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The Fate of Greece and Europe Hung on a Razor’s Edge – 2,500 Years Since Salamis

September 28, 2020
By Ernest A. Kollitides

Exactly 2,500 years ago a combined fleet of just over 300 triremes of an alliance of Greek city states and an armada of between 800-1,000 triremes of the vast Persian Empire under the personal command of the King of Kings, Xerxes, met in the Straights of Salamis – a Greek island near Piraeus – and prepared for a battle that was to decide to destiny of Greece and Europe and the future course of Western civilization.  

The appointed supreme commander of the Greek fleet was the Spartan Eurybiades – a Spartan requirement even though Athens was the greatest naval power of Greece – with Themistocles of Athens and Adeimantus of Corinth the senior commanders. Strategy and tactics were to be decided by commanders, one from each contributing city. However, Themistocles was the strategic and tactical brain of the alliance. He had earlier convinced the Athenians to spend the money they had raised from the silver mines of Lavrion, to build 200 triremes (warships), for their defense. His belief was, "He who commands the sea commands everything." 

Xerxes had ample reason to have assembled the world's largest fighting forces to conquer Greece. His father Darius, who had attempted twice before to punish Athens for assisting an earlier revolt of the Ionian Greek city-states in Asia Minor in 492 BC and 490 BC, had failed. The first failure occurred after his fleet was destroyed by a storm as it tried to circumnavigate the Mount Athos peninsula, while the second was a stunning defeat at Marathon. 

Xerxes, having decided that they must not fail again, spent the next 10 years in planning, coercing several cities in Greece to accept their hegemony, producing war materials, building canals, bridges, roads, etc., in northern Greece, and ordering equipment, triremes, and fighting men from around their immense, polyglot empire. Finally, in the spring of 480 BC, he assembled an army of approximately 300,000 men and cavalry, and a 1,200 trireme armada at the city of Sardis and the coast of Asia Minor. Soon they all crossed into Europe at the Hellespont and marched through Thrace, Macedonia, and Thessaly, until they arrived at Thermopylae where a contingent of allied Greeks led by Leonidas with his 300 Spartans, stopped them temporarily. Ultimately the Persian forces marched to Athens with revenge, destruction, and plunder on their minds. 

Earlier the Athenians had consulted the Delphic oracle and according to Herodotus, the prophecy was ominous and terrifying, "Wretches, why sit here? Fly, fly to the ends of creation, leave your homes, and towns and castles; do not stay, for neither head nor body is firm in its place; nor hand, nor heart will be uninjured. All, all ruined and lost … from the high roofs blood will flow … Get away from the temples and brood on the ills that await ye!" The well-informed Delphic priests had reasoned that, if the great Lydian Empire could not stand against a smaller Persian force a few years earlier, no coalition of Greek city-states had a chance against such a colossal force that "drunk the rivers dry," as it marched!  

Themistocles would not allow such a bone chilling prophecy to become known to the Athenians. He requested another prophecy and got a new one: "Await not in quiet the coming of the horses, the marching feet, … Slip away. Turn your back. You will meet in battle anyway. O holy Salamis, you will be the death of many a woman’s son between the seedtime and the harvest of the grain … a wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children.” That matched Themistocles' grand strategy. He immediately ordered the evacuation of the city to nearby islands, including Salamis, where the allied triremes had already begun to assemble. 

Triremes were ancient ships with three banks of oars, each oar maned by a man. (Greek: τριήρης = three-rower). As warships, they were equipped with heavy bronze rams extending from the keel at or just below the waterline and were designed to pierce the hulls of enemy warships upon impact. 

The Persians entered the empty city of Athens and began an orgy of burning, destruction, and looting, determined to punish the Athenians and send a clear message to the other Greeks. They killed the few defenders of the Acropolis and some elders who had refused to leave Athens and plundered, defiled, burned, and destroyed temples. Xerxes was now confident that he will soon obliterate the allied resistance, add Greece to his vast empire, and launch his conquest of Europe.  

However, Themistocles had other plans. The "wooden wall" of boats was now going to be the allies' defense and attack instrument of war, and the confined strait of Salamis the place where he was convinced that the Persian trireme numerical superiority could be turned into a disadvantage. His strategy was brilliant but risky, with no fallback option if it failed. He spent the whole night trying to convince the supreme commander Eurybiades and the others who insisted that they should retreat and engage the Persian armada at the Isthmus in Corinth. After marathon heated arguments, Themistocles prevailed and the allies agreed to fight in Salamis. A little earlier, to ensure that the battle began before the other commanders changed their minds, Themistocles, pretending to betray the allies by secretly sending his trusted messenger to Xerxes, advised him to "attack, before the allied fleet had time to escape." Xerxes considered that prudent, especially since it reinforced his own thinking, and ordered the overnight movement of his fleet from the bay of Faliron to block both ends of the straits.  

By day break his vast armada of triremes, with a tired, sleepless crew, had filled the eastern end of the channel poised to hammer the much smaller allied fleet. Xerxes himself, surrounded by his scribes, servants, bodyguards, and myriads of fighting men, sat on his throne set on a hill near the shore. In the country that had invented the theater, he would now enjoy the most spectacular theatrical production ever staged, on the world's grandest liquid stage! 

According to Herodotus, "at the dawn of the day, all the men-at-arms were assembled together, and speeches were made to them, of which the best was that of Themistocles, who throughout contrasted what was better with what was worse in the condition of men, and of these things he challenged them to choose the better … Now all was at stake!" The men boarded the triremes and waited for the final orders. The fateful battle was imminent! 

Opposite the Athenian naval line up of 180 triremes was the Phoenician armada, the best of the Persian navy. To lure the enemy deeper, past the narrowest point of the channel, Themistocles ordered the slowdown of the Athenian center, goading the Phoenicians to push forward. The day of destiny for Greece was about to unfold and its freedom and future now rested precariously on a razor's edge. Both Themistocles and Xerxes were confident of victory. 

According to the eyewitness and combatant dramatist Aeschylus, the Greek men in thundering voices, accompanied by the shrill sounds of trumpets of war, began their attack chanting the paean which he later immortalized in his play the Persians: “Sons of Hellenes, set free your fatherland, set free your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods and the tombs of your ancestors; now the fight is on behalf of them all!”  

As the Persian ships passed the narrow point of the channel, and as the wind began to cause swells in the channel, destabilizing the tight Persian formations, Themistocles ordered the attack. Like a suddenly released giant spring, the allied triremes bolted forward. A coordinated Greek attack was launched from almost every direction. The Athenians who hung back, suddenly sprang forward and formed an ever-tightening open jaw around the bulge of the Phoenician armada, while the Corinthians, the Spartans, the Aiginetans, the Megarians, and others were attacking and ramming the fleets from the Levant, Ionia, Egypt, and the other maritime Persian satrapies. The long-awaited battle had begun with electrifying speed and fierce determination.         

The Persians were fighting bravely because they knew that the eye of their king was upon them. The first two ships to ram Persian vessels were Athenian and Aiginetan triremes. The loud orders of the commanders, mingled with the deafening sounds of crashing timber and grinding rams, were punctuated by the crying voices of injured and dying men. An awesome cacophony filled the air and underscored the ferocity of the battle. After the first few ramming attacks, strategies on both sides, began to give way to each trireme commander's own tactics. 

By this time Xerxes knew that the battle scene had spired out of his control and his side would not be able to break through the Greek lines. His numerical superiority of ships and men had not translated into strategic supremacy. He had already lost too many ships.

In his play the Persians, Aeschylus described the scene, "the sea vanished under a clogged carpet of shipwrecks, limbs, torsos, and the beaches were cluttered with the dead … The Asian ships whirling about in an insane rout, while with snapped oars, balks of timber from wreckage, the Greeks drove and hammered and slew, as though the enemy were no more than mackerel swept up in a net, or any other kind of fish. Shrieks and lamentations, and also triumphant songs, hovered over the sea till night fell and darkness hid the sight."  

Ariabignes, Xerxes' brother and supreme commander of the Persian armada, was impaled by the spears of two marines as he tried to board their Athenian trireme, after his own flagship of the Persian navy was rammed by it. According to Herodotus, "with him perished a vast number of men of high repute, Persians, Medes, and their allies. Of the Greeks died only a few, for as they were able to swim, all those who were not slain outright by the enemy, escaped their sinking vessels and swam across to Salamis. But more Persians died by drowning, than in any other way, because they did not know how to swim…."

Artemisia, the Greek queen of Caria, in Asia Minor, commanding her own fleet in the service of her boss Xerxes, trying to escape an impending ramming by a pursuing Athenian trireme, rammed one of her own, giving Xerxes the impression of having sunk a Greek vessel. According to Herodotus, an angry Xerxes exclaimed, "today my men have become women and my women men!" Nobody dared to correct him. Unfortunately, for the pursuing commander, he lost the 10,000 drachmas the Athenian Council had put up for Artemisia's capture or head! 

By the latter part of the day the Persian armada had lost over 200 galleys against only 40 Greek losses. The Persians were defeated and were retreating. Xerxes rushed to return to Persia concerned that Greek ships might try to block his retreat through the Hellespont. Without any supplies for a long stay, the majority of the Persian army protected him in his retreat back to Asia. The allies celebrated their spectacular victory and the Athenians returned to their ruined homes and began to rebuild their city. The Greek victories can justifiably be attributed to a combination of factors, including good planning and strategy, training, valor, discipline, and outstanding leadership that was only possible under mostly democratic governments. Athens now had the mightiest fleet in the Mediterranean and Sparta the strongest land force in Europe. 

All of the aforementioned battles were crucial and a Greek loss of any one of them would have meant the subjugation of the free city-states to the autocratic Asian empire of Persia. However, the victory at Salamis stands above the others in importance and consequences. It was the one where the Persians had massed the greatest military forces of antiquity and it was led by a Persian king determined to crush Greece and turn Europe to another satrapy. He lost and the Greeks won and most of the credit for the stunning victory belongs to Themistocles, whose farsightedness, leadership, organizational and persuasive skills, valor, and cunning, made him the ideal leader during Greece's most perilous time. 

Most historians agree that the Battle of Salamis was more consequential than the even Battle of Trafalgar, or the Battle of Midway. A Greek loss at Salamis would have meant the death of democracy, and the strangulation of the infant classical civilization, which in time became the cradle of Western civilization. The great names in philosophy, mathematicians, science, medicine, poetry, theater, politics, etc., who illuminated the ancient world and provided the spark and the fuel that gave birth and nutrition to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, would have never entered the pages of history. The Greek language, which has been enriching all other languages, would have perished. And the wise and humane philosophy of the great Greek thinkers would have not have inspired the Apostles to enrich and promote Christianity. 

Historians have tried to outdo each other in their praise of these Greek triumphs and the gifts of their victories to Western civilization. A few are cited here:  

"Salamis was the triumph of free men over autocrats, of men who won, against odds, precisely because they were fighting for an ideal. Only free men, proud of their freedom, could have produced the imperishable achievements in architecture, sculpture, and drama that have made Athens immortal: the vision of a Phidias, the thundering choruses of Aeschylus, the proud, gay, confident humor of Aristophanes. Under Persian overlordship, Athens might have achieved much, but not this, and not in the same spirit."  

Peter Green, historian  

"If the Persians had succeeded in overrunning Greece, the subsequent history of the West would have been different." Audrey de Selincourt, author 

"[The Greek-Persian Wars] live immortal not in the historical records of Nations only, but also of Science and of Art – of the Noble and the Moral generally. For these are World-Historical Victories; they were the salvation of culture and spiritual vigor and they rendered the Asiatic principle powerless." Hegel, philosopher  

"In terms of world history, the ramifications of the Greek triumph over the Persians are almost incalculable. By repulsing the assault of the East, the Hellenes charted the political and cultural development of the West for an entire century. With the triumphant struggle for liberty by the Greeks, Europe was first born, both as a concept and as a reality … The freedom which permitted Greek culture to rise to the classical models in art, drama, philosophy, and historiography, this Europe owes to those who fought at Salamis and Plataea … If we regard ourselves today as free thinking people, it is the Greeks who created the condition for this." 

Hermann Bengston, historian.

Ernest A. Kollitides is a scientist, Professional Engineer (P.E.), and Historian. He has served in executive positions in two NY-based Fortune-500 engineering companies and as Pres-CEO of an environmental company.

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