Battle of Salamis

Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis (Ancient Greek: Ναυμαχία τῆς Σαλαμῖνος), was a decisive naval battle between the Greek city-states and Persia in September, 480 BC in the strait between Piraeus and Salamis Island, an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens.

The Greeks were not in accord as to how to defend against the Persian army, but Athens under Themistocles used their navy to defeat the much larger Persian navy and force King Xerxes I of Persia to retreat. The Greek victory marked the turning point of the campaign, leading to the eventual Persian defeat.


On the third day of the indecisive Battle of Artemisium in August, 480 BC, news reached the Greek fleet of the outcome of the Battle of Thermopylae. The fleet retreated to Salamis to assist with the evacuation of Athens while Themistocles left inscriptions addressed to the Ionian Greek crews of the Persian fleet on all springs of water that they might stop at that said:

Men of Ionia, that what you are doing is not proper, campaigning against your fathers and wishing to enslave Greece. It would be best if you came on our side. But if this is not possible, at least during the battle stand aside and also beg the Carians to do the same with you. But if you can not do either the one or the other, if you are chained by higher force and you can not defect during the operations, when we come at hand, act purposely as cowards remembering that we are of the same blood and that the first cause of animosity with the barbarians came from you.'' quickly rammed the leading Persian ship. At this, the rest of the Greeks joined the attack.

The Greek and Persian ships rammed each other and something similar to a land battle ensued. Both sides had marines on their ships (the Greeks with fully armed hoplites), and arrows and javelins also flew across the narrow strait. The wave motion made the archers on the Phoenician ships miss their target, thus giving advantage to the hoplites who fought hand to hand. The Greek triremes were outfitted with the "embolon", a long bronze protrusion fitted to the prow at water level, which enabled them to ram and sink enemy ships more easily than they could be sunk themselves.

When it became obvious to the Greeks that the battle was inevitable, morale rose, and the fleet enthusiastically took to sea and started singing the "paean"

Ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε,
ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ', ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ
παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη,
θήκας τε προγόνων:
νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.

which means:

Forward, sons of the Greeks,
Liberate the fatherland, liberate
Your children, your women, the altars of the gods of your fathers
And the graves of your forebears:
Now is the fight for everything.

This quote (from Aeschylus' tragedy The Persians), especially the last line, has later been used to describe desperate battles, generally.

As at Artemisium, the much larger Persian fleet could not maneuver in the gulf. On the left flank the Athenians could maneuver better and call reinforcements to fill gaps while the Phoenicians with land on their back could not. But on the right flank, where the Greeks were outnumbered and with land on their back, the Persians had open water and could call reinforcements, limiting the Spartans and Aeginetans to defense. The left managed to defeat its opposing force and encircle the enemy center. The chief Persian admiral Ariamenes rammed Themistocles' ship, but in the hand-to-hand combat that followed, Ariamenes was killed by a Greek warrior. On his death, confusion among the Persian fleet ensued because the chain of command was disrupted. The encircled Persians tried to turn back, but the strong wind trapped them. Those who were able to turn around were also trapped by the rest of the Persian fleet that had jammed the strait.


At least 200 Persian ships were sunk, including one by Artemisia, who, finding herself pursued by a Greek ship, attacked and rammed a Persian vessel, convincing the Greek captain that she too was Greek; he accordingly abandoned the chase. Aristides took another small contingent of ships and recaptured Psyttaleia, a nearby island that the Persians had occupied a few days earlier. It is said that it was the Immortals, the elite Persian Royal Guard, who during the battle had to evacuate to Psyttaleia after their ships sank and they were slaughtered to a man. According to Herodotus, the Persians suffered many more casualties than the Greeks because most Persians did not know how to swim. One of the Persian casualties was a brother of Xerxes. Those Persians who survived and ended up on shore were killed by the Greeks who found them.

A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set where were they?
— the philhellene Lord Byron in Don Juan
Xerxes, sitting on Mount Aegaleo on his golden throne, witnessed the horror. He remarked that Artemisia was the only general to show any productive bravery by ramming nine Athenian triremes, saying, "My men have become women, and my women men. When some Phoenicians blamed the Ionians for cowardice before the end of the battle, Xerxes, who had just witnessed the battle and the courage of his Ionian fleet, had the Phoenicians beheaded. Thus it appears that Themistocles' psychological operation failed to make the Ionians fight with less resolve but succeeded in creating hostility between the different nations that comprised the Persian fleet.

Consequences of the battle

The victory of the Greeks marked the turning point in the Persian Wars and the heavy defeat of Persia. Without his navy, Xerxes was unable to supply his huge army from resource-poor Greece so he withdrew to the Hellespont. Here, he proposed to march his army back over the bridge of ships he had created, before the Greeks arrived to destroy the bridge (although the Greeks had already decided not to do this). Xerxes returned to Persia, leaving Mardonius and a large force to hold the conquered areas of Greece. Mardonius recaptured Athens, but the Greek city-states joined together once more to fight him at the simultaneous Battle of Plataea and Battle of Mycale in 479 BC, in which they routed and scattered the remaining Persian force.


The Battle of Salamis has been described by many historians (among them Victor Davis Hanson, Donald Kagan and John Keegan) as the single most significant battle in human history. The defeat of the Persian navy was instrumental in the eventual Persian defeat, as it dramatically shifted the war in Greece's favor. Many historians argue that Greece's ensuing independence laid the foundations for Western civilization, most notably from the preservation of Athenian democracy, the concept of individual rights, relative freedom of the person, true philosophy, art and architecture. Had the Persians won at Salamis, it is very likely that Xerxes would have succeeded in conquering all the Greek nations and passing to the European continent, thus preventing Western civilization's growth (and even existence). Given the influence of Western civilization on world history, as well as the achievements of Western culture itself, a failure of the Greeks to win at Salamis would almost certainly have had seriously important effects on the course of human history.

The Persian response to their defeat at the battle was dramatized eight years later by the Greek playwright Aeschylus in The Persians (472 BCE), which is the earliest surviving play in the history of theatre.



Further reading

  • Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970; revised ed., 1996 (hardcover, ISBN 0-520-20573-1); 1998 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-20313-5).
  • Green, Peter. Xerxes at Salamis. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.
  • Green, Peter. The Year of Salamis, 480–479 B.C. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970 (ISBN 0-297-00146-9).
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: DoubleDay, 2001 (hardcover, ISBN 0-385-50052-1); New York: Anchor Books, 2001 (paperback, ISBN 0-385-72038-6). As Why the West has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam. London: Faber and Faber, 2001 (hardcover, ISBN 0-571-20417-1); 2002 (paperback, ISBN 0-571-21640-4).
  • Strauss, Barry. The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece—and Western Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7432-4450-8; paperback, ISBN 0-7432-4451-6).

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