The Battle of Salamis
S alamis is an island of a very irregular form, lying in the Saronian Gulf, north of Ægina, and to the westward of Athens. What was called the Port of Athens was on the shore opposite to Salamis, the city itself being situated on elevated land four or five miles back from the sea. From this port to the bay on the southern side of Salamis, where the Greek fleet was lying, it was only four or five miles more, so that when Xerxes burned the city, the people on board the galleys in the fleet might easily see the smoke of the conflagration.
The Isthmus of Corinth was west of Salamis, some fifteen miles, across the bay. The army, in retreating from Athens toward the isthmus, would have necessarily to pass round the bay in a course somewhat circuitous, while the fleet, in following them, would pass in a direct line across it. The geographical relations of these places, a knowledge of which is necessary to a full understanding of the operations of the Greek and Persian forces, will be distinctly seen by comparing the above description with the map placed at the commencement of the fifth chapter.
It had been the policy of the Greeks to keep the fleet and army as much as possible together, and thus, during the time in which the troops were attempting a concentration at Thermopylæ, the ships made their rendezvous in the Artemisian Strait or Channel, directly opposite to that point of the coast. There they fought, maintaining their position desperately, day after day, as long as Leonidas and his Spartans held their ground on the shore. Their sudden disappearance from those waters, by which the Persians had been so much surprised, was caused by their having received intelligence that the pass had been carried and Leonidas destroyed. They knew then that Athens would be the next point of resistance by the land forces. They therefore fell back to Salamis, or, rather, to the bay lying between Salamis and the Athenian shore, that being the nearest position that they could take to support the operations of the army in their attempts to defend the capital. When, however, the tidings came to them that Athens had fallen, and that what remained of the army had retreated to the isthmus, the question at once arose whether the fleet should retreat too, across the bay, to the isthmus shore, with a view to co-operate more fully with the army in the new position which the latter had taken, or whether it should remain where it was, and defend itself as it best could against the Persian squadrons which would soon be drawing near. The commanders of the fleet held a consultation to consider this question.
In this consultation the Athenian and the Corinthian leaders took different views. In fact, they were very near coming into open collision. Such a difference of opinion, considering the circumstances of the case, was not at all surprising. It might, indeed, have naturally been expected to arise, from the relative situation of the two cities, in respect to the danger which threatened them. If the Greek fleet were to withdraw from Salamis to the isthmus, it might be in a better position to defend Corinth, but it would, by such a movement, be withdrawing from the Athenian territories, and abandoning what remained in Attica wholly to the conqueror. The Athenians were, therefore, in favor of maintaining the position at Salamis, while the Corinthians were disposed to retire to the shores of the isthmus, and co-operate with the army there.
The council was convened to deliberate on this subject before the news arrived of the actual fall of Athens, although, inasmuch as the Persians were advancing into Attica in immense numbers, and there was no Greek force left to defend the city, they considered its fall as all but inevitable. The tidings of the capture and destruction of Athens came while the council was in session. This seemed to determine the question. The Corinthian commanders, and those from the other Peloponnesian cities, declared that it was perfectly absurd to remain any longer at Salamis, in a vain attempt to defend a country already conquered. The council was broken up in confusion, each commander retiring to his own ship, and the Peloponnesians resolving to withdraw on the following morning. Eurybiades, who, it will be recollected, was the commander-in-chief of all the Greek fleet, finding thus that it was impossible any longer to keep the ships together at Salamis, since a part of them would, at all events, withdraw, concluded to yield to the necessity of the case, and to conduct the whole fleet to the isthmus. He issued his orders accordingly, and the several commanders repaired to their respective ships to make the preparations. It was night when the council was dismissed, and the fleet was to move in the morning.
One of the most influential and distinguished of the Athenian officers was a general named Themistocles. Very soon after he had returned to his ship from this council, he was visited by another Athenian named Mnesiphilus, who, uneasy and anxious in the momentous crisis, had come in his boat, in the darkness of the night, to Themistocles's ship, to converse with him on the plans of the morrow. Mnesiphilus asked Themistocles what was the decision of the council.
"To abandon Salamis," said Themistocles, "and retire to the isthmus."
"Then," said Mnesiphilus, "we shall never have an opportunity to meet the enemy. I am sure that if we leave this position the fleet will be wholly broken up, and that each portion will go, under its own commander, to defend its own state or seek its own safety, independently of the rest. We shall never be able to concentrate our forces again. The result will be the inevitable dissolution of the fleet as a combined and allied force, in spite of all that Eurybiades or any one else can do to prevent it."
Mnesiphilus urged this danger with so much earnestness and eloquence as to make a very considerable impression on the mind of Themistocles. Themistocles said nothing, but his countenance indicated that he was very strongly inclined to adopt Mnesiphilus's views. Mnesiphilus urged him to go immediately to Eurybiades, and endeavor to induce him to obtain a reversal of the decision of the council. Themistocles, without expressing either assent or dissent, took his boat, and ordered the oarsmen to row him to the galley of Eurybiades. Mnesiphilus, having so far accomplished his object, went away.
Themistocles came in his boat to the side of Eurybiades's galley. He said that he wished to speak with the general on a subject of great importance. Eurybiades, when this was reported to him, sent to invite Themistocles to come on board. Themistocles did so, and he urged upon the general the same arguments that Mnesiphilus had pressed upon him, namely, that if the fleet were once to move from their actual position, the different squadrons would inevitably separate, and could never be assembled again. He urged Eurybiades, therefore, very strenuously to call a new council, with a view of reversing the decision that had been made to retire, and of resolving instead to give battle to the Persians at Salamis.
Eurybiades was persuaded, and immediately took measures for convening the council again. The summons, sent around thus at midnight, calling upon the principal officers of the fleet to repair again in haste to the commander's galley, when they had only a short time before been dismissed from it, produced great excitement. The Corinthians, who had been in favor of the plan of abandoning Salamis, conjectured that the design might be to endeavor to reverse that decision, and they came to the council determined to resist any such attempt, if one should be made.
When the officers had arrived, Themistocles began immediately to open the discussion, before, in fact, Eurybiades had stated why he had called them together. A Corinthian officer interrupted and rebuked him for presuming to speak before his time. Themistocles retorted upon the Corinthian, and continued his harangue. He urged the council to review their former decision, and to determine, after all, to remain at Salamis. He, however, now used different arguments from those which he had employed when speaking to Eurybiades alone; for to have directly charged the officers themselves with the design of which he had accused them to Eurybiades, namely, that of abandoning their allies, and retiring with their respective ships, each to his own coast, in case the position at Salamis were to be given up, would only incense them, and arouse a hostility which would determine them against any thing that he might propose.
He therefore urged the expediency of remaining at Salamis on other grounds. Salamis was a much more advantageous position, he said, than the coast of the isthmus, for a small fleet to occupy, in awaiting an attack from a large one. At Salamis they were defended in part by the projections of the land, which protected their flanks, and prevented their being assailed, except in front, and their front they might make a very narrow one. At the isthmus, on the contrary, there was a long, unvaried, and unsheltered coast, with no salient points to give strength or protection to their position there. They could not expect to derive serious advantage from any degree of co-operation with the army on the land which would be practicable at the isthmus, while their situation at sea there would be far more exposed and dangerous than where they then were. Besides, many thousands of the people had fled to Salamis for refuge and protection, and the fleet, by leaving its present position, would be guilty of basely abandoning them all to hopeless destruction, without even making an effort to save them.
This last was, in fact, the great reason why the Athenians were so unwilling to abandon Salamis. The unhappy fugitives with which the island was thronged were their wives and children, and they were extremely unwilling to go away and leave them to so cruel a fate as they knew would await them if the fleet were to be withdrawn. The Corinthians, on the other hand, considered Athens as already lost, and it seemed madness to them to linger uselessly in the vicinity of the ruin which had been made, while there were other states and cities in other quarters of Greece yet to be saved. The Corinthian speaker who had rebuked Themistocles at first, interrupted him again, angrily, before he finished his appeal.
"You have no right to speak," said he. "You have no longer a country. When you cease to represent a power, you have no right to take a part in our councils."
This cruel retort aroused in the mind of Themistocles a strong feeling of indignation and anger against the Corinthian. He loaded his opponent, in return, with bitter reproaches, and said, in conclusion, that as long as the Athenians had two hundred ships in the fleet, they had still a country—one, too, of sufficient importance to the general defense to give them a much better title to be heard in the common consultations than any Corinthian could presume to claim.
Then turning to Eurybiades again, Themistocles implored him to remain at Salamis, and give battle to the Persians there, as that was, he said, the only course by which any hope remained to them of the salvation of Greece. He declared that the Athenian part of the fleet would never go to the isthmus. If the others decided on going there, they, the Athenians, would gather all the fugitives they could from the island of Salamis and from the coasts of Attica, and make the best of their way to Italy, where there was a territory to which they had some claim, and, abandoning Greece forever, they would found a new kingdom there.
Eurybiades, the commander-in-chief, if he was not convinced by the arguments that Themistocles had offered, was alarmed at his declaration that the Athenian ships would abandon the cause of the Greeks if the fleet abandoned Salamis; he accordingly gave his voice very decidedly for remaining where they were. The rest of the officers finally acquiesced in this decision, and the council broke up, the various members of it returning each to his own command. It was now nearly morning. The whole fleet had been, necessarily, during the night in a state of great excitement and suspense, all anxious to learn the result of these deliberations. The awe and solemnity which would, of course, pervade the minds of men at midnight, while such momentous questions were pending, were changed to an appalling sense of terror, toward the dawn, by an earthquake which then took place, and which, as is usually the case with such convulsions, not only shook the land, but was felt by vessels on the sea. The men considered this phenomenon as a solemn warning from heaven, and measures were immediately adopted for appeasing, by certain special sacrifices and ceremonies, the divine displeasure which the shock seemed to portend.
In the mean time, the Persian fleet, which we left, it will be recollected, in the channels between Eubœa and the main land, near to Thermopylæ, had advanced when they found that the Greeks had left those waters, and, following their enemies to the southward through the channel called the Euripus, had doubled the promontory called Sunium, which is the southern promontory of Attica, and then, moving northward again along the western coast of Attica, had approached Phalerum, which was not far from Salamis. Xerxes, having concluded his operations at Athens, advanced to the same point by land.
The final and complete success of the Persian expedition seemed now almost sure. All the country north of the peninsula had fallen. The Greek army had retreated to the isthmus, having been driven from every other post, and its last forlorn hope of being able to resist the advance of its victorious enemies was depending there. And the commanders of the Persian fleet, having driven the Greek squadrons in the same manner from strait to strait and from sea to sea, saw the discomfited galleys drawn up, in apparently their last place of refuge, in the Bay of Salamis, and only waiting to be captured and destroyed.
In a word, every thing seemed ready for the decisive and final blow, and Xerxes summoned a grand council of war on board one of the vessels of the fleet as soon as he arrived at Phalerum, to decide upon the time and manner of striking it.
The convening of this council was arranged, and the deliberations themselves conducted, with great parade and ceremony. The princes of the various nations represented in the army and in the fleet, and the leading Persian officers and nobles, were summoned to attend it. It was held on board one of the principal galleys, where great preparations had been made for receiving so august an assemblage. A throne was provided for the king, and seats for the various commanders according to their respective ranks, and a conspicuous place was assigned to Artemisia, the Carian queen, who, the reader will perhaps recollect, was described as one of the prominent naval commanders, in the account given of the great review at Doriscus. Mardonius appeared at the council as the king's representative and the conductor of the deliberations, there being required, according to the parliamentary etiquette of those days, in such royal councils as these, a sort of mediator, to stand between the king and his counselors, as if the monarch himself was on too sublime an elevation of dignity and grandeur to be directly addressed even by princes and nobles.
Accordingly, when the council was convened and the time arrived for opening the deliberations, the king directed Mardonius to call upon the commanders present, one by one, for their sentiments on the question whether it were advisable or not to attack the Greek fleet at Salamis. Mardonius did so. They all advised that the attack should be made, urging severally various considerations to enforce their opinions, and all evincing a great deal of zeal and ardor in the cause, and an impatient desire that the great final conflict should come on.
When, however, it came to Artemisia's turn to speak, it appeared that she was of a different sentiment from the rest. She commenced her speech with something like an apology for presuming to give the king her council. She said that, notwithstanding her sex, she had performed her part, with other commanders, in the battles which had already occurred, and that she was, perhaps, entitled accordingly, in the consultations which were held, to express her opinion. "Say, then, to the king," she continued, addressing Mardonius, as all the others had done, "that my judgment is, that we should not attack the Greek fleet at Salamis, but, on the contrary, that we should avoid a battle. It seems to me that we have nothing to gain, but should put a great deal at hazard by a general naval conflict at the present time. The truth is, that the Greeks, always terrible as combatants, are rendered desperate now by the straits to which they are reduced and the losses that they have sustained. The seamen of our fleet are as inferior to them in strength and courage as women are to men. I am sure that it will be a very dangerous thing to encounter them in their present chafed and irritated temper. Whatever others may think, I myself should not dare to answer for the result.
"Besides, situated as they are," continued Artemisia, "a battle is what they must most desire, and, of course, it is adverse to our interest to accord it to them. I have ascertained that they have but a small supply of food, either in their fleet or upon the island of Salamis, while they have, besides their troops, a great multitude of destitute and helpless fugitives to be fed. If we simply leave them to themselves under the blockade in which our position here now places them, they will soon be reduced to great distress. Or, if we withdraw from them, and proceed at once to the Peloponnesus, to co-operate with the army there, we shall avoid all the risk of a battle, and I am sure that the Greek fleet will never dare to follow or to molest us."
The several members of the council listened to this unexpected address of Artemisia with great attention and interest, but with very different feelings. She had many friends among the counselors, and they were anxious and uneasy at hearing her speak in this manner, for they knew very well that it was the king's decided intention that a battle should be fought, and they feared that, by this bold and strenuous opposition to it, Artemisia would incur the mighty monarch's displeasure. There were others who were jealous of the influence which Artemisia enjoyed, and envious of the favor with which they knew that Xerxes regarded her. These men were secretly pleased to hear her uttering sentiments by which they confidently believed that she would excite the anger of the king, and wholly lose her advantageous position. Both the hopes and the fears, however, entertained respectively by the queen's enemies and friends, proved altogether groundless. Xerxes was not displeased. On the contrary, he applauded Artemisia's ingenuity and eloquence in the highest terms, though he said, nevertheless, that he would follow the advice of the other counselors. He dismissed the assembly, and gave orders to prepare for battle.
In the mean time a day or two had passed away, and the Greeks, who had been originally very little inclined to acquiesce in the decision which Eurybiades had made, under the influence of Themistocles, to remain at Salamis and give the Persians battle, became more and more dissatisfied and uneasy as the great crisis drew nigh. In fact, the discontent and disaffection which appeared in certain portions of the fleet became so decided and so open, that Themistocles feared that some of the commanders would actually revolt, and go away with their squadrons in a body, in defiance of the general decision to remain. To prevent such a desertion as this, he contrived the following very desperate stratagem.
He had a slave in his family named Sicinnus, who was an intelligent and educated man, though a slave. In fact, he was the teacher of Themistocles's children. Instances of this kind, in which slaves were refined and cultivated men, were not uncommon in ancient times, as slaves were, in many instances, captives taken in war, who before their captivity had occupied as high social positions as their masters. Themistocles determined to send Sicinnus to the Persian fleet with a message from him, which should induce the Persians themselves to take measures to prevent the dispersion of the Greek fleet. Having given the slave, therefore, his secret instructions, he put him into a boat when night came on, with oarsmen who were directed to row him wherever he should require them to go. The boat pushed off stealthily from Themistocles's galley, and, taking care to keep clear of the Greek ships which lay at anchor near them, went southward toward the Persian fleet. When the boat reached the Persian galleys, Sicinnus asked to see the commander, and, on being admitted to an interview with him, he informed him that he came from Themistocles, who was the leader, he said, of the Athenian portion of the Greek fleet.
"I am charged," he added, "to say to you from Themistocles that he considers the cause of the Greeks as wholly lost, and he is now, accordingly, desirous himself of coming over to the Persian side. This, however, he can not actually and openly do, on account of the situation in which he is placed in respect to the rest of the fleet. He has, however, sent me to inform you that the Greek fleet is in a very disordered and helpless condition, being distracted by the dissensions of the commanders, and the general discouragement and despair of the men; that some divisions are secretly intending to make their escape; and that, if you can prevent this by surrounding them, or by taking such positions as to intercept any who may attempt to withdraw, the whole squadron will inevitably fall into your hands."
Having made this communication, Sicinnus went on board his boat again, and returned to the Greek fleet as secretly and stealthily as he came.
The Persians immediately determined to resort to the measures which Themistocles had recommended to prevent the escape of any part of the Greek fleet. There was a small island between Salamis and the coast of Attica, that is, on the eastern side of Salamis, called Psyttalia, which was in such a position as to command, in a great measure, the channel of water between Salamis and the main land on this side. The Persians sent forward a detachment of galleys to take possession of this island in the night. By this means they hoped to prevent the escape of any part of the Greek squadron in that direction. Besides, they foresaw that in the approaching battle the principal scene of the conflict must be in that vicinity, and that, consequently, the island would become the great resort of the disabled ships and the wounded men, since they would naturally seek refuge on the nearest land. To preoccupy this ground, therefore, seemed an important step. It would enable them, when the terrible conflict should come on, to drive back any wretched refugees who might attempt to escape from destruction by seeking the shore.
By taking possession of this island, and stationing galleys in the vicinity of it, all which was done secretly in the night, the Persians cut off all possibility of escape for the Greeks in that direction. At the same time, they sent another considerable detachment of their fleet to the westward, which was the direction toward the isthmus, ordering the galleys thus sent to station themselves in such a manner as to prevent any portion of the Greek fleet from going round the island of Salamis, and making their escape through the northwestern channel. By this means the Greek fleet was environed on every side—hemmed in, though they were not aware of it, in such a way as to defeat any attempt which any division might make to retire from the scene.
The first intelligence which the Greeks received of their being thus surrounded was from an Athenian general named Aristides, who came one night from the island of Ægina to the Greek fleet, making his way with great difficulty through the lines of Persian galleys. Aristides had been, in the political conflicts which had taken place in former years at Athens, Themistocles's great rival and enemy. He had been defeated in the contests which had taken place, and had been banished from Athens. He now, however, made his way through the enemy's lines, incurring, in doing it, extreme difficulty and danger, in order to inform his countrymen of their peril, and to assist, if possible, in saving them.
When he reached the Greek fleet, the commanders were in council, agitating, in angry and incriminating debates, the perpetually recurring question whether they should retire to the isthmus, or remain where they were. Aristides called Themistocles out of the council. Themistocles was very much surprised at seeing his ancient enemy thus unexpectedly appear. Aristides introduced the conversation by saying that he thought that at such a crisis they ought to lay aside every private animosity, and only emulate each other in the efforts and sacrifices which they could respectively make to defend their country; that he had, accordingly, come from Ægina to join the fleet, with a view of rendering any aid that it might be in his power to afford; that it was now wholly useless to debate the question of retiring to the isthmus, for such a movement was no longer possible. "The fleet is surrounded," said he. "The Persian galleys are stationed on every side. It was with the utmost difficulty that I could make my way through the lines. Even if the whole assembly, and Eurybiades himself, were resolved on withdrawing to the isthmus, the thing could not now be done. Return, therefore, and tell them this, and say that to defend themselves where they are is the only alternative that now remains."
In reply to this communication, Themistocles said that nothing could give him greater pleasure than to learn what Aristides had stated. "The movement which the Persians have made," he said, "was in consequence of a communication which I myself sent to them. I sent it, in order that some of our Greeks, who seem so very reluctant to fight, might be compelled to do so. But you must come yourself into the assembly," he added, and make your statement directly to the commanders. They will, not believe it if they hear it from me. Come in, and state what you have seen."
Aristides accordingly entered the assembly, and informed the officers who were convened that to retire from their present position was no longer possible, since the sea to the west was fully guarded by lines of Persian ships, which had been stationed there to intercept them. He had just come in himself, he said, from Ægina, and had found great difficulty in passing through the lines, though he had only a single small boat, and was favored by the darkness of the night. He was convinced that the Greek fleet was entirely surrounded.
Having said this, Aristides withdrew. Although he could come, as a witness, to give his testimony in respect to facts, he was not entitled to take any part in the deliberations.
The assembly was thrown into a state of the greatest possible excitement by the intelligence which Aristides had communicated. Instead of producing harmony among them, it made the discord more violent and uncontrollable. Of those who had before wished to retire, some were now enraged that they had not been allowed to do so while the opportunity remained; others disbelieved Aristides's statements, and were still eager to go; while the rest, confirmed in their previous determination to remain where they were, rejoiced to find that retreat was no longer possible. The debate was confused and violent. It turned, in a great measure, on the degree of credibility to be attached to the account which Aristides had given them. Many of the assembly wholly disbelieved it. It was a stratagem, they maintained, contrived by the Athenian party, and those who wished to remain, in order to accomplish their end of keeping the fleet from changing its position.
The doubts, however, which the assembly felt in respect to the truth of Aristides's tidings were soon dispelled by new and incontestable evidence; for, while the debate was going on, it was announced that a large galley—a trireme, as it was called—had come in from the Persian fleet. This galley proved to be a Greek ship from the island of Tenos, one which Xerxes, in prosecution of his plan of compelling those portions of the Grecian territories that he had conquered, or that had surrendered to him, to furnish forces to aid him in subduing the rest, had pressed into his service. The commander of this galley, unwilling to take part against his countrymen in the conflict, had decided to desert the Persian fleet by taking advantage of the night, and to come over to the Greeks. The name of the commander of this trireme was Parætius. He confirmed fully all that Aristides had said. He assured the Greeks that they were completely surrounded, and that nothing remained for them but to prepare, where they were, to meet the attack which would certainly be made upon them in the morning. The arrival of this trireme was thus of very essential service to the Greeks. It put an end to their discordant debates, and united them, one and all, in the work of making resolute preparations for action. This vessel was also of very essential service in the conflict itself which ensued; and the Greeks were so grateful to Parætius and to his comrades for the adventurous courage which they displayed in coming over under such circumstances, in such a night, to espouse the cause and to share the dangers of their countrymen, that after the battle they caused all their names to be engraved upon a sacred tripod, made in the most costly manner for the purpose, and then sent the tripod to be deposited at the oracle of Delphi, where it long remained a monument of this example of Delian patriotism and fidelity.
As the morning approached, the preparations were carried forward with ardor and energy, on board both fleets, for the great struggle which was to ensue. Plans were formed; orders were given; arms were examined and placed on the decks of the galleys, where they would be most ready at hand. The officers and soldiers gave mutual charges and instructions to each other in respect to the care of their friends and the disposal of their effects—charges and instructions which each one undertook to execute for his friend in case he should survive him. The commanders endeavored to animate and encourage their men by cheerful looks, and by words of confidence and encouragement. They who felt resolute and strong endeavored to inspirit the weak and irresolute, while those who shrank from the approaching contest, and dreaded the result of it, concealed their fears, and endeavored to appear impatient for the battle.
Xerxes caused an elevated seat or throne to be prepared for himself on an eminence near the shore, upon the main land, in order that he might be a personal witness of the battle. He had a guard and other attendants around him. Among these were a number of scribes or secretaries, who were prepared with writing materials to record the events which might take place, as they occurred, and especially to register the names of those whom Xerxes should see distinguishing themselves by their courage or by their achievements. He justly supposed that these arrangements, the whole fleet being fully informed in regard to them, would animate the several commanders with strong emulation, and excite them to make redoubled exertions to perform their part well. The record which was thus to be kept, under the personal supervision of the sovereign, was with a view to punishments too, as well as to honors and rewards; and it happened in many instances during the battle that ensued, that commanders, who, after losing their ships, escaped to the shore, were brought up before Xerxes's throne, and there expiated their fault or their misfortune, whichever it might have been, by being beheaded on the spot, without mercy. Some of the officers thus executed were Greeks, brutally slaughtered for not being successful in fighting, by compulsion, against their own countrymen.
As the dawn approached, Themistocles called together as many of the Athenian forces as it was possible to convene, assembling them at a place upon the shore of Salamis where he could conveniently address them, and there made a speech to them, as was customary with the Greek commanders before going into battle. He told them that, in such contests as that in which they were about to engage, the result depended, not on the relative numbers of the combatants, but on the resolution and activity which they displayed. He reminded them of the instances in which small bodies of men, firmly banded together by a strict discipline, and animated by courage and energy, had overthrown enemies whose numbers far exceeded their own. The Persians were more numerous, he admitted, than they, but still the Greeks would conquer them. If they faithfully obeyed their orders, and acted strictly and perseveringly in concert, according to the plans formed by the commanders, and displayed the usual courage and resolution of Greeks, he was sure of victory.
As soon as Themistocles had finished his speech, he ordered his men to embark, and the fleet immediately afterward formed itself in battle array.
Notwithstanding the strictness of the order and discipline which generally prevailed in Greek armaments of every kind, there was great excitement and much confusion in the fleet while making all these preparations, and this excitement and confusion increased continually as the morning advanced and the hour for the conflict drew nigh. The passing of boats to and fro, the dashing of the oars, the clangor of the weapons, the vociferations of orders by the officers and of responses by the men, mingled with each other in dreadful turmoil, while all the time the vast squadrons were advancing toward each other, each party of combatants eager to begin the contest. In fact, so full of wild excitement was the scene, that at length the battle was found to be raging on every side, while no one knew or could remember how it began. Some said that a ship, which had been sent away a short time before to Ægina to obtain succors, was returning that morning, and that she commenced the action as she came through the Persian lines. Others said the Greek squadron advanced as soon as they could see, and attacked the Persians; and there were some whose imaginations were so much excited by the scene, that they saw a female form portrayed among the dim mists of the morning, that urged the Greeks onward by beckonings and calls. They heard her voice, they said, crying to them, "Come on! come on! this is no time to linger on your oars."
However this may be, the battle was soon furiously raging on every part of the Bay of Salamis, exhibiting a wide-spread scene of conflict, fury, rage, despair, and death, such as had then been seldom witnessed in any naval conflict, and such as human eyes can now never look upon again. In modern warfare the smoke of the guns soon draws an impenetrable veil over the scene of horror, and the perpetual thunder of the artillery overpowers the general din. In a modern battle, therefore, none of the real horrors of the conflict can either be heard or seen by any spectator placed beyond the immediate scene of it. The sights and the sounds are alike buried and concealed beneath the smoke and the noise of the cannonading. There were, however, no such causes in this case to obstruct the observations which Xerxes was making from his throne on the shore. The air was calm, the sky serene, the water was smooth, and the atmosphere was as transparent and clear at the end of the battle as at the beginning. Xerxes could discern every ship, and follow it with his eye in all its motions. He could see who advanced and who retreated. Out of the hundreds of separate conflicts he could choose any one, and watch the progress of it from the commencement to the termination. He could see the combats on the decks, the falling of repulsed assailants into the water, the weapons broken, the wounded carried away, and swimmers struggling like insects on the smooth surface of the sea. He could see the wrecks, too, which were drifted upon the shores, and the captured galleys, which, after those who defended them had been vanquished—some killed, others thrown overboard, and others made prisoners—were slowly towed away by the victors to a place of safety.
There was one incident which occurred in this scene, as Xerxes looked down upon it from the eminence where he sat, which greatly interested and excited him, though he was deceived in respect to the true nature of it. The incident was one of Artemisia's stratagems. It must be premised, in relating the story, that Artemisia was not without enemies among the officers of the Persian fleet. Many of them were envious of the high distinction which she enjoyed, and jealous of the attention which she received from the king, and of the influence which she possessed over him. This feeling showed itself very distinctly at the grand council, when she gave her advice, in connection with that of the other commanders, to the king. Among the most decided of her enemies was a certain captain named Damasithymus. Artemisia had had a special quarrel with him while the fleet was coming through the Hellespont, which, though settled for the time, left the minds of both parties in a state of great hostility toward each other.
It happened, in the course of the battle, that the ship which Artemisia personally commanded and that of Damasithymus were engaged, together with other Persian vessels, in the same part of the bay; and at a time when the ardor and confusion of the conflict was at its height, the galley of Artemisia, and some others that were in company with hers, became separated from the rest, perhaps by the too eager pursuit of an enemy, and as other Greek ships came up suddenly to the assistance of their comrades, the Persian vessels found themselves in great danger, and began to retreat, followed by their enemies. We speak of the retreating galleys as Persian, because they were on the Persian side in the contest, though it happened that they were really ships from Greek nations, which Xerxes had bribed or forced into his service. The Greeks knew them to be enemies, by the Persian flag which they bore.
In the retreat, and while the ships were more or less mingled together in the confusion, Artemisia perceived that the Persian galley nearest her was that of Damasithymus. She immediately caused her own Persian flag to be pulled down, and, resorting to such other artifices as might tend to make her vessel appear to be a Greek galley, she began to act as if she were one of the pursuers instead of one of the pursued. She bore down upon the ship of Damasithymus, saying to her crew that to attack and sink that ship was the only way to save their own lives. They accordingly attacked it with the utmost fury. The Athenian ships which were near, seeing Artemisia's galley thus engaged, supposed that it was one of their own, and pressed on, leaving the vessel of Damasithymus at Artemisia's mercy. It was such mercy as would be expected of a woman who would volunteer to take command of a squadron of ships of war, and go forth on an active campaign to fight for her life among such ferocious tigers as Greek soldiers always were, considering it all an excursion of pleasure. Artemisia killed Damasithymus and all of his crew, and sunk his ship, and then, the crisis of danger being past, she made good her retreat back to the Persian lines. She probably felt no special animosity against the crew of this ill-fated vessel, but she thought it most prudent to leave no man alive to tell the story.
Xerxes watched this transaction from his place on the hill with extreme interest and pleasure. He saw the vessel of Artemisia bearing down upon the other, which last he supposed, of course, from Artemisia's attacking it, was a vessel of the enemy. The only subject of doubt was whether the attacking ship was really that of Artemisia. The officers who stood about Xerxes at the time that the transaction occurred assured him that it was. They knew it well by certain peculiarities in its construction. Xerxes then watched the progress of the contest with the most eager interest, and, when he saw the result of it, he praised Artemisia in the highest terms, saying that the men in his fleet behaved like women, while the only woman in it behaved like a man.
Thus Artemisia's exploit operated like a double stratagem. Both the Greeks and the Persians were deceived, and she gained an advantage by both the deceptions. She saved her life by leading the Greeks to believe that her galley was their friend, and she gained great glory and renown among the Persians by making them believe that the vessel which she sunk was that of an enemy.
Though these and some of the other scenes and incidents which Xerxes witnessed as he looked down upon the battle gave him pleasure, yet the curiosity and interest with which he surveyed the opening of the contest were gradually changed to impatience, vexation, and rage as he saw in its progress that the Greeks were every where gaining the victory. Notwithstanding the discord and animosity which had reigned among the commanders in their councils and debates, the men were united, resolute, and firm when the time arrived for action; and they fought with such desperate courage and activity, and, at the same time, with so much coolness, circumspection, and discipline, that thePersian lines were, before many hours, every where compelled to give way. A striking example of the indomitable and efficient resolution which, on such occasions, always characterized the Greeks, was shown in the conduct of Aristides. The reader will recollect that the Persians, on the night before the battle, had taken possession of the island of Psyttalia—which was near the center of the scene of contest—for the double purpose of enabling themselves to use it as a place of refuge and retreat during the battle, and of preventing their enemies from doing so. Now Aristides had no command. He had been expelled from Athens by the influence of Themistocles and his other enemies. He had come across from Ægina to the fleet at Salamis, alone, to give his countrymen information of the dispositions which the Persians had made for surrounding them. When the battle began, he had been left, it seems, on the shore of Salamis a spectator. There was a small body of troops left there also, as a guard to the shore. In the course of the combat, when Aristides found that the services of this guard were no longer likely to be required where they were, he placed himself at the head of them, obtained possession of boats or a galley, transported the men across the channel, landed them on the island of Psyttalia, conquered the post, and killed every man that the Persians had stationed there.
When the day was spent, and the evening came on, it was found that the result of the battle was a Greek victory, and yet it was not a victory so decisive as to compel the Persians wholly to retire. Vast numbers of the Persian ships were destroyed, but still so many remained, that when at night they drew back from the scene of the conflict, toward their anchorage ground at Phalerum, the Greeks were very willing to leave them unmolested there. The Greeks, in fact, had full employment on the following day in reassembling the scattered remnants of their own fleet, repairing the damages that they had sustained, taking care of their wounded men, and, in a word, attending to the thousand urgent and pressing exigencies always arising in the service of a fleet after a battle, even when it has been victorious in the contest. They did not know in exactly what condition the Persian fleet had been left, nor how far there might be danger of a renewal of the conflict on the following day. They devoted all their time and attention, therefore, to strengthening their defenses and reorganizing the fleet, so as to be ready in case a new assault should be made upon them.
But Xerxes had no intention of any new attack. The loss of this battle gave a final blow to his expectations of being able to carry his conquests in Greece any further. He too, like the Greeks, employed his men in industrious and vigorous efforts to repair the damages which had been done, and to reassemble and reorganize that portion of the fleet which had not been destroyed. While, however, his men were doing this, he was himself revolving in his mind, moodily and despairingly, plans, not for new conflicts, but for the safest and speediest way of making his own personal escape from the dangers around him, back to his home in Susa.
In the mean time, the surface of the sea, far and wide in every direction, was covered with the wrecks, and remnants, and fragments strewed over it by the battle. Dismantled hulks, masses of entangled spars and rigging, broken oars, weapons of every description, and the swollen and ghastly bodies of the dead, floated on the rolling swell of the sea wherever the winds or the currents carried them. At length many of these mournful memorials of the strife found their way across the whole breadth of the Mediterranean, and were driven up upon the beach on the coast of Africa, at a barbarous country called Colias. The savages dragged the fragments up out of the sand to use as fuel for their fires, pleased with their unexpected acquisitions, but wholly ignorant, of course, of the nature of the dreadful tragedy to which their coming was due. The circumstance, however, explained to the Greeks an ancient prophecy which had been uttered long before in Athens, and which the interpreters of such mysteries had never been able to understand. The prophecy was this: