The retreat of the Greek forces from Thermopylæ and Artemisium left Athens without defence. There had been a promise that an army of the allies should make a stand against the invaders in Boeotia. No attempt was made to keep it. The only plan of defence that commended itself to the Peloponnesian States was to fortify the Isthmus of Corinth—and all the states outside the Peloponnesus, Athens excepted, were either pro-Persian or indifferent. As Athens was unwalled, there was no question of defending it; the only thing that could be done was to save as much life and property as was possible. For this the time was short, and might have been shorter than it actually was, for the Athenians had six days in which to transport their belongings to a place of safety, though the distance to be traversed by the invaders was not more than ninety miles. All the women, children, and persons incapacitated by illness or old age were put on shipboard, and carried either to Troezen, a friendly city in the peninsula of Argolis, which had some tie of kinship with Athens, to Ægina, which was but ten miles away, or to Salamis, which was even nearer. The Athenians begged the allies to remain in the neighbourhood till the work of transport was accomplished, and Salamis happened to be the most convenient spot for this purpose.
The whole fighting strength of Athens was now embarked in its fleet. Years before, Themistocles, with a sagacity and prescience that seem almost miraculous, had counselled his countrymen to spend all their available resources in building ships. And only a few months before, the oracle of Delphi had advised the Athenians to trust in their "wooden wall," a phrase which this same statesman had interpreted as meaning the ships. No one, we may believe, knew better what it meant, as he had probably suggested it. The time had now come to put this counsel into practice. Every able-bodied Athenian took service in the fleet, the wealthy aristocrats, known as the "knights," setting the examples by hanging up their bridles in the temple of Athené.
It had never been the intention of the officers in command of the allied fleet to give battle at Salamis. They thought of nothing but the safety of the Peloponnesus; possibly they believed that nothing more than this could be hoped for. But when the Athenians, compelled as they were to abandon their city, asked for their help in saving non-combatants and such property as could be removed, they could not refuse. And now the question presented itself—Where are we to meet the Persian fleet? The captains assembled in the ship of Eurybiades the Spartan, who was in chief command, and debated on what was to be done. The general opinion was that they should retire from Salamis, from which there would be great difficulty in escaping, if escape should become necessary, and give battle somewhere off the coast of the Peloponnesus. In the midst of the discussion a messenger arrived with the news that the Persians had overrun all Attica, and had taken by storm the citadel of Athens, which a few enthusiasts had insisted on defending. These tidings could not have taken any one by surprise, but the fact that one of the great cities of Greece had fallen into the hands of the barbarians produced a panic. Some of the captains left without waiting for the decision of the council, and, hurrying to their own squadrons, prepared to depart. Those who stayed resolved to retire to the Isthmus and make a stand there.
As Themistocles was returning to his ship from the council, he was met by a friend who, in bygone years, had been his instructor in philosophy. The new-comer, on hearing the decision at which the council had arrived, denounced it most emphatically. "It means ruin for Greece," he said. "The fleet will not remain together to fight; every contingent will steal away, hoping to protect its own country. Go and persuade Eurybiades to reconsider the question."
Themistocles went, and using every argument that he could think of, at last succeeded in making such an impression on Eurybiades that he consented to summon another council. Of course it was the etiquette for the commander-in-chief to state the business which they had met to discuss, but Themistocles, who saw that it was a matter of life and death, could not help urging his case, without waiting for the president of the council. Adeimantus, of Corinth, angrily interrupted him. "Themistocles," he said, "at the Games, they who start too soon are scourged." "True," replied the Athenian, "but they who start too late are not crowned." He then addressed the council in a tone of studied mildness and conciliation. He said nothing about the probability that the fleet would be broken up by a general desertion—such an argument would have been affront—but he urged that to fight at Salamis would not be to risk everything on the issue of one battle. To retreat would be to leave all northern Greece at the mercy of the Persians, while a defeat at the Isthmus would mean the loss of the Peloponnesus itself. As for the Athenians, they would loyally abide by any decision to which the allies might come.
Adeimantus, enraged at the Athenian's persistence, interrupted him with the remark that a man who had no country had no right to speak, and even appealed to Eurybiades to impose silence upon him. Themistocles then saw that it was time to assert himself. "With two hundred ships fully manned and armed we have," he said, turning to Adeimantus, "as good a country as any man here, for what state could resist us should we choose to attack it?" Then he addressed himself to Eurybiades. "Play the man and all will be well. All depends upon our ships. If you will not stay here and fight, we will take our families on board and sail for Italy, where the gods have provided us a home. Without us, what will you do?"
To this threat there was no answer. The council resolved to stay and fight.
But the matter was not really settled. The Peloponnesian contingents were determined, in the last resort, to disobey their chief, and Themistocles was aware of their determination. Only one course remained for him, and it required the courage of despair to take it. If the allies would not stay at Salamis of their own free will, they must do it by compulsion. He sent a trusted slave to the Persian admiral with this message: "The Athenian commander is a well-wisher to the King, and he informs you that the Greeks are seized with fear, and are about to retreat from Salamis. It is for you to hinder their flight." A more daring stratagem was never put into execution. Not the least strange circumstance about it is the fact that, years after, when Themistocles had fallen into disgrace at home, he successfully claimed as a service to the Persian king that he had given him the chance of destroying the whole of the Greek fleet at one blow.
The Persian commanders seem not to have suspected the good faith of the communication thus received, and at once set about closing in the Greek ships. The town of Salamis was built in a little bay on the eastern side of the island, the distance across to the mainland of Attica being about two miles. The Greek fleet was drawn up, in what may be described as the shape of a bow loosely strung, in front of the town; the Persian ships were ranged along the opposite, i.e., the Attic shore. Both to the north and to the south the channel narrowed, being less than a mile across. The Persians now extended their line northwards till it touched the shore of the island, and southwards till it reached an uninhabited island called Psyttaleia. On this island they landed a body of troops who were to help the crews of any of their own ships that might be damaged, and slaughter any Greek soldiers or sailors who might be in a similar plight.
While these preparations were going on—and they lasted nearly through the night—the Greek leaders still hotly debated the question of going or staying. An unexpected end was put to the controversy. The chief opponent of Themistocles in Athenian politics was Aristides. He had been banished, and, at the instance of his successful rival, recalled from banishment when the danger of a Persian invasion became imminent. He now came to join his countrymen, and brought startling tidings with him. He had come from the island of Ægina, which lay some twelve miles to the south of Salamis, and his ship had narrowly escaped capture in making its way into the bay of Salamis; only the darkness had made it possible to do so. Themistocles was fetched out from the council to hear the tidings. "I hope," said Aristides, "that always, and now especially, our strife will be who may do his best service to his country. As for the question of going or staying, it matters nothing whether the Peloponnesians talk much or little. Go they cannot. We are enclosed on every side. This I have seen with my own eyes."
"This is good news," replied Themistocles, "for the Persians have done exactly what I wished. Our men, who would not fight of their own free will, will now be made to fight."
And he told him of what he had done. "And now go and tell them. If I was to say it they would not believe me."
Aristides accordingly went in to the council and told them his news. Many of them refused to believe it, but when a ship from the island of Tenos that had deserted from the Persians confirmed the report, there was nothing more to say. All that could be done was to make all the preparation possible for a conflict which had become inevitable.
Of the battle we have two accounts, that of Herodotus, derived doubtless from one or more persons who had taken part in it, and that of Æschylus, who actually fought there as he had fought before at Marathon. The two accounts substantially agree, but they differ in the number of Greek ships engaged. Herodotus says that there were 378, made up to the round number of 380 by the Tenian ship which deserted on the night before the battle, and a ship from Lemnos, which had done the same at Artemisium. He gives the number of each contingent, the largest being 180 contributed by Athens, while 89 came from the states of the Peloponnesus, and 57 from Ægina and Euboea. One ship only came from Greece beyond the sea. Even this was a private rather than a public contribution. A certain Phayllus of Crotona furnished a ship at his own expense, and manned it with fellow-citizens who were sojourning in Greece. Pausanias saw his statue at Delphi six centuries afterwards. Æschylus says that there were 300 ships, and ten were of special swiftness or strength. Mr. Grote thinks that this number is to be accepted in preference, hardly showing, I think, his wonted acuteness. The poet had to state his number in verse, and finds "ten thirties "a convenient way of doing it. But 380 would have been an unmanageable figure, and we have, accordingly, a convenient round number. Very likely Mr. Grote was not so alive to the exigencies of verse as he had been forty years before, when he was a Charterhouse boy.
As soon as the sun rose, the Greek fleet moved forward to the attack, the crews joining, as they advanced, in the pæan or shout of battle. They met no reluctant foe. So confident, indeed, was the bearing of the Persians, that the Greeks were checked. Some of the crews even began to back water. The issues of great battles are often decided by examples of courage. So it was at Salamis, for one of the Greek ships advanced and led the way for the rest. To whom this credit is due cannot be said for certain. The Athenians declared that this brave captain was Ameinias, a brother of the poet Æschylus; the Æginetans claimed the honour for a ship of their own, which had brought over, on the eve of the battle, the heroes worshipped in their city as auxiliaries of the Greek people. Herodotus had also heard a legend how the form of a woman, doubtless the goddess Athené, had been seen in the air and heard to cry, in a voice which reached from one end of the fleet to another, "Friends, how much further are ye going to back? "Æschylus gives his authority in favour of his countryman, not expressly but by saying that the ship which led the attack broke off the stern of a Phoenician ship, for we know that the Phoenician squadron was posted over against the Athenian contingent. The Æginetan was second if not first, and Simonides gives the third place to a ship that came from Naxos. By common consent Athens and Ægina shared the chief distinction of the day between them. The Athenian ships busied themselves with such of the enemy's fleet as offered resistance or were beached by their captains; the Æginetans attacked those that attempted to escape by the southern channel (their way to the open sea).
The subjects of Xerxes, on the whole, displayed great courage, not the less because they were fighting under the eyes of the king, who was watching the battle from a projecting point of Mount Ægaleos on the mainland of Attica. The native Persians and Medes, as inland peoples, were serving as what we call marines on board the ships furnished by the maritime provinces of Phoenicia, Egypt, and Cilicia. But they seldom had the chance of showing their prowess in boarding, and when they had they were hardly a match for their better-armed and more athletic antagonists. As for the management of the ships, the sailors from the east were not, as a rule, equal, either in resolution or in skill, to the hardier races of the west. Their superior numbers, in the narrow space to which the battle was confined, were a hindrance rather than a help. There was no mutual confidence, and no common speech. And the cogent motive that sent them into action was fear of punishment or, at the best, obedience to a ruling race, while the Greeks were fighting for home and country. The Persian fleet was more successful where the Asiatic Greeks were matched with the squadrons from the Peloponnesus. Herodotus, himself an Asiatic Greek by birth, vindicates their honour as combatants at the expense of their Greek patriotism. "I could mention," he says, "the names of many captains who took ships from the Greeks." He thinks it prudent, however, to omit them—and indeed, when Herodotus wrote, such exploits would be better forgotten—and gives two names only, both of them well known already. He also mentions with pleasure the signal discomfiture of some Phoenician captains, who, having lost their ships early in the day, sought to excuse themselves to Xerxes by laying the blame on the treasonable practices of the Greeks. The battle was still going on, and almost while they were speaking a Samothracian ship was seen to ram and sink an Athenian. It was in turn disabled by an Æginetan trireme. But the Samothracian crew were expert javelin-throwers. They cleared the deck of the Æginetan, boarded, and captured it. Xerxes turned fiercely on the Phoenicians, and ordered that they should be instantly executed, as having ventured to slander men braver than themselves.
Another incident of the day Herodotus relates from personal knowledge. His native city of Halicarnassus had been ruled for some years by Artemisia, the daughter of one Lygdamis and the widow of another. She had advised Xerxes not to engage the Greek fleet, speaking with a frankness which might well have put her life in danger. Overruled by other counsellors, she did her best for the king's cause, but found herself in the greatest peril. An Athenian ship was in close pursuit of her, and there was a crowd of Persian vessels in front which hindered her escape. One of these belonged to a Carian neighbour, with whom, it is possible, she was not on the best of terms. She bore down upon his vessel, and sank it. The Athenian captain concluded at once that she had changed sides and was now fighting for Greece. He abandoned the pursuit, and Artemisia escaped. And she earned praise as well. "Sire," said one of the courtiers who stood by the king's seat, "dost thou see how bravely Artemisia bears herself? She has just sunk a Greek ship." He was sure, he went on to say, that the exploit was Artemisia's, for he knew her flag. No one seemed to have suspected the truth, and fortunately for Artemisia there was not a single survivor from the Carian ship to tell the tale.
Herodotus gives no estimate of the loss on either side. A later Greek writer says that two hundred Persian and forty Greek ships were destroyed, and that the Persian loss in men was in a much greater proportion. Few of them could swim, and consequently, when a ship was sunk, the whole crew perished with it. Most of the Greeks, on the contrary, were able to save themselves by swimming. Another disaster to the king's forces was the total destruction of the Persian troops landed on the island of Psyttaleia. Aristides disembarked with some Greek heavy-armed, and put them all to the sword. Among them were some of the king's own guard.