The strategy of the battle of cape Artemision

This first confrontation of Xerxes’s invasion of 480 bc, between the Persian and Greek fleets, took place in July; at this stage, the strategy of the Greeks, who realised that an immediate and outright resistance to the advance of the Persian forces would be mistaken, was to try to hinder and delay their progress nonetheless. An army of the size of that assembled by Xerxes depended heavily on the reinforcement and provisioning afforded by the fleet which tracked its progress, keeping pace with it along the coast. The Greeks therefore aimed to do two things: first, to separate the Persian fleet from the army; and second, if possible, to send the fleet into the hostile and ex posed waters along the east coast of Euboea, rather than allowing them access to the calm and inhabited shores of the inland gulf. Themistocles also needed time to prepare the evacuation of Athens, and the longer the Greeks could delay Xerxes—if possible into the early weeks of September—the greater pressure he would then be under to conclude his invasion before the changing season brought bad weather. The story of the engagement at Artemision is told in detail by Herodotus (Hist. VIII, 1–23); his ac count makes fascinating and valuable reading. The losses were considerable on both sides and the out come indecisive. But the overall Greek strategy was successful: those Persian ships which attempted the east coast of Euboea perished in bad weather and in hospitable waters; and the delay inflicted on Xerxes both here at Artemision and in the contemporaneous stand-off at Thermopylae across the water, cost him valuable time. It also gave vital breathing space for the Greeks to regroup and for Attica and Athens to prepare themselves for the inevitable onslaught. The psychological effect of the outcome cannot be overestimated: it showed to the Greeks that massive superiority of numbers on the Persian side did not necessarily prove invincible in the face of agile and intelligent strategic planning.

Euboea Island, Greece

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