In the spring of 480 Xerxes led 180,000 soldiers over a pontoon bridge across the Hellespont BC, Persia’s King and invaded Greece. Accompanied by 1,207 warships and 3,000 transports, Xerxes intended to destroy Athens to avenge the defeat of the Persian army at Marathon a decade earlier. In August the Persians defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae, then captured Athens and burned the Acropolis. The Athenians fled to the islands of Aegina, Salamis and Troezen. The Greek fleet sought safety in Salamis’ harbor and waited for the Persians to attack.
The Spartans wanted to withdraw the fleet to protect Corinth from a Persian attack. But Themistocles, commander of the Athenian flotilla, knew that if Athens was to survive, the fleet must remain at Salamis and defeat Xerxes. He sent his slave, Sicinnus, to tell the Persians that due to dissension among the Greeks, the fleet had decided to sail for Corinth the next day. Xerxes took the bait, and ordered his ships to block Salamis Sound. By daybreak the Persian ships were in position. Themistocles had succeeded in baiting the Persians into a fight.
The 332 Greek ships—each with a contingent of 14 hoplites and four bowmen—were under the command of Spartan admiral Eurybiades. The Athenian flotilla under Themistocles comprised 180 triremes. The Persians, by then, had some 700 ships.
The Greeks sailed single file from Salamis into the sound, passing before the Persian ships arrayed three lines deep in the narrow channels. Once in position, the Greeks turned their ram-equipped bows toward the Persians, who squeezed through the channels to engage their seemingly trapped foe. But the Greek ships drew back, luring the Persians farther into the channels. When the first line of Persian vessels reached open water, the Greeks struck hard, sinking many and halting the rest. The Persian ships in the rear collided with those in the front line, causing great confusion.
The Greek triremes closed on the Persians to break their oars, then wheeled about to ram. Persian command and control soon broke down. Artemisia, the queen of Halicarnassus and captain of a squadron, even rammed and sank one of her own ships while attempting to flee. Watching from shore, Xerxes thought she had sunk an Athenian ship and praised her, saying, “My men have become women, and my women men.” Impressed, Xerxes appointed Artemisia one of his closest advisers.
It was a stunning defeat for Xerxes’ fleet, with only about half the Persian ships surviving, and more than 9,000 Persian sailors drowned, clubbed to death with oars, shot by arrows or “spitted like tunny.” Among the dead was Xerxes’ brother Ariabignes. The battle lasted only a few hours, but the slaughter went on until nightfall.
Xerxes lost confidence, supplies were low, and there was no hope of a quick victory over the Greeks. He ordered the fleet to return to the Hellespont to protect his bridge, and the army to abandon Attica and go into winter quarters. Persia never conquered Greece—and the bright lamp of Western civilization passed safely to future generations.
■ Beware Greeks bearing gifts—particularly unverified intelligence.
■ Brains can trump brawn. Though the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, they lost anyway.
■ Choose your battle site. Themistocles negated Xerxes’ numerical advantage by drawing his ships into Salamis’ narrow channels.
■ Practice economy of force. Compelling the Persians to commit their ships one behind the other gave the Greeks the advantage at any point of contact, even with fewer ships overall.
■ Battles are means to strategic ends, not ends in themselves. Xerxes had the Athenian population bottled up and on the verge of starvation at Salamis. He didn’t even need to fight the Greek fleet.
■ Do not be ruled by fear. The Persian defeat at Salamis would have had little strategic impact had Xerxes not feared the Greeks would attack his bridge across the Hellespont, isolating him in Greece. His fears magnified a minor defeat into a major withdrawal.
■ Heed your experienced commanders. Artemisia had distinguished herself as a commander in earlier naval battles and had warned Xerxes against engaging at Salamis. He ignored her advice because she was a woman.
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.