1. What Salamis Achieved
The marble doorway leading in and out of the Acropolis offers the departing guest a framed view of the Salamis Strait, thirteen kilometers away. The University of California archaeologist John Papadopoulos, who made this observation, believes that is deliberate.
The Battle of Salamis, which took place twenty-five hundred years ago in that strait, successfully pitted an Athenian-led navy of three hundred ships against a Persian-led one of twelve hundred. It was perhaps the unlikeliest Athenian military victory of all time but gave Athens mastery of the Aegean. She used it to build a maritime empire offering Greek city-states Athenian-style democracies and security guarantees against Persia.
The doorway itself is part of the Propylaia, or foregate, of the Acropolis: a grand, colonnaded passage built, like the temples behind it, with the proceeds of that empire. It also happens to stand on the spot where an aristocratic-led party of landlubbers who, having refused to give up the city and entrust their fate to the navy, erected a wooden palisade against the invading Persian army and were killed beside it. It is irresistible to imagine that Perikles, the Athenian general who commissioned the Propylaia, meant to create a permanent pointer to the city’s greatest victory upon the site of its greatest miscalculation.
The Greeks at the Battle of Salamis were nominally led by Sparta. In reality, Athens was the source of Greek strategy and strength. It provided two-thirds of the Greek fleet. The battle’s winning strategy came from an Athenian general, Themistokles.
Athens was the extraordinary component of the Greek forces for other reasons, too. Its punishment was the ultimate goal of the Persian expedition under Xerxes. Athens had sent twenty ships to assist her colonies in Asia Minor in a revolt against the Persian Empire fourteen years earlier. On a fennel-rich plain called Marathon, she had had the temerity to defeat the first Persian expeditionary force Xerxes’s father, Darius, sent to punish her in 490 BC. When that failed, Darius issued orders for a larger-scale invasion he did not live to lead. “All Asia was in uproar for three years, with the best men being enrolled in the army for the invasion of Greece, and with the preparations,” the Greek father of journalism, Herodotos, tells us at the beginning of Book VII of The Histories.
There were also political transformations afoot in Athens, which defeat at Salamis might well have quashed. Its experiment of constitutional democracy was not yet thirty years old. Persia, certainly, did not look kindly upon rule by the people; but neither did Sparta, whose king Kleomenes had marched on Athens no fewer than four times in the previous century to restore tyranny—one-man rule—under Hippias. Even now, on the eve of Salamis, the eighty-year-old Hippias and his family were waiting to return to power, this time under the sponsorship of the Persian Empire.
The contest was not only highly uneven in military terms—it was politically asymmetrical, too. For Persia, these were largely wars of prestige, shoring up discipline in other parts of the empire that might be entertaining thoughts of revolt. For Athens they were existential. Every able-bodied man was conscripted to hold an oar or a spear. Women and children were evacuated to the Peloponnese and the island of Salamis. Temples, ancestral homes, and productive fields were abandoned to the invader’s torch.
It would be no exaggeration to say that these Persian Wars were the driver of all subsequent Greek history until the Roman occupation four-and-a-half centuries later. They confirmed the irreversibility of democracy in Athens; they established the primacy of the Athenian thalassocracy throughout the Greek world; they stanched Persia’s expansion into Europe and established a European power on the world stage for the first time; they incited the jealousy of Sparta and helped trigger the twenty-seven-year-long Peloponnesian War, through which she defeated Athens with the help of Persian gold and briefly restored her title as leader of Greece; and they engendered the political will for a reciprocal Greek invasion of Persia, around which Philip II and Alexander rallied Greece.
2. The Locus in Quo