Herodotus tells us that the ships of the Phoenicians were the fastest. He says that there were native crews of 200 on each of their ships, but these were joined by an additional 30 Persians, Medes and Sacae, who served as archers. The military crew of each ships would have stood at around 44. This, combined with additional troops, would have brought the weight of Persians ships to about 4 tonnes, which is 8% heavier than the Greek ships.
Herodotus also states that the Persians included in their fleet 3000 small oared ships, loosely referred to as pentecontors. These had crews of 80 each.
The key ship in the Greek fleet was the trireme. The word trireme literary means ‘three oared’: the trireme had three banks of oars on either side. Each ship had 170 rowers, and was about 120 feet in length.
The crew of a trireme usually consisted of 213 men: 14 spearmen, 4 archers, 25 officers and sailors and a further 170 rowers. The ships were propelled both by oarsmen and sails. The oarsman would have rowed in time with a flute. They could reach speeds of almost 6 knots, although only for short periods of time.
The trireme was built from pine. At the front there was a large ram also made from timber. It came to a point two metres in front of the stem. The front of this was covered with a bronze sheath. It has been calculated that the force generated by the ram would be of the order of 66 tonnes. Such a force was employed by skilled helmsmen as they directed their crew to ram opposing ships side on.
Think about the description of the trireme. What do you think were the difficulties and challenges facing the ship commanders at the battle of Salamis.
3.11 Reasons for the failure of Xerxes’ Expeditions
Why, then, did Xerxes’ expedition fail? Clearly there are individual reasons at each battle why the Persians lost: the cunning of Themistocles and skill of the Greek navy at Salamis, the surprise at Mycale, perhaps even the absence of their commander at Plataea left the Persians without a will to fight. There are, however, a few over-arching reasons which are worth considering.
First, the Greeks were fighting for their homeland. This, for Herodotus, would probably have been the most important idea. They loved the ideal of freedom, and the thought of losing their homes, as indeed the Athenians did in 480/79BC, drove them to fight all the harder.
Secondly, the Persian forces did not have this spirit. They were fighting, as the Greeks saw it, as slaves to their master. They were not there of their own free will, but merely hired hands, and members of a vast empire, in which they had little belief. If Herodotus is right about the effects of the departure of Xerxes from Salamis, this may well be true. It is also shown in Artemisia’s actions at Salamis: she wanted to win for herself, and she had no loyalty to other members of her side.
Thirdly, for all the careful planning and organisation of provisions, the size of Xerxes’ expedition was such that it must have required enormous amounts of food and other materials. The further they were removed from Persia, the more difficult it would have been to maintain such supplies.
Fourthly, how important was Greece to Xerxes? Although Herodotus was keen to emphasise the importance of the conflict from the Greek side, was it that significant for Xerxes? He had a large empire, and, as Pausanias’ demonstration of the meals after Plataea showed, what were the Persians going to gain by continuing to attack Greece? He may well have decided after Salamis to cut his losses, and withdraw.
TASK 3L: SOURCE-BASED
Re-read Herodotus Book 7, sections 5-7, 23-24, 32-41, 101-104, 138, 206-228 and, Book 8, sections 78-112.
To what extent do you think Xerxes was to blame for the failure of his expedition against Greece?
Theme: The importance and contribution of key individuals in this period
Throughout Herodotus’ account of the conflict with Persia, a number of individuals stand out. They took leading roles on either the Greek or Persian side. The aim of this part of the course is to consider their contribution to the course of events and their characters.
Miltiades played a key role in the Athenian victory at Marathon. It was he who showed them that they must fight, and persuaded Callimachus to vote with him, so that the Athenians were committed to fighting when they did. However, his career did not begin and end with Marathon.
In 524/3 BC he was an archon (leading official) in Athens. At this point he was sent by the then tyrant Hippias – the same man who led the Persians to Marathon – to go to the Chersonese to subdue it. This he did, and he ruled there. During this time he submitted to the authority of king Darius, and even took part in Darius’ expedition against the Scythians. Herodotus says that he, along with other Ionian tyrants, proposed destroying the bridge which Darius had built from mainland Persia over the Hellespont to Scythia. This would have left Darius stranded in Europe, and ruined his expedition. However, even if the Ionians ever had such a plan, it was never carried out.
Shortly after this, Miltiades was driven out of the Chersonese by a Scythian invasion, and he joined the Ionian Revolt. He gained control of Lemnos, but when the revolt was crushed he fled back to Athens. At first he was tried for being a tyrant in the Chersonese, but the Athenians acquitted him, and then elected him as one of the ten generals shortly afterwards. It was in this capacity that he served at Marathon.
His main contribution at Marathon was to persuade Callimachus to fight, when the other generals were doubting this course. Some have suggested that Herodotus exaggerates his importance in the battle, and that it was Callimachus who is really the hero of the day. However, it may be that Miltiades was responsible for persuading the generals to fight before the Persians could organise their cavalry. This would have been a key element in the victory, as the cavalry were the enemy’s great strength, and would have been a real challenge for the Athenian and Plataean foot soldiers.
Miltiades was acknowledged by the Athenians afterwards with a separate grave marker to indicate his pivotal role in the battle. A later Roman Biographer, Cornelius Nepos, writing in the first century BC, tells us that the sole honour that Miltiades received from the Athenians was a picture of the Battle of Marathon painted in a building in central Athens called the Poikile Stoa or Painted Colonnade. He says, ‘his portrait was given the leading place among the ten generals and he was represented in the act of haranguing the troops and giving the signal for battle’.
(Nepos, Miltiades, 6).
However, after his victory he led an Athenian fleet against the island of Paros, and failed to take the town. He was severely wounded in the action, and came home to anything but a hero’s welcome: he was brought to trial for his failure, and fined 50 talents – a very large amount of money. He died shortly afterwards from gangrene, and his son, Cimon, paid the fine.
Outline Miltiades’ career
Read Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus, 6.98.118. Explain in what ways Miltiades was essential to the Greek victory.
Do you think the Athenians adequately rewarded Miltiades for his role at Marathon? Explain your answer.
Leonidas was the hero of the Battle of Thermopylae. He refused to retreat and fought with his fellow Spartans to the death.
Leonidas was one of the kings of Sparta. His reign began around 490BC, and ended with his death at Thermopylae ten years later. In 480BC, whilst the rest of the Spartans were delayed by the festival of Carnea, he marched to Thermopylae with his elite force of 300.
Leonidas is most known for his determination in facing the Persian threat. In Herodotus’ account, he is the central figure, sending away men from the other states, and then ordering his own men to stand firm and fight (see Herodotus 7.206-228).
The later biographer Plutarch also collected various sayings which are attributed to Leonidas. These give a sense of his character:
When the ephors (Spartan officials) said: ‘Haven’t you decided to take any action beyond blocking the passes against the Persians?’, ‘In theory, no’, he said, ‘but in fact I plan to die for the Greeks.’
When Xerxes wrote to him: ‘It is possible for you not to fight the gods but to side with me and be monarch of Greece,’ he wrote back: If you understood what is honourable in life, you would avoid lusting after what belongs to others. For me, it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch for the people of my race.’
He passed word to his soldiers to eat breakfast in expectation that they would be having dinner in Hades (the underworld).
(From Plutarch on Sparta, Penguin, p.146-7)