Today I’d like to take you on a journey through the mists of time to the beginning of the 5th Century BCE. Athens was still a new democracy, and it wasn’t yet recognized as a nauti superpower.
The Greco-Persian wars may sound like something you’ve never heard of, but they might be more familiar than you think:
If you’ve seen the 300 movies, you’ve seen one of the most cracked out depictions of the Ancient World to date. I say ‘one of’ because we can’t forget about Caligula and Fellini’s Satyricon. Seriously.
So, Greco-Persian wars, not as far removed from at least the entertainment industry of today’s world as you thought. Basically, the Persians were trying to conquer the Western World, and the Western World was having none of it. Athens won a huge victory in the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, ten years before Salamis. Marathon was a Big Deal™ for the Athenians and their allies, because it repelled the first Persian invasion and was seen as a win for democracy instead of a monarchy.
The aftermath of this battle is likely more familiar. After the Greeks achieved their victory forever, Pheidippides the messenger reportedly ran the distance from Marathon to Athens to deliver the triumphant news. Apparently he was so exhausted afterwards that he collapsed and died. And now people run that distance for fun and glory, because we live in a world of masochists.
Ten years after this win, rumours are flying that Persia is coming back for more. Uncertainty and arguments among Athens’ relatively newly minted democracy ensues. Enter Themistocles.
Themistocles is described as being a sassy and cunning upstart. Also, he hated Persia. He wasn’t descended from the aristocracy or the gods, but was instead of lowly birth and thus a man of the common people. Plutarch says he was born for public life, and was a controversial politician. Probably because he was so sassy.
Three years before the Persians made their second invasion attempt, something very important happened. A vein of silver was discovered in the mines of
Moria Laurium near Athens. Usually when this happened, every citizen would be paid a sum of money and they would lease out the mining rights. Themistocles had other ideas.
He proposed that they use the silver to purchase the materials for and build 100 new triremes to make Athens a substantial naval power and become masters of the sea. His rival,
Gary Oak Aristides, wanted to divide up the money as per usual. The Athenians put it to a vote.
Now, a way that the Athenians kept things democratic AF was to honourably ostracize people for ten-year periods of time. This was done in the hopes that people who were getting too powerful or vehemently opposing winning plans would get to go chill for a minute and let people forget about them and focus on what The People wanted to do.
This ostracism was particularly important, because had Themistocles lost, the ships would have never been built, Themistocles would have been ostracized, and the Persians probably would have conquered Greece and changed the face of history forever.
But we don’t have to worry about the what-ifs because Themistocles won the vote, Aristides was exiled, and the ships were built. Good thing, too, because in 480 BCE Xerxes and his immense Persian army came back.
The details of the battle itself are sketchy at best, but there’s no question that the Persian army vastly outnumbered the Greek fleet’s 350-400 triremes. The odds against them were mounting. Themistocles had made the perfect attack plan.
As the story goes, Themistocles sends a slave on a sneaky nighttime adventure to the Persian naval fleet’s headquarters. The slave told the Persians that the fragmented and unsteady alliance of the Greeks had failed and they were retreating. Somehow this plan worked, and the Persians began to advance.
By the morning of September 25, 480 BCE the entire Persian fleet was visible on the horizon, and the battle began. Themistocles’ plan was to lure the Persians into the narrow strait near Salamis, and it worked beautifully. The Persians came through and were systematically crushed by the badass new gods that were the Greek naval power.
Themistocles was able to unite the common people, the farmers and merchants and sometimes slaves in order to defend their democratic society against the invaders from the east. This was the first battle where they weren’t just a bunch of different city-states, for three days they were all Greeks, and it was glorious. After their defeat, Xerxes and his homies went back to Susa and eventually lost the war.
If these events hadn’t happened, the entire history of the WORLD AS WE KNOW IT would be different. We likely wouldn’t have the great tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus or the comedies of Aristophanes. The golden age of the Athenian Empire and the philosophy and culture that stemmed from it likely would have never taken place and influenced the development of Western civilization. Wild, isn’t it?
Notes and Other Resources
Most of what we know about this battle comes from our homies Herodotus and Plutarch. There is also another great book by Barry Strauss if you’re looking for an awesome narrative about the causes and aftermath of Salamis.
John Green also has a great video about historical bias in the Greco-Persian War from one of my favourite humans, John Green, on Crash Course World History: