Twenty-third logos: the naval battle off Artemisium (8.1-39)
Book Seven ended
with a Greek defeat, but in Book Eight we will hear about Greek successes.
In its first logos, we witness the naval engagement on the sea between
Aphetae and Artemisium. The Greek commander was the admiral of the small
Spartan squadron, a man named Eurybiades. However, the Athenians had manned
127 ships and had given 20 ships to the Chalcidians; it was natural that
the real commander was Themistocles (picture below), the man who had been
responsible for the Athenian shipbuilding program (above).
When the Persian fleet arrives at the opposite shore, Eurybiades wants
to retreat; but Themistocles -who wants to counter the Persian offensive
before it reaches Athens- bribes him to stay.
During the night, a diver named Scyllias defects
to the Greeks, and tells their admirals of the Persian
losses at Squid's Cape. He also informs them of a squadron of two hundred
Persian warships sailing around the island Euboea, which will attack the
Greek rear. Eurybiades and Themistocles know that their 271 ships now face
600 Persian damaged ships, which are just waiting until the two hundred
ships have made their way around Euboea. Next day, the Greeks wait till
the evening, and then suddenly attack the other navy, with the intention
of testing Persian seamanship and tactics. The enemies are caught off guard,
and thirty ships are captured. After sunset, a Ionian captain defects to
the Greeks, and immediately afterwards, there is a violent rainstorm. For
the Persians at Aphetae, it is a bad night, but for the squadron sailing
around Euboea it is a disaster: the ships are smashed against the rocks
and many sailors drown.
During the next day, the Greeks receive reinforcements: 53 warships
from Athens, bringing the strength of the Athenian contingent to 200. Immediately,
the Greeks attack their opponents, destroying the vessels of the Cilician
contingent in the Persian navy and returning to Artemisium at sunset. On
the third day, it is the Persian's turn to take the initiative: the two
fleets are evenly matched. When the sun sets, both fleets return to their
moorings; the Greeks manage to recover and bury the floating bodies. They
have suffered severe losses (e.g., half the Athenian ships are damaged)
and decide to retreat.
On the first day after the battles at Thermopylae
and Artemisium, Xerxes' marines visit the place where Leonidas is defeated.
Although Xerxes tries to conceal the number of his own dead, nobody is
deceived. From a Greek deserter, the Persians learn that the Greeks are
now celebrating the Olympic Games. The fact that the first prize is just
a wreath of olive leaves shocks Xerxes' courtiers, and one remarks: "Good
heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have brought us
to fight against - men who compete with one another for no material reward,
but only for honor!"
The Persians continue their march; soon, they reach
Thebes, which has already offered earth and water (above).
logos ends with a short description of Persian raid on Delphi.
It comes to nothing, because the Greeks receive divine aid in the form
of an avalange.
Herodotus' fame as a historian does not rest
on his knowledge of military affairs. He writes that it was "coincidence
that the battles at sea took place on the same days as the battles at Thermopylae".
However, the engagements were interrelated. The Greek strategy was to destroy
the Persian navy; in doing so, they could force Xerxes to reduce the numbers
of his army (cf. above). Only
then, the Greek army would have a fair chance to drive away the invaders.
Leonidas was to hold up the great king's army with his small force, and
the navy was to do the real job.
The Persians understood that the Greek navy was
the real enemy; their goal in this double battle was to attack the Greek
navy in its rear. To reach this goal, they sent the two hundred warships
around Euboea: not to attack the Greek navy in its rear (as Herodotus believes)
but to attack the Greek army at Thermopylae. When Leonidas would
have been defeated, the two hundred ships would ferry the Persian army
to Euboea, where the army could attack the Greek naval base at Artemisium.
As we have seen, this plan failed because the fleet was annihilated in
a storm. Even worse, the Athenians could send the 53 vessels that were
guarding the east coast of Euboea and Attica to Artemisium.
On the first two days, the Greek tactic was to descend
in a concentrated attack on just one squadron of the large Persian navy
(e.g., the Cilician ships on the second day). This kind of hit-and-run-tactic
was possible because their enemy's fleet was so large that it harbored
on several places at some distance of each other: when the Persian supreme
command learned of a Greek attack, the enemy had already retreated. On
the third day, however, the Greeks were probably defeated (something that
Herodotus may try to hide). But even if the Greeks were not defeated, they
were forced to retreat from Artemisium, because Thermopylae had fallen:
from now on, the position of the Greek navy was precarious, because it
had no longer any cover in the rear.
Herodotus is mistaken about the date of the Olympic
Games. It is extremely difficult to date the events of the Summer of 480,
but all reconstructions by modern scholars assume that the Games ended
shortly before or -most probably- during the two battles (on August 20
or September 18).
Twenty-fourth logos: the naval battle off Salamis (8.40-96)
opens with a description of a serious quarrel between the Greek admirals.
The Athenians insist that their compatriots send their fleets to Salamis,
a small island just opposite the Athenian harbors. The Athenians do so,
because the do not trust the Spartans, who had promised to send an army
to Boeotia to defend Athens, but were actually building a wall across the
Corinthian Isthmus. With the navies at Salamis, there would at least be
some protection against the Persian invasion. The Greek commanders agree
to the Athenian demand, and a navy of no less than 378 galleys gathers
at Salamis. They disagree, however, about their future movements. Most
admirals think that Salamis is a dangerous place to stay, because they
will be trapped after a naval defeat; they suppose it is better to go to
Corinth, where they can defend the wall without running risks of entrapment.
The admirals are not yet decided when they hear
that Xerxes has entered Athens. The city itself had been undefended, although
there had been a small garrison on the acropolis - people who had believed
that the "wooden wall" mentioned in the oracle (above)
was the palisade surrounding the temple of the goddess Athena, the so-called
Parthenon. Too late, they had discovered that they had misinterpreted the
Delphian god's prophecy. After killing these people, Xerxes had ordered
the looting of the temple. On hearing this terrible news, the supreme commander
of the Greek navy, the Spartan Eurybiades, decides to leave Salamis and
to go to Corinth.
As usual, Herodotus focuses on the moral issue -Spartan betrayal
of Athens- and fails to understand the strategic realities. Defending Athens
in the flat countryside of Boeotia would have been an act of gallant irresponsibility,
because the superior numbers of the invaders would have outmatched the
brave Greek soldiers. After Thermopylae, Athens was lost, and the Athenians
had been aware of this bitter truth from the moment Themistocles had proposed
to evacuate the city and entrust it to Athena (above).
The only hope for Athens and for Greece was to prevent Xerxes to keep up
a large army. As pointed out (cf. above
and above), the Persian army was very large and
had to be supplied by the fleet. Only by destroying the Persian navy, the
Greeks could force Xerxes to reduce the overwhelming size of his army.
They had failed to do so at Artemisium; now they would do so in the straits
between Salamis and the mainland.
In the middle of
the night, Themistocles goes to Eurybiades, convincing the Spartan that
it was necessary to stay. The supreme commander organizes a meeting of
the admirals, but Themistocles' proposal is rejected, until the Athenian
announces that if the Greeks will give up Salamis, the Athenians will give
up the struggle, take their families on board and sail to Italy with their
navy of two hundred vessels. The result of this blackmail is that everybody
agrees to stay and fight.
The Greek decision to evacuate Salamis was foolish
too. As long as the Greeks stayed at Salamis, the Persians could not enjoy
the safety of the Athenian harbor, Phalerum. Therefore, Xerxes' admirals
were forced to attack the Greek navy in the shallow and narrow bay of Salamis.
If the Greeks evacuated their advantageous position, they gave the Persians
a marvelous present: a save harbor. The invaders would be able to sweep
across the Aegean Sea, and could easily contact the pro-Persian city
of Argos. The Spartans could build the largest wall in the world, but it
would be useless. As we will see, Themistocles knew how to force his compatriots
into battle at Salamis.
Next day, when Xerxes is sacrificing in Athens,
the Persian navy arrives at Phalerum. The great king orders his army to
go to Corinth before the Spartan king Cleombrotus -a brother of Leonidas-
can complete the wall. According to Herodotus, the Greek admirals become
very scared when they see the Persian fleet approaching, and some decide
to evacuate Salamis. Themistocles understands that they will only stay
and fight if the Persians make the mistake to attack the Greeks in the
bay; during the night, he sends a trusted slave to Xerxes: this man informs
the great king that if he wants an easy victory, he has to attack immediately,
because the Greeks will leave the island at dawn.
Xerxes swallows the bait: under cover of the moonless
night, his large navy enters the bay. The Greeks learn from this maneuver
from Panaetius, a Greek who had been forced to join the Persian navy and
now sees his opportunity to defect. At dawn, Xerxes' navy suddenly finds
itself under attack; since the bay is narrow, the superior numbers of the
invaders mean nothing. The great king, who is sitting on a hill, sees how
his fleet is defeated.
This naval engagement can be dated on September 29, 480 BCE (September
28 and 30 are less likely). More than five hundred of the thousand Persian
vessels were damaged. As a consequence, the Persians could no longer maintain
their large army in Greece. The odd story about Themistocles' trick to
lure the Persians into the Bay of Salamis may be true, because it is also
mentioned in the near contemporary play The Persians by Aeschylus.
Twenty-fifth logos: winter (8.97-144)
Next day, Xerxes orders the construction of a mole between the mainland
and Salamis; most people think he wants to continue the struggle, but Herodotus
knows that it was just a cover-up for the preparations of his flight. Mardonius
convinces he great king that it is better to keep an army of moderate dimensions
in Thessaly and Macedonia; a smaller army will succeed where Xerxes' oversized
army had failed. The king agrees and appoints Mardonius as commander in
chief of his European army. The Persian navy is ordered to protect the
bridges across the Hellespont. Herodotus describes
the army's retreat to Asia as a disaster of apocalyptic dimensions. Because
supplies are running out, the soldiers are forced to eat grass.
When Themistocles learns of the Persian retreat,
he proposes a raid on the bridges, which will make it impossible for Xerxes
and his army to return. Eurybiades overrules him, arguing that it is better
to allow the enemy to flee. The Athenian admiral accepts this decision
and sends a messenger to the great king that he has persuaded the Greeks
not to attack the bridge. Xerxes believes this, and Herodotus adds that
this message saved Themistocles when he fell in disfavor: several years
after the war, the man who had saved Greece was welcomed at the Persian
After describing Greek celebrations and sacrifices,
Herodotus tells how the Greek towns in the Chalcidice revolt against the
Persians during the winter. When the spring comes, a small Greek navy gathers
at Aegina and crosses Delos. The Spartan king Leotychides refuses to go
any further. Meanwhile, Mardonius starts a diplomatic offensive. He consults
the Greek oracles and sends the Macedonian king Alexander to Athens. (Herodotus
digresses on the Greek origin of the Macedonian royal house.) Alexander
offers the Athenians favorable terms: if they surrender and join the Persians,
their city will not be destroyed, Xerxes will pay for the rebuilding of
the Parthenon, and they may add extra territories to their realm. When
the Spartans hear from this diplomatic move, they are seriously alarmed
and send envoys to Athens. The ambassadors learn that the Athenians will
never surrender, but insist on a Spartan mobilization.
This logos lacks the simplicity of the preceding logoi,
which were dedicated to one theme; instead, we learn about several army
and navy movements, and diplomatic exchanges. Except for the excursus on
the ancestors of Alexander of Macedonia (who is of course not to be confused
with Alexander the Great), we meet another Herodotus - an almost scientific
historian, comparable to Thucydides.
Book 1 Book
2 Book 3 Book
4 Book 5 Book
6 Book 7 Book
Herodotus presents Xerxes' retreat as a humiliating
flight. He also tells a story about two messengers arriving in the Persian
capital, the first causing great joy with his news about the capture of
Athens, the second causing great mourning with his report of the defeat
at Salamis, which lasts until Xerxes' return. The story about the messengers
may be true, but strongly resembles Aeschylus' play The Persians.
Moreover, it is unlikely that the Persians felt they had been defeated:
they had been victorious at Thermopylae and Artemisium and in destroying
Athens, the great king had taken revenge for the Athenian raid on Sardes,
the destruction of the sanctuary of Cybele and the Battle of Marathon.
Of course, the Greek navy had prevented the invasion of the Peloponnese,
but Mardonius would be able to mop up the last resistance.