Xerxes, the great King of Kings and ruler of the Persian Empire, sat on the temporary throne that had been erected on the slopes of Mount Aigaleo overlooking the straits of Salamis. From there he could watch the coming battle between his naval forces and those of the far-outnumbered Greeks. Ten years before, on the plain of Marathon, the Greeks had unexpectedly defeated the Persian army sent by his father, Darius I. This time, Darius’ son was taking no chances, sending a gigantic army and navy to conquer the Greek resistance in a showdown between Eastern autocracy and Western democracy that would determine the future of Western civilization.
Among the Greek was Themistocles (524–460 BC), a populist politician who had learned to thrive in the chaotic world of Athenian democracy. Born to a well-connected father but a mother of lower social status, he was imbued with a democratic spirit throughout his political and military career. Elected archon (judge and chief executive officer) of Athens in 490 BC, he oversaw public-works projects that helped shore up the nearby defensible coastline. Through the politically volatile 480s, he managed to weather the storm while other leaders suffered the indignities of defeat and ostracization. It was a good thing for Greece, and indeed the West, that he did, because Themistocles’ most outstanding contribution to history still lay ahead: his crucial role as advocate for a powerful navy.
When the Athenians discovered silver in the Laurion region of Attica, Themistocles convinced his fellow citizens—in the face of much opposition—to invest their newfound wealth in building a fleet of 200 triremes, the oared galleys that were the capital ships of the day. Despite the impressive—by Greek standards—size of this fleet, it was now arrayed against a Persian fleet that numbered four to five times more ships.
Xerxes’ army and navy had rolled back Greek resistance, ultimately capturing Athens itself; only its fleet prevented a total capitulation as the hapless Greeks fled by sea. Despite the urgings of many of his fellow Greeks to further retreat, Themistocles convinced them to take a stand, assuring them that he had a plan to better the odds.
On the night before the big battle, Themistocles crowded his fleet into the waters between the Attic mainland and the island of Salamis, convincing the Persians that they had their enemy confined and available for the planned annihilation on their terms. As the moon rose full and bright above the shimmering waters of
the Saronic Gulf, south of the Salamis channel, the bulk of the Persian fleet rowed slowly back and forth, maintaining an all-night vigil to ensure the Greeks did not try to escape.
As the sun burst over the horizon, casting unusually bright light over Salamis, a great clamor arose from the beaches as the Greeks manned their vessels and made ready for sea. Xerxes, watching from his temporary throne, could see the Greek ships coming from the opposite shore in good order, taking up station in what was becoming a solid line across the channel.
Impressively, the Persian ships streamed into the narrowing channel as it bent to the left and came about in a complex maneuver that brought their bows around to face the Greeks. Soon, a slanted line formed in direct counterpoint to the Greeks’ and began moving toward them.
At first it was an orderly battle as the lead ships in each fleet made contact, but as Xerxes looked on, two things began to concern him. One was the clogging effect the Persians were creating by having more and more of their vessels advancing into the channel from behind. Xerxes had made it quite clear that he would not look favorably on laggers, and many of the Persians were pressing forward. This severely reduced the maneuvering room for those in the front lines and forced them to continue deeper into the channel in the face of stiff Greek opposition.
The battle raged on for the rest of the day, and as the light began to fade, it was clear the Greeks had the upper hand. Many Persian ships had been sunk, and many more were fleeing. Darkness did not end the fighting. Illuminated by the moon and torchlike burning ships, the carnage went on. By morning, the waters off Salamis were littered with the detritus of battle, and the sky was freckled with circling scavengers as smoke drifted across the hills, carrying the smell of death ahead of the messengers who ran with the amazing news. Themistocles’ plan had worked, allowing the underdog Greeks to prevail in the largest naval battle at that time. Preying on Xerxes’ hubris and impatience, he had countered the Persian fleet’s size advantage with superior tactics, luring the gigantic Persian fleet into the confines of the strait, where the frontal battle line could be maintained, denying the Persians any hope of flanking their opponents with their greater numbers.
Leaving hundreds of destroyed triremes in their wakes, the Persian survivors sailed home, taking the threat of Eastern hegemony with them and preserving the Greek democratic experiment for posterity.