The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis

Bronze fighters in the Battle of Salamis by Achilleas Vasileiou, Salamis. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

August-September 2020 marks the 2,500-year anniversary of the battle of Salamis the Greeks fought and won against the vast invading Persian army of Xerxes. The decisive naval battle took place in the waters between the tiny island of Salamis and the coast of Athenian Attica in late September 480 BCE.

The anger of Xerxes

The Persian king Xerxes was the son of Darius who in 490 BCE had failed to conquer Greece. Xerxes embarked on the second invasion of Greece to revenge his father’s humiliating defeat. He wanted to settle scores.

Xerxes could not handle reality. He was infuriated that small Greek poleis (city-states) in the Ionian region of Asia Minor, which he claimed to be part of his empire, remained independent.

These Greek states sought and received military assistance from Athens. Moreover, Athens did more than expel the Persian forces from the Ionian Greek city states. It invaded Persia and burned down Sardis, a provincial capital.

Xerxes hated Athens. He spent four years marshalling the vast resources of his empire in preparing for war against Athens and Greece.

Xerxes was an absolute despot ruling over a large multinational empire. He did not think he had any bounds, moral or political. His strategy was to crush Athenians and all other Greeks.

What would happen if Phoenicians and Egyptians and dozens of other occupied nations imitated the Ionian Greeks and the Athenians?

Persian despotism smashed at Salamis

The Greek historian Herodotos who wrote the history of the Persian Wars said the Persian kings thought their empire was the largest on Earth. Xerxes in particular was so mad he believed the territories of Persia ended in the sky. That way, he said, the Sun will not shine on any land but those belonging to Persia (The Histories 7.8). The hubris and megalomania of  Persian kings engulfed them head to toe.

Herodotos tells us Xerxes commanded a huge army that, once in Greece, divided the Greeks as nothing else could. Fear of this vast army convinced several Greek city-states to ally with the Persians. Second, Persian troops left a path of destruction. Men and beasts drank entire rivers.

Revenge and uncontrolled range occupied the mind of Xerxes. Herodotos reports that he ordered his men to lash the Hellespont three hundred times because a storm wrecked the bridge his engineers built over the narrow seaway between Asia and Europe (The Histories 7.35).

Hellenic League

The Greeks, especially the Spartans / Lacedaemonians and Athenians, were aware of the Persian danger. They saw the Persian invasion of Hellas as existential threat. They formed the Hellenic League and took an oath to fight the Persians to the last man. This was the first time in Hellenic history Sparta and Athens united to fight an enemy. Sparta was the leader of the Hellenic League.

Athens had a formidable fleet of triremes and Sparta an unbeatable hoplite force. Working together, and with troops from other Greek states, they defeated the much larger Persian fleet in the narrow straits of Salamis in 480 BCE. A year later, in 479 BCE, the Greeks defeated a large Persian land force at Plataea. The Persian threat was dealt a severe blow.

Xerxes left Greece in haste and fear. He learned the hard way that the Greeks were powerful adversaries that fought for different ideals. Like the rest of the Greeks, the Spartans treasured freedom. There was no way they would ever bow to a tyrant.

Greeks would not prostrate before others, including despots. Their only master was the law. They were passionate about freedom – of speech, of worshipping their gods, of governing themselves.

The Persians of Aeschylos

In 472 BCE, barely eight years after the great Greek victory at Salamis, Aeschylos, probably the greatest tragic poet of Athens, crafted a play he presented in the theater of Dionysos below the Acropolis. The title of the play was The Persians.

Aeschylos did not have to borrow from Homer or Greek mythology for his play. He lived the Persian invasion. He fought at Salamis or Plataea. He witnessed the anxieties, tears, dangers, and deaths of the war and was overwhelmed by the joys of the final victory over the large Persian forces.

Fight the Persians with all your might

Aeschylos described the confrontation between Greeks and Persians in the waters of Salamis in poetic but largely historical terms:

“The Greeks rushed to battle with courage while singing a solemn but great and passionate paean. The sounds of a trumpet emboldened and inflamed them. They struck the water with their oars, moving their triremes towards the enemy. The right wing headed the attack, followed by the whole fleet. At that moment we heard a powerful cry:

“O sons of Hellenes fight to free your fathers’ land and country, free your sons and daughters, free your wives, free the temples of paternal gods, the tombs of your ancestors. Your struggle now is of the highest importance and virtue. Everything is at stake.

“Numerous Persians speaking a variety of tongues rose to the Greek challenge. There was no time for delay. The conflict started. Warships struck each other with their brazen beaks. A Greek trireme began the attack; a Phoenician warship with a decorated stern went down, smashed… The flood of Persians did not keep a united front for long. Once in the narrows of Salamis, the Persian fleet broke up and shattered. There was no hope for mutual assistance. The calculating Greek captains of warships took advantage of the enemy’s confusion and encircled the Persian fleet… Greek soldiers slaughtered countless Persians… Never in a single day so many men died” (The Persians 393-432).

Sympathy for the Persians

Aeschylos did not allow the memories of war to poison his mind. He wrote with poetic beauty, intelligence, relative accuracy, and empathy about the Persian kings and the Persians. He had the courage and confidence of a civilized society in praising that society’s worst enemies. This was unprecedented. No other tragic poet from Greece or any other country has done that – show sympathy, nay affection and humanity, for the enemy of his / her country.

Bravery and civilization

The Persian Wars were not typical wars where the truth is buried and the victor writes the history. The Persian Wars were straightforward contests between freedom and despotism and despotism’s certain slavery. Free people everywhere will always side with the Greeks defending liberty.

That bravery opens the human mind to a closer appreciation of Greek civilization. For example, during the Crimean War of the 1850s, the English newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, connected the Greek achievement to the Greeks’ passion for freedom. And that, the newspaper said, is why the Greeks matter:

“Why do we still read with undying interest the annals of that small Athenian state, whose whole free population never equaled that of the least of our metropolitan boroughs? Is it for the graceful verse of its tragedians, the rollicking wit of its comedians, or the glowing eloquence of its orators? Not a bit of it. All these treasures of literature are precious to us because they are the legacy and the inheritance of a freedom gained at fearful odds from mighty hosts. It is because each choric song and each tragic lay breathes of the spirit, which drew the sword at Marathon, and baffled the invader at Salamis. Each page of history tells us that it is only so long as a people retain the power of self-defense and the spirit of military resolution, that they can do these things for which the world will rank them among peaceful benefactors” (editorial, “Study the masters,” The Manchester Guardian, Dec. 19, 1855, reprinted, The Guardian, Oct. 16, 2004).

That’s why the battle at Salamis was so important and seminal turning point in history. The Greek victory over the Persians saved Greek and Western civilization.

The new Xerxes

However, the 2,500-year anniversary of the battle of Salamis is now more relevant than ever.

A new Xerxes is rising and threatening Greece. This despot is Erdogan, president of Moslem Turkey. Seeing how the European Union and America’s International Monetary Fund mistreated Greece in the past decade, and that America under Trump is packing up and abandoning its international leadership and obligations, have given Erdogan the delusion of resurrecting an Islamic empire.

Erdogan continues with the Turkish tradition of playing the Europeans against each other and the Europeans and Americans against each other. The Americans were caught in the fever and distorting mirrors of the so-called cold war so much that they brought Turkey to NATO, thus forcing the Europeans to deal with their centuries-old Islamic enemy.

At the same time, the Europeans, plagued by legitimate guilt feelings of sympathy for the endless refugees from the Middle East wars, turned a blind eye to the duplicitous Turkey dumping many of those destitute people, mixed up with Turkish agents, to the Greek islands of Chios, Samos and Lesbos.

The Turks have played this game for centuries. They are not in a hurry. Erdogan should not be underestimated, however. He is already offending Greece to the point of war.

Polyvia Perara, professor of classics and modern Greek studies at the University of Maryland, sees the Turkish danger as a defining challenge to the West: the new Xerxes, Erdogan, is aggressive and violates the borders of Greece, which are the borders of the European Union. According to Perara:

“The Aeschylean tragedy of The Persians examines Xerxes’ hubris to extend his hegemony beyond Asia by subjugating the free Greek world. In modern times, the new [Turkish] expression of hegemony and expansionism from the East to the West, is not only a Greek matter, although the Greeks are again the vanguard. It is a matter for the whole western world, and the sooner this is understood, the more effectively the risk will be averted.”

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.