Sunday 11 July 2021


Previously I discussed how the different ways one could fit the Persians and Greeks into the Salamis straits meant we could find no single  solution as to what happened that day so long ago.

There is no one logical way to fit the opposing forces into the space available.  Our ideas about what actually happened must be based on the accounts we have from antiquity - if we can read a sensible account from them - but we cannot expect a military operational plan with maps attached to emerge.

We have Herodotus : he wrote not long after the battle - in the second half of the 5th century BC. He travelled widely and may have spoken to veterans of the conflict. His account of the battle is lodged in an account of the war which is very detailed. 

Then we have the playwrite Aeschylus. He participated in the battle as a hoplite - he was no spring chicken by this date, being born c.525BC he was 45. He was therefore not an epibates if he was on a ship but rather a supplementary deck soldier. His play 'The Persians' is about the effects of the defeat on the Persians at home. How they suffer for their Great King's arrogance before the gods. The problem is this is not a war correspondent's despatch but a drama. It includes some interesting details but has no objective narrative of the battle.

Why I always wear a hat in tortoise country, Aeschylus' big mistake.

Diodorus Siculus was a Sicilian writing in the first century BC. He used older writings to construct his monumental 'Library of History'. His account of Salamis includes some details and judgements not apparent from Herodotus nor in Aeschylus. There were at least 9 ancient authors in the fifth century BC alone who addressed the battle apart from Herodotus and Aeschylus, so there was some material to work with.

BIG history - DS' Library of History'

Later historians such as Ctesias, Plutarch, Aristodemus (and others) give us snippets. But no complete narratives and probably base themselves ultimately on the fifth century writers.

Then we have fragments from lost works of poetry and prose such as the poets Simonides and Timotheus. These are near contemporary but inconclusive.

From the previous discussion the big choice was should the battle-lines be drawn-up facing each other east-west or north-south.

As long ago as 1928 Kiel summarised 6 different approaches to reconstructing the battle. He further grouped them into two main tactical options - the' encirclement battle' or the 'frontal attack battle'. 

We have no new information about the battle barring the Troezen stele which is probably a later document.(I won't say 'fake' because it is 2400 years old item, and composed in a plausible way, not intending to cheat its audience). The reconstructions made over 100 years ago do not differ much from the most recent ones.

Plus ca change..

Modern accounts range from short commentary papers dealing with a single issue such as the identification of where Xerxes plonked his throne down to entire books but the basics remain.

This is the refighter's problem. As I tried to show in the previous piece, looking for 'the solution' is where madness lies. There are far more tubes in the jungle than one can possibly squeeze. 

Just to take three examples of how trying to create the perfect over-arching scenario which explains all the details we have from drama, history and poetry etc.. authors begin to lose all reason. 

BARRY STRAUSS - Wot I did on my holidays at Salamis

Within the same paragraph..p.252

'Many Persian commanders were killed at the battle...they had little loyalty to a cause;...They had no incentive to fight to the death.'


HANS WALLINGA - Xerxes Great Adventure

p.93 -dealing with his speculation that the Persian planned a simultaneous landing attack from Psyttaleia to the south side of Cynosura..

'That nothing came of the actions projected in the plan must not lead us to neglect the indications preserved by the Greek witnesses. They strongly suggest, if they do not prove, that the Persian staff were not tied to a simple naval handbook scheme.'

i.e. just because my convoluted scheme is not directly mentioned by the ancients doesnt mean it wasn't done or wasn't at least possible. Probably. 

NEIL HAMMOND - All About Salamis

p.47 -  trying to cajole the battle lines to lie where he wants them.

'The fleet(Persian) therefore advanced en echelon..Deceived by the disappearance of the Greek fleet ...the Phoenician squadron was still pressing on towards the narrow when the Greek fleet emerged in column and swung into line to face the en echelon formation of the Persian line.'

WILLIAM SHEPHERD - Everything About Salamis within Osprey Format

Somehow, he has the Greeks emerge from Ambelaki and Paloukia bays to form a continuous line from Pharmakoussa to the tip of Cynosura with some forces kept in reserve. (how would this be coordinated?) This is done in the dark/twilight with no direct observation of where the Persian ships are. For an army or fleet to be drawn up based on a hunch in ancient warfare is unusual.


What seems to happen is that a detailed overview which hangs perfectly together of this battle is a problem of Schleswig-Holsteinian proportions. If it does not kill you it will send you mad so best forget about it!

WTF are we arguing about?

All authors who tackle the battle with a total recall style approach become tough to read. Barry Strauss's book is sometimes like fighting through jungle thorns and creepers. A glimpse of the ancient sources, followed by the digression on a subject bearing some relation is repeated again and again. You start to shout at the book 'Get on with it!' Academic papers are meant to deal with arcane matters but still if you read several which fail to agree, almost with a will, the process becomes wearing. Hans Wallinga uses an entire book about Salamis to ride his hobby horse that triereis usually operated without a full compliment and often with a whole tier of oars missing.

In the end I decided to marry two perspectives in an attempt to gain control of the Salamis spaghetti monster. One has to step back and stop letting any discussion of details hinder the project.

First : recognise that a reconstruction of an ancient battle is impossible. I have fought in so many reenactment fights I cannot remember. The evening after any one of these events,  people fighting next to each other will give a different account of what happened. This with 500 people fighting in groups of up to 50 each. This without the traumatic effects of a near-death experience. (Mostly).

Commanders give different accounts from front-line fighters. Those who 'died' have a different view than those who survived. The left flank seldom knows what the right flank is doing, or has done. Herodotus collected accounts, no doubt, but then had the task of collating and reconciling them.

I am in this fight. I remember almost no details.

 An impossible task. The latter of which he does not really attempt.  Aeschylus had his limited viewpoint of the battle which was highly authentic but the surviving form in which he set down an account of the battle is a politically-charged drama which hangs together as drama but cannot be considered a despatch from the front.

We must get over this desire to accommodate all surviving references and details. We must find the key details - a manageable number -  and work with them. Details upon which the battle depends and upon which all commentators must have a view.And most importantly, details which can be modelled somehow in a tabletop recnstruction.

Second : Throw away the hackneyed method of marking out a scaled-down battlefield and deploying on this a force reduced in size by a factor suitable for your collection of models. 

It is necessary to scale the forces and the topography in synch. A 1/4 sized battlefield needs forces which occupy 1/4 of the space of the original forces. A massed unit which had problems manoeuvering cannot be replicated by 2 or 3 models. Of course, it can, but not in a realistic way.

Actium on the table: this represents something like 650 ships using models on 40 bases.
Does this present the gamer with something of the problems of shepherding massed fleets? From the excellent blog

The degree of  scaling must be assessed if the 'refight' is to be meaningful. If a regiment which operated in two battalions is scaled down to a single unit of 10 figures then we have lost any flexibility in deploying that unit and we should proceed with the idea that all units should be represented as individual blocks rather than have any sub-units. 

A key point at Salamis is the number of ships in a limited space. This problem must be presented as part of the game as much as whether Greek or Persian ships were better. Scaling which results in less of a space problem means a refight is diverging more from the original situation.

Salamis suitable congested but somewaht undermanned.
From excellent report at Bleaseworld blog HERE

Finally, to make such a project interesting and involving there has to be choice and chance involved for the commanders on each side. If the game evolves as a slide -show of original events it will be boring.

For the Battle of Little Big Horn a refight should allow the US Cavalry to bump into Indian forces at different times and locations than the original events show. The forces available to the sides might be varied with reference to changing a few factors in the background story. This is a refight game rather than a rerun.

See article on game theory at Little Bighorn HERE

Now all we have to do is examine what this means for Salamis.

NEXT PART : Salamis : Fighting Fantasy Adventure? (when the rabbiting should begin to make sense at last..)