New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
2500 years ago,Themistocles–the Athenian commander ofa vastly outnumbered triremes of the Hellenic fleet faced battle with the enormous Persian fleet ofXerxesat Salamis—-outclassed the Persian king in strategy and cunning and with the Greeks’ do-or-die resolve,wona fantastic victoryof enormous magnitude: it made possible the development of Western civilization as we know it.
Barry Strauss, professor of classics and history at Cornell University,an expert on naval warfare, and author of The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece and Western Civilization (Simon and Schuster), whichexamines the strategy of the battle and,unusual in a history book,exceptionally vivid scenes–warriors clustered around their fires on the beach at night, the burning of Athens, the opulent tent and costume of Xerxes—pick you up and set you down onthe island of Salamis, only about a mile away from Athens.
Professor Strauss has talked to us about the battle in several conversations.“I wanted to reconstruct one battle in at least some of its complexity. Salamis was a natural choice because it is the Mount Everest of ancient Greek war at sea, both the greatest battle and, in some ways, the least well understood,” hesaid. The book focuses on the period of about one month, from late August to late September 480 B.C., in which the war to stop Persia’s invasion decided the future of Greece and, it might be said, of Western civilization.” The climax of the story is “a reconstruction of the events of the day on or about September 25, on which the Greek fleet crushed the Persians off Salamis.”
We asked Professor Strauss to describe what took place at Salamis. “During the battle of Salamis, a Greek fleet of 368 ships defeated a Persian fleet that outnumbered it by about two to one. Adding to the drama, the battle took place within sight of the Athenian Acropolis and in full view of the Persian King Xerxes. We don’t have precise numbers, but one ancient writer claims that Persia lost 200 ships, the Greeks only 40 ships, and those numbers are plausible if not certain. Persian casualties were heavy because Persian marines and officers, unlike the non-Persian crews or the Greeks, did not know how to swim.”
How did this battle save Western civilization? “Greece’s victory at Salamis forced the entire Persian fleet home, as well as Xerxes and a large part of the army. Although final victory was not
a slam-dunk, Salamis was the turning point, and made it much easier for Greece to finish off the Persian army at the battle of Plataea in Boeotia the next year (479). So, Salamis played a major role in keeping Greece independent.
“But it didn’t keep it entirely free,” he continued, “and that’s the complex part. Because they played the main part in success at Salamis, the people of Athens went on to create a naval empire in the Aegean Sea. This empire was remarkably like the Persian Empire it had replaced, even though Athens was a democracy. Athenian thinkers were quick to see the contradiction, and the result was one of the most important debates about freedom and power in the history of the West. Its participants included people like Herodotus, Thucydides, Euripides, Aristophanes, Socrates, and Plato. Salamis saved a Western world that was far from perfect but that was able to face its flaws in free and open debate. In that sense, Salamis was one of history’s greatest battles.
We asked about the deception involved in this battle. “The shrewd Themistocles, leading theGreek navy, knew that Persia liked to win battles by co-opting the enemy beforehand. So, he gave the Persians the deserter that they were looking for. On the night before the battle, he sent a trusted slave to the Persian camp with a message: the Greek allies were in disarray and about to leave Salamis—which was, in fact, true. But he also said that Themistocles was ready to deliver Athens’ ships to Persia, which was presumably false. The bottom line was for the Persians to launch their navy, surround the Greeks, and link up with Themistocles. The Persians fell for the ploy and dispatched their fleet that very night in order to surround the Greeks under cover of darkness. But the trick was on them, because when the Greeks’ discovered their predicament, they decided to stand and fight. Meanwhile, after a night of rowing, the Persians were tired and surprised. And they had to fight in narrow waters where they couldn’t use their numerical advantage.”
Strauss talked about the battles that directly led up to the Battle of Salamis. “In 480 BC, ten years after the Persians were defeated in the Battle of Marathon by the Athenian infantry, Xerxes came with an amphibious expedition of enormous scale meant to overwhelm and terrify the Greeks, but a raging, three-day storm at Mount Pelion destroyed at least 400 of Persia’s 1300 ships. In August 480, the Greeks fought Persia on land at Thermopylae and at sea at Artemisium. In the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae the Persians would defeat them; they killed many Greeks, including three hundred Spartans, among them, King Leonidas, yet it was a strategic victory for the Greeks because they bloodied the Persians so badly that the Persians were now scared. At Artemisium the Greeks were victorious both tactically and strategically; they fought three naval battles there and won them all. This was a great boon for the Greeks, and a big psychological blow for the Persians that their navy, even though it outnumbered the Greeks, fails against them.
We commented thatThemistocles seems to be a timeless character, perhaps along the lines of Odysseus. “He’s one of history’s greatest con men, someone that could use his power for good or for evil,” said Strauss,“Clearly a genius, brilliant politician, military strategist and tactician, he came up with the plan to move the population of Athens–to evacuate Attica lock, stock and barrel–and convince them to swallow hard, gulp, give up their homeland, go into exile, but fight the Persians in a naval battle nearby, only a mile away on the island of Salamis.
We wondered whether or not, in this era of renewed feminism, the contemporary woman can learn something fromArtemisia, the queen of Caria, who accompanied Xerxes on this expedition commanding five of her own ships, and Strauss replied, “Sure. Let me tell you by the way, that this is a case that some scholars say Herodotus made it all up; that it can’t be true that Artemisia was there. I think that these scholars misunderstand why Artemisia was there. One of the reasons the Persians used her was as a propaganda tool. They were saying to the Greeks: you are so unmasculine that even a woman can fight you, and we know the Athenians were mortally insulted by this. Depending on your point of view, Artemisia is either a feminist pioneer or a cliché because she got ahead on feminine wiles.”
“I always was intrigued by naval warfare and I have no idea why,” Strauss told us, “I was handicapped by the fact that I knew very little about how warships worked, and then in 1990 I happened to see a sign for a learn-to-row class, signed on, and got hooked on the sport of rowing. In spite of the differences between a modern rowing boat and a trireme, the ancient warship, the experience has expanded my horizon as a scholar. I began to think about the importance in ancient naval warfare of such varied things as winds and currents, hull design, exercise physiology, steering, know-how, and motivation. I triedto think through the experience of an ancient naval battle, and I wanted to reconstruct one in at least some of its complexity. Salamis was a natural choice because it is the Mount Everest of ancient Greek war at sea, both the greatest battle and, in some ways, the least well understood.
Strauss explained that when he wrote the book the time was rightfor a new book on Salamis for three reasons. “First, Herodotus is our main source for the battle. Recent scholarship, especially work by W.K. Pritchett, demonstrates that Herodotus was neither a liar nor a fiction writer but a good, reliable, and trustworthy historian. Most research on Salamis tends to discount Herodotus and I wanted to reverse that trend.
“Second, we know a lot more about ancient warships than we used to, thanks
mainly to Olympias, a Greco-British reconstruction of a trireme, an ancient warship, built in the 1980s. Five years of sea trials revolutionized our understanding of what it felt like to go into battle on a trireme (the oared ship used at Salamis). Although tests revealed that the ancient trireme’s design must have been somewhat different,
but even the errors proved enlightening for historians.
“Third, we needed a book that showed the characters in the battle as real, live human beings. Salamis is one of the most colorful and dramatic events in ancient history, with participants from three continents as well as history’s first female admiral, Artemisia. We scholars need to stretch ourselves by using our imaginations, guided by research. I hope that the Battle of
Salamis achieves this goal.”
We said that when we read in the book’s Epilogue (where Strauss continues the stories of some of the main characters) that only15 years after he saved Greece Themistocles went over to the enemy side, to Persia, it was shocking, and we mused about how Themistocles must felt doing that. “Yes, it is shocking. It wasn’t his first choice as he sought refuge from his enemies. First he went to Corcyra [Kerkyra] then to a non-Greek–or at least semi-Greekplace in Epirus. His enemies, mostly Athenians, but also Spartans, chased him out of both of those places, that’s when he went to Persia . . .yeah, it is amazing.
“That’s a good question, well, we don’t know. Here is where we can say,‘what do you think of Themistocles in the end’? But we can imagine two different possibilities, depending on the bottom-line assessment of the man. If Themistocles was a man totally without a principle, then we might imagine that he didn’t give Greece a backwards glance. Or we can think that his heart was in the cause of the Greeks, but he lived in a very rough and tough world and had to go somewhere, well, then maybe we might accept the tradition.”
Some other books by Barry Strauss: Fathers and Sons in Athens: Ideology and Society in the Era of the Peloponnesian War; Athens After the Peloponnesian War: Class, Faction and Policy, 403-386 B.C., Ten Caesars, The Death of Caesar,Masters of Command, The Spartacus War, The Trojan War