Battle of Salamis

Forward, sons of the Greeks, liberate the fatherland, liberate your children, your women, the temples of your ancestral gods, the graves of your forebears: This is the battle for everything.”

— Aeschylus

The Battle of Salamis marked the turning point in the Greco-Persian wars. After Salamis, the Peloponnesus, and by extension Greece as an entity, was safe from conquest; and the Persians suffered a major blow to their prestige and morale (as well as severe material losses). At the following battles of Plataea and Mycale, the threat of conquest was removed, and the Allies were able to go on the counter-offensive. The Greek victory allowed Macedon to revolt against Persian rule; and over the next 30 years, Thrace, the Aegean Islands and finally Ionia would be removed from Persian control by the Allies, or by the Athenian-dominated successor, the Delian League. Salamis started a decisive swing in the balance of power toward the Greeks, which would culminate in an eventual Greek victory, severely reducing Persian power in the Aegean.

Like the Battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, Salamis has gained something of a 'legendary' status (unlike, for instance, the more decisive Battle of Plataea), perhaps because of the desperate circumstances and the unlikely odds. A significant number of historians have stated that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history (though the same is often stated of Marathon). In a more extreme form of this argument, some historians argue that if the Greeks had lost at Salamis, the ensuing conquest of Greece by the Persians would have effectively stilted the growth of 'western civilization' as we know it. This view is based on the premise that much of modern western society, such as philosophy, science, personal freedom and democracy are rooted in the legacy of Ancient Greece. Thus, this school of thought argues that, given the domination of much of modern history by 'western civilization', Persian domination of Greece might have changed the whole trajectory of human history. However, it is equally possible to argue that this would not have been the case; for instance the Ionians, despite Persian overlordship, had retained their own unique culture, though this culture was non-democratic and lacked many features (personal freedom, democracy) of what Athenian culture is celebrated for. It is also worth mentioning that the celebrated blossoming of hugely influential Athenian culture occurred only after the Persian wars were won.

Militarily, it is difficult to draw many lessons from Salamis, because of the uncertainty about what actually happened. Once again the Allies chose their ground well in order to negate Persian numbers, but this time (unlike Thermopylae) had to rely on the Persians launching an unnecessary attack for their position to count. Since it brought about that attack, perhaps the most important military lesson is to be found in the use of deception by Themistocles to bring about the desired response from the enemy.

The Battle of Salamis was fought between an Alliance of Greek city-states and the Persian Empire in September 480 BC, in the straits between the mainland and Salamis, an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens. It marked the high-point of the second Persian invasion of Greece which had begun in 480 BC.

To block the Persian advance, a small force of Greeks blocked the pass of Thermopylae, while an Athenian-dominated Allied navy engaged the Persian fleet in the nearby straits of Artemisium. In the resulting Battle of Thermopylae, the rearguard of the Greek force was annihilated, whilst in the Battle of Artemisium the Greeks had heavy losses and retreated after the loss at Thermopylae. This allowed the Persians to conquer Boeotia and Attica. The Allies prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth whilst the fleet was withdrawn to nearby Salamis Island.

Although heavily outnumbered, the Greek Allies were persuaded by the Athenian general Themistocles to bring the Persian fleet to battle again, in the hope that a victory would prevent naval operations against the Peloponessus. The Persian king Xerxes was also anxious for a decisive battle. As a result of subterfuge on the part of Themistocles, the Persian navy sailed into the Straits of Salamis and tried to block both entrances. In the cramped conditions of the Straits the great Persian numbers were an active hindrance, as ships struggled to maneuver and became disorganised. Seizing the opportunity, the Greek fleet formed in line and scored a decisive victory, sinking or capturing at least 300 Persian ships.

As a result Xerxes retreated to Asia with much of his army, leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest of Greece. However, the following year, the remainder of the Persian army was decisively beaten at the Battle of Plataea and the Persian navy at the Battle of Mycale. Afterwards the Persian made no more attempts to conquer the Greek mainland. These battles of Salamis and Plataea thus mark a turning point in the course of the Greco-Persian wars as a whole; from then onward, the Greek poleis would take the offensive. A number of historians believe that a Persian victory would have hamstrung the development of Ancient Greece, and by extension western civilization, and this has led them to claim that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history.