The Battle of Salamis, 480 BCE

Artist conception of the Battle of Salamis – source unknown

In September of 480 BCE, one of the most significant naval battles in all of the ancient world took place. Not only was it a turning point in the Greco-Persian wars, but it arguably also marked both the military and cultural rise of ancient European civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, into the lands of the East.

In 492 BCE, the Achaemenid Persian Empire under the King of Kings, Darius I, launched a full scale invasion of the Greek mainland. The campaign was to be punishment for the Greek city-states of Athens and Eritrea for supporting rebellions in the Persian-controlled but Greek cities of Ionia, now part of what is the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey. Darius and the Persian army were defeated decisively by a Greek alliance at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Shortly after his death, his son and successor, Xerxes I of Persia, decided to initiate a new campaign to bring the independent Greek city-states to heel.


Major Battle of the Greco-Persian Wars
Major Battle of the Greco-Persian Wars

Launched in 480 BCE, the Persians initially had a string of military successes and had defeated a coalition of Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae. The Persian army marched into mainland Greece, sacked Athens and burned the city’s famous Acropolis. It seems as if all was lost for the Greeks, and they regrouped on the nearby island of Salamis. It was here that the Athenian admiral Themistocles put together a plan to disable the reportedly 800-ship Persian and allied armada. He essentially lured the Persian fleet into a trap between the narrow channels near Salamis.

Artist conception of the Battle of Salamis - source unknown
Artist conception of the Battle of Salamis – source unknown

When the Persians arrived, they were shocked to see a fleet of some 370 Greek Triremes. Triremes were quick boats that cut through the water like a knife and in this case, good for ramming into Persian vessels and allowing soldiers to board them. The problem for the numerically superior Persians was that the number of ships in their armada was so huge that they had trouble maneuvering through the narrow waterway and eventually panicked, crashing into one another. It is reported that Xerxes was sitting atop a hill on his throne watching this spectacle as nearly 300 of his ships sank and thousands of his me were killed.

Map of key events of the Battle of Salamis
Map of key events of the Battle of Salamis

It was a crippling disaster for the mighty Persian army. Xerxes had to withdraw his forces and put his invasion on hold. However, he nor any other sizable Persian force ever returned to lay claim to Greece again. It would not be until the Ottoman Turks nearly 2000 years later that a large force from Asia would cross the Bosphorus and take over the cities of the Greek mainland.


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