Paloukia,Salamis and the east of the island
The short journey from Perama in mainland Attica to Salamis passes to the south of the islet of Aghios Giorgios in the middle of the straits. The brief crossing cuts right across the heart of where the Battle of Salamis took place and gives a vivid sense of the cramped space in which the fateful encounter occurred: that confinement of space was something which was an important objective of Themistocles’s strategy and which worked amply to the advantage of the much smaller forces of the Greeks. The islet of Aghios Giorgios would at that time have been al most attached to the main island of Salamis, separated by a shallow channel which was possibly even fordable. Today, its houses have been abandoned.
The ferry-landing is in the harbour of Paloukia on the east side of Salamis, where a fleet of as many as twenty of the ferries that ply the crossing can be lined up along the quay at any time. The road north from Paloukia is off-limits to visitors. This prevents access to what was probably the site of the temple of Athena Skiras, which is known from written sources: the terrace of the sanctuary constructed in polygonal masonry and some scattered architectur al remains are on the south slope of the northernmost rocky escarpment which lies within the compound. Paloukia itself blends seamlessly across a shallow saddle with the town of Salamis (formerly called ‘Koulouri’) which spreads around the head of the bay of Koulouri. Its long waterfront on the north side of the bay in turn blends into the coastal settlement of Aghios Nikolaos. These are not ancient settlements, but suburban developments built hastily in concrete over the last seventy years. The centre of morning activity is the vibrant fish-market which takes place in a custom-built market-house on the north promenade: Salamis has one of the largest fishing fleets of any island. About 800m further west along the waterfront is the large church of Aghios Nikolaos: directly to its west is the old Archaeological Museum in a small, one-room, concrete shelter, whose display cases exhibit Mycenaean artefacts found on the island, Classical and Hellenistic pottery from Ambelakia, and several carved grave stelai. (At the time of writing the museum is in the process of relocating to three rooms in the former First Capodistrian Public School of Salamis. For up to date in formation telephone, T. 210 465.3572) Many of the most important finds from Salamis, however, are displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Piraeus.
The ancient city of Salamis lay 1km to the south of Paloukia, beneath the modern settlement of Ambelakia, reached by taking the coastal road south from the point of disembarkation. The city overlooked a deep bay formed by the peninsula of Pounta to the north and the long, straight projection of land called the Kynosoura (‘dog tail’) to the south. In the northwest corner of the bay can be seen the partially submerged moles of the ancient harbour. On the southern slope of Pounta (to the north of the bay) a section of the ancient fortification wall, made in mud-brick on stone, can be seen underneath a protective roof. The city has not been fully explored; but an agora framed by porticos, an altar to the Twelve Gods, a temple of Artemis, a theatre, and a Sanctuary of Ajax, are all referred to by Pausanias or in other written sources and inscriptions. Though vestiges of the town’s Hippodamian plan have been revealed by scattered excavations, most of it still remains to be uncovered.
The main road which descends from the central square of Ambelakia towards the southeast passes (left) the at tractive 15th century chapel of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos, which possesses a painted iconostasis in masonry and remains of late mediaeval murals in the apse. The tiny, rectangular interior is surmounted by a transverse barrel-vault. On the south side of the bay, as the road climbs over a low ridge, a left turn leads down the long Kynosoura peninsula, stretching over 2km out into the strait towards the Attic coast. On its north side, 1km along the headland beside the entrance to a large ship yard, is the ancient polyandrion, or communal grave, of the Greeks who fell in the Battle of Salamis. The mound is clearly visible, overlooking the straits where the battle took place and directly opposite the south slope of Mount Aigaleo on the mainland, where Xerxes reputedly sat watching the rout of his fleet. Though marked today with a recent monument (2006), little remains of any comprehensible ancient structure, although in antiquity a trophy had been set up nearby, connected to a cult of Zeus. Below the circumference of the mound graves have been found of the late 5th century bc. Plutarch says that another trophy was set up on the islet of Psyttaleia which lies just off the tip of Kynosoura to the east, half way between Salamis and Piraeus. The islet played an important role in the Battle of Salamis: a Persian force of infantry, evidently comprising many aristocrats, was stationed there by Xerxes, which late on in the battle was annihilated to a man by Athenians under the command of Aristeides. Ancient writers refer to the islet as a place of worship of Pan; but today, its entire surface has been artificially levelled so as to accommodate the largest sew age processing plant in Europe. The identification of the reef as the Psyttaleia mentioned in ancient sources has been disputed in the past. The islet’s modern name is Lip sokoutali, meaning something akin to a ‘broken spoon’: this is probably a corruption of a Venetian version of the name as ‘[L]i Psoutali’.
The ridge of Kynosoura is a good point from which to view the area where the Battle of Salamis took place.
THE BATTLE OF SALAMIS
The naval battle was fought in late September 480 bc between the forces of the Persian King, Xerxes I, and an alliance of mostly western Greek city-states led by Sparta and Athens. Xerxes hoped to subject and punish the Greeks, especially the Athenians, for their part in the Ionian revolts of the previous decades, and to avenge his father’s defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 bc. Our primary sources for the battle are two: Herodotus in Book VIII of The Histories, and The Persians of Aeschylus. Herodotus’s account is vivid and anecdotal, but short on exact detail of the battle: most later accounts, including Plutarch’s in his Life of Themistocles, closely follow his account. Aeschylus’s dramatic version was first performed in 472 bc. Since he and most of his audience were present at the battle, we must assume his information to be the most correct and accurate.
The Persian strategy: Xerxes’s faith throughout this whole, carefully-planned campaign was in victory through his overwhelming numerical superiority. That superiority in land forces remained in tact, but his naval advantage had been considerably eroded by the severe losses inflicted at the Battle of Cape Artemision (Euboea) in August, where Greek ships had cleverly prevented him seeking safe-haven in a storm and turned the weather to their advantage. He had lost a large contingent of his navy; but it still numbered about 600 ships—twice the 310 which the Greeks could muster. His greatest disadvantage, however, was that time was against him: the campaign had taken longer than expected, and the Greeks had once again deliberately delayed him, at great cost to themselves, at Thermopylae. He had probably lost ten days there alone, and the summer was turning to autumn by the time he reached Athens in the second week of September. He needed to get the bulk of his forces and ships back to the Hellespont before the contrary winds of the new season set in. He could not delay for long, and the Greeks knew that. He had achieved his principal goal, which was to raze Athens; but that was a hollow victory, because he had been able to take no Athenians. They had evacuated the city in haste after Thermopylae: the women and children were mostly staying as refugees at Troezen on the east coast of the Peloponnese; the men and their ships had withdrawn to Salamis. He had scotched the snake, not killed it; and it was essential to his plan that he should eliminate the Greek military capability before he turned back to Asia. It would also have been risky for him to head for the Peloponnese, leaving the Greek navy intact, at his rear. He was under pressure therefore to face them and eliminate them, as soon as possible, before the weather deteriorated.
The Greek strategy: Themistocles, the chief strategist of Athens, knew that a confrontation of land forces would be doomed because of the numerical inferiority of the Greeks: at sea the situation was slightly better, since the loss of some of Xerxes’s ships at Artemision. He knew that the Persians still had a navy twice as big as the Greeks, so it was essential that any confrontation happened in a confined space and not in the open sea, so as to minimise the Persian advantage of numbers. The straits of Salamis were ideal for this strategy. But two problems remained: how to draw Xerxes into the narrows in the first place against his better judgement; and how to keep the fractious alliance of Greeks together, without the Peloponnesian contingent sailing for home to protect their territory at the more easily defendable isthmus of Corinth. The solution was the same for both: to precipitate action as soon as possible. Themistocles knew that Xerxes must have been aware of the dissent in the Greek camp. According to Herodotus, he played on this and sent a secret message with his most trusted servant to Xerxes saying that the Greeks were preparing to flee, and that if he attacked them before they left the closed area of the Salamis waters, Themistocles would now come to his assistance. It was not the first time that a Greek ‘bearing gifts’ had been believed, not feared. In response, Xerxes first planned to build a pontoon of boats across the straits, but the attempt was foiled by Cretan archers. He then prepared for naval action, sealed both ends of the Salamis channel, and proceeded into a care fully constructed trap which was to lead to his defeat.
The battle: The Greek ships were beached along the east coast of Salamis from Ambelakia bay, north past the island of Aghios Giorgios and beyond. They numbered around 310 according to Aeschylus, more than half of which were Athenian. The Persian ships, numbering probably c. 600, were to leave their station in Phaleron Bay and to form at the south and east of the entrance to the straits around the island of Psyttaleia, with the prize Phoenician contingent at the fore and the less reliable Ionian Greek fleet at the rear. A squadron of Egyptian ships was dispatched to circle the island and seal the western end of the straits. Under cover of darkness, crack Persian infantry troops were landed on the islet of Psyttaleia. Xerxes, according to Herodotus, then took up a position on a throne to watch the action from the lower slopes of Mount Aigaleo (modern Perama). On the morning of (?) 22 September, the Persians hoped to surprise the Greeks at dawn; but Aristeides who had arrived during the night at the last moment from Aegina brought news of the manoeuvres, and his account was confirmed by a ship from Tenos which defected from the Persian side. The Greeks took to the water at first light, singing their hymn, or paean, to Apollo. Their right wing advanced first (Aeschylus), probably so as to put themselves in a preparatory position to ram the Persian vanguard from both front and side. Meanwhile the Corinthian ships which were behind made a feint to the north (Herodotus) as if they were fleeing, apparently confirming to Xerxes what Themistocles had leaked to him about the dissent in the Greek camp. This drew the Persian ships deeper into the channel. As they entered, the fifty ships of Aegina and Megara, hidden to the side of the channel in the bay of Ambelakia, attacked them in the flank and rear. The narrow and confined area of water meant that the Persians had great difficulty in responding and manoeuvring, especially as the pressure of reinforcements, entering the straits from behind, further clogged the area. As Themistocles had wished, a large part of the fleet of Xerxes was rendered irrelevant, because it was unable to reach the theatre of action.
The battle lasted the whole day. In the late morning a wind blowing from the north down the channel favoured the Greeks and increased the disarray of the crammed Persian forces as they were pushed back on themselves, inflicting almost as much damage to their own vessels by retreating as the enemy did by advancing on them. The wind and rougher water upset the aim of the Persian archers, and favoured the armed hoplites of the Greeks who boarded and fought at close quarters. Xerxes could possibly have sustained the loss of so many ships, were it not that, late in the day, a force under Aristeides landed on Psyttaleia and decimated the Persian troops stationed there by Xerxes. Aeschylus describes the at tack, and as an infantryman himself, he may have wanted to emphasise the particular contribution of his class of soldier; but if, as he says, these were Persian aristocrats—called ‘The Immortals’—who were killed, this may have been the element which, combined with the rout at sea, decided Xerxes to return to Asia within days of his defeat.
The consequences: The Greeks, even before the time of Herodotus, had tended to define themselves in contradistinction to the Persians. They learned many things from the far older civilisation of the Persians; but much of their early history is shaped by their struggles against it—both in the Persian Wars of the early 5th century bc, and the later campaigns of Alexander the Great in the 4th century bc. By the time the two sides met in the waters of Salamis, Greece and the Greek identity had already emerged as something sophisticated, independent and highly individual, containing the germs of what was to become a distinctive, Western civilisation. Its survival depended on its freedom and independence; and in 480 bc that was threatened with subjection and possible extinction under Persian rule. The victory at Salamis, which ensured its survival, is seen with some justification by historians as a significant turning point in the history of the ancient world. It certainly gave the Greeks the kind of confidence on which great achievements are founded.
South of Kynosoura is the bay of Selinia, where a grid of streets inland from the beach accommodates a number of attractive neoclassical villas dating from the first decades of the last century. The resort looks across the water to Piraeus with Mount Hymettus behind.
Salamis Island is part of the Argosaronic Island Group, Greece.