The Magazine

Victory at Sea

How the Greeks kept the Persians at bay.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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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.