Battle of Salamis that Ended the Xerxes’ Ambitions in Greece
The Greeks defeated a much larger Persian army and ushered an era that formed the foundations of the Western artistic and cultural endeavor for centuries to come.
The epic battles of the Greco-Persian Wars are the center of the filmmakers and many movies have already been released that dramatize the fight scenes and strategies of these ancient wars.
These war movies gave us a sense of the situations that how those wars were fought and also entertain us. But the actual situations in the wars are not entertaining but gruesome and horrible.
But no matter how horrible the wars were, humans never rested in peace throughout history. They were always dagger drawn at each other over one or another reason.
However, the main reasons were that the kings in past wanted expansions and conquering other people to loot their wealth and land. The other being to be called the King of kings and to have as much as one can amass.
Nonetheless, the invasion of Greece by Persians was motivated by the spirit of expansion and as well as punishment.
Cyrus the Great laid the foundation of the Achaemenid Empire, also called the first great Persian empire. He had defeated the small empires of Neo-Babylonian, Lydia, and Medes successfully which strengthen his hold in Asia Minor. He stretched his empire as far as the Indus valley in South Aisa in the east and up to Balkans and Eastern Europe to the west.
Cyrus the Great was known for his generosity, his regards for the welfare of the subjects, and respect for their beliefs. The system of his empire was led by a centralized bureaucracy and he had installed governors of each colony known as ‘satraps’ to run his government effectively.
However, after his death, his successors weren’t as powerful as him but they showed his valour and strength. King Darius 1st was the third king of the Persian Empire who ruled from 522 BCE until he died in 486 BCE.
Darius ascended the throne when the empire was at its peak. His empire included the far and wide regions and covered almost three continents. His empire included much of the Balkans such as Thrace, Paeonia and Macedonia; West Asia, Black Sea coastal regions, northeast Africa including Egypt, Lybia and Sudan and as far as South Asian parts up to Indus Valley.
Darius acquired the throne by force when he dethroned Bardiya, the son of the Cyrus the Great, in 522BCE and established his rule by power. He met numerous revolts in the process to get control of the whole empire and he successfully quelled them all.
However, the remarkable expedition in the life of King Darius was to punish Athens and Eretria who aided the Ionian Revolt.
The Ionian Revolt was a rebellion of several Greek city-states in Asia Minor against the rule of the Persian Empire. The revolt lasted from 499 BC to 493 BC that triggered the Darius instinct to subjugated the whole of Greece along with the rebellion city-states.
Darius saw that his hold is to be fully established and the revolt could have been proved fatal for his had it been successful. That is why he vowed to punish the involved even those who were not part of his kingdom at that time.
He also saw the possibility of expanding his kingdom to mainland Europe and started preparation for invasion. The first expedition under the command of Mardonius in 492 BCE was a success and he quickly conquered Thrace and Macedonia. Darius also sent messages to other city-states to oblige to his power or to be ready for a war.
In 491 BCE, the majority of Greek city accepted his rule and entered into submission but the Athens and Sparta denied the messages. The Spartans threw the ambassadors down to a large well while the Athenians put them on the trail and then executed them.
This enraged Darius and he sent Persian forces under the command of the Datis and Artaphernes to punish Athens and Sparta. The forces attacked Naxos and received the submission of other states of the Cycladic Islands.
The forces also attacked the state of Eretria and destroyed it in their way and finally landed at the bay of Marathon to face the Athenians. The Athenians forces outnumbered the Persians and at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won the war with a historic victory over Persians that resulted in the withdrawal of the Persians to Asia.
Having met a decisive defeat at the hand of Athenians at the Battle of Marathon, King Darius planned to completely subjugate the Greeks and began raising a huge army. His preparation for war extended for three years and this time he wanted to lead the army himself.
Nonetheless, his preparations for Greece met a halt when the Egyptians revolted against his rule. Darius focused more on Egypt to quell the rebellion and postponed the idea of attacking Greece.
His failing health was further deteriorated on his march to quell the Egyptians. His weak health prevented him from leading an army and shortly after died. His body was embalmed and entombed in October 486 BCE, in the rock-cut tomb at Naqsh-e Rostam which he prepared for himself.
Upon the death of Darius, his son Xerxes ascended the throne. In history, he is known as Xerxes I of the Persian Empire. Shortly after his ascension, he crushed the Egyptian revolt and again started preparation for the invasion of Greece.
Since it was a full-scale invasion, the preparation took longer than anticipated. Xerxes had to devise long-term planning, to raise a huge army and to train them in the combat, and to gather a huge stock of the necessary items.
He also builds bridges over Hellespont and dug canals across the isthmus of Mount Athos to provide easy access to his army into Europe.
His preparations completed by early 480 BCE and marched his army towards Europe from Sardis and crossed the Hellespont bridges and entered Europe.
The Athenians knew that Persians will attack again soon and were thus preparing themselves for war since the mid 480s. In 482 BCE, they decided under the guidance of an Athenian politician and general Themistocles to go to war.
He argued that since Athens can’t fight the much superior army of Persians on land, a naval fleet of triremes is to be built for the fight. He also proposed for the alliance of Greek city-states to fight Xerxes’ forces since any state alone can’t stand the Persians might.
Xerxes also sent ambassadors to all Greek states except Sparta and Athens to submit and allow land and water passage.
On the other hand, Greeks have made a congress of the member states in 481 BCE and a confederate of the alliance was formed. This alliance was a remarkable achievement in the history of disjointed Greeks as some of the Greek city-states at the time of the alliance were at war. But for the outside enemy, they set aside their enmity and fought together. The member of the alliance was made to submit services of men ad material in the preparation of war.
Greeks were divided among their decision that where to meet the Persians. They adopted dual strategies to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the straits of Artemisium. They were quickly overrun by the Persians and made them evacuate.
The battle of Artemisium was an indecisive naval battle in August 480 BCE that forced the Greeks to regroup in the strait of Salamis. On the other hand, marching through the narrow pass of the Thermopylae, the Persians demolished the cities of Boeotian (Plataea and Thespiae) that denied surrender.
The Battle at Salamis
Xerxes had assembled a large number of ships from Egypt, Bactria, Ionia, and many other cities. According to Herodotos ‘Histories (440–430 BCE), the Persian fleet consisted of 1207 triremes — warships.
However, the number of the fleet is contested among historians and very little is known about the true number. Maybe it was greater maybe lesser. But, it is true that the Persian naval fleet was far superior to the Greek fleet in terms of number.
On the other hand, according to Herodotus, the Greek fleet consisted of 380 and according to Thucydides, it was 400 trireme warships.
The Spartan Eurybiades commanded the Greek naval fleet along with Adeimantus of Corinth and Themistocles of Athens who were both great war strategists.
After the fall of Athens, people and the Greek warriors evacuated to the island of Salamis. The Spartans were also defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae and king Leonidas was killed brutally. After this, the whole of Attica was also abandoned and the fleet stationed there also withdrew to Salamis.
A council of 17 commanders who hailed from each of the member states to decide the war action. The majority of the members decided to retreat to the isthmus of Corinth and to fight from there. But Themistocles, a brilliant naval commander who had 20 years of naval experience, convinced the members to take the position at the narrow strait of the Salamis.
The strait of the Salamis was chosen for the final Battle with reasons. The reasons were that the Persian armada was good at fighting in the open waters. A large number of the Persian fleet could also easily surround the Greeks from all sides.
So, the open seas battle was not in the favour of the Greeks as they have already experienced a defeat at the Battle of Artemisium. Therefore, a more constricted place would give them an edge as the Greek ships were less in number and could easily be organized in the narrow place.
On the other hand, the Persian fleet was large and could not move quickly in the narrow strait with speed. Their own strength became their weakness. And the plan was successful.
Themistocles also misinformed king Xerxes by sending his servant, Sicinnus, to him with information claimed that Themistocles is “on the king’s side and prefers that your affairs prevail, not the Hellenes”. He sent the message that there is a disagreement among the Greek fleet and the Peloponnesians are evacuating in the night.
The better course for the Persians would be to block the strait and take them off guard. Upon hearing the news, King Xerxes acted quickly and sent a fleet to patrol the strait and block it. He was also thinking that the Greeks would now submit but it was bait to him and Themistocles wanted to lure him in the Salamis strait which was conceded.
After the fruitless patrol of searching for the Peloponnesians evacuees, the Persians decide to attack the Greek fleet in the strait of Salamis in the morning. King Xerxes wanted his throne to be built in the slopes of Mount Aigaleo in order to clearly watch the battle from above.
The Battle Began
The Battle began on the morning of 20 or to some historian on 28 September 480 BCE. The Greeks were trapped by the Persians in the strait from all sides. The Xerxes army not only outnumbered the Greeks but they had large and speedy ships with experienced sailors.
However, both sides put their last stake at this naval battle. For Xerxes, the win was meant the surrender of the whole Greek and for the Hellenes, it was a matter of their survival. The survival of their culture, politics, men, women, and children. They fought for their country and their western values. So, both sides were hell-bent on winning.
The tactic that was used by the Greeks that the Persians would be unable to move swiftly because of their large number and constricted area. The Greek ships were less in number and had ample space to maneuver easily and flank the Persian ships.
The Greek rammed their ram-equipped triremes into the Persian ships and damaged them. When the Persian ships marched ahead the Greeks drew them to tighter confine in the waters. Their ships aligned and had little space to disengage.
The Greeks charged them and rammed their ships between the Persians and flanked them. The Persian ships tried to full back but due to a huge number, they further rammed each other and the escape way was blocked.
The sea turned to be a wooden land and the hand-to-hand fight ensued. The Persians panicked at the restriction of their movements and lost connection to their main command. The Persian army was an amalgamation of different races and didn’t speak the same language. They had difficulty in communication and the troops couldn’t understand their commanders.
On the other hand, the Greeks were of the same race, speaking one language, and had little organized command. They were also fighting their best as it was the battle of their survival. So, they gave their best.
When the first line of the Persian ships was broken, the second followed soon. The Greeks also killed Ariabignes the leader of the ships and brother of King Xerxes, which demoralized the Persians. They were now leaderless and the second attack by the Greeks split them into two.
By the afternoon, the Greek victory ensued. King Xerxes was watching from above and thus had left after the defeat when the Persian ships fell back to the harbor of Phalerum to shelter themselves.
After the Battle of Salamis
The Persian ship soon retreated to Asia Minor and the remaining soldiers were slaughtered by the Greeks in the course of action. Upon retreating, Xerxes left handpicked warriors in the charge of Mardonius to complete the Greek invasion.
However, after the retake of Athens by the Persians, the Allied forces lured Mardonius in the Battle of Plataea. The battle won another decisive victory over the Persian and destroyed the remaining Persian army in 479 BCE.
Shortly after, the Allied Greek fleet also destroyed the remaining fragile Persian fleet at the Battle of Mycale that successfully ended the Persian invasion of Greece.
According to historians, it was the decisive battle in the history of Western civilization with the Persians. Had the Persians won the war, the western culture, and values of democracy would not have flourished.
The West would have been dominated by the Persian and the Persian values would have dominated it. It was a war between the civilized and democratic nation with a nation that believed in despotism and tyranny.
The defeat at the Battle of the Salamis successfully ended the ambition of King Xerxes to subjugate the Greeks and to bring mainland Europe into the fold of his kingdom.
The removal of the Persian threat from the European continent gave breathing space to the development of western culture and art.