An Incredible Sacrifice
The Greeks were aware that the invading force was superior in numbers and believed it was necessary to get the Persians to fight in as narrow a space as possible. Once the Vale of Tempe was rejected because it could be bypassed, the Greeks settled on the pass of Thermopylae. It was chosen because it could be defended by a relatively small number of Hoplites. The Greeks were also able to block the straits of Artemisium to stop the Persian fleet from bypassing Thermopylae.
For three days, a group of around 7,000 men held off the Persian army which may have numbered anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000. It is difficult to say how long the Greeks could have held out, but they were betrayed by a man named Ephialtes. Once Leonidas learned of the treachery, he dismissed most of his army and bravely remained behind with around 1,400 troops. They fought to the last man in one of history’s most legendary final stands. Now that the Persians were able to bypass Thermopylae, the Greeks lifted the blockade at Artemisium and retreated to the Saronic Gulf.
Xerxes was determined to make an example of the Boeotian cities that refused to submit, so Thespiae and Plataea were pillaged and burned. Next, the Persians marched on the city of Athens but found that it has been evacuated. The Greeks decided to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, so they destroyed the only road through it and built a wall. On this occasion, Themistocles persuaded the Greek city-states to stay and force the Persians into battle. Yet again, they chose a narrow battleground to suffocate their much larger enemy.
The Persians Arrive at Salamis
It is difficult to determine how many ships were on both sides. Herodotus is the primary source for the battle, but he had a habit of exaggerating the size of armies. In all likelihood, the Greeks probably had in the region of 370 ships against at least 600 Persian ships, possibly as many as 800. Herodotus wrote that there were 3,000 Persian ships while Aeschylus offers a slightly lower figure of 1,207. Whatever the real figures, it is certain that the Greeks were vastly outnumbered.
In strategic terms, the Persians didn’t need to fight at Salamis, but it made sense given their numerical advantage. It is also a fact that Xerxes could call upon more experienced oarsmen since the Greek fleet had only been created a couple of years before the battle. The Persians wanted to fight in the open sea and had they succeeded in gaining this kind of space; victory would have been all but certain. Instead, the battle occurred on the Greeks’ terms; in a constricted area which negated the numerical supremacy of the Persians.
Why did the Persians sail into such a tight space? There is a suggestion that Themistocles fooled them into thinking the Greek alliance was about to collapse. He may have sent messages to Xerxes suggesting that the Greek fleet was about to break up as the city-states decided not to fight with one another after all. Whatever the reason, the Persians sailed into a disadvantageous position, a decision that changed the history of ancient civilization.