On land and sea, the Persian King Xerxes the Great moved with massive force against the Greek city-states, principally Athens and Sparta. At Thermopylae, a mere 300 spartan hoplites sacrificed themselves to buy precious time. At Salamis, the Greeks inflicted a crushing naval defeat upon the invaders and preserved the flower of western culture.
During the fifth century BCE, the vast empire of Persia was at the height of its glory and its power. The realm of King Darius I (521-486 BCE) extended from the Caucasus to the Indian Ocean and from the shores of the Mediterranian Sea into the Indus River, and his subjects included a great diversity of people.
Yet the city-state of Athens remained a resistant thorn in the Persian side. In 480 BCE, therefore, Darius' son, the Persian King Xerxes (reigned 486-465 BCE) called his advisors together to discuss another military move against Athens and an expansion of the Persian empire.
The Greeks certainly faced a powerful threat. The Persian army numbered approximately 500,000 men, while the Persian fleet was said to consist of 1,207 triremes. Early in the campaign, which began in the summer of 480 BCE, a number of Greek cities pledged alliance to Xerxes as his juggernaut advanced inexorably toward them. Athens and Sparta, however, remained defiant against overwhelming odds. On August 18, the advancing Persians reached the pass at Thermopylae, through which the force had to move in order to reach Athens. The Persians drew up before the pass, which was barely 15m (50ft) wide and defended by 6,000 Greek hoplites, including 300 Spartans, under the command of the Spartan king, Leonidas. The Spartans were killed to the last man, mainly by vast clouds of arrows fired from the Persian lines. The heroic Spartans of Thermopylae did not sacrifice themselves in vain. Their stand cost the Persian precious time, and a pair of violent storms sank more than 200 Persian ships. When he received the news that the Persians had taken Thermopylae, the great Greek commander Themistocles (circa 528-462 BCE) withdrew his fleet to the island of Salamis.
Delay And Deception
By the time the Persian army reached Athens, most of the citizenry had fled. Those who had not were put to the sword. Still, in order to win a decisive victory, Xerxes had to defeat the Greek army on land. To defeat the Greek army, his triremes had to be able to manoeuvre in safety. Therefore, a victory over the Greek fleet became a necessity. Xerxes planned simply to overwhelm the 300 Greek triremes which opposed his force of 400 vessels in the narrow waters around Salamis. Themistocles, however, had other ideas. He deployed his fleet with the Athenians and Corinthians on the left, the Aegenitans and Spartans on the right, hoping that the Persians would be drawn into the shallow and confined waters near the Bay of Eleusis. The Persian triremes, apparently constructed for combat on the open sea, would find manoeuvring virtually impossible in the narrows.
On the morning of 20 September 480 BCE, Thermistocles' plan worked perfectly. When the commanders of the leading Persian ships realized that they had fallen into a trap, they ordered a backwater manoeuvre. However, those vessels behind them had nowhere to go, throwing the fleet into confusion. The Persians' superior numbers had now become a hindrance rather than an advantage.
A line of Greek triremes moved in orderly fashion to encircle the confused enemy, and their bronze rams inflicted deadly punishment on the foundering Persian ships. The playwright Aeschylus, who is remembered as the father of literary tragedy, fought at both Marathon and Salamis. He described the scene as reminiscent of the mass netting and killing of fish on the shores of the Mediterranian. "At first, the torrent of the Persians' fleet bore up," Aeschylus wrote. "But then with the press of the shipping hemmed there in the narrows, none could help another."
The Persian fleet was crippled at Salamis, losing 200 triremes, roughly half its strength, to a mere 40 for the Greeks. In the wake of the disaster, Xerxes had little choice but to retire to safety. Greece was at last free from the threat of Eastern domination. For half a century Athens maintained the strongest fleet in the Ancient World, while the army of Sparta was the pre-eminent force on land.