On the morning of the battle, Xerxes ascended a golden throne which had been placed for him upon a rock that overlooked the sea. Around him sat scribes ready to record the events of the battle. That they would all be to the honour of his fleet Xerxes never doubted.
Themistocles saw with pleasure that the wind was rising, making it difficult for the Persians to manage their unwieldy vessels. As he watched their efforts he urged the Greeks to attack them at once.
The narrowness of the strait, as well as the force of the wind, added to the confusion of the enemy and made the number of its ships of little use. Yet the Persians fought bravely, remembering that the eyes of the great king were upon them.
One of the ships was commanded by a queen named Artemisia. She was fighting fiercely when her ship was attacked by an Athenian vessel at close quarters.
Artemisia tried to escape, but as her ship sailed away it was followed by the enemy. Straight in her path lay one of Xerxes' vessels. The queen did not try to avoid it, but pursuing her course struck the ship, so that her own countrymen who were on board were sent to the bottom.
When the Athenian captain saw what the queen had done, he thought, as perhaps she meant him to do, that she had deserted her own side and was now fighting for the Greeks, so he turned back and followed her no more.
From his golden throne, Xerxes too saw what Artemisia had done, and he supposed it was a Greek vessel that she had run down. In his delight he exclaimed, "My men are become women, my women men." This was a hard thing to say of his soldiers who were fighting gallantly for their king.
Meantime the Persian ships were driven into the narrow strait. Ship dashed against ship till the Persian dead strewed the deep "like flowers." When evening fell, two hundred Persian ships had been destroyed and the Greeks had won the great sea-battle of Salamis. The glory of the victory was due to Themistocles. There might indeed have been no battle at Salamis had he not tricked both the Persian king and the Greek admirals.
Ship dashed against ship, till the Persian dead strewed the deep "like flowers"
The Athenian was proud of his success, and he now determined by another crafty message to Xerxes to drive him out of Greece.
But first he sent for Aristides, and to test his wisdom he told him that he thought they should sail to the Hellespont to destroy the bridge by which Xerxes had crossed into Europe and by which he could return to Asia.
"Rather than break down the bridge," answered Aristides, "we should build another, if by so doing we may hasten his departure."
Now this was what Themistocles himself really wished—to hasten the king's retreat. So although he did not mean to destroy the bridge, he sent once again to Xerxes, and this is what he said: "O king, the Greeks are hastening to the Hellespont to destroy the bridge by which alone thou canst return to Asia. Hasten then to reach the bridge, while I delay the Greek fleet, lest evil overtake thee."
Once more the king fell into the trap Themistocles had prepared for him. For he set out in haste with the main body of his army for the Hellespont, leaving Mardonius with a large force to carry on the war as well as he could.
The march to the Hellespont was a terrible one, for Xerxes had himself laid waste the land when he advanced upon Athens, and now there was neither food nor shelter for his army. The soldiers who were starving ate plants, grass, the bark of trees—anything to satisfy their hunger.
In their weakness they were attacked by plague, and hundreds perished long before the Hellespont was in sight. Even when at length the gleam of water gladdened the hearts of the soldiers, they were soon stricken again with fear, for where was the bridge?
The Greeks had not outstripped them, so this was not their doing. A storm had destroyed the bridge. Weak and hungry as they were, the soldiers had to rebuild it before they could cross over to Asia, where food and shelter awaited them.
When the Greeks saw that the Persians were marching to the Hellespont, they were eager to follow them. But Themistocles persuaded them to go back to Athens to rebuild the city.
Then he sent yet another message to Xerxes, saying, "Themistocles, the leader of the Athenians and the best and wisest of the Greeks, has out of goodwill to thee held back the allies from chasing thy ships and breaking up the bridge at the Hellespont. So go thy way in peace."
Although Themistocles sent these proud words to the great king, he really believed it was wiser for the Greeks not to pursue the retreating army. But he also wished to make Xerxes his friend, so that if at any time he was ostracized by the Athenians, he would find a welcome at the Persian court.
Greece was full of rejoicing when she heard of the victory of Salamis. The generals of the different states met at Corinth to propose a reward for the bravest and wisest among themselves.
Each general wrote on a tablet the names of two whom he believed to be worthy of a prize. They were not very modest, these brave soldiers of Greece, for each general wrote his own name first, though nearly all added beneath, the name of Themistocles.
The Spartans gave their meed of honour to the great Athenian, for a crown of olive was placed upon his head and he was presented with the most magnificent chariot that Sparta had ever produced.
Æschylus, one of the great Greek poets, wrote a tragedy on the fall of Xerxes, called The Persians, which was acted in 472 b.c. , eight years after the battle of Salamis. Sculptors too wrought statues to commemorate the war, which were placed in the temple of Athene.