BMCR 2004.07.68

The Battle of Salamis. The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece — and Western Civilization

, The battle of Salamis : the naval encounter that saved Greece--and Western civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. xxi, 294 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0743244508 $25.00.

Barry Strauss gives us three reasons why ancient sources such as Herodotus can now be “read right”: a new-found respect for Persia as “a formidable and innovative power,” the “painful compromises” that the Greeks knew were needed to maintain democracy in a hostile world, and “a new focus on the experience of battle” (7). These are the organizing principles anchoring this reconstruction of the epic battle and the people who fought it, and the exciting story that emerges. Strauss has connected the abstract meaning of the war to its concrete reality: a sweaty, desperate effort in which over 100,000 men crammed into their ships, readied their oars, and rowed for their lives.

Strauss follows the general chronology established by Herodotus, and he cites Rados and Lazenby as the moderns he most closely adopts.1 There is a succinct and useful description of sources, but it is not Strauss’s project to compare and contrast the objections and criticisms that professional scholars can level against his conclusions. Footnotes are few, and the technical aspects of ancient naval warfare are placed in an opening “An Important Note about the Ships” (along with a timetable and a map of the Persian Empire). The point is to motivate students and laymen to understand the crucial importance of the battle across history, as well as its humanity on the rowing bench. Strauss as story-teller does not focus on the source-critical minutiae behind each particular fact but rather draws a powerful picture of what the issues were and how the people behind them thought.

The story begins in the prologue, “Piraeus,” with Herodotus — “one of the shrewdest and most skeptical students of the past who ever wrote, and also one of the most honest” — looking on war-torn Athens, the burial place of the bones of Themistocles (6). This is a fitting starting point for a dramatic tale that is heightened by the focus on the people; each of the chapters begins with a portrayal of a particular person, from the first rank of Themistocles, Xerxes and Artemisia, through Polycritus of Aegina down to the unknown rowers. The reader is brought into the world of the war- and plague-besot Athenians, who “craved a story of the heroic past” in their darkest hour. Strauss leaves no doubt that this is a story of real people, foibles and all, doing great things — but Themistocles remains the hero of the day.

In Part One, “The Advance,” Strauss weaves his story from “Artemisium” (Chapter One). Both the scene and the man Themistocles are vividly contextualized in the overall strategic relationship between Persia and the Greeks, in the ambiguities of the Athenian democracy and the Persian court, and in the rough and tumble world of the rower and the marine. Chapter Two, “Thermopylae,” begins with a handsome paragraph about the visage of Leonidas, which becomes shocking with the realization his head, so well “framed by its long hair,” has been dismembered (31). A virtue of Strauss’s narrative is that he does not let the vividness of such scenes overtake his ability to keep his story connected to wider historical and political issues. One of the important points here is the Persian use of psychological warfare and their search for traitors as a means to defeat the Greeks.

Of course we know little about the non-Greeks here, and Strauss is not afraid to use his own powers of inference to fill in the story. Certainly the sketch of the eunuch Hermotimus, most favored by Xerxes, in Chapter Three, “Athens,” needs such inferences. Here he becomes one of the central figures of intrigue in the Persian king’s court, as well as a motive force for the vengeance that the Persian invasion represented. His forced castration of Panionius and his four sons “suggests that sort of bloody justice — if not the precise punishment — that Xerxes had in mind for the Athenians.” The fast march to Athens by Xerxes’ advance guard, the slower rape of Boeotia, and the evacuation of Athens were the context for the debate over the defense of Greece, which was settled by the crafty, un-angelic Themistocles, “but Seraphim could not have saved the Greeks” (13). Themistocles is the obvious point of focus for the painful compromises that brought the Greeks together.

The evacuation to Salamis in Chapter Four is vivified in the face of the Spartan commander Eurybiades (“an ambitious man but a feeble manager”) and in the outrageously crowded condition on Salamis (74). The Greeks were manipulated by Themistocles, who rises as an embodiment of the leadership needed to buck the opinions of the masses and their officers. “In short, the Peloponnesian admirals were defeatists” who had to be outwitted by the wily Themistocles. At the moment of their turn towards retreat after the council of war, Strauss uses the Athenian Mnesiphilus to solidify the essence of the moment for Themistocles himself: if the Greek fleet retreated, “it would give up the act of fighting for a single Greek fatherland” (84). Under Themistocles’ pleading — and threat of migration to Sicily — the Greeks reconvened, and were maneuvered into a nearly perfect battle.

The Persians think they are in control, but their advance draws them into (Part Two) “The Trap.” At “Phaleron” (Chapter Five) Artemisia is the very figure of the ambitious woman — a rebuke to male warriors and a cunning, ruthless manipulator of Xerxes (as Themistocles was to the Greeks). “Herodotus was smitten” writes Strauss, by a woman campaigning in Greece — one of the few women in history to command a navy, but still beholden to a serious Persian weakness, the need to seek the favor of the king. The acquiescence that the Great King demanded is a stark contrast to the open discussions of the Greeks, and the maneuvers behind the meetings of both the Greeks and the Persians become respectively a source of strength and weakness. The Persian council at Phaleron was “less a strategy session than a rally,” an exercise in courting the King’s approval (98). Only Artemisia dared challenge what the king wanted to hear. An enduring enigma remains: why did the despot, who only wanted to hear what he wanted to hear, value Artemisia for her advice — which he rejected?

The logistical pressures on the Persian fleet (the need for eighty-four ships bringing in food and supplies) increased the desire among the Persians to find a Greek traitor — another vulnerability that Themistocles could exploit. As at Thermopylae, “the key to the Persian victory against Greece was treason,” which Themistocles turned against friend and foe alike (43). When Themistocles’ agent Sicinnus arrives in the Persian camp (the figure is first illuminated in Chapter Six, “From Salamis to Phaleron”) the Persian officers are primed for his message, and they foolishly launch their ships in the night. Despite the disagreements between Aeschylus and Herodotus, the story is justified; Strauss reminds us that its improbability is no reason to deny it. Strauss offers his non-specialist audience a taste of source problems entailed by the differences in the accounts of the affair by Aeschylus, Herodotus and Plutarch. Themistocles is again the hero, but only to the reader; he hides his role from the Greeks, and Aristides takes word of the Persian movements to the other Greeks.

As the Greeks set sail to break the Persian encirclement, in Chapter Seven “From Phaleron to Salamis,” the people of import are the faceless rowers and their often nameless captains. Tetramnestus King of Sidon is one we do know, a favorite of Xerxes, utterly loyal in contrast to the Ionians and Egyptians — for the Persians, trustworthiness and competence often turned out to be inversely proportional in the battle. This was not purely an affair between Persians and Greeks; there were as many Greeks fighting for Persia as for Greece (the victorious Greeks will deal with them later), and the “Persians” were a motley multi-cultural collection of Medes, Iranians, Cilicians, Ionians, Egyptians, etc., with wildly differing skills and motivations. Much is made here of the contest between the Phoenicians and the Greeks for mastery of the sea, a point sometimes lost in the traditional Greco-Persian accounts. The Greek naval victory marks the ascendance of the Greeks over the Phoenicians, and the demoralization of the Persian navy followed the defeat of the Phoenicians.

In Chapter Eight, “Salamis,” Aeschylus goes back to war, ten years after Marathon, now fighting in a unified Greek force. Strauss emphasizes the fleeting unification of the Greeks: with the news that the Persians were approaching, “suddenly, there were no more Athenians, no more Spartans, no more Corinthians. There were only Greeks.” The character sketch here is one of the Greek sailors as well as their ships. The democracy in Athens still had divisions among its military personnel — as among its citizens — and military commanders had to pay “homage to the martial tradition of the Greek people. They also reminded the marines, at least symbolically, that they were elite troops” (150-51). Strauss does well to project these internal faults lines within the Greeks and the temporary nature of the Greek unification achieved by Themistocles.

Part Three, “The Battle,” begins in “Salamis Straits: Morning” (Chapter Nine). The admiral Ariabignes, half-brother of Xerxes and commander of the Carians and Ionian in the Persian fleet, is the first man deceived. Even when he knows that the Greeks have sneaked past him he finds it difficult to admit that fact; “Royal admirals do not like to admit mistakes, especially not mistakes that might discredit their brother on the throne” (158). The surprise launched by the Greeks is all the more effective because of the nature of Persian rule, which looks for acquiescence rather than independence; the Persian king’s decision to send his dead-tired rowers against fresh Greeks is demonstration of his distance from his men. The unexpected Greek paean sank the spirits of the Persian forces, whose every strength (speed of ships, numbers, and subservience to authority) was now a weakness. True to form, the first attack was by a Greek subordinate who disobeyed orders and jumped the gun. The challenge by independent upstarts in the Greek forces against Phoenician naval rivals concretizes the particular motivations of many Greeks, while demonstrating the wider struggle of Greeks against Phoenicians.

Aminas of Pallene, possibly the ambitious subordinate who could not wait to ram an enemy, is the first face in Chapter Ten, “Salamis Straits: Afternoon.” The battle gives him more than glory: “now he is no longer a man without a city … he is a man who defends what is sacred and holy” (175). The unifying effect of the battle for the Greeks is both real and transitory, and it contrasts utterly with Artemisia, who willingly kills her own people on her own ships to save her reputation before Xerxes. Strauss brings out a double-dramatic reversal: the Greeks are unified and on the way to victory while the “Persians” are divided, demoralized and on their way to defeat.

Independence breeds conflict in a society concerned with prestige, but the presence of a common enemy focuses attention outwards, and leads men to strive to outdo one another in killing the enemy. As the Carians and the Ionians were not homogenous with the Egyptians and the Iranians on the Persian side, so the Aeginetans could see the Athenians as competitors. In Chapter Eleven, “Salamis Straits: Evening,” we see the Aiginetan trireme crews making their attack on the fugitive Persian ships into a demonstration to their Athenian audience. As the narrative progresses, Strauss’s ability to paint a realistic portrait of why the Greeks unified against the Persians, including the political maneuverings involved and the limits to that unity, leaves a reader with a growing realization that removal of the Persian forces would soon plunge the Greeks into a new war.

Beaten, the Persians enter Part Four, “The Retreat.” “Phaleron,” Chapter Twelve, turns the narrative back to the essence of defeat: the dead and wounded now clogging the straits, and the conniving of those who will wish to save face before the Great King. The King’s decision to withdraw, taken with his Persian officers and Artemisia apart from others, was smart; there was little of value to be gained from conquering the Peloponnesus. The Greeks were not a positive value to be gained, and the decision by the king to leave part of the army there while withdrawing back to Ionia might have allowed him to keep the Greeks off-balance at home. Yet the demoralization of the Persian forces at sea — the Persians were never sea people, Strauss stresses — prevented them from rebuilding their forces. “On the sea they were broken in spirit,” Straus quotes Herodotus, and the battle was won by breaking their will to continue it (221). The work that Xerxes did in the year after his retreat to prevent defections from his rule must be based on inferences, yet there is no doubt that he was the one off balance, on his own homeland.

The postwar world begins in “Andros,” title to Chapter Thirteen. The Spartans are becoming weary of Themistocles’ lack of respect and of Athenian leadership. As the unity of the Greeks begins to fall apart, retribution, specifically demands for tribute, falls onto the islands that had not supported the Greek cause. The split between the Spartans and the Athenians is personalized as Eurybiades standing up to Themistocles. Strauss has expertly shown that a great politician like Themistocles had to persuade and deceive in order to channel the enmity in Greek life against a common enemy. But withdrawal of the enemy leaves both the politician and his charges vulnerable to the factious pressures of an agonistic culture.

Themistocles the exile from Athens steals the last scene. In an Epilogue, “Susa,” he faces the new Persian King Artaxerxes, falls prostrate before his throne — if legend is correct — and the King later cries out “I have Themistocles the Athenian!” (248) The irony is not lost. From Themistocles’ perspective the victor is not at all clear. A wrap-up of the lives of the people driving this story elevates the biographical value of this book for non-specialist readers.

But a criticism is in order: “The Battle of Salamis” has not demonstrated its subtitle, that it saved Western Civilization. Greek democracy was hardy, Strauss maintains, and had they lost, the Athenians might have gone to Italy, or even returned and driven the Persians back, even if they had not formed an imperial democracy. If this is so, how did the heroes of Salamis save the West? If the Athenians had maintained their independence and their rational self-government, then the essence of the West would have been preserved, not destroyed by a despot such as Xerxes. Although the Athenian democracy that followed was a target for the criticisms of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, one would be hard pressed to make philosophy dependent upon these political developments. Had the Athenians fled to Italy, the seat of philosophy might have followed to their new oasis of freedom.


1. Constantin N. Rados, La Bataille de Salamine (Paris, Fontemoing & Cie., 1915), and J. F. Lazenby, The Defense of Greece, 490-479 B.C. (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1993), among others.