Greek Fleet at Salamis II

The commanders left the conference and returned to their ships. By now it was nighttime, hardly the ordinary hour to board. But the Greeks had a great deal to do if they were to be ready to leave for the Isthmus at dawn—and certainly they were eager to leave as soon as possible. Gear and supplies had to be loaded, equipment had to be tested, and there were always repairs to be made to wooden boats, especially boats as fragile as the trireme. Oars break, ropes snap, sails tear, leather oar-hole covers leak, seats split, and so on. In the fourth century B.C., an Athenian trireme carried a set of thirty spare oars, which is a sign of how common shattered oars were. Normally repairs would all have been made in the sunlight, and no doubt much had been done after Artemisium, but any time spent helping the Athenians evacuate would have taken time from repairing the ships. Now the men would have to make do with the flickering light of portable clay oil lamps.

Themistocles, too, returned to his trireme, which was probably moored in Paloukia Bay. We may imagine that, for the moment, he felt depressed. Even heroes have dark moods when their plans fail, and he surely had given considerable thought to the strategy of fighting at Salamis. At that moment, Mnesiphilus came aboard ship in search of Themistocles. Mnesiphilus was an Athenian politician, apparently an older man and fellow demesman whom Themistocles had looked up to as a young man. Now, Themistocles was the more prominent of the two. But Mnesiphilus was not shy and didn’t fear controversy, as shown by surviving evidence of Athenian attempts to have him ostracized (he sidestepped them, as far as is known). As soon as he found out from Themistocles what had happened at the council to cause the hubbub along the shore, Mnesiphilus gave his advice.

Mnesiphilus told Themistocles bluntly that he had to get Eurybiades to change his mind and to reopen the strategic debate. No doubt Themistocles already knew this, but he needed to hear it from someone else. And Mnesiphilus went further. If the fleet left Salamis, he said, it would give up the act of fighting for a single Greek fatherland. Once the ships left Salamis, every city-state’s unit would look after its own interests and go home. Neither Eurybiades nor anyone else would be able to reunite them. It was an astute argument. It drove a wedge between Eurybiades and the other commanders by playing on Sparta’s smugness. Sure as Eurybiades was of his city’s superior virtue, he would be willing to suspect the worst of others.

In short, Mnesiphilus had made an argument worthy of Themistocles. It was all the impetus Themistocles needed. He did not say a word, although he was thrilled with Mnesiphilus’s reasoning. Instead, Themistocles simply left and immediately headed towards Eurybiades’ flagship. We may imagine him hurrying over the hill between Paloukia Bay and Ambelaki Bay, where the Spartan fleet was probably moored, perhaps drawn up at the quay. When Themistocles reached the Spartan’s trireme, he called for Eurybiades, saying that he wished to speak to him about a matter of common interest. The message was relayed by an aide to the commander in chief, who replied that Themistocles could come on board if he wished. The Athenian, we may imagine, climbed up a wooden ladder and joined Eurybiades on deck. There he sat down beside Eurybiades. They probably sat in the stern, perhaps under a canvas awning, perhaps on folding stools or sitting cross-legged directly on the wood of the deck. They probably spoke by the light of clay oil lamps.

At first glance, Themistocles and Eurybiades made an odd pair. The Athenian typified a society that was brash and free, while Eurybiades’ country was famously slow and sober. Yet Athens and Sparta were both great powers and both enemies of Persia, while Eurybiades and Themistocles were both patriots. Although he lacked a Spartan’s long hair, Themistocles’ bulldog face conveyed a Spartan toughness. And while Themistocles had a quicksilver style, Eurybiades was a pragmatist.

“Of all the men we know,” said an Athenian years later, the Spartans “are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honorable, and what is expedient just.” Eurybiades no doubt found it disagreeable to reconvene the council of war, but it would be even more disagreeable to show up at the Isthmus without a united fleet. That would merely confirm his countrymen’s prejudice against sea power. How much better it would be for Eurybiades to have a naval victory to bring home to the Spartans. Eurybiades had learned at Artemisium how much that victory depended on listening to the advice of Themistocles.

Then there was Thermopylae. Rather than give an inch to the enemy, Leonidas had sacrificed his men’s lives and his own. As a Spartan, Eurybiades might cringe at the symbolism of surrender that would come with a withdrawal from Salamis.

In his meeting with Eurybiades, Themistocles repeated Mnesiphilus’s argument without identifying the source. By taking credit for it, Themistocles both glorified himself and avoided the danger that Eurybiades might dismiss a line of reasoning that came from a mere underling. Themistocles then added several arguments of his own. It is not known what he said, but Themistocles must have been able to mix threats and flattery in the right proportion. Eurybiades agreed to reconvene the commanders.

It was probably not unusual for a war council to meet at night, because commanders had their hands full during the day, especially in late September, when daylight hours are rapidly decreasing. It was extraordinary, however, for a council to reconsider a plan that had just been decided. Before anyone could raise a point of order, even before Eurybiades could explain why he had called the council back into session, Themistocles began addressing his colleagues. Then, too, Themistocles was in a state of excitement.

Adimantus, the Corinthian commander, broke in. “At the games, Themistocles, those who start before the signal are beaten with the judge’s stick.” It was a clever insult, at the same time poking fun and threatening violence.

“Yes,” Themistocles replied in his defense, “and those who are left behind do not win the victor’s wreath.”

What followed was an epic contest between the Athenian and the Corinthian. Aegina could have matched Corinth’s disdain for Athens, but it would not support a retreat to the Isthmus, since that would leave Aegina behind Persian lines. So it came down to a battle between two speakers. Herodotus, who knew from Homer the impact of describing a clash of egos, no doubt heightens the tension in his narrative, but even a matter-of-fact account would reveal the drama of the occasion.

As a Spartan, Eurybiades was no stranger to the clash of egos in public. He had seen men compete with every weapon in the Greek rhetorical tool kit: honor, shame, humiliation, wit, pain, threats, and, just beneath a surface of civility, violence—violence that was all the more dangerous because it was controlled.

But in Sparta speeches were mercifully short and sharp: laconic, as the favored form of discourse was called, after Laconia, the geographical name for Sparta’s territory. By comparison, other Greek speakers must have seemed like windbags. There is a report that during this meeting a frustrated Eurybiades lifted up his walking stick and threatened to strike Themistocles.

“Strike but listen,” Themistocles said. The Spartan no doubt appreciated the pithy response; in any case, he lowered his stick and let the man speak.

Having brushed off Adimantus with relative gentleness, Themistocles directed his arguments toward Eurybiades. Here in council he said nothing about the danger of the fleet breaking up if it left Salamis, because that would have amounted to accusing his colleagues of treason to their face—a mortal insult. Instead, he emphasized the relative advantages of fighting at Salamis.

At the Isthmus, said Themistocles, they would have to fight a naval battle “on the wide open sea.” That would hurt the Greeks, because they would be surrounded by the lighter, faster, and more numerous Persian triremes. Even if the Greeks won an engagement, the Persians would come back and whittle down Greek numbers. By contrast, Themistocles continued, his plan set the stage for a naval battle in the narrows, where the Persians could not deploy their full numerical strength.

“Fighting a naval battle in the narrows is good for us, and in the open sea it is good for them” is how he put it in a nutshell. He reminded the generals of the Athenian women and children on Salamis, thereby playing on their emotions. And he insisted that the Persians would not advance to the Peloponnese unless the Greek fleet enticed them there. Finally, Themistocles recalled the oracle that had promised victory at Salamis—no doubt without alluding to the debate in Athens over just what the oracle meant. He closed by reminding his colleagues that the gods help those who help themselves.

Themistocles’ point about the need for heavier ships to fight in the narrows was no small matter. If Athens had purposely built its new triremes to be heavy, then it needed to fight in narrow spaces where there was no room to be outmaneuvered by lighter and faster ships and, preferably, to fight in a moderate wind, which tosses around light ships while barely moving heavy ships. Hence, Themistocles’ insistence on fighting at Salamis. The Salamis straits were narrow and, as will become clear presently, had favorable winds.

Events would prove Themistocles a prophet about a naval battle in the narrows. And he was right about the sea off the Isthmus: it offered nothing like the closed space of the Salamis straits. But Themistocles was wrong about the Persian advance to the Peloponnese, because Persia was ready to head there without any encouragement from the Greeks on Salamis.

Adimantus had the right to be proud of Corinth’s record of fighting for the Greek cause. Since Xerxes had no quarrel with Corinth, the Corinthians might have decided to Medize. Instead, their men fought in every major battle of the war while their women prayed to the gods not to bring the boys home but to let their warriors prevail.

But Adimantus missed the chance to rebut Themistocles’ faulty reasoning. Instead, he insulted him. Adimantus told Themistocles to be silent because he had no fatherland. Then the Corinthian turned to Eurybiades and insisted that Themistocles be denied a vote because he was now a man without a country. Let Themistocles get himself a city before he gave any more advice.

Themistocles now either was furious or pretended to be. He snapped at an Eretrian commander who tried to rebut him, “What are you doing making an argument about war? You people are like squids: all shell and no guts.” Themistocles was referring both to anatomy and numismatics: the squid has both a tough beak and a dagger-shaped internal shell, while Eretria used a symbol of an octopus (closely related to a squid) on its coins.

Adimantus had unintentionally stirred up sympathy for the Athenian by his crude remarks. Themistocles turned the emotion into fear. After abusing both Adimantus and Corinth, he reminded his colleagues that with two hundred triremes fully manned, Athens had a better city than anyone else in the council. In fact, no city in Greece could defend itself against an Athenian attack.

Then he turned to Eurybiades. “If you stay here,” Themistocles said,

you will be a man of courage and honor. If not, you will destroy Greece. For the ships carry the whole weight of the war for us. Mark my words. If you don’t do what I advise, we will put our families aboard ships and convey them to Siris in Italy, which has been ours from of old, and the oracles say that we are bound to establish a colony there.

Themistocles had thrown down his last card. He had threatened to lead Athens into what might be called the Phocaean option: to leave Greece and relocate in southern Italy. Herodotus believes that it was the credibility of this threat that changed Eurybiades’ mind. The Spartan knew that without Athens’s ships, the Greeks could not stand up to the Persian fleet. So Eurybiades gave in.

Apparently Eurybiades had the power to overturn the vote of the council, for that is what he now did. He decided that they would stay at Salamis and fight it out by sea. “They had jousted with words over Salamis,” says Herodotus, and now Eurybiades told the commanders to prepare to fight with their ships. They obeyed, but without the enthusiasm that would have followed had they voted in favor of the decision. The only vote on record called for a retreat to the Isthmus, and it remained to be seen if the other Greeks would continue to abide by their commander in chief’s decree.

It was now dawn somewhere around September 24. Herodotus implies that the council had lasted all night long or at least most of it. There would have been little time for any commander to sleep. The night of drama was followed by a final, daylight shock. About an hour after dawn, at sunrise, an earthquake was felt by land and sea. The Greeks took this as a sign from heaven. The commanders voted to pray to the gods and to call upon the sons—that is, the descendants—of the hero Aeacus to fight at their side. In Greek mythology, those descendants included Ajax and his father, Telamon: it was presumably at the Temple of Ajax in Salamis Town that the Greeks prayed. Unfortunately, the other sons as well as Aeacus himself were represented by temple statues in Aegina, which was about fifteen miles away. The Greeks immediately sent a ship there to bring the statues to their camp.

So the battle of Salamis, the accidental battle, the battle that almost never happened, the battle for Greece to which many of the Greeks had to be brought against their will—the battle was now set to take place. That is, so said the Hellenic League, or at least some of it. The Persians, however, had yet to weigh in. Everything now depended on what they decided to do.

The battle of Salamis


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