Military History Battle of Salamis: 480 BC
Peter Krentz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0196


In 480 BCE, the Greeks defeated the Persian fleet off the island of Salamis in the largest naval battle ever fought in the ancient world. The Greek victory proved to be the turning point in the war, for the Persian king, Xerxes, returned to Asia with his surviving ships and the majority of his land troops. The Persian invading forces, which included a diverse array of infantry recruited from the vast empire and warships and rowers from the peoples bordering the Mediterranean Sea, had advanced from Asia in tandem by land and sea along the coast of the Aegean, without encountering opposition until they reached the pass at Thermopylae in late August. When Thermopylae fell in a matter of days, the assembled Greek navy abandoned its position at nearby Artemisium, on the island of Euboea, and withdrew to the south. The Athenians evacuated their city and took their families to Aegina, Troizen, and Salamis, an island just off the coast of Attica, where the Greek fleet moored. Only some two dozen out of the hundreds of Greek cities sent ships; more Greek cities, in fact, fought for the Persians as subjects of the Persian Empire. By mid-September, Xerxes had advanced through central Greece, looting and burning as he went, and captured Athens. But with summer coming to an end and stormy weather on the way, he decided to attack at Salamis rather than wait for the Greek coalition to disintegrate. After blocking the exits from the straits at night to prevent escape, the Persians were surprised to find the Greeks ready to fight in the morning. In the battle, the outnumbered Greeks took advantage of restricted waters between Salamis and the mainland. The Persian ships became more and more crowded together as the ships in the rear pressed forward, their captains eager to prove themselves under Xerxes’ watchful eyes. The Greek ships, heavier and sturdier, won by ramming the Persian ships, which were designed for greater maneuverability but lacked the open water they needed. Scholars debate just about every aspect of the battle, from the reliability of the ancient sources to the nature of the wooden warships involved, from the numbers of these ships to the topography of the Salamis strait at the time of the battle, from the credibility of Themistocles’ trick to lure Xerxes into fighting to the reconstruction of the fighting itself and its last act, in which land troops played a role.

General Works on Xerxes’ Invasion

Garland 2017 is a good, brief overview; Holland 2005 and Shepherd 2019 also write for a broad audience. More thorough studies, still valuable, include Hignett 1963 and Burn and Lewis 1984. Among more recent works, Lazenby 1993 is a sensible military history, attentive to detail, while Green 1996 is livelier. Stoneman 2015 considers the Persian perspective. Boardman, et al. 1988 sets the war in its broadest Mediterranean and Near Eastern context.

Ancient Sources and Modern Commentaries

“Despite its momentous importance,” remarked Green 1996, p. 186 under General Works on Xerxes’ Invasion, “Salamis must be regarded as one of the worst-documented battles in the whole history of naval warfare.” Any study of the battle must start with the four major sources, all of which are available in recent English translations and have commentaries available. For the Messenger’s speeches in Aeschylus’s Persians, a tragedy produced in Athens only eight years after the battle and almost certainly written by an eyewitness, see the Collard translation (Aeschylus 2008) and the commentary in Garvie 2017. For the longest account, in Book 8 of Herodotus, who researched and composed his Histories beginning about 450 BCE, see the translations of Waterfield (Herodotus 1998), de Sélincourt and Marincola (Herodotus 2003), Purvis (Herodotus 2007), and Holland (Herodotus 2013), with the commentary in Bowie 2007. For the much briefer narrative written four centuries after the battle by Diodorus of Sicily, see the translation and commentary of Green 2010. For the biography of the Athenian general Themistocles written by Plutarch in the 2nd century CE, see the translation of Waterfield (Plutarch 1998) and the commentary of Frost 1980. Plutarch’s biography of Aristeides contains further relevant material.


Scholars continue to disagree about the construction and use of the warship known as a trireme (Greek trieres, plural triereis). The debate over how rowers were arranged entered a new phase in the 1980s, when John Morrison, a classicist, combined with John Coates, a naval engineer, to design and build a hypothetical reconstruction of a 4th-century Greek trireme, according to the basic ideas suggested by Morrison forty years earlier (Morrison, et al. 2000). The Hellenic Navy ship Olympias, which has 170 rowers arranged in three levels, was launched in 1987 and tested in sea-trials in the late 1980s and 1990s with mixed results: the three-level oar system worked and the ship maneuvered well, but its speed was disappointing (Rankov 2012). Tilley 2004 advocates an entirely different interpretation, with 120 rowers arranged in two levels, with 3 rowers in a cross-section of the ship rather than 3 per side or 6 in a cross-section. As for trireme tactics, Lazenby 1987 and Whitehead 1987 argue that triremes maneuvered individually, while Morrison 1991 argues that triremes fought in squadrons, and Holladay 1988 believes that the diekplous aimed at shattering enemy oars rather than ramming. Mark 2008, noting that Phoenician triremes were taller than Greek and had complete decks, explains the fact that Greek triremes were nevertheless slower and heavier at Salamis by suggesting that the Greeks designed and built sturdier and heavier triremes so they could ram the enemy ships, which lacked rams. This explanation of the difference in speed does seem superior to the view that the Persian ships had been dried out while the Greek had not (Morrison and Williams 1968). Alternatively, Wallinga 2005 (under Numbers) argues that trireme tactics at the time of the battle were still mostly a matter of boarding, and that the Persian ships were faster because the technical personnel, the men who coached the rowers, were better.


The number of triremes on each side is one of the most intractable problems historians face. The earliest source, Aeschylus, gives a total of either 300 or 310 for the Greeks (Persians 338–340), depending on whether the 10 “select” ships are included in the 300, versus Herodotus’s 380 (8.82; the numbers Herodotus gives for individual contingents, however, add up to only 368). Aeschylus credits the Persians with either 1,000 or 1,207 (Persians 341–343), depending on whether the 207 “fast” ships are included in the 1,000; Herodotus agrees with the higher figure (8.82). Commentators on Aeschylus, such as Garvie 2017 under Ancient Sources and Modern Commentaries, argue that in both disputed cases Aeschylus means to include the smaller figure in the larger one; that is, there were 300 Greek and 1,000 Persian ships at the battle. Historians tend to see Herodotus’s 1,207 as confirmed by Aeschylus, at least as far as what oral tradition said. But did the Persians really outnumber the Greeks so heavily? Some scholars, including the authors of such influential works as Burn and Lewis 1984 (under General Works on Xerxes’ Invasion), Hignett 1963 (under General Works on Xerxes’ Invasion), and Cawkwell 2005, think the Persian numbers are exaggerated and maintain that, after the storms reported by Herodotus and further losses in the preliminary fighting at Artemision, the Persians had only a slight numerical advantage or even that the fleets were roughly equal in size. Lazenby 1993 and Strauss 2004 accept larger numbers for the Persians at Salamis, perhaps 600–700 triremes, giving them a numerical advantage of close to 2:1. But Wallinga 2005 accepts an original fleet of about 1,200 ships, intentionally undermanned so as to have room for the numerous captives Xerxes hoped to seize and deport; after losses, Xerxes still had more than 900 at Salamis, a number that could be rounded to 1,000, making the odds as high as 3:1. Hammond 1973 not only accepts 1,207 for the Persians but adds a detachment of 200 ships mentioned by Plutarch, though he notes that “the nature of the battle itself is not much changed if one prefers to whittle the number of Persian ships down to 800 or so” (p. 270).


The topography of the Salamis channel, in particular the identification of the island Psyttaleia on which Xerxes stationed troops in the expectation that it would be in the middle of the fighting, is critical for the interpretation of the battle. There are two claimants for Psyttaleia, championed by various scholars for more than a century. Perhaps the best representatives of the opposing views are Hammond 1973 and Pritchett 1959 together with Pritchett 1965. Neither author persuaded the other; more recent scholars tend to follow Pritchett. About the only thing they agree on is that the water level has risen some five feet; at the time of the battle, the channel would have been narrower and shallower than it is today. They disagree on the location of Salamis town and the harbor for the Greek fleet. Hammond puts the acropolis of Salamis on the Kamatero peninsula between the Bays of Paloukia to the northwest and Ambelaki to the south, with the fleet in the Bay of Paloukia enfolding the island of Agios Georgios in the channel. Hammond identified this island, Agios Georgios, with Psyttaleia; Pritchett preferred Lipsokoutali, a larger island outside the channel to the southeast, closer to the Persian fleet in the Bay of Phaleron. Lolos 2017 reports the discovery of a wall defining the northwest part of the Bay of Ambelaki, with two towers; Lolos argues that these finds show that the Greek fleet would have been based in the Bay of Ambelaki. Wallace 1969 added the discovery of a cutting, approximately 1.80 m square, on Cape Kynosoura at the southern end of the channel, northwest of Lipsokoutali. Wallace suggested that this cutting was made for the base of a trophy for the battle; earlier travelers had seen blocks on Kynosoura that they speculated were the remains of this trophy, which is mentioned in ancient sources. Wallace also located the stones seen in the 19th century by Ludwig Ross, who speculated that they were the foundation of the trophy on Psyttaleia.

A Greek Trick?

According to Herodotus, the Athenian general Themistocles sent his slave Sicinnus to give a message to the Persian king on the night before the battle. Aeschylus tells a similar story, though he names neither Themistocles nor Sicinnus, and some of the details differ, such as the time of day the messenger was sent. The message, according to Aeschylus, was that the Greeks were frightened and were going to try to escape that night. Herodotus adds that the slave told the king that the Greeks were arguing with each other. In response, King Xerxes deployed his ships to block the southeastern end of the channel. According to Diodorus, he also sent 200 ships round to block the exit on the other side of Salamis. Every treatment of the battle takes a position on this tale of intrigue. Representative are Hignett 1963, which doubts the veracity of the story; Lazenby 1993, which defends it; and Wallinga 2005, which argues that the story makes sense as a response to the Persian deployment in the afternoon, which the Greeks correctly interpreted as a dress rehearsal for an assault. The messenger did not trick the Persians into attacking, which they already planned to do. Instead, Themistocles played on the king’s readiness to believe that a Greek leader would switch sides and prompted him to send the Egyptian contingent, 200 of his best ships, to block the exit on the other side of Salamis, weakening the attacking force.

Reconstructions of the Fighting

Historians trying to reconstruct the battle itself have reached highly divergent conclusions. Delbrück 1990 locates the fighting in the Bay of Eleusis. The Greeks withdrew into the bay, the Persians followed them up the Salamis channel, and the Greeks attacked as the Persians began to enter the bay, bottling them up in the strait. (See Kromayer and Veith 2019 for a plan according to this interpretation.) Hammond 1973, in accordance with his identification of Psyttaleia with the island of Agios Georgios, puts the battle far inside the channel, in front of Agios Georgios. Perhaps the most popular interpretation, found in Rados 1915, Lazenby 1993, Strauss 2004, and Shepherd 2019 (cited under General Works on Xerxes’ Invasion), has the Persians enter the channel at midnight and attack at dawn. (See Kromayer and Veith 2019 for a plan illustrating this interpretation, which the authors favor.) Skeptics find it hard to imagine the Persians moving into the channel without being detected and equally hard to think that inside the channel they could have heard the Greeks before they saw them, as Aeschylus says they did. Wallinga 2005 (under Numbers) suggests that the Persians sent their 207 fast ships at dawn racing up the channel to surprise and cover the Greek fleet, with the rest of the Persian ships crowding in behind. Burn and Lewis 1984 and Green 1996 maintain that the Greeks must have faked a withdrawal in order to lure the Persians into the channel. They give the job to the Corinthians and Athenians, based in Paloukia Bay opposite Agios Georgios. As the Corinthians and Athenians withdrew early in the morning toward Eleusis, the Persian fleet went after them; the Aeginetans and Megarians then charged out from Ambelaki Bay against the exposed Persian left wing. Goodwin 1906 argued that the Persians did not enter the channel at all. Xerxes put men on the island of Psyttaleia expecting it to be in the path of the fighting, and the Persian fleet guarded the exit routes on both sides of Psyttaleia throughout the night. In the morning, the Persians advanced north of Psyttaleia, but before they passed the Kynosoura peninsula, the Greeks came out. The Persians heard them singing before they saw them, as Aeschylus says, and then the Greek right wing came into view as it rowed round Cape Kynosoura. This interpretation deserves more positive attention than it has received since Grundy 1901.

The Last Act: Psyttaleia

During the night before the battle, Xerxes stationed some troops—400 of them, according to Pausanias 1.36.2—on Psyttaleia. Both Aeschylus and Herodotus say that Xerxes expected shipwrecked men to wash up on the island and deployed these soldiers to rescue their own men and kill their enemies. Instead, the Greeks killed them all after the battle. Scholars have treated this story with some skepticism. Fornara 1966 argues that Herodotus’s brief episode, with Aristeides leading hoplites across from the shore of Salamis, is a fiction invented to give the hoplites a role in the victory; Aeschylus does not mention Aristeides, and his account, with stone-throwers and archers, suggests that the men were marines from the Greek ships. (Marines normally included hoplites and archers.) Proietti 2015 argues that while the Greek fighters were marines, Psyttaleia was important, as evidenced by the trophy erected on the island and possibly by a fragmentary on an inscription. In her view, the importance of the victory was reduced by the time of Herodotus, when it was remembered as no more than a pendant to the main battle. Wallinga 2006 dismisses the Greek version of Persian intentions; in his view, the Persians wanted to exterminate the Greek fleet, and Xerxes stationed men on Psyttaleia to put them in position to be ferried over to Salamis where they would hinder any attempt by the Greeks to flee with their families. But the gist of the story, Aristeides leading hoplites over from Salamis, can be believed, particularly if van Wees 2004 and Wrightson 2019 are correct that archaic Greek armies did not exclude stone-throwers and archers, who fought among the hoplites. Kagan and Viggiano 2013 is probably the best entry point into the debate about hoplite warfare.

Commemoration and Reception

Compared to Plataea, the great land victory won the following year, Salamis received only modest commemoration: a trophy on Salamis and another on Psyttaleia (Wallace 1969), three captured Phoenician triremes dedicated in sanctuaries at Isthmia, Sounion, and Salamis (Lorenzo 2015)—the last two in Athenian territory—and local Athenian festivals that involved boat races (Pritchett 1979). There was no Panhellenic festival such as the Eleutheria (freedom festival) celebrated with races and other competitions at Plataea every four years, nor were there great monuments at Panhellenic sanctuaries, such as the serpent column at Delphi that was inscribed with the names of all the cities that sent men to fight at Plataea. Even at Athens, some Athenians thought that Salamis did more harm than good, or so Plato would have us believe. Yet through the years Salamis and the other Persian war battles have continued to pack a punch. Bridges, et al. 2007 contains a feast of articles on the reception of the Persian Wars from 5th- and 4th-century Athens through the Romans to the music, drama, and cinema of the modern world; more restricted in time and subject is Bridges 2015.

back to top