National Geographic : 1944 Mar
Xerxes Watching the Battle of Salamis, 480 B.c. ABANDONING their homes, most of the Athenians escaped to the near-by island of Salamis, and the Greek fleet, well equipped and res olutely manned, although numeri cally inferior to the Persian, lay be tween the invader and the future of the civilized world. Various schemes of defense were proposed, but the obvious tactical maneuver was to take advantage of the narrow waters between Salamis and the mainland, where the Persian numbers would not count so heavily. On the other hand, this would prob ably expose the Greeks to a long blockade, and there was every reason to attempt some operation which would result in a quick decision. Themistocles resourcefully con trived to send off a message which would be sure to fall into the Per sians' hands and indicate to them that the Greek fleet was on the point of slipping away. Xerxes, confident in the size of his fleet, and also, prob ably, impelled by the difficulty of supplying his forces for a long time, determined to join battle at once. Accordingly, the Persian fleet was sent in to force the narrow waters be tween the mainland and the narrow peninsula of Salamis called Cyno sura, "dog's tail." A small island, Psyttalea, split the Persian fleet into two parts and, so far as it is possible to reconstruct the battle from vary ing accounts, it appears that the great number of the Persian galleys, lacking sea room to deploy, were helplessly and hopelessly crowded together. The Greek squadrons swung into and rammed their enemies before they had any chance to open out in the broader reaches of the bay. Xerxes watched the fight from a throne set up on a spur of Mount Aegaleos. Herodotus tells how, when the galley of Queen Artemisia, one of Xerxes' allies, ran down a friendly ship in a successful effort to escape, the monarch thought she was actually ramming a Greek vessel and ex claimed, "My men fight like women, but my women fight like men!" Warships in those days were pro pelled by oars. A trireme had usually as many as two hundred rowers, and three banks of oars on each side, ar ranged thus: :*:*:*:*:. It carried a single large mast and sail which was unshipped and sent ashore if possible before going into action, but there was often a jigger mast which was re tained to help in maneuvering or in escaping. The bronze beaks on the bows were used for ramming, which was the favorite form of attack, but when a group of vessels became locked the fighting men boarded the opposing ship and fought hand to hand. Blaz ing arrows, bearing bundles of tow and pitch, were used as incendiaries. Most actions were fought near shore, and we frequently hear of crews "bail ing out" and swimming to safety on the beach. The disaster to his fleet and the impossibility of maintaining his land forces once they were cut off from sea-borne supplies forced Xerxes to return to Persia, leaving an army to winter in Thessaly. His plans to send reinforcements were delayed, how ever, and when his general, Mardo nius, was defeated at Plataea the next year he made no further attempt to conquer Greece. Thus the Battle of Salamis made Athens the mistress of the seas for many years and cleared the way for her notable political, commercial, and cultural expansion.