Ancient History & Civilisation




Polycritus son of Crius, heir to a family that is second to none in Aegina either in lineage or wealth, sits in the stern and waits. His squadron prowls the passage at the exit of the straits. There, whenever a Persian ship comes hurrying by in flight toward Phaleron, a bronze-beaked Aeginetan killer stalks his prey. And every time a ram smashes into the side of a Persian ship, great-hearted Polycritus imagines hearing the music of a bard, singing of the glory of the greatest man in the greatest navy in all Greece. Never mind the numbers of Athenian ships: only the democratic rabble could confuse mass with excellence. The thirty triremes of the Aeginetan company are as superior to Athens’s rowboats as a nobleman is superior to a mob. Or so we might imagine Polycritus thinking.

Enervated and dehydrated, calloused and cramped, bleeding from scrapes and superficial arrow wounds, panting and perspiring, famished but furious, the oarsmen of Aegina row on, hour after hour, kill after kill. Deaf to the screams of the dying and the shouts of the spectators, stubborn in stifling the roar they want to bellow, they hear nothing but the orders of the rowing master and the sharp sound of the pipe. Below them was a scene of “the emerald-haired sea . . . reddened in its troughs by the drops from the ships, and there were battle cries mingled with screams.” Meanwhile, on deck, the Aeginetan marines rallied and filled any gaps in their ranks caused by Persian arrows.

Shipwrecked men suffered from “spray [that] foamed and took over their esophagi”; they gasped and belched back sea brine; they gnashed their teeth and shouted insults; they shivered and raged at the approaching darkness. Phoenician rowers who had made it to the Attic shore sat “naked and frozen on the shore of the sea.” And still the triremes of Aegina rowed on, hunting new victims.

The Persians did not give up their resistance until evening. This innocent-sounding fact underlines the remarkable nature of Persia’s rout. Once the Greeks had broken the Persian line and turned the Phoenicians and Ionians to flight, the battle should have effectively been over, except for the Greek pursuit. And yet the struggle went on for hours afterward. Geography and politics were to blame. The narrowness of the straits made it impossible for Persia’s front lines to flee toward Phaleron without crashing into the ships that were still coming forward.


Aeschylus describes the collision that resulted:

At first the flood of the Persian host

Held firm. But when the mass of ships

Crowded into the straits, there was no help for one ship from another,

In fact they were struck by their own bronze-mouthed rams,

And the whole oared armada began to shatter.

The Greek ships very intelligently started to strike around

In a circle, and the hulls of ships lay upside down,

And the sea could no longer be seen because it was

Full of shipwrecks and of the slaughter of men.

The Greek poet Timotheus writes in a similar vein: “The barbarian Persian army went backwards in flight, rushing along; and one line of ships, sailing the long neck [of the sea], shattered another. . . .”

But why did Persian triremes continue to come forward after their best squadrons had been thrashed? Surely, somehow the message of defeat was spread from ship to ship. The problem was not communications; on the contrary, the more news of defeat, the greater the ambition of the rear ranks to get to the fore. Persian captains jockeyed for a place in the front lines in order to ram an enemy ship while Xerxes was watching and thus to be recorded in his list of men to reward afterward. While the Greek contingents at Salamis managed to put aside their rivalries and each fight for the common good, the Persian contingents each thought about its separate relationship with the Great King.

By the same token, the Persian ships had little interest in continuing a struggle past the point where they might collect their reward. Compare the Spartan willingness to fight to the last man at Thermopylae with the Phoenicians’ decision to turn and leave the line at Salamis after they realized that they could not defeat the Athenians. The Spartan king Leonidas served a transcendent cause, while the Phoenician king Tetramnestus merely calculated the odds. Freedom was worth dying for, but there was no percentage in giving one’s life in exchange for power from the Great King that one would never enjoy.

By the evening of September 25, the Greeks had pushed the chaotic mass of Persians back. The action in the battle of Salamis had returned to where the Persians had begun the night before, at the eastern end of the straits. While the Aeginetans lurked at the exit of the channel, the Athenians inside the straits drove Persian ships into their hands. Meanwhile, an Athenian commando unit had landed on the islet of Psyttaleia, which lay just to the south of the Aeginetan squadron. There, another proud man brought back bloody spoils and glorified his name. He was the Athenian Aristides son of Lysimachus. Rivals though their cities were, Aristides and Polycritus had one thing in common: hatred of Themistocles. And the ships of other Greek cities, too, recorded impressive kills; we may mention only Croton, Naxos, and Corinth.

For Aegina’s ambush to succeed, we may imagine that it was crucial first to remove the Persians from the islet of Psyttaleia. Had they remained there, they could have signaled to their ships about the ambush, which would have allowed some of the Persian triremes to escape by speeding up, by hugging the coast, or perhaps by steering a zigzag course. On top of that, if the Aeginetans had tried to hide their vessels in the shadow of Psyttaleia, the Persians might have threatened the men with arrows. And so the Persians had to be removed. Besides which, the Athenians were in a mood to sweep the foreigner from any inch of their soil, however small, that they could.

The mission was entrusted to a corps of Athenian infantryman under Aristides’ command. This “brave man,” the “best of the Athenians,” does not seem to have had command of a ship during Athens’s greatest naval battle. That is not surprising, considering that he was a returned political exile. Instead, he had his great moment when the Greeks broke the Persian line and chaos reigned among the Great King’s triremes. At this point it was safe to thin the ranks of the Athenian infantrymen lining the Salamis shore. Aristides gathered a large number of them—we do not know how many—and put them on small boats. They landed on Psyttaleia and slaughtered the Persians there down to the last man. A Roman-era source claims that there were four hundred Persians on Psyttaleia. Here is clear evidence of the spirit of revenge and bloodthirstiness that motivated the Greeks at Salamis.

Aeschylus describes the incident with these dramatic words in the speech of a Persian messenger:

When God had given the glory of the naval battle to the Greeks,

That same day, after they had fenced their skin with well-bronzed armor,

They leapt out of their boats and circled around the whole island,

And we [Persians] were trapped without a thing to do. Many fell to the ground,

Killed by stones from the Greeks’ hands or by the bowstring’s arrows.

In the end they rushed upon us as one, striking us, hacking like meat

Our unhappy limbs until the lives of all were utterly destroyed.

Slaughtering the trapped Persians was a neat feat but not a difficult one.

Both the carnage on Psyttaleia and the Aeginetan ambush represented mopping-up operations. The Persian navy had been defeated. Now was the time to kill as much of it as possible. As long as they retained their land army in Attica, the Persians could hold Phaleron as a secure base for the fleet. The Greeks, therefore, could not prevent all of Persia’s ships from escaping, but they would try to ram as many as they could.

At Salamis, the Aeginetan navy fulfilled the promise of its magnificent tradition. Like the cities of Phoenicia, Aegina was a land of seafarers. Its merchant traders piled up wealth: the Aeginetan Sostratus son of Laodamas, for example, was the richest businessman in sixth century B.C. Greece. Thanks to its commerce, Aegina supported a population of about forty thousand, even though the small island had only enough farmland to feed about four thousand.

The Aeginetan navy ruled the Saronic Gulf for decades. Even its gods were respected as mighty protectors in war at sea, as witnessed by the request of the Greeks at Salamis for the statues of the sons of Aeacus the day before the battle. Aegina’s navy had once been so dominant that before building its new fleet in 483 B.C., Athens was reduced to renting extra warships from Corinth in order to fight with Aegina, and the rentals secured only a temporary victory for Athens. On a memorable occasion long before, perhaps in the seventh century B.C., the Aeginetans had beat an Athenian invasion force so badly that only one man lived to tell the tale—and as soon as he straggled home, he was promptly murdered by a mob of angry Athenian widows. They stabbed him to death with the pins they used to fasten their dresses.

At Salamis, the sailors of Aegina wanted not only to beat the Persians, they wanted to prove that they, and not the Athenian upstarts, deserved to rule the waves. On top of that, Athens’s democratic government sent shivers down the spines of Aegina’s upper classes. Barely ten years earlier, they had been forced to put down a democratic revolution on their island; they were incensed enough to hack off the hands of a revolutionary seeking sanctuary in a temple. Athens had been behind that revolution, so at Salamis, Aegina’s marines and commanders, who were prosperous to a man, were fired up to demonstrate the superiority of their oligarchic society to Athenian democracy, which they thought of as mob rule. Whether it was true that an Aeginetan and not an Athenian trireme had been the first to ram a Persian ship at Salamis, the Aeginetans no doubt felt that they deserved the honor.

Aeginetan mistrust of Athens may help explain why Aegina had not sent all its triremes to Salamis. The Aeginetans kept other ships at home while their best triremes participated in the battle. Perhaps they feared that Athens might make a deal with the Persians, and so they wanted to maintain a reserve to defend their island. Another concern was defense against Persian raiders.

Polycritus son of Crius was a man whose pride in his pedigree would have shown up a Persian grandee. Every ancient Greek name had a literal meaning, and Polycritus was a man to set store in the significance of his appellation, the same name borne by his father’s father. Polycritus was “Excellent Beyond Measure,” son of the “Ram.” Ten years before Salamis, the Athenians had dishonored the Ram. In 490 B.C., while the Persians prepared to invade Athens at Marathon, Aegina gave earth and water to Persia as signs of submission. No doubt the islanders were glad to join so powerful an ally against their hated foe.

But the Athenians struck back by enlisting the help of Sparta, a strongly anti-Persian state even then. The Spartan king Cleomenes sailed to Aegina in order to arrest the men he regarded as traitors to Greece. But he was stopped by a strong-willed Aeginetan, none other than Polycritus’s father, Crius. Crius was not intimidated by the Spartan, whom he accused of having taken bribes.

Livid but stymied, Cleomenes promised to return with reinforcements. With a dry but menacing Laconian wit, he said to the man whose name means “ram,”

Better plate your horns with bronze, ram, because you are bringing down a heap of trouble on yourself.

Cleomenes soon returned and arrested Crius, along with nine other prominent Aeginetans, and he sent them all as hostages to their bitterest enemies, the Athenians. Afterward, neither diplomacy nor force could get them back to Aegina. We do not know whether they ever returned home or died in Athens.

For the sake of a common front against the barbarian in 480 B.C., Polycritus could forgive the Athenians all their crimes except one: he could not forgive the ruin of his father, caused by Athens’s alliance with Cleomenes. Polycritus was ready to shove his father’s name down every Athenian throat that he could. At the exit to the straits, he went far towards doing just that. While the Athenians drove Persian ships out of the channel, the Aeginetans closed the net. Herodotus writes:

When the barbarians were put to flight and were sailing out toward

Phaleron, the Aeginetans lay in ambush in the passage.

“The passage” in Herodotus refers to the area just outside the Salamis straits, where the sea widens. We might guess that the Aeginetans hid their ships behind the Cynosura peninsula or behind the island of Psyttaleia, after Aristides had led the operation to drive the Persian soldiers from it.

“Quiet, boys,” the rowing master would have told the men as Polycritus’s ship kept out of sight. We can imagine them sitting in silence until the next Persian ship flew by, hell-bent for Phaleron. Polycritus would have chosen carefully before ordering the attack, pausing just long enough to establish a good, long run-up for ramming without letting the Persian vessel get far enough ahead so that it could escape.

Cooperation with Athens gave Aegina the opportunity to upstage its old enemy. It happened just after Polycritus’s trireme had rammed a fleeing ship from Sidon. Whether he knew it or not, this was a special prize, because the ship had been rated by the Persians as one of the ten fastest ships in their entire fleet. Polycritus then caught sight of Themistocles’ flagship, which happened to come near him while chasing an enemy vessel in flight. At this point in the fading day, Athenian triremes were fighting two different battles, one against enemy ships that made a stand and resisted and another against those that had given up and were in flight. But the resistance must have reached its finale for a commander of Themistocles’ importance to be willing to leave the straits.

Apparently what happened next is that Polycritus ordered his pilot to bring his trireme between Themistocles and an enemy ship, presumably the one that Themistocles was chasing. The Aeginetan vessel came close enough for Polycritus to be able to shout to Themistocles. He mocked him for criticizing the Aeginetans for Medizing, that is, for being pro-Persian. It seems that this was a common theme of Themistocles, maybe something that he had a habit of throwing in Aegina’s face at councils of war. Now, Polycritus said words to this effect: “Medizers, are we, Themistocles? I’ll show you who’s a Medizer!” And with that, Polycritus rammed an enemy ship. Themistocles’ response, if any, is not recorded.

While he savored that settling of scores, Polycritus could also marvel at the discovery just made when his marines boarded the Sidonian ship they had rammed. They found one of their countrymen, Pytheas son of Ischenöos.

In August, Pytheas had been serving as a marine on an Aeginetan trireme captained by one Asonides when it was captured by the enemy near the northern Greek island of Skiathos. The Persians also captured two other Greek triremes, one from Troezen and one from Athens. The Athenians beached their ship and the men fled; the Troezenian crew was taken and one of its marines had his throat slit as a human sacrifice. Most of the marines on the Aeginetan trireme were captured quickly, but Pytheas resisted. He threw the attackers into disorder.

This was before the battles at Artemisium and marked the first encounter between Greek and Persian vessels. Although the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, ten ships to three, the Greeks might have put up a stiffer fight. Pytheas was the only one to exemplify the spirit of resistance. “He proved to be the bravest man that day,” Herodotus comments. Pytheas kept on fighting until his entire body bore vicious wounds.

When he finally fell he was still breathing. A high percentage of the marines on the enemy ships were Persians, and the Persians greatly admired bravery. So they made an effort to save Pytheas. They dressed his wounds with myrrh, an aromatic resin gathered from desert shrubs on the shore of the Red Sea and used in ancient times for healing because of its anti-bacterial effects; myrrh was also used for burning as incense. The Persians bandaged Pytheas with long strips of fine linen cloth, the same kind used in ancient Egypt to wrap mummies. Then they brought him back to their camp in Therma in northern Greece and exhibited him admiringly to the whole army. The other Aeginetan captives were treated as slaves.

Pytheas should have been dead, but at Salamis, he was held aboard the same Sidonian vessel that had captured him. The Greek cause had come full circle. The first man to resist the Persians at sea was released by his own countryman on the day of Greece’s greatest naval victory.

Pytheas’s is but one of the remarkable stories at the battle of Salamis. Another is that of Phayllos, a trireme captain at Salamis who came from the Greek colony of Croton in southern Italy. Phayllos was already famous in Greece for his three victories in the Pythian Games at Delphi: one in the footrace and two in the pentathlon, a grueling program of discus, javelin, jump, footrace, and wrestling. The Pythian Games were Panhellenic games, like the games at Isthmia and at Nemea (both near Corinth) and the most famous games of all—the Olympic Games. His athlete days were behind him in 480 B.C., when Phayllos was in his fifties, but his name lived on. The graying champion came out of his comfortable retirement to help the Greek cause at Salamis. Phayllos was an aristocrat and very wealthy: he paid for the crew of his own trireme, which was filled with Crotoniates who lived in Greece. This was the only ship from Greek Italy or Sicily to serve at Salamis, and it fought with distinction. Phayllos’s men captured more than one Persian ship in the battle (we do not know the precise number). After the war, Phayllos advertised the victory by putting up a statue of himself on the Athenian Acropolis.

But the most successful Persian-hunter at Salamis was probably the Greek captain Democritus of Naxos, the third man to begin the battle, right after Aminias of Pallene and the Aeginetan ship carrying the statues of the sons of Aeacus. Naxos had sent four triremes to Salamis, but to fight for Persia, not Greece. A large island in the Aegean, Naxos had been sacked by Persia in 490 B.C. and its government had no stomach for revolt. But Democritus did. He was merely a ship’s captain but was one of the best-known men on the island, and he talked the other Naxians into joining the Greeks at Salamis rather than the Persians at Phaleron. (The island of Paros, Naxos’s neighbor—and rival—also stayed away from Phaleron, but Paros did not help the Greeks at Salamis. The Parians liked Athens as little as they did Persia, since Athens had tried to conquer Paros in 489 B.C. So they stayed aloof, waiting to see who won the battle.)

Democritus had a great day at Salamis. The contemporary poet Simonides celebrated him with these words:

Democritus was the third to begin the battle, when at Salamis

The Greeks met with the Medes to fight at sea.

He took five ships which he cleaved asunder and he captured a sixth,

A Dorian vessel that had been dragged off by the barbarian’s hand.

In other words, Democritus took five Persian ships in all, and he recaptured a Greek ship from the Persians. We may imagine that each of these ships had been rammed but not beyond salvaging by the victor.

For a single captain to take no fewer than six ships is a stunning battle record. There are not likely to have been many men like Democritus in either fleet, and yet, afterward, he did not win the prize for prowess. That went to Polycritus of Aegina, followed by two Athenians, Aminias of Pallene and one Eumenes of the deme of Anagyrus, a captain of whom we know nothing. We also hear of another Athenian captain or perhaps cocaptain (the captain’s position was sometimes shared) named Sosicles of the deme of Paeania. We do not know whether these men disabled more Persian triremes than Democritus or whether they owed their fame and honor to the influence of their cities. Regardless, Democritus’s performance at Salamis symbolizes the Greek achievement in that battle.

Corinth had its share of the glory. A Corinthian captain named Diodorus captured an enemy vessel, and there were other successful Corinthian captains whose names are unknown. Corinthian seamen risked their lives at Salamis with their fellow Greeks, and some Corinthians died and were buried in a place of honor outside Salamis Town.

The Corinthian contingent might have begun the battle of Salamis at dawn, by sailing northward, as a decoy to lull the Persians into thinking that the Greeks were in flight and perhaps also as a way of drawing off some Persian ships. To continue this possible reconstruction, as soon as the battle began, a Greek dispatch boat rowed after the Corinthians to call them back. They furled their sails, rowed quickly back, and joined the fray near the Athenians and Aeginetans and contributed to the destruction of the Phoenician fleet.

Or so we might reconstruct the Corinthian battle experience. By the time Herodotus approached the subject in the mid-fifth century B.C., Corinth and Athens had become bitter enemies. Athenians now claimed that Corinth had disgraced itself in battle, while Corinth and the rest of Greece said just the opposite. The other Greeks insisted that Corinth had fought in the first ranks of the battle. In fact, war memorials at Delphi and Olympia had Corinth’s name engraved in third place, after Athens and Sparta. On top of that, no fewer than four epigrams praising Corinth’s role at Salamis survived into the Roman era, which means either that the Athenians slandered a rival or that Corinth worked hard to cover up its failure. That Athens, which controlled Salamis, allowed Corinth to set up one of those epigrams on the island, outside Salamis Town, on the tombstone above the grave of its men who died there, suggests slander.

The Corinthian admiral Adimantus, or so the Athenian story goes, fled in terror at the moment when the two fleets first came to blows. He spread his sails and headed north, followed by his whole squadron of forty ships. But a speedy dispatch boat, “sent by divine intervention,” caught the Corinthians off the coast of Salamis. A messenger denounced Adimantus as a traitor and told him that the Greeks were winning. Adimantus and his men returned, but in time only for the end of the battle.

Since the battle lasted for about twelve hours and Salamis is a small island, it can hardly be true that Corinth missed most of the battle. The epigrams tell a tale of Corinth’s valor. The gravestone epigram on Salamis reads:

Stranger, once we lived in the well-watered town of Corinth

But now Salamis, the island of Ajax, holds us

Here we took Phoenician ships and Persians

And Medes: And so we protected sacred Greece.

A Corinthian commemorative plaque was set up in Corinthian territory at the Isthmus, in the sanctuary of Poseidon, where the biennial Isthmian Games were held. The epigram is eloquent:

When all Greece was balanced on the razor’s edge

We protected her with our souls and here we lie.

This cenotaph (a memorial over an empty tomb) stood in the general area to which the Corinthian admiral Adimantus had wanted to move the Greek fleet from Salamis. He did not get his wish, but at least he got it memorialized. We may imagine that the cenotaph stood nearby the Persian ship captured at Salamis that, according to Herodotus, was still preserved at the Isthmus in his day, around 430 B.C.

The Corinthian Adimantus had a proud epitaph at Corinth that read:

This grave is Adimantus’, through whom

All Greece put on a victory wreath of freedom.

Perhaps also as part of Adimantus’s publicity campaign, he named his daughters “Victory with Ships” (Nausinice), “Pick of the Booty” (Acrothinium), and “Defense Against Force” (Alexibia); his son was named “The Bravest” (Aristeus).

There is also a dedication, in a temple of the goddess Leto, by the Corinthian captain Diodorus, which states:

The rowers of Diodorus took these weapons from the hostile Medes

And dedicated them to Leto as a memorial of the naval battle.

Traditionally, warriors dedicated an enemy’s shields, but perhaps Diodorus’s ship left stern ornaments.

Finally, there is a story that the women of Corinth prayed to Aphrodite that their men “throw themselves heart and soul into the fight against the barbarians.” This was an inspired prayer, because the Greek word for “throw themselves into” also means “to ram.”(Ancient comics made hay out of the sexual double meaning of “to ram.”) On top of that, Aphrodite was worshipped at Corinth by sacred prostitutes, and some ancient writers say that it wasn’t all the women of Corinth but just the prostitutes who made this prayer. Eventually, bronze statues of women were set up in the temple of Aphrodite on the Acropolis of Corinth with this inscription:

These statues of women have been set up because they prayed to the Cypriot

Goddess on behalf of the Greeks and their citizens who fight fairly and openly.

Bright Aphrodite had no intention of surrendering

Her Acropolis to the arrow-bearing Medes.

This remarkable inscription manages to celebrate Corinth while taking a swipe at Athens and Athenian manhood. The reference to Aphrodite’s Acropolis might remind a visitor of Athena’s Acropolis and its capture by the Persians. The reference to fighting “fairly and openly” might contrast favorably with Themistocles’ cunning that bordered on treachery. Finally, the Greek word for “fight fairly and openly” can also mean “fight with an erection”—an appropriate prayer to Aphrodite, after all. The Greeks were not prudes, and what they said was, in effect, that the Corinthians were big men in every sense, and so they stuck it to the Persians.

At midday during the battle of Salamis, a Persian sentry atop Munychia in Piraeus would have looked out over a sea whose colors ranged from turquoise to blue to silver to gray. Looking southeast, he would have seen Phaleron Bay, where the Persian fleet had left its harbor the night before. Beyond, the hills rolled clear toward the southern horizon, all the way to Cape Sunium.

Turning behind, looking northeast, the Persian would have had a clear view of the ruins of the Athenian Acropolis. Mount Hymettus, famed for its honey, rose like a curtain wall behind it to the south. Mount Pentele, rich in marble, loomed to the northeast, while the pine-forested Mount Parnes closed the Attic plain to the north. Turning now to the southwest, the Persian would have faced the low, rugged hills of the island of Salamis in the distant haze, with the conical peak of Mount Oros on the island of Aegina behind it. Looking back to the east, following the turn of the Attic coast, he would have seen the entrance to the bay of Salamis.

As he surveyed the scene, the Persian lookout would have seen victory behind him and uncertainty ahead. As the day wore on, if he kept looking, he would have watched as Persia’s ships fled back to Phaleron, chased by their victorious enemies. It was a spectacle of horror on an early autumn afternoon when the sea was all silvery blue in the shimmering light. Everything was blue and gray and silver—and blood red.

There was no place of honor for the Persian dead, and they vastly outnumbered the Corinthians; indeed they outnumbered all the Greeks. We do not know how many Persian crewmen died at Salamis. Herodotus does not try to give numbers. He simply says that many well-known Persians, Medes, and their allies died besides Ariabignes. Greek losses were few. Unless they died in “the law of hands,” the Greeks tended to swim to safety, unlike the enemy, at least the Iranian and Sacae marines and officers. The Ionians and other Greeks in the Persian fleet, as well as maritime peoples such as the Phoenicians and Carians, would surely have mastered the skill of swimming.

Aeschylus, too, speaks of some Persians dying in hand-to-hand combat and others surviving that struggle, only to drown. He names nineteen Persian “chiefs” who died at Salamis; most of them are mere names, perhaps chosen by the poet for their colorful sound, but one is the king or syennesis (a formal title) of Cilicia. He was an important man from a wealthy region in southern Anatolia. Herodotus does not mention his death, but if Aeschylus is right, it was a significant blow for Xerxes. And likewise the range of countries from which Aeschylus’s casualties come, if it is credible: besides Persia, there is Bactria, Cilicia, Egypt, Lydia, Mysia, and Phoenicia.

An author of the Roman era, perhaps citing a fourth century B.C. Greek source, writes that the Greeks lost more than forty triremes at Salamis, while the Persians lost over two hundred; that is, a ratio of 1:5. This suits the lopsided outcome of the battle. It also fits the fact that Xerxes continued to have a large number of triremes even after Salamis. So these figures may be roughly correct.

Using them only as a guideline, it appears that the Persians lost more than six thousand marines as well as a small number of elite officers. If, at a guess, an equal number of oarsmen in the Persian fleet were killed during the “law of hands,” then the total number of Persian deaths at Salamis would be over twelve thousand. Remembering the fate of Damasithymus’s men, all of whom were massacred, this figure should perhaps be considered a minimum. It would not be surprising if the Persians lost twenty thousand men or more.

Aeschylus’s Persian messenger sums up the disaster of Salamis thus:

Be sure of this: never in a single day

Has so great a number of people died.

And even after every Persian ship was rammed or had escaped, there were still survivors, clinging onto debris, who could be picked up if they were Greek, or killed or left to die if they were Persian. Their wailing, says Aeschylus, could still be heard at sundown, which occurred in Athens at 7:18 P.M. on September 25.

By then, the wind and waves would probably have begun the ghoulish delivery of corpses onto the shore, a process that continued for several days. These corpses were mainly from Persian ships, since they formed the overwhelming majority of the casualties. Aeschylus states that

The shores of Salamis and every nearby place

Are full of corpses, rotting ill-starredly.


The sea-dyed, much-driven bodies

Are carried, after death . . .

In wanderings in both directions.


Lost from a ship of Tyre near the headlands

Of Salamis, they lie on the rugged headlands.

“And the starry sea swarmed with their [Persian] bodies,” says Timotheus, “and the shores were laden.” While some corpses ended up on Salamis, most of them seem to have been blown toward Attica. At the end of the day, a zephyr, a west wind, blew up, and eventually it drove wrecks, oars, and corpses onto the Attic shore around Cape Colias, not far south of Phaleron.

After the battle, Mardonius, Xerxes’ chief adviser, threw the accusation of cowardice in the face of the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Cypriots, and the Cilicians. He may have been right if by cowardice he meant that after a certain point they chose to flee rather than fight. By no means did these squadrons go without casualties, but each probably preferred to cut its losses.

The Persian navy was ill-suited to battle an opponent who could neither be intimidated nor bought off—an opponent like the Greeks. The Persian fleet was less a naval than a political organization. It was not a single structure but, rather, a group of chieftains each vying for the favor of the overlord. It was less a navy than a floating royal court.

And so, by turns too confident and too cowardly, the Persian fleet at Salamis fought well but never wisely. Had it been willing to fight on, the Persians could have inflicted more losses on the Greeks, thereby increasing the odds of ultimate victory should Xerxes be willing to continue the fight at sea another day. On the other hand, had they retreated without each unit trying its luck, the Persians would have saved their strength for later. In the end, they did neither.

The most important question left by the clash at Salamis is this: Why did the Greeks win the battle and the Persians lose? Herodotus, who understood Salamis as well as any ancient writer, gives his answer succinctly: good order versus disorder. The Persians fell apart; the Greeks did not. Herodotus writes:

Since the Greeks fought [with each ship] in order and [with every ship] in the order of battle, while the barbarians neither remained drawn up in order of battle nor did they do anything wisely, it was only to be expected that things turned out for them as they did.

But the student of history wants to go a step further and ask why the Persians fell apart. For this, there are three answers: shock, command, and geography.

At dawn on September 25, the Persians were shocked to discover that the Greeks were ready to fight. The Persians were not prepared for this mentally or physically. They had expected an easy pursuit of a broken enemy, not a tough fight. Even at first light, the Greeks possibly kept the enemy off guard by sending the Corinthians northward on a phony flight. At Salamis the Greeks were in top form psychologically and had spent the night sleeping on dry land rather than in wakeful and exhausting rowing. Shock made it easier for the Greeks to break up the good order of the Persian fleet.

Many Persian commanders were killed in battle, including the highest-ranking admiral, Xerxes’ half brother Ariabignes. Persian navies (and armies) were more vulnerable to decapitation than Greeks because Persia was more centralized. Nor did Persia encourage individual initiative the way the Greeks did, especially a democracy like Athens. Unlike the Greeks, Persian commanders had little loyalty to a cause; instead, they fought mainly to impress Xerxes. They had no incentive to fight to the death. The Persian way of command contributed to a breakdown of good order at Salamis.

Finally, the Greeks took every advantage of the unusual geography of the Salamis straits. The narrow space made it impossible for the Persians to use their superiority in speed. By the same token, the channel turned the heaviness of the Greeks’ triremes from a liability into an advantage. And it turned the superiority of the Persians in numbers into a disadvantage, because their boats collided with each other. If, on a likely reconstruction, the regular morning sea breeze began to blow, the result would have unsteadied the Persian ships more than it did the Greeks’. So the straits’ geography contributed to the disorder of the Persian fleet.

Shock, command, and geography: three simple building blocks, deployed in a deadly way, turned the battle of Salamis from a hammer blow by Persia into a trap laid by Greeks. Persia hoped to crush the Greeks with its superiority in numbers but blundered into an ambush in which its very mass worked against it. Rarely have so many been hurt so much by so few.

Between the two of them, Athens and Aegina accounted for most of the Persian warships that were disabled during the battle. Both achievements were extraordinary, but Aegina’s was outsize, since its 30 triremes represented only one-sixth as many ships as Athens’s 180. No doubt Aegina disabled other enemy vessels in the morning besides the one rammed by the ship bearing the statues of the sons of Aeacus, but what really distinguished Aegina at Salamis was the ambush it carried out in the afternoon. The Aeginetans “exhibited achievements worthy of mention,” says Herodotus: high praise indeed, considering his promise in the opening sentence that his book would be “an exhibition of . . . great and astonishing achievements” so that they not be forgotten.

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