6. King Xerxes’ Last Minute Decision to Accept Advice From an Enemy Lost Him a War
King Xerxes of Persia set out to conquer Greece in 480 BC. After defeating a Spartan force at Thermopylae, the Persians captured a nearly deserted Athens, razed the city’s walls, and burned the place the ground. They then assembled their navy of about 600 to 800 warships on the beaches south of Athens, near the island of Salamis to the west. An allied Greek navy of about 375 warships, mostly Athenian, awaited them, guarding the eastern entrance of a strait separating Salamis from the Greek mainland.
The Greek navy was under the nominal command of the Spartan Eurybiades, but in practice, the true commander was the Athenian Themistocles. Athens’ Greek allies wavered, and called for a retreat from Salamis. Themistocles convinced them to stay by threatening that the Athenians would defect to the Persians if the allies refused to fight. However, as it was clear that the other Greeks’ commitment was shaky, Themistocles decided to force a battle as soon as possible.
A Fragile Greek Alliance
All Xerxes had to do to win was keep his fleet in place, until the fragile Greek alliance fell apart, or they launched an unwise attack against his more numerous ship. The one thing he did not need to do, and should not have done, but ended up doing at the last minute, was to attack the Greek fleet in Salamis. To get the Persian king to commit that monumental mistake, Themistocles sent Xerxes a secret message claiming friendship, and informing him that the Greeks were demoralized. To trap them, Themistocles advised, the Persians should send a naval detachment to block the western exit of the strait, then attack from the east. The bottled up Greeks would then either surrender, or put up a poor show. Either way, Xerxes would emerge victorious.