The Magazine

Victory at Sea

How the Greeks kept the Persians at bay.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Battle of Salamis

The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece--And Western Civilization

by Barry Strauss

Simon & Schuster, 294 pp., $25

AS BARRY STRAUSS, a classicist and historian at Cornell, informs us on the very first page, this is a book about triremes, the battleships of the ancient world that helped the Greeks defeat the Persians in a key sea battle off the island of Salamis near Athens in 480 b.c.

The name "trireme" refers to the three stacked decks of oars and oarsmen, 170 in all, that made the fragile wooden boats, each about 130 feet long, highly maneuverable and, for the time, exceedingly fast (top speed: 10 knots). So when I first opened this book, I was a bit fearful, thinking it was probably pitched at maritime obsessives, the kind of hyperinformed autodidacts who argue about whether the rigging in the movie version of Master and Commander was authentic to the Napoleonic Wars, or didn't come in until the Battle of Navarino.

And even though I was a classics double-major in college, time has obliterated part of my brain, and I've had a hard time remembering why the Battle of Salamis was such an important event in the Persian-Greek wars compared with, say, the Battle of Marathon (490 b.c.), in which Pheidippides sped 26.2 miles on foot to announce victory, and so launched a thousand AIDS runs, or the Battle of Thermopylae (480 b.c., a month before Salamis), in which 300 Spartans fought to the last man against tens of thousands of Persians in a Greek version of the Alamo. And "Saved . . . Western Civilization," as the book's subtitle promises? So many battles have saved Western civilization, from Chalons to Midway.

A few pages into The Battle of Salamis, however, and I was enthralled. Strauss's book is a gripping account of the events leading up to (and also the aftermath of) September 25, 480, when 371 Greek triremes and other ships, more than half supplied by the city-state of Athens, trapped and defeated a Persian fleet more than three times as large. Strauss has ransacked every cranny of relevant learning to shed light upon his tale. He draws not only upon the accounts of Herodotus, his main source, who recorded the battle in his Histories some 50 years later, and of Aeschylus, who actually fought at Salamis and turned his memories into a drama, The Persians, but also upon ancient ship-building, geography, and even what the weather was probably like on that distant autumn day: what time the sun set, the direction of the breezes, which constellations were visible in the sky.

The rowers, lower-class men who could not afford the armor of their social betters on land, and whose "uniform" was a loincloth, are the unsung heroes of Salamis, in Strauss's view. He informs us what they ate for their meals (a blah diet of salt fish and barley-groats), how they went to the bathroom (they mostly didn't because they sweat so much, but when they did, it was right at the oar), and where they slept (ashore, because the tightly packed triremes had no space for bunks).

Where the ancient sources are contradictory or silent, Strauss does not hesitate to fill in the blanks with "We may imagine . . . "--but his imaginings are solidly anchored in archaeology and classical literature. He dresses Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus in western Anatolia, and the sole female commander in Xerxes' fleet, in jewelry excavated from an actual Halicarnassian tomb. He borrows the rhythmic cries of the rowers as they kept time on the triremes from the croaks of the ranids in Aristophanes' The Frogs. Furthermore, Strauss never lets us forget that 5th-century Greeks were both familiar figures who invented our own democratic institutions and, at the same time, intractably strange. They fought in clanking bronze armor like Homeric heroes, and the night before Salamis, so Herodotus reports, they offered human sacrifices of prisoners to the gods.

As in Herodotus' Histories, the Battle of Salamis in Strauss's version is a montage of vivid personalities, starting with Xerxes himself. The Greeks called the Persians barbaroi, but it was the Persians who had the largest, wealthiest, and most culturally sophisticated empire in the ancient world, having swallowed up Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant, and Central Asia all the way to the Indus River. The Persians even had superior triremes: sleek vessels crafted by Phoenicians, master-seafarers, "swordfish," as Strauss calls them, to the Greeks' blunt-nosed "sharks." The Greeks were the barbarians in Persian eyes, a poor, upstart, and usually disunited clump of city-states standing in the way of the Persian kings' attempts to push their western frontier into Europe.