. Their losses far outnumbered the Greeks’.
Tactically, the battle of the third day was a draw, but in terms of strategy, it was a Greek victory. At Artemisium, Persia had hoped to knock the Greek fleet out of the war. Yet the Greek fleet had not just survived the worst Persia had to offer but had actually won two out of the three engagements. It was a blow to Persia’s naval pride.
There would be a rematch between the two fleets, of course, but that would take place further south, near Athens or the Peloponnese. There, the Greeks would have the great advantage of familiar waters. The Persians, meanwhile, would be ever further from their base, ever deeper in hostile territory, ever more troubled by the food supply.
And as important as the battles off Artemisium were, they took second place to the storms that had buffeted the Persian fleet. The Persians had left northern Greece with 1,327 triremes. They suffered the staggering loss of 600 ships to storms; add battle losses, and the Persians probably had only about 650 ships left after Artemisium. As Herodotus commented on the storm that wrecked 200 Persian ships off Euboea, “it was all done by the god so that the Greek force would be saved and the Persian force would be not be much greater than it.” True, the Persians still outnumbered the Greeks, but the unreliability of some of Persia’s squadrons further reduced their numerical advantage.
Back at Artemisium and at Aphetae, prizes were awarded for valor in battle. Xerxes gave the honors to his Egyptian sailors for capturing five Greek ships, crews and all. That is, according to Herodotus: another tradition says that the Phoenicians of the city of Sidon took Persian honors for Artemisium. The five ships under Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus also fought in the thick of battle. On the Greek side, Athens won the prize, and among the Athenians, the pride of place belonged to Cleinias son of Alcibiades, a wealthy aristocrat who provided two hundred sailors and his own trireme, all at his own expense. But there was little time for celebration. There was work to do: both sides had to collect their corpses and salvage what they could of their wrecks. The Athenians had suffered damage to fully half of their triremes.
But Themistocles was already looking ahead. He called together the Greek generals and told them that he had a plan. He thought that he might be able to detach the Ionians and the Carians from the enemy, and said that they were the best units in the Persian fleet. (The Phoenicians, for one, would not have agreed.)
Without a doubt, many Ionian Greeks and many Carians had reason to hate Persia. For example, they knew how Persia had treated the people of Miletus after the Ionian Revolt. Most of the men were killed, the women and children were made slaves, and those men who were captured alive were eventually resettled on the Persian Gulf.
Or take the islanders of Chios, whose experience at the naval battle of Lade in 494 B.C. was an epic in miniature. One hundred Chian ships took part in the fight. Although most of the Greek ships fled at the start, the Chians fought hard and captured a number of Persian ships. Finally, however, the badly outnumbered Chians lost most of their own ships, and the survivors fled for home.
But some of Chios’s ships had been damaged, and the enemy ran them aground on the mainland. From there, the crews made their way on foot to the territory of Ephesus, a Greek city. By now it was dark. As it happened, the women of Ephesus were gathered outside the city to celebrate a festival. The men of Ephesus, terrified by the sudden appearance of a group of armed strangers, attacked the Chians and slaughtered them to the last man. Such was the tragic end of their struggle for freedom.
The Ionians remembered this, and they remembered something else, too: Persia won the battle of Lade by diplomacy, not skill at sea. The main Greek contingent, which came from the island of Samos, agreed to desert, and that threw the battle to Persia. In other words, the Persian fleet had not proven itself to be supreme in battle.
Aware of all this, the Greeks at Artemisium were no doubt intrigued by Themistocles’ promise of getting the Ionians and Carians to desert. They asked him how he would manage it. That, said Themistocles, was a secret for the moment. It would be revealed in good time. For now, let the details be left to him. Also, he asked for the authority to choose the moment when the fleet would make the prudent retreat homeward that was now obviously necessary.
Never docile, Themistocles’ colleagues nonetheless agreed. Perhaps they were persuaded by his arguments, or perhaps they reasoned that he would make a convenient scapegoat should things go wrong. Or maybe the issue was decided by the distraction with which Themistocles tempted them: food.
He advised the generals to order the men to light watch fires and to slaughter the sheep and goats that the Euboean locals had incautiously driven nearby at day’s end. Sheep-stealing in Greece is as old as the Odyssey, but the generals nonetheless felt the need to justify their act; if they hadn’t grabbed the beasts, they reasoned, the Persians would have. Lamb and goat were a treat, compared to the usual fare of barley groats, salt fish, garlic, and onions. But then, many of the men had just had the hardest three days of their lives. Most of them had never before experienced hearing the roar of charging warships or seeing pale corpses slip beneath the waves.
That night, while meat crackled on wooden spits along the shore, the scene might have looked from a distance like one of those all-night festivals under the stars that the Greeks so loved. The constellations of the Bear and the Archer (as the Greeks referred to them; we call them the Big Dipper and Sagittarius) were low and prominent in the summer sky, and the shore was lit by thousands of fires. But close up, among the exhausted men, it was no scene of celebration. The word was out: the navy would be pulling out the next morning. Themistocles had chosen his moment. Then came the news from Thermopylae. The Persians had broken through the pass and slaughtered the Spartans, including the Spartan king.
The Greek navy had to leave Artemisium in self-defense. But they also had to leave in order to protect their wives and children at home farther south. Now that Thermopylae had fallen, the road to Athens was open. The main city-state between Thermopylae and Athens was Thebes, and Thebes had joined the Persians. The Persian king had sworn to destroy Athens, and now there was nothing to stop his army razing it to the ground. Sparta had promised to send an army to protect Athens, but after Thermopylae, it could not do so. The Athenian fleet had to hurry home to carry out the emergency plan prepared in advance.
Instead of waiting for the morning, the Greeks began to pull out that very night. After cremating their dead and manning their ships, they took care of one final detail before departure, something they dared not neglect because an oversight would have meant disaster. Every Greek, especially sailors, a group, then as now, famously superstitious, knew that they must pray to the gods for a safe journey. It was a traditional ceremony that dates as far back as Homer. The Greeks said their prayers, sang a hymn, and poured a cup of wine from the stern of each ship as an offering to the deities. Then, finally, they left Artemisium.
Athens’s resolution in its retreat is recalled by these lines, later inscribed on a white marble pillar near the temple at Artemisium:
With numerous tribes from Asia’s region brought
The sons of Athens on these waters fought;
Erecting, after they had quelled the Mede,
To Artemis this record of the deed.
The poet Pindar put the meaning of Artemisium succinctly:
There the sons of Athens set
The stone that freedom stands on yet.
But the final word about Artemisium belongs to Themistocles. As the Greeks prepared to pull out, he ordered them to leave messages for the Persians who would shortly take over their camp. The task was entrusted to Athens’s fastest ships, in the expectation that they could catch up to the rest of the fleet. On the rocks around the several springs at the site, Themistocles had them display placards and also paint messages to the tens of thousands of Greek sailors in Xerxes’ navy. Not many of those men could read, which meant that the literate few would read the statements out loud, and the report would echo around the beach. According to Herodotus, the messages read as follows:
Men of Ionia, you are doing wrong by making war upon your fathers and enslaving Greece. The best thing that you can do is to join us; if you cannot do this, you might at least remain neutral, and ask the Carians to do the same. If you cannot do either of these things, but are held by a force so strong that you cannot step aside, then when we get down to cases and next meet in battle, fight badly on purpose, mindful that you are descended from our ancestors and that we inherited our hatred of the barbarian from you.
Themistocles calculated that the messages would have one of two effects: they would either lead to desertions from the Persian fleet or make the Persians distrust their Greek sailors. It was, in short, wicked propaganda. No less could be expected of a man once called the subtle serpent of the Greeks.