It’s been years since the hype around the Hollywood blockbuster “300” simmered down. But for all its grotesque slow-mo blood baths, corny costumes, and exaggerated, (did I say exaggerated) scenes between Leonidas and Xerxes, the “300” at least put a schema in the general public’s mind about the courage and stoicism of the Spartan band. But to this day a blockbuster Hollywood flick has yet to capture the excitement and exhilaration of one of the most important battles in the West. It is perhaps one of the most crucial battles, the lynchpin on which our entire Western civilization rested upon. Besides historians and intellectuals, few understand the significance it held to change the course of history as we know it. As a battle, it remains unchartered in the minds of regular folks. That battle is the Battle of Salamis. It is less sexy than the Battle of Thermopylae partly because it was a battle fought on sea and not on land. But it was in the sea that the Greeks truly demonstrate their finesse and agility as they have long mastered the sea as the element that ensured their survival. Additionally, it was a battle the Greeks were successful, unlike the basis of the “300” where the heroes are all slaughtered but nevertheless secure their place in the annals of history because of their sacrifice.
In case a Hollywood producer is reading this, here is a short synopsis. At around 480 BC, the Persian Empire led by Xerxes attempted to take the Greek city-states a second time. His father Darius had been defeated ten years previous in the battle of Marathon. He was back to finish his father’s business. Headed by the hardened general Mardonius, troops drawn from all corners of the Persian empire crossed the Bosphorus strait on a bridge of boats and headed west and south for Athens, while a great navy hugged the coast and shadowed them. What the film version did not explain is that part of the motivation of the band of 300 was to make up for their absence in the Battle of Marathon 10 years previously. The Spartans had not taken part in that battle due to religious observance. So they appeared on the scene in Part 2 of the Persian Empire Strikes Back to make up for lost time. A measly 300 soldiers could not stave off the mighty Persian Empire. On the same day Thermopylae fell, the Athenian fleet fled from the forward base at Artemisium. The road to Athens was now clear, and it was not long before the Persians were inside the city and the temples on the Acropolis were torched.
At this point, the Athenians were screwed. The city could have been sacked. Precisely at this moment the other city-states banded together because the stakes were high: either they all had to cooperate, set aside their squabbles and in-fighting and unite together to get rid of the common enemy or else all fall. The clever general named Themistocles used his power of gab to trick the Persians into joining battle in the straits of Salamis, between the island and the coast. (In case you don’t remember, Salamina is a big island to the west of Athens acting in a way as a buffer to the main coast that leads to Pireaus and Athens in the Saronic Gulf.)
How did Themistocles lure Xerxes into the straits of Salamis? He sent a message to King Xerxes informing him that the Greeks he led were on Xerxes’ side and wished to ally themselves with his empire. He claimed that the Greek commanders were fighting amongst themselves and that the alliance of the Greek city-states would soon crumble. He also indicated that the Greeks would be evacuating the island during the night. Believing this message, Xerxes’ fleet spent the night searching the sea for signs of the evacuating fleet.
Xerxes had no idea that he had been tricked by the wily Greek commander. Although there had been conflicts between the Greek leaders, they remained united. The next morning, realizing that the Greeks had not retreated, the Persian fleet advanced into the narrow straits between the island and the mainland.
Themistocles worked on Xerxes’ pride no doubt by challenging him to what in his eyes would have resulted in a decimation, a total butchering of the Greeks. Unable to say no, Xerxes agreed. So confident was Xerxes that the Persians would slaughter the Greeks that he had a golden throne placed high on the headland overlooking bay of Salamis just so that he would have a front row seat to relish in the drama. This would go down in history as the battle the Persians whooped the Greek pisino and the great King Xerxes would be responsible for it all,(ha ha ha ha—add evil laugh here with some rubbing of hands.)
But that would not be the case. The Greek ships, smaller and more agile, were able to maneuver more quickly through the narrow straits and wreck havoc on the Persian long boats. Historians cite the Persian navy of about 800 galleys bottled up the straits and the smaller Greek fleet of about 370 triremes were able to line up and easily sink them.
Instead of savoring the defeat of the Greeks as he had expected, Xerxes was forced to flee hastily from the front row of the movie. In one final battle, the city-states of Greece, now for the first time united, defeated Mardonius and his army at Plataea. Imagine the scene: the Greek soldiers entered the field to find Xerxes lavish tent empty with so many hacked and rotting Persian corpses around it. It was a symbol of his pride and vanity; moral of the story, “Never call a battle victory before it ends. Don’t count your victories before they happen.”
Why is the Battle of Salamis so important in the course of history? Because if the Persians had won, it would not have allowed the Greeks to develop into the incredible civilization that influenced the West. The Golden Age of Greece and the flowering of the fruits of civilization as we know them: democracy, theater, astronomy, mathematics, etc. etc. might not have come into existence. That battle essentially wiped any chance of the Persians ever trying to mess with the Greeks again. If the Persians had won, Western civilization as we know it would not have been the same. Think about it: we would all be wearing skirts and heavy black eyeliner playing poker and paying with checks in an air-conditioned tent (poker, checks, air conditioning were some of the contributions of Persian civilization.) For this reason, the Battle of Salamis is considered as one of the most pivotal in the course of Western civilization. Why a Hollywood producer hasn’t picked up the script yet is still a mystery.
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