The Persian Wars and the Maritime Supremacy of Ancient Athens

Figure 1: Greek Colonization of western Asia Minor / Image by Alexikoua, Wikimedia Commons

The development of naval supremacy and of democracy became interdependent.

In the period of about 600–480 BCE, Ionian colonists emigrated from Attica to the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, which is modern Turkey [1]. There they inhabited a narrow coastal strip from Phocaea in the north to Miletus in the south, including the islands of Chios and Samos.

Persia (c 540 BCE) conquered the cities of this area and appointed native tyrants to rule for them. The rebellion of the colonists against the rule of these tyrants set off a train of events that ended with the Greek victories in the sea battles of Artemision, Salamis and Mykale (480–479 BCE). The victory of the states that were threatened by the Persian expansion policy was sealed with an agreement on collective defense whereby its independent member states agreed to mutual defense in response to an attack by the Persians (Delos, 479 BCE).

In this transitional period from Archaic to Classic Greece, the individual glory of the heroic age was replaced by communal glory, celebrating newly acquired military and political identity through public and visible commemorations. The development of naval supremacy and of democracy became interdependent.

Herodotus is the primary source for this part of history and he delivers the narrative with lots of background and salient details. Aeschylus is the contemporary reporter who shares the dramatized version in the form of a tragedy, which is to say, a tragedy for the Persians. [2] Thucydides adds the military analysis. Together they describe the three phases, as follows:

  1. the failed Ionian Revolt, after which Persia re-establishes control over Ionia and Cyprus and builds courage for
  2. the first and unsuccessful Persian invasion of Greece, concluded in the Greek victory at Marathon, followed by
  3. the second Persian invasion of Greece, which ended with the decisive Greek victory in the Battle of Salamis.

This last victory secured the continued independence of the Greek city-states [poleis] and concluded the transition of Greece from the Archaic to the Classic period.

Figure 2: Trireme Olympias of the Hellenic Navy [3] / Photo by Templar52, Wikimedia Commons

Around 540 BCE the strategic strip of Aegean land along the coasts of Lydia and Caria was taken by Darius I, the King of Persia. He appointed native tyrants to rule for the Persian satrap in Sardis, the capital of Lydia. In the spring of 498 BCE, the Ionians rebelled, captured, and they burnt Sardis. The epicenter of this first Ionian revolt was in Miletus and the support for the originally Athenian colonies came in the form of twenty triremes from Athens and five from Eretria. The maritime mission was to transport Athenian troops to join up with the main Ionian force near Ephesus. [4] The Athenians succeeded in taking down the city of Sardis but on their way back to Ephesus ad-hoc Persian cavalry overtook them. The defeated Athenians and Eretrians managed to return to their ships and to sail back to Greece.

Figure 3: The Warriors of Salamis [5] / Photo by Achilles Vaseileiou, Wikimedia Commons

In 494 BCE the Persian forces, inspired by the successful suppression of the revolt, regrouped a fleet that was supplied by the Phoenician cities and the re-subjugated parties of Cyprus, and manned by Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cyprians and Cilicians. With this diverse fleet they headed directly towards Miletus, which was still the core of the Ionian revolt.

The Ionians opted not to battle on land, but they grouped their ships near the Island of Lade, off the coast of Miletus, to “fight for Miletus at sea”.

Of the Greek ships, 100 were from Chios, 80 from Miletus and 60 from Samos. Athens had 70 triremes. Together with the triremes of Lesbos, the city-states of Ionia and Lesbos brought 353 triremes into battle against the 600 triremes of the Persian Fleet. When the Persian and Ionian fleets took position, the ships from Samos decided to defect and, consequently, the Greeks lost the battle. As a result, the Persians took courage for the First Persian invasion of Greece (492–490 BCE), a long story which ends with the remarkable victory of the Greeks at Marathon.

The commander of the allied Greek navies, Themistoklẽs, then persuaded the Athenians that things were not over yet and advocated to build a fleet of 200 triremes. [6] These ships proved crucial in the upcoming confrontations with the Persians in their second attempt to invade Hellas.

This second Persian invasion of Greece (480–479 BCE) was under the Persian king Xerxes, son and successor of Darius I. After the Persians dominated in the land battle of Thermopylae, and the Battle of Artemision remained indecisive even after great performance of the Greek naval force, the Persians conquered all of Boeotia and Attica. At this time they burnt Athens, including the old Parthenon, in revenge for the burning of Sardis. To take the Peloponnesus, however, another sea battle had to take place. This latter battle became known as The Battle of Salamis in which the Greek defeated the Persians in a decisive way.

The communal glory was celebrated through public and visible commemorations, such as an early form of the Panathenaic procession. [7] Little evidence of the sea battles with triremes remains in the form of painted vases. The specific spirit of this time asked for trophies [tropaia] and monuments in the visual landscape of the city as a way to celebrate naval victories and to commemorate the aretē [8] of the sailors killed in battle. [9]

Figure 4: View of Athens and the Areopagus [10], by Leo von Klenze, 1846 / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen—Neue Pinakothek München, Creative Commons

Vase paintings indicate Athens’s growing maritime supremacy by iconography of Poseidon and Boreas, the latter having played such an important role in the Battle of Artemision by blowing a three-day storm which destroyed the better part of the Persian fleet:

The story is told that because of an oracle the Athenians invoked Boreas, the north wind, to help them, since another oracle told them to summon their son-in-law as an ally. According to the Hellenic story, Boreas had an Attic wife, Orithyia, the daughter of Erechtheus, ancient king of Athens. Because of this connection, so the tale goes, the Athenians considered Boreas to be their son-in-law. They were stationed off Chalcis in Euboea, and when they saw the storm rising, they then, if they had not already, sacrificed to and called upon Boreas and Orithyia to help them by destroying the barbarian fleet, just as before at Athos. I cannot say whether this was the cause of Boreas falling upon the barbarians as they lay at anchor, but the Athenians say that he had come to their aid before and that he was the agent this time. When they went home, they founded a sacred precinct of Boreas beside the Ilissus River. [11]

The abduction, or marriage, of Boreas and Oreithyia, the daughter of the Athenian king Erechtheus, marked both the new power and the divine mandate of the Athenian navy.

Figure 5: The Abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas [12] / Walters Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The maritime supremacy and the development of the democracy went hand in hand: the concept that the fleet and democracy, were complementary, was replaced by the idea that the one could not exist without the other. The navy needed people to man the triremes and the functioning of the democracy required common people to have a vote. The logical step was to provide the right to vote to the lower class Athenians [thētes] [13] who served on the triremes. The contribution of the thētes was crucial both for the rise of naval power and for the development of the democracy in Athens during the late 6th and early 5th centuries. [14]

When the news of the Greek victory at Marathon (490 BCE) came to the Persian king Darius the Great, he first sent heralds to Hellas to demand earth and water—the usual token of submission—which he received from many cities of Greece. [15] He instructed Ionia and the islands to build ships and to enroll their best men for service against Hellas.

King Darius died, and the royal power descended to his son Xerxes, who was not his oldest son, but born later when his father was king, thus having the right of the succession to the kingship. After being persuaded to send an expedition against Hellas, Xerxes first marched against the Ionian rebels. [16] He subdued them and by 483 BCE was arriving in Hellas by land and by sea.

The Greeks had prepared themselves for the Persian invasion by forming the Hellenic League. Sparta and Athens took a leading role in joining together 70 of the 700 city-states, many of which were still technically at war with each other. They were planning to stop the Persians that came by land at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. To prevent the Persians bypassing Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and Allied navies planned to block the straits of Artemision. The southern shore of this strait, on the northwest coast of Euboea, is a promontory which took its name from the ancient sanctuary of Artemis Proseoia.

Figure 6: The battles of Thermopylae and Artemision, 480 BCE, and the movements to Salamis / Image by the Department of History, United States Military Academy, Wikimedia Commons

The Athenian strategos Themistoklẽs had persuaded the Athenians to build 200 triremes; ostensibly to stay ahead of the rival and neighbor Aegina, but with a view to the future threat of Persia. In 483 BCE, when the invasion had first started, Athens had 180 triremes, while the Greeks of the federation against the Persians contributed about 200 triremes.[17]

Only part of this fleet was relocated to Cape Artemision: the remainder of the fleet stayed at Salamis, in support of the backup plan, which was to defend the Isthmus of Corinth. Of the total contingent of 378 ships,[18] the Athenians mobilized 127 to Artemision. Herodotus tells us:

Corinthians furnished forty ships and the Megarians twenty; the Chalcidians manned twenty, the Athenians furnishing the ships; the Aeginetans eighteen, the Sicyonians twelve, the Lacedaemonians ten, the Epidaurians eight, the Eretrians seven, the Troezenians five, the Styrians two, and the Ceans two, and two fifty-oared barks; the Opuntian Locrians brought seven fifty-oared barks.[19]

To preserve some cohesion in the alliance, the Athenians, who were the most capable of all Greeks in marine affairs, awarded the command of the fleet to Eurybiades of Sparta, thus entrusting the safety of the Athenian seamen to Spartan command.[20]

In the 5th century BCE, the trireme was the largest and most powerful battle ship. It had replaced the traditional fifty-oared pentekontoros which was operated by one bank of rowers on each side of the ship; an arrangement that was called monokrotos.

Probably some time after 900 BCE the deck of this type of ship was widened in such a way that it extended outboard. This overhanging deck was supported by an outboard structure, the parexeiresia[21] and it ran from the reinforced catheads [epōtides] in the forebody, towards the steering station aft. The purpose of widening the ship was to accommodate an additional file [stoichos] of rowers on a level that was slightly raised above the level of the traditional fifty oars. These upper-level oarsmen were called the thranites. A vessel with such two-banked arrangement was called dikrotosdiērēs or, later, bireme (from the Latin).

Lastly, anywhere between 700 BCE and 525 BCE, another level of oarsmen was introduced.  The resulting, now three-banked, ship was the trikrotostriērēs—or trireme (from the Latin); a large kataphraktos with three banks of oars on each side of the ship.[22] The operators of the lower-level oars, named thalamites, were accommodated in an enclosed space [thalamos] and they operated their oars through ports in the hull, quite close to the waterline of the ship.

Figure 7: Depiction of the position and angle of the rowers in a trireme[23] / Wikimedia Commons

If every rowing bench was manned then the ship was operated by about twenty-seven thranite rowers,[24] twenty-seven zygite[25] and twenty-seven thalamite[26] rowers, on each side of the ship, totaling to some 162 nautai on each Athenian “fast” trireme. Ship-to-ship contact was the preferred naval tactic of Themistoklẽs. For that reason the ships of Athens were built for speed and maneuverability. Each Athenian trireme carried a minimal number of fighting personnel only: ten marines and four archers.

The early trireme was a relatively unseaworthy hull, less suitable for harsh weather conditions, and appended with a bronze, or iron, ram [embolos, chalkoma] fitted to the cutwater [steira]. The fanlike stern post [aphlastonakrostolion or akroterion] was made up of timbers, the extremities of which curved forward. The heroic decorations were gradually replaced by the ornamental stylis.

In the Persian Wars, some of the smaller parties of the Allied forces still operated the fifty-oared pentekontoros, but now in the form of a bark; a ship of burdenthey contributed nine pentekontoroi at Artemision and four at Salamis.

Back to the scene of action. When the Persian Fleet started the invasion of Hellas, Xerxes’ plan was to form a bridge over the Hellespont to transport the Persian troops from Asia to Europe:

“It is my intent to bridge the Hellespont and lead my army through Europe to Hellas, so I may punish the Athenians for what they have done to the Persians and to my father”[27]

When Xerxes understood the calamity which had taken place, he feared that some of the Ionians might advise the Hellenes, if they did not think of it themselves, to sail to the Hellespont and destroy the bridges[28]

But building the bridge was not an easy task. Xerxes was enraged because of all the failures:

When Xerxes heard of this, he was very angry and commanded that the Hellespont be whipped with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea. I have even heard that he sent branders with them to brand the Hellespont… He commanded that the sea receive these punishments and that the overseers of the bridge over the Hellespont be beheaded.[29]

Figure 8:  Xerxes’ alleged “punishment” of the Hellespont / Wikimedia Commons

After these quite improbable events, deservedly ridiculed by Aeschylus,[30] the fleet indeed put to sea and proceeded in westerly direction, following the coastline of Thrace[31] towards the Macedonian city of Therma.[32] After that they navigated along the mountainous coast of Magnesia, where is also Mount Olympus.

The Persians advanced slowly, taking regular stops to pull their ships ashore, to dewater them and to dry the leaky hulls. The season was not favorable to them, and while at anchor in the shallow waters off Mount Pelion,[33] the fleet was hit by a “tempest” and partly shattered even before the battle even began:

The Persian fleet put to sea and reached the beach of the Magnesian land, between the city of Casthanaea and the headland of Sepia. The first ships to arrive moored close to land, with the others after them at anchor; since the beach was not large, they lay at anchor in rows eight ships deep out into the sea. They spent the night in this way, but at dawn a storm descended upon them out of a clear and windless sky, and the sea began to boil. A strong east wind blew, which the people living in those parts call Hellespontian.

Those who felt the wind rising or had proper mooring dragged their ships up on shore ahead of the storm and so survived with their ships. The wind did, however, carry those ships caught out in the open sea against the rocks called the Ovens at Pelion or onto the beach. Some ships were wrecked on the Sepian headland, others were cast ashore at the city of Meliboea or at Casthanaea. The storm was indeed unbearable.[34]

The incident is recounted in a wonderful story that comes to us through Pausanius:

Beside the Gorgias is a votive offering of the Amphiktyones, representing Skyllis of Scione, who, the story [phēmē] says, dived into the very deepest parts of every sea. He also taught his daughter Hydna to dive. When the fleet of Xerxes was attacked by a violent storm off Mount Pelion, father and daughter completed its destruction by dragging away under the sea the anchors and any other security the triremes had. In return for this deed, the Amphiktyones dedicated statues of Skyllis and his daughter.[35]

The remainder of the Persian fleet, which initially numbered 1207 triremes,[36] continued their journey south, aiming to find refuge in the bay of Aphetae.

Figure 9:  Depiction of a Greek trireme / Image by the Department of History, United States Military Academy, Wikimedia Commons

By then, most likely the Greek allies had safely beached their ships at the headland of Artemision, ready to quickly launch them as needed. However, even after fourteen days, the Persian fleet had not shown up and the Greek allies decided to sail to Chalcis, halfway down on the western coast of Euboea. Around ten days later, the Persian land army arrived at Thermopylae, choosing not to attack, but to wait for the Persian fleet to arrive. After the arrival of the Persian Fleet, they were expected to enter the Gulf of Euboea and to overrun the villages on the coast of Euboea.

When the Persian fleet finally arrived, however, another summer gale broke, driving the Persian fleet onto the mountainous coast north of Aphetae. The storm lasted two days, wrecking approximately one third of the Persian ships. The day after the storm, the Persian fleet finally appeared through the Gap of Sciathos, and began mooring on the coast opposite Artemision, at Aphetae. The Greek allies now had their first engagements with the enemy:

But the Greeks, when the signal was given them, first drew the sterns of their ships together, their prows turned towards the foreigners; then at the second signal they put their hands to the work, despite the fact that they were hemmed in within a narrow space and were fighting face-to-face.[37]

… They fought that sea-fight with doubtful issue, and nightfall ended the battle; the Greeks sailed back to Artemisium, and the barbarians to Aphetae, after faring far below their hopes in the fight. In that battle …

When darkness came on, the season being then midsummer, there was abundance of rain all through the night and violent thunderings from Pelion. The dead and the wrecks were driven towards Aphetae, where they were entangled with the ships’ prows and jumbled the blades of the oars. The ships crews who were there were dismayed by the noise of this, and considering their present bad state, expected utter destruction; for before they had recovered from the shipwreck and the storm off Pelion, they next endured a stubborn sea-fight, and after the sea-fight, rushing rain and mighty torrents pouring seaward and violent thunderings.[38]

The strategy of the Athenian commander Themistoklẽs was to delay the Persians while the island of Euboea was being evacuated. The Persians then sent a detachment of 200 ships around the southern extremity of Euboea, hoping to isolate the Greeks in the straits. A Persian defector, the ambitious diver Skyllias, dove into the sea at Aphetae and swam—underwater—to Artemision, to warn the Greeks against this plan.[39]

A Greek squadron sailed out from Aphetae to meet the Persians ships. The Persians consequently dispatched a number of ships to intercept the Greeks. The Greek triremes surrounded these ships, and even though they were in the minority, they were able to defeat them, with the help of the rams on the bow of their ships. Thirty Persian ships were captured. The Persian fleet retreated for the night, and all the 200 Persian ships that were still en route to Euboea were destroyed in a sudden violent storm that same night. The next day another fifty-three Athenian ships arrived, and a Greek surprise attack destroyed some Persian reconnaissance ships. The two sides fought all day, with roughly equal losses; however, the smaller Allied fleet could not afford the losses.

The next day the Persians sailed towards the Greek fleet in the form of a semi-circle [mēnoeidēs kýklos][40] in an effort to enclose them off the coast of Artemision. Here, however, the size of the Persian fleet was against them, as they were unable to maneuver in the straits and a large part of the fleet was destroyed by the Greeks. Five Greek ships were imprisoned by the Egyptian contingent, while the Athenian Cleinias, the father of Alcibiades, himself sank a large number of Persian ships.

After these sea battles the news broke through that King Leonidas of Sparta was defeated at Thermopylae, after which the Allies decided to withdraw their ships to Salamis. The Persians moved on to Phocis and Boeotia, leaving great devastation in their wake, and eventually went into Attica where they captured Athens, which had been evacuated.

However, the Athenians attributed the North wind, Boreas, with destroying part of the Persian fleet, and built a temple for him.[41]


  1. An earlier Ionic migration may have taken place about 140 years after the Trojan War. The Homeric tradition (Iliad 13.685) speaks of the Ionians “with their long khitons”, fighting at Troy at the side of the Achaeans.
  2. Contemporary 5th-century texts from tragedies and comedies (such as The Persians of Aeschylus and The Knights of Aristophanes) may be even more factual than 4th-century texts of writers such as Plato and Aristotle, which had their own agenda within the context of the Athenian democracy. See also Butera, C.J. 2010. The Land of the fine triremes.
  3. Coates, John F. 1990. “Research and Engineering Aspects of Reconstructing the Ancient Greek Trireme Warship”. SNAME Transactions, Vol 98, 1990, pages 239–262.
  4. The distinction between combat ships of the city-polis and private multi-purpose ships is not always clear. Herodotus Histories 8.17: the Athenian Clinias, son of Alcibiades, “brought to the war two hundred men and a ship of his own, all at his own expense.”
  5. Monument for the Battle of Salamis, Kynosoura peninsula, Salamis Island, Greece, by sculptor Achilleas Vasileiou. This position must have been close to the position from where Telamon waved goodbye to the twelve ships that his son Ajax led to Troy, with his son Teucer also on board one of them.
  6. “Themistoklẽs persuaded the Athenians to … build two hundred ships for the war, that is, for the war with Aegina. This was in fact the war the outbreak of which saved Hellas by compelling the Athenians to become seamen.” (Herodotus, Histories, 7.144)
  7. Ibid. Individual glory remained available for the Strategos Themistoklẽs, whose name indicates “Glory of the Law”.
  8. The aretê of these men, imperishable forever. [ ] For they, both as foot-soldiers and in quick-going ships, prevented all Greece from seeing the day of slavery. C. Jacob Butera, 2010. The Land of the fine triremes.
  9. Note the construction of a temple to Boreas after the battle of Artemesion, the depiction of Poseidon on the Parthenon, and the importance of the Panathenaic Ship.
  10. von Klenze, Leo. Ideale Ansicht der Akropolis und des Areopag in Athen, 1846
  11. Herodotus Histories 7.189–193. English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.
  12. The Abduction of Oreithyia. Manner of Francesco Solimena. c 1730 CE.
  13. The “thētes” were the lowest social class of citizens.
  14. Butera 2010
  15. Herodotus Histories , ed. A. D. Godley, 7.131.1
  16. Herodotus The Histories, Volume 5
  17. Herodotus The Histories, 7.144
  18. The total number of ships, besides the fifty-oared boats, was 380, but 2 deserted at Artemesion. [Herodotus, The Histories, 8.48, 8.82]
  19. Herodotus The Histories, 8.1
  20. Herodotus The Histories, 8.2
  21. Parexeiresia: outside the eiresia, the oarbank. The parexeiresia accommodated the tholepins [skalmoi] for the thranite oars.
  22. Larger units came in use as of 399 BCE, when Dionysus, ruler of Syracuse, introduced the tetrērēs “fours” and the pentrērēs “fives”.
  23. The drawing of Eric Gaba as shown in Figure 2 shows not only the position and angle of the rowers in a trireme, but also the form of the parexeiresia, projecting from the deck.
  24. Thranite: upper-level oarsman.
  25. Zygitai: the rowers in the middle row, named after the beams [zygoi] on which they sat.
  26. Thalamite: lower-level oarsman. The meaning of thalamos is “inner room, or chamber”, as Odyssey 1.425 (bedroom of Telemachus), Odyssey 4.310 (bedroom of lovely Helen and Menelaos) and Iliad 6.288 (store room).
  27. Herodotus The Histories, 7.8B
  28. Herodotus The Histories, 8.97
  29. Herodotus The Histories, 7.35
  30. Aeschylus deservedly ridicules the idea of a bridge in The Persians, 472 BCE: “Atossa: By a clever device he yoked the Hellespont so as to gain a passage. Ghost of Darius: What! Did he succeed in closing the mighty Bosporus? Atossa: Yes indeed. One of the divine powers must have assisted him in his purpose. [Aeschylus, The Persians 722–724]
  31. The peninsula of Athos was on the invasion route of Xerxes, who spent three years excavating the Xerxes Canal across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet (Warry, J. 1998 Warfare in the Classical World page 35. Salamander Book Ltd., London )
  32. The city of Therma derived her name from the Greek thérmē/thérma, “(malarial) fever”. Therma was later renamed Thessalonica by Cassander.
  33. Mount Pelion took its name from the mythical king Peleus, father of Achilles. Furthermore, it is said that Jason built the Argo at the foot of Mount Pelion.
  34. Herodotus, The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley), 7.188.
  35. Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.19.1.
  36. The Persian Fleet numbered 1,207 warships, of which 207 were “fast ships. [Aeschylus, The Persians, Herodotus The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley) 7.89]
  37. The kýklos is a naval tactic in which a fleet would defend itself by forming a circular formation with their rams out and sterns inward. The formation carried the potential for a concentrated counter-attack against a fleet of enemies. A variant was the half-circle, or moon shaped formation, mēnoeidēs kýklos
  38. Herodotus, The Histories, ed. A. D. Godley, 8.11–8.12.
  39. The defector was one Skyllias, a man of Scione; “he was the best diver of the time, and in the shipwreck at Pelion he had saved for the Persians much of their possessions and gotten much for himself in addition; this Scyllias had before now, it would seem, intended to desert to the Greeks, but he never had had so fair an occasion as now. By what means he did at last make his way to the Greeks, I cannot with exactness say. If the story is true, it is marvelous indeed, for it is said that he dove into the sea at Aphetae and never rose to the surface till he came to Artemision”. Herodotus, The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley), 8.8
  40. A variant of the kýklos, a naval tactic in which a fleet would defend itself by forming a circular formation, with their rams out and stern inwards, was the half-circle, or moon-shaped formation, mēnoeidēs kýklos.
  41. Boreas was also significant due to Athenian interest in Thrace’s strategical importance on the trade route to the Black Sea and its impact on Athenian grain, lumber, and mineral supplies.


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Originally published by the Kosmos Society, The Center for Hellenic Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.