Twenty-two Greek cities were represented at Salamis, for a
total of more than three hundred ships. Six states from the Peloponnese
provided vessels: Sparta, Corinth, Sicyon, Epidaurus, Troezen, and Hermione. In
central Greece, Athens and Megara contributed ships, while Ambracia and Leucas
represented northwestern Greece. From the islands there were ships from the
city-states of Chalcis, Eretria, and Styra in Euboea, Aegina in the Saronic
Gulf, and from the Cyclades, Ceos, Naxos, Cythnos, Seriphos, Siphnos, and
Melos. Croton in Italy was the only western Greek city to take part. It sent
one trireme, but its crew may all have resided in Greece: political refugees,
they were eager to find a patron to help them return home and overthrow their
Most of these states provided only a tiny number of ships.
Leucas, for instance, sent only three triremes; Cythnos sent only a trireme and
a penteconter; while Melos, Siphnos and Seriphos sent only penteconters—two
from Melos, one each from Siphnos and Seriphos. With its defection at
Artemisium, Lemnos provided one trireme. These numbers speak eloquently of
financial and demographic poverty and of loyalty to the Greek cause. Plataea,
which had sent men to Artemisium to help fill the rowers’ benches of Athens’s
triremes, was not represented at Salamis. After Artemisium, the Plataeans had
hurried home to convey their families and property to safety.
Several of these states were in the process of being swamped
by the Persian tide. Plataea, Chalcis, Eretria, and Styra had fallen. Athens
was in the process of evacuation, and once the Persians reached Athens, nothing
stopped them from overrunning Megara, the next city-state to the west. Troezen
was crowded with Athenian refugees. Except for Seriphos, Siphnos, and Melos,
the other Cycladic ships came from states that had submitted to Persia. The
commanders disobeyed orders and joined the Greeks.
Still, the allies might have been disappointed at their
inability to attract more ships to Salamis. There was one prominent no-show.
The Corcyreans had promised ambassadors of the Hellenic League to fight for
Greece and against slavery. The western Greek island of Corcyra (modern Corfu)
had even launched sixty triremes, a fleet second only to Athens’s in size. But
the Corcyreans sent the ships only as far as Cape Taenarum in the southern
Peloponnese in order not to anger Xerxes—the eventual winner of the war, they
were sure. To the Greeks they pleaded the excuse of the Etesian winds, the
powerful nor’easter that sometimes blows in the fall and stops navigation cold.
Then there was Sicily. Its leading Greek city-state was
Syracuse, ruled in 480 B.C. by a tyrant named Gelon. The Hellenic League had
asked Gelon for help against Persia. He promised a huge number of ships and men
but named too high a price: supreme command. Both the Spartan and Athenian
ambassadors who went to see him refused. Besides, Gelon had a war with Carthage
on his hands. In the end, Gelon sent only a representative to Delphi, carrying
a treasure to give as a gift to Xerxes, should the Great King prevail.
The three biggest contingents at Salamis were from Aegina,
with 30 ships, Corinth, with 50 ships, and Athens, with 180 ships, about half
of the triremes in the Greek fleet; Sparta contributed only 16 ships.
The Greeks had 368 ships at Salamis, as a reasonable reading
of the tricky evidence concludes. To take only fifth century B.C. sources: the
playwright Aeschylus says that the Greek numbers at Salamis “amounted to thirty
tens of ships, and another ten elite ships”; the historian Thucydides reports a
claim that the Greeks had 400 ships of which two-thirds (i.e., 267) were
Athenian. Aeschylus’s figures are imprecise and poetic; Thucydides’ are
imprecise and attributed to a bragging speaker fifty years after the battle.
Herodotus’s numbers are better, if problematic.
Herodotus says that the Greeks had 378 ships, of which 180
were Athenian. He also adds that two ships defected to the Greeks from the
Persians, bringing the number of ships to an even 380. Unfortunately, when
Herodotus cites the ship numbers city-state by city-state, the figures add up
to only 366 ships. Herodotus also specifies that the Greek fleet at Salamis was
larger than the Greek fleet at Artemisium, which eventually numbered 333 ships.
Assuming that Herodotus’s city-by-city figures are more accurate than his
total, it would seem that the Greeks had 368 ships (366 plus the two defectors)
on the day of the battle of Salamis.
Sparta had been made commander of the allied fleet, probably
at the meeting at Corinth in the autumn of 481 B.C. when the Hellenic League
had been formed. The natural commander of the fleet would have been an
Athenian, presumably Themistocles, but the other Greeks resented Athens’s new
naval power and feared Athenian muscle flexing. They insisted on a Spartan
commander or they would dissolve the fleet. The Athenians yielded, and the
Spartan government named Eurybiades.
Two city-states probably led the charge against the
appointment of an Athenian as commander: Aegina and Corinth. Aegina is an
island in the Saronic Gulf, south of Salamis, about thirty-three square miles
in size. Located about seventeen miles from Athens, Aegina and its conical
mountain (about 1,750 feet high) are clearly visible from the Acropolis. Like
many neighbors in ancient Greece, Athens and Aegina were longtime rivals. In
later years, Pericles expressed Athens’s habitual contempt for its neighbor by
describing Aegina as “the eyesore of Piraeus,” referring to Athens’s main port
after 479 B.C. Eyesores, of course, need to be rubbed out, and under Pericles,
Athens smashed Aegina’s power once and for all. In 480, however, the rivalry
was still burning.
Though small, Aegina before the days of Themistocles was a
greater naval power than Athens. The Aeginetans were a maritime people who took
the turtle as the symbol on their coins. For two decades before 480 B.C, Aegina
and Athens waged a very violent war. In 490, on the eve of the Persian landing
at Marathon, only Spartan intervention prevented Aegina from joining in the
attack on Athens. The two states laid down their differences in 481 at the
conference establishing the Hellenic League; no doubt Athens’s sprint ahead in
the arms race, by deciding in 483 to build a two-hundred-ship navy, encouraged
Aegina to think peace.
Corinth smarted from less nasty wounds. Traditional rivals,
Athens and Corinth had avoided all-out war. But Themistocles hardly endeared
Athens to Corinth when he arbitrated a dispute between Corinth and Corcyra in
the latter’s favor. Corcyra was a naval power and a former colony of Corinth
that had little love for its mother city. Looking even farther westward,
Themistocles also strengthened Athens’s connections with the Greek city-states
in Italy and Sicily.
None of this Athenian interest in the west could have
pleased Corinth, which had long had maritime connections there. By modern roads
Corinth and Athens are fifty-five miles apart. Ancient Corinth was a wealthy
city, grown rich on the oil of the olive trees that grew well in its fertile
soil, on maritime trade, and on prostitution. Long the home of a tyranny that
was famous for its vices, Corinth in 480 B.C. was now an oligarchy that
preferred to sell vice to others. Corinthians were jealous and suspicious of an
Athens that had once been a backwater but that had outstripped Corinth first as
a trading center and now, recently, as a naval power.
The Corinthian admiral in 480 B.C. was Adimantus son of
Ocytus. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, but Corinth loved its luxuries, and
Adimantus was no doubt better dressed than Eurybiades. For that matter, he was
probably better dressed than Themistocles. Unlike Athenians, Corinth’s
oligarchs had no need to look like men of the people. We may imagine Adimantus
in an elegant cloak of woven linen, cream-colored with a dark purple edging.
His bronze breastplate no doubt featured incised musculature. His helmet, also
bronze and made out of a single sheet of metal, was surely of the Corinthian
style: close-fitting and custom-made, with a nosepiece and eyeholes. The
helmet’s lower edge might have been decorated with a delicate, incised, spiral
border. The helmet would give in to a blow without cracking, while padding
underneath cushioned the impact. Adimantus may have worn a roll of cloth under
his greaves to avoid chafing. His shield may have been emblazoned with an image
of Pegasus, the winged horse that was a symbol of Corinth.
Between the return of their fleet from Artemisium and the
arrival of the Persians, the Athenians had only five or six days to complete
their evacuation. We do not know if the allied ships at Salamis helped the
Athenians evacuate Athens or if they stood and waited. No doubt a steady stream
of eleventh-hour transfers of people, property, and supplies across the narrow
channel from Attica to Salamis was still flowing when the first hoofbeats of
the enemy horses were heard. At any rate, even before the enemy had appeared,
Eurybiades called the generals of the allied states to a council of war at
Salamis. The date was about September 23.
A navy whose main admirals cordially hated each other. A
naval commander in chief who came from a country famous for its inattention to
ships. A naval base teeming with refugees whom it could not feed for long. A
set of allies who were itching to leave the war zone. It was of this
unpromising material that the Greeks had to forge a strategy for victory.
Since there were twenty separate commanders at Salamis, they
needed a sizable space for their deliberation. Presumably, they met either in a
public building or in a large private house. Every Greek city had its agora,
the open space in the center of town that combined marketplace and political
forum. The agora was usually bordered on one or more sides by a stoa, or
covered portico, offering shelter from sun, wind, and rain.
We might imagine the generals at Salamis meeting in a
covered portico of the agora, perhaps within sight of the statue there of the
great Athenian statesman Solon, shown in the act of addressing the people, with
his arm modestly tucked inside his cloak. Perhaps they even met in the Temple
of Ajax, a shrine to the great hero.
It is an open question whether the Greeks would have made
good use of leisure time for discussion had it been available. The Greeks were so
famous for talk and argument that some doubted their capacity for action. Cyrus
the Great of Persia, for example, had once dismissed the Spartan army by saying
that Greeks were men who set aside a place in the center of town where they
could swear oaths and cheat each other, referring to the agora.
The Greeks in council at Salamis would have the chance to
prove Cyrus wrong, but they would have to move quickly. However long it took
the full Persian force to get from Thermopylae to Athens, once they arrived,
they seemed to fly.
Eurybiades opened the meeting by asking for recommendations
for strategy. Which of the lands that they controlled should be the base for
future naval operations against the enemy? He explicitly excluded Attica, since
the Greeks were not defending it. So bald a statement of the facts might have
stung Themistocles. True, Eurybiades did not exclude Salamis as a base, but he
did not favor it, either.
A variety of opinions was heard, but the most common theme
was that the fleet should move westward to the Isthmus of Corinth. Perhaps
Themistocles argued that Salamis was no farther from the Isthmus, about
twenty-five miles, than Artemisium had been from Thermopylae, a distance of
forty miles. And all things considered, the Greeks had done very well at
Artemisium. If Themistocles spoke in this vein, he might have been shocked at
Herodotus reports the majority viewpoint among the speakers
at the council, and apparently the Peloponnesians predominated among those who
spoke. They made it clear that their concern was less the suitability of
Salamis as a base for victory than as a getaway point after defeat. If the
Greek fleet was beaten at the Isthmus, the Peloponnesian sailors had only to
get ashore and they could walk home, if need be. If the Greek fleet was beaten
at Salamis, however, the survivors would be blockaded on an island.
In short, the Peloponnesian admirals were defeatists. Their
gloom could have only deepened when an Athenian messenger interrupted the
council with the news that the Persians were in Attica and had set everything
on fire. Worse, they had taken the Acropolis. This latter information,
delivered in person, might have been confirmed by signal relay. The smoke of
the buildings would have been visible from the hills of Salamis, and word of it
could have been sent down to the city by a prearranged signal, perhaps a
flashing of shields.
The result was chaos. Herodotus describes it as a thorubos,
a loud, confused noise or confusion more generally. Some of the commanders made
a quick exit. They rushed to their ships and ordered the sails hoisted for
departure. The rest of the generals stayed at the meeting and passed a motion
to fight the Persians at the Isthmus. In either case, the result was the same:
Salamis, the last shred of independent Athenian territory, was to be abandoned.
The Greeks had panicked, and Xerxes could not have asked for a better result if
he had planned it.