This week in history: The Battle of Salamis

Published: Sunday, Sept. 23 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

A 2d stamp from Greece shows image of the Battle of Salamis, circa 1937. (Brendan Howard, Shutterstock.com) A 2d stamp from Greece shows image of the Battle of Salamis, circa 1937. (Brendan Howard, Shutterstock.com)

One of the greatest struggles for human freedom occurred nearly 2,500 years ago this week when a small Athenian and allied Greek fleet stood up to the might of the Persian empire at the Battle of Salamis. The Sept. 28, 480 B.C., battle ensured the continuation of the independence of the Greek city-states and ultimately the development of Western Civilization.

The Persians had first attempted an invasion of the Greek peninsula 10 years earlier at the Battle of Marathon, 26 miles north of Athens. The narrow avenue of advance, however, had channeled their forces into a valley with an army of Athenians and Plateans, who used the geography to their advantage. Using a pincer envelopment, the Greeks handily defeated the Persians. Four years later the Persian King, Darius the First, was dead. His son Xerxes vowed revenge and launched his massive invasion force in the spring of 480 B.C.

The Greek and Persian worlds of the fifth century B.C. could not have been more different. Athens was a democracy while the Persian empire was a absolutist state. While virtually all the Greek city-states believed in the concept of citizen soldiers, Persia's armies were made up largely of slaves and the oppressed. Additionally, the Greeks embraced ideals like freedom of speech and scientific inquiry.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson writes in his book “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power”: “A humanist such as Protagoras ... or an atheist rationalist like Anaxagoras ... could not have prospered under the (Persians). Such freethinking in Persia might arise only through imperial laxity and, if discovered, was subject to immediate imperial censure. ... The Persian army at Salamis ... did constitute a complete alternate universe to almost everything Greek. All things considered, there was no polis to the east. Achaemenid Persia — like Ottoman Turkey or Montezuma's Aztecs — was a vast two-tiered society in which millions were ruled by autocrats, audited by theocrats and coerced by generals.”

As the Greeks learned of the impending Persian invasion, many of the various city-states banded together for mutual protection. Athens and Sparta, the most powerful of the Greek poleis, took the lead in Greece's defense. Under King Leonidas, a small Spartan force went north to defend a narrow passage at Thermopylae and buy time for the rest of Greece to prepare. At nearby Artemisium the leading Athenian general Themistocles simultaneously commanded a fleet to block Persia's naval movements in support of their army.

The Spartans did their job and held up the Persian army, but eventually they were defeated. With the Persians moving south toward Attica, the Athenians were already engaged in a massive evacuation of their city. Most of the population of Athens sailed to the nearby island of Salamis while Themistocles gathered his fleet for the final showdown. After Xerses' army had sacked and burned Athens, which included the murder of those citizens who had refused to flee, he ordered his fleet into position.

The Persian fleet attacked the Greek triremes in the Saronic Gulf south of Athens, and Xerxes delighted when the ships of the Athenians and their allies appeared to break and flee toward the straits between the island and the mainland. The Persian fleet pursued, and as it advanced into the narrow straits its line correspondingly narrowed. Suddenly its greater numbers counted for little. It was a similar tactic to what the Athenians had done on land at Marathon and the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Historian Tom Holland writes in his book “Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West”: “The Persian captains could hardly doubt now, as they looked toward Salamis, that the Great King had been well and truly conned. The Greek triremes, far from fleeing at their approach, were marshaled in a great battle line of their own along the bays and spurs of the island ... and the ram of every ship was pointed directly at the Persian fleet.”

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote, “During the whole time of the battle Xerxes sat at the base of the hill called Aegaleos, over against Salamis; and whenever he saw any of his own captains perform any worthy exploit he inquired concerning him; and the man's name was taken down by his scribes, together with the names of his father and his city.”

“Coercion and fear of execution can be wonderful incentives to fight, but the Greeks were right that freedom in the long run is a far better motive still," Hanson notes. "Freedom turns out to be a military asset.”

With their greater morale, and their desire to maintain their freedoms, the Greek fleet was able to destroy the overconfident Persians. After Salamis, Xerxes retreated back to the empire while leaving a part of his army behind in Greece. It was defeated at the Battle of Plataea the following year. Greece was finally free of the Persian invader.

Had Xerxes succeeded in conquering the Greek peninsula, the very foundations of Western Civilization would have been savagely curtailed. Cultural values such as freedom of speech, scientific inquiry, the concept of the citizen rather than the subject, individualism, capitalism and democracy would have been threatened. The Greeks would have become just another subject people in an empire already teeming with servants and slaves.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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