Perhaps the most fascinating thing about history is that it isn’t a collection of isolated narratives so much as it is a sprawling web of various happenings all loosely connected, one way or another. As a result, it is hardly a stretch to say that the current state of the modern world as we know it – both the admirable and horrific – has been shaped by past events and values. And few events have been quite as influential as the Battle of Salamis, which was, by far, the most decisive battle in the conflict between the Greeks and Persians in the ancient world. Most of us are rather familiar with the fact that the Greeks and Persians found themselves embroiled in the aptly named Greco-Persian Wars, thanks in part to media such as 300. However, I would posit that our views on the war and the respective sides are somewhat skewed as a result. While some would think that the war was the simple matter of the good, liberty loving Greeks fighting against the tyrannical Persians, once again thanks in part to 300, the reality of it all was not quite as cut and dry as all that.
The Greco-Persian Wars were primarily caused by an Athenian blunder – one of the Persian satraps launched a revolt in Ionia, and the Athenians committed somewhat half-heartedly to try and aid that revolt. Though that uprising was crushed, the Persian city of Sardis was burned in the conflict. The Persian ruler at the time, Darius the Great, was livid. He swore revenge on Athens, and indeed all of Greece, for what he considered to be an insult.
After a few failed invasions and a decisive defeat at the hands of an Athenian force at the Battle of Marathon though, Darius had no choice but to simply bide his time; however, he died before he could ever make preparations for a more large-scale invasion. His son, Xerxes, shared his father’s hatred of the Greeks, and after consolidating his holdings and putting down several rebellions, quickly looked to expand Achaemenid power in the Aegean Sea.
It is this particular campaign that many are familiar with. We all know the story – the Persians were held off for a time at Thermopylae, allowing for the allied Greek forces to assemble a fleet to try and, against all odds, hold off the colossal Persian navy; one of the largest forces ever amassed at this point in history. Thermopylae fell, several Greek city-states capitulated to Xerxes’ demands and Athens itself was torched. That was the stage that had been set for the Battle of Salamis. The allied Greek forces had under their command no more than 350 ships; the Persians had at least double that figure.
The main problem with entering an engagement like this was that the Greeks knew full well that a naval engagement with the Persians would end badly for them; they were heavily outnumbered, and their own ships were bulkier than – and therefore not as maneuverable as – the Persian triremes. Their only choice was to try and lure the Persian forces into a narrow strait, with the Strait of Salamis being perfect for that sort of trap. In such narrow waters, the Persians would have been constricted, and their numbers would have meant very little.
More than just that though, Xerxes made a huge strategic blunder; many of his advisors argued that it was completely unnecessary to try and crush the allied navy in a single battle. The fact of the matter is that the Greeks were never a united force – yet another misconception that we often have. Ancient Greece was a collection of fiercely independent city-states, and even when they were facing such a grave threat from the Persians, many of them refused to participate, and others even fought alongside the Achaemenids. Had Xerxes bided his time and continued his campaigns on land, the fragile Grecian alliance would have eventually splintered.
Needless to say, though, that did not happen, and the Persians suffered a spectacularly decisive defeat. Xerxes abandoned what forces he had left on land and returned home, never to return to Greek shores again. Although many of the details are not particularly clear, simply because Herodotus was more concerned in creating a heroic narrative than a fair, accurate portrayal, what remains certain is that somehow, against all odds, the Persian fleet was utterly destroyed, and at little cost to the Greeks at that.
Make no mistake – had Salamis been a disaster for the Greeks, as many thought would be the case, history would have taken a very different path. After the war, Athens in particular flourished and entered its so-called Golden Age, which served as the foundation for all of Western civilization. And all of this was possible because the Athenians managed to preserve their freedom and liberty. But is that really the case?
Many historians postulate that had the Hellenic world fallen under Persian influence, Western civilization as we know it would have never existed. But, the problem with that argument is that the Achaemenid Empire was not exactly the tyrannical foil to the majesty and enlightenment of Hellenic civilization that we often think it was. Cyrus the Great, the legendary founder of the Empire, abolished all slavery within his holdings; whilst slavery was common throughout the Greek world, including Athens. Indeed, Sparta was very much reliant, as a society, on its helots. Cyrus also issued the Cyrus Cylinder – which many consider to be one of the first declarations of human rights – and created the system of satrapies, allowing various regions within the Achaemenid Empire to maintain cultural and ideological autonomy. The idea that the enlightened ideas of the ancient Greeks would have been crushed under the weight of Persian tyranny is a misnomer at best.
Furthermore, we must consider the fact that the Hellenic world was not exactly some sort of idyllic civilization, either. The Athenians may have been the cradle of Western democracy, but they were also ruthlessly imperialistic themselves, ambitiously attempting to control the rest of the Greek city-states through the Delian League – the very alliance that had fought against Persian imperialism. The Spartans were oligarchic and brutally militaristic, and were certainly no better than their Athenian rivals. The Hellenic world saw everything that wasn’t Greek as barbaric, literally, whereas the Achaemenid Empire was extremely diverse and, for the most part, fairly tolerant. While no one can deny that the Greeks helped shape our practices and ideologies, that applies to both the good and the bad; the values of liberty and freedom, as well as intrinsic imperialism and slavery.
There can be no doubt that the Battle of Salamis was one of the most important events in the Western world. But, had the Persians won the field, it is doubtful that things would have been quite as catastrophic as many have suggested. Either way, at the very least, it is worthwhile to simply speculate and critically think about these sort of titanic events. After all, that is half the fun of history.