Artemisium 480 B.C. Three naval conflicts in two days
The fighting in the pass of Thermopylae and the sacrifice of the Spartans overshadows the equally important operations taking place parallel to the fighting on land. As Plutarch brilliantly indicates the conviction of the Greeks for their superiority against the Persians at sea warfare, was built by the conflicts in the North of Euboea.
Xerxes had amassed a fleet of two thousand and two hundred seven ships and had appointed his brother Ariavignis as admiral. Modern historians consider that this number had included the transports and all auxiliary vessels. In the fleet served the coastal vassals of the Persian King. Lycians, Cilicians, Carians, and Phoenicians. The Ionians and the press-ganged Cypriots forced the Persians to have some of their own contingents consisting of Persians and Saka on board of the ships to perform service as marines and to watch over the crews. Although Phoenicians of Cyprus were considered reliable, Ionians who had revolted twenty years ago and were treated with suspicion by the Persians. The fleet sailed by the coast alongside the route of the army and ensured communication with Asia but also the provisioning by transporting cargoes from supply points at the rear. Many scholars argue that another reason was the desire of the Persian King to “contain» the more «unruly elements» of his forces. A more cynical view wants the reliable Phoenicians to form the «secret element» for the emergency escape of Xerxes I of Persia in case something went wrong. Although the routes of the army and the fleet were parallel when they started from the Thermaikos Gulf they were eventually split as the army entered in the Thessalian hinterland.
The fleet sailed by the coast with great effort. One of the reasons was the ignorance of Asian pilots about the waters and reefs. Another reason was the frictions between the Persian commanders who did not have confidence on the Ionian captains, which resulted in delays, and accidents. Off mount Pelion northern winds and lack of safe harbors caused many shipwrecks. Many more had suffered severe damage and numerous squadrons were scattered. The Persian fleet arrived at the Bay of Afetae in Pagasitic Gulf with a four-day delay. Many historians believe that this was the real reason for the delay of Xerxes I of Persia to attack the garrison of Thermopylae and not his arrogance as Herodotus says.
Commander of the Greek fleet was the Spartan admiral Eurybiades. He had a lot of the typical Lacedemonian arrogance and he nearly caused the fleet to dissolve with the careless behavior. Luckily for the Greeks, the Athenian Admiral Themistocles was able to handle himself intelligently and to keep the fleet together. Themistocles had done everything, after the battle the Marathon, to convince his fellow citizens to use the proceeds of the Laurium mines to build a fleet of triremes. He achieved this end only by exiling his political rival Aristides and claiming that the ships were needed to wrest the domination of the Saronic Gulf by the Aeginitans. The need of the fleet for rowers and the naval service, which did not involve excessive costs of purchasing equipment, gave the lower economic class the “thetes” civil rights, restricted up to then to those who could afford hoplite armor. Thus started the political rise of lower social classes of Athenian society.
After the Congress of Corinth, Themistocles had sent to the North of Euboea his friend Avronychos, son of Lysicles. This clever man organized an information network using beacons and small craft. So the Greeks were not only better informed about the intentions of the Persians, but also the movements of their fleet. The first contact with the Persian fleet though was unfortunate
The Greeks had sent three triremes near the island of Sciathos as their vanguard. Their mission was to give early warning when the Persian fleet approached the area. But the Persians managed to surprise them. The Athenian ship run aground by the Thessalian coast and the crew made good their escape inland. The Troizenians did not managed to escape. The Phoenicians rammed them and then boarded their vessel. After capturing it, they sacrificed the most handsome prisoner to their gods. But on the Aeginitan ship, a very bitter fight took place. A marine, named Pytheas, held his post valiantly, ignoring his wounds but collapsed from blood loss. The Persian commander admired his courage so much that, after preventing the Phoenician marines from killing him, he brought a doctor to dress his wounds and kept him in honorary captivity. When the fire beacons forwarded the things that happened the Greek fleet was panic stricken. The Peloponnesians wanted to abandon Artemisio and retreat back to Isthmus. The Euboeans strongly protested this decision. The risk to expose the flanks of the army and the subjugation of Euboea was clearly visible. The desperate residents of Euboea gave to Themistocles thirty talents to keep the fleet there. Themistocles used the money to bribe the Greek officers so as not to vote to retreat and to silence Athenians who accused him of illegal practices.
This period violent storms erupted and whatever Persian ships had not found safe anchorage began to face problems. Due to overcrowding, inexperience and clumsy actions of Persians commanders, losses were great. Herodotus mentions that four hundred ships were drowned. Many of these were transport vessels, adding thus to the problems of Persian supply. Themistocles presented a prophecy saying that the Athenians would receive help from a relative and recalled the myth of God Boreas (north wind) who had married the daughter of the mythical King Cecrops. The Athenians, after the Persian wars honored the Boreas, God of the Northern Winds for his aid during these particularly difficult times. Morale had risen and now Themistocles faced the opposite problem. He had to prevent the ship masters from making hasty actions. The great admiral did not forget that fleet’s main mission was to prevent the Persians flanking the army garrisoning Thermopylae.
One squadron of 15 Persian ships originating from Aeolis, Caria and Phoenician cities of Cyprus had drifted near Artemisium because of the storm. The sailors of Xerxes believed that ships they encountered were of their own fleet and thus were easily apprehended by the Greeks. Themistocles was careful not to kill prisoners but sent them instead in chains to Corinth to inform the Greeks of the success and have them see with their own eyes that the Persians were not invincible. The triakontoros of Abronychos brought news that the Persians had launched attacks against the army but had been rebuffed. The Persians detached two hundred ships to sail around Evoia and outflank the Greek fleet. The rest of the fleet was initiated against the Artemisium. The observers informed the Greeks and the fleet sailed out in the open to fight.
The fleets met at high noon. The Persians, taking advantage of their numerical superiority encircled the Greeks. They despised the Greek fleet because of its small size, but their own crews were strained from the storms and their ships had not time to restore the damages. The Greeks formed a circle with the rear towards the interior of the circle and the bronze rams to protruding outwards. The marines kneeling on the decks were protected from their shields. The Persian ships however had many more archers on board and immobility of their targets favored then to slowly causing casualties to the Greek crews. Themistocles ordered the attack to break the enemy circle. The Greek ships destroyed the oars of the enemy ships with their rams and sailed to their side in order to aid assault of their marines. At the points where the Greeks faced Phoenicians and Carians, who had seafaring skills and similar equipment, conflicts were tough and hanging on the balance. The Persian contingents however, on board the Ionian ships suffered heavily, as the Ionian sailors took advantage of the confusion, to cause problems for their masters. The less heavily armed Persians despite their bravery during the fighting on the decks, found it difficult to neutralize the heavier armored Greek hoplites.
The first ship master who managed to capture an enemy ship was the Athenian Lycomedes, son of Aeschraius, who was rewarded for his act. The Persians were unable to break the defensive circle of the Greeks. The conflict lasted until sunset. The opponents were forced to break up in order to avoid the dangers of night fighting. The Greeks seized thirty enemy ships. The Persians withdrew to Afetae and Greeks towards Artemisio. An Ionian shipmaster in Persian service, Antidorus from Lemnos joined in Greeks and the Athenians rewarded him for this. The Greeks had more confidence now as they had broken the enemy lines in some places and the numerical superiority of the Persians was a bigger problem to them than the benefits it offered. The thirty captured vessels, reported the highest naval skills of Greeks who ceased to fear their opponents. At night the weather worsened and it began to rain. The wind swept away the rubble and the corpses of the battle towards the Persian anchorages. Many corpses were entangled on the Persian oars. The terrible sight crashed the morale of the Asians, especially in those parts where the infantry guarding the coasts was comprised from Persians. That same night a sudden storm destroyed the Persian squadron whose mission was to encircle the Greek fleet.
The next day, the fifty three Greek ships remaining in the Strait of Eyripos as a reserve arrived at the Greek anchorage and brought the news of the Persian calamity. The Greeks encouraged thanked the deified winds and prepared to go out and fight in the open. But the Persians intended to do nothing before restoring the heavy damages of theie ships. To protect the anchored fleet the Persians had placed on the outer perimeter of the Cilicians. The Cilicians had naval skills and carried weapons similar to the Greek ones. It was not a wrong choice of the Persian Admiral, apart from the fact that they performed their mission in a very careless manner.
The Greek ships approached as quietly as possible. It is likely that the tempo of rowing was given with optical signals from the oar masters instead of the pipes and clappers, as it was the norm. When the Cilicians realized the Greek assault and tried to raise the alarm but it was hopelessly late. The Greeks rammed the Cilician ships and their marines invaded on the enemy decks. Because of their negligence the Cilicians maybe were not well armed. Those of them who did not fall into the sea were killed or captured by the Greeks. The wooden ships of the era, although rammed were still floating. For this reason, the Greeks, having transferred prisoners and booty to their own ships, destroyed the enemy vessels. They probably set them alight by using oil from the enemy’s own supplies. Because the night began to fall, the Persians did not dared to persue the Greeks. Also the sight of the burning wrecks in the darkness was not the best thing for their moral.
On the third day Ariavignis angered by the fact that such a small number of enemy ships defied the fleet of the High King threatened the shipmasters with harsh punishments if Xerxes was to learn of their failures. Under these circumstances, the Asians get very early ready to fight. They marshaled their vessels, forming a large circle and tried to outflank the Greeks. The Greeks themselves were keen that the edges of their line were located near the coast in order to avoid this case. According to Herodotus the barbarians were shouting to their own not to fear their opponents who in any case were few in number, while the Greeks were shouting to one another not to allow the barbarians to enter in Eurippos. The fighting on the decks was again, very savage. The Athenian shipmaster Cleinias of the Alcmeonid clan and father of Alcibiades, distinguished himself.
The threats of Ariavignis had made the Asian ship masters very afraid to retreat. The rear lines pressed the front lines thus creating confusion and accidents again. The Persian lines were were so dense that the Greeks did not manage to break them. The Persian casualties were heavy but Greek losse were heavy too. Half of the Athenian ships had been seriously damaged, and the number of wounded was substantial. From the enemy Navy the Egyptians who managed to capture five Greek ships distinguished themselves. With the nightfall both fleets returned to their bases. The Greeks were again able this time to prevent the Persians from flanking Thermopylae but their strength was seriously tested.
The next day came the triakontoros of Abronychos that used to act as liaison with the garrison of Thermopylae and reported that the Persians had breached the Straits, had already wiped out the garrison and that Leonidas was dead. Listening to these Themistocles agreed with Eyrybiadas that their presence in the region was now superfluous. Before they left, however, They replenished their provision by requisitioning the flocks and food of Eyboeans because they felt it best to get these supplies than abandoning to the enemy. Also all seaworthy ships were sent to every point of the region, which could harbor the Persian fleet and left messages for the Ionians who served in the Persian fleet inviting them to dessert or if they were not able to flee, then to cause problems for the Persians, every time they had the chance. They also told them to try and persuade Carians, who were from the best elements of the Persian fleet to do the same. These messages even if they didn’t manage to cause many desertions, they would make the Persians even more suspicious of the pressganged Greeks and maybe hesitant to use them again in battle.
The Greek fleet retreated to Salamis. The Persians sacked Histiaia and began sailing to parallel to their army advancing into Boeotia and Attica. The defeat at Thermopylae had dropped the Greek moral again. Although Greek crews had shown that on one to one basis they were equal or superior to the barbarians, the Peloponnesian generals were frustrated and wanted to retreat again to Isthmus. Only one saw clearly what had to be done, Themistocles who knew that only at sea the Greeks were likely to repel the attacker. By remaining steadfast when the other had lost their faith, he was working for the salvation of Athens and all Greece by prepatirng a conflict with the Persians in Saronic Golf by reminding everyone that the Oracle of Delphi had called Salamis ‘Holy Place’.
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Plutarch “Themistocles” Loeb Classical Library 1920
Strabo “Geography” Loeb Classical Library 1920
Pausanias “Description of Greece». J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905
Polyaenos “Stratagems” trns E.Shepherd (1793)
The Seventy Great Battles of All Time, Edited by Jeremy Black, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2005
William Stearns Davis, Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. I: Greece and the East.