At a pivotal point in the Persian Wars (492 - 449 B.C.), the Greeks won a decisive victory at the Battle of Salamis, a naval battle that followed the famous Greek defeat at the land Battle of Thermopylae. Thermopylae was the coastal pass where about 300 Spartans and their allies made a brave, but hopeless stand against the far superior forces of the Persians. After beating the Greeks at Thermopylae and an inconclusive battle forty miles away at the nearby harbor of Artemisium, the Persian forces moved in to destroy Athens; however, from late August (before the Battle of Artemisium, according to Barry Strauss [Battle Of Salamis The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- And Western Civilization]) until the time in September that the Persians arrived, the Greeks had evacuated Athens, leaving only a few behind, and Greek military leaders were preparing to meet the Persians at Salamis.
In 480 B.C., Themistocles (c. 514-449 B.C.), an Athenian statesman, "architect of the greatest sea battle ever fought", according to Strauss, stationed the Athenian fleet at Salamis, feigned retreat, otherwise deceived, and lured the far larger navy of the Persians into the narrow strait at Salamis, so that the Greek ships (triremes about 180 feet long by 18 feet wide, with ramming prows, Strauss describes as being bronze encased with three cutting blades, and named for its three levels of [unarmed] rowers) could ram the vessels of the Persian forces. Herodotus summarizes the combined Greek forces and ship numbers in Book 8.48:
"48. All the rest who served in the fleet furnished triremes, but the Melians, Siphnian and Seriphians fifty-oared galleys: the Melians, who are by descent from Lacedemon, furnished two, the Siphnians and Seriphians, who are Ionians from Athens, each one. And the whole number of the ships, apart from the fifty-oared galleys, was three hundred and seventy-eight.
Themistocles sent a messenger to lie to the Persians that he secretly wanted the Persians to win:
"The commander of the Athenians sent me privately without the knowledge of the other Hellenes (for, as it chances, he is disposed to the cause of the king, and desires rather that your side should gain the victory than that of the Hellenes), to inform you that the Hellenes are planning to take flight, having been struck with dismay; and now it is possible for you to execute a most noble work, if ye do not permit them to flee away: for they are not of one mind with one another and they will not stand against you in fight, but ye shall see them fighting a battle by sea with one another, those who are disposed to your side against those who are not."
Themistocles' plan, which also included using the Persian advantage against them, worked. The Persian ships were much bigger. Only a limited number could fit in the gulf at a time, permitting the Greek forces to flank and destroy the enemy vessels. Again, Herodotus writes:
"86. Thus it was with these; but the greater number of their ships were disabled at Salamis, being destroyed some by the Athenians and others by the Eginetans: for since the Hellenes fought in order and ranged in their places, while the Barbarians were no longer ranged in order nor did anything with design, it was likely that there would be some such result as in fact followed."
Among the important naval commanders of the Persian allied forces was one of the few historically famous female naval commanders and one of the famous queens in ancient history, Artemisia of Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey, today). This Queen Artemisia should not be confused with another queen of the same name responsible for a mausoleum for her dead husband, which was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.
The allied forces of the Persians were defeated and retreated. Herodotus praises the queen in his account of the Battle of Salamis. Here is a passage from Book VIII on how she may have used trickery, but at any rate, saved herself:
"VIII. 87. As regards the rest I cannot speak of them separately, or say precisely how the Barbarians or the Hellenes individually contended in the fight; but with regard to Artemisia that which happened was this, whence she gained yet more esteem than before from the king. -- When the affairs of the king had come to great confusion, at this crisis a ship of Artemisia was being pursued by an Athenian ship; and as she was not able to escape, for in front of her were other ships of her own side, while her ship, as it chanced, was furthest advanced towards the enemy, she resolved what she would do, and it proved also much to her advantage to have done so. While she was being pursued by the Athenian ship she charged with full career against a ship of her own side manned by Calyndians and in which the king of the Calyndians Damasithymos was embarked. Now, even though it be true that she had had some strife with him before, while they were still about the Hellespont, yet I am not able to say whether she did this by intention, or whether the Calyndian ship happened by chance to fall in her way. Having charged against it however and sunk it, she enjoyed good fortune and got for herself good in two ways; for first the captain of the Athenian ship, when he saw her charge against a ship manned by Barbarians, turned away and went after others, supposing that the ship of Artemisia was either a Hellenic ship or was deserting from the Barbarians and fighting for the Hellenes."
The Battle of Salamis was a turning point in the Persian War and showed the naval supremacy of Athens.
- The Year of the Salamis, 480-479 B.C.: The Greco-Persian Wars, by Peter Green
- The Battle of Salamis : The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece, by Barry Strauss
Persian War Resources
Major Events in Greek History Timeline
Persian Wars Timeline
Major Events in Greek History Timeline
Homeric Geography - Greek Migrations
Croesus of Lydia
www-adm.pdx.edu/user/sinq/greekciv2/war/perwar2/salamis.htm (Battle of Salamis)