Positions at the Battle of Salamis

Positions at the Battle of Salamis Disasters Ancient Places and/or Civilizations Famous Historical Events Film Geography Social Studies World History

In this map we see the opposing naval positions on the day before  the battle of Salamis and the day of  the battle:

  • Persian positions are shown in blue;
  • Athenian positions are shown in red. 

After Thermopylae, where Leonidas and his men made their last stand, King Xerxes and his troops traveled to Athens.  The Persians defeated the Athenians during late September of 480.

In his quest to defeat all Greeks, what would Xerxes do next?  Where would he go?  Would the battle be on land or at sea?

The Greek navy was at Salamis, an island near Athens.  Because their enemy was close to the harbor at Athens, the Persians had a dilemma: 

  • How would they use the Athenian port (Phaleron) where their own ships were located? 
  • With the Persian army marching toward the Isthmus of Corinth, how would supply ships leave Athens to resupply the men at the Isthmus? 
  • Would they need to fight a sea battle?

The Persians resolved their dilemma by deciding to eliminate the Greek naval presence at Salamis.  They would have to fight a sea battle.

Herodotus (the historian) tells us what happened next (in a story which may, or may not be, true).  Recognizing what was about to unfold, between the Greeks and the Persians, Themistocles (the Athenian leader) decided to concoct a strategy which made him look like a double-crosser.

Ordering one of his household slaves - Sicinnus, the tutor of his son - to row to shore where he would deliver a message to the Persians, Themistocles made it sound like he wanted Xerxes to prevail.  Herodotus tells us the message which Sicinnus delivered:

The Athenian commander has sent me to you privily, without the knowledge of the other Greeks. He is a well-wisher to the king's cause, and would rather success should attend on you than on his countrymen; wherefore he bids me tell you that fear has seized the Greeks and they are meditating a hasty flight.

Now then it is open to you to achieve the best work that ever ye wrought, if only ye will hinder their escaping. They no longer agree among themselves, so that they will not now make any resistance - nay, 'tis likely ye may see a fight already begun between such as favour and such as oppose your cause." The messenger, when he had thus expressed himself, departed and was seen no more.  (See Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, translator, Volume 4; published in New York, during 1885, by D. Appleman and Company.)

Did the Persians believe this ruse?  Herodotus continues:

Then the captains, believing all that the messenger had said, proceeded to land a large body of Persian troops on the islet of Psyttaleia, which lies between Salamis and the mainland; after which, about the hour of midnight, they advanced their western wing towards Salamis, so as to inclose the Greeks.

At the same time the force stationed about Ceos and Cynosura moved forward, and filled the whole strait as far as Munychia with their ships. This advance was made to prevent the Greeks from escaping by flight, and to block them up in Salamis, where it was thought that vengeance might be taken upon them for the battles fought near Artemisium.

The Persian troops were landed on the islet of Psyttaleia, because, as soon as the battle began, the men and wrecks were likely to be drifted thither, as the isle lay in the very path of the coming fight, - and they would thus be able to save their own men and destroy those of the enemy. All these movements were made in silence, that the Greeks might have no knowledge of them; and they occupied the whole night, so that the men had no time to get their sleep.

In other words, Themistocles’ plan was “swallowed hook, like and sinker” (to use a modern phrase) by the Persians.

Having taken the bait, the Persians entered the narrow strait of Salamis during the early morning hours of 29 September 480 BC.  With their Great King Xerxes watching, from a nearby hill, the Persians were sailing right into a Greek trap.

At dawn, the Greeks attacked. 

Almost without a chance to prevail, the Persians had lost around a third of their ships by nightfall.  In trouble, Xerxes had to recall his army (who had, by that time, reached the Isthmus of Corinth).

The Battle of Salamis was a major setback for the Persians, but they were not-yet defeated.  Greek leaders did not send their troops to pursue the retreating Persians (who spent the winter in Thessaly), but the Persians did not use the winter months to rebuild their navy.

The final fight between the Greeks and the Persians occurred the following year at Plataea.  When that battle occurred, the Greeks united (not always a predictable development given their long history of disagreement among the city-states) to defeat the Persians (whose army was smaller than the combined Greek forces).

With their navy still missing so many ships, the Persians were unable to divide and conquer the Greeks (by employing both land and sea forces) at Plataea.  Instead, the Persians were soundly defeated.

This was a significant event, resulting in a major decision by Xerxes.  He would turn his attention elsewhere, away from the Greeks.  

One is left to wonder: Why didn’t the Persians use the time, during the winter, to rebuild their decimated navy? The best we can do, to answer that question, is merely to speculate why Xerxes made that choice.

Media Credits

Map image online, courtesy a Greek-language website.


Image of the Straits of Salamis, by Jona Lendering; License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.


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"Positions at the Battle of Salamis" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Aug 17, 2018.
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