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Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis (Naumachia tes Salaminos) was fought between an Alliance of Greek city-states and the Persian Empire in September 480 B. C. , in the straits between the mainland and Salamis, an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens. It marked the high-point of the second Persian invasion of Greece which had begun in 480 B. C.

To block the Persian advance, a small force of Greeks blocked the pass of Thermopylae, while an Athenian-dominated Allied navy engaged the Persian fleet in the nearby straits of Artemisium. In the resulting Battle of Thermopylae, the rearguard of the Greek force was annihilated, whilst in the Battle of Artemisium the Greeks had heavy losses and retreated after the loss at Thermopylae.

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This allowed the Persians to conquer Boeotia and Attica.

The Allies prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth whilst the fleet was withdrawn to nearby Salamis Island. Although heavily outnumbered, the Greek Allies were persuaded by the Athenian general Themistocles to bring the Persian fleet to battle again, in the hope that a victory would prevent naval operations against the Peloponessus. The Persian king Xerxes was also anxious for a decisive battle. As a result of subterfuge on the part of Themistocles, the Persian navy sailed into the Straits of Salamis and tried to block both entrances.

In the cramped conditions of the Straits the great Persian numbers were an active hindrance, as ships struggled to maneuver and became disorganized. Seizing the opportunity, the Greek fleet formed in line and scored a decisive victory, sinking or capturing at least 300 Persian ships. As a result Xerxes retreated to Asia with much of his army, leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest of Greece. However, the following year, the remainder of the Persian army was decisively beaten at the Battle of Plataea and the Persian navy at the Battle of Mycale.

Afterwards the Persian made no more attempts to conquer the Greek mainland. These battles of Salamis and Plataea thus mark a turning point in the course of the Greco-Persian wars as a whole; from then onward, the Greek poleis would take the offensive. A number of historians believe that a Persian victory would have hamstrung the development of Ancient Greece, and by extension western civilization, and this has led them to claim that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history. 2]

The main source for the Greco-Persian Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus, who has been called the ‘Father of History’,[3] was born in 484 BC in Halicarnassus, Asia Minor (then under Persian overlordship). He wrote his ‘Enquiries’ around 440–430 BC, trying to trace the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars, which would still have been relatively recent history (the wars finally ending in 450 BC). 4] Herodotus’s approach was entirely novel, and at least in Western society, he does seem to have invented ‘history’ as we know it. [4] As Holland has it: “For the first time, a chronicler set himself to trace the origins of a conflict not to a past so remote so as to be utterly fabulous, nor to the whims and wishes of some god, nor to a people’s claim to manifest destiny, but rather explanations he could verify personally. “[4]

Some subsequent ancient historians, despite following in his footsteps, criticised Herodotus, starting with Thucydides. 5][6] Nevertheless, Thucydides chose to begin his history where Herodotus left off (at the Siege of Sestos), and therefore evidently felt that Herodotus’s history was accurate enough not to need re-writing or correcting. [6] Plutarch criticised Herodotus in his essay “On The Malignity of Herodotus”, describing Herodotus as “Philobarbaros” (barbarian-lover), for not being pro-Greek enough, which suggests that Herodotus might actually have done a reasonable job of being even-handed. 7] A negative view of Herodotus was passed on to Renaissance Europe, though he remained well read. [8] However, since the 19th century his reputation has been dramatically rehabilitated by archaeological finds which have repeatedly confirmed his version of events. [9]

The prevailing modern view is that Herodotus generally did a remarkable job in his Historia, but that some of his specific details (particularly troop numbers and dates) should be viewed with skepticism. [9] Nevertheless, there are still some historians who believe Herodotus made up much of his story. 10] The Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BC in his Bibliotheca Historica, also provides an account of the Greco-Persian wars, partially derived from the earlier Greek historian Ephorus. This account is fairly consistent with Herodotus’s. [11] The Greco-Persian wars are also described in less detail by a number of other ancient historians including Plutarch, Ctesias of Cnidus, and are alluded by other authors, such as the playwright Aeschylus. Archaeological evidence, such as the Serpent Column, also supports some of Herodotus’s specific claims. [12]

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