Greek Fleet at Salamis I

Twenty-two Greek cities were represented at Salamis, for a total of more than three hundred ships. Six states from the Peloponnese provided vessels: Sparta, Corinth, Sicyon, Epidaurus, Troezen, and Hermione. In central Greece, Athens and Megara contributed ships, while Ambracia and Leucas represented northwestern Greece. From the islands there were ships from the city-states of Chalcis, Eretria, and Styra in Euboea, Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, and from the Cyclades, Ceos, Naxos, Cythnos, Seriphos, Siphnos, and Melos. Croton in Italy was the only western Greek city to take part. It sent one trireme, but its crew may all have resided in Greece: political refugees, they were eager to find a patron to help them return home and overthrow their enemies.

Most of these states provided only a tiny number of ships. Leucas, for instance, sent only three triremes; Cythnos sent only a trireme and a penteconter; while Melos, Siphnos and Seriphos sent only penteconters—two from Melos, one each from Siphnos and Seriphos. With its defection at Artemisium, Lemnos provided one trireme. These numbers speak eloquently of financial and demographic poverty and of loyalty to the Greek cause. Plataea, which had sent men to Artemisium to help fill the rowers’ benches of Athens’s triremes, was not represented at Salamis. After Artemisium, the Plataeans had hurried home to convey their families and property to safety.

Several of these states were in the process of being swamped by the Persian tide. Plataea, Chalcis, Eretria, and Styra had fallen. Athens was in the process of evacuation, and once the Persians reached Athens, nothing stopped them from overrunning Megara, the next city-state to the west. Troezen was crowded with Athenian refugees. Except for Seriphos, Siphnos, and Melos, the other Cycladic ships came from states that had submitted to Persia. The commanders disobeyed orders and joined the Greeks.

Still, the allies might have been disappointed at their inability to attract more ships to Salamis. There was one prominent no-show. The Corcyreans had promised ambassadors of the Hellenic League to fight for Greece and against slavery. The western Greek island of Corcyra (modern Corfu) had even launched sixty triremes, a fleet second only to Athens’s in size. But the Corcyreans sent the ships only as far as Cape Taenarum in the southern Peloponnese in order not to anger Xerxes—the eventual winner of the war, they were sure. To the Greeks they pleaded the excuse of the Etesian winds, the powerful nor’easter that sometimes blows in the fall and stops navigation cold.

Then there was Sicily. Its leading Greek city-state was Syracuse, ruled in 480 B.C. by a tyrant named Gelon. The Hellenic League had asked Gelon for help against Persia. He promised a huge number of ships and men but named too high a price: supreme command. Both the Spartan and Athenian ambassadors who went to see him refused. Besides, Gelon had a war with Carthage on his hands. In the end, Gelon sent only a representative to Delphi, carrying a treasure to give as a gift to Xerxes, should the Great King prevail.

The three biggest contingents at Salamis were from Aegina, with 30 ships, Corinth, with 50 ships, and Athens, with 180 ships, about half of the triremes in the Greek fleet; Sparta contributed only 16 ships.

The Greeks had 368 ships at Salamis, as a reasonable reading of the tricky evidence concludes. To take only fifth century B.C. sources: the playwright Aeschylus says that the Greek numbers at Salamis “amounted to thirty tens of ships, and another ten elite ships”; the historian Thucydides reports a claim that the Greeks had 400 ships of which two-thirds (i.e., 267) were Athenian. Aeschylus’s figures are imprecise and poetic; Thucydides’ are imprecise and attributed to a bragging speaker fifty years after the battle. Herodotus’s numbers are better, if problematic.

Herodotus says that the Greeks had 378 ships, of which 180 were Athenian. He also adds that two ships defected to the Greeks from the Persians, bringing the number of ships to an even 380. Unfortunately, when Herodotus cites the ship numbers city-state by city-state, the figures add up to only 366 ships. Herodotus also specifies that the Greek fleet at Salamis was larger than the Greek fleet at Artemisium, which eventually numbered 333 ships. Assuming that Herodotus’s city-by-city figures are more accurate than his total, it would seem that the Greeks had 368 ships (366 plus the two defectors) on the day of the battle of Salamis.

Sparta had been made commander of the allied fleet, probably at the meeting at Corinth in the autumn of 481 B.C. when the Hellenic League had been formed. The natural commander of the fleet would have been an Athenian, presumably Themistocles, but the other Greeks resented Athens’s new naval power and feared Athenian muscle flexing. They insisted on a Spartan commander or they would dissolve the fleet. The Athenians yielded, and the Spartan government named Eurybiades.

Two city-states probably led the charge against the appointment of an Athenian as commander: Aegina and Corinth. Aegina is an island in the Saronic Gulf, south of Salamis, about thirty-three square miles in size. Located about seventeen miles from Athens, Aegina and its conical mountain (about 1,750 feet high) are clearly visible from the Acropolis. Like many neighbors in ancient Greece, Athens and Aegina were longtime rivals. In later years, Pericles expressed Athens’s habitual contempt for its neighbor by describing Aegina as “the eyesore of Piraeus,” referring to Athens’s main port after 479 B.C. Eyesores, of course, need to be rubbed out, and under Pericles, Athens smashed Aegina’s power once and for all. In 480, however, the rivalry was still burning.

Though small, Aegina before the days of Themistocles was a greater naval power than Athens. The Aeginetans were a maritime people who took the turtle as the symbol on their coins. For two decades before 480 B.C, Aegina and Athens waged a very violent war. In 490, on the eve of the Persian landing at Marathon, only Spartan intervention prevented Aegina from joining in the attack on Athens. The two states laid down their differences in 481 at the conference establishing the Hellenic League; no doubt Athens’s sprint ahead in the arms race, by deciding in 483 to build a two-hundred-ship navy, encouraged Aegina to think peace.

Corinth smarted from less nasty wounds. Traditional rivals, Athens and Corinth had avoided all-out war. But Themistocles hardly endeared Athens to Corinth when he arbitrated a dispute between Corinth and Corcyra in the latter’s favor. Corcyra was a naval power and a former colony of Corinth that had little love for its mother city. Looking even farther westward, Themistocles also strengthened Athens’s connections with the Greek city-states in Italy and Sicily.

None of this Athenian interest in the west could have pleased Corinth, which had long had maritime connections there. By modern roads Corinth and Athens are fifty-five miles apart. Ancient Corinth was a wealthy city, grown rich on the oil of the olive trees that grew well in its fertile soil, on maritime trade, and on prostitution. Long the home of a tyranny that was famous for its vices, Corinth in 480 B.C. was now an oligarchy that preferred to sell vice to others. Corinthians were jealous and suspicious of an Athens that had once been a backwater but that had outstripped Corinth first as a trading center and now, recently, as a naval power.

The Corinthian admiral in 480 B.C. was Adimantus son of Ocytus. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, but Corinth loved its luxuries, and Adimantus was no doubt better dressed than Eurybiades. For that matter, he was probably better dressed than Themistocles. Unlike Athenians, Corinth’s oligarchs had no need to look like men of the people. We may imagine Adimantus in an elegant cloak of woven linen, cream-colored with a dark purple edging. His bronze breastplate no doubt featured incised musculature. His helmet, also bronze and made out of a single sheet of metal, was surely of the Corinthian style: close-fitting and custom-made, with a nosepiece and eyeholes. The helmet’s lower edge might have been decorated with a delicate, incised, spiral border. The helmet would give in to a blow without cracking, while padding underneath cushioned the impact. Adimantus may have worn a roll of cloth under his greaves to avoid chafing. His shield may have been emblazoned with an image of Pegasus, the winged horse that was a symbol of Corinth.

Between the return of their fleet from Artemisium and the arrival of the Persians, the Athenians had only five or six days to complete their evacuation. We do not know if the allied ships at Salamis helped the Athenians evacuate Athens or if they stood and waited. No doubt a steady stream of eleventh-hour transfers of people, property, and supplies across the narrow channel from Attica to Salamis was still flowing when the first hoofbeats of the enemy horses were heard. At any rate, even before the enemy had appeared, Eurybiades called the generals of the allied states to a council of war at Salamis. The date was about September 23.

A navy whose main admirals cordially hated each other. A naval commander in chief who came from a country famous for its inattention to ships. A naval base teeming with refugees whom it could not feed for long. A set of allies who were itching to leave the war zone. It was of this unpromising material that the Greeks had to forge a strategy for victory.

Since there were twenty separate commanders at Salamis, they needed a sizable space for their deliberation. Presumably, they met either in a public building or in a large private house. Every Greek city had its agora, the open space in the center of town that combined marketplace and political forum. The agora was usually bordered on one or more sides by a stoa, or covered portico, offering shelter from sun, wind, and rain.

We might imagine the generals at Salamis meeting in a covered portico of the agora, perhaps within sight of the statue there of the great Athenian statesman Solon, shown in the act of addressing the people, with his arm modestly tucked inside his cloak. Perhaps they even met in the Temple of Ajax, a shrine to the great hero.

It is an open question whether the Greeks would have made good use of leisure time for discussion had it been available. The Greeks were so famous for talk and argument that some doubted their capacity for action. Cyrus the Great of Persia, for example, had once dismissed the Spartan army by saying that Greeks were men who set aside a place in the center of town where they could swear oaths and cheat each other, referring to the agora.

The Greeks in council at Salamis would have the chance to prove Cyrus wrong, but they would have to move quickly. However long it took the full Persian force to get from Thermopylae to Athens, once they arrived, they seemed to fly.

Eurybiades opened the meeting by asking for recommendations for strategy. Which of the lands that they controlled should be the base for future naval operations against the enemy? He explicitly excluded Attica, since the Greeks were not defending it. So bald a statement of the facts might have stung Themistocles. True, Eurybiades did not exclude Salamis as a base, but he did not favor it, either.

A variety of opinions was heard, but the most common theme was that the fleet should move westward to the Isthmus of Corinth. Perhaps Themistocles argued that Salamis was no farther from the Isthmus, about twenty-five miles, than Artemisium had been from Thermopylae, a distance of forty miles. And all things considered, the Greeks had done very well at Artemisium. If Themistocles spoke in this vein, he might have been shocked at the response.

Herodotus reports the majority viewpoint among the speakers at the council, and apparently the Peloponnesians predominated among those who spoke. They made it clear that their concern was less the suitability of Salamis as a base for victory than as a getaway point after defeat. If the Greek fleet was beaten at the Isthmus, the Peloponnesian sailors had only to get ashore and they could walk home, if need be. If the Greek fleet was beaten at Salamis, however, the survivors would be blockaded on an island.

In short, the Peloponnesian admirals were defeatists. Their gloom could have only deepened when an Athenian messenger interrupted the council with the news that the Persians were in Attica and had set everything on fire. Worse, they had taken the Acropolis. This latter information, delivered in person, might have been confirmed by signal relay. The smoke of the buildings would have been visible from the hills of Salamis, and word of it could have been sent down to the city by a prearranged signal, perhaps a flashing of shields.

The result was chaos. Herodotus describes it as a thorubos, a loud, confused noise or confusion more generally. Some of the commanders made a quick exit. They rushed to their ships and ordered the sails hoisted for departure. The rest of the generals stayed at the meeting and passed a motion to fight the Persians at the Isthmus. In either case, the result was the same: Salamis, the last shred of independent Athenian territory, was to be abandoned. The Greeks had panicked, and Xerxes could not have asked for a better result if he had planned it.

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