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.
Boardman, John, N. G. L. Hammond, D. M. Lewis, and M. Ostwald, eds. The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 4, Persia, Greece, and the Western Mediterranean c. 525 to 479 B.C. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Long a standard reference work; Hammond wrote the section on the expedition of Xerxes.
Burn, A. R., and David M. Lewis. Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, c. 546–478 B.C. 2d ed. London: Duckworth, 1984.
A revised version of the original 1962 publication, the fourth and final volume in Burn’s series on early Greece.
Garland, Robert. Athens Burning: The Persian Invasion of Greece and the Evacuation of Attica. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
Appropriate introductory work for college students, with an emphasis on the experience of the Athenian refugees.
Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
A reissue, with a new introduction and updated bibliography, of The Year of Salamis (English title) or Xerxes at Salamis (US title), published in 1970. An enjoyable read, open to accepting material attested only in later sources.
Hignett, C. Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
Hignett throws all his learned weight behind the belief that neither later sources nor topography can help the historian much; he rests his case on Herodotus, and he is often skeptical of Herodotus too.
Holland, Tom. Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.
Aiming for a popular audience, Holland tells an uncluttered story and relegates debates and discussions to the notes.
Lazenby, J. F. The Defence of Greece, 490–479 B.C. Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips, 1993.
Excellent, concise starting point for serious study of the battle. Lazenby tries to explain what happened based on what we know about ancient warfare and to understand events from the perspective of both sides, relying primarily on Herodotus.
Shepherd, William. The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices. Oxford: Osprey, 2019.
A highly readable narrative that combines extensive quotations of ancient sources with Shepherd’s analysis, including his personal experiences.
Stoneman, Richard. Xerxes: A Persian Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
Puts the great campaign against mainland Greece in the context of Xerxes’ entire reign.
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