The Battle of Salamis is one of the most thrilling stories in the ‘eternal struggle’ between East and West. To explain its importance, we must make a brief survey of the events immediately preceding. To meet the invasion of the Persian king Xerxes in 480 B.C., the congress of Greek commanders at the Isthmus of Corinth decided to face the enemy by land and sea,—(1) to send troops to hold the narrow pass of Thermopylae between Mount Oeta and the Malian Gulf; (2) to request the various Greek states which could provide ships to send them to Pogon, the harbour of Troezen in Argolis, in order to sail together to Artemisium, the northern promontory of Euboea, less than three miles from the Thessalian coast. While the Greek contingents were hurrying to their respective posts at Thermopylae and Artemisium, Xerxes was advancing through Thessaly; and the two arms of the Persian host were steadily converging. Three days’ fighting in the famous Battle of Thermopylae, chiefly remarkable for the splendid heroism of the Spartan king Leonidas, ended in the betrayal and defeat of the Greeks. This left the way open for Xerxes to advance on Athens, the main object of his expedition; but 20,000 barbarians had been slain in the battle.
During the fighting at Thermopylae the Greek and Persian fleets had been engaged at Artemisium and the neighbourhood; but the results were less decisive. The losses on both sides were severe. During operations extending over three days the Persians lost no less than 600 triremes in two violent storms; and the Greeks suffered heavily in much desperate fighting. Then the news of Thermopylae settled the question. The Greeks sailed with all speed to the Isthmus of Corinth; this was to be their next line of defence. The consternation at Athens, thus sacrificed to the Barbarian, was extreme. But Themistocles bade the people abandon their city and trust to their ‘Wooden Walls.’ The fleet was first employed in conveying the non-fighting population to various places of safety; and then it took up its position in the land-locked bay of Salamis, in order to protect the Isthmus from attack by sea.
After the mustering of the Greek fleet at Salamis, Xerxes occupied Athens and burnt it to the ground, and ravaged the deserted country of Attica. He had with him the expelled family of Peisistratus the Tyrant, who doubtless looked on their restoration as already certain, together with a few Athenian exiles attached to their interest. About the time of the destruction of Athens the Persian fleet arrived in the bay of Phalerum, reinforced by ships from various Greek islands, and numbering in all not far short of a thousand vessels.
The Greek fleet at Salamis consisted of 366 ships. Of these no less than two hundred were furnished by Athens. Forty came from Corinth, thirty from Aegina, twenty from Megara, sixteen from Sparta, etc. As Grote observes, ‘Salamis was not only the most favourable position, in consequence of its narrow strait, for the inferior numbers of the Greeks, but could not be abandoned without breaking up the unity of the allied fleet; since Megara and Aegina would thus be left uncovered, and the contingents of each would immediately retire for the defence of their own homes,—while the Athenians also, a large portion of whose families were in Salamis and Aegina, would be in like manner distracted from combined maritime efforts at the Isthmus.’
It may seem strange to check a prose writer of history by a dramatic poet; but it is certainly possible to correct defects in the story of Herodotus from the brilliant picture of the battle of Salamis which Aeschylus lays before us. His play called the Persians, produced at Athens in 472 B.C., was the work of one who in all probability had himself fought at Salamis; and it was performed before an audience many of whom had witnessed the stern realities of the conflict.
It is evident that Herodotus relies mainly on the gossip of Athenian sailors, magnified by tradition. He loves to chronicle individual acts of bravery, isolated incidents in a scene of wild confusion. He takes no interest in the brain-work of admirals, in the ordered plans of naval warfare; but he describes with eagerness the petty jealousies and angry disputes of the Greek commanders. Above all, he delights to honour the wise counsel and splendid courage of Artemisia, Queen of his own city of Halicarnassus. As Dean Blakesley points out, ‘the facts of Herodotus were a generation old. The Athenians of his time were the sons and grandsons of those before whom the Persians was acted; and in the forty years or more which had elapsed since the battle, its story had been told over and over again in every family. It is not necessary to suppose wilful misrepresentation on the part of those who fought their battles thus again.’ He therefore assumes it as an axiom that, when Aeschylus does relate any particulars of the action which must have come under the notice of eye-witnesses, his narrative possesses paramount authority; and that if any incident or any special notice of time or place appears in Herodotus irreconcilable with these, it must be regarded as erroneous.
A very graphic account of the battle, certainly more intelligible than that of Herodotus, is put by Aeschylus into the mouth of the messenger who brings the news of the Persian disaster to Queen Atossa. To paraphrase the Aeschylean narrative :—The Persian Admiral, having received the treacherous message of Themistocles, at once gives up all thoughts of fighting and stakes his all on preventing the escape of the supposed fugitives. At once (says the Messenger), not comprehending the trick of the wily Greek, he publishes an order to his captains, which is to be carried out as soon as it is dark. Meanwhile all necessary preparations are made. The evening meal is served; and oars are made fast to the pins.
Night is falling (the Messenger goes on); every master of an oar goes to his ship and every master of weapons (i.e. every sailor and marine). Crew cheers on crew, as they go to the posts appointed for them. Their orders are to block each outlet of the channel of Salamis with a triple line of galleys and to post others all round the island. If the Greeks are suffered to escape their fate, the Persians in fault will lose their heads. Αll night the captains are cruising backwards and forwards. Night is passing; yet—how strange !—the Greek host has nowhere made an attempt to escape. Morning breaks in all its splendour; a cheer from the Greeks rings loud like a triumph song; and shrill and clear it echoes from the island cliffs. Fear rises in every Persian heart. Poor fools! they are deluded. The Greeks are chanting their solemn paean,—not seeking to escape, but advancing to battle with daring courage. Then a trumpet-call fires all their line to action, and with foaming dash of oars in unison they smite, to the word of command, the resounding surge. And at once all of them come plain into view. The right wing is leading in perfect order, and after that their whole armament comes on, and withal loud shouts are heard, ‘Onward, children of Greece! Deliver your country, deliver your children and your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods, the tombs of your ancestry. Now is your all at stake.’
Then a babel of Persian tongues meets them from our line. No time for delay! At once ship against ship strikes its beak of bronze. ’Twas a Greek galley began the charge, breaking off complete a Phoenician stern. Then every captain rammed a foeman’s ship. At first our Persian armament could hold its own; it was indeed a stream of ships,—ῥεῦμα Περσικοῦ στρατοῦ. But our galleys multitudinous were crowded in the narrows; and rendered no aid one to another, being rammed by the bronze beaks of their friends, and splintering their whole broadside of oars; while the Greek ships all round kept charging them onevery side. The sea was no longer visible; so choked was it with wrecks and slaughtered men. The shores and reefs were full of them. Then in utter rout every ship of the barbarian host essayed to row away. But the Greeks were in close pursuit, like fishermen after tunny shoals, with broken oars and splinters of wreckage; and the wail of anguish spread o’er the open sea till night ended the pursuit.
It is very important to study the following notes from Blakesley and others, with the help of the Map of Salamis given in this book :—
(i) The original station of the Persian fleet is along the coast of Attica, with its head-quarters in the bay of Phalerum. The original station of the Greek fleet is in the bay before the town of Salamis, in the portion of the island facing Mount Aegaleos in Attica.
(ii) At the point where the description of Aeschylus begins we find that the great bulk of the Persian war-ships have on the day before the action advanced from the bay of Phalerum towards Salamis too late in the day for beginning an engagement. Accordingly, all they do is to make arrangements for fighting on the morrow.
(iii) The whole of the coast behind them is lined with the flower of the Persian army, so that, if it is necessary to beach their ships, they will be secure of protection. A large Persian force has also been landed on the little island of Psyttaleia.
(iv) By day-break on the day of battle the Greek fleet is drawn up near the eastern entrance to the channel, between the Silenian Promontory and the coast of Attica, to receive the enemy.
(v) The western-most squadron of the Persian line (i.e. the Egyptians) would have moved in the night to block the narrow (western) outlet between Salamis and the coast of Megaris. From the Persian point of view, the outlets once blocked, the Greeks are caught.
(vi) It is very important to observe that the object of the stratagem of Themistocles was not merely to induce the enemy to surround the Greeks and so compel them to fight; but also to cause the Persians to be just entering the narrow channel at the beginning of the engagement.
(vii) The Persian seamen had been on ship-board all night engaged in making the movement which had brought them into their actual position; while the Greek seamen now began their work, without previous fatigue, fresh from the animated harangues of Themistocles and their other leaders.
(viii) At the beginning of the battle the leading ships of the Persians are immediately crippled, and drift back upon those who advance to support them from the rear. Their triple line is thrown into disorder; and the crowd of advancing vessels, each pressing forward as best it can, presents the appearance so graphically described by Aeschylus as a ‘stream of ships.’ As the head of the column gets clear of the narrow passage, it is surrounded by the Greek line and at once destroyed. This state of things would go on so long as the invaders continued their attempt to force the passage; but, when they gave this up and retreated, the pursuit would continue on the ‘open sea’ (πελαγίαν ἅλα), over which (as Aeschylus says) the cries of the enemy were heard as they were being destroyed.
On the day after Salamis the Greeks found no Persian ships to fight with. In the night the enemy had departed from Phalerum for the Hellespont. The Greek fleet went in pursuit as far as the island of Andros. Xerxes, with the bulk of his army, took the land-route through Thrace. His losses by famine and disease were stupendous. He found that the Hellespont bridges had been broken up by a storm; but the fleet was there to take the Persian troops across; and they wintered at Sardis. Mardonius went into winter quarters in Thessaly (ch. xvii).
Meanwhile part of the Greek fleet remained engaged in the siege of Andros.It was the policy of Themistocles to punish, especially by forced contributions, the islanders who had helped the Persians; and thereby to have funds for a permanent fleet to keep the Aegean safe from the enemy in future. The gods of Athens are more potent than the gods of Andros (ch. xvii).
Then in high dudgeon at the action of his colleagues, who assigned him the prize for general-ship by second votes—each commander voting the ἀριστεῖα to himself—Themistocles turns to the Spartans; who give him the finest car in their city, a wreath of olive, and a splendid send-off (ch. xviii).
Chapter xix brings us to the following spring (479 B.C.). The Persian fleet musters at Samos, ready to meet any attack from Ionia. Mardonius is intent on crushing the Greeks on the main-land. The Greek fleet assembles at Aegina, where they are met by envoys from Ionia asking for help. They go as faras the island of Delos; but nothing will induce them to sail further. The historian is much impressed with the nervousness of the Greeks in this respect. ‘Everything beyond,’ he writes, ‘ was terrible to them. They knew not the geography of the Aegean, which seemed to them all full of armed men. They thought Samos quite as far off as the Pillars of Hercules.’ So we leave the Greeks and Persians at Delos and Samos, watching each other’s movements, but neither willing to strike the first blow (ch. xix).
The visit of Alexander the Macedonian to Athens, at the bidding of Mardonius, is an instructive episode (chs. xx-xxii). It arouses great alarm among the Spartans, who send envoys to counteract the offers of the Persian. ‘It is madness,’ cries Alexander, ‘to fight with the Great King and to thwart his long arm, his superhuman strength, in that whereon his heart is set. And remember that your Attica is the special battleground of East and West.’
The Athenians reply to Mardonius, through Alexander, that, as long as the sun proceeds in the same path as at present, they will never make terms with Xerxes. Their answer to the Spartans is a splendid vindication of what they call the ‘Athenian spirit’ (τὸ Ἀθηναίων φρόνημα) contrasted with the selfish caution of their rivals. They will never enslave Greece and thus betray the many bonds of union summed up in the term τὸ Ἑλληνικόν, ‘ Hellenic nationality.’ As long as a single Athenian survives, there will be no terms with the Persian monarch.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The source is available at https://github.com/sleeptillseven/edwards-salamis-in-easy-attic-greek.