Herodotus' Histories, book 8

summary and comments by Jona Lendering


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). This 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.

Twenty-fourth logos: the naval battle off Salamis (8.40-96)

The next logos 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.
    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.
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.
    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.

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 court.
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.
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