Published Humanitas, Volume XVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005

On September 19, 480 B.C., the ancient world faced a pivotal battle. Under the command of the despotic King Xerxes, a fleet of Persian warships had converged off the Greek coast near Piraeus, the port city that served Athens. Known as “triremes” because they were propelled by three tiers of oarsmen, the ships could achieve unprecedented speed, maneuverability, and ramming power. Some 600 to 1000 of them waited at the entrance to the narrow channel separating the Island of Salamis from the Greek mainland.

Already Xerxes’ land forces had conquered the mainland, plundering Athens and destroying its temples. In anticipation of the Persian conquest, Athenian citizens had evacuated to Salamis. Within the narrow strait, Athens and allied Greek city-states sheltered only about 300 triremes, on which their hopes lay for safety from the Persian invaders. If Xerxes’ navy entered the channel and successfully overcame the defenders, it would meet up with the invading land forces and vanquish the refugees on Salamis, nearly completing the conquest of the Greeks. On the mainland, within sight of the narrow channels, Xerxes himself had his minions erect a tall throne, from which he could view the sea battle expected the next day.

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