Throughout 19 September the king’s council together with the senior naval commanders debated what was the appropriate action to take. There were two ways in which the Greeks could escape from their Salamis base and it seemed clear that both would be used. The first was to slide around the promontory of Cynosura and, passing between it and the off-lying island of Psyttaleia, make their way south into the Saronic Gulf. This route, on the face of it the simplest, was hazardous because the Persian navy (by now on the qui vive) would be patrolling the area and it would be impossible for any large body of ships to escape detection. The moon was almost full and the nights at that time of the year, if the weather has not broken, are often cloudless. The fleeing Greeks should thus be easily visible and, in any case, in those phosphorescent waters the concurrence of many oars and the wakes of large vessels would stain the sea with silver. There was yet another factor which would have revealed the movement of triremes: the rhythmic plash of their oars as close on 200 men per vessel toiled at their thole-pins. Even if moving at a slow speed, three to four knots, the noise of a body of triremes would have been unmistakable. The other course for the Greeks to take - and one which would not be so easily detectable - was through the Bay of Eleusis, then down through the narrow Megarian Channel, and south into the Saronic Gulf. It was clear that this escape route must immediately be blocked. The Egyptian fleet, which had distinguished itself at Artemisium, was chosen for the task. Their heavily armed marines had already proved their worth and, in the narrows of the channel where the Greeks would not be able to deploy their ships, they would be met bow-to-bow by the larger Egyptian vessels. The channel would not be a means of escape, but a trap.
There can be practically no doubt, despite the assertion of Herodotus that ‘the Greek commanders at Salamis were still at loggerheads’, that the very reverse was true. The battle which was to follow could only have been the product of careful and close planning between all the Greek commanders involved. True, Themistocles deserves most of the credit for having envisaged the strategy of Salamis a long time before, but without sophisticated co-ordination between the whole fleet - not just the Athenians -the battle would have been lost. Xerxes, on the other hand, together with his council and commanders, accepted the Greek misinformation that had been fed to them and committed the gravest error: they diversified their forces. The strong and efficient Egyptian squadron was despatched (no doubt after dusk on that day) to round Salamis and head for the Megara Channel while two of the squadrons, which had been sent out earlier as bait to tempt the Greeks, were reinforced and ordered to guard the passages either side of the island of Psyttaleia. At the same time 400 men were landed on that island, ‘because it lay right in the path of the impending action, and once the fighting began, many men and damaged vessels would be carried on to it, and could be saved or destroyed according as they were friends or enemies’. Aeschylus tells how, after the evening meal, the Persians manned their ships and, once the sun was down, ‘the long ships moved, each out to its appointed place’. The net, it seemed, was closed around the Greeks.
Disentangling our sources, which are confusing and which tend to have a bias implanted by later Athenian landowners (the hoplite class who had shown little initiative since Marathon) and were designed to denigrate Themistocles and the ‘navy party’, is not easy. Aristeides ‘the Just’ is purported to have returned from exile at this crucial moment and had a meeting in which it is claimed that it was he who told Themistocles that the Greeks were now surrounded and offered his services in this hour of need. Themistocles, if we are to believe the account, remarked that this was good news and just what he had hoped for (true), and asked Aristeides to go in person and tell the assembly because they would certainly believe him - while they would not believe Themistocles. The imputation is that the Greek leaders were still arguing the pros and cons of staying at Salamis or withdrawing to the Peloponnese. And this on the eve of the Battle of Salamis - one of the most perfectly coordinated and long-devised stratagems in all naval history!
What does seem perfectly true about the accounts of the night’s events is that a trireme from the Persian-occupied island of Tenos, commanded by a Greek whose name is deservedly commemorated, Panaetius son of Sosimenes, slipped out of the Persian lines and joined the fleet at Salamis. Panaetius brought them the latest news: how Xerxes had divided the fleet and sent the strong Egyptian contingent to guard the narrows of Megara, while the others guarded the ‘escape routes’ north and south of Psyttaleia. Night actions were unthinkable in those days (and were to remain so for centuries to come) and the suggestion that any of the Persians had already slipped past Psyttaleia and closed in on the coast of Salamis is absurd. It will have been quite enough that, even with the advantage of bright moonlight, they had got into the positions allocated to them and were now resting on their oars, or paddling and back-paddling to maintain station.
Themistocles and the other commanders - not excluding the Spartan commander-in-chief Eurybiades - can only have been delighted. The most formidable contingent of the Persian fleet, the Egyptians, was far away, committed to a fruitless watch-and-ward away to the west. The bulk of the remaining ships was now divided either side of Psyttaleia Island. While the Greeks were rested in their rocky lair, waiting for dawn and the onslaught of battle, the Persians were at sea: their triremes slopping to-and-fro, the oarsmen cold and possibly wet, and getting hungry, forced every now and then to take up the stroke to maintain position, or idling over oars that kicked and thrust with the least breathing of the ocean. The bull, which had found its ‘area of quietness’, had only to watch and wait for the first pass of the matador.
As dawn was breaking ‘they called an assembly of the marines ……..’
While the sailors manned their ships and prepared them for sea Themistocles was chosen to address the armoured men upon whom would fall the brunt of the day’s fighting. Seeing that the fleet was fairly widely dispersed it can be assumed that it was only the Athenians whom he addressed, but the fact that his speech was so long remembered shows the quality of the resolve that inspired all the Greeks on that autumn morning. ‘The whole burden of what he said was a comparison of all that was best in life and fortunes, and an exhortation to the men to choose the better.’ Dawn, which found the rested Greeks manning their ships and preparing to give battle in the chosen narrows of the Salamis Channel, must have found the Persian commanders in more than something of a quandary. All night they had maintained watch and ward over the escape routes and had seen nothing. Perhaps all the Greeks, not just part of their fleet, had fled through the Bay of Eleusis and made for the Megara Channel?
If this was the case, there was nothing they could do about it; only hope that the Egyptian fleet would be able to stop them as they came in line ahead or individual groups through that congested strait. They had been informed by Xerxes that if they let the Greeks slip through their fingers ‘each captain would lose his head’. As the exit from the Salamis Channel was the area that had been assigned to them to guard they were hardly likely to turn back towards Phaleron with the dawn and say that there was no sign of the enemy - for the Greeks might then make a sudden dash for safety round Cape Cynosura and south of Psyttaleia. No, they were committed to their stations and certainly no one was going to act on individual initiative. What must always be remembered is the primitive state of communications in those days, and the nonexistence of them under night-time conditions.
The disposition of the Greek fleet had been well thought out: the main bulk lying behind St George’s Island with the Athenians on the left of the line. To the north of them the Corinthians held the narrowest part leading towards the Bay of Eleusis, while the Peloponnesian contingents with Eurybiades as commander-in-chief held the right flank, generally regarded as the position of honour, ‘and the ships of Megara and Aegina off the town of Salamis in Ambelaki Bay’. ‘The Greek object’, as Burn has pointed out, ‘was to envelop in a net formed of an ordered line the head of a column coming up the straits’. The Persian fleet possibly numbered 400 ships and the Greeks about 300. This meant that if the Persians could be enticed into the narrows their numbers would be to no advantage; rather the reverse, for triremes under way probably required about fifty-foot intervals between them since, although only about fifteen feet on the beam, their oars on either side required at least a further ten feet. It is easy to see what confusion could take place if such basically unwieldy vessels could be lured into a position where they could not happily maintain their distance from one another.
The salient question that arises is why Xerxes ever gave the order for the attack to begin at all. Yet he had clearly made up his mind on that day to witness his fleet defeating the Greeks, for he had established his command-post - probably on a 200-feet-high eminence a little to the north-east of the islet and the uncompleted mole from which he had intended to bridge the sea to Salamis. Here was set that famous gold throne and here his staff and aides must already have been gathered by first light on the morning of 20 September. Such arrangements are hardly made on the spur of the moment. He had determined, then, on a set-piece battle just in the area which he knew on good advice would give the Greeks every advantage. At first glance it appears incomprehensible, but on careful reflection one can see his reasons. He had been told that the Greeks were at loggerheads with one another, that the Athenians intended to flee, and that other contingents no doubt would either withdraw from battle or would come over to his victorious side. He had effectively sealed the Megara Channel with his Egyptians, and the fact that none of the Greeks had attempted to escape round Cape Cynosura during the night seemed to confirm that either the bulk of them had fled via the Bay of Eleusis, or that those who were still at Salamis were sufficiently demoralised to offer no effective resistance. In such circumstances he might expect a true and easy triumph and afterwards watch the capture of Salamis and the effective destruction of the headquarters of Athenian resistance (Athens itself had been a hollow affair).
By the time that the orders had been given for the fleet to advance into the narrows it was too late. Once squadron after squadron had been committed and begun their advance there was no way of recalling them. The front line could not halt, nor wheel and turn, without falling foul of those that followed them, and the same thing would take place all down the serried line. What still seems puzzling is why the Persians proceeded with such complete confidence into the narrows, so certain that they had a beaten and demoralised enemy in front of them. The answer to this is to be found in Herodotus (though his biased account suggests cowardice on the part of the Corinthians). As the sun rose, the advancing ships saw to the north-west of them a squadron of Greek triremes (the fifty Corinthians), their sails hoisted, apparently fleeing up towards the Bay of Eleusis. Now, as has been seen, no trireme ever went into action with her square-sail set. So this could only indicate that part (or perhaps even the last) of the Greek ships at Salamis was making good its escape. This was encouragement indeed: proof if any were needed that the whole Greek fleet was divided and that very little resistance might be expected from whatever of their ships still remained behind at their island base. The whole operation indicates the most immaculate planning on the part of Themistocles and the other Greek commanders - particularly Adeimantus, the Corinthian commander, who made this feint of betraying his comrades in the hour of danger. We know from later records that the Corinthians under Adeimantus fought most gallantly in the subsequent battle, so it is not difficult to follow what happened. After their carefully pretended flight - largely responsible for enticing the Persians into the narrows - the Corinthians downed masts, spars and sails, and returned in normal fashion under oars into the fray. The Persian commanders - falling into an extension of the trap that had caught their lord and master - pressed on confident of victory. (It was not for nothing that that prototype of all great Greek seamen was known as ‘the wily Odysseus’. The ingenuity of the inventor of the Trojan Horse was not lacking in his descendants.)
At almost the same time as the apparently fleeing Corinthians were sighted, the main body of the Greek fleet, the Athenians and Peloponnesians, disclosed themselves from behind the bulk of St George’s Island (where they would previously have been invisible to the ships entering the narrows) and came out in columns of line ahead. They also turned towards the north. Although they were under oar, it may have seemed to the leading Persians that this was only until they had got clear of Paloukia Bay - at which time it might be expected that they too would hoist sail and follow their fleeing comrades. The triremes of Megara and Aegina, one can only assume, began to make ready in Ambelaki Bay. They would provide the closure of the net once the Persians were totally committed into the area between Salamis town and the islet on the far side - above which Xerxes sat to watch his triumph.
Aeschylus brilliantly puts into the mouth of a Persian aboard one of their front-line vessels what happened as darkness faded. (The translation is by A. R. Burn.)
Night wore on And still no Greeks came out in secret flight;
But when at last the sun’s bright chariot rose,
Then we could hear them - singing; loud and strong
Rang back the echo from the island rocks,
And with the sound came the first chill of fear.
Something was wrong. This was not flight; they sang
The deep-toned hymn, Apollo, Saving Lord,
That cheers the Hellene armies into battle.
Then trumpets over there set all on fire;
Then the sea foamed as oars struck all together,
And swiftly, there they were I The right wing first
Led on the ordered line, then all the rest
Came on, came out… .
So much about the battle must inevitably remain conjecture, but what would seem to have happened - and which makes sound nautical sense - is that the right wing referred to was composed not only of Eurybiades’ Peloponnesians but also of the Aeginetans and Megarians who had been lurking in Ambelaki Bay. As the main body of the Greek fleet moved down from the north, seeing the enemy well committed into the narrows, the ships from Ambelaki were able to strike out, roaring the Paean to Apollo, catching the enemy broadside on as they moved confidently down channel after what they had assumed were the fleeing Greeks. This right wing, suddenly emerging on to their exposed port flank, must have seemed like a bolt from heaven, accompanied as it was by the thunder of the hymn. (Similarly, in Nelson’s navy, British sailors always used to cheer as they went into action - not only for their own morale but because it had a demoralising effect upon the enemy.)
Shortly after this devasting flank attack developed, throwing the Persians into disarray because in their close-ordered ranks there was little or no chance of manoeuvring, the main attack at the head of the column developed. What the Persians had seen as a demoralised and fleeing enemy suddenly became a noose that tightened around their advance guard. The Athenian Ameinias of Pallene is credited with having been in the forefront and with having engaged the flagship of the Phoenician admiral, a much larger vessel than the low-lying Athenian trireme. The ships met head on, bronze rams sheering past each other so that the two vessels were locked together. In the boarding action which followed, Ariabignes, the admiral, ‘a man of great courage’, led the charge over his lofty ship’s side and was killed by Ameinias and his first lieutenant. The Phoenician’s death seems to have been a grave loss to the command - an instance that in the fleet of Xerxes command was centralised, whereas among the individualistic Greeks, once the main battle had developed, each trierarch very largely exercised his own initiative. (One is reminded again of Nelson’s ‘Band of Brothers’ at Trafalgar where, as Collingwood remarked, ‘We all know what we have to do’.)
The general action which now developed most probably took place between St George’s Island and that other islet out to which the Persians had begun to run their mole. Xerxes, in fact, from his vantage-point had a perfect view of what should have been a perfect victory. His humiliation was complete, as the chaos in the strait became apparent even to a landsman’s eye. The advancing squadrons had had to reduce to no more than about sixteen triremes abreast, as the distance between the islet and St George’s Island was then probably no more than a thousand yards. As ships backwatered, inevitably they fell foul of those coming up astern of them. The press of ships moving up in their lines from the point of Cape Cynosura cannot have known what was happening ahead, nor known for a moment that their powerful vanguard had been trapped.
At first, the torrent of the Persian fleet
bore up: but when the press of shipping jammed
there in the narrows, none could help another… .
Aeschylus goes on to describe how the Greek triremes ‘kept the outer station’ and, under their disciplined handling, encircled the Persians, striking in as suited them at the floundering mass. (Anyone who has witnessed a mattanza or the netting and slaughtering of tunny, to be seen in a number of places in the Mediterranean to this day, will recognise the accuracy of the great poet’s observation.)
Meanwhile the enemy, as men gaff tunnies
Or some great shoal of fish, with broken oars
And bits of wreckage hacked and killed; and shrieks
And cries filled the whole sea, till night came down.
Herodotus gives instances of a number of individual exploits in the general melee that followed - not excluding the dash and bravery of Queen Artemisia, his fellow Halicarnassian, whose exploits were such as supposedly to have wrung from Xerxes the cry: ‘My men have turned into women, my women into men!’ But the result of the action was a foregone conclusion once the Persians had put their head into the snare. They suffered severely in the battle,
the Athenians and Aeginetans accounting for a great many of their ships. Since the Greek fleet worked together as a whole, while the Persians had lost formation and were no longer fighting on any plan… . None the less they fought well that day - far better than in the actions off Euboea. Every man of them did his best for fear of Xerxes, feeling that the king’s eye was on him.
There can be no doubt that this was a powerful incentive, the king’s secretaries taking careful note of those who did well: two of these, both Samians, were later rewarded by the king, one being made ruler of Samos and the other being given large estates. But it was a case of ‘woe betide’ those who were deemed to have cut and run. Some Phoenicians who, in common, one suspects, with many other captains, had been forced to run their ships aground on the Attic coast to get clear of the general confusion were unwise enough to make their way to Xerxes. They must have been foolish men indeed to approach ‘the King, King of Kings, King of the lands’ at such a moment. They tried to excuse themselves for what was clearly by now a defeat by putting all the blame on the Ionian contingents, which Xerxes himself was able to see were putting up the best fight of all the elements of his navy. (In fact, on that day, it would seem that the fiercest fighting took place where Greek met Greek.) Xerxes wasted no time - he had the Phoenicians beheaded on the spot.
On the morning of that day there had been a southerly wind, and it was with this under their sterns that the Corinthians had hoisted their sails and made their feigned flight to the north. The same wind blowing on to the shores of Attica had also (as is still common enough) kicked up a nasty short sea in the Salamis Channel. This had been yet another gift from the gods, like the northerlies in the early phases of the invasion, which had favoured the Greeks. Their smaller triremes, lying lower in the water, had ridden it out with little discomfort (after all, this was the sea for which they were built), whereas most of the Persian ships, with their high freeboard, had suffered from the wind and swell, particularly since their westerly course put it broad on their beam. Now in the afternoon of confusion, when wreckage and drowned men littered the channel, the wind shifted round, as it often does in that part as the sun declines, and began to pipe up from the west. This may have helped the
Persians in what had by now become a rout; enabling some of them, perhaps, to hoist masts and spars and make their getaway. The wind also helped to clear the narrow channel of the wreckage, sending it on down towards Phaleron, where no doubt it helped in the further demoralisation of the Persian ships as they reassembled there. It helped the Greeks too in what seems to have been a somewhat sporadic pursuit. It also effectively marooned on Psyttaleia Island the picked force of Persian soldiers who had been set there to kill any shipwrecked Greeks and succour any of their own side who might reach the safety of its shores. (It is interesting to note that many of the Greeks from wrecked triremes made their escape by swimming whereas few of the enemy appear to have been able to swim.) To Psyttaleia, then, a mixed force of hoplites and marines now made their way - possibly under the command of Aristeides - and proceeded to round up the Persians. They were slaughtered to a man. It was not a day for giving any quarter.