The Classic Ship | Part 3: The Battle of Salamis

In the last days of September of the year 480 BCE, King Xerxes proceeded to Athens, after having had his victory at Thermopylae. Also his naval forces moved southward for the final stroke.

Among the Persian naval contingent were 120 triremes from Thrace, 100 ships from Ionia, 60 ships from Aeolia including Lesbos and Samos, and an unspecified number of ships from the Greek islands, including the Cyclades, and lastly, the Dorians from Halicarnassus. After the conclusion of the Ionian revolt, these cities prospered under Persian rule[1] and tyrannies had been replaced with democracies[2]. Now the Ionians supported the invasion of Hellas, aimed at the destruction of Athens and Sparta. The men of Tenos and Naxos, however, joined the Persians only reluctantly.

In the first Persian invasion, the main driver was revenge for the capture and burning of Sardis. Now insult was added to injury: the Athenians had thrown the Persian messengers into a gorge—the Spartans threw them into a well—in response to their request for “earth and water”.[3]

Most of the Greek city-states north of Thermopylae submitted to the Persians to buy relative safety for their people. Athens was at war with the Aeginetans, while Thebes and Argos were “medized”; neutral, more inclined to side with the Persians than with the Spartans, because of the iron fist with which the Spartans ruled the Peloponnese. Attica was lost.

Figure 1: Themistoklēs, born 524 BCE, Athens, Greece

Athens, a young but powerful democracy, and Sparta, with its accomplished warriors focused on military training and excellence, found themselves fated to work together to break the Persian threat to Hellas. Apart from Athens, the Peloponnesus, a few islands and a small fleet, nothing was left.

The Athenian leader, Themistoklēs, left messages inscribed in the rocks of Artemision beach, inviting at least the Ionians to defect and join their fellow Greeks[4], and he deceived the Persians by leaving Artemision by night. He sent informers to the Persians to feed them with disinformation about his plans and activities. The Persians decided to ignore the messenger, which was perfectly in line with the strategy of Themistoklēs.

Figure 2: Xerxes the Great, 519–465 BCE, Iran

While the Greeks were retreating from Artemision, the Persian marines lost time and energy by going ashore in the shallow, muddy, water at Thermopylae[5], to join the land forces in festivity and looting[6]. When the Greek ships from Artemision arrived at Salamis, the rest of the Hellenic fleet departed from Pogon, the harbor of Trozen, to join them.[7]

The following parties took part in the war:

  • From the Peloponnese, the Lacedaemonians provided 16 ships; the Corinthians 40 ships; the Sikyonians furnished 15 ships, the Epidaurians 10, the Trozenians 5, the Hermioneans 3.
  • From the mainland outside the Peloponnese, the Athenians provided 180 ships. The Megarians 20. The Ambraciots came to help with 7 ships, and the Leucadians with 3. The Aeginetans provided 30 ships. The Khalkidians came with 20 ships and the Eretrians with 7. From the Naxians 4 ships defected to the Hellenes. The Styrians provided 2 ships and the Kythnians 1 trireme and a fifty-oared boat. The Krotonians came with one ship. The Seriphians, brought fifty-oared boats. The Melians provided two; the Siphnians and Seriphians, one each. The total number of ships, besides the fifty-oared boats, was 378.[8]

Meanwhile Themistoklēs decreed the evacuation of Attica, including Athens. Did he persuade the guardian of the sacred snake on the Acropolis, to announce [semainein] that the snake has left the polis, and all should follow quickly?[9] The Athenian ships that returned from Artemision were released by the Spartan admiral Eurybiades to transport the Athenians to the refuge of Troezen, and some to Salamis and Aegina. Lastly, when the evacuation was completed, including the removal of the ancient xoanon [10], —the wooden statue of Athena Polias—the Athenian ships returned to the main fleet, which gathered in the Salamis Channel.

At the same time, Themistoklēs met with the Allied council, where Eurybiades and the Corinthian naval commander Adeimantus voiced the argument of a defensive strategy. They proposed the Allied fleet should prevent the Persian fleet from transporting troops across the Gulf of Aegina, from Attica to Argos. All land above this line, up to the Isthmus of Corinth, had fallen to the Persians.

Themistoklēs’ aim, however, was to offensively destroy the Persians’ naval superiority. He argued, with great virtue, that a battle in close quarter conditions would work to the advantage of the Greeks. This strategy was a lesson learned, both at Thermopylae and Artemision: the only difference being that the Persians must first be lured into narrow waters. Based upon his plea that Hellas cannot be held if they did not stick together, combined with the suggestion that otherwise the ships from Athens may leave for Italy, it was decided to station the Allied navy off the coast of Salamis.

Following the Allied agreement on how to proceed, Themistoklēs sent a secret envoy, Sicinnus [11], to the Persian King Xerxes, who was at that time indulging in the destruction of Athens.

Sicinnus transferred the false message that the Greeks withdrew from Salamis and that each squadron was underway to its own city. According to his message, the remaining ships were ready to defect when the opportunity was there. The Persians remembered only too well that if they had listened to the turncoat at Artemision, they would have had a chance to intercept and destroy the Allied navy. What a hard decision to ignore a defector again! Xerxes agreed with the messenger and changed his plan: he decided to attack next evening—even without knowledge of his enemy’s powers and the terrains—instead of waiting for the Greeks to initiate the battle.

Schematic map of battle
Figure 3: The battle of Salamis (Map dated 2005)

In the morning before the battle there was an earthquake. Xerxes ordered his fleet to take station outside the strait of Salamis, waiting for the Greek ships to defect, or to attempt escape. During the day the Persian seamen went ashore at Phaleron for dinner. At sunset they climbed the ladders to their ships again, expecting action to start that night. Part of the Persian fleet, the Egyptian contingent, circled the coast of Salamis and barred the narrow access at the western side of Salamis, near Megara, thus effectively locking in the Greek naval force.

The main fleet of the Persians kept their station to the east of Salamis. They were manned by a heterogeneous collection of troops supplied by the Phoenicians, Cyprians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians. They were large in number and moved slowly; possibly in a triple line. They outnumbered the Greek navy three-to-one.

During the night, illuminated by a bright moon, not too much happened and the large contingent of Phoenician ships that headed the three-line formation started moving slowly into the Salamis channel. The Ionian ships were the last to follow. The Persians transported four hundred soldiers to the island of Psyttaleia, located in the middle of the access to the Strait of Salamis. While the night wore away, the oarsmen of the Persians did not come into action, but also did not have a rest.

A ship from Tenos deserted the Persians to join the Greek side. They transferred their understanding of the Persian plans and actions to Eurybiades and Themistoklēs. In the middle of the night Aristides, the Athenian rival of Themistoklēs, also arrived by boat, bringing with him the religious tokens from the island of Aegina. He offered loyal support to the Allied council and later he would crown the Greek victory by landing Athenian infantry on the island of Psyttaleia.

After having received the situation reports of the Tenians and Aristides, the Greek leaders decided to set the scene for the battle by positioning their ships in a single line in front of the coast of Salamis. This array prevented the Persians from sailing around the Greek fleet in the tactical maneuver named periplous,[12] which would allow them to wipe out the Greek galleys when they passed them. Due to the lack of sea room the Persians would not be able to attack the curved sterns of the Greek ships, attempting to damage the steering- and rowing-oars, by sailing through the enemy’s fleet [diekplous][13] and back again [anastrophē].

The Spartan leader Eurybiades assigned the right wing of the formation to the Aeginetans, thus giving the post of honor to Aristides, the rival of Themistoklēs. The islanders of Aegina would firstly counter the ships from Ionia, but they were eager to prove that they were no friends of the Persians and captured many Phoenician ships as well. Also, there was some expectation that the Ionians might follow the instruction that Themistoklēs left on the beach, advising the Ionians to defect or to fight as kakoi, cowards, but the majority did not. The Athenians, on the western end of the battle line, would take the first confrontation with the Phoenicians.

Map of Battle of Salamis
Figure 4: The battle of Salamis (Map dated 1797)

In the early morning of the nineteenth of Boedromion, a holy day for the Greeks, on which they should be underway on a pilgrimage to Eleusis, carrying out the usual rituals and sacrifices to Demeter—thus ensuring the harvest of next year to replace the dry seed of today—the Greeks were found offering sacrifices on the beach of Salamis. After having prayed to all the gods, also for the support of the shades of Ajax, Telamon and Aiakos and the other Aiakidai[14], they went aboard their fenced ships, the kataphraktoi on which the oarsmen[15] operate their oars in darkness, even during day time. A cloud rose above Eleusis and floated towards Salamis, to the camp of the Hellenes: a good omen in the form of wind that came from the north again.

Chanting a song[16] —calling for the assistance of Apollo, or Paieon himself, the physician of the gods[17] —and following the instructions that came through the sound of the trumpet on the flagship of Eurybiades, they proceeded at high speed to their line positions along the north coast of Salamis. The aim of the Athenians to spread panic at the break of day, was given some confidence because the island of Psyttaleia was sacred [hieros] to the god Pan[18], the lord of the irrational thing called panic.

Immediately the barbarians attacked them. The Hellenes, possessed by fear [daimonioi][19], firstly began to back water and tried to beach their ships again. Soon after, however, the Hellenes fought in order by line, attacking the curved sterns of the Persian ships, through the enemy’s fleet [diekplous] and back again [anastrophē], damaging the steering- and rowing-oars, while the barbarians were no longer in position and did nothing sensibly.

Painting: Battle of Salamis
Figure 5: Kaulbach, Wilhelm von: Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis, 1868

Another, quite desperate, maneuver was the head-on collision [antiproiros] or maneuvering prow-to-prow [kata stoma][20], attempting to damage the enemy by sheering his oars with the reinforced catheads [epōtides] in the bow section. In the fast-spreading chaos, the Greeks were able to penetrate the hulls of the Persian ships, causing flooding and loss of stability. As the vessels began to sink, the rowers [nautai] were forced into the water and came to their sad end by drowning:

It was a ship of Hellas that began the charge and chopped off in its entirety the curved stern of a Phoenician boat. Each captain drove his ship straight against some other ship. At first the stream of the Persian army held its own. When, however, the mass of our ships had been crowded in the narrows, and none could make another aid, and each crashed its bronze prow against each of its own line, they splintered their whole bank of oars. Then the Hellenic galleys, not heedless of their chance, hemmed them in and battered them on every side. The hulls of our vessels rolled over, and the sea was hidden from our sight, strewn as it was with wrecks and slaughtered men.
Aeschylus Persians 410–420[21]

A remarkable role was played by Artemisia, Queen of the Carians, ruler of Halicarnassus. She fought as an ally with Xerxes. In the aftermath of Salamis she hoisted the Greek colors, rammed a Persian ship, after which the confused Greek gave up the pursuit, thus allowing her to escape. Herodotus, himself a native of Halicarnassus (484 BCE), tells the story with flavor.[22]

The Battle of Salamis still plays a role in Greek national and European consciousness, because at that time a collection of independently operating city-states achieved a degree of cooperation that before and after had never been shown, thus marking the transition from Archaic to Classic Greece.

On land the Spartans, the first military power in Hellas[23], gained a name of great kleos. At sea, the Hellenes with the best reputation as aristoi were the Aeginetans, then the Athenians. Athens, however, played the leading role, preluding what would be the Golden Age of Athens.

Figure 6: Lenormant Trireme Relief (dated between circa 410 and circa 400 BCE) [24]


[1] In 493, when the Ionian revolt was over, the Persian satrap of Sardis “compelled the Ionians to make agreements among themselves that they would abide by the law and not rob and plunder each other.” (Herodotus 6.42.1)
[2] The Milesian geographer Hecataeus persuaded Artaphrenes to restore the constitution of the Ionic cities (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica 25)
[3] “When Darius had previously sent men with this same purpose, those who made the request were cast at the one city into the Pit and at the other into a well, and bidden to obtain their earth and water for the king from these locations.” (Herodotus 7.133.1)
[4] “This was what the writing said: “Men of Ionia, you do wrongly to fight against the land of your fathers and bring slavery upon Hellas”.” (Herodotus 8.22)
[5] “Thermopylae” means “hot gates”. The river is hot and rich of Sulphur springs since the day that Herakles jumped into it, to clear himself off the Hydra poison infused into his cloak. (See, for example, footnote 39 to Apollodorus The Library 2.7, by J.G. Frazer; available at Perseus)
[6] “Men of our allies, King Xerxes permits any one of you who should so desire to leave his place and come to see how he fights against those foolish men who thought they could overcome the king’s power.” (Herodotus 8.24)
[7] “A story is told of one of these, the dog of Xanthippus the father of Pericles, how he could not endure to be abandoned by his master, and so sprang into the sea, swam across the strait by the side of his master’s trireme, and staggered out on Salamis, only to faint and die straightway.” (Plutarch, The Life of Themistocles 10.5)
[8] Herodotus 8.44–48.
[9] “When the priestess interpreted the significance of this, the Athenians were all the more eager to abandon the city since the goddess had deserted the acropolis”. (Herodotus 8. 41). Themistocles put the story into their (the priests’) mouths. (Plutarch, The Life of Themistocles 10.1)
[10] “The ancient xoanon of Athena survived the war, and had presumably been carried away, probably to Salamis; Kleidemos, Frag. Gr. Hist., III B, No. 323, Frag. 21, mentions the loss of the gorgoneion from the statue at the time of the manning of the ships.” (Jameson, M.H., A decree of Themistoklẽs from Troizen. University of Pennsylvania published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, page 219.)
[11] “This Sicinnus was of Persian stock, a prisoner of war, but devoted to Themistocles, and the paedagogue of his children.” (Plutarch, The Life of Themistocles, 12.3)
[12] The periplous is a naval tactic referred to by Thucydides: “But the Athenians with their galleys ordered one after one in file went around them [peripleon] and shrunk them up together by wiping them ever as they passed”. (Thucydides 2.84)
[13] The diekplousis a naval tactic referred to by Polybius: “To sail on the one hand through [diekpleῖn] the enemy’s line and then appear on the stern of such of his ships as were engaged with others (one of the most effective manoeuvres in naval warfare) was impossible owing to the weight of the vessels and their crews’ lack of skill.” (Polybius 1.51.9)
[14] Herodotus 8.64 tells of the images of the Aiakidai being sent for from Aegina, before the battle. The sacred images would protect as well as be protected.
[15] The Spartan crews were composed of Helots, or at best Perioikoi, The Athenian triremes were manned by lower class Athenians [thētes].
[16] “a loud cheer like a song of triumph first rang out from the Hellenes, and, at the same instant, [390] clear from the island crags, an echo returned an answering cry.” (Aeschylus The Persians 388–391)
[17] In Homer, Paieon was the Greek physician of the gods: “He [= Arēs] then bade Paieon heal him, whereon Paieon spread pain-killing herbs upon his wound and cured him”. (Homeric Iliad 5.499–901)
[18] “There is an island lying before Salamis, a small one and dangerous anchorage for ships; its sea-washed shore is the haunt of Pan, who loves the dance.” (Aeschylus The Persians 447–449)
[19] The “luring” of the Median Fleet was played so convincingly that “The story is also told that the phantom of a woman appeared to them, who cried commands loud enough for all the Hellenic fleet to hear, reproaching them first with, “Men possessed [daimonioi], how long will you still be backing water?”” (Herodotus 8.84.2)
[[20] Herodotus 8.11.
[21] Aeschylus, English translation by Herbert Weir Smyth. 1926. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
[22] “as she was pursued by the Attic ship, she charged and rammed an allied ship, with a Calyndian crew and Damasithymus himself, king of the Calyndians, aboard”. (Herodotus 8.87)
[23] “At the end of the one stood Athens, at the head of the other Lacedaemon, one the first naval, the other the first military power in Hellas.” (Thucydides 1.18.2)
[24] Place of discovery: Acropolis, near the Erechtheum. Date: 1852


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.

Casson, Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. Available online at Project MUSE, Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore

Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus of Sicily in Twelve Volumes with an English Translation by C. H. Oldfather. Vol. 4-8. 1989. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd.  Available online at Perseus

Herodotus The Histories. Selections from Volume 5. translated by Godley, A.D. 1920. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. Available online at Perseus.

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

Herodotus The Histories. Selections on Salamis from Volume 8. translated by Godley, A. D. 1920. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. Available online at Perseus.

Jameson, M.H., A decree of Themistoklẽs from Troizen. University of Pennsylvania published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Plutarch, The Parallel Lives. The Life of Themistocles. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. 1914. published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition,

Polybius. The Histories. translated by W.R. Paton. 1922. published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition.

Thucydides. Hobbes, Thomas. 1843. Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. London. Available online at Perseus.

Image credits

Figure 1: Profile view of an ancient Greek bust of Themistocles. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, author Antonietti, J.P.A., public domain, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 2: Profile view of Xerxes I, based on a relief of Xerxes at the doorway of his palace, Persepolis, Iran, Photograph taken from a print. Author Mbmrock, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3: Battle of Thermopylae and movements to Salamis, 480 BC. The Department of History, United States Military Academy public domain, via From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Figure 4: Map of Salamis. Charta of Greece / Rigas Charta, Rigas Velestinlis, 1797. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Figure 5: Kaulbach, Wilhelm von – Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis, 1868. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Figure 6: Lenormant Trireme Relief, c410–400 BCE. The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece. Source/Photographer Marsyas (2006). Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5.


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