Seated on narrow benches, fingers flexing on the polished handles of long oars, adrenaline already coursing through their veins as they awaited the command to put to sea, crews of the allied Greek triremes knew that the next few hours were make or break. For days, their admirals had been at one another’s throats as old rivals – southerners from Sparta and Corinth, islanders from Aegina, tough wheeler-dealer democrats from Athens – tried to broker an accepted strategy. Yet every meeting had descended into acrimony, as leaders bickered about how to face the huge invasion force, its numbers swollen not just by crack royal Persian regiments and tribesmen mustered from ancestral lands in far-off Asia and Africa but by other hostile Greeks. Just days before, Athenians had looked on, impotent, while palls of smoke belched into the September skies as their beloved temples burned, and heard the wailing of their women, since evacuated here with them to the nearby island of Salamis in the Saronic Gulf west of Athens, as surely other refugees had wailed, watching from wherever they had managed to escape to temporary safety.
Then, this September morning in 480 BC, as cockerels heralded the sunrise, news shot through the camp. Athens’ admiral, Themistocles, had tricked the Persians into thinking that the Greeks would try to slip away the night before. Persia’s Great King Xerxes had scrambled his crews. On high alert, the Persians had spent long hours patrolling the two channels leading from the Bay of Salamis to open waters, determined to catch the fleeing allies unawares. Now they were tired and hungry. Now was the moment that the Greeks could not afford to lose. With light flooding, gold, into the bay, orders rang out, trumpets brayed, and, chanting battle cries, crews put to sea, oars dipping, rising rhythmically like dripping wings, as triremes swung into position. At once the Persian captains countered, blocking the narrows as they struggled to raise their weary crews’ morale. And then a Greek ship shot across the glassy waters, bronze ram slicing the sea-swell, before it crashed at speed into a Persian hull. The battle had begun, and in its outcome lay the fate of Greece.
Even today, the Battle of Salamis – fought 2,500 years ago this year – can stir the blood. Like the victory at Marathon, a decade earlier in 490 BC, and the heroic defeat at Thermopylae just weeks before, it has entered history as one of the key events that shaped the Western world, part of the oft-told heroic Greek struggle of freedom against tyranny, which in time would see great art and architecture, literature, philosophy, and science thrive in the democratic ‘Golden Age’ of Athens. But while such an interpretation makes for a reassuring narrative, the reality (as always) is at once more complicated and more interesting, for at its heart lie truths about how history itself is formed.
In 480 BC, the year of Salamis, Greece as we know it did not exist. Instead, across the mainland and Aegean islands, east to the far reaches of the Black Sea, and west to Italy and Sicily, almost a thousand Greek-founded city-states, or poleis, viewed one another with such mutual suspicion that for much of the time they were at war. In fact, long-term hatreds meant that many poleis and confederacies had rejected calls for unity and refused to join the anti-Persian alliance, preferring to throw in their lot with the foreign enemy; and with Sparta desperate to preserve her place as leader of the mainland Greeks, and Athens keen to usurp her, even those two present allies were bitter, hostile rivals. No wonder it had proved so hard to agree tactics, or that, even in the face of existential danger, grand gestures threatened to trump sound strategy. And for many the danger was existential.
Less than two generations earlier, in what is now Iran, the Persian Empire had exploded onto the scene, sucking in old kingdoms such as Media and Babylonia, until now it controlled not only territories from Egypt to the River Indus but Greek poleis on the western coast of Asia Minor (now in Turkey). In 499 BC, those poleis staged a rebellion: the Ionian Revolt. Athens sent aid but, apart from accidentally setting fire to the Temple of Cybele at Sardis, achieved nothing other than to inflame the Persians’ ire and (the rebellion crushed and its hub, the city of Miletus, torched) increase their determination to conquer mainland Greece. A first invasion in 490 BC failed, thanks to Athens’ victory at Marathon, but now, bent on vengeful destruction, the Persians were back in greater strength, and the odds seemed insurmountable.
Yet still the mainland poleis seemed more obsessed with their own rivalry than with the monumental job in hand. Even Sparta’s swaggering mission to Thermopylae – where her king, Leonidas, his 300 hand-picked bodyguard and their countless, nameless helot serfs held the pass against Xerxes’ myriads for a few brief days before being massacred – had been as much an exercise in reclaiming glory as a judicious stratagem: arriving too late at Marathon ten years before, Spartans had played no part in that battle. The bragging rights went to Athens, and for a decade Athens’ kudos was unassailable, the memory of her fallen carefully curated. Now, Thermopylae had given Sparta the chance to burnish her own myth, and burnish it she would – con brio. So, even as the Persians resumed their march, leaving Leonidas’ fly-blown head rotting on a stake, many Spartans no doubt took secret pleasure in the all-too-valid argument that Athens and her land were indefensible, and fought hard to hide the schadenfreude that they felt as Athens burned.
In truth, we do not know how any Spartan felt in those long weeks. They left no record. But Athenians did, and how they shaped the narrative of the Persian Wars was extraordinary. It is, for example, an Athenian who tells us how the sea battle at Salamis unfolded. Aeschylus the tragedian was probably a combatant, fighting as a heavily armed hoplite from a ship’s deck, or joining the ruthless task force that left no survivors when it stormed a rocky Persian-held islet in the channel mouth. Remarkably, his Persians is told not from the Greek but from the Persian point of view, as, set in the royal palace of Susa, it imagines Xerxes’ mother, Queen Atossa, and the Persian elders recalling how their mighty force set out for Greece, before receiving news of its defeat. Aeschylus’ description of the Battle of Salamis, put into the mouth of a Persian messenger, is spine-tingling:
At first the tide of Persian vessels kept firmly in formation, but with our huge [Persian] fleet crowded in the narrows, not able to help one another, crashing into one another with our bronze-toothed rams, and splintering whole banks of oars, the Greek ships seized their moment, circled round us and attacked, capsizing ships until the sea became invisible, a dense mass of shipwrecks and the bodies of the dead. The coastline and the shoals were choked with corpses as – with no thought now to keep in tight formation – each vessel in the Persian navy tried to row to safety, while – like we were tuna or fish netted in a fishing net – they kept on clubbing us with broken oars and bits of splintered wreckage. Screams and groaning blanketed the surface of the sea until black night came down and hid it all from view.
The drama does not stop there. In a spellbinding scene of necromancy, the Persian elders and Atossa summon the ghost of Xerxes’ father, Darius, who, proclaiming that his son’s defeat was ‘payment for his hubris and impiety’ in burning Athens’ temples, warns that Salamis will not mark the end of Persia’s suffering. A further battle must be fought: at Plataea, the next year, where, in the ghost’s words, the ‘oozing mess of blood’ would serve as a reminder that ‘mortals must not think too big’.
Such moralising, familiar from later Greek tragedies, might be expected to pervade Aeschylus’ Persians, yet present too is an almost irrepressible jingoism, and it is through such chauvinistic lenses that much of what we know of Salamis, the Persian Wars, and Athens has been filtered. For, by the time the play was first performed in 472 BC, just eight years after Salamis, the Greek world had changed dramatically.
The naval victory was pivotal. His fleet destroyed and his supply lines consequently broken, Xerxes could no longer hope to conquer Greece that year. Instead, he returned home, leaving behind the rump of his army. As Darius’ ghost predicted, it too was defeated – but the bloodbath of Plataea, a Greek victory, served only to throw Greek fault-lines into even sharper focus. Subject to confusing orders from their Spartan commander-in-chief, armies from the handful of Greek allied poleis found themselves in disarray when the Persians attacked, with the result that, ignorant of what was going on elsewhere on the battlefield, each was convinced that victory, when it came, was their doing alone. Shortly after, when the time came to award the traditional prize to the bravest polis, competitive ill will ran so high that Athenian and Spartan armies had to be prevented from fighting one another.
The next year, their mutual animosity caused a political earthquake when Athens’ friends and allies, part of an ambitious Greek alliance aimed at liberating Persian-held poleis and preventing another invasion, refused to be led by Sparta, and formed a confederacy of their own, the Delian League. Caught unawares, the Spartans acquiesced to the Athenian power grab, but soon found themselves watching impotently as, under her charismatic general, Cimon, Athens not only tightened her grip over the entire Aegean basin but began to spin her own version of history, presenting herself as the rightful hegemon of Greece.
It was in the early days of this propaganda drive that Aeschylus wrote Persians, but it was not the first tragedy to be staged on the subject of Salamis. Already in 476 BC, his rival, Phrynichus, had staged Phoenician Women, whose text survives in only a few tantalising fragments. One tells of the battle (‘men slaughtered until evening fell’), another of Persian war widows ‘singing threnodies [laments] accompanied by plucking harps’. The play was a huge success – considerably more so than Phrynichus’ earlier Capture of Miletus staged in the aftermath of the failed Ionian Revolt, a tragedy so harrowing that the Athenians stopped the performance, fined Phrynichus a hefty sum, and issued an edict forbidding any future productions since ‘it caused them to remember their own problems’. Now, though, it was Persia’s problems that they were remembering, and reminding the rest of Greece of their own role in inflicting them.
Athenians were reminding Greece, too, of their own much-vaunted democratic constitution. Aeschylus’ drama contains a pivotal scene (placed immediately before a messenger arrives with news of Salamis) in which the Persian queen interrogates her elders about Athens. Are Athenians archers, she asks. ‘No,’ they reply, ‘they stand firm and fight with shield and spear.’ (Persia’s army contained many archers; Greeks thought them cowardly compared to hoplite infantrymen.) Then comes the key exchange:
Atossa Who herds them in place?
Who wields his will over their army?
Elders They are not slaves of any man –
nor vassals either.
At a performance of Persians at the Epidavros Festival of 2020 (marking the anniversary of Salamis a year early), these lines lauding Athenian self-determination were greeted with enthusiastic applause, and it is not hard to imagine them – or others describing how the gods and ‘the very land of Greece’ were on the victors’ side – being greeted similarly by their first audience. Nor is it hard to think that such sentiment, perhaps repeated in lost plays, certainly echoed in public speeches and even finding their way into Herodotus’ Histories would fail to engender in their audience not just a feeling that democracy was the best constitution but – flying in the face of evidence – that it was democratic Athens that almost single-handedly had won the Persian Wars.
However, even within Athens there were tensions. Aeschylus’ description of Athenians as hoplites was only partially correct. By far the majority (men who could not afford expensive hoplite armour) served as oarsmen – 170 in each of the 200 triremes of the fleet – and it was they, the demos, the city poor, who had played the biggest role at Salamis. This was partly the reason that playwrights chose to focus on Salamis and not hoplite battles such as Marathon: to appeal to the bulk of the patriotic audience, who had actually fought there.
Not that Marathon was forgotten. Far from it. In the more rarefied setting of Delphi, where patrician diplomats from every polis might consult the oracle on international or domestic policy, Athenians under Cimon set up a statue group showing not only their local heroes but the gods Apollo and Athena – as well as Cimon’s father, Miltiades, who as general had led them to victory at Marathon. Other artworks celebrated that battle, too. One, in Athens’ marketplace, even associated it with earlier, mythological, victories by Athenians over Amazons and by Greeks over Trojans, while elsewhere links were made between the Persian Wars and Athens’ legendary King Theseus’ conflicts with half-bestial centaurs.
This mythical melange of wars resulting in the triumph of Athenian civilisation over alien (or simply non-Athenian) barbarism, the choice of imagery honed to heighten the idea of Athens as a beacon or – in Pericles’ words – an education for all Greece, would find its way onto the sculptures of the Parthenon, when the burnt temples of the Acropolis were rebuilt under Pericles’ guidance in the mid 5th century BC. Here, too, the crucial importance of Salamis was foregrounded. When the architect, Mnesicles, refashioned the Propylaea, the great monumental gateway leading onto the Acropolis, he took considerable pains to reorient it so that it faced directly towards the island to give a clear sightline between the sacred heart of Athens and the straits where victory was won.
Such monuments in marble, together with the stirring words of Aeschylus’ Persians or the towering funeral speech, which the historian Thucydides records Pericles as giving in the spring of 430 BC, half a century after Salamis, have led many in the past to talk of Athens’ ‘Golden Age’ and ‘the glory that was Greece’. The reality was somewhat different. After Salamis, Athenians extorted money with threats from islands that had not participated in the battle on their side; after Plataea, the victorious Greek army pillaged Greek towns and villages that had collaborated with the Persians; and the Delian League formed ostensibly to liberate Greece quickly turned first into a protection racket run by Athens and then into a full-blown Athenian empire. Add slavery into the mix or xenophobia or the institutional subjugation of women, and golden, glorious Athens falls far short of many of today’s standards.
Yet, to my mind, we should not be overhasty to condemn the Athenians. Their idealistic rhetoric may not have been matched by reality, but whose is? And, had Salamis gone the other way, had principles of democracy and free speech been quashed almost at birth (as they may have been had Xerxes won), the development of not just politics but the writing and interpretation of history itself – and even the way in which we view ourselves – might have been very different. For in the ensuing decades, Athens, for all her faults, became a crucible of ideas, an anvil on which many of the concepts that underpin the certainties of modern life were first knocked into shape. So, in the last two weeks of this September (we cannot accurately pinpoint a specific day) we would do well to remember the Greek oarsmen of Salamis not just because to do so stirs the blood, but because it is in part thanks to their victory that in the West those fragile concepts –history, philosophy, science and, yes, democracy – were able to evolve and grow.
David Stuttard’s new book on Militiades and Cimon and their roles in the resistance against Persia, Phoenix: a father, a son, and the rise of Athens, has recently been published by Harvard University Press (ISBN 978-0674988279, price £28.95).