Ancient History & Civilisation




He was the last Athenian. That is, if a box of bones may be considered an Athenian. Alive, he had been Themistocles, architect of the greatest sea battle ever fought. Now his remains were secretly reburied here in Athenian soil, perhaps, as rumored, along the shore outside the wall of Piraeus harbor. Themistocles’ family, they said, had dug up the bones from their first grave abroad under the noses of the authorities.

It was a ploy to bring a grin to the skeleton’s mouth, for of all the clever Greeks, who was more cunning than Themistocles? No one except perhaps the traveler whose ship passed Themistocles’ grave site on this summer morning in 430 B.C. The observer was a man who put the clever in their place, and who now might thank the gods as he stood on the breezy deck and looked toward the last Athenian he might ever see.

Herodotus, as the observer was named, had seen no end of Athenians. Athens ruled the sea, and he had spent his life on waterways. And here, Herodotus could look from his ship toward Athens’s most fateful naval battlefield. Across the channel from the great man’s bones lay the spot where, fifty years earlier, Themistocles had staked Athens’s very existence on the outcome of a single day. Herodotus had only to turn westward on the deck to see it, rising like a rock: Salamis.

It looked more like a fortress than an island, separated from the mainland by only a moatlike strip of blue water, the Salamis straits. Once independent, the island had long belonged to Athens, whose rule extended across the narrow channel. In these straits in 480B.C., a battle took place just where Themistocles had planned. In the early autumn, when night and day are of equal length, a thousand warships fought over the future of Greece. An invading Persian armada aimed to add Greece to the greatest empire the world had ever seen; the stubborn natives rowed for liberty or death. The day dawned white; when twelve hours later the sun went down red, the remnants of one fleet came flooding out of the straits pursued by another.

If the battle had gone the other way, Greece would be ruled by kings and queens. One was Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, who watched the battle from shore. Another was Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus (today the city of Bodrum, Turkey), a captain-queen, who fought in the thick of combat—one of the very few women in all of recorded history to have commanded ships in battle.

Now, fifty years later, Athens was bleeding. Only an escape artist of Herodotus’s experience could have found the rare merchant ship to put in at the port of Piraeus during a plague and the even rarer place on board. Herodotus had learned more than a little resourcefulness in a life spent traveling. A man in his fifties, he had a long beard, a thin, weather-beaten face, and a receding hairline that revealed a wrinkled forehead. Herodotus wore a cloak draped over a tunic, as well as sturdy boots and a broad-brimmed hat.

When he had arrived in Athens to find the city under siege by an enemy army, Herodotus had probably shrugged the matter off. This war was just the latest in a series of Athens’s struggles with its rivals in Greece. Herodotus knew that impregnable walls connected Athens to the harbor at Piraeus, three miles away. The Athenian fleet ruled the sea and conveyed whatever the city needed. Sicilian fish, Crimean grain, Lydian luxuries: nothing was too dear or distant to resist the pull of a port gleaming with gold coins and guarded by three hundred warships. Herodotus had not counted on the epidemic, however.

Men were dying under the marble porticoes, beside the gilded statues, and within the fashionable groves. Having completed the job that had brought him to Athens, Herodotus seized a berth on a merchantman. He had escaped by a hair’s breadth. Yet as he took a last look at Athens, Herodotus might have felt as much awe as relief. The view from the deck was no ordinary one. In fact, between the salt air and the smell of smoke, the distant moaning of the afflicted and the nearby crash of oars in the harbor, the panorama all but brought Herodotus’s work to life.

Herodotus had devoted his career to an epic book of enquiries, to use the literal meaning of what he called Historiai and we call Histories. Some dub him the Father of History, others the Father of Lies. But as he pursued his enquiries from Babylonia to Ukraine and from Egypt to Italy, Herodotus shone on everyone he met the harsh light of a mind without illusions. Even today, 2,500 years later, his analysis has the simple power of Archimedes’ lever.

As Herodotus looked back across the deck of his ship, turning eastward he saw the city of Athens, crowned by its Acropolis. This rocky hill, the historic heart of the city, featured the then new temple of Athena Parthenos, today known as the Parthenon. Northward from the Acropolis stretched the best-stocked farmland in Greece, but what caught the visitor’s eye were black columns of smoke in the blue summer sky. The farms of Athens’s countryside were on fire. They had been put to the torch by an invading Greek army, led by Athens’s archrival, Sparta. It was the second year of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), the beginning of a bloody inter-Greek struggle for power.

From his viewpoint aboard ship, Herodotus might have turned westward again to the sight that had been dubbed “divine Salamis.” There, Athens and Sparta had put aside their differences in 480 B.C. to unite against the Persian invader like two oxen harnessed to one yoke. After the great naval battle, the victors erected two trophies on the island of Salamis and a third on the islet at the entrance to the straits. They gave a part of the Persian spoils, captured in and after the battle, as thank-offerings to the gods. These included three Phoenician triremes, one of which was still there in Herodotus’s day. In holy Delphi, Persian spoils financed a huge statue of the god Apollo, seventeen and a half feet tall, holding the stern post of a captured warship in his hand.

In the straits in 480 B.C. the gods of battle had to decide whether to give their favors to the Persian navy or the Greek fleet. The Persians had come in overwhelming force by land and sea to punish Athens for having attacked a Persian city in western Anatolia (modern Turkey) a generation earlier. At least that was the excuse; they really wanted to conquer Greece. In the three months before the battle of Salamis, the Persians had marched through northern and central Greece, crushed the Spartan army at Thermopylae, fought the Athenian navy to a standstill at Artemisium, and entered Athens in triumph. They had burned the old temples of the Acropolis to the ground. With their vast armada the Persians expected victory at Salamis, but the gods had always disapproved of an excessive taste for vengeance, and the Persian emperor Xerxes had a parched throat when it came to Greek blood.

The world had never seen a battle like it. A channel only a mile wide held the fighting men of the three continents of the Old World: Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Persian fleet included not only Iranians and men from Central Asia, but Egyptians, Phoenicians, Cypriots, Pamphylians, Lydians, Cilicians, and even Greeks from Anatolia and the Aegean islands. On the other side, the Hellenic fleet commanded contingents from two dozen separate city-states, most from the Greek mainland, but some from the Aegean and Ionian islands and one lone ship from Italy.

Salamis represented a huge demographic fact. More than 200,000 men fought in the battle. Perhaps 20,000 soldiers lined the shores of the straits, to help or hinder survivors, depending on whose side they fought. In addition, about another 100,000 women, children, and old men had left Athens as refugees. In all, 300,000 combatants and civilians were involved in the battle of Salamis. This was an enormous number of people in the world of 480 B.C. In today’s statistical terms, it is equivalent to about 20 million people.

The sailors at Salamis were certainly diverse: they ranged from redheaded Thracians to swarthy Phoenicians to dusky Egyptians. They included citizens and slaves, kings and commoners, cavaliers turned ships’ captains as well as lifelong mariners. They spoke a hodgepodge of languages, and Greek was heard on both sides. As many Greeks fought for Persia as against it. These rival Greeks read the same epic poetry and worshipped the same gods, and yet they prayed for each other’s defeat.

On the decks of the ships at Salamis sat heavily armed marines, ready to clash when the ships locked. Greek marines on both sides wore metal breastplates and helmets and carried swords and javelins. Persian marines included men in turbans and linen breastplates, soldiers equipped with billhooks and daggers or with spears, battle-axes, and long knives. Most of the contingents incorporated archers, too, waiting to shoot down men even in the water.

The devious Athenian who set traps with the care of a surgeon setting bones; the Persian king who thought he could thunder through the watery world of Hellas the way his horses pounded across the high plain of Iran; the scheming Halicarnassian queen who fought for her place in a world of men but fought against everyone else’s freedom; the eunuchs, the slaves, the pipers, the marines, the wives and concubines ashore and the myriad oarsmen on ship; the taste of too many meals of salt fish and barley groats; the perfume of Iranian grandees, the reek of tens of thousands of sweating men who rarely bathed, and the stench of corpses washing up ashore. The days in which, in rapid sequence, Athens was evacuated, invaded and burned, and the ships of two star-crossed nations struggled over empire in the straits. It had all happened here, within a span that a fast trireme could cross in ten minutes. And it had all been part of Herodotus’s life since boyhood, in dozens of anecdotes told over and over again. And now, as his ship rounded the coast of the island of Salamis, the tale had become his to tell.

The ships at Salamis were the most important wooden structures in the history of Greece since the Trojan horse. Yet it would not be easy for Herodotus to recount their story. The war memorials were mute. The Athenian state, whose archives were rudimentary, kept few official records of its battles, nor did Persian scribes publish their accounts.

Greek poets, to be sure, proved eager to tell the tale. So a virtual literary industry about the Persian invasion existed in the fifth century B.C. The most important verse work that survives today is The Persians, a play about Salamis by the great Athenian tragedian Aeschylus, who probably fought in the battle himself. We also have a good chunk of a poem, written ca. 410 B.C. by one Timotheus of Miletus, which offers a vivid if sometimes over-the-top picture of the battle. But little survives of other poems that patriotic schoolboys once learned by heart.

Herodotus knew Aeschylus’s play and had read Athens’s inscriptions. But he also knew that the best way to find out about Salamis was to talk to the men who had fought there. Only a child when Artemisia and her ships returned to his hometown of Halicarnassus, Herodotus was too young to interview the commanders of 480 B.C. But he could meet their sons and daughters and learn their families’ lore. And he had the chance to speak with other veterans of both sides during his travels through Greece and the Persian Empire. He was able to sail the Salamis channel, and he examined ships with the discerning eye of a lifelong voyager.

What had the battle in the fatal straits really been like? How had victory fallen to an Athens that had become less a city than an encampment of two hundred warships and a hundred thousand exiles? How could defeat become the lot of the Persians, who had sacked Athens and made the mountains and valleys of Greece tremble?

These are the questions that Herodotus pondered. His answers to them are extensive, but they do not preserve every last detail of the battle of Salamis. Herodotus had the luxury of picking and choosing. So information that appears in another source can be considered even when Herodotus does not mention it. And yet it is worth being cautious about anything that contradicts Herodotus, because Herodotus was an excellent historian. He was one of the shrewdest and most skeptical students of the past who ever wrote, and also one of the most honest. After decades of being dismissed as a lightweight, Herodotus has of late been appreciated again, as he deserves to be, as a savvy and mainly reliable historian.

In the years after Herodotus finished his book shortly after 430 B.C., other ancient prose writers took on the subject of Salamis. They include one famous name, Plutarch, but they are mostly a collection of little-known or obscure writers. Most lived in the Roman era, but some of them did careful research in earlier Greek writings. Light is thrown on the battle from other, even more out-of-the-way evidence, drawn from Greek inscriptions, art, and archaeology. Then there is topographical, nautical, and meteorological information about the Salamis area today, often still of use for understanding ancient conditions, some of which—the winds, for example—have changed little since antiquity.

Meanwhile, far less data about the Persian Wars survives from the Persian side. It is the Greek Herodotus who is our main source of information about Persian policy in the wars. And yet, today, by delving into the history of Salamis, we can present a new picture of the battle. It is not that Herodotus was wrong. Rather, he and other ancient sources have been misunderstood. If now they can be read right, it is for three reasons.

After years of being underestimated, ancient Persia is, thanks to new research, now viewed as Herodotus intended. A huge amount of data about Persia of indirect relevance to the Persian invasion of Greece has survived, and recent scholarship has exploited it well. This research shows that Persia was neither decadent nor dull but a formidable and innovative power from which the ancient Greeks—and the modern West—borrowed much.

As for the Greeks, they have long been celebrated as the noble sons of liberty. Now, however, we acknowledge them as the founders of imperial democracy. We can appreciate the Greeks’ knowledge of the painful compromises a good society needed to make in order to survive in a hostile world.

Finally, a new focus in military history on the experience of battle, as well as a mass of evidence accruing from the hypothetical reconstruction of an ancient Greek warship, allows us to understand what happened at Salamis in a vivid way. We can hear the trumpets, we can feel the crash of the rams, and we can see the blood in the water.

Legend has it that Herodotus read his Histories aloud to audiences at Athens, Olympia, and elsewhere. Certainly, the book seems to have been composed with the spoken as well as the written word in mind. So it is not difficult to imagine that, shortly before he boarded a vessel in Piraeus, Herodotus addressed the public in Athens. A large audience might have gathered in the Odeon, a performance hall on the south slope of the Acropolis, which was said to have been built to resemble Xerxes’ royal tent. The men, interspersed with the few women in attendance—courtesans and a smattering of aristocratic grandes dames, as no ordinary Athenian woman dared mix in public with men—would have looked forward to a virtuoso recital.

In a season of the present war and plague, the Athenian audience wanted to forget. They craved a story of the heroic past. As the speaker sat ready on the dais, the audience lent their ears to the eloquent old man.

The master stood up and began reciting:

What follows is an exhibition of the enquiries of Herodotus of Halicarnassus. I write so that what men have done should not be erased by time and so that great and astonishing achievements of both Greeks and barbarians should not be without renown; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and barbarians.I

I. The Greeks called all non-Greeks barbarians, even very civilized peoples.

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