Battle of Artemisium - 480 B.C.

"The children of Athens laid the shining foundation of freedom." Pindar

Under the command of the Spartan Eurybiades, the Greek naval force of about 247 trimenes made their way to Artemisium to hold back the Persian fleet of some 650 ships. It was paramount that the Persian fleet be denied access behind Leonidas and his men, otherwise they would have the Greek land forces at Themopylae in a pincer momement. Back in the Athenian port 53 remaining trimens were being fittered/upgraded and or repaired, to be launched very soon to join the fleet in Artemisium, they were quite clearly sorley being missed.

Under a blazing midsummer sun the Greek oarsmen had to toil against the fast current which whipped down between Euboea and the mainland, speeded at this time of the year by the fact that the northerly winds have been blowing for many weeks.


Ahead of them had been sent a fast cutter with a well-known Athenian aboard, to act as liaison officer between the fleet at sea and the army under Leonidas.

Xerxes decided to send off a small detachment from the fleet down to inspect the strait. Ten fast ships, almost certainly Phoenician were selected for the operation.

The Greeks had naturally sent from their naval base scouts to watch the channel where the enemy must inevitabley first be seen. Three Triremes were sent (one from Athens, Aegina and Troezen). There task was not to engage any advance squadron but to report back quickly to base.

At the first sight of the enemy all three turned tail and fled, the Persians gave chase. The ship from Troezen was capturned at once, the ship from Aegina put up a fierce resistance, but finally fell. The Athenian, it's retreat cut off, fled northward and ran aground, the whole crew only just got clear of the Persians and reached Athens after a long overland march.

The Persians were glad of their first victory and now the rest of the fleet made it's way to Magnesian country, just north of the island of Sciathus, which in turn is north-east of Artemisium. The leading ships went fast to land but, as there was not much room on the small beach, the reminader came to anchor and lay facing offshore in lines up to eight deep. All had gone well, but many of the captains felt uneasy at their exposed position. At dawn the next day, the weather was clear and calm.

As the Persian fleet was getting under way and preparing to move on down the coast, it came raging out of a cloudless sky, without any warning, the north wind began to pour in gale-force fury. Those who could, beached their vessels and got them haulded ashore before they were damaged, and before they lost their own lives as well. Many ships were dashed against the foot of Mount Pelion, others flung onto the beach, some ran aground on Cape Sepias, it was a storm of great violence. The Greeks has prayed to Boreas (god of the North wind) ever since the oracle had given it's prophecy {O12} (See Note#1). A great cheer went up and the news was given to them as the event was still happening by way of watchman posted in northern Euboea. The Greek fleet nestled safely under the protection of Euboea, were anchored safely. Wreckage started appearing, coming down on the great rollers past Cape Sepias and through the channel. As soon as it was possible they made way with all speed back to Artemisium in the expectation that there would be few ships left to oppose them. In this they were to be disappointed for, as they headed north, they could see great numbers of ships rounding Cape Sepias. (It is possible that if they had been quicker in their return or had not lain so far south they could have caught the main body of the Persian fleet at this point and provided the battle that Themistocles sought.) The Greeks did come across one piece of luck, for fifteen stragglers coming up behind the main body mistook the Greeks for their own fleet and made to join them - only to be rounded up and captured. Since there were a mixed squadron, some of the Ionian Greeks whose triremes would have been almost identical in style. It is not so surprising that this mistake took place. One of the captains, admitted druing interrogation that out of the twelve ships from his squadron, eleven had been lost at sea.

Persians try to round EuboaWhile the Persian land forces were still gathering at Themopylae, Xerxes allowed a bold move with his fleet, to try and bottle up the Greek fleet. They dispachted a force of 200 ships, with order to proceed north-east through the Skiathos channel so as to give the impression to the watching Greeks that they were heading north.

Once through the channel, they turned south making their way down the long and dangerous eastern flank of Euboea. It was a calculated risk, but one which would certainly pay dividends if they could block the Greek southern sea route, while the main body of their fleet, battle ready after its repairs, would come down on them from the north, this would leave the Greeks no escape and their route cut off from Athens.

The news came to the Greek side from a Scyllias diver, who at this stage was working for the Persians. He told them of the Persian fleets movements and exact account of the storm damage. This information was immediately sent backwards to the remaining fleet of 53 ships that had not yet made it's way to Artemisium.

It would take the Persian task-force about two days and nights to get round Euboea. Dissension fell amoung the ranks of the allies, should they retreat or press forward?

At the end it took the genius of Thermistocles to rally the Greek force and pursuade the commander Eurybiades (via the 'Greek way') to press on, and attack, while the Persian fleet was still disorganised by the storm.

This was done by Thermistocles extorting money from the Euboea's that if they did not give him money, the Greeks would abandon the defense of Artemisium. And bribing all that he needed, while keeping a profit for himself. Even at this late hour, and with the fate of their country in the balance, it is instructive to see how their typically Mediterranean rationale never deserted the Greeks.

On the following day the commanders again debated about attacking the Persians, many were for staying put and letting the Persians come to them. Eurybiades questioned the wisdom to strike being such an offensive move. (It was on this day that Xerxes gave the orders to first attack the position held at Thermopylae).

Thermistocles again showed his true statesmenship, for in a room that started out quarralling and bickering, he ended up with allies that would do exactly as he asked of them, and that included the commander of the allied fleet.

Using blackmailing tactics, (Themistokles did know who had taken bribes); and eloquent speech, about how the diver's first hand report had told of the sorry state in which the storm had left so many of the enemy, there were not all in one place, but dispersed over a number of anchorages. In any case it was high time that they took the measure of the Persian fleet and had a chance to compare their own battle tactics with theirs.

Late in the afternoon the Greeks made their move. Taking confindence in the fact that by starting at such a time they would, it things went against them, be able to withdraw to Artemisium towards nightfall. The Persians, for their part, could hardly believe that so small a force compared to their own was daring to come out on the attack. They got under way at their leisure, being confident of annihilating them. The Greek ships were heavier and slower and the Phoenicains and others felt sure that, with their greater speed and manoeuvrability, they would easily capture them. Howerver, since they were putting out from a number of harbours at different times, while the Greeks advanced in battle-array, Thermistocles' optimism was justified.

Striking fast and hard, his force managed to sink a number of the enemy and put several others to flight. But, as the Persian numbers built up, they were gradually able to try an encircling movement known as the 'periplous' a disign to constrict the Greeks so that they would fall foul of one another, and become easy prey.

The well trained Greeks counted by forming into a close circle bows outward and sterns to the centre, known as the 'kuklos'. When the Persian had circled close enough the signal was given and the Greeks exploded outward, each taking the closest enemy ship that was in striking distance. The Persian learned to their cost how highly trained was the adversary whom they had started by regarding with contempt. Althrough Xerxes had promised a high prize for the first Athenian ship taken, none were taken that day. As darkness came down the triumphant Greeks withdrew, taking the brother of the king of Salamis as one of their prisoners.

This night too proved to be a savage one, for again another storm blew up, with torrential rain and loud thunder. The result was yet another disaster for the Persians at sea. (err....the Oracle of Delphi wants me to insert her prophesy here {O12}). The 200 Persian task force was caught just rounding the bottom part of Euboea, another few hours and they would have been safely in the straight, as it was however, they could not have been in a worse spot. The rain made visibility nearly zero, the storm found them in the open sea and misery was their end. Forced upon the many rocks, it was reported that all 200 sank. Which seems a bit too far fetched, but no matter, even if some did manage to escape, it did put down the clever but always risky idea of getting to the Greek fleet from the rear. Of this we can be quite certain, for the 53 Athenians ships waiting at their station and guarding the approaches picked up some of the storm-shattered advace-guard of the Persians, interrogated them and, having discovered the event of the disaster, promptly sailed north to join the rest of the fleet, leaving no ship behind.

The Athenians arrived with good news just at the very moment that Themistocles needed them most. Emboldened by this great good news the reinforced Athenian fleet proceeded to adopt the same hit-and-run tactics they had found fruitful before. Once again the late afternoon or early evening they swept up from Artemisium. The found an enemy almost totally demoralised by this second gale. They huddled in Aphetae, thinking they were doomed, as the wind and the rain had swept up from the south. Themistocles and his commnaders fell upon them like lightning that evening, attacked and destroyed the Cilician squadron, and moved back to Artemisium before a major action could possible take place. Once more their withdrawal was covered by the swift fall of darkness, it was another brilliant small victory, boosting the pride of the Greeks.

Messages had been sent off by Xerxes once Hydarnes had been given orders to come around the Spartans via Kallidromos at Thermopylae, to the fleet to attack in full force. It was already clear that the pass would be breached that day and the failure of the force to round Euboea and take them from the south had been a considerable setback; what was now needed was a major fleet action where the Persian superiority in numbers must, so it seemed, inevitably win the day.

By now the refitting had already been completed and even with all their losses they still would have had 450 ships compared to the Greeks who, even with the 53 fresh triremes would scarcely had more than 300.

On that hot bright summer afternoon the initial collision was an explotion across the bay, trireme met trireme head on, the great bronze rams crashing against one another like prehistoric beasts in combat, the forward oars snapping off as an enemy insinuated himself down one side, and the marines on both sides standing ready to board, or fighting across the interlocked bows of their ships. Both sides had organised themselves in a crescent moon formation, only the Persians was much larger and engulfed the Greeks. Though the Persians had more marines per ship than the Greeks (30 Persian to 14 Greek), the Greeks had far superious armour.

Many times outnumbered, the Greeks fought valiantly all day. Both sides were glad when they parted and made back to their moorings. Far from being pursued, the Greeks even had time to bring back some of their dead and salvage some of their wreckage.

Back on dry land the Greeks had found that the people of Euboea had decided on evacuation and, had driven their sheep down to the shore as well. Themistocles wasted no time, but told his men to 'kill as man sheep was they pleased, for it was better that they should have them than the enemy'. Wreckage was burned, great fires were lit for funeral pyres; lamb was eaten, and the rest burnt. It was during this night that Habronichus, the trusted lieutenant of Themistocles, who had been acting as liaison officer between army and fleet, had waited by the pass until the last possible moment. When he saw that all was lost, the had slipped and made off fast up the channel in his thirty-oared cutter. With Thermopylae lost, Artemisium to the north was no longer tenabel. It was in end of the Themistoclean strategy of the land-sea defensive line.

The Greeks retreated under the cover of darkness. They banked up the fires to last all night to lead the Persians to belive that the fleet was still in Artemisium. There was no time for rest that the men needed, nor for anything but the simplest repairs to the ships.

The next day the Persians found an empty Artemisium, the bones of the Euboean sheep still smoldering on the pyre. Xerxes sent a message and most of the fleet came to Thermopylae to view the dead, though most of the Persian contingent was hidden, this didn't fool the fleet of what had happend.

Themistocles, that master of political mechanics, was also awake to the value of propaganda. As his advance squadron made its way down the channel he put in at all the places where there was fresh water, knowing that the Persians must necessarliy do likewise, and left behind messages scratched or cut on the rocks. These were designed to be read by the many Ionian Greeks serving in the Pesian fleet, and called upon them to remember that they too were Greeks and that they should not be making war upon their fellows.


Though he had met with stiff opposition, Xerxes had now broken through the Themopylae-Artemisium line. As we have said on an earlier page, a deal was also agreed to with Carthage for them to attack Sicily, so that they would not come to the aid of Athens. This had now come to fruition and the Battle of Himera now commenced.


NEXT PAGE>>>Battle of Himera


'Histories' by Herodotus published by Wordsworth 1996

Related page: The Themistokles Gambit

Our really bad attempt at making this battle visual.
Sorry for the average use of pictures here we hope one day
to be able to organise ourselves to get someone to make it proper.

Militarily, the above Athenian strategy can be compared to the 429 BC, Battle of Rhium, where the Athenian General Phormio leading the Messenians against the Spartan lead Peloponnesian League in a naval battle, to great success. He uses the Persian strategy above but evolves it even futher to create a deadly trap.

Note#1. The actions of the North Wind in the summer morning well already well know to the Greeks, even indicated by the Oracle of Delphi's mutterings. The reason for it is not well know by today's military students.

When the sun rises in early summer in Greece the air heats up the previous nights cool air, as it heats up that air rises. To fill in the void created, cooler air from the North swooshes down causing a great wind, putting at risk any boat not in a harbour.













Copyright 2006 to 2012 | All Rights Reserved