The Greek city-states were at war, and surprisingly enough, not with each other. A Greek city-state (known as a polis to the Greeks) was comprised of one city, and acted as a small country. After the Ionians (Greeks living in Persia) attempted to rebel against Persian rule in Asia Minor, the Persian Empire turned toward conquering the city-states, launching several invasions on Greece, in their efforts to stabilize their empire from the Greek presence in Asia minor. An anti-Persian sentiment was also common in Greece, even before the Greco-Persian war. Medism, a term used to describe sympathizing with the Persians or their cause, was an extremely serious offense and could even be punishable by death, because it was seen as an act of treason against Greece. In conclusion, it’s safe to say that there was much tension between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states.
The Greco-Persian Wars, commonly known as the Persian Wars, started in 500 BC when the Persians invaded Greece for the first time, led by King Darius. After his death, his son, Xerxes, decided to continue his father’s campaign and led a second attack and invasion on Greece. Xerxes spent years planning for this attack and building his naval fleet. Despite Persia’s strength and power, the small Greek city-states were able to defeat the Persians, thanks to their cunning and strategy during the Battle of Salamis. Herodotus, a Greek scholar and historian, documented this battle, and thus is one of our only connections to this knowledge.
Before the Battle of Salamis, the Greeks were split amongst themselves. The Athenians and Spartans pushed for the Greek army to continue fighting, while the rest of the Greeks were prepared to surrender. They decided to fight at Thermopylae, and were defeated and retreated to Salamis where they joined with the rest of their fleet. In Salamis, they were vastly outnumbered by the Persians, and so they had to rely on other tactics to be successful.
The Battle of Salamis occurred in the September of 480 BC, and it was near Athens, Greece. It was a naval battle, combat that is primarily fought on water. It was particularly important for the Persians to win this battle, so that they could regain access to their ports near Salamis, as they needed to deliver food, along with their soldiers to their destination. In the straits between Salamis and Piraeus, the huge Persian fleet of hundreds went up against the small Greek fleet that consisted of a few hundred. From this information alone, one could conclude that the Greeks were outnumbered and destined to be defeated. However, the size of the ships in the Greeks favor, because the Persian ships were too large to maneuver in the narrowness of the gulf, and as a result, over two hundred Persian ships were sunk during the battle.
Politics and strategy were at work as well. The decision to remain at Salamis was pushed by Themistocles, a politician, orator, and most importantly an admiral from, because he believed if the Greeks continued to retreat, their army would fall apart. He also believed that, because of the narrowness of the straits at Salamis, it would be much more difficult for the Persian ships to maneuver. The Spartans had wanted to return to Corinth where they would be able to retreat to the mainland if need be. However, Themistocles was able to convince the Greek forces to stay at Salamis. According to myth, the Greek army sent a slave to speak to Xerxes, the Persian king, and he told the king that the Greek army could not decide on a location and instead decided to retreat. Xerxes fell for the trick, and the Persian army then spent the entire night looking for the Greeks, and of course, were unsuccessful.
Themistocles was obviously an important figure in the Battle of Salamis, which also happened to be a turning point for the Greeks in the Greco-Persian war. Despite being born at a low status, Themistocles worked hard as a child and young adult to earn the respect of his fellow citizens, eventually rising to prominence as one of the most influential men in Athens. He became especially important in the turning points of the Greco-Persian War. Themistocles was a strategic man: he knew that utilizing the navy near Artemisium and Salamis was the only way that the Greek city-states could win the war. Due to his persistent efforts in his own strategy, the Greek city-states were able to finally defeat the Persians at Salamis, the reason they were able to win the war.
While there is an abundance of knowledge and information surrounding the circumstances of the battle and the Greco-Persian War, debate among historians about the battle itself is common, because there is not very much documentation from primary sources, due to the fact that there was no one way for any one person to see the battle in its entirety as it was occurring. The Greek and Persian fleets had ships, called triremes. A progression from the bireme, which only had two rows of oarsmen, the trireme had three, which helped the ship move quicker and more efficiently. The Persian army had an estimated 600-800 ships, while the Greeks barely had 400. And even with all of the odds against them, the Greek army still held out hope for victory. After Salamis, they would be out of options. They didn’t have anywhere else to go or anywhere else to retreat to. If the Greeks lost at Salamis, they would lose the war. Knowing this, and knowing that the odds were stacked against them, the Greek army decided to play with the idea that the Greek army was so engulfed in inner conflict and argument about their next move that they would be too disoriented to fight properly. A big example of how the Greeks used that tactic was with Xerxes, and sending the Persians on a wild goose chase before the Battle of Salamis that occurred the next day.
The stakes were incredibly high on both ends. If the Greeks lost this battle, they would inevitably become a part of the Persian Empire. Salamis was their last chance. For the Persians, it was crucial that they win this seemingly easy battle, so they could crush the Greeks once and for all. Had the Persians won this war, the emergence of Western civilization would not have been as prominent, or may not have even occurred. It certainly wouldn’t have been as influential as it is today.
When the Persian fleet entered the straits between Salamis and Piraeus, they expected to see a disjointed, disorganized, dysfunctional Greek army. Instead, there was a prepared army that was small but mighty. There were already several strategies that could be implemented to defeat the opposing army. One of the strategies, called periplous, was simply about sailing around the enemy. Another one, called diekplous, relied on passing through points in the enemy line and attacking from the back to the front of the enemy’s ships. These different strategies were designed to weaken the opponent’s ship, either by breaking its oars or creating a whole in the ship. After the battle started, however, these strategies were not what led the battle. In fact, most of the fighting became a matter of one ship and its opponent.
The Greek fleet advanced onto the Persians, causing the retreating ships to sink and run into one another. Over the course of the battle, 200 Persian ships were sunk and their army decreased by at least 50%. Many of the Persians died from drowning, because a majority of them couldn’t swim. The Greek army had defeated the Persians at Salamis, and thus secured themselves for a little while. This victory not only ensured that they still had a chance to defeat the Persians and keep Greece from being conquered, but it also boosted Greek morale immensely. The small, vastly outnumbered Greek army, after multiple losses, was able to defeat the powerful Persian army. In fact, they did more than just defeat the Persian army at Salamis. They did a great deal of damage to them. As a result of this major damage, a majority of the Persian army returned to Persia with Xerxes, while a smaller portion stayed behind with Mardonius, Xerxes’ brother-in-law. The smaller army attempted to keep control of parts of Greece, and successfully destroyed Athens. Due to this, the Athenians were forced to rebuild after the war ended. However, for the most part, they were unsuccessful in this part of their campaign, due to their loss in numbers and lack of men that stayed in Greece.
The Battle of Salamis became famous for being the major turning point in the Greco-Persian War, but it wasn’t the final battle. The war wouldn’t end for another year, after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. Following the Greek victory at Plataea, the Greek army had won, and the Persian Empire failed in its attempt to conquer Greece. This ended the second of the Greco-Persian Wars.
Had the Greeks lost this war, had they lost at the Battle of Salamis, Western civilization and its prominence, dominance, and influence would be much less prevalent and much less significant. Would democracy still exist? Would the Greek architecture, art, literature, theatre still influence us the same way it does today? Would it influence us at all? One example of many, the Field Museum in Chicago had its foundations in Greek architecture. Without the classics to look back to, Shakespeare may not rose to become one of the most prominent and important playwrights in history, producing work such as Timon of Athens or Julius Caesar, based entirely on Greek and Roman classical history. Granted, Rome hadn’t been conquered by the Persian Empire, but had Greece been lost to the Persian Empire, Rome would have lost some of its footing in the grand scheme of what was important at that time. So, in a way, the Battle of Salamis was one of the most important causes for the persistence of Western civilization.