4 – Battle of Salamis (480/479 BC)
Although Darius I wanted revenge on the Greeks for the defeat at Marathon, uprisings in Egypt and Babylon took up much of his time. He died before he could launch another invasion, so it was left to his son, Xerxes, to deal with Greece. Xerxes became king in 486 BC, and once he handled the rebellions in Egypt and Babylon, he turned his attention to Greece.
The Achaemenid Empire had been at war with Greece since the 499 BC rebellion and enjoyed its fair share of successes. Darius’ forces swept through Greece only to suffer a decisive loss at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. When Xerxes returned, he won the famous Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC followed quickly by a win in the Battle of Artemisium when the Greek forces retreated to Salamis.
By now, the Persians controlled all of Boeotia, and the population of Athens was evacuated by the Greeks. Upon capturing Athens, Xerxes ordered it to be razed, and it appeared that total conquest of Greece was within his grasp. He was exasperated by the stubborn Greek defiance and resolved to destroy the enemy’s navy as soon as possible. The Greek alliance left their ships off the coast of Salamis because they believed a decisive win would bring an end to the Persian invasion.
In what was the first great naval battle in history to be recorded by historians, the Persian fleet of approximately 900-1200 ships greatly outnumbered the Greek alliance’s 300 or so ships. The commander of the Greek army, Themistocles, tricked the Persians by luring them into the narrow waters of the strait of Salamis. In this tight space, the vast Persian numbers proved to be their undoing as they couldn’t maneuver as well as the enemy. The Greek ships rammed and boarded the Persian ships and sank up to 300 of them while losing just 40 ships of their own.
The devastating loss scattered Xerxes’ fleet, and it took a year for him to assemble enough of an army to invade Greece once again. At that stage, the Greek states gained a significant amount of strength and won decisive victories at Plataea and Mycale in 479 BC. If the Persians had won at Salamis, the entire development of Ancient Greece would have been hampered along with that of western civilization. As a consequence, it is among the most important battles of all-time.