The Classic Ship | Part 1: The Persian Wars and the maritime supremacy of Athens

In the period of about 600–480 BCE, Ionian colonists emigrated from Attica to the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, which is modern Turkey[1]. There they inhabited a narrow coastal strip from Phocaea in the north to Miletus in the south, including the islands of Chios and Samos.

Persia (c 540 BCE) conquered the cities of this area and appointed native tyrants to rule for them. The rebellion of the colonists against the rule of these tyrants set off a train of events that ended with the Greek victories in the sea battles of Artemision, Salamis and Mykale (480–479 BCE). The victory of the states that were threatened by the Persian expansion policy was sealed with an agreement on collective defense whereby its independent member states agreed to mutual defense in response to an attack by the Persians (Delos, 479 BCE).

Figure 1: Greek Colonization of western Asia Minor

In this transitional period from Archaic to Classic Greece, the individual glory of the heroic age was replaced by communal glory, celebrating newly acquired military and political identity through public and visible commemorations. The development of naval supremacy and of democracy became interdependent.

Herodotus is the primary source for this part of history and he delivers the narrative with lots of background and salient details. Aeschylus is the contemporary reporter who shares the dramatized version in the form of a tragedy, which is to say, a tragedy for the Persians.[2] Thucydides adds the military analysis. Together they describe the three phases, as follows:

  1. the failed Ionian Revolt, after which Persia re-establishes control over Ionia and Cyprus and builds courage for
  2. the first and unsuccessful Persian invasion of Greece, concluded in the Greek victory at Marathon, followed by
  3. the second Persian invasion of Greece, which ended with the decisive Greek victory in the Battle of Salamis.

This last victory secured the continued independence of the Greek city-states [poleis] and concluded the transition of Greece from the Archaic to the Classic period.

Figure 2: Trireme Olympias of the Hellenic Navy[3]
Around 540 BCE the strategic strip of Aegean land along the coasts of Lydia and Caria was taken by Darius I, the King of Persia. He appointed native tyrants to rule for the Persian satrap in Sardis, the capital of Lydia. In the spring of 498 BCE, the Ionians rebelled, captured, and they burnt Sardis. The epicenter of this first Ionian revolt was in Miletus and the support for the originally Athenian colonies came in the form of twenty triremes from Athens and five from Eretria. The maritime mission was to transport Athenian troops to join up with the main Ionian force near Ephesus.[4] The Athenians succeeded in taking down the city of Sardis but on their way back to Ephesus ad-hoc Persian cavalry overtook them. The defeated Athenians and Eretrians managed to return to their ships and to sail back to Greece.

Salamina monument
Figure 3: The Warriors of Salamis[5]
In 494 BCE the Persian forces, inspired by the successful suppression of the revolt, regrouped a fleet that was supplied by the Phoenician cities and the re-subjugated parties of Cyprus, and manned by Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cyprians and Cilicians. With this diverse fleet they headed directly towards Miletus, which was still the core of the Ionian revolt.

The Ionians opted not to battle on land, but they grouped their ships near the Island of Lade, off the coast of Miletus, to “fight for Miletus at sea”.

Of the Greek ships, 100 were from Chios, 80 from Miletus and 60 from Samos. Athens had 70 triremes. Together with the triremes of Lesbos, the city-states of Ionia and Lesbos brought 353 triremes into battle against the 600 triremes of the Persian Fleet. When the Persian and Ionian fleets took position, the ships from Samos decided to defect and, consequently, the Greeks lost the battle. As a result, the Persians took courage for the First Persian invasion of Greece (492–490 BCE), a long story which ends with the remarkable victory of the Greeks at Marathon.

The commander of the allied Greek navies, Themistoklẽs, then persuaded the Athenians that things were not over yet and advocated to build a fleet of 200 triremes.[6] These ships proved crucial in the upcoming confrontations with the Persians in their second attempt to invade Hellas.

This second Persian invasion of Greece (480–479 BCE) was under the Persian king Xerxes, son and successor of Darius I. After the Persians dominated in the land battle of Thermopylae, and the Battle of Artemision remained indecisive even after great performance of the Greek naval force, the Persians conquered all of Boeotia and Attica. At this time they burnt Athens, including the old Parthenon, in revenge for the burning of Sardis. To take the Peloponnesus, however, another sea battle had to take place. This latter battle became known as The Battle of Salamis in which the Greek defeated the Persians in a decisive way.

The communal glory was celebrated through public and visible commemorations, such as an early form of the Panathenaic procession.[7] Little evidence of the sea battles with triremes remains in the form of painted vases. The specific spirit of this time asked for trophies [tropaia] and monuments in the visual landscape of the city as a way to celebrate naval victories and to commemorate the aretē [8] of the sailors killed in battle.[9]

Athens- painting
Figure 4: View of Athens and the Areopagus[10]
Vase paintings indicate Athens’s growing maritime supremacy by iconography of Poseidon and Boreas, the latter having played such an important role in the Battle of Artemision by blowing a three-day storm which destroyed the better part of the Persian fleet:

The story is told that because of an oracle the Athenians invoked Boreas, the north wind, to help them, since another oracle told them to summon their son-in-law as an ally. According to the Hellenic story, Boreas had an Attic wife, Orithyia, the daughter of Erechtheus, ancient king of Athens. Because of this connection, so the tale goes, the Athenians considered Boreas to be their son-in-law. They were stationed off Chalcis in Euboea, and when they saw the storm rising, they then, if they had not already, sacrificed to and called upon Boreas and Orithyia to help them by destroying the barbarian fleet, just as before at Athos. I cannot say whether this was the cause of Boreas falling upon the barbarians as they lay at anchor, but the Athenians say that he had come to their aid before and that he was the agent this time. When they went home, they founded a sacred precinct of Boreas beside the Ilissus River.[11]

The abduction, or marriage, of Boreas and Oreithyia, the daughter of the Athenian king Erechtheus, marked both the new power and the divine mandate of the Athenian navy.

Figure 5: The Abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas[12]
The maritime supremacy and the development of the democracy went hand in hand: the concept that the fleet and democracy, were complementary, was replaced by the idea that the one could not exist without the other. The navy needed people to man the triremes and the functioning of the democracy required common people to have a vote. The logical step was to provide the right to vote to the lower class Athenians [thētes][13] who served on the triremes. The contribution of the thētes was crucial both for the rise of naval power and for the development of the democracy in Athens during the late 6th and early 5th centuries.[14]


[1] An earlier Ionic migration may have taken place about 140 years after the Trojan War. The Homeric tradition (Iliad 13.685) speaks of the Ionians “with their long khitons”, fighting at Troy at the side of the Achaeans.

[2] Contemporary 5th-century texts from tragedies and comedies (such as The Persians of Aeschylus and The Knights of Aristophanes) may be even more factual than 4th-century texts of writers such as Plato and Aristotle, which had their own agenda within the context of the Athenian democracy. See also Butera, C.J. 2010. The Land of the fine triremes.

[3] Coates, John F. 1990. “Research and Engineering Aspects of Reconstructing the Ancient Greek Trireme Warship”. SNAME Transactions, Vol 98, 1990, pages 239–262.

[4] The distinction between combat ships of the city-polis and private multi-purpose ships is not always clear. Herodotus Histories 8.17: the Athenian Clinias, son of Alcibiades, “brought to the war two hundred men and a ship of his own, all at his own expense.”

[5] Monument for the Battle of Salamis, Kynosoura peninsula, Salamis Island, Greece, by sculptor Achilleas Vasileiou. This position must have been close to the position from where Telamon waved goodbye to the twelve ships that his son Ajax led to Troy, with his son Teucer also on board one of them.

[6] “Themistoklẽs persuaded the Athenians to … build two hundred ships for the war, that is, for the war with Aegina. This was in fact the war the outbreak of which saved Hellas by compelling the Athenians to become seamen.” (Herodotus, Histories, 7.144)

[7] Ibid. Individual glory remained available for the Strategos Themistoklẽs, whose name indicates “Glory of the Law”.

[8] The aretê of these men, imperishable forever. [ ] For they, both as foot-soldiers and in quick-going ships, prevented all Greece from seeing the day of slavery. C. Jacob Butera, 2010. The Land of the fine triremes.

[9] Note the construction of a temple to Boreas after the battle of Artemesion, the depiction of Poseidon on the Parthenon, and the importance of the Panathenaic Ship.

[10] von Klenze, Leo. Ideale Ansicht der Akropolis und des Areopag in Athen, 1846

[11]  Herodotus Histories 7.189–193. English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.

[12] The Abduction of Oreithyia. Manner of Francesco Solimena. c 1730 CE.

[13] The “thētes” were the lowest social class of citizens.

[14] Butera 2010


Aeschylus, Persians. Smyth, Herbert Weir Ph. D. 1926. Aeschylus, with an English translation by Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph. D. in two volumes. 1. Persians. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. Available online at Perseus.

Butera, C.J. 2010. “The Land of the Fine Triremes:” Naval Identity and Polis imaginary in 5th Century Athens. Department of Classical Studies, Duke University. Available online.

Coates, John F. 1990. “Research and Engineering Aspects of Reconstructing the Ancient Greek Trireme Warship”. SNAME Transactions, Vol 98, 1990, pages 239–262.

Herodotus The Histories. Selections on Boreas from Volume 7, translated by Godley, Alfred Denis. 1922. William Heinemann; G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Available online at Perseus.

Herodotus. The Histories. Selections from Volume 7. translated by Godley, A. D.  1920. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920. Available online at Perseus.

Herodotus. The Histories. Selections on Salamis from Volume 8. Translation Lynn Sawlivich. Revised by Gregory Nagy. 2013. Available online at CHS.

Homeric Iliad. Samuel Butler’s translation, revised by Timothy Power, Gregory Nagy, Soo-Young Kim, and Kelly McCray. Published under a Creative Commons License 3.0. Available online at CHS.

Stuart-Jones, H and Powell, J.E. 1942. Thucydides. Historiae in two volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Image credits

Figure 1: Map: Greek Colonization of western Asia Minor. Author: Alexikoua. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0. From Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 2: Trireme Olympias of the Hellenic Navy. By Ελληνικά: Χρήστης Templar52 [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 3: Salamina monument. The Warriors Of Salamis. Photo Achilles Vasileiou. Creative Commons CC BY 3.0. From Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 4: von Klenze, Leo. Ideale Ansicht der Akropolis und des Areopag in Athen, 1846. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen—Neue Pinakothek München. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Figure 5: The Abduction of Oreithyia. Manner of Francesco Solimena, c 1730. Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902. Walters Art Museum Creative Commons CC0 license. From Wikimedia Commons.


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