Victory at Sea
How the Greeks kept the Persians at bay.
Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
The Battle of Salamis
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.
Xerxes' father, Darius, had made one such effort and been rebuffed by the Athenians at Marathon. Xerxes' score-settling second invasion 10 years later was actually a huge success, at least on land. His polyglot army, formed from his various subject nations, not only trounced the Spartans at Thermopylae but sacked Athens itself, burning the Acropolis to the ground. Fortunately, the Athenians had evacuated the city and moved most of their population--along with the Greek fleet--to Salamis, which lay along the coastline of the Saronic Gulf, to the city's west.
The trick was to lure the Persian fleet, moored safely downshore in Phaleron Bay, up into the narrow straits alongside Salamis, where it could be trapped and destroyed. Fortunately, the Athenians had a match for Xerxes in the veteran warrior and politician, Themistocles, a relentless promoter of the Greek navy who talked its reluctant commander, a Spartan named Eurybiades, into taking a stand at sea despite the uneven match of forces. Manipulative and duplicitous Themistocles first enticed the Persians to Salamis by sending a slave posing as a traitor to Xerxes informing him that the Greek fleet was in full retreat and could be pursued. Then Themistocles bluffed the quarreling Greek city-states into hanging together by threatening a pullout by Athens if they did not.
The double ruse worked. The Persian ships quietly moved up to the harbor at Salamis during the night of September 24. There at dawn their rowers, exhausted after a night's work, were surprised by a Greek fleet that was rested and bristling for battle. Combat was hand-to-hand and by javelin and arrows, but it mostly consisted of the triremes' ramming each other's sterns to break the fragile ships to pieces, then returning later to slaughter any survivors. Artemisia saved her own warship from a Greek attack by turning and ramming one of her Persian allies. Afterwards she lied to Xerxes, who had been watching the sea-battle from a throne set up onshore, that the ship she had rammed actually belonged to the Greeks. When the battle ended after 7 p.m. that night, some 20,000 Persians were dead, Strauss estimates, including most of their commanders.
The victory at Salamis left many loose strands untied. It was "a Greek Gettysburg; it was not Appomattox Court House," Strauss writes. The Greeks did not entirely evict the Persians until a decisive win on land the next year at Plataea in Boeotia, to the north of Athens. Persia then retreated for good from Europe, but it remained the ancient world's richest empire for more than a century until it was conquered by Alexander the Great. At home, the other Greek city-states resented the now-dominant Athens, and the Athenians resented Themistocles, whom they regarded as too clever by half. They eventually ostracized and exiled him, at which point the wily politician switched sides and presented himself at the court of Xerxes' son, Artaxerxes I, who gave him a swath of Anatolia to govern.
Had the Greeks lost at Salamis, Strauss points out, the defeat would not have been fatal to their culture, for there were Greek settlers all over the Mediterranean, especially in Italy and Sicily. Still, the uniquely Athenian contribution to that culture never would have been: the Acropolis gloriously rebuilt by Pericles (a teenager at Salamis), the wealth of Greek drama, the flowering of philosophy, the short-lived robustness of Athenian democracy.
That democratic and individualistic streak in Greek culture ultimately led to the Greek city-states' fragmentation and undoing, but it also helped them fend off a mighty Persian military whose commanders, as Strauss notes, "fought mainly to impress Xerxes" and had "little incentive to fight to the death." The Greeks had every incentive to fight to the death for what they cherished, and their victory at Salamis indeed saved Western civilization, at least as we know it now.
Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.