Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 8 The Battle Of Salamis Summary

Histories | Study Guide

Herodotus

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Histories | Book 8, The Battle of Salamis | Summary

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Summary

The Athenians try to convince the other Greeks to marshal their naval strength at Salamis. Thanks to their efforts, the Greek fleet swells to almost 400 ships. Herodotus describes the contingents and their numbers. The Greeks hold a council of war. During the council, news arrives that the Persians have entered Athenian territory and are looting and burning as they go. Most of the population of Athens itself is with the fleet, and so when the Persians enter the city, they find it all but deserted. The few who remain barricade themselves in the Acropolis, which is besieged. They are defeated, and Athens falls to Xerxes. He orders the temples to be looted.

Some of the Greeks once more argue for splitting the fleet. Themistocles tries to convince Eurybiades to stay and keep the fleet together, for this is the only way to ensure the collective defense of Greece. Eurybiades is convinced. Themistocles has a tougher time with the other naval leaders, and only convinces them to stay and fight by threatening that the Athenians will take their fleet, head to Italy, and leave the rest to Xerxes's wrath.

On the other side, all of Xerxes's leaders are in favor of attacking the Greek fleet, except for Queen Artemisia, who rules Halicarnassus. She argues that such is the Greek superiority as sailors that the Persians have no hope of victory. She is ignored, and the Persian fleet advances to give battle.

Themistocles uses a trick to limit the Persians' numerical advantage. He sends a spy to the Persians with a secret message that induces them to attack at dawn in a very narrow bay. The narrowness of the terrain means the Persians cannot simply overwhelm the Greeks with numbers. In the battle, Artemisia wins Xerxes's esteem for her bravery, even though she rammed a friendly ship. Still, Xerxes witnesses her apparent valor and curses the cowardice of his men, shamed by a woman's exploits. The Greeks are victorious in the battle. Herodotus credits Aegina with the greatest exploits in the fight, followed by Athens.

Analysis

Athens falls to Xerxes. The few defenders of the city had misinterpreted the words of the Delphic oracle. They believed the "wooden wall" that would save Athens was that of the Acropolis, but it was instead the fleet of Themistocles. He proves this with the great victory at Salamis.

The Greek strategy rests on drawing the Persians into a narrow strait where they cannot bring their numbers to bear. By this point of the narrative, how events will unfold should be familiar to the reader. Xerxes once more rejects good advice, but this time it comes from one of the rare women in the narrative, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus. Artemisia's exploits in the Battle of Salamis are more famous than most because Herodotus says that he cannot relay many other exploits but hers. Artemisia's reasons for ramming a friendly ship are unknown, as Herodotus acknowledges, but they give him the chance to unfold a punchline that reveals something of Greek expectations of gender roles. It also shows that Xerxes, at the height of his power, is actually powerless: watching the battle from afar, he cannot affect its course, and he cannot even clearly see what is happening. He praises Artemisia by mistake.

Herodotus's fair-minded approach to the exploits he relates is shown by his praise of the Aeginans, who previously have appeared primarily as antagonists of the Athenians and Spartans.

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