Archive for the ‘battle’ Category


September 3, 2009 Leave a comment

“On the one hand if he subdues those whom he says that he desires to subdue, and if those matters succeed well which he has in mind when he speaks thus, the deed will after all be yours, master, seeing that your slaves achieved it…”
    -Artemesia counseling Xerxes on continuing the war in Greece, Herodotus, The Histories 8.102

“Why do ye sit, ye wretched? Flee to the uttermost limits,
Leaving your home and the heights of the wheel round city behind you!
Lo! There remaineth now nor the head nor body in safety
Neither the feet below nor the hands nor the middle are left thee,–
All are destroyed together; for fire and the passionate war god,
Urging the Assyrian car to speed, hurl them to ruin.
Not thing alone, he shall cause many more great strongholds to perish,
Yeah, many temples of gods to the ravening fire shall deliver,–
Temples which stand now, surely with sweat of their terror down streaming,
Quaking with dread; and lo! from the topmost roof to the pavement
Dark blood trickles, forecasting the dire unavoidable evil.
Forth with you, forth from the shrine and steep your soul in sorrow!”
   -The Delphic Oracle counseling the Athenians on what they should do to resist the Persians, 7.140

It has been a long while since i have done one of these entries, Ryen if you are still reading this then here you are, another entry into my series on classic battles.

The forces here are the Persian army under Xerxes and the alliance of Greek city-states. As the invasion stands the Persian army has invaded the mainland of Greece. Leonidas, his 300-man bodyguard and the thousand or so allies lay dead at Thermopylae. On land, the sheer number of the Persian army gives them a supreme advantage, so much so that it could seem as if they are invincible. Credible historians place the number at somewhere around 100,000. Whether this includes not only fighting men but also support varies. Herodotus has them drink four rivers dry, which no matter what the number means that there was an incredible force.

In the water however the tune is a little different. Persia still outnumbers the Greeks, but Greek talent at sea is much better. Futhermore there is the prophecy of the Delphic Oracle already stated above. One must remember in the build up to this battle that the whole invasion is largely Athen’s doing. It was Athens that interfered in Persian politics, it was Athens that cast the heralds of Xerxes into the wells (the Spartans tried to apologize for their act), and finally it was to “remember the Athenians” that Darious had whispered into his ear.

Unlike some recent war expeditions this one had a specific purpose: the city of Athens was to be burned to the ground. Xerxes marches on Athens finding the city abandoned as the Athenians interpreted both the already stated prophecy and a subsequent one. Prevailing upon the Athenian leaders the general Themistocles interprets the line, “A bulwark of wood at the last Zeus grants to the trito-born goddess (7.141).” Some of the Athenian leaders believe it to mean that a wooden wall should be built around Athens. Themistocles disagrees believing that the bulwark of wood is the Athenian Navy, that they should abandon the city and sail to Salamis for safety. Themistocles wins the argument.

The real conflict concerns the arguments over who should command the Greek Navy. The Athenians, who have Naval experience, have just lost their city, and have the victory at Marathon seem to think they deserve the admiralty. The Spartans, without whose sacrifice, the entire peninsula might be speaking Persian. Eurybiades, believes that as a Spartan he would be better suited at leading a battle, Themosticles believes Eurybiades to be full of shit, because the Spartans train for land war not naval war. However the compromise is reached that Eurybiades will lead the battle but Themosticles will actually be in command.

On the other side of the battle, Xerxes already infuriated with his armies inability to kill the Spartan resistance at Thermopylae decides that he is going to watch this battle personally. He has a pimp-chair erected at Mt. Augeulus to watch his forces win and note which ships did particularly well. Greek irony, the theatric kind, meant that the very choice to set up a throne to watch the battle guaranteed defeat.

The Persians don’t learn well in their wars against the Greeks. At Marathon and Thermopylae the Greeks used the superior numbers of the Persians against them; here it would be no different and again the Persians fall into the trap. The Persian ships outnumber the Greeks 4:1. The strait was narrow but the Persians weren’t that stupid. They arraigned their ships in three groups. For awhile neither side would venture the battle.

The Greeks because they knew themselves to be outnumberred. The Persians, because part of their total fleet had already been destroyed by the weather and they had been chasing some scout ships all night. However a Greek detachment under Corinthian leadership did encounter some Persian triremes at which point they immediately retreated. History is in confusion about this as some of the Greeks believed this to be cowardice while others believe this was a feint organized by Themistocles to draw the Persian fleet further inward.

The latter seems more likely as this led directly to the main battle. The delay was continuing until an Athenian captain, Ameinias, decided that enough was enough and rammed a Persian lead ship. Herodotus gives an account in which a ghostly woman was seen alongside the ship who reproached the remaining ships, “Strange men, how far will you yet back your ships?” The idea is that this is the goddess Athena encouraging the battle to begin.

The sudden onslaught of the Greek navy, coupled with the inability of the Persian navy to maneuver through the battle into chaos. Herodotus reports that the Greeks remained ordered while the Persians were in utter bedlam. The Persians knew this problem and attempted to fall back and reorganize their lines but a wind came and trapped them. It became a route. The Athenians flanked the ship lines and along with their allies either sunk or disabled the Persian fleet. The Persians lost their mastery over the sea, dooming their land army as it could no longer be supplied.

The Queen Artemisia, who fought alongside the Persians, becomes an interesting anecdote. Her ship was being pursued by the Athenians and she decided the turn and run. However in doing so she rammed and destroyed on of her allies’ ships. This caused the Athenians to abandon their pursuit of her, figuring that they either were chasing an ally or chasing someone that changed sides and was now fighting for them. The odd thing about the story is that Xerxes, observing this gave her great praise. He recognized her ship but not that of her victim and Artemisia left no survivors. He remarked that, “My women have become men, and my men women.”

Thoughts: This battle is pivotal in the respect that its loss crippled the Persian expedition. The land army was too large to be supplied using caravan as the supply lines would have required a great support staff to be protected. Even modestly estimating the size of the army at 100,000 would mean at least ten times that in order to support it. Think about how much money is being spent in Iraq now, and our actual combat forces are much smaller than 100,000.

The question is why would Xerxes choose a sea battle? Athens was already burned and his land army cannot be seriously hindered. The answer is hubris. Xerxes needed to destroy the Athenians and burning their city is not enough. The people have to pay for their slights against Persia. If Athens flees to the sea then in the sea they shall die, but Athenian naval adeptness was already well known. Again, though the simple numbers is what causes Persia to lose.

Amassing a large navy here is imposing and perhaps there wasn’t time to learn the lesson of Thermopylae. The smart move would have been to draw the Greeks out in small groups to then surround and sink them. Even if the Greek Navy was better commanded, and better equipped they couldn’t have held off forever. Herodotus also claims that any Persians surviving the initial fighting all perished because their marines couldn’t swim, something that you might want to consider as a part of the training program for amphibious forces.

Bad terrain, bad equipment, bad training, and no real sense of purpose are supposed to be overshadowed by sheer numbers. That never happens.

Categories: battle, history