The Battle of Salamis - 480 BC | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.11.2009
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The Battle of Salamis - 480 BC

In October of 480 BC, a Greek fleet conquered Persian invaders in the Battle of Salamis, creating the conditions under which Greece and Europe could flourish.

Watercolour depiction of the Battle of Salamis, Peter Connolly

The Greeks defeated the Persians at sea

The ruling political figure in those years was military strategist Themistocles (ca. 525 - 459 BC). In 490 BC, he began building a wall to protect Athens and the port of Piraeus. At the same time, he also expanded a fleet of warships to fight off attacks by the Persians. For years, the king of Persia had been trying to gain a foothold on the European continent. The first attempt in 490 BC in Marathon had failed. Despite their numerical superiority, the Persians were unable to repel the Greek onslaught and were forced to withdraw.

Persian invasion

Bust of Themistocles

Bust of Themistocles

But the Persians didn't give up that easily; instead they created the biggest army in antiquity. In order to transport his troops more quickly, King Xerxes I (519 - 465 BC) dug a canal across the Athos peninsula, and built bridges across both the Hellespont and Strymon rivers. The Greeks were aware of the Persians' massive war preparations, and it was clear that Xerxes intended nothing less than the conquest of Greece and Southeastern Europe.

Themistocles had visited the Oracle of Delphi, who prophesied that only "wooden walls" would protect Athens. He interpreted this to mean that the Greeks should enter battle on the open sea, seeking refuge behind the wooden walls of their ships. After considerable resistance in the citizens' assembly, he received permission to expand the fleet of warships. Themistocles guessed that it would be impossible to defeat the Persians on land, and it wasn't long before he was proven right. In August of 480 BC, Greek soldiers only managed to defend the narrow pass of Thermopylae against the Persians for two days before they were forced to flee. Xerxes marched on Athens and sacked the city. Athens was vulnerable, as all the men who could defend it had taken to their warships.

The battle progression, with the movements of the Greek flotilla marked in green, and the Persian ships marked in red

The battle progression, with the movements of the Greek flotilla marked in green, and the Persian ships marked in red

Looking at the destroyed city, the Greeks realized that this was their last chance: if they lost this battle, it would mean the end of Greece as they knew it. The Greeks faced off against the Persians in a narrow strait west of the island of Salamis. The battle lasted for 12 hours, but at the end, the Greeks were victorious. It was likely the Greek army's smaller, more manoeuvrable boats that gave them the advantage in the narrow waters around Salamis. With their victory, the Greeks escaped a fate of becoming slaves to Persia, and stopped the Persians' invasion of Europe.

Europe versus Asia

The Greek victory over the Persians was a milestone in European history. Had they suffered a defeat, there would have been no stopping the Persian army: they would have extended Persia's influence over all of continental Europe. In that case, ancient Greek and Roman culture would never have developed. Modern Europe has its roots in Greek and Roman antiquity. But if Persia had won the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, Europe would likely be known today as "West Asia," and its population would be mostly Muslim.

Visitors gaze at a depiction of the battle by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Visitors gaze at a depiction of the battle by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Herodotus (490 - 425 BC), one of the most significant Greek historians, gave the war against the Persians an ideological bent. For him, it was a "war of the systems." On one side, there was Europe, which stood for "freedom and democracy" - after all, it was during this time that "Attic democracy" was founded, which until this day is considered to be the cradle of democratic Europe. On the other side - the Persian/Asian side - there was what Herodotus termed "despotism" - the system of violent rule. So it was that he divided the ancient world into opposites: Europe versus Asia, and "freedom versus slavery."


Author: Matthias von Hellfeld (dc)
Editor: Andreas Illmer