When the ancient Persian Empire was at its height the Athenians were constantly fomenting trouble in the eastern Mediterranean. The Emperor Xerxes mustered a massive force of several hundred thousand men and marched into the Balkans, while his fleet of 1,200 ships sailed across the Ionian Sea to the shores of Greece. He looked unstoppable. Meanwhile the Athenians under the brilliant leadership of Themistocles organized an alliance of Greek city-states, nominally led by Sparta but in which Athens played a starring role. Xerxes, having thrashed the Greeks at Thermopylae, confidently marched on Athens. But he found the city deserted.
Themistocles had evacuated the entire city to Salamis, an island 2km (1 mi) off the mainland. Here the Athenian fleet was joined by the rest of the alliance ships, 378 in total. They holed-up in the harbor awaiting the Persian onslaught. The Greek forces were woefully inadequate and many of the allies, dubious about Themistocles’s strategy, considered beating a hasty retreat and abandoning the Athenian fleet to its fate. But it was too late – they were hemmed in by the Persians.
What followed was an incredible sea-battle – some 1,500 battleships engaged in mortal combat in the narrow strait between Salamis and the mainland. The confined space worked to the Greek advantage, just as Themistocles had predicted. The Persians, relying on strength of numbers, had rushed into battle without any plan whereas the Greeks, in a last-ditch bid to defend their homeland, kept in formation and were able to pick off Persian ships as their fleet, too tightly packed to maneuver freely, descended into chaos. Despite the vast superiority of the Persian forces, the battle ended in a rout. Salamis was the turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars. The mighty Xerxes was humbled and Athens won dominance of the Ionian Sea.
When was the Battle of Salamis: September 480 BC
Where was the Battle of Salamis: Mediterranean
What was the Battle of Salamis death toll: Probably at least 50,000. Many of the Persian forces had been recruited from landlocked regions and couldn’t swim: vast numbers died from drowning rather than enemy blows.
You should know: The battleships used by the Greeks and Persians were all of the same basic design: about 40 m (150 ft.) long with three banks of oars rowed by about 150 men and packed with infantry. The boats had a battering ram at their bows and could reach speeds of about 10 knots. A boat could be sunk by ramming a hole in it or captured by hand-to-hand combat. At the Battle of Salamis the Greeks sank or captured some 200 Persian ships and chased the rest of Xerxes’s fleet back across the Ionian Sea.