Tuesday 29 June 2021


 A refight of Salamis has to represent the main limitations both sides had to operate within.

Both sides had to marshal a large number of ships. These were the largest fleets we have record of  from the age of the war-gally. The Greeks had 300 to 380 or so vessels and the Persians deployed around a thousand. 

Oh my god! It's full of ships!

If we take a trieres to be 40metres long and 15 metres wide - including oars - plenty of wriggle-room there - we can work out how much space the commanders need to deploy their forces.

If more than one rank in a line is envisaged we need a good length between them - another 40 metres shared front and back.

Neither can ships be set tightly side-by-side. Manoeuvre space requires at lest a ship length between files - again sharing this out adds 20metres either side of the vessel.

This 55metres wide by 80 metres long template is required if ships are to act in a mobile fashion.

Maybe we can halve the spacing for a static formation but with the recognition that such a tight spacing will easily be disturbed and lead to ships fouling each other. In addition, no ship can interpenetrate such a tight press of ships - so no vessel can retire or move out from the ranks in such a situation without casusing chaos.

This close-formation template would be 35 metres wide by 60 metres long.

Now we know the kind of space required for the ships, using these templates which are as small as possible - let us see how much space was available.

The Salamis straits were chosen by Themistocles precisely because space was restricted. The Greeks had fought the Persians three times near Artemisium in waters which were more open. Even though the Greeks had avoided being overwhelmed by the more numerous enemy it had been touch-and-go. In any case the Greeks had found out how the Persians conducted themselves in naval fighting which had been the second aim of the expedition alongside preventing the outflanking of the Thermopylae position.

The width of the straits at Salamis is 1200 to 1600 metres. 

Side-by-side this is 22 ships with files running east west. - nose-to-tail 15 ships will span the straits north-south. In a loose formation with manoeuvre space for each ship.

In tight  formation we could have 34 ships side-by side in easte-west files or nose-to-tail 20 in north-south files.

There is not a lot of space in here !

Here we immdiately come up against the big question for any Salamis refight. Did the fleets line-up north-south or east-west? Many aspects of the battle change depending on the orientation of the battle lines.

Vice-Admiral Rogers : an older East-Wester

Peter Connolly : Newer East-Wester

Morrison : A classic East-Wester

If the fighting was east-west we have two deep formations butting heads in the strait. In fact, the Persian fleet would seem unbeatable in such a mass.

To fit past Cynosura each squadron of Persians - 200 to 250 ships strong each - would be 5 ranks deep if packed tight. or 7 if more loosley arranged. In all, the Persians massed fleet of 600 presents a 15+ deep phalanx plugging the straits.

The Greeks can counter this with about 7 ranks.

Neither formation is a good one for a war-galley battle. No manoeuvre is possible. However, this is what Herodotos describes  at least initially, a slugfest.

But the majority of the ships at Salamis were sunk, some destroyed by the Athenians, some by the Aeginetans. Since the Hellenes fought in an orderly fashion by line, but the barbarians were no longer in position and did nothing with forethought, it was likely to turn out as it did. Yet they were brave that day, much more brave than they had been at Euboea, for they all showed zeal out of fear of Xerxes, each one thinking that the king was watching him.

Herodotus VIII.86.1

The most recent reconstructions have favoured the alternative.  By shifting to a north-south line-up there is more space to arrange the many ships. 

(See Wallinga's figure above also)


Osprey - Everything in one (why the wierd hook on the Persian right? - see below)

From the mouth of the strait to the islands off  Amphiale is 3000metres - much more space for a battle-line. 55 ships side-by-side in loose order or 85 in close formation.

This makes the Greeks from 4 to 7 ranks. A single squadron of 200 Persians would be strung out to  3 to 4 ranks. Three squadrons would plug the straits with 9 ranks or so.

On this orientation the Greeks can be line-up with their backs to Salamis island, the Persians to the mainland, each with their respective cheerleaders raising a din behind to egg them on. 

Indeed, this east-west trend has extended - literally - to Barry Strauss and Antonis Mystrionis contention that the Persians reached all the way beyond the Pharmakoussia islands and some of the fighting took place there. 

Wierdest of the wierd ; Jestice in 'Battles of the Ancient World'

Mystrionis : Everything and the kitchen sink : Greeks Everywhere Persians Everywhere

This choice is a fundamental factor in any refight. How and WHEN do the Persians get the head of their column, the right of their line, far into the straits?  And how far?

Presumably the Persian right wing, the Phoenicians, followed the mainland shore during the latter part of the night. Keeping as far away as possible from Salamis and possible surprise by the Greeks. They could have chatted with men  standing in the shallows bearing torches to guide them. There were also thousands of small boats with the fleet, after all. They were also, apparently, of the mind that the Greeks were about to decamp at dawn and they would just charge a retreating enemy. This relies on them taking Siccinus' fairy tale seriously but these were salty sea-dogs who had fought the Greeks twice already in hard-fought battle. Would they have dared to underestimate such a vicious foe? Also, consider how the story of fleeing Greeks was communicated from HQ, wherever Xerxes was, (not yet in his 'command post' on Mount Aegaleos-)to the 600 plus ships of the fleet within an evening? Hammond suggests Xerxes gives Siccinus his audience circa 6pm. Between then and sundown - 7.45pm - the fleet has to be given its orders and set off. 1000 ships! Maybe to the commanders? But to imagine that every Phoenician rower got a version of the tale and thought the Greeks had given up is a streeetch for me. 

Space also is a factor in where the Greeks went at night. In most accounts based on the ancient sources the Greeks are all tucked up in bed building up energy for the long day rowing and fighting on the morrow.  Meanwhile the Persians are rowing all night depleting their glucose stores and getting dehydrated.

Kirk - Spock.  Did you know the ancient Greeks could bend space ?  :                                                Spock - Illogical -  that is only in secondary sources .

Where were the Greeks ? Not onboard ship. They slept ashore usually. Bedspace for 90,000 men would make modern Salaminian B&B places swoon.

γεμάτος. χωρίς δύσοσμο κωπηλάτες

The ships must have been moored at suitable places. There are three bays on the straits. It used to be accepted that the Greek fleet was as far away from danger as possible at Paloukia. More recently the Greeks are all over the place. The problem I see with this is coordination. Getting them all out of bed onto the ships with a good breakfast inside them and lined up to face the enemy when they are in three or four different places is not an easy task.  After all, Diodoros has Themistocles say precisely this before the battles at Artemisium 

'Themistocles alone expressed the opposite opinion, showing them that it was to their advantage to sail against the enemy with the whole fleet in one array; for in this way, he declared, they would have the upper hand, attacking as they would with their ships in a single body (approach) an enemy whose formation was broken by disorder, as it must be, for they would be issuing out of many harbours at some distance apart.'

Diodoros Siculus. Library of History, XI.12.5

Triereis could be moored several deep. If take a hull as 10 metres wide for mooring Eurybiades had to find 4000metres to moor his ships individually but only 1000metres if they were four deep.

Not a bar-room trick : several ranks of ships moored a la Med

 There is no need to use Ambelaki Bay - Or, one might get away with ONLY using Ampelaki Bay...

"This evidence, supplemented by the information from ancient historical and literary sources, leaves no doubt about the role of the bay as the main assembly and launching point of the Greek fleet in close proximity to the theater of the sea battle in the straits,” Yannos Lolos, president of the Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology, which partnered with a variety of scholars and scientists from other universities and archaeological organizations for the study, tells Lorenzi.

Smithsonian Magazine HERE

368 ships in this narrow inlet is another streeetch - or squaaash. The main advantage would be to hide the fleet from the mainland - somewhat.

Bearing in mind it is not known where the most important ancient harbour was and the town of Salamis  was inland. 

Despite tourist office assurances,  there were anchorages at Paloukia and the modern naval base area.

BUT Ambelaki Bay has even become NECESSARY to the lateest reconstructions because the late arrival(?) in the day of the Aiginetians on the Persian left flank(?) can be supported as a sally from this bay. But what did these ships do all day before this point? When the Greeks were so outnumbered from the start?  And why did the Persians not venture in there or block the narrow bay off?

Shepherd's Osprey map shows late Aiginetian attack from Ambelaki Bay and lots of Persians still trying to enter the straits

If the Persians were on their oars all night what exactly were they doing? Space is required for them to weeble around in all night long. If the ships are dawdling around killing time before the dawn pounce to kill the Greeks,  they were not at full steam, obviously. In fact the tiers of rowers could have spelled each other while the rest rested with their oars inboard. Not an ideal situation but men in military service usually know well how to take advantage of the least break in activity and get some shut-eye be they in a fox-hole or a four-poster. The sea was not rough or battle would not have occurred.  

If the Persian ships kept a minimal headway this would amount to 2 knots, say - any less would allow a formation to drift and straggle - then they moved for at least 6 hours from midnight to sunrise - possibly from 9 or 10 pm. This is 3700 metres an hour giving 22 kilometres. Every ship trailed around for 22 kilometres or so  across the sea between Phaleron Bay and the mouth of the straits. Interesting, when you look at the map and notice the distance from Phaleron to Cynosaura is about 9km. A file of 200 triereis would be about 16 kilometres long! Put them in four files - the most we know of from ancient sources, and there is still a four kilometre Conga out there.  The four squadrons of  the Persian fleet would have to be very careful to stay out of each other's hair during the hours of darkness while they cris-crossed this patch of sea. 

Hmmm.. there are 599 other ships out here somewhere.

If it is assumed they were just slowly working their way into the straits to be ready at dawn this also presents problems because even at 2 knots they could get way into the Bay of Eleusis before dawn. Maybe why Strauss and Mystrionis are so generous with their battle area ?.(not).

In fact, reaching so far means they have to negotiate the gap between the Pharmakousia islands which was only about 500 metres wide. In the dark. Probably not a serious option. (see Wallinga map above).

This means one of the greatest puzzles for Salamis reconstructions is 'Nocturnal Command and Control Systems Amongst Heterogeneous War-Galley Fleets of Ancient Eastern Imperial Powers'. Lanterns are possible but the Greeks will see them. Noise is to be avoided - possibly. Large formations staying in contact at night; not an easy problem to solve.

!Follow that ship!

Dawn starts at 6.30 and sunrise is 7am.

It is easy, therefore, to see the yawning holes in the ancient source material and the modern reconstructions which depend upon them. If anyone tells you they have a 'solution' for the dispositions at Salamis then pause before you buy a used trieres from them. 

More soon.

Contain yourself!