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Persian Wars: Battle of Salamis

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Battle of Salamis - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Salamis was fought in September 480 BC during the Persian Wars (499-449 BC).

Fleets & Commanders

Greeks

  • Themistocles
  • Eurybiades
  • 366-378 ships

    Perisans

  • Xerxes
  • Artemisia
  • Ariabignes
  • 600-800 ships
  • Battle of Salamis - Background:

    Invading Greece in the summer of 480 BC, Persian troops led by Xerxes I were opposed by the forces of an alliance of Greek city-states. Pushing south into Greece, the Persians were supported offshore by a large fleet. In August, the Persian army encountered Greek troops at the pass of Thermopylae while their ships encountered the allied fleet in the Straits of Artemisium. Despite a heroic stand, the Greeks were defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae forcing the fleet to retreat south to aid in the evacuation of Athens. Assisting in this effort, the fleet then moved to ports on Salamis.

    Advancing through Boeotia and Attica, Xerxes attacked and burned those cities that offered resistance before occupying Athens. In an effort to continue resistance, the Greek army established a new fortified position on the Isthmus of Corinth with the goal of defending the Peloponnesus. While a strong position, it could be easily outflanked if the Persians embarked their troops and crossed the waters of the Saronic Gulf. To prevent this, some of the allied leaders argued in favor of moving the fleet to the isthmus. Despite this threat, the Athenian leader Themistocles argued for remaining at Salamis.

    Frustrations at Salamis:

    Offensively-minded, Themistocles understood that the smaller Greek fleet could negate the Persian advantage in numbers by fighting in the confined waters around the island. As the Athenian navy formed the larger component of the allied fleet, he was able to successfully lobby for remaining. Needing to deal with the Greek fleet before pressing on, Xerxes initially sought to avoid fighting in the narrow waters around the island.

    A Greek Trick:

    Aware of discord among the Greeks, he began moving troops towards the isthmus with the hope that the Peloponnesian contingents would desert Themistocles in order to defend their homelands. This too failed and the Greek fleet remained in place. To promote the belief that the allies were fragmenting, Themistocles began a ruse by sending a servant to Xerxes claiming that Athenians had been wronged and wished to switch sides. He also stated that the Peloponnesians intended to depart that night. Believing this information, Xerxes directed his fleet to block the Straits of Salamis and those of Megara to the west.

    Moving to Battle:

    While an Egyptian force moved to cover the Megara channel, the bulk of the Persian fleet took up stations near the Straits of Salamis. In addition, a small infantry force was moved to the island of Psyttaleia. Placing his throne on the slopes of Mount Aigaleos, Xerxes prepared to watch the coming battle. While the night passed without incident, the following morning a group of Corinthian triremes was spotted moving northwest away from the straits.

    The Battle of Salamis:

    Believing that the allied fleet was breaking up, the Persians began moving towards the straits with the Phoenicians on the right, the Ionian Greeks on the left, and other forces in the center. Formed in three ranks, the Persian fleet's formation began to disintegrate as it entered the confined waters of the straits. Opposing them, the allied fleet was deployed with the Athenians on the left, the Spartans on the right, and other allied ships in the center. As the Persians approached, the Greeks slowly backed their triremes, luring the enemy into the tight waters and buying time until the morning wind and tide (Map).

    Turning, the Greeks quickly moved to the attack. Driven back, the first line of Persian triremes were pushed into the second and third lines causing them to foul and for organization to further break down. In addition, the beginning of a rising swell led the top-heavy Persian ships to have difficulty maneuvering. On the Greek left, the Persian admiral Ariabignes was killed early in the fighting leaving the Phoenicians largely leaderless. As the fighting raged, the Phoenicians were the first to break and flee. Exploiting this gap, the Athenians turned the Persian flank.

    In the center, a group of Greek ship managed to push through the Persian lines cutting their fleet in two. The situation for the Persians worsened through the day with the Ionian Greeks being the last to flee. Badly beaten, the Persian fleet retreated towards Phalerum with the Greeks in pursuit. In the retreat, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus rammed a friendly ship in an effort to escape. Watching from afar, Xerxes believed that she had sunk a Greek vessel and allegedly commented, "My men have become women, and my women men."

    Aftermath of Salamis:

    Losses for the Battle of Salamis are not known with certainty, however it is estimated that the Greeks lost around 40 ships while the Persians lost around 200. With the naval battle won, Greek marines crossed and eliminated the Persian troops on Psyttaleia. His fleet largely shattered, Xerxes ordered it north to guard the Hellespont. As the fleet was necessary for the supply of his army, the Persian leader also was forced to retreat with the bulk of his forces. Intending to finish the conquest of Greece the following year, he left a sizable army in the region under the command of Mardonius. A key turning point of the Persian Wars, the triumph of Salamis was built upon the following year when the Greeks defeated Mardonius at the Battle of Plataea.

    Selected Sources

  • Salamis
  • Livius: Battle of Salamis
  • Herodotus: Battle of Salamis
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