Battle of Artemisium

Dafato Team | May 28, 2022

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The Battle of Artemisius consisted of a series of naval engagements that took place over three days in the context of the Second Medical War. The battle took place at the same time as the land engagement at Thermopylae, in August or September 480 BC, off the coast of Euboea, and pitted an alliance of Greek polis (including Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and other city-states) against the Persian Empire of Xerxes I.

The Persian invasion was a belated response to the defeat suffered in his first invasion of Greece, which had ended with the Athenian victory at the battle of Marathon. Xerxes had assembled an immense army and navy and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Athenian general Themistocles proposed that the Greek alliance block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae and simultaneously immobilize the enemy army in the strait of Artemisius. Accordingly, an allied naval force of 271 triremes was dispatched to await the arrival of the Persians.

Towards the end of the summer, near Artemisium, the Persian fleet was caught in a gale off the coast of Magnesia and lost about a third of its 1200 ships. After reaching Artemisium, the Persians had a detachment of 200 ships round the coast of Euboea to try to catch the Greeks, but the vessels encountered another storm and were wrecked. The main engagement of the battle took place after two days of small clashes. Both sides fought all day, suffering more or less similar losses, but being smaller, the Allied fleet could not afford those losses.

After the engagement, the allies received the news of the defeat of their troops at Thermopylae. Since their strategy called for holding both Thermopylae and Artemisium, and given their casualties, the allies decided to retreat to Salamis. The Persians invaded Boeotia and captured Athens, which had been evacuated. However, seeking a decisive victory over the allied fleet, the Persians were later defeated at the Battle of Salamis in late 480 B.C. Fearful of being trapped in Europe, Xerxes retreated to Asia with much of his army, leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest of Greece. However, the following year the allied army decisively defeated the Persians at the battle of Platea, putting an end to the invasion.

The main source on the Medical Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus, born in 484 B.C. in Halicarnassus, Asia Minor (at that time under Persian rule), and whom historiography considers the "father of history". Herodotus wrote his Histories in about 440-430 B.C. in an attempt to trace the origins of the Medical Wars, which were still relatively recent history (the wars ended in 450 B.C.). in an attempt to trace the origins of the Medical Wars, which were still relatively recent history (the wars ended in 450 B.C.). Herodotus' approach was completely novel and, at least within Western society, he seems to have been the inventor of history as we know it today. In the words of Tom Holland:

For the first time, a chronicler sets out to trace the origins of a conflict not to a past so ancient or remote as to be fabulous, not attributing it to the wishes or whims of some god, nor to the manifest destiny of a people, but to explanations that he himself could verify.

Some of the later ancient historians, despite following in his footsteps, criticized Herodotus, Thucydides being the first of them. Nevertheless, Thucydides decided to begin his history at the point where Herodotus had left off (at the site of Sestos), and thus it was evident that he considered Herodotus' account to be sufficiently accurate not to need rewriting or correction. Plutarch criticized Herodotus in his essay On the Wickedness of Herodotus, where he described him as Philobarbaros (lover of the barbarians) for not being sufficiently favorable to the Greeks, suggesting that Herodotus would actually have done a reasonable job from the point of view of objectivity. The negative opinion of Herodotus reached into Renaissance Europe, although his works continued to be widely read. However, from the 19th century onwards his reputation was drastically rehabilitated thanks to several archaeological discoveries that confirmed his version of events time and again. The prevailing modern opinion is that, in general, Herodotus did a remarkable job with his Histories, but that certain specific details (especially the number of troops and dates) should be viewed with skepticism. In any case, some historians still believe that Herodotus invented much of what he narrated.

The Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote his Historical Library in the first century B.C., also provides a chronicle of the Medical Wars, for which he relies on the Greek historian Ephorus of Cime, which is quite consistent with Herodotus' account. A number of other ancient historians also described the Medical Wars, although in less detail; among them are Plutarch, Ctesias, and other authors, such as the playwright Aeschylus, are mentioned. Archaeological evidence, such as the Serpent Column, supports several of the claims made by Herodotus.

The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria had backed the unsuccessful Ionian revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499-494 B.C. The Persian Empire was still relatively young, and its subject peoples were prone to revolt. Moreover, Darius was a usurper and had spent a significant part of his time extinguishing revolts against his rule. The Ionian revolt had threatened the integrity of his empire, and Darius vowed revenge on those involved, especially those who were not part of the empire. Darius also saw an opportunity to expand his rule over the divided territory of Ancient Greece. A preliminary expedition under Mardonius, undertaken in 492 B.C. with the aim of seizing the overland passes to Greece, ended with the reconquest of Thrace and forced Macedonia to become a client kingdom of Persia.

In 491 B.C., Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states to request a gift of "land and water" as a symbolic gesture of their submission to him. Having received a demonstration of their power the previous year, most of the Greek cities acceded to the requests. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and executed, while in Sparta they were simply thrown into a pit, which put the latter at war with Persia.

In response, Darius assembled an amphibious expeditionary army which he placed under the command of Datis and Artafernes in 490 B.C. These same troops then attacked Naxos before receiving the surrender of the other Cycladic islands. The expeditionary army then marched on Eretria, which it besieged and destroyed. Finally, the Persian army embarked on the enterprise of attacking Athens and landed in the bay of Marathon, where it clashed with an Athenian army vastly inferior in numbers. In the ensuing battle, the Athenians won a surprise victory that resulted in the Persian army retreating to Asia.

As a consequence, Darius began to assemble an immense new army with which he intended to subjugate Greece completely; but, in 486 B.C., his Egyptian subjects rebelled, which postponed indefinitely any expedition to Greece, Darius died while preparing his advance against Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt and quickly resumed preparations to invade Greece. Since this would be a large-scale invasion, it required long-term planning, stockpiling of reserves, and conscription of soldiers. Xerxes decided to create a bridge across the Hellespont to allow his army to enter Europe, and that a canal should be dug along the isthmus of Mount Athos, the Xerxes Canal (a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 B.C. while rounding that cape). Both feats evidenced an exceptional ambition that would have been beyond the possibilities of any contemporary state. By early 480 B.C., the preparations were completed and the army that Xerxes had assembled at Sardis marched towards Europe, crossing the Hellespont by means of two pontoon bridges.

The Athenians had also been preparing for war with the Persians since the mid 480s B.C., and in 482 B.C., following the advice of the Athenian politician Themistocles, a decision was made to build a huge fleet of triremes that would be needed for the Greeks to face the Persians.  In 482 B.C., following the advice of the Athenian politician Themistocles, the decision was made to build a huge fleet of triremes that would be necessary for the Greeks to fight the Persians. However, the Athenians did not have enough troops to fight by land and sea; consequently, the fight against the Persians would require an alliance on the part of the Greek city-states. In 481 B.C., Xerxes sent ambassadors throughout Greece to solicit land and water, though deliberately skipping Athens and Sparta. Thus, the alliance began to coalesce around these two states. In the late autumn of 481 B.C. a congress of city-states was held in Corinth, and a confederated alliance (simmachia) of Greek polis was formed. This alliance had the power to send emissaries for help and to dispatch troops from member states to defensive points after joint consultation, something extraordinary for the chaotic Greek world, especially since many of the city-states attending the congress were still technically at war with each other.

The congress reconvened in the spring of 480 B.C. A Thessalian delegation proposed that the allies congregate in the narrow valley of Tempe, located on the Thessalian border, and thus block Xerxes' advance. A force of 10,000 hoplites was dispatched to the Tempe valley, believing that the Persian army would have to pass through there. However, once there, Alexander I of Macedon gave notice that the valley could be bypassed through the Sarantoporus Pass and that the size of Xerxes' army was overwhelming, so the Greeks withdrew. Shortly thereafter, they received word that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont.

Themistocles therefore proposed a second strategy to the allies. The route to the southern territories of Greece (Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnese) would require Xerxes' army to cross the extremely narrow Thermopylae Pass. The Greek hoplites could easily block that pass, regardless of the number of Persian troops. In addition, to prevent the Persians from encircling Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and allied navies could block the Strait of Artemisius. The congress approved this dual strategy. However, the Peloponnesian cities made plans to withdraw and defend the isthmus of Corinth in case the plan failed, while women and children were evacuated en masse from Athens to the Peloponnesian city of Trecenae.

The Allied fleet sailed northward from Cape Artemisio after learning that the Persian army was advancing along the coast beyond Mount Olympus, probably near the end of July or early August. The allies stationed themselves at Artemisio, probably abandoning their ships on the cape's beach, from where they could put to sea quickly if necessary. The allies sent three ships to Scíathos as an advance guard to warn of the approaching Persian armada. Two weeks passed without a sighting of the Persian fleet. Finally, ten Sidonian triremes reached the coast of Scyathos, and the allied fleet was warned by a fire lit on the island. However, the alliance patrol ships were taken unawares and two of them were captured while the third was stranded. According to Herodotus, in the confusion that followed and unsure whether the bonfire heralded the arrival of the entire Persian fleet or not, the allied navy headed for the strait of Artemisius as a precautionary measure. Once it was clear that the Persians would not arrive that same day, they decided to sail for Chalcis, halfway south following the eastern coast of Euboea, after leaving some men on the hills of Euboea to warn of the actual arrival of the Persian ships.

Historians point out that the Allies may have misinterpreted the Persian movement, wrongly concluding that the Persians were heading east around Scyathos, intending to pass through eastern Euboea. The signals through campfires must have been really simplistic and possibly misinterpreted, or the signalers actually believed that the Persian fleet was sailing east of Scyathos. If the Persians had sailed around the eastern coast of Euboea, they could have headed straight for Attica and thus cut off the retreat of the Allied fleet. Moreover, the Persians had enough ships to attempt an attack on the Strait of Artemisius and at the same time circumnavigate Euboea. Consequently, the retreat to Chalcis provided the allies with the opportunity to escape the Euboea Strait in case the Persians moved along the coast of that region, while also allowing them to return to Artemisium if necessary. In this situation, the lookouts in Euboea could inform the allies if the Persian fleet did indeed sail east of Euboea, so the allied navy continued to wait at Chalcis. However, it is possible that the allies, who were no doubt worried about the prospect of facing a fleet that so vastly outnumbered them, may have overreacted.

About ten days later, the Persian army arrived at Thermopylae; this information reached the allies at Chalcis on a ship captained by Abronchius, who had been designated as liaison between the army and the fleet. However, there was still no sign of the enemy fleet, and the first day the Persians spent at Thermopylae ended without them launching an attack. The next day, the Persian fleet finally approached Artemisium, heading towards the pass of Scyathos (between the coast of Magnesia and Scyathos), when they hit a hurricane storm that sent the Persians towards the rocky coast. The storm lasted two days and wrecked about a third of the Persian ships. Meanwhile, at Thermopylae, the Persian army was still waiting for the Greeks to disperse, so they chose not to attack during the storm.

A day after the storm ended, the allied fleet returned to Artemisium to protect the army's flank at Thermopylae. The next day (the fifth since the Persians reached Thermopylae), Xerxes' army began attacking the Greeks blocking the pass. That same day, the Persian fleet finally broke through the pass of Scyathos and cast anchor on the coast opposite Artemisius at Aphetas. According to Herodotus, 15 Persian ships encountered the allies and were captured. Although the Persian fleet had clearly been diminished by the storm, they still outnumbered the allies by nearly three to one. As a result, the allies contemplated a complete retreat. The inhabitants of Euboea, not wishing to be left at the mercy of the Persians, bribed Themistocles to try to keep the allied fleet in the area. Since the joint operation at Thermopylae and Artemisium had been of his own making, it is likely that this was just what Themistocles desired, and the bribe in turn enabled him to pay the Spartan and Corinthian admirals, Euribiades and Adymantus, to remain at Artemisium.

Later that day, a deserter from the Persian fleet, a Greek named Scylias of Scylone, swam to the Allied camp and relayed bad news: although most of Xerxes' navy was under repair, the Persians had deployed 200 seaworthy ships to surround the coast of Euboea and cut off the Allied fleet's escape route. The Persians still did not wish to attack the allies as they believed the allies would simply flee, so they intended to encircle them. The allies decided to advance and engage the detachment of 200 ships to avoid being trapped, but planned to move at nightfall so that the Persians would not know of their intentions.

It is very likely that the allies knew that the situation in which they found themselves offered them the opportunity to destroy part of the Persian fleet. Herodotus is not clear about where the allies planned to ram the enemy detachment and only notes that they decided to do so. There is the possibility that they planned to sail alongside the Strait of Euboea and wait for the rest of the Allied ships, which patrolled the Attica coast, to follow the Persians once they entered the strait from the south, and then the Persians themselves would be trapped. Another possibility is that the Allies prepared to ambush the Persian detachment as it passed Artemisius on its journey from Aphetas. Whatever the case, they decided to make the Persians believe that they were scheduled to remain at Artemisium. Herodotus also notes that this was the ideal opportunity to assess the maritime and tactical skill of the Persians. The allies probably waited until late in the afternoon so that there was little chance of being caught in the middle of a full-scale engagement; they did not wish to suffer casualties before heading for the Persian shipping detachment. These decisions led to the battle.


The exact chronology of the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, as well as their interrelationship, is unclear. The chronology below represents an estimated reconstruction of the timeline, according to the work of Lazenby and Holland.

Persian fleet

Herodotus produces a detailed description of the Persian fleet that assembled at Doriscus during the spring of 480 B.C. (see table below). However, after the fleet was hit by the storm near the coast of Magnesia, approximately one-third of the fleet was lost. Therefore, according to Herodotus' calculations, the Persian fleet would have numbered about 800 triremes at the battle of Artemisius.

Some modern scholars have accepted these numbers as true, especially since the ancient sources are unusually consistent in this regard. Other authors reject that number, considering that 1207 was more a reference to the combined Greek fleet in the Iliad, and bearing in mind that, in general, the Persians could not have launched into the Aegean more than about 600 warships.

Greek fleet

Herodotus states that, in the battle of Artemisius, the Greek fleet counted 280 ships. This fleet would have been composed of the following contingents (the numbers in parentheses correspond to penteconteros, the rest of the ships were all triremes):

The Athenians had been building a large navy since 483 B.C., apparently to achieve victory in their ongoing conflict with Aegina. However, it is likely that the shipbuilding, which was carried out under the advice of Themistocles, was also in view of a future conflict with the Persian Empire. Although the Athenians initially requested command of the allied fleet, they agreed that it should be given to Eurybiades of Sparta to preserve unity.

In terms of strategy, the mission of the allies was simple. The fleet was to protect the flank of the army at Thermopylae, while trying not to be isolated. For the Persians, the strategy was just as simple, albeit with more options. They needed to force their way through either Thermopylae or Artemisium (two places the allies were obliged to defend), or to outflank either of these places. In theory, it was much easier to outflank the Straits of Artemisium than Thermopylae, for which they had to circumnavigate the eastern coast of Euboea. There is a possibility that the Greeks may have chosen to station themselves at Artemisium in order to be prepared for such an attempt; otherwise, if the narrowness of the channel had been the sole determining factor, the allies would have been better positioned near the city of Histiea.

The Persians had a significant tactical advantage since they outnumbered the allies and had ships with "better navigation". This "better navigation" mentioned by Herodotus probably refers to superior maritime skill on the part of the crews; most of the Athenian ships (and, consequently, of the allied ships) were of recent construction and had inexperienced crews. The most common naval tactics of the time in the Mediterranean area were ramming (triremes had a kind of battering ram at the bow) and boarding, by sailors, which basically turned a naval battle into a land battle. By this time, the Persians and the Asiatic Greeks had begun to use a maneuver known as diekplous. Although it is not entirely clear what this maneuver consisted of, it probably involved sailing into the gaps left by the enemy formation and then ramming the opposing ships from the side. A maneuver of this caliber would have required enormous maritime skill, so it would have been more likely to have been employed by the Persians. However, the Allies deployed specific tactics to counter such a thing.

Herodotus indicates that the Allied ships were heavier and consequently less maneuverable. The greater weight would have further reduced the chances of the Allied ships using diekplous. The cause of this greater weight is uncertain, but it is possible that the Allied ships were bulkier in construction. It is also feasible that this was due to the weight of the hoplite sailors wearing full armor. It may be that, if their ships were less maneuverable, the Allies had additional sailors on board, since boarding would have been the main tactic available to them (at the cost of their ships being even heavier). In fact, Herodotus relates that the Greeks captured enemy ships, not sank them.

First day

When the Persians saw that the allied fleet was heading towards them, they decided to seize the opportunity and attack, even though the day was already ending, thinking that they would win an easy victory, and advanced quickly on the small allied fleet. However, the allies had planned a tactic for that situation, according to which they put "bow towards the barbarians, Generally, this is taken to mean that they formed a circle, with the battering rams pointing outwards; Thucydides reports that, in the Peloponnesian war, the Peloponnesian fleets adopted a circular formation, with their sterns joined, on two occasions. However, Herodotus does not actually use the word circle, and Lazenby remarks on the difficulty of 250 ships forming a circle (the Peloponnesian fleets consisted of 30-40 ships). Therefore, it is possible that the allies deployed in a more crescent-like formation, with the ends further back to prevent Persian ships from surrounding the allied formation. Whatever the case, the maneuver was probably intended to nullify the superior maritime skill of the Persians and, perhaps specifically, the employment of the diekplous.

After assuming such a formation upon receiving a predetermined signal, the allied ships suddenly advanced after a second signal was issued, moving towards the Persian vessels and catching them off guard. With their maritime prowess crippled, the Persians fared badly in this encounter, with 30 of their ships captured or sunk. During the battle, a Greek ship captained by Antidorus of Lemnos switched to the Allied side. Night brought the battle to an end, and the Allies had achieved better results than expected.

At night another storm (probably a thunderstorm accompanied by winds from the southeast) broke out, which prevented the allies from heading south to confront the Persian detachment that had been sent around Euboea. However, the storm also affected this detachment, taking it off course and throwing it against the "Coves" of Euboea. Thus, this group belonging to the Persian fleet was also shipwrecked and lost most of the ships it was composed of.

Second day

The next day, which was also the second day of the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian fleet, now recovering from two storms, refused to attack the Allies and instead set about recovering the nautical capabilities of their ships. News of the shipwreck near Euboea reached the Allies' ears that same day, along with a reinforcement of 53 Athenian vessels.

The Allies again waited until dusk to attack a patrol of Cilician ships and, after destroying them, withdrew as night fell. It is possible that those ships had been survivors of the detachment that had been sailing around Euboea, or perhaps they had been anchored in an isolated harbor.

Third day

On the third day of the battle, the Allied fleet attacked the Persians with all its might. Seeing the enemy massing, the Allies tried to block the Artemisio Strait as best they could and waited for the Persians to attack. The Persians formed a semicircle with their ships and tried to encircle the Allied fleet, which advanced, initiating the battle. The engagement lasted all day, and the allies struggled to defend their position. When the fleets finally separated at nightfall, both sides had suffered roughly equal casualties. However, being smaller, the allied fleet could not afford such casualties; half of the Athenian ships (the largest contingent within the fleet) were damaged or lost.

The allies returned to Artemisium, where they assessed that they would probably not be able to hold their position for another day because of the losses suffered. Consequently, a debate began as to whether they should withdraw from Artemisium while awaiting news from Thermopylae. Themistocles ordered his men to kill and roast the flocks of Euboea so that they would not fall into the hands of the Persians. Abronchius arrived with the liaison ship from Thermopylae and reported the destruction of the Allied rearguard at Thermopylae. Since holding the Straits of Artemisius no longer served any strategic purpose, and given its casualties, the fleet decided on immediate evacuation.

A boat from Histiea alerted the Persians to the retreat of the Greeks, but they did not believe it at first. After sending some ships to see if this was true and discovering that it was, the entire fleet sailed to Artemisium in the morning. The Persians then sailed to Histiea and plundered the surrounding region.

The allied fleet moved to Salamis, near the coast of Attica, to help with the evacuation of the Athenians remaining there. Along the way, Themistocles left inscriptions on all the water sources where his enemies might stop. These inscriptions were addressed to the Ionian Greeks who manned Persian ships and exhorted them to desert in favor of the allied cause. According to Herodotus, the message was as follows:

Ionian men, you are not right to make war on your fathers and elders, nor to reduce Greece to servitude. Reason wants you to take our side. And if it is no longer in your power to do so, you can at least even now withdraw yourselves from the army that is pursuing us, and ask the Carians to do what they see you doing; And if neither the one nor the other you cannot do, because you find yourselves so burdened with that yoke, and so closely bound that you cannot rise up against the Persian, what you can do without fail is, that entering into some combat, you should watch him with vigilant carelessness, bearing in mind that you are our descendants and are still the cause of the hatred which from the beginning that barbarian has charged us with. ...

After the battle of Thermopylae, the Persian army burned and sacked the Boeotian cities that had not submitted to the empire, Platea and Thespias, and then marched on the evacuated Athens. Meanwhile, the allies (mostly Peloponnesians) prepared to defend the isthmus of Corinth by demolishing the only road that crossed it and building a wall to obstruct the passage. As at Thermopylae, the success of this strategy depended on the allied navy carrying out a simultaneous blockade, preventing the transit of Persian ships through the Saronic Gulf, so that the troops could not land directly in the Peloponnese. However, instead of a simple blockade, Themistocles convinced the allies to try to achieve a decisive victory over the Persian fleet. After luring the enemy navy into the Strait of Salamis in September, the Allied fleet succeeded in destroying most of the Persian ships, virtually ending the threat to the Peloponnese.

Fearing that the Greeks would attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes retreated to Asia along with most of his men. However, before leaving, the emperor left a select force under the command of Mardonius to complete the conquest the following year. However, under pressure from Athens, the Peloponnesian allies finally agreed to test Mardonius and force him into battle, for which they marched on Attica. Mardonius retreated into Boeotia with the intention of luring the Greeks into open ground, and the two sides eventually met near the city of Platea, where a battle in August 479 BC gave the Greek army a victory. At about the same time, at the naval battle of Mycale, the Greeks annihilated most of the remnants of the Persian fleet, thus reducing the possibility of a new invasion.

In itself, the battle of Artemisius was relatively insignificant. The allies could neither defeat the Persian navy nor prevent it from further advancing along the Greek coast. On the other hand, the Persians neither destroyed the Greek fleet nor managed to diminish it irreparably. Consequently, the outcome of the battle was not decisive, which pleased neither side.

However, within the broader context of the Medical Wars, the battle was extremely important for the Allies, who had demonstrated their ability to cope with the Persian fleet, and were even victorious in some engagements. They had demonstrated their ability to cope with the Persian fleet, and were even victorious in some engagements. For many Allied crewmen, this was their first battle, and the experience gained proved invaluable in the subsequent battle of Salamis. In addition, fighting the Persians at Artemisium allowed the Greek admirals to study the performance of the invading fleet and gave them the necessary knowledge of how they could defeat it. Also, the events leading up to and during Artemisium were crucial in diminishing the size of the Persian fleet (although this was not exclusively due to military actions), so the allies' chances at the battle of Salamis were not so slim. In the words of the poet Pindar, Artemisium was "the place where the sons of Athens laid the foundation stone of freedom."


  1. Battle of Artemisium
  2. Batalla de Artemisio

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