The Battle of Salamis : The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization
On a late September day in 480 B.C., Greek warships faced an invading Persian armada in the narrow Salamis Straits in the most important naval battle of the ancient world. Overwhelmingly outnumbered by the enemy, the Greeks triumphed through a combination of strategy and deception. More than two millennia after it occurred, the clash between the Greeks and Persians at Salamis remains one of the most tactically brilliant battles ever fought. The Greek victory changed the course of western history -- halting the advance of the Persian Empire and setting the stage for the Golden Age of Athens.
In this dramatic new narrative account, historian and classicist Barry Strauss brings this landmark battle to life. He introduces us to the unforgettable characters whose decisions altered history: Themistocles, Athens' great leader (and admiral of its fleet), who devised the ingenious strategy that effectively destroyed the Persian navy in one day; Xerxes, the Persian king who fought bravely but who ultimately did not understand the sea; Aeschylus, the playwright who served in the battle and later wrote about it; and Artemisia, the only woman commander known from antiquity, who turned defeat into personal triumph. Filled with the sights, sounds, and scent of battle, The Battle of Salamis is a stirring work of history.
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Simon & Schuster
June 29, 2004
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Excerpt from The Battle of Salamis by Barry Strauss
He was the last Athenian. That is, if a box of bones may be considered an Athenian. Alive, he had been Themistocles, architect of the greatest sea battle ever fought. Now his remains were secretly reburied here in Athenian soil, perhaps, as rumored, along the shore outside the wall of Piraeus harbor. Themistocles' family, they said, had dug up the bones from their first grave abroad under the noses of the authorities.
It was a ploy to bring a grin to the skeleton's mouth, for of all the clever Greeks, who was more cunning than Themistocles? No one except perhaps the traveler whose ship passed Themistocles' grave site on this summer morning in 430 B.C. The observer was a man who put the clever in their place, and who now might thank the gods as he stood on the breezy deck and looked toward the last Athenian he might ever see.
Herodotus, as the observer was named, had seen no end of Athenians. Athens ruled the sea, and he had spent his life on waterways. And here, Herodotus could look from his ship toward Athens's most fateful naval battlefield. Across the channel from the great man's bones lay the spot where, fifty years earlier, Themistocles had staked Athens's very existence on the outcome of a single day. Herodotus had only to turn westward on the deck to see it, rising like a rock: Salamis.
It looked more like a fortress than an island, separated from the mainland by only a moatlike strip of blue water, the Salamis straits. Once independent, the island had long belonged to Athens, whose rule extended across the narrow channel. In these straits in 480 B.C., a battle took place just where Themistocles had planned. In the early autumn, when night and day are of equal length, a thousand warships fought over the future of Greece. An invading Persian armada aimed to add Greece to the greatest empire the world had ever seen; the stubborn natives rowed for liberty or death. The day dawned white; when twelve hours later the sun went down red, the remnants of one fleet came flooding out of the straits pursued by another.
If the battle had gone the other way, Greece would be ruled by kings and queens. One was Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, who watched the battle from shore. Another was Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus (today the city of Bodrum, Turkey), a captain-queen, who fought in the thick of combat -- one of the very few women in all of recorded history to have commanded ships in battle.
Now, fifty years later, Athens was bleeding. Only an escape artist of Herodotus's experience could have found the rare merchant ship to put in at the port of Piraeus during a plague and the even rarer place on board. Herodotus had learned more than a little resourcefulness in a life spent traveling. A man in his fifties, he had a long beard, a thin, weather-beaten face, and a receding hairline that revealed a wrinkled forehead. Herodotus wore a cloak draped over a tunic, as well as sturdy boots and a broad-brimmed hat.
When he had arrived in Athens to find the city under siege by an enemy army, Herodotus had probably shrugged the matter off. This war was just the latest in a series of Athens's struggles with its rivals in Greece. Herodotus knew that impregnable walls connected Athens to the harbor at Piraeus, three miles away. The Athenian fleet ruled the sea and conveyed whatever the city needed. Sicilian fish, Crimean grain, Lydian luxuries: nothing was too dear or distant to resist the pull of a port gleaming with gold coins and guarded by three hundred warships. Herodotus had not counted on the epidemic, however.