Throughout that night the Greeks laboured to repair their ships, fully expecting that the following day the Persians would return to the attack. Herodotus gives us no figures for the battle casualties and it is only from the later writer Ephorus, who seems far more sound as a naval historian than Herodotus, that we gain any figures for the respective losses - figures which seem, in view of Xerxes’ subsequent actions, to make good sense. The Greeks, he says, lost 40 triremes (though there is no mention of how many were badly damaged) while -the Persians lost 200, not excluding those that were captured (again no figures). If this was indeed the case, then even if the Egyptian fleet had returned from its fruitless guard over the Megara Channel the Persian fleet would still have had little more than parity of numbers.
There can be no doubt that when the ships reassembled at Phaleron their morale was completely shattered. They had been tricked into fighting in the wrong place and at the wrong time (that southerly wind), and the discipline and ability of the Greeks had proved totally superior to their own. They had been disgraced under the eye of the Great King, and the Phoenicians, who had hitherto regarded themselves as the greatest sailors in the world, had suffered such a severe mauling that it would be years before they would ever again challenge the Greeks at sea. Ephorus says that, infuriated by the execution of those captains who had so unwisely made their way into Xerxes’ presence, the Phoenicians now deserted and made their own way home. This may or may not be true, but in any case, since they had been in the vanguard and had been the principal victims of the Greek trap, it is doubtful if there were many of their ships in a seaworthy condition.
The Greeks, for their part, licking their wounds and making good what essential repairs they could, did not realise the extent of their victory. The Grand Army was still encamped on the shores opposite Salamis, and with the dawn of 21 September Xerxes had his men set to work again on the mole. There seemed every evidence that his intention still was, with all the manpower at his disposal, to cross over to Salamis and annihilate the last of the resistance. Meanwhile, from what could be made out of the Persian squadrons at Phaleron, renewed signs of activity (possibly the sending out of further patrols off Psyttaleia) suggested that in a day or so they might expect a further attack - and next time there could be no possibility of the Persians falling into that beautiful seine-net trap. They would probably (as had been Artemisia’s advice to Xerxes) surround the island, guard all the escape routes, and quietly starve out the Greeks. Meanwhile their army marching on the Isthmian line and with its vast weight of numbers - as they had seen at Thermopylae - might overwhelm the Peloponnesian resistance.
Xerxes, however, saw things quite differently. He knew, which the Greeks did not, that his fleet was shattered and demoralised. He knew also - something of which the Greeks must also have been aware - that the weather might break at any minute, and no trireme could keep the sea once the season of gales started. Furthermore he knew that his great achievement, the bridge across the Hellespont, which had enabled his forces to enter Europe, was now his Achilles’ heel. The Greeks, conscious of their triumph - which, as yet, they were not - might move swiftly and destroy it. Failing that, the onset of heavy weather from the north, which was to be expected in the near future, might wreck it, as had happened to its predecessor. As has been seen, there were problems on the boundaries of the Empire and Ionia was insecure. The latter gave rise to a further anxiety in the king’s mind. Suppose the Greeks, instead of destroying the bridges, moved against Ionia? The news that the Persians had suffered a severe naval reverse at Salamis would soon be on its way to Susa, for ‘there is nothing in the world that travels faster than Persian couriers’. If the victorious Greek fleet were to appear off Ionia and the eastern islands, the whole province might rise. It had happened before, and Xerxes was under no illusion that the Ionians preferred Persian dominion to being free and independent. There could be no doubt about it but that the place of the Great King was back in Susa, his hands upon the reins of Empire. Meanwhile, though, it was unthinkable after the success of the land campaign in northern Greece that the whole of the Grand Army should withdraw, as if in defeat. Ilis conquests, which had been widely acclaimed by his people and which must have terrified nations like Egypt, must be seen to be firmly established.
The Persians, as has been said, were not seamen. They had acquired their navy through the conquest of seagoing people such as the Phoenicians, Ionians, and Egyptians. They were soldiers first and foremost. So far, the record of their army in northern Greece, the annihilation of the famous warrior-caste of Spartans at Thermopylae, and their occupation and destruction of Athens ‘including its sacred high place, the Acropolis’ was all evidence of victory. The defeat at Salamis could be ascribed to the failure and inefficiency of their foreign fleet. But, as Hignett puts it, ‘the ignominious retirement of its army from Europe without any further attempt to force a battle on land with the main Greek army would have meant a loss of face that would have fatally compromised the prestige of the ruling race’. Empires, inevitably, depend a great deal upon ‘face’ for without it their subject peoples are quick to realise that the master is not invincible. (In the history of the twentieth century, Ireland played a similar part in revealing the weakness of the British Lion.) Xerxes was not slow to realise what the withdrawal of the whole army would mean. He himself must return to the seat of power, but a large force must be left behind to hold the occupied territory, and the obvious choice for the leader of this army was Mardonius, his cousin, who had always been a prime advocate of the great invasion. Meanwhile the demoralised fleet could no longer serve any useful purpose and must be despatched as swiftly as possible.
On the morning of 22 September, the Greeks, seeing all the army still encamped against them and work proceeding on the mole, must have expected that this was the day that the blow would fall. The Persians, like themselves, had had a full twenty-four hours to make good their battle-damage, rest their men, and replace such marines and oarsmen as had been killed or wounded in the battle. With their almost inexhaustible manpower this was something that was far easier for them than for the beleaguered Greeks on their island base. Then, of a sudden, the astonishing news came through from their scouts - Phaleron roadstead was empty. The Persian navy had withdrawn! An immediate pursuit was ordered; the fleet heading in the direction of the island of Andros. Whether the Persians were heading north to protect the bridges (the most likely supposition) or making for Ionia, their natural route would be through the Andros-Euboea channel. Even rowing with the exhilaration of victory in their veins, however, the Greeks were never able to come up with the Persians: a night’s start, coupled with the daylight hours during which the Greeks had been occupied in manning their fleet, had given the enemy too great a lead. Disappointed in their hope of coming up with a fleeing, demoralised fleet, the Greeks decided to rest in Andros roads. The island had been pro-Persian, like most of the Cyclades, and it was natural enough that the victors should strive to exact an indemnity. There was good enough reason for their action and for the financial pressure put on this and other islands. It was not only a matter of a justifiable penalty for having sided with the enemy, but also money was badly needed to pay the fleet, and such things of value as had been left on the Acropolis had, of course, disappeared with the Persians. To Themistocles’ harsh statement, when the Andrians refused to pay, that he had two powerful gods with him that would force them to do so - Persuasion and Necessity - the Andrians replied with dry wit that they had two gods also, Poverty and Inability. Unwilling to attempt a prolonged siege of their city (remembering perhaps the fate of Miltiades under somewhat similar circumstances) Themistocles gave up, although there can be little doubt that the island was scoured for grain and fresh food and any valuables in outlying hamlets.
Meanwhile a council of war was held with Eurybiades presiding, the issue naturally being - what were they to do next? Some, including possibly Themistocles, were for pressing on north and destroying the bridges, but others, Eurybiades among them, were against this. It was the latter who carried the day. They were wise in any case, for to head north in the last week of September was to court disaster when the weather - as it must do in the very near future - finally broke. It was also a wise Spartan principle of war, as applicable at sea as on land, not to pursue a beaten enemy. This was not so much based on chivalric grounds as on the fact that desperate men may suddenly turn and rend their pursuers and nullify their previous defeat. On one point all were unanimously agreed: the most important thing was to speed the departure of Xerxes out of Greece. The latter, for the reasons we have seen, did not need any persuasion. The story told by Herodotus that Themistocles once again sent Sicinnus to Xerxes with the message that he had better hurry home because the Greek fleet was sailing to destroy the bridges is deeply suspect. Xerxes and his staff had been badly duped once, but it is unthinkable that they should have been taken in for a second time - and by the same man. Plutarch has a slight variant on this tale - that Themistocles sent a Persian prisoner of war with a similar message. This is slightly more credible. It is just possible that the retreat of the main body of the army was hastened by such means - but unlikely, and indeed unnecessary. Neither Xerxes nor his staff needed any reminder of the time of the year and, with Mardonius left behind with a strong, hand-picked force -mostly of Persian troops - Xerxes could happily leave Attica behind and make his way, with no exaggerated semblance of haste, to cross once more into Asia.
Having decided against any attempt to break the Hellespontine bridges, but to stay nearer home, the Greek fleet proceeded to exact what indemnities they could from the surrounding Cyclades, as well as pro-Persian Carystus in southern Euboea. The rich island of Paros paid up without demur while Carystus (perhaps because it had been so useful to the Persians at one juncture) had its lands ransacked even though it had already paid the required amount. Themistocles, on the authority of Plutarch, is also said to have lined his own pockets by removing from office pro-Persians in various islands and putting back in their place - for a sum - the anti-Persians whom they had exiled. The story may well be true. Greeks today as then may well be patriotic and extremely brave, but it is almost unthinkable for them to forget the cash nexus. (As any one who has lived in that beautiful but harsh land knows, a man who can make even a moderate living out of its soil could become a millionaire in other softer countries.)
An abortive siege of Andros was called off when the news reached the fleet that the Great King had withdrawn and that his hosts no longer glowered across the strait at Salamis. Attica was cleared of the enemy and, though they did not know it as yet, Mardonius and his picked army-force had decided to winter in Thessaly. In that delirious moment the Greeks may have thought that the war was finally over. They were to learn differently with the spring, but in the meantime it was all-important to get on with the autumn sowing, for they had already lost one crop. Themistocles was undoubtedly the hero of the hour and in his certainty declared that the Persians were gone for good and all. He was wise enough, however, to point out that they must all set to work at once on the land itself and on rebuilding Athens. Soon the winter would be down, and Athens is no place in which to be roofless when the snows are on the mountains. At the same time, not unmindful of what certainly seemed like divine help in their survival, three captured triremes were consecrated, one at the Isthmus (which Herodotus himself saw still there some forty years later), one on Sunium, and one on Salamis. More enduring monuments were a bronze Zeus at Olympia, and at Delphi (willingly forgetful of the oracle’s pessimistic predictions) an eighteen-feet-high figure of a young man holding the prow of a ship in his hand - a symbol of the fighting men of Greece offering to Apollo evidence of their triumph. On the all-important peninsula of Cynosura a marble column was erected, a reminder to later seafarers that it was off here in the narrow strait of Salamis that Greek seamen had defeated the armada of the Great King.
While the Peloponnesians happily returned to their homes - for, although their territories had not been devastated, they too had their lands to cultivate - Xerxes continued on his march north. The number of men left behind under the command of Mardonius is quoted by Herodotus as 300,000 but, if one accepts as with all his previous figures that he is misreading the Persian chiliad (1000) for myriad (10,000), this comes down to the more reasonable number of 30,000 - ample to garrison northern Greece and ample, too, for a further attack on the south in the following spring. The Spartans, before leaving for their homeland by the Eurotas, are said to have sent a messenger after what they presumed was the defeated monarch, demanding satisfaction for the death of their king, Leonidas. If they imagined that Xerxes would make some formal apology or offer some token indicating that he was beaten, they were sadly mistaken. Xerxes burst into laughter at this effrontery, was silent a while, and then pointed to his cousin: ‘You will get your repayment indeed - from Mardonius here.’