22 - SPARRING FOR POSITION

The debate was carried on all night, but there can be no doubt that from that moment it was, in effect, concluded. Eurybiades and his Peloponnesians knew when they were beaten, and in any case Aegina and Megara (both of whom would have been thrown to the wolves if the fleet had withdrawn) came out in favour of staying at Salamis and fighting it out as Themistocles had suggested. Since Aegina was providing thirty triremes and Megara twenty they, combined with the Athenians, formed about three-quarters of the whole fleet. As Themistocles - despite Athenian opposition - had cannily recognised months before, the concession to the Peloponnesians that the commander-in-chief of the fleet should be a Spartan mattered little. In the long run, what would matter was who had the commanding number of ships. He had already pointed out to Eurybiades and the other commanders the disadvantages of fighting off the Isthmus, because this would involve a battle in open waters where the greater numbers and the better manoeuvrability of the Persian ships would give them an immense advantage over the Greeks. He himself had always known that Salamis was the key. Themistocles was not only a brilliant diplomat, wily politician, admirable strategist, but also a master-tactician. There have been few men like him in history. Herodotus now records the conclusion of his speech: words which sound so authentic that, although it cannot be a direct quotation, they read as if they had stayed engraved in the memory of someone who was there:

Now for my plan: it will bring, if you adopt it, the following advantages; first, we shall be fighting in narrow waters, and there, with our inferior numbers, we shall win, provided things go as we may reasonably expect. Fighting in a confined space favours us but the open sea favours the enemy. Secondly, Salamis, where we have put our women and children, will be preserved and thirdly - for you the most important point of all - you will be fighting in defence of the Peloponnese by remaining here just as much as by withdrawing to the Isthmus - nor, if you have the sense to follow my advice, will you draw the Persian army to the Peloponnese. If we beat them at sea, as I expect we shall, they will not advance to attack you on the Isthmus, or come any further than Attica; they will retreat in disorder, and we shall gain by the preservation of Megara, Aegina, and Salamis - where an oracle has already foretold our victory. Let a man lay his plans with due regard to common sense, and he will usually succeed.

If there was much debate going on among the Greek allies as to the future conduct of the war, the same can equally be said of the councils of their enemy. There was one salient difference, however; the Greeks seem to have reached their decision as to how to act within a night or two of the burning of the Acropolis. The persuasive brilliance of Themistocles, coupled with the adherence to his views of Aegina and Megara, and also of Adeimantus, the Corinthian leader (much maligned by Herodotus), and the final acquiescence of Eurybiades had seemingly produced a united front - something rare enough among allies. Xerxes and his advisers were not faced with such a simple choice as the Greeks: to defend Salamis or withdraw to the Isthmus. The Greeks, for one thing, were in their home waters, every cable of distance and every fathom of depth of which they knew as natives of this sea. The Persians (as old Artabanus had warned) were far from home and they were faced with problems of logistics that did not affect the Greeks to anything like a similar degree. For one thing the army was largely dependent upon sea-borne supplies (always hazardous even in modern wars), and for another there was the time factor: they were into the month of September. If August storms had caused such havoc among the fleet, what could be expected in a few weeks’ time when, as all seamen knew, the Mediterranean weather almost invariably broke in violent equinoctial gales? It was true that the army could advance without opposition until they reached the Isthmian line defended by the Peloponnesians, but they would still need to be supplied - and how could that be achieved with the Greek fleet gathered en masse at Salamis? It might have been possible, as Demaratus had suggested after Thermopylae, if Xerxes could have divided his fleet, sending one part down to harass the Peloponnese while keeping the other to engage the Greeks at sea but, as his brother Achaemenes had pointed out to him at the time, his fleet was no longer large enough to submit to such a division. Although it might not seem so at a superficial glance, yet Xerxes was even more between the Devil and the Deep than his opponents. He had left devastated and conquered (therefore unfriendly) territory behind him, and to the north of that were lands that had happily medised - but how far, if things went against him, could he trust such collaborators? And then, if it came to that, how far could the Ionian ships in the fleet really be relied upon if things looked black? They were, after all, Greeks by blood, and their subservience to Persia had only been achieved by siege and fire and the sword. (Few of the Ionians or the Aegean islanders did in fact desert Xerxes, most of the latter abstaining out of a terrified neutrality.)

Neither Xerxes nor his advisers were fools, and he had among his naval staff some of the greatest mariners of antiquity - Phoenicians who had tangled with the Greeks often enough and who had formed the backbone of the Pharaohs’ fleet long before Egypt had come under the dominance of Persia. They would have been among the first to point out that they could not maintain a supply line to the army if it was encamped in the Isthmus, so long as the powerful Greek fleet could strike out from Salamis. To the Persians, then, as to the Greeks, the island of Salamis represented the key to the whole campaign. In capturing deserted Athens, even with the burning of the Acropolis (symbolic and little more), they had set the Great King’s seal upon all of northern Greece. But they remembered Thermopylae and they had certainly not forgotten Artemisium. South of them lay Sparta and the indomitable warriors who had inflicted such grave losses on the finest troops of the Persian army. Just to the west of them lay those ships from which ‘they had been happy to make all speed back to their moorings’ after their last encounter.

Athens had been no more than a husk, but Salamis represented the kernel of Athenian government and of Greek resistance. They had learned by now that their faster triremes, especially given their numerical superiority, would be capable of enfolding the Greeks in a half-moon battle-line in the open sea and gradually constricting the enemy until they became enmeshed with one another like fish in a seine net. They had learned to their cost, however, that in constricted waters the heavier Greek ships with their immaculate discipline were a match for them. The limited area of Salamis, therefore, was clearly a trap. Was it possible to attack the island and destroy the Greek headquarters, thus cutting off the head from the whole Greek body, without risking a fleet engagement? Herodotus to the contrary (who maintains that the operation was conceived after Xerxes had decided on withdrawal), it seems probable that some later and generally considered inferior sources were correct: Xerxes decided to run a mole out from the mainland near modern Perama to what in those days was an islet and which is now a half-submerged reef. The ancient sea-level of the Mediterranean was lower than it is today. For a king who had bridged the Hellespont and who had cut a channel through the land behind Mount Athos, the idea of bridging an area less than a mile in width did not seem at all impracticable.

The first part of the construction would, it seemed, be easy enough, for Xerxes had almost unlimited manpower at his disposal, and the men were set to work building out a stone causeway on a substratum of rocks to the nearby islet. At the same time Phoenician merchantmen were brought along close to the shore of the mainland, where the Greeks could not get at them. The next part of the operation would entail lashing the merchantships together (somewhat as had been done at the Hellespont) and bridging the channel between the islet and what is now St George’s Island. This would have been by far the most difficult part of the operation, for it would have laid the vessels open to attacks by individual or concerted forces of Greek triremes, and in any case, St George’s Island (largest of what were then called the Pharmakoussae) was strongly held by the Greeks. It was unlikely that they would tamely permit this floating bridge to reach the shore. If, however, this could have been achieved, the crossing between the island and the coast of Salamis itself was only a few metres of comparatively shallow water. Clearly the Persians must have intended to protect the ship-bridge across the channel by keeping off the Greeks with heavy archery fire - and their army, as we know, had an abundance of archers. Curiously enough, in the end it was the Greeks who made successful use of this military arm, which they usually tended to neglect. We have it on one authority that the major part of these archers were from Crete (Cretan archers had long been renowned for their skill), who must of necessity have been mercenaries since their great island was not involved in the war. In any case their continuous harassment of the Persian workforce soon made it clear that the project, which in theory had looked so easy, was impracticable. It is very doubtful if even the mole out to the nearby islet was ever completed, and certainly the bridge of boats can never have got under way for it would have proved a navigational hazard in the subsequent battle and would certainly have been recorded as such by Herodotus and others.

It was clear that the Persians, like the Greeks, were now faced with only one solution - a sea battle. Xerxes’ naval commanders were, therefore, summoned to a conference: the kings of Sidon, of Tyre, of Arvad (all Phoenicians), and then the others (mostly Greek) in order of their seniority. Xerxes himself presided over the meeting but left the conduct of the proceedings and the consultation with these experienced seamen to his son-in-law Mardonius. It seems as if the Great King, already foiled in his attempt to bridge the narrows of Salamis, may have made up his mind that there was nothing left for it but to engage the Greeks at sea; at the same time (an indication of an indecision hitherto unknown) it was as if he wished to be reassured. It may be that his naval advisers sensed this or, equally, it may be they thought that even with their whittled-down fleet (approximately 400 against some 300 Greek triremes) they had sufficient superiority. Furthermore, one may hazard a guess that in those days, as so often subsequently, there was a rivalry between navy and army commanders. Here was the mighty army of the Great King sitting impotent ashore and unable to move without a decisive action by the fleet. It was true that the soldiers (at great cost) had won at Thermopylae and had burned an abandoned Athens - but the fleet commanders could hardly feel that Artemisium had been a victory. All, with one exceptional dissentient, were unanimous in giving battle to the Greeks.

The lone voice opposing a naval action was that of an exceptional woman, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus in Caria. Her mother had been a Cretan, her father a Greek Carian. She was a widow and on her husband’s death had become the sovereign of her city. Although she had a grown-up son, she had still decided that she herself would sail in command of her fleet, which consisted of five triremes from Halicarnassus together with contingents from the off-lying Aegean islands of Cos, Nisyros and Calymnos. ‘Her own spirit of adventure and manly courage’, comments Herodotus, ‘were her only incentives.’ She had distinguished herself at Artemisium and her naval contingent, though small, was considered the most efficient in the Persian fleet after that of the Sidonians. The words of this remarkable Amazon, coupled with the fact that she alone stood out against a naval engagement, made Mardonius listen to her with close attention. The speech which Herodotus puts into her mouth is vivid and bears the ring of authenticity. (Since Herodotus was himself a native of Halicarnassus, it may well be that he heard as a young man some more or less authentic account of what this great queen had said at the conference - words handed down from her own report after she had returned to her city on the conclusion of the war.)

She began by pointing out that their recent experience at sea had shown that the Greeks were superior in naval tactics. It would be foolish to rush into a naval action at this moment, especially in a place that was of the Greeks’ own contriving. Her grasp of the whole situation was so extensive that the kernel of her speech deserves quoting:

Have you not taken Athens, the main objective of the war? Is not the rest of Greece in your power? There is no one now to resist you… . Let me tell you how I think things will now go with the enemy; if only you are not in too great a hurry to fight at sea - if you keep the fleet on the coast where it is now - then, whether you stay here or advance into the Peloponnese, you will easily accomplish your purpose. The Greeks will not be able to hold out against you for long; you will soon cause their forces to disperse - they will soon break up and go home. I hear they have no supplies in the island where they now are; and the Peloponnesian contingents, at least, are not likely to be very easy in their minds if you march with the army towards their country - they will hardly like the idea of fighting in defence of Athens.

She then launched into a diatribe against the quality of some of Xerxes’ other naval contingents, including in her venom the Egyptian fleet (which had in fact distinguished itself), but she was clearly one of those passionate women who, although the bulk of their advice is sound, cannot resist dragging in personal jealousies and animosities. When Mardonius reported her words to Xerxes there can be no doubt that the king considered them very carefully. Artemisia was clearly a woman who commanded admiration (though obviously envy and hatred among those for whom she expressed contempt). However, she was in a minority of one, and the king was unlikely to reject the advice of all his other senior naval commanders. He gave orders for the fleet, or at any rate some advance squadrons, to move up from Phaleron and begin to close in on the Salamis Channel.

Despite Herodotus, who implies that Xerxes, while admiring Artemisia’s plain speaking, paid no attention to it but followed the advice of the majority, the evidence lies all against this. For instance, he did not give orders for the whole fleet to go to battle stations and come out en masse for a major action against the Greeks at Salamis. On the contrary, he tried to lure the latter out by dangling this bait which, if the Greeks had proved unwise, might have led to a major engagement in the Saronic Gulf where (as Artemisia had foreseen) the superior numbers and the greater mobility of the Persians would have given them the advantage. The Greek fleet was like an octopus in its rocky lair, which needed the flicker of a white cloth, with its concealed barb, to induce it to strike… .

At the same time it seems that Xerxes ordered an army corps of about 30,000 men to march by the coast road past Eleusis towards Megara as if they were on their way to the Isthmus - something which would clearly cause panic and dissension among the Greeks at Salamis. The Peloponnesians would fear for the security of the Isthmian line and would provoke once again the old argument (still perhaps tacitly accepted by Eurybiades) that the Salamis strategy was wrong. Xerxes, in fact, does not seem to have rejected the sage advice of Artemisia but to have decided, rather than to accept it whole-heartedly, to adopt a compromise. He would make a feint of threatening the Peloponnese while at the same time trying to provoke a sea-battle in open waters. (A Supremo may inwardly accept that the advice of one of his admirals or generals is correct, but he is also constrained by his dominant authority and by the fact that he cannot entirely ignore the opinions of all the others.) Compromise rarely succeeds in warfare. Caesar knew this when he said at the crossing of the Rubicon: ‘The die is cast.’ Xerxes would have done better to accept the advice of the Halicarnassian queen, and not try to hedge his bets.

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