The sinews of victory

This very difficult year, we ought to be celebrating 2.5 millennia since the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. Since celebrations are out of the question, due to the pandemic, allow me to honor the anniversary with a series of posts on the subject.

The trireme Olympias, modern reprodution of a classical one. The picture shows the front half of the vessel, complete with oars, mast and rigging, and prow with ram (embolon) flush with the surface of the water.

In the summer of 480 BCE, Xerxes, the Great king of Persia, lead his army in an invasion of Greece. The Persian army and navy enjoyed great numerical superiority, although the exact numbers are still debated among scholars.

The opponents

The Persian Empire was vast, stretching from the Mediterranean coast all the way to Afghaninstan and from the Caspian Sea to the Red one, with a population of various cultures, tongues and creeds. It was also very sophisticated, ruled efficiently by a well-organised state bureaucracy. On the other hand, the Greeks were fragmented into hundreds of independent city-states, large and small, at constant war with each other. Despite this, their style of warfare was simple by comparison.

Greek defeats

The battle of Thermopylae was a tactical and strategic defeat for the Greek alliance although it has become legendary due to the stand of the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians.

By September 480 BCE, the situation was very bleak for the Greeks, with most of mainland Greece under Persian control. Athens itself and its territories were occupied, the city and its sanctuaries burnt to the ground, while its citizens were refugees in other city states. It was a grim outlook indeed.

A naval battle that changed things

However, by the end of the month the situation had changed. The naval battle fought in the straits between the island of Salamis and the coast of Attica was a great victory for the Greek side. The majority of the Persian invasion fleet was destroyed and its potential as an effective fighting organisation was neutalised.  The Greek alliance was given a much needed respite and the Athenians regained their city.

Indeed the battle of salamis was the turning point in the Persian campaign.

A fleet – an essential factor

Much has been written about the factors that gave victory to the Greek fleet – the topography of the straits, the local climate, the size of the fleets, the characteristics of the vessels, the  opposing commanders.

Bas relief of a trireme, showing part of the port side of the ship. Lenorman relief, 410 BCE, Acropolis Museum.

However, one of the most important factors was the existence of a Greek fleet of 300-380 triremes, of which the largest contingent were the 200 Athenian triremes. Without such a fleet to oppose them, the Persians would have had an even greater advantage against the Greeks. The fact that it existed played a vital part in the strategies of both sides. 

From scratch

The oddest thing about the Greek fleet is that its largest part, the Athenian contingent, did not even exist a mere few years before. Its creation is one of the most exciting stories of the Persian wars.

In the start of the 5th century BCE, Athens was already one of the largest and richest city-states. Yet no one would call it a major naval power.

Compared to the cities of Corinth, Corfu and Aegina, Athens had few ships. During the revolution of the Ionian cities against the occupying Persian Empire, the Athenians could contribute only 20 triremes to help their Greek allies. Just a few years before the second Persian invasion of 480, they lost a naval battle to Aegina, although they had padded their own small fleet with ships on loan from the Corinthians. Yet when the Persians arrived, the Athenians had more ships than all the other Greek cities combined. How did they do it?

A bonanza of silver

A very important factor in the making of any fleet is the economy. Athenians had been mining the silver deposits of Lavrion already since the 6th century BCE. By the early 5th century, they had reached a production peak of 750 metric tons a year.

View of a valley near Lavrion, with foundations of ore processing facilities. 5th-4th century BCE.

A booming economy does not guarantee that a fleet will be built. It could have been shared among an elit, or used for other public projects or even squandered in luxuries. The fact that it was used to make Athens a naval power, is one of the most important turning points in Athenian history, which amply demonstrates the spirit and the potential of its democracy.

Citizens’ benefits

In the year 484-483 BCE, a mother lode of silver was discovered. The historian Herodotus informs us that the revenue of the Athenian state from this single mine were 100 talents of silver. It seems that the law made provision for the distribution of such surplus among the citizens, who would receive 10 drachmas each. The sum was not trifle, considering that the best paid skilled professionals at the time got 1 drachma per day. Most Athenians would need to work 10 or 20 days to make that much. Shortly before the battle of Salamis, the assembly had voted a stipend of 8 drachma for each fighting citizen, to cover their monthly expenses.

Modern replicas of Athenian silver 4-drachma coins of the 5th century BCE. Author’s private collection.


It was at that time that a man’s genius shone. Themistocles was an experienced officer and one of the top political figures of Athens at the time. He believed that the city ought to become a naval power and, a few years later, when he served as archon of the city, he had started turning Piraeus into a port.

Roman copy of a bust of Themistocles. Ostia, Italy.

The proposition

Themistocles proposed that the Athenians refuse their share of the surplus silver and use the money to build a fleet instead. He very astutely avoided mentioning the distant threat of Persia and concentrated instead on reminding the Athenians of the clear and present danger of nearby Aegina, which only recently had humiliated them.

Although one cannot help but admire his approach, what is more admirable is the decision taken by the assembly of citizens, who chose to serve their city’s interest instead of their own. They declined the money for themselves and voted instead that it should be used to build a large fleet (which they would man themselves).

The speakers’ podium (bema) at the Pnyx, seat of the Athenian citizens’ assembly until the 4th century BCE.

A building frenzy

Building a ship is neither easy, nor fast. Yet within three years, the Athenians managed to build and equip 200 triremes, starting from scratch. This feat of organisation and craftsmanship demanded huge quantities of lumber, textiles and fibers for ropes.

By the time the Persians reached central Greece, in the summer of 480 BCE, the Athenians had built the largest fleet of any other Greek state.

The sinews of victory

The victory of Salamis may surely depend on the wise choice of location between the island and the Attica coast, as well as the tactics employed during the combat. Yet what we must not forget is that the roots of this victory lie in the valleys of Lavrion and in the assembly of Athenian citizens, who opted to put the state’s interests above their own.


One comment on “The sinews of victory

  1. Pingback: The tragedy of Themistocles the wise | Aristotle, Greek tourist guide

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