The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece --

and Western Civilization

By Barry Strauss. Simon & Schuster. 294 pp. $25 In 1851, Edward Creasey published his famous book on 15 "decisive" battles, battles that had determined the course of history. The most recent was Waterloo (1815 A.D.) and the earliest Salamis (480 B.C.), a naval battle between a small alliance of Greek city-states and an empire that ruled the territory from the Indus river to the Greek islands of the Aegean. It was indeed a decisive battle; a Persian victory would have strangled Athenian democracy before it could produce the work of the tragic poets, historians and philosophers that shaped and inspired the European Renaissance. But Salamis was no easy victory, and this account of it by a history professor who is an expert on naval warfare with a gift for vivid narrative brings it, in all its suspense, its complications, its surprises and its cast of extraordinary characters, to fervent and turbulent life.

In 490 B.C., the Persian Great King Darius, as retaliation for Athenian support of Greek cities that had rebelled against Persian rule, sent an expeditionary force that landed at Marathon, only to be defeated and driven back to its ships by Athenian infantry. Darius vowed revenge, but it was his successor, Xerxes, who in 480 B.C. moved against Greece in overwhelming military and naval force, not just to punish Athens but to add the whole of Greece to the Persian empire. In the intervening years, however, Athens, on the initiative of Themistocles, had transformed itself into a major naval power, with a fleet of 200 triremes.

A trireme was a war galley propelled by 170 oarsmen seated at three different levels. It is only in recent years that scholars and naval experts have figured out how the oars were arranged, and the Greek navy now has a flagship trireme for use on ceremonial occasions. The oarsmen were Athenian citizens, not, as in some galleys that sailed the Mediterranean in later centuries, slaves or convicts; the ship also carried archers and marines for boarding. But the main offensive technique was the use of the metal-sheathed ram that projected from the prow at water level; it was driven into the stern of the enemy vessel and then withdrawn. Another offensive technique was to come alongside the enemy from the rear, ship oars and crash through the oars on the enemy ship, leaving it helpless, to be dealt with later. The combined fleets of the Greek coalition -- Athens, Aegina and Corinth prominent among them -- amounted to 333 ships at its peak; the Persian fleet sailed for Greek waters with 1,227, but a three-day storm off Mount Pelion reduced the number to 927.

Strauss gives a clear and fascinating account, made easy to follow by his sketch-maps, of the maneuvers that led up to the battle: the Greek fleet at Artemisium successfully testing the mettle of the Persians; the breakthrough of the Persians at Thermopylae, where a force of 300 Spartans had held it up for three days in the narrows between mountains and the sea; the swift transfer of the Greek fleet to Salamis, where the Athenians evacuated their women, children and old men from Athens and the Persian army destroyed the city; the arrival of the Persian fleet at Phaleron on the Attic coast opposite Salamis; and the preliminaries of the battle, including the erection of a throne on Mount Aegaleos from which Xerxes could watch the climactic battle of the two fleets.

It looked at first as if the decisive battle of Salamis might not take place. Strauss gives a trenchant picture of the situation among the Greek ships: "a navy whose main admirals cordially hated each other. A naval commander in chief who came from a city [Sparta] famous for its inattention to ships. A naval base teeming with refugees whom it could not feed for long. A set of allies who were itching to leave the war zone." The Corinthians, whose ships were the largest contingent after Athens's, were planning to leave for the Isthmus of Corinth to protect their own city. The situation seemed desperate, and Themistocles resorted to what he was famous for: deceit. He sent a trusted emissary, who spoke Persian, secretly by night in a small boat to the Persian fleet with a message for Xerxes: He despaired of the Greek situation and wished to come over to the Persian side and offered this information, that in the morning the Greek fleet would disperse, leaving the Bay of Salamis. Xerxes fell for the trap and ordered his weary fleet, tired from a long day of battle, to prepare for an attack on the Greeks. There was much to be done, as Strauss puts it: "There are always repairs to be made to wooden boats, especially boats as fragile as the trireme. Oars break, ropes snap, sails tear, leather oar holes break, seats split. . . ." It was with tired and dispirited crews that the Persian ships moved out to block the Greeks' "escape" only to find themselves the target of a fierce Greek attack.

The battle raged all day, watched by Xerxes from his throne, and by evening it was clear that the Persian fleet had been defeated. Xerxes moved north with his fleet and army, leaving Mardonius with the army in Greece to be defeated in the next year by a Spartan and Athenian infantry force. The Athenians proceeded to liberate the Ionian island and the Greek coastal cities that had been annexed by the Persians, forming the Delian League that later became the Athenian empire, and Athens was launched on its glorious century. *

Bernard Knox, past director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, is the author of many books, including "Essays Ancient and Modern."

The Greeks defeated the Persians in the decisive Battle of Salamis, 480 B.C.