Ancient History & Civilisation




He sits on the quarterdeck of his trireme, reclining on a purple cushion and protected from the wind by a cloth canopy. The ship slips almost silently past the dark coast. In the distance, across the straits, he can make out the fires of the Greek fleet. Nearby, the sound of the infantrymen, marching westward through Attica, makes it hard for him to hear the ship at all. But when from time to time he does make out the sound of the ship, all he hears is the oars sliding through the water while, at rhythmic intervals, two stones are struck together to keep time, making no more noise than the crunch of footsteps on a layer of shells. They might be a crew of workmen gone to harvest mollusks for the factories of Phoenicia that make purple dye. In fact, they are sailors, the best in the world, and in the predawn darkness of September 25, they are off to win the war. They are the seamen of Sidon, and he is their king, Tetramnestus son of Anysus—conceivably the monarch known in Sidonian texts as Eshmunazar.

Tetramnestus wore a bronze helmet and a linen breastplate over a linen tunic dyed purple. No doubt he carried a sword. He is likely to have worn gold earrings, rings, and bracelets. On a gold chain around his neck he might have worn a blue glass amulet as protection against evil spirits.

The Persian fleet was on the move. Seven hundred ships strong, it was rowing, firmly but quietly, toward the straits of Salamis. Its mission was to encircle at either end the places where the enemy had moored. The Greeks were expected to attempt a breakout to the Isthmus that very night. The Persian navy’s job was to stop them. They would shock the Greeks, check their movement, and then destroy that discouraged congeries of chatterboxes in a battle of annihilation—all of this with the help of a substantial squadron of Greek traitors.

It was a dangerous mission and difficult technically. Not only did the Persian warships have to infiltrate the Greek home waters of the Salamis straits, they had to do so on a dark and cloudy night, unaided by moonlight or stars, and they had to do so without being detected. For centuries the Phoenicians had been the sea dogs of the Mediterranean, and in the fifth century B.C., Sidon—“great Sidon,” “the mother of Canaan,” “the first-born of Canaan,” as it was known—was the first city in Phoenicia. Situated on a promontory between the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon and the limpid blue sea, Sidon exercised the “experience in naval deeds inherited from its ancestors.” Who else but Sidonians could have led such an assignment for Persia?


Tetramnestus was Xerxes’ favorite king and this was his moment. Before the next day’s sunset, Tetramnestus planned to destroy the Greek navy, thereby handing his master swift and certain victory over all Greece. The king of Sidon was the most valued ally in Xerxes’ navy. Even the image of a warship on the seal stones of the Royal Treasury of Persepolis was copied from a Sidonian coin.

No need for one of Xerxes’ brothers—the admirals Achaemenes and Ariabignes—to lay down the law to the men of Sidon, or to those of Tyre or Aradus, their Phoenician comrades in arms. It was the untrustworthy Ionians and Egyptians whom the Persians had to keep their eyes on. Not politicians but military professionals, as the Persian commanders Megabazus and Prexaspes arguably were, were seconded to the Phoenician squadron, because the Great King could trust the Phoenicians. And none of the Phoenicians stood higher in Xerxes’ eyes than the men of Sidon. Hadn’t the Persians built a royal park—a paradise—outside Sidon? Hadn’t they funded an enormous temple outside Sidon to the blessed Eshmun, the great healing god of Sidon, revered in all Phoenicia? Hadn’t Sidon finally outstripped its longtime rival, Tyre? For Sidon, Persian rule had been a golden age. Now it was time to repay the Great King.

Alas, the war was not going as Tetramnestus might have wished. To be sure, it had begun splendidly. Sidon had won the boat race at the Hellespont in May, under the delighted eyes of Xerxes, who watched it from his white marble throne. The next month, at Doriscus in Thrace, His Majesty chose a Sidonian ship from which to review his fleet. The Phoenician contingent of ships was originally three hundred strong. Seated under a golden canopy, the Great King sailed along the single line of ships that was drawn up four hundred feet from shore with the prows turned shoreward and the marines on deck in full battle array. Xerxes asked questions about each ship, and his secretaries recorded every word. What a glorious day for Sidon that had been!

The Sidonians had next led the fleet through the Mount Athos canal and southward into central Greece. As the lead squadron, they probably hauled their ships onto the shore at Cape Sepias and so survived the storm intact. And then came the embarrassment at Artemisium. No doubt Tetramnestus insisted that his men had done their duty there; the others had lost the battle. If only the Great King had left that crowd of landlubbers at home. What good were Cilicians, Lycians, and Pamphylians as sailors? Some of the Cypriots were of Phoenician blood, and so knew the sea, but the wretched Egyptians and Ionians were traitors and not to be trusted.

Now, Sidon would have a second chance. How fitting for it to come at Salamis, since legend had it that the island was named for a Phoenician trading post and the Phoenican word sh-l-m, “peace.” At Salamis, the Greeks would learn their lesson.

How easily a Phoenician might discount Greek prowess at sea. The Phoenician city-states were older and longer civilized than the Greek. The Phoenicians were longtime masters of the trireme, but the Athenian trireme navy—the greatest squadron in the Greek fleet—was only three years old. As for Greek success at Artemisium, that might be dismissed as beginner’s luck.

Tetramnestus might have thought back to the scene, hours ago at Phaleron Bay, when it had begun—this last, decisive mission of the Great King’s fleet. From its precise launching to its bravura sweep up the Saronic Gulf to its soundless parade past an ignorant enemy, the Persian navy had performed brilliantly. And yet, even so, now, as the dawn drew near, Tetramnestus might have found it hard to avoid an undercurrent of doubt.

The operation had begun at sunset on the day before, September 24. The men returned to Phaleron Bay from their show of force at the entrance to the Salamis straits. The crews came ashore sweating and agitated, men whose destiny had been delayed. We can imagine them climbing down onto the sandy beach, irritated or elated to be back there without having shed blood. Some men feared battle, but others wanted only “to cut the Greeks off in Salamis and make them pay for the battles of Artemisium.”

After disembarking, the men ate their evening meal. Not only had they rowed a round trip of ten miles to the entrance to the Salamis straits and back, but when they reached the edge of Salamis they had sat at their oars, constantly rowing and backing, as their boats stood smartly at their stations, the more to frighten the Greeks with a show of discipline and order. This was no little work, although to keep things in perspective, it does not compare to the 120-plus-nautical-mile-per-day voyage that a trireme fleet was capable of making. Still, the rowers at Phaleron must have been hungry. The Persian officers and marines, who had not had to exert themselves as much as the oarsmen, were no doubt very well fed.

The rowers are likely to have had simpler fare, such as onions, salt fish, thyme, salt, and barley groats. Foraging parties might have gone out for seasonal fruit, such as figs and apples, while hunters might have bagged birds or rabbits. Fresh water was essential after the toil of rowing. The one thing that most everyone would have craved was wine, the standard drink from Greece to Persia, except for Egypt, where beer was the staple drink of the poor. Especially before going into battle, a little wine went a long way. Whether all these needs were met depended in large part on the ability of Persia’s merchant ships to keep the supply lifeline going.

After eating and drinking, the men would have divided into groups. Ship’s carpenters and their assistants would have checked for problems and made what repairs were needed—and on a boat, some repairs are always needed. Some men would have gossiped. Some would have played games like checkers or dice. Some might have sung. Others might have prayed, for everyone knew that the morning might bring the great naval battle that they had long awaited. And those who could have would have gone to sleep.

But any rest would have proven short. Before midnight, the order would have come to launch the fleet at once, that is, to move the bulk of the fleet. Before the general order for mobilization was given, a squadron had already been sent out on a special mission. We do not know which ships or how many were dispatched. Their assignment was to occupy Psyttaleia, an islet between Salamis and the mainland.

Psyttaleia greatly interested Persia’s high command because of its strategic location. Specifically, it lay in the pathway of the coming naval battle. Once the fighting began, many men and shipwrecks would be carried there, as the Persians imagined, and whoever controlled Psyttaleia could help his own forces and kill the enemy’s.

A look at the map shows that Psyttaleia lies at the entrance to the Salamis channel, and so at one end of rather than in the middle of what would be the battlefield. But it certainly did lie “in the pathway” of any Greek flight out of the straits, just as it lay between the eventual battlefield and the Persian base at Phaleron Bay. Furthermore, the more shoreline one controlled in a naval engagement, the better, precisely in order to save or kill shipwrecked men and to capture any damaged hulls that came ashore. The Persians already controlled the Attic coast and the Greeks the coast of Salamis; by taking Psyttaleia, the Persians created another shoreline stronghold. Note also that the southeast shore of Psyttaleia is far enough away from Salamis that, on a dark night, the Persians could land there undetected. All of this explains the priority of Psyttaleia in Persian plans.

But the main task back at Phaleron was to mobilize the bulk of the Persian fleet, well over 100,000 men (a total of about 150,000 minus the men sent to Psyttaleia). Simply moving that number would be an achievement. Moving them in a swift and orderly way was a marvel, especially when the men had already put in an afternoon’s work. Yet that was just what the Persians now did.

When the order to launch the ships came, every rower had to file aboard and find his place. He probably carried a small amount of food and water with him, enough to get through the long night and day ahead but not so much as to weigh down the boat.

Every trireme was provided with two ladders at the stern, and the men could have boarded each ship in pairs. It probably took no more than fifteen minutes to man a ship. The boat would not have been filled haphazardly but, rather, by sections: for example, by center, bow, and stern. Every rower was probably assigned a regular seat on board. This would allow him to get used to the timing of the men around him and to adjust his stroke accordingly. After taking his seat, each rower had to make an equipment check. First he had to ensure that his cushion was tied firmly to the seat. Then he had to inspect his oarloop. An oar is a lever; on every stroke, it has to turn around a support or fulcrum. On a trireme, the oar pivoted on an upright, wooden peg called a tholepin. The oar was held in place by a leather strap, sewn into a loop, the oarloop. The oarloop held the oar tightly against the tholepin.

After constant use, the oarloops tended to stretch or crack. So each time the ship was launched, every rower had to examine his oarloop and readjust or even replace it as needed. The oarloops had to be greased from time to time with mutton tallow. Likewise rowers in the hold had to make sure that the leather oar port sleeves had remained watertight. These sleeves, too, had to be greased regularly.

Meanwhile, the marines and archers gathered up their equipment. They put on their helmets, picked up their spears from where they had stood them—butt-end down—in the ground, adjusted their arrow cases, and placed their daggers in their belts. They were the last men to board the ship. We may imagine that, as in the Greek navy, these deck soldiers received a pre-battle speech on land from their commanders. Or rather, perhaps, a set of speeches, for no one language would have satisfied the makeup of the Persian navy. Everyone in the fleet knew how much was at stake, including their heads. Whether or not Xerxes threatened to punish any commander who let the Greeks escape, as Aeschylus claims, his habit of executing those who failed him was well known.

Finally, before they launched the fleet, the men would have prayed. Libations would have been poured and, depending on a country’s customs, sacrifices made. The men would have lifted their voices to the Phoenician deities Eshmun, Astarte, and Melqart; to Apollo, worshipped alike by Greeks, Carians, and Lycians; to the Egyptian gods Neith and Sekhmet; and to Ahura Mazda, the Persian Lord of Wisdom.

In terms of ethnic diversity, the Persian fleet at Phaleron was the second greatest assemblage of humanity in the history of the world to that date. Only the Persian army was greater. If one takes into account class as well as ethnicity, the Persian fleet was even more diverse than the army: in antiquity, rowers were poorer on average than infantrymen, and the personnel of the fleet ranged from penniless oarsmen to kings and one queen.

The Persian navy was, says Aeschylus poetically, “the wonderful flock of Asia rich in men.” It included Egyptian “marines from the marshes, the skillful and innumerable rowers of ships,” “the crowd of easy-living Lydians,” “a long line of [Babylon’s] golden, mixed crowd mounted on ships and relying on their archer spirit,” and, of course, “the flower of the men of the Persian land.” Aeschylus says that there were Bactrians, Cilicians, Lyrnaeans, Mysians, and Phoenicians. Herodotus does not mention all these peoples in connection with the Persian navy, and we might wonder whether the ships really did carry Babylonian archers and Bactrians, men roughly from modern Afghanistan. By the same token, Aeschylus is discreetly silent about the large presence in the Persian fleet of Greeks: from Anatolia, Cyprus, the Aegean islands, and even the Greek mainland itself.

Herodotus records the names of the most famous commanders in the fleet: besides Tetramnestus, they were two Phoenicians, King Matten son of Siromus from Tyre and Merbalus son of Agbalus from Aradus; a Cilician, the Syennesis, that is, the king, whose name we know only as the son of Oromedon; a Lycian, Cyberniscus son of Sycas; two Cypriots, Gorgus son of Chersis, king of the Cypriot city of Salamis (the name is a coincidence) and Timonax son of Timagoras; and three Carians, Pigres son of Hysseldomus, Damasithymus son of Candaules and king of the city of Calynda, and, of course, Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus. Above them stood four Persian admirals: Achaemenes son of Darius and Atossa, Xerxes’ full brother, commanded the Egyptians; Ariabignes son of Darius, Xerxes’ half brother, commanded the Ionians and Carians; while Megabazus son of Megabates and Prexaspes son of Aspathines commanded the rest of the fleet.

The full complement of each ship was 230 men: 200 natives, including rowers and marines, plus a group of 30 men consisting of a mix of Iranian (either Persians or Medes) and Sacae marines and archers. In wartime, few units manage to maintain their notional strength, especially after the storms and battles suffered by the Persians. No doubt Xerxes’ new recruits had narrowed the manpower gaps, but some of the triremes may well still have been undermanned.

With their contingents of forty marines and archers, the decks of Persian triremes bristled with fighting men. The marines of the Persian fleet were as colorful a lot as had ever sailed. Dressed in uniforms ranging from bronze or linen breastplates to woolen tunics and goatskin capes, and from bronze or plaited helmets to turbans, they carried a wide assortment of weapons. Their arms ran the gamut from javelins and swords to sickles and daggers to boarding pikes, long knives, and heavy axes.

The largest contingent of deck soldiers was the Iranian and Sacae marines and archers. As far as we know, they were armed like their infantrymen. The Persians and Medes were dressed in soft felt caps, embroidered tunics with sleeves, fish-scale iron breastplates, and trousers; they carried wicker shields, quivers, bows and arrows, short spears, and daggers. The Sacae wore trousers and tall pointed hats; they carried bows and arrows, daggers, and battle-axes.

The Sacae had a reputation as formidable archers, and, by all accounts, they deserved it. The Greeks on deck would have their hands full defending themselves with their shields against the Sacae. If his ship was rammed, a Greek who swam to safety would be vulnerable to Sacae arrows.

Once the Persian ships were loaded, the men harangued, the prayers and libations made, the fleet was ready to depart. In all likelihood, the Phoenicians held the western end of the shore, the Egyptians were in the center, while the Ionians and Carians moored their ships in the east.

At a signal, the fleet began to depart. They left by squadron, forming up in line-ahead order. Aeschylus writes:

On the long ships, rank encouraged rank

And each one sailed in its appointed place.

Plausibly, the Phoenicians in the west went first, followed by the Egyptians in the center—unless they had already left to commandeer Psyttaleia—and finally the Greeks and Carians in the east. On each ship, rowers strained to get the vessel going from a standing start. It would have been efficient to have the top level of rowers get the boat moving and then have the two lower levels join in later. The rowers took short strokes at first, increasing them in length until the ship was well under way and gliding freely between strokes.

Around the shore of the bay, torches lit the scene. As squadron after squadron quit the shoreline and rowed in serried order westward toward the open sea, as warship after warship disappeared in the darkness, an observer on the beach might have considered the destiny of the Great King’s armada. Perhaps the Persian fleet had looked more glorious at its inspection by Xerxes after crossing the Hellespont in June, when it was twice as large and half as tired, but never had it looked as brave as it did now, on its final journey to the fatal straits.

Aeschylus and Herodotus agree that the fleet was divided into three sections. Aeschylus portrays Xerxes’ orders to his admirals:

Arrange the close array of ships in three columns,

And some, in a circle around the island of Ajax,

Guard the harbor entrances and the pathways of the roaring sea.

Aeschylus’s words are vague enough to refer to an operation that closed off every port in Salamis; or one that closed off just those harbors on the eastern side, where the Greek fleet was moored; or one that closed off both the harbors where the Greeks were and also the western channel, near Megara, which was a possible escape route. It would be reasonable to describe a fleet that starts out from Phaleron Bay and wheels north and west into the Salamis straits as “circl[ing] around the island.” Herodotus refers only to Persian operations in the Salamis straits, as does Plutarch. But a later historian says that the Egyptian contingent of two hundred ships rowed all the way around the island, to close off the escape route via the western channel between Salamis and Megara. Herodotus says nothing about the position of the Egyptians in the battle, but he specifies only the positions of the Phoenicians, the Ionians, and the Carians, the three most important contingents in the Persian fleet.

This later account is probably wrong. The Egyptians would have had to row all night to go around Salamis. The Greek fleet might have already fled by the time they arrived. When the Egyptians reached their destination, the western channel, they would have found a narrow strait only about 1,300 feet wide. If the Egyptians attempted to fight the Greeks there, they would have been at a substantial disadvantage against the heavier Athenian triremes, and they might also have been outnumbered. No ancient source mentions any fighting in this western channel, yet Aeschylus specifies that Egyptians were killed in the battle of Salamis. Finally, the later source has a nasty habit of improving earlier accounts, that is, inventing details. With all this in mind, we should imagine the Egyptians with the rest of the Persian fleet, heading northwestward from Phaleron into the Salamis straits. Indeed, it is plausible that the Egyptians formed the squadron that had been sent on ahead to secure Psyttaleia.

Herodotus’s account, fortunately, is much more specific than Aeschylus’s. According to Herodotus, after it left Phaleron Bay, the western wing of the Persian fleet—plausibly, the Phoenicans—wheeled toward Salamis. Indeed, this wing needed to do so: a look at the map shows that if it had continued in a straight line, the western wing would have missed Salamis and rowed toward Aegina. The rest of the Persian fleet, starting out from the eastern and perhaps central beaches of Phaleron Bay, was able to row almost in a straight line toward the Salamis channel.

The ability of one part of the Persian fleet to wheel around in the darkness while maintaining good order bespeaks enormous skill. This is another reason to suspect that the crack Phoenician squadrons were involved. It is also a reminder of how difficult it would be for the entire Persian fleet to enter the straits and to form a continuous, orderly line, without gaps, against the Greeks. If the Greeks were indeed in disarray and in flight, the Persians could afford a few mistakes. If, however, the Greeks formed up in battle order, the Persians would have to be perfect.

Meanwhile, the central-eastern part of the Persian fleet, says Herodotus, “was posted between Ceos and Cynosura.” The Cynosura peninsula on Salamis is clear, but we do not know where Ceos was. In any case, we do know that the Persian fleet “held the entire passage with its ships all the way to Munychia.” In other words, the Persian fleet stretched all the way from the western border of Phaleron Bay, past Piraeus, to the Attic coast opposite Psyttaleia, the islet where an advance squadron was unloading Persian soldiers.

To the extent that the Persian ships were visible in the dark, they would have made an extraordinary sight. The fleet would have looked like a bridge of boats between the mainland and the islet of Psyttaleia, a distance of about one and one-fourth miles. The bridge surely did not continue all the way to Salamis, because the Persians had to steer clear of the island in order to remain undetected.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to think of the Persian fleet as literally blocking the Salamis straits. Herodotus never mentions a blockade; instead, he speaks of the Persians “encircling” the Greeks or “surrounding” them or “guarding” the waterways. Triremes were not built to stand still, as in a blockade; they were built to move fast and agilely, whether attacking or fleeing.

The massing of the Persian fleet was something, marvels Herodotus, which the oracle-mongers had predicted. Well, almost predicted: these verses from the Oracle of Bacis, which predate the battle and which Herodotus cites, seem to envision a wider bridge than actually would have been found:

But when they bridge with boats the hallowed shore

Of Artemis of the golden sword and seagirt Cynosura,

Driven by manic hopes after they sack fertile Athens,

Then shall awful Justice quench great Excess, the son of Pride,

Raging terribly, planning to attack everywhere.

Bronze will mix with bronze, and Ares will dye the sea

With crimson blood.II Then shall the far-seeing son of Cronos

And Lady Victory bring the day of freedom for Greece.

The oracle is vague enough to be flexible: there were temples of Artemis on Salamis and on the hill of Munychia Hill and elsewhere in Attica; there were Cynosura peninsulas on Salamis and also at Marathon, site of past glory (near which there were also two Artemis temples). But the oracle clearly predicts a victory at sea over a big fleet after the sack of Athens. It is hard not to wonder whether it might not be a piece of propaganda, delivered before the Persian invasion, in favor of Themistocles’ strategy of abandoning Attica and pinning all Greece’s hopes in the fleet. It may even refer to Salamis.

In any case, the bridge of boats moved quickly. The leading column of the Persians entered the Salamis straits. But just how many ships followed them is a crucial question and, unfortunately, unclear. Before turning to it, consider the manner in which the Persians rowed up the straits.

Sailors always look to the sky. In September, the stars of the Bear, or, as the Egyptians preferred, the Thigh of the Bull, were low and bright in the early evening sky; we call these stars Ursa Major or the Big Dipper. But the main feature of the night sky was in the south, which in that season became what the ancients called the Water or the Sea Sky. The southern sky was filled with such constellations as the Goat-Fish, the Dolphin, the Southern Fish, the Water Bearer, the Sea Monster, and the Fish. So the Phoenicians and Greeks would have known them; today they are Capricorn, Delphinus, Piscis Austrinus, Aquarius, Cetus, and Pisces. But in the darkness of the early hours of September 25, the men of the Persian fleet are unlikely to have seen many stars. It is likely that they had chosen a cloudy night to enter the straits.

The Persian fleet entered the straits as silently as possible. “They did everything in an undertone,” says Herodotus, “in order to keep the enemy from hearing them.” It was impossible to move seven hundred ships in complete silence, but it was possible to drop the decibels to a minimum. Indeed, rowing undetected in the dark would become, if it was not already, a standard trireme maneuver. Salamis was not the only occasion on which the commander of a trireme fleet successfully moved his ships down one side of a narrow strait at night in order to avoid detection by an enemy whose ships were moored on the other side: the Athenian navy did just that when it rowed past the Spartans in the Hellespont in the narrows near Abydos in 411 B.C.

At Salamis in 480 B.C. the Persians no doubt kept their ships as far away from the island as possible and as close as they could to the Attic shore, that is, to Persian-controlled territory. In addition, they might have instructed rowing masters and pipers not to call out or pipe each stroke but, rather, to keep time by striking stones together—as a Spartan fleet did when successfully surprising the Athenians in the Saronic Gulf at night in 388 B.C.—or perhaps by leading the crew in humming or whispering a rhythmic song. They might have muffled the oars by keeping the stroke rate low and catching the water with soft and easy motions. Meanwhile, the roar of the Persian army marching westward along the coast of Attica would have drowned out much of the sound made by the fleet.

Besides sight and sound, the Persians might have given some thought to smell. The dried sweat of tens of thousands of rowers was a dead giveaway of the approach of a trireme fleet. The odor could be detected perhaps a mile or more away if the wind was blowing. The Persians could have reduced the odor by washing out their boats while at Phaleron. Otherwise, they had to hope that the wind wasn’t against them.

Perhaps the Persians also reaped the benefit of Greek overconfidence. It does not seem to have occurred to the Greeks that the Persians were about to infiltrate the straits, and certainly not at night. That very evening they had seen the enemy mass his fleet outside the straits. There seemed little danger that he would come back that same night to take the chance of entering unfavorable waters. But that is just what the Persians did.

Just before dawn, on a likely reconstruction, the leading ships of the Persian fleet had rowed into the straits and continued along the Attic coast for about two miles northwestward. They probably sat at the foot of Mount Aegaleos, opposite the islet of St. George, that is, the northernmost mooring point of the Greek fleet. These Persian ships now guarded the Greek escape route northward toward Eleusis, Megara, and the western channel separating Salamis from the mainland. The rest of the fleet extended along the coast of Attica for about four miles.

Although most of the Persian fleet had entered the straits, a large part had not. They were formed up farther to the southeast, east of Psyttaleia in the waters toward Piraeus, that is, outside of the straits altogether. Since the Persians expected the Greeks to be fleeing, they would have reserved a considerable contingent of ships to guard the southern exit from the Salamis straits, just as the Phoenicians now guarded the northern exit.

Within the straits, the Phoenicians and Ionians—along with, we may imagine, the other Greeks—anchored the opposite ends of the Persian line. Herodotus states that “the Phoenicians . . . held the western wing, that is, toward Eleusis” and “the Ionians . . . held the wing toward the east and Piraeus.” The Ionians took up their stations about two miles to the southeast of the Phoenicians at the foot of Mount Aegaleos; plausibly, the Ionians were arranged opposite Ambelaki Bay and the southern end of the Greek mooring stations.

What Herodotus does not indicate is where the rest of the Persian ships were: that is, the Carians, Cypriots, Cilicians, Pamphylians, and Lycians; the Egyptians possibly were on Psyttaleia. He does mention two Carian ships in the thick of the fight, while Diodorus claims that the Cypriots, Cilicans, Pamphylians, and Lycians were arranged in that order from the Phoenicians to the Ionians; Diodorus has the Egyptians off at the western channel. But Diodorus’s account of Salamis inspires little confidence, and the Carians might have joined the battle late. Some or all of the ships from Caria, Cilicia, Cyprus, Egypt, Lycia, and Pamphylia took up a position outside the straits.

Nor can we assume that those ships within the straits were lined up and ready in battle order when dawn broke. The length and difficulty of their journey in the dark, the need to maintain near silence, the great number of ships involved, the twists and curves of the straits, the expectation of an enemy in panic, the inevitable mistakes and confusion in any nighttime operation, all add to our understanding of why the Persians had to scramble when the Greeks came out to fight.

In any case, whether a Persian ship was inside the straits or outside, its crew was not at rest. A trireme fleet lined up in formation cannot maintain its order simply by dropping anchor. It is necessary for the rowers in each ship, or for a portion of them in turn, to alternate strokes in a continuous movement of rowing and backing, rowing and backing.

On every ship, calloused hands ignored the friction of the oar; muscles that had not rested from the afternoon’s exertion pulled yet again. On and on they worked. “They didn’t get even a little sleep,” says Herodotus. Aeschylus writes:

The lords of the ships kept the entire rowing crew

At their oars all the livelong night.

Little by little, the hours of effort must have taken their toll. A commander who understood triremes would have thought twice before asking his men to go into battle so tired. The king of seafaring Sidon surely saw the danger, but Tetramnestus did not have the final say. Xerxes did, and Xerxes had never touched an oar.

Herodotus reports an anecdote about a Phoenician trireme on which Xerxes is supposed to have traveled after Salamis. A storm blew up, and at the pilot’s advice, Xerxes ordered some men to jump overboard in order to lighten the boat’s load. Xerxes had to choose between the Persian noblemen on deck and the Phoenician rowers below. Herodotus has no doubt about it: Xerxes would have sent the rowers overboard.

Herodotus rejects the story as just a tall tale, but even so, perhaps it reveals the Great King’s sense of priorities. For Xerxes, the rowers were expendable; only the Persians on deck counted. He seems to have thought of oarsmen as human beasts of burden. But as a horseman, Xerxes should have known that even beasts break down, and every animal is limited by its body.

Had he ever scrutinized the men who rowed his ships, the Great King would not have delivered them to the enemy at dawn after a night spent pulling an oar.

II. A pun in Greek, where the word for “crimson” is phoinikeos, just one letter away from the word for “Phoenician,” phoinikos.

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