Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Salamis after twenty-five centuries

This article was published by the Sewanee Review.

1. What Salamis achieved 

The marble doorway leading in and out of the Acropolis offers the departing guest a framed view of the Salamis Strait, thirteen kilometers away. The University of California archaeologist John Papadopoulos, who made this observation, believes that is deliberate. 

The Battle of Salamis, which took place twenty-five hundred years ago in that strait, successfully pitted an Athenian-led navy of three hundred ships against a Persian-led one of twelve hundred. It was perhaps the unlikeliest Athenian military victory of all time but gave Athens mastery of the Aegean. She used it to build a maritime empire offering Greek city states Athenian-style democracies and security guarantees against Persia. 

The doorway itself is part of the Propylaia, or foregate, of the Acropolis: a grand, colonnaded passage built, like the temples behind it, with the proceeds of that empire. It also happens to stand on the spot where an aristocratic-led party of landlubbers who, having refused to give up the city and entrust their fate to the navy, erected a wooden palisade against the invading Persian army and were killed beside it. It is irresistible to imagine that Perikles, the Athenian general who commissioned the Propylaia, meant to create a permanent pointer to the city’s greatest victory upon the site of its greatest miscalculation. 

The Greeks at the Battle of Salamis were nominally led by Sparta. In reality, Athens was the source of Greek strategy and strength. It provided two-thirds of the Greek fleet. The battle’s winning strategy came from an Athenian general, Themistokles. 

Athens was the extraordinary component of the Greek forces for other reasons, too. Its punishment was the ultimate goal of the Persian expedition under Xerxes. Athens had sent twenty ships to assist her colonies in Asia Minor in a revolt against the Persian Empire fourteen years earlier. On a fennel-rich plain called Marathon, she had had the temerity to defeat the first Persian expeditionary force Xerxes’ father, Darius, sent to punish her in 490 BC. When that failed, Darius issued orders for a larger-scale invasion he did not live to lead. “All Asia was in uproar for three years, with the best men being enrolled in the army for the invasion of Greece, and with the preparations,” the Greek father of journalism, Herodotos, tells us at the beginning of Book VII of The Histories. 

There were also political transformations afoot in Athens, which defeat at Salamis might well have quashed. Its experiment of constitutional democracy was not yet thirty years old. Persia, certainly, did not look kindly upon rule by the people; but neither did Sparta, whose king Kleomenes had marched on Athens no fewer than four times in the previous century to restore tyranny—one man rule—under Hippias. Even now, on the eve of Salamis, the eighty-year-old Hippias and his family were waiting to return to power, this time under the sponsorship of the Persian Empire. 

The contest was not only highly uneven in military terms—it was politically asymmetrical, too. For Persia, these were largely wars of prestige, shoring up discipline in other parts of the empire that might be entertaining thoughts of revolt. For Athens they were existential. Every able-bodied man was conscripted to hold an oar or a spear. Women and children were evacuated to the Peloponnese and the island of Salamis. Temples, ancestral homes, and productive fields were abandoned to the invader’s torch. 

It would be no exaggeration to say that these Persian Wars were the driver of all subsequent Greek history until the Roman occupation four-and-a-half centuries later. They confirmed the irreversibility of democracy in Athens; they established the primacy of the Athenian thalassocracy throughout the Greek world; they stanched Persia’s expansion into Europe and established a European power on the world stage for the first time; they incited the jealousy of Sparta and helped trigger the twenty-seven-year-long Peloponnesian War, through which she defeated Athens with the help of Persian gold and briefly restored her title as leader of Greece; and they engendered the political will for a reciprocal Greek invasion of Persia, around which Philip II and Alexander rallied Greece. 

2. The locus in quo 

Unlike, say, Gettysburg, neither the fennel plain of Marathon nor the Salamis Strait are today venerated as the sites where so much Greek and European history turned. Marathon became the site of an Olympic rowing trench in 2004 over the objections of many archaeologists. Salamis is an industrial zone. A major Chinese state investment has, over seven years, transformed the Perama shore on the mainland into Europe’s third-biggest container port. Farther along lies the country’s biggest cluster of shipyards. Behind the welding, sandblasting, and cutting of steel, and the humming gantry cranes lifting containers with dizzying efficiency, spreads a neighborhood of modern Greek seafarers who built their fortunes and homes up the gradient of Mount Aigaleo. The road from Piraeus that runs through this neighborhood dead ends on a dock where commuters from Salamis arrive to work in the city. 

I crossed over to Salamis accompanied by my friend Brady Kiesling, the creator of ToposText, a free app sponsored by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, which has broken down twelve hundred years’ worth of ancient and Byzantine Greek literature by location. ToposText allows travelers to reference all the sources pertaining to a Greek archaeological site.  

There are excruciatingly few physical remains from the period of the battle, and none from the battle itself. Brady had us trek to the tip of Kynosoura—its name means “dog tail”—a spit of rock that narrows the entrance to the Salamis Strait and makes it much more treacherous to enter. Here, Herodotos tells us, the Persian left flank fell behind as it entered the strait in what it thought was going to be a hot pursuit of the Greeks, their ships fouling each other in an effort to avoid the rocks. Here, too, the Athenians erected a victory memorial, which has been lost. “Trophies were usually erected at the exact point where the battle turned,” Brady says. That apparently happened somewhere off Kynosoura, but water levels have risen a fathom since the battle. Of such a memorial, Brady suggested, “If you dived in with a snorkel you might find it.” 

A few hundred yards off the dog tail sits Psyttaleia, the island where Xerxes stationed four hundred men to pick off any Greek ships that sought refuge from what he believed was going to be a rout. After defeating the Persian navy, the Greeks, we are told, landed there and massacred the garrison. Today Psyttaleia is the site of Athens’ sewage treatment plant. It is not open to visitors. 

At the dog tail’s base, a single corner of ancient Salamis’ fortification wall survives. It is not made of solid masonry, like the walls the Athenians erected to protect their naval base in Piraeus, but consists of a solid stone foundation, about four courses high, topped with several feet of sun-dried brick. “Mudbrick wall was cheap and quick to build, but vulnerable to attack, so you could only make such walls work if you manned them constantly,” Brady points out. 

A short distance from the wall, in the bay of Ambelakia, Dr. Yannis G. Lolos, Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Ioannina, has excavated a partly submerged fortified harbor. This is dated to the Classical period, and is unlikely to have existed at the time of the battle. However, historians surmise that contingents of the Greek fleet from Aigina and Megara holed up here unfortified, and launched themselves into the Persian left flank as it fumbled around the dog tail of rock. 

These, scant as they are, are the only physical evidence that there was ever military action here in the early fifth century BC. Xerxes’s headquarters, thought to have been on the Perama shore at the point where the strait turns from an East-West orientation to a North-South orientation, is also a ghost. Moreover, that part of Mt. Aigaleo where Xerxes would have sat is out of bounds, because it lies directly across from the modern naval base of Salamis. 

Bjørn Lovén, who leads the Danish Institute at Athens’ excavations of ancient shipsheds and harbor works in Piraeus, says we would probably search for physical remains of the Battle of Salamis in vain. Lovén has, since 2005, been excavating and researching shipsheds and harbour fortifications in the bays of Zea and Mounichia in Piraeus, which housed part of the Athenian trireme fleet. The trireme, or three-banked, oared galley which constituted the main combat ship of the time, was too light to sink. “Ancient triremes did not so much sink as disable each other. Ancient sources talk about crippled ships limping back to base for repairs or being set ablaze in the aftermath of a battle. So you wouldn’t find buried wooden triremes under sea sediment. The best you might hope to find is the bronze beak of a ship’s ram,” he says. 

Boris Rankov, Professor of Ancient History at Royal Holloway and an expert in triremes, points out that almost all the ancient shipwrecks that have been discovered are of merchant ships, which were weighed down by the cargo or ballast they used to sail properly. 

“Warships are built for speed, so the only ballast they’ve got on board is the crew,” he says. In his view, ramming was just as much about the fighters on the trireme decks as about the triremes themselves. “When they ram . . . it is possible for troops from one ship to board another. So part of the function of those hoplites is to board the other ship, kill the opposing marines, and either capture the ship as a whole or let it float around and be picked up later. Very few of these ships go to the bottom.” 

Along with triremes, however, one had to build shipsheds, says Lovén, “because the triremes were vulnerable to the shipworm teredo navalis if left in the water. They would have to be hauled up onto shore. On the other hand, the Mediterranean sun would damage them if they were left in the open, because it would dry out the wood and cause it to contract, leading to possible cracks in the watertight hull.” 

In the last excavating season, he found potsherds in the foundations of Shipsheds One and Two which, he says, date them to the period 500-480 BC or shortly thereafter—in other words, the two decades before or just after the battle. Lovén believes it “very likely” that the sheds were part of a two-hundred trireme rearmament program Themistokles instigated three years before the second Persian invasion, after a particularly rich silver vein was discovered at the Athenian state mines in Laurion. “Shipshed One very probably housed at least one of the Athenian triremes that fought against the Persians at Artemision, and later at Salamis in 480 BC, saving Athens and the rest of Greece from Persian rule. The thought is breathtaking,” he writes in a monograph published last autumn. 

Lovén’s discoveries have reinforced Herodotos’ and Thucydides’ accounts, that Themistokles was not only the strategist who won the day at Salamis, but a visionary politician, who established the Athenian navy as the backbone of its defense and its democracy. 

Lovén goes on to argue that “all social classes rowed and fought from triremes at the Battle of Salamis. I strongly believe that this pivotal battle created an immensely strong bond among the majority of Athens’ citizens. This is how the navy would develop into the backbone of Athenian democracy. What the Zea Harbor Project team has been excavating are, in essence, the material remains of this extraordinary historical development.”

3. The Battle

We know the outcome of the Battle of Salamis but, as is so often the case with ancient conflicts, not all the details of how it was achieved. The most important sources by far are Aischylos’s tragedy The Persians, which was performed just eight years after the battle and written by one of its veterans; and Herodotos’s Histories, written some forty years after Salamis, and reliant on interviews with participants who would have been young and probably junior at the time of the action. 

What emerges from Herodotos is that Themistokles faced a restive alliance after a first naval encounter at the Artemision Strait, which together with the Thermopylai Pass constituted Greece’s first line of defense. Two battles at sea, one instigated by the Greeks and one by the Persians, had ended in a rough stalemate. When the land pass at Thermopylai fell to the Persians, the Greek fleet abandoned Artemision and sailed south to Salamis. 

Here the Greeks were down to ten squadrons of thirty ships, Aischylos tells us (Herodotos says 378). With Athens now sacked, the Peloponnesian contingents were arguing for a retreat to the Isthmos, the narrow neck of land leading to the Peloponnese. This was a line of defense well south of Salamis, but most of Greece’s free states now lay behind it. The Korinthians had put thousands to the task of building a wall across the Isthmos; but even that presented a front 6.4 kilometers wide and it was highly doubtful that the Greeks could have held it against a million-man Persian army, especially with the Persian fleet at large.  

Themistokles saw the weaknesses of the Peloponnesian line of defense. He proposed that Salamis, lying further north, was just as much a fight for the Peloponnese as the Isthmos would be, but with the added advantage of defending Aigina, Megara and Salamis; most important, it was a narrow channel in which the Greeks could deprive the Persians of their numerical advantage. 

Discussions among the Greek general staff were clearly acrimonious.  On one occasion, a Korinthian commander, Adeimantos, told Themistokles to stop talking because, with Attica taken, he was a man without a country. Herodotos tells us that Themistokles wheeled around on him and other Korinthian captains and “made it quite plain that so long as Athens had two hundred warships in commission, she had both a city and a country much stronger than theirs—for there was not a single Greek state capable of repelling them, should they choose to attack.” 

The barb was not an idle one. Athens had every reason to sue for peace with Xerxes and join the growing number of Greek states that had Medised (or defected to the Medes, to the Greeks indistinguishable from Persians. Designing a verb for the act somehow makes it sound more egregious). The exchange, one suspects, had the required effect of shutting up the Korinthians. 

Herodotos does not tell us whether Themistokles’ argument—that a fight in the Salamis Strait would secure victory by depriving the numerically superior Persian navy of the opportunity to fully deploy—convinced the other commanders in the end. He does tell us that Themistokles devised a cunning plan to ensnare Xerxes into fighting on his terms, thus also neatly trapping his own ornery allies. 

A day before the battle, he sent an envoy informing the Persian king that the Greek fleet was in discord and preparing to bolt from the Salamis Strait. “Only prevent them from slipping through your fingers and you have at this moment an opportunity for unparalleled success,” the messenger said. 

Xerxes took the bait. Salamis sits in front of the Bay of Eleusis, creating two narrow exits. On the east side lies Piraeus, and it is in this strait that the battle was fought. On the west side, Salamis presses close against a treacherous mountain pass leading to the Peloponnese. Xerxes blockaded both, and put his navy on alert for a Greek flight. 

The following morning found the Persians still sitting at oar, hungry and exhausted. It was then that the Persian fleet off Piraeus saw the Korinthian fleet hoist sail and head up the Salamis Strait towards the Bay of Eleusis. Xerxes’s admirals surmised that the Korinthians had been spooked by the sight of the blockade and planned to sail through the Bay of Eleusis to escape through the western Salamis Strait, unaware that it, too, was blockaded. It appeared that Themistokles’ advice was correct and the Greek alliance was breaking up. 

At this point, as the classical historian Peter Green points out, sticking with the blockade would have been Xerxes’s best strategy. Indeed, Artemisia, queen of Halikarnassos and Xerxes’s most trusted naval advisor, told him to wait. He had no reason to fight at a disadvantage in the strait, and we do not know why he chose to do so. 

Green’s surmise, almost certainly correct, is that what follows suggests a high level of coordination among the Greeks. The Korinthian fleet sprung the trap Themistokles had set by appearing to fulfil Persian expectations of flight. This reading of Herodotos suggests that the Greek alliance had deliberately overpublicized rumors of its divisions in an early example of information warfare. 

The theory that the Greeks were coordinated in their ruse against the Persians is reinforced by Aischylos’s messenger speech to Atossa, Xerxes’s mother: 

But not by secret flight did Greece attempt 

to escape. The morn, all beauteous to behold,

Drawn by white steeds bounds o’er the enlighten’d earth;

At once, from ev’ry Greek with glad acclaim

Burst forth the song of war, whose lofty notes

The echo of the island rocks return’d,

Spreading dismay through Persia’s hosts, thus fallen

From their high hopes; no flight this solemn strain

Portended, but deliberate valour bent

On daring battle. 

—from The Persians, trans. Robert Potter

One could argue that eight years after the battle, when most Salamis survivors were still alive, Aischylos exaggerated Korinthian courage, rather like World War Two films made in the 1950s and ’60s. But it is just as plausible to argue that Aischylos focused on a well-planned turning point that Athenians would relish. 

Aischylos does provide some military description. He talks about how the confined space of the narrows prevented the Persians left outside the strait from coming in to reinforce the Phoenicians. The latter formed the vanguard of the Persian attack, but they were routed by the Korinthians, who had performed an about-turn, and the Athenians, who attacked their right flank. Meanwhile, Aiginetans and Megarians emerged from their anchorage in the bay of Ambelakia to take on the Persian left. As the Potter translation of the play recounts, the Greeks “encircled them round,” and then “rushed amid the ruins of the fleet, / as through a shoal of fish caught in the net.” 

The lines Aischylos puts into Athenian mouths, whether they were indeed spoken or not on the day of the battle, must have perfectly distilled their sentiments and would surely qualify as an Athenian national anthem if such a thing had existed at the time: 

Ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων, ἴτε,

ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ

παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τε πατρῴων ἕδη,

θήκας τε προγόνων· νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών."

Go forth, sons of Greece,

Free your fatherland, Free your

Children and your wives, the altars of your gods,

The tombs of your forefathers, you fight for everything now!

The Persians, 402-5, my translation

The battle concluded with the gruesome clubbing to death of Persian survivors in the water, and the division of spoils left by Xerxes’s departing army. 

Greek and Roman historians writing centuries after the battle introduced the idea of a dawn wind helping the Greeks by making the Persian ships impossible to control. These accounts are dismissed by many modern historians as interpolations of divine intervention, in an attempt to introduce moral judgment against the hubris of the Persians. Classical archaeologist John Hale, who directs the Liberal Studies program at the University of Louisville and is widely considered the leading Salamis expert, dismisses the dawn wind allegation as “a complete fabrication.” 

Decade-long meteorological research conducted by the Athens Academy and published last July in Atmosphere has now fanned this controversy again. Geophysicist Christos Zerefos and his team note a consistent wind change in the Salamis Strait at roughly 10:00 a.m. each day towards the end of September. That is when a predominant northeastern wind, which would have blown against the bows of Persian ships lining up at the mouth of the strait, is reversed. According to Zerefos, the Attica landmass has at this point absorbed three hours of morning sun, enough to create a convection current, sucking in a sea breeze that would have struck the Persian ships astern at a speed of six meters per second once they experienced its accentuated effect in the strait. Whatever the moralizing fabrications of the ancients may have been, Zerefos believes this constitutes independent physical evidence that Themistokles took advantage of local knowledge of terrain—assuming that wind patterns have remained broadly consistent through the centuries. 

Hale points out that “no such wind is mentioned either by our earliest historical source—the Athenian playwright Aischylos, an eyewitness who actually fought at Salamis— or by the great historian Herodotos, who was able to interview participants and other eye-witnesses who saw the Salamis naval battle at first hand.”

What does tip the battle for the Greeks, believes Hale, is a cunning strategy and a hardy character. “The Persian navy is [spearheaded by] the Phoenicians, the greatest seafarers of the world, the greatest navigators—a few years before the battle they had circumnavigated Africa. They have a beautifully soft-grained character. They’re not like the bloodthirsty Greeks. They’re precisionists. They build ships, they do well as scientists and navigators, so they’re not well matched as combatants.” 

Once the Phoenicians turned to flight, Herodotos tells us, they fell headlong into the rest of the oncoming Persian fleet. The Greek victory was overwhelming. Rankov believes Herodotos, who says no more than three hundred Persian ships—a quarter of the fleet— survived intact. Some accompanied Xerxes home and wintered at Kyme in Asia Minor, while others mustered in the Mykale channel between Samos and Asia Minor. The Greeks pursued them no further than Andros, and even the following spring, when the Persians’ fleet strength would have been better-known, the Greeks only sailed as far east as Delos in the center of the Aegean. Clearly the Persian fleet was still a force to be reckoned with. 

The decisive victory came in 479 BC. Salamis had persuaded Xerxes to abandon Greece, but he left his brother-in-law, Mardonios, with his best troops and cavalry—three hundred thousand men under arms. A year later, at the battle of Plataia near Thebes, a combined Greek force one third its size utterly decimated the Persian horde. On the same day, Herodotos tells us, the Athenian-led navy finally captured what had been left of the Persian fleet at Mykale. But it was Salamis that had “completely changed the balance,” as Rankov puts it. 

The significance of Salamis for subsequent European history can hardly be overstated, argues Hale. “The Persian statement of their mission was to expand their empire until its limits became the limits of God’s own sky. So [Greece] was a little waystation. They were going to go to Italy, Libya, North Africa, Carthage would be next, and in the east, India . . . But it all crashed because of Salamis.” 

Xerxes’s son and successor, Artaxerxes, did not continue his father’s and grandfather’s obsession of punishing the Greeks. “Artaxerxes is the analytical thinker, the realist who says, ‘We’re not going to take over the world, the Greeks will always be there.’ He gives up everything in Europe,” says Hale. 

4. The legacy of Themistokles 

The victory at Salamis was undoubtedly due more to Themistokles than to any other single person.  He had advised the Athenians to invest their public silver in a navy, and when news of the impending Persian invasion reached Athens, the city had sent messengers to the oracle at Delphi for advice. Themistokles had interpreted that advice—to trust in their wooden walls— as meaning their navy, and persuaded them to evacuate the city. Finally, he had held the Greek alliance together by arguing for a line of defense at Salamis, and he devised the successful strategy of luring the Persians into the straits. 

Ungrudging acknowledgment was not forthcoming from his fellow Athenians. After the battle, the Greek commanders gathered at the Isthmus to award a prize of valor to the man who deserved it most. Herodotos tells us that, “as they all thought that they had fought more bravely than everybody else, every one of them put his own name at the top—though the majority agreed in putting Themistokles second. Nobody got more than one vote for first place, while Themistokles easily headed the poll for the second.”  

As Lovén says, Themistokles can also fairly be credited with cementing democracy, because the navy, with its huge demand for manpower, complemented it. Whereas Kleisthenes, the framer of the constitution, gave Athenians the vote, Themistokles gave them the oar. Together these symbolized the entitlements and obligations of citizenship and encapsulated a man’s relationship with the state. 

Finally, Themistokles put Athens on the path to empire by creating Greece’s biggest navy. This was a new power model at the time. Thucydides tells us that other than the navies of distant Corcyra (Corfu) and Sicily, “there were no other navies of any importance in Hellas before the time of the expedition of Xerxes.” 

After the faint praise he received at the Isthmos, Themistokles sought honor at Sparta. He received it in the form of an olive wreath and an honor guard of three hundred Spartan hoplites for part of his way home. Herodotos tells us that no other person is known to have been honored in this fashion. 

Yet in Athens, Themistokles was ostracized—a banishment presumably orchestrated by his political enemies—and was recalled only to answer charges of collaborating with Persia, which carried the death penalty. Along with democracy, the Greeks seem to have inaugurated a tradition of professional envy. Thucydides tells us that Themistokles fled to the Persian court, where his skill and intelligence had made him a royal household name. Artaxerxes, we are told, gave him a pension of three cities’ worth of tax revenue:  “the King gave him Magnesia for his bread, Lampsakos for his wine . . . and Myos for his meat.” Themistokles finally found the recognition he craved—and deserved—at his enemy’s court. Persia would later learn that it was much easier to use the envy of the Greeks for each other than to fight them. Half a century after Salamis, it financed Sparta to provoke a war against Athens and briefly restore Spartan hegemony. 

Herodotos tells us an apocryphal story. When Themistokles first considered going into politics, he went on a walk along the strand, or Phaleron, with his father, Neokles, to discuss his ambitions. Neokles pointed to some rotting ships and said, “You see those ships? That’s how Athenians treat their politicians when they have no further use for them.” It is difficult not to imagine Themistokles recalling the scene as he ate Magnesian bread.  

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