It was a time when civilization in the West was divided between two cultures. The largest was the Persian centralized empire, which was based on having an all-powerful ruler with little regard for the individual. The other culture was much more dynamic, but smaller and poorer; it was the emerging democracy of Greece. In spite of the fact that there were places in ancient Greece with dictatorial and oppressive city-states, such as Sparta, individual heroism was honored. It is a divide we still see today in the different values found in Iran, Iraq, and the other nations that are descended from ancient despots, and Western cultures that are descended from the Greek traditions.
In 480 BCE, things had not gone all that well for Xerxes, ruler of the Persian empire, particularly in regard to his invasion of Greece. His object was to revenge his father’s loss at Marathon and to incorporate the impudent and pugnacious Greek city-states into the Persian empire. The free city-states were both a direct threat and a threatening example to the many diverse peoples in his empire, especially those of Greek descent.
The war had started well, with the construction of a remarkable bridge across the Hellespont (the Dardanelles now dividing modern-day Istanbul). This bridge still is considered one of the great engineering achievements of ancient times. The crossing was followed by the rapid conquest of Macedonia and a number of smaller Greek cities. Then Xerxes’ army marched south along the coast of Greece to Athens. Numbers in ancient battles are often exaggerated, but it is likely the Persian emperor had as many soldiers in his army as there were residents of the city itself. The people of Athens had fled to the safety of the Aegean islands, many to the nearby island of Salamis. The resistance of the few Athenians who had instead retreated to the city’s citadel was easily squashed. Then the most important and richest city in Greece was burned to the ground. This may well have been in belated revenge for the burning of the Lydian capital (see page 4) twenty years earlier. But Xerxes’ destruction of Athens had come only after his army took painfully high losses while forcing the pass at Thermopylae against the 300 Spartans and 6,700 other Greek warriors, mostly from Thespiae. These losses led to extremely low morale among the men of the Persian army, including the generals.
The Persian army continued to march southward, easily conquering smaller cities along the coast, while being well supplied by a steady stream of ships sailing from many of the empire’s ports, just across the Aegean Sea. Control of the seacoast was important because cargo ships were the only way Xerxes could supply his massive army. There simply was not enough food and fodder in all of northern Greece to keep his army fed. The need for the Persians to maintain this naval supply line was perhaps the only vulnerability the greatly outnumbered and often argumentative Greeks could exploit.
Since the time when Xerxes broke through at Thermopylae, there had been a series of violent storms on the Aegean Sea. Because there had to be a steady stream of supply ships and triremes to guard them, there was always a good part of the Persian navy at sea. The result was that more than a third of the navy had been lost in the storms. This, however, still left Xerxes with four times as many warships as those of all the Greek cities combined.
Things seemed to be looking up for the Persian emperor. It was the era of oared galleys, triremes, and larger vessels, and men rowed into battle and sunk their opponents using massive bronze rams. The Greek city-states had gathered all of their ships into one fleet, totaling about 370 triremes, under the command of Themistocles. Being so outnumbered meant that a battle in open waters just guaranteed they would be flanked, surrounded, and sunk. All of the Greek ships had fled into the narrow waters between the island of Salamis and the shore near Piraeus. There, in true Greek fashion, the captains vehemently debated whether to fight or flee in the hope of a decisive land victory that might come when the Persians fought an even more badly outnumbered Greek army led by Sparta. This army was preparing a defense at the narrow entrance to the southern peninsula of Greece, the Peloponnesus.
The remaining Persian fleet still consisted of over 1,200 triremes, all manned by Phoenician, Greek, and Egyptian sailors who were experienced in battles fought on the open sea. Many of the Persian ships were also much larger, if less maneuverable, than the Greek ships, and they often held more than twice as many warriors. Those extra soldiers on the larger Persian ships were a significant factor at a time when the only two naval tactics were ramming and boarding. So Xerxes had every reason for confidence. His fleet was much larger than that of the Greeks, who were understandably reluctant to sail out into battle. They seemed to be cowering in the narrow passage even as the Persian emperor watched from the heights above. Xerxes was so confident that he had a throne built and scribes ready to record the names of his captains who distinguished themselves in the upcoming victory.
Understandably, Xerxes was more worried about the Greek triremes slipping out the other side of the straits than of losing the sea battle. He anticipated a retreat by the Spartan captains by sending a large contingent of Egyptian triremes around Salamis to close the “back door.” Even with them gone, Xerxes had a three-to-one advantage in number and larger ships; plus time was on his side. As long as the Greek fleet was penned up, his army could be supplied without interference as it moved down the Greek coast. If it broke through to the Peloponnesian peninsula, there would not even have to be a naval battle. And with the Greek fleet trapped between his ships, there was nothing to stop that march, and the Greeks knew this. All Xerxes had to do was wait for the Greeks to come out and watch the slaughter.
It was at this point that a slave named Sicinnus appeared. He had been Themistocles’ personal servant. When he swam ashore, he demanded to see Xerxes. The emperor met and questioned the escaped slave, who informed him the Greek fleet was in disarray. Disagreements were so intense that there was a good chance that the largest contingent, the Athenians, would side with the Persians in hopes of mercy and future prominence in a Persian-controlled Greek satrapy.
There is no way to understand why Xerxes chose to change his strategy of waiting for the Greeks to emerge based on the words of one escaped slave. Perhaps it was a case of overconfidence. Certainly Sicinnus was telling the emperor what he wanted and expected to hear. It would not be the first time that the fractious Greeks were arguing with one another, and they were easy prey. Xerxes’ decision to believe Sicinnus was a mistake that changed history forever. It was time, Xerxes thought, to end the standoff and complete his conquest while the enemy was divided and unready. Preparations were made for the Persian ships to enter the straits the next morning.
The problem for the Persians was that it was all a lie. Sicinnus was devoted to Themistocles and was soon both rewarded and freed by the Athenians. Later, he set up his own successful business in Thespiae, where he became a full citizen. Xerxes really should have gotten the hint and called the attack off when Sicinnus disappeared that night. But he didn’t.
The Battle of Salamis
So the next morning, based on no more than the word of an escaped slave of the enemy admiral who was nowhere to be found just hours after speaking with him, Xerxes ordered the Persian navy to enter narrow waters between Salamis and the Greek mainland. Rather than being in conflict, every Greek ship was prepared and ready to follow Themistocles’ battle plan.
Rowing with the oars of one ship almost touching those of the trireme on either side, in a solid line formation 100 galleys wide, the Persians entered the Straits of Salamis. It certainly was a slaughter, but not the one the Persian emperor expected. In the tight waters, the larger Persian ships could not maneuver as well as the smaller Greek triremes. Persian ship after Persian ship was rammed and sunk. Except when ramming, the nimble Greek ships easily stayed away from the Persian vessels, meaning the extra crew and soldiers on them were of no use. When another line of large Persian ships poured into the straits, they met the same fate. The larger size of the empire triremes, which would have been a great advantage in open water, had proven to be a terrible disadvantage. Persian morale plunged, and fleeing ships broke up the formation of the reinforcements that were entering the battle, making them vulnerable to being attacked on both sides. So these ships too were rammed and sunk by the nimble Greek vessels.
Incidentally, the Egyptian ships that had been sent around the island of Salamis to block the back of the straits had been scattered by a storm before they could get into position. All Xerxes could do was sit on his throne and watch as his navy and his plan for conquering Greece were both destroyed.
More than 200 of the best ships in the Persian navy, thousands of veteran sailors and soldiers, and even Xerxes’ brother were lost. Most of the Persian sailors whose ships were sunk could not swim and drowned. Those who made it to the shores of Salamis were killed on the beach by Greek warriors. The Persian ships that managed to withdraw from the straits were not in any shape to continue the battle or the war.
Without the fleet, the large Persian army could not be supplied. Worse yet, with the Greeks dominant in the Aegean Sea, they could sail north and destroy the bridge across the Hellespont—the bridge that was Xerxes’ and his entire army’s only line of retreat. Leaving a large force in northern Greece, Xerxes led most of his army out of Greece before it starved in place. The remaining army, however, was defeated the next year at Platea.
Because the emperor of Persia acted on the word of a slave, he sent his entire fleet into the Straits of Salamis, virtually guaranteeing Greece would remain independent. If he had not listened to Sicinnus, Persia might well have triumphed, and the cradle of Western culture would instead have become a relatively poor, backwater province of Eastern culture. The world as it is today—including the historic predominance of democracy, our Roman culture, and Christianity—simply would have never been. But they all do exist because Xerxes made the fatal mistake of believing exactly the wrong man at the wrong time.