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The Battle of Salamis
A battle that changed the world
By Steven Martinovich
Every historian seems to have one battle that they believe changed the course of world history. Some will point to Constantine's victory over Maxentius at Milvian Bridge in 312, others give the nod to the defeat of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna in 1683 while still others prefer the American victory over the Hessians at Trenton in 1776. Some, with justification, would argue that by their very nature each battle changes the course of world history, whether in a profound manner or in a barely perceptible fashion. Some battles, however, do have a greater claim to profundity then others.
In The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization, Barry Strauss argues that a naval battle in 480 BC between an alliance of Greek city states and Xerxes' mighty Persian empire essentially set the scene for the rise of the Western world we know today. On one side stood a massive invasion force looking to avenge an earlier loss to the Greeks at Marathon, while on the other was a collection of bickering city states that were united only by their hatred of the Persians.
One could be forgiven in wondering why the Greeks even bothered to fight in the first place. Although Athens had a strong navy, the Spartans could always be counted on to fight to the death and the other city states threw in what resources they could, they faced the most dominant military power of the ancient world. Attacking the Peloponnese was a multi-ethnic force, which included Greeks, armed with 1,327 ships and an army of over 100,000 men. The Persian empire could command almost limitless resources and their attention was focused almost exclusively on Greece
On paper the Greeks had no chance but as Straus relates, the war started poorly for Xerxes from the start. An early naval clash saw the Greeks come away winners while at Thermopylae a small Spartan force made a heroic stand that inflicted horrific causalities on the invaders. Although the Persians swept through Greece and captured Athens, the Greeks had managed to evacuate over 100,000 civilians, mostly to Salamis, an island not far from the Greek coast. That set the stage for a battle between the Greek and Persian fleets off the island in a strait no more than one mile wide.
The engagement happened only thanks to the cunning and guile of Themosticles, chief strategist of the Greeks. By utilizing tactics that would have branded him a traitor had they failed, he managed to maneuver the Persians -- not to mention his disunited Greek force -- precisely where he wanted them. Tired and expecting a demoralized Greek navy, the Persian armada instead met an inspired and fresh foe, one determined to destroy the enemy for their sacrilege in burning down the sacred sites of Athens. The Persians were routed and it effectively ended Xerxes' dreams of extending his empire to the west.
The victory by the Greeks also set the stage for the rise of another power, namely the Athenians. Straus argues that although the Persian empire survived for another century and a half after the Battle of Salamis, Athens won both the short and long-term war. Within a few decades it controlled much of the Aegean and crafted the world's first democratic empire, though many of its subject city states were not enamoured by how their cousins in Athens governed. Their empire, however, was the foundation for the world as we know it, at least politically.
"Athens failed to live up to its ideal of freedom, and failure generated critics. They included historians like Herodotus and Thucydides and poets like Sophocles and Euripides and Aristophanes. And they included the most cutting critic of them all: Socrates. And Socrates led to Plato, Aristotle, and the Western tradition of political philosophy. That tradition, the debate over democracy and its discontents, is the true legacy of Salamis[...]."
Though he makes a decent case, Strauss isn't entirely successful in proving that the Battle of Salamis was the turning point that assured the rise of Western Civilization. The Greeks and Persians clashed several times after Salamis and a number of other events can credibly claim the same status. He does, however, pen a rousing and engaging history of the battle, marshaling a considerable amount of research into effectively recreating the battle as if it had happened only a few years ago, not two and a half millennia previously. Regardless of where one stands on which is the most important battle of history, all can agree that Strauss has done justice to the Battle of Salamis.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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