Tales From Herodotus XVI. The Battle of Salamis, 480 B.C.

Translated from Tales From Herodotus.

Farnell and Goff provide a synopsis of the events to this point:

[Ten years after the defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C. Xerxes, who came to the throne in 485, executed another invasion of Greece on an enormous scale by both land and sea. His land forces marched down the northern coasts of the Aegean Sea and down into Greece by way of Thessaly, while the fleet accompanied them as closely as possible along the coast. No real opposition was encountered until they came to the Pass of Thermopylae, where the Spartans made a heroic stand. But the Spartans were betrayed and cut to pieces, and the Persians were thus able to overrun Boeotia and Attica without opposition.

Simultaneously with the fighting at Thermopylae, naval engagements had taken place at near-by Artemisium, where the Greek fleet had first taken up its position. Although the result of these battles was indecisive, the Greeks nevertheless determined to retire southward, mainly on account of the defeat of their land forces at Thermopylae. The island of Salamis was chosen as their next station, chiefly to enable the Athenian fleet to transport their families and moveable property to that place of refuge. Meanwhile the Persian army occupied Athens and captured the Acropolis, where a few defenders had made a stand, while the fleet followed the Greek navy and took up a position opposite it off the coast of Attica. At this point the text begins.]

(a) On hearing of the capture of Athens, the Greek naval commanders, seized with panic, determine to abandon their position at Salamis and retire to the Isthmus of Corinth. An Athenian points out to Themistocles the fatal consequences that this would involve to the whole Greek cause.

The Hellenes1 in Salamis, when it was reported to them how things were around the Acropolis of Athens, came to great tumult such that some of the generals fell upon their ships and raised the sails to run away; and it was decided by those of them left behind to fight the sea-battle before the Isthmus2. And when night came, they scattered from the assembly and boarded their ships.

Thereupon, when Themistocles arrived aboard his ship, Mnesiphilus, an Athenian man, asked what had been planned. And when he learned from him that it was resolved to lead the ships to the Isthmus and do sea-battle before the Peloponnese, he said, “These men, if they really do remove their ships from Salamis, then they will no longer be fighting a sea-battle for the fatherland of anyone; for each shall betake himself to his own city, and neither Eurybiades nor any other man shall be able to restrain them; and Hellas shall be destroyed by a lack of good counsel. But if there exists any contrivance, then go and try to confound what has been planned, if you might somehow be able to persuade Eurybiades to change his plans, such that he remains here.”

1. The Greeks referred to themselves as Hellenes, and Greece as Hellas.
2. That is, to sail away to Corinth.

(b) Urged by Themistocles, Eurybiades recalls the meeting and Themistocles presents the plan of action.

The advice was indeed very pleasing to Themistocles, and without making any reply to this, he went to the ship of Eurybiades. And when he arrived he said that he wished to converse with him on some common matter; and he bid him to board his ship and speak, if he so wished.

Thereupon Themistocles sat beside him and related in detail all that heard from Mnesiphilus, adding much else besides, until  he persuaded him to disembark from his ship and to gather the generals for an assembly.

When they were finally gathered, before Eurybiades laid out the story for which he had brought generals together, Themistocles said much, by urgent need. But the Corinthian general, Adeimantus, spoke over him, saying, “Themistocles, in contests, those who start too soon are beaten.”

And he defended himself, saying, “But those left behind are not crowned.”

(c) Speech of Themistocles of the advantages of remaining at Salamis.

And having replied gently to the Corinthian, he said to Eurybiades the following:

“It is in your hands to save Hellas if, by obeying me, you remain and have the sea-battle here, but not if you again set sail the ships for the Isthmus. For by joining battle first, in the strait, with few ships against many, if all likelihoods from the conflict come out, we shall much prevail. For battling at sea in the strait is to our advantage, but in the open sea is to theirs. And further, Salamis shall escape, where our women and children have been kept safe by us. And moreover, whether remaining here or before the Isthmus, you will likewise fight a sea-battle for the Peloponnese, but you should not lead them to the Peloponnese, at least if you are sensible. And if that which I hope occurs and we win by our ships, neither shall the barbarians be there at the Isthmus against you, nor shall they proceed beyond Attica; and they will depart in disarray.”

(d) Attacked by Adeimantus, Themistocles declares, as a conclusive argument in favour of staying at Salamis, that otherwise the whole Athenian fleet and people will sail off and found a new home for themselves in Italy. Eurybiades and the rest are thus persuaded to remain.

After Themistocles said these things, The Corinthian Adeimantus again bore upon him, ordering him to be silent for whom there was no fatherland, and not permitting Eurybiades to allow a man without a country to vote. (He said this because Athens had been captured was held.)

Then at last Themistocles said that that man and the Corinthians were many wicked things, and he made clear by his remarks that they had both a city and more land than those men, as long as they had two-hundred ships manned to sail; for he said that none of the Hellenes could fend them off if they attacked.

And indicating this, he passed over his remarks to Eurybiades, saying more earnestly, “If you remain here, by remaining you will be a good man, —but if not, then you shall overthrow Hellas. Obey me instead; but if you don’t do this then we, as we are, will take up the members of our households and we shall betake ourselves to Siris in Italy (the very place which has been ours since antiquity, and even the oracles say that it must be occupied by us); and you, left bereft of such allies, you will remember my words.”

And when Themistocles said that, Eurybiades was won over; for abandoned by the Athenians, the rest would no longer be a match for battle. He chose this opinion for himself, to engage in a sea-battle to the end.

(e) Alarmed at the proximity of the Persian fleet, the resolution of the Greeks is again shaken. Themistocles, however, compels them to stay by a stratagem : he secretly sends a messenger to the Persians, feigning treachery, and persuades them to cut off the retreat of the Greek fleet during the night.

The Persians brought their ships up to Salamis and those appointed to their positions were arrayed at their leisure; and they made preparations for a sea-battle the next day. Fear and horror gripped the Hellenes, fearing not so much for themselves as for the Peloponnese, and a meeting was again held, and some said that it was necessary to sail away to the Peloponnese and run the risk concerning those men, but not to remain to fight for a land already captured, but the Athenians and the Aeginetans and the Megarians felt they must stay there and defend themselves.

Thereupon Themistocles, when his plan was defeated by the Peloponnesians, slipped out of the assembly unnoticed and sent a man by boat to the camp of the Medes, having ordered what he must say, whose name was Sikinnos, a man from his household and the pedagogue of his children. And when he arrived he said this to the barbarian generals, “A general of the Athenians sent me without the knowledge of the other Hellenes (for it happens that he wishes more for your fortunes to come out ahead than for those of the Hellenes), saying that the Hellenes are very afraid and they are planning flight; and now it is possible for you to carry out the finest of all deeds, if you do not look aside while they escape; for they do not agree with each other and they shall not stand against you, and you shall see those who are fighting a sea-battle on your side against themselves, and those who are not.”

And once he had indicated this to them he got out of the way; and when what was reported to them was confirmed, once midnight came they led up the western flank, encircling Salamis, and held the entire strait as far as Munychia with their ships. They led up their ships for this reason, so that there would be no opportunity for the Hellenes to flee, but instead, cut off in Salamis, they might pay3 for some of the combats at Artemisium.

3. The Greek here actually uses δίδωμι (didomi): “give, offer”. That is, the Persians would have revenge for losses suffered at Artemisium.

(f) The Persian movements are reported to Themistocles by Aristeides.

Amongst the generals in Salamis there arose a great shouting match4; but they did not yet know that the barbarian ships encircled them. While the generals were arguing, Aristeides son of Lysimachus crossed Aegina, he being an Athenian man ostracized by his demos, whom I have come to believe, by inquiry of his character, was the best and most just man in Athens.

This man, stood at the assembly and called out Themistocles, although he was no friend to him, but indeed a hated enemy. But because of the greatness of the present misfortune he set aside their differences5 and called him out, wishing to converse with him. He had heard beforehand that those from the Peloponnese were hastening to take their ships to the Isthmus.

When Themosticles came out, Aristeides said this, “We must have our quarrel at a more opportune moment, particularly in this, concerning which of us shall work more good for the fatherland. So then, I say that it makes no difference to say much or little about sailing away from this place. For I have seen for myself, and I say that now, whether the Corinthians wish it or Eurybiades himself, they will not be able to sail away. For we are completely surrounded by our enemies. Instead, go in and make this clear to them.”

4. I love the Greek idiom here, ὠθισμὸς λόγων πολύς (othismos logon polus): “much wrestling of words”.
5. The Greek idiom here is λήθην ἐκείνων ποιούμενος (lethen ekeinov poioumenos): “making a forgetfulness of those (things)”.

(g) At Themistocles’ request, Aristeides announces the news in person to the council; but they remain incredulous until the report is confirmed by some deserters.

He replied to this, “You advise a very useful course and declare it well; for you have come bearing witness to the very thing which I needed to happen.  Know this, that the doings of the Medes are due to me; since the Hellenes did not willingly wish to take their place in battle, it was necessary to bring them over unwillingly. And you, especially since you have come reporting such useful news, you must announce it to them yourself. For if I say these things, I shall seem to be saying something I made up. But when you reveal it, if they are persuaded, this would be the finest thing; but if this is not made credible to them, it shall be the same for us, anyway; for they have not yet escaped, if indeed we are surrounded on all sides, as you say.”

And when Aristeides came to them he said these things, saying that he came from Aegina, that he had difficulty sailing through the blockade unnoticed, since the whole Hellenic camp was surrounded by the ships of Xerxes. And after he said these things, he departed. And there arose a dispute of the news; for most of the generals did not believe what was announced. But although they disbelieved, a trireme of Tenian men arrived, deserters, which a man led, one Panaetius son of Sosimenes, who brought the whole truth.

(h) How the battle began.

Once what had been said was credible to the Hellenes, they made preparations to have a sea-battle. Thereupon the Hellenes led all their ships forward, and the barbarians fell upon those going ahead. Some other Hellenes upon the stern backed water and ran their ships aground; but Ameinias the Pallenian, an Athenian man, set sail his ship and charged. And this story is told, that a phantom woman appeared, and when she appeared, she exhorted such that the entire camp of the Hellenes heard her, and she reproached that first ship as follows, “Oh wretched men, how long shall you back water on the stern?”

(i) Total defeat of the Persian navy.

The Phoenicians were arrayed against the Hellenes (for these men held Eleusis and the west flank), and against the Lacedaemonians6, the Ionians; for those men held the area toward the east and also the Peiraeus.

The majority of the ships in Salamis were ravaged, some destroyed by the Athenians, others by the Aeginetans. Once the Hellenes engaged the sea-battle in an orderly manner, according to their positions, and the barbarians were no longer as they had been positioned, nor doing anything according to any plan7, such was destined to come off for them just as it actually turned out. And yet, on that day, they were better by far than they had been by Euboea8, when everyone was so zealous and fearing Xerxes, and each man seemed to see the king himself.

6. The Spartans.
7. The Greek idiom here is σὺν νῷ (sun no): “with mind”. I might have use “mindfully” but that doesn’t really convey the sense of panicked activity that I think is intended here.
8. That is, at the battle at Artemisium.

(j) Losses of the Persians in ships and men.

In that struggle the general Ariabignes son of Darius died, brother of Xerxes, and many others died, too, including some famed among the Persians and the Medes and their other allies, but only some few of the Hellenes. For any who knew how to swim, swam across to Salamis if their ships were destroyed. But many of the barbarians were destroyed in the sea, for not knowing how to swim. And when the first ships turned to flight, thereupon most were destroyed. For those positioned at the rear attempted to advance toward the ships at the front so they might too show off some deed to the king himself, and they collided with the ships in flight.

And when the barbarians turned in flight and sailed away to Phalerum, the Aeginetans, lying in wait at the strait displayed a deed worthy of story; for the while Athenians, in the tumult, ravaged both those of the ships that resisted and those that took flight, the Aeginetans did those that sailed away; thus whenever any escaped the Athenians, they fell into the hands of the Aeginetans. And the barbarians whose fleeing ships were superior came to Phalerum under protection of the infantry army.

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2 Responses to Tales From Herodotus XVI. The Battle of Salamis, 480 B.C.

  1. Polyptoton says:

    You are an absolute hero for putting this up. Well played, Sir.

  2. John Prestwick says:

    Mr. Terry Bird would weep with happiness. With love from the Maidstone Grammar School, Kent xxx

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