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What was The Battle of Salamis? A 5 minute Guide

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

In the last ‘5 minute guide', we took a look at the legendary Battle of Thermopylae. It was on this mountain pass that a small army of Greek Hoplites, led by the Spartan King Leonidas, held off the might of the Persian Army for nearly three days. However, their spirited defence was brought to a crushing end when the Persians discovered a secret path in the mountains, one that led them to the rear of the Greek Army.

In the resulting battle, the Greeks were finally wiped out. Yet, perhaps their heroic sacrifice had not been in vain. Maybe, just maybe, the 300 Spartans - and friends – had given the Greek City States enough time to pull their finger out and get an army sorted to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable Persians?

What happened next?

The Battle of Salamis. Greek Forces are in Blue, the Persians in Red. Courtesy The Department of History.

Things didn’t start off too great for the Greeks, that’s for certain. During 480 BC the Persians rampaged through the Greek City States, they even managed to sack Athens! Oh, by the way, ‘Sack’ doesn’t mean the Persians presented the Athenians with the underwhelming gift of a large brown canvas bag. Instead, ‘sack’ means to ‘plunder’. The Persians broke into Athens, smashed the place up and stole lots of treasure. Anyway, it was all going badly for the Greek States, they had one last chance: to defeat the Persians in an epic Naval battle at Salamis.

That’s a lot of ships!

Almost 2000 ship took part in the Naval battle. Probably.

So, how many ships fought in the battle of Salamis? No one knows for certain. Herodotus, the first historian, states that there were 1207 ships in the Persian fleet and only 310 ships in the Greek fleet. But, as Herodotus did like to make things up in order to add excitement to his history books, these numbers should be taken with a massive handful of salt. Either way, we know that the Persian fleet heavily outnumbered their Greek counterparts.

What sort of ships did they have?

Triremes were big and scary! Courtesy EDSITEment

Both fleets consisted of Triremes. These are wooden warships; great big things that weighed up to fifty tons and were as long as 40 metres. They were propelled by the wind in their sails and by good old-fashioned oar power too – it took 170 oarsmen to zoom a Trireme into battle.

Triremes weren’t equipped with long-range weapons - no cannons, catapults or laser guns I’m afraid. Instead, they had a great big bronze ram on the bow. The idea was that Triremes would dodge, zig-zag and spin in an attempt to ram through the side of a rival ship. Often both ships would end up getting stuck together and then it would be up to the soldiers on board to duke it out on the deck. In this, the Persians had a massive advantage, they had loads more ships and loads more soldiers.

How the heck did the Greeks win then?

What a good plan! Courtesy The Department of History, United States Military Academy - The Department of History, United States Military Academy

That’s all down to strategy and tactics. The great Athenian naval commander, Themistocles, came up with a doozy of a plan. Though outnumbered, if the Greeks fought the Persians in a narrow enough stretch of water then the numbers would make no difference. This is because the same amount of Greek Triremes could fight the same amount of Persian Triremes, there was no space to fit any other ships in the narrow stretch of water.

The chaos of battle

As the battle begun the Greeks pretended to retreat. The Persians, believing victory would soon be theirs, started to advance their ships. As the Persians closed the distance their vast fleet became packed together – so much so that they couldn’t’ manoeuvre. Persian Triremes became jammed together – not with a delicious fruity spread I should add, as that would be silly.

The Persians were stuck, the wooden hull of each ship rubbing against the wooden hull of another. The Greeks now had all the space to maneuverer, ramming the Persians from the flank – their side – and causing chaos and destruction. Worse still for the Persians, with all their ships mushed together, they weren’t even able to retreat. Soon the battle was over!

How did it all end?

After the defeat at the battle of Salamis, the Persian King – Xerxes – returned to his palace and left his general in charge of the invasion. The Persians still controlled a lot of Greece and it wasn’t until the Battle of Plataea in August 479 BCE, when the Greeks deployed the largest army of Hoplites ever seen, that the Persians were finally defeated.


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