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Prelude to Battle
The reasons for the Persian War were not terribly complex. However, they were compelling. Xerxes, the great and mighty king of the Persian Empire, had recently come to power.
He was part of a dynasty whose rule almost required military glory and continuous expansion in order to justify its existence. Even so, it was not as if the Greeks did not provoke
the Persians. They had been fomenting trouble in Persia's western dominions known as Ionia (on the west coast of Turkey).
This was actually the second time the Persians had chosen to fight the Greeks. The first time they had been stymied at Marathon, a city just over twenty-six miles north of Athens.
That invasion had been under the father of Xerxes, Darius. It had taken some twenty-years for the Persians to make another try. This time, however, the Persians would take no
chances under-estimating the Greeks. Xerxes raised an army of over 100,000 men (an astronomical figure in the ancient world). He kept his army close to the coast and supplied by
sea. To ensure he kept his sea lanes opened, he had a fleet of over 1200 triremes outfitted for this adventure.
The Persian army marched through Thrace, Macedonia and then hit a brick wall at a mountain pass called Thermopylae. In this famous battle some 300 Spartans under King
Leonidas held off the entire might of the Persian army for three days. It took the traitorous action of Ephialtes, a local Greek, to guide part of the Persian army around the Spartans
through mountainous terrain. Thus they surrounded the Spartans and completely annihilated their force.
The stubborn resistance of Leonidas worried Xerxes. But he had even bigger worries in the form of the Greek Navy. This force, about 300 strong, made up mostly of Athenian
triremes under the command of Themistocles, was causing trouble in the king's fleet. An action was fought at Artemisium where many were lost. Weather, too, took its toll on the
exposed Persian fleet, destroying hundreds of the fragile craft.
But the Persian superiority in manpower and ships carried the Persians down to Athens where the citizens had already escaped en mass to Salamis, an island off the coast of Attica.
The Persian army was still vastly superior, but the difference in the number of ships between the Greeks and Persians was becoming more balanced. The Persians burnt Athens and
destroyed much of the surrounding countryside.
This was fine for the Persians except for one thing. They could not live off the land. To survive they needed to have supplies shipped from the home country. Both sides
understood the crucial nature of supply. Both sides understood that this gave the Greeks their only real opportunity to win the war. They must use their fleet to destroy the Persian
supply ships. To stop the Greeks, the Persian fleet had to destroy the Greek Navy. This set the stage for the battle of Salamis.
After the Persian victories at Artemisium and Thermopylae, king Xerxes
proceeded to Athens, which he captured in the last days of September 480.
Meanwhile, the Greek navy, which had managed to get away from
Artemisium, stayed on the isle of Salamis, opposite Athens. The presence
of the enemy close to Phaleron, the Athenian harbor, created a strategic
problem for the Persians: they could not use their port as easy as they
wanted. And this was something they had to, because their army was
proceeding to the Isthmus of Corinth, and it was imperative that the
transport ships, brimful with food, could join the soldiers on the Isthmus.
It was, therefore, imperative to expel the Greeks from Salamis.
According to a story by Herodotus that may or may not be true, the
Athenian admiral Themistocles, pretending to be a friend of the
Persians, lured the enemy navy into the straits of Salamis: he ordered
a slave to row to the shore, and tell the Persians that the Greek allies
were to abandon their position. If the Persians would enter the strait
between Salamis and the mainland, they would easily defeat the
Greeks. The story is already known to Aeschylus, a contemporary;
on the other hand, the Persians hardly needed this incentive, as they
were anyhow forced to attack.
Bust of Themistocles (Museo Ostiense)
Early in the morning of 29 September, when it was still very dark,
the Persians started to enter the narrow strait. Xerxes watched what
happened from a nearby hill, and saw how, at dawn, his ships were
attacked on their flank. They were almost without a chance. We
know that an Egyptian flotilla tried to block the Greek retreat to the
north, but it was defeated or neutralized by the Corinthian ships. At
nightfall, at least a third of the Persian ships was defeated. Persia had
not improved its strategic position and Xerxes recalled his army,
which had reached the Isthmus.
It was a serious setback, but not a disaster. After the defeat, the
Persians occupied winter quarters in Thessaly. Meanwhile, however,
Babylon was unquiet and king Xerxes may have had to send an army
to the east to suppress a revolt (Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis,
7.17.2). In the following year, 479, the Persian commander
Mardonius had insufficient troops to defeat the united Greek army at
Plataea. In retrospect, Salamis proved to be the decisive battle in the
Persian War.