The Classic Ship | Part 2: The Battle of Artemision

When the news of the Greek victory at Marathon (490 BCE) came to the Persian king Darius the Great, he first sent heralds to Hellas to demand earth and water—the usual token of submission—which he received from many cities of Greece. [1] He instructed Ionia and the islands to build ships and to enroll their best men for service against Hellas.

King Darius died, and the royal power descended to his son Xerxes, who was not his oldest son, but born later when his father was king, thus having the right of the succession to the kingship. After being persuaded to send an expedition against Hellas, Xerxes first marched against the Ionian rebels. [2] He subdued them and by 483 BCE was arriving in Hellas by land and by sea.

The Greeks had prepared themselves for the Persian invasion by forming the Hellenic League. Sparta and Athens took a leading role in joining together 70 of the 700 city-states, many of which were still technically at war with each other. They were planning to stop the Persians that came by land at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. To prevent the Persians bypassing Thermopylae by sea, the Athenian and Allied navies planned to block the straits of Artemision. The southern shore of this strait, on the northwest coast of Euboea, is a promontory which took its name from the ancient sanctuary of Artemis Proseoia.

Battle of Thermopylae and movements to Salamis
Figure 1: The battles of Thermopylae and Artemision, 480 BCE, and the movements to Salamis


The Athenian strategos Themistoklẽs had persuaded the Athenians to build 200 triremes; ostensibly to stay ahead of the rival and neighbor Aegina, but with a view to the future threat of Persia. In 483 BCE, when the invasion had first started, Athens had 180 triremes, while the Greeks of the federation against the Persians contributed about 200 triremes. [3]

Only part of this fleet was relocated to Cape Artemision: the remainder of the fleet stayed at Salamis, in support of the backup plan, which was to defend the Isthmus of Corinth. Of the total contingent of 378 ships [4], the Athenians mobilized 127 to Artemision. Herodotus tells us:

Corinthians furnished forty ships and the Megarians twenty; the Chalcidians manned twenty, the Athenians furnishing the ships; the Aeginetans eighteen, the Sicyonians twelve, the Lacedaemonians ten, the Epidaurians eight, the Eretrians seven, the Troezenians five, the Styrians two, and the Ceans two, and two fifty-oared barks; the Opuntian Locrians brought seven fifty-oared barks [5]

To preserve some cohesion in the alliance, the Athenians, who were the most capable of all Greeks in marine affairs, awarded the command of the fleet to Eurybiades of Sparta, thus entrusting the safety of the Athenian seamen to Spartan command. [6]

In the 5th century BCE, the trireme was the largest and most powerful battle ship. It had replaced the traditional fifty-oared pentekontoros which was operated by one bank of rowers on each side of the ship; an arrangement that was called monokrotos.

Probably some time after 900 BCE the deck of this type of ship was widened in such a way that it extended outboard. This overhanging deck was supported by an outboard structure, the parexeiresia [7] and it ran from the reinforced catheads [epōtides] in the forebody, towards the steering station aft. The purpose of widening the ship was to accommodate an additional file [stoichos] of rowers on a level that was slightly raised above the level of the traditional fifty oars. These upper-level oarsmen were called the thranites. A vessel with such two-banked arrangement was called dikrotos, diērēs or, later, bireme (from the Latin).

Lastly, anywhere between 700 BCE and 525 BCE, another level of oarsmen was introduced.  The resulting, now three-banked, ship was the trikrotos, triērēs—or trireme (from the Latin); a large kataphraktos with three banks of oars on each side of the ship. [8] The operators of the lower-level oars, named thalamites, were accommodated in an enclosed space [thalamos] and they operated their oars through ports in the hull, quite close to the waterline of the ship.

Greek trireme showing positions of oarsmen
Figure 2: Depiction of the position and angle of the rowers in a trireme [9]

If every rowing bench was manned then the ship was operated by about twenty-seven thranite rowers [10], twenty-seven zygite [11] and twenty-seven thalamite [12] rowers, on each side of the ship, totaling to some 162 nautai on each Athenian “fast” trireme. Ship-to-ship contact was the preferred naval tactic of Themistoklẽs. For that reason the ships of Athens were built for speed and maneuverability. Each Athenian trireme carried a minimal number of fighting personnel only: ten marines and four archers.

The early trireme was a relatively unseaworthy hull, less suitable for harsh weather conditions, and appended with a bronze, or iron, ram [embolos, chalkoma] fitted to the cutwater [steira]. The fanlike stern post [aphlaston, akrostolion or akroterion] was made up of timbers, the extremities of which curved forward. The heroic decorations were gradually replaced by the ornamental stylis.

In the Persian Wars, some of the smaller parties of the Allied forces still operated the fifty-oared pentekontoros, but now in the form of a bark; a ship of burden: they contributed nine pentekontoroi at Artemision and four at Salamis.

Back to the scene of action. When the Persian Fleet started the invasion of Hellas, Xerxes’ plan was to form a bridge over the Hellespont to transport the Persian troops from Asia to Europe:

“It is my intent to bridge the Hellespont and lead my army through Europe to Hellas, so I may punish the Athenians for what they have done to the Persians and to my father” [13]

When Xerxes understood the calamity which had taken place, he feared that some of the Ionians might advise the Hellenes, if they did not think of it themselves, to sail to the Hellespont and destroy the bridges [14]

But building the bridge was not an easy task. Xerxes was enraged because of all the failures:

When Xerxes heard of this, he was very angry and commanded that the Hellespont be whipped with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea. I have even heard that he sent branders with them to brand the Hellespont… He commanded that the sea receive these punishments and that the overseers of the bridge over the Hellespont be beheaded. [15]

Illustration: Xerxes lashing the sea
Figure 3:  Xerxes’ alleged “punishment” of the Hellespont

After these quite improbable events, deservedly ridiculed by Aeschylus [16], the fleet indeed put to sea and proceeded in westerly direction, following the coastline of Thrace [17] towards the Macedonian city of Therma [18]. After that they navigated along the mountainous coast of Magnesia, where is also Mount Olympus.

The Persians advanced slowly, taking regular stops to pull their ships ashore, to dewater them and to dry the leaky hulls. The season was not favorable to them, and while at anchor in the shallow waters off Mount Pelion [19], the fleet was hit by a “tempest” and partly shattered even before the battle even began:

The Persian fleet put to sea and reached the beach of the Magnesian land, between the city of Casthanaea and the headland of Sepia. The first ships to arrive moored close to land, with the others after them at anchor; since the beach was not large, they lay at anchor in rows eight ships deep out into the sea. They spent the night in this way, but at dawn a storm descended upon them out of a clear and windless sky, and the sea began to boil. A strong east wind blew, which the people living in those parts call Hellespontian.

Those who felt the wind rising or had proper mooring dragged their ships up on shore ahead of the storm and so survived with their ships. The wind did, however, carry those ships caught out in the open sea against the rocks called the Ovens at Pelion or onto the beach. Some ships were wrecked on the Sepian headland, others were cast ashore at the city of Meliboea or at Casthanaea. The storm was indeed unbearable. [20]

The incident is recounted in a wonderful story that comes to us through Pausanius:

Beside the Gorgias is a votive offering of the Amphiktyones, representing Skyllis of Scione, who, the story [phēmē] says, dived into the very deepest parts of every sea. He also taught his daughter Hydna to dive. When the fleet of Xerxes was attacked by a violent storm off Mount Pelion, father and daughter completed its destruction by dragging away under the sea the anchors and any other security the triremes had. In return for this deed, the Amphiktyones dedicated statues of Skyllis and his daughter. [21]

The remainder of the Persian fleet, which initially numbered 1207 triremes [22], continued their journey south, aiming to find refuge in the bay of Aphetae.

Figure 4:  Depiction of a Greek trireme

By then, most likely the Greek allies had safely beached their ships at the headland of Artemision, ready to quickly launch them as needed. However, even after fourteen days, the Persian fleet had not shown up and the Greek allies decided to sail to Chalcis, halfway down on the western coast of Euboea. Around ten days later, the Persian land army arrived at Thermopylae, choosing not to attack, but to wait for the Persian fleet to arrive. After the arrival of the Persian Fleet, they were expected to enter the Gulf of Euboea and to overrun the villages on the coast of Euboea.

When the Persian fleet finally arrived, however, another summer gale broke, driving the Persian fleet onto the mountainous coast north of Aphetae. The storm lasted two days, wrecking approximately one third of the Persian ships. The day after the storm, the Persian fleet finally appeared through the Gap of Sciathos, and began mooring on the coast opposite Artemision, at Aphetae. The Greek allies now had their first engagements with the enemy:

But the Greeks, when the signal was given them, first drew the sterns of their ships together, their prows turned towards the foreigners; then at the second signal they put their hands to the work, despite the fact that they were hemmed in within a narrow space and were fighting face-to-face. [23]

… They fought that sea-fight with doubtful issue, and nightfall ended the battle; the Greeks sailed back to Artemisium, and the barbarians to Aphetae, after faring far below their hopes in the fight. In that battle …

When darkness came on, the season being then midsummer, there was abundance of rain all through the night and violent thunderings from Pelion. The dead and the wrecks were driven towards Aphetae, where they were entangled with the ships’ prows and jumbled the blades of the oars. The ships crews who were there were dismayed by the noise of this, and considering their present bad state, expected utter destruction; for before they had recovered from the shipwreck and the storm off Pelion, they next endured a stubborn sea-fight, and after the sea-fight, rushing rain and mighty torrents pouring seaward and violent thunderings. [24]

The strategy of the Athenian commander Themistoklẽs was to delay the Persians while the island of Euboea was being evacuated. The Persians then sent a detachment of 200 ships around the southern extremity of Euboea, hoping to isolate the Greeks in the straits. A Persian defector, the ambitious diver Skyllias, dove into the sea at Aphetae and swam—underwater—to Artemision, to warn the Greeks against this plan. [25]

A Greek squadron sailed out from Aphetae to meet the Persians ships. The Persians consequently dispatched a number of ships to intercept the Greeks. The Greek triremes surrounded these ships, and even though they were in the minority, they were able to defeat them, with the help of the rams on the bow of their ships. Thirty Persian ships were captured. The Persian fleet retreated for the night, and all the 200 Persian ships that were still en route to Euboea were destroyed in a sudden violent storm that same night. The next day another fifty-three Athenian ships arrived, and a Greek surprise attack destroyed some Persian reconnaissance ships. The two sides fought all day, with roughly equal losses; however, the smaller Allied fleet could not afford the losses.

The next day the Persians sailed towards the Greek fleet in the form of a semi-circle [mēnoeidēs kýklos] [26] in an effort to enclose them off the coast of Artemision. Here, however, the size of the Persian fleet was against them, as they were unable to maneuver in the straits and a large part of the fleet was destroyed by the Greeks. Five Greek ships were imprisoned by the Egyptian contingent, while the Athenian Cleinias, the father of Alcibiades, himself sank a large number of Persian ships.

After these sea battles the news broke through that King Leonidas of Sparta was defeated at Thermopylae, after which the Allies decided to withdraw their ships to Salamis. The Persians moved on to Phocis and Boeotia, leaving great devastation in their wake, and eventually went into Attica where they captured Athens, which had been evacuated.

However, as mentioned in the previous post, The Classic Ship | Part 1: The Persian Wars and the maritime supremacy of Athens, the Athenians attributed the North wind, Boreas, with destroying part of the Persian fleet, and built a temple for him. [27]


[1] Herodotus Histories , ed. A. D. Godley, 7.131.1

[2] Herodotus The Histories, Volume 5

[3] Herodotus The Histories, 7.144

[4] The total number of ships, besides the fifty-oared boats, was 380, but 2 deserted at Artemesion. [Herodotus, The Histories, 8.48, 8.82]

[5] Herodotus The Histories, 8.1

[6] Herodotus The Histories, 8.2

[7] Parexeiresia: outside the eiresia, the oarbank. The parexeiresia accommodated the tholepins [skalmoi] for the thranite oars.

[8] Larger units came in use as of 399 BCE, when Dionysus, ruler of Syracuse, introduced the tetrērēs “fours” and the pentrērēs “fives”.

[9] The drawing of Eric Gaba as shown in Figure 2 shows not only the position and angle of the rowers in a trireme, but also the form of the parexeiresia, projecting from the deck.

[10] Thranite: upper-level oarsman.

[11] Zygitai: the rowers in the middle row, named after the beams [zygoi] on which they sat.

[12] Thalamite: lower-level oarsman. The meaning of thalamos is “inner room, or chamber”, as Odyssey 1.425 (bedroom of Telemachus), Odyssey 4.310 (bedroom of lovely Helen and Menelaos) and Iliad 6.288 (store room).

[13] Herodotus The Histories, 7.8B

[14] Herodotus The Histories, 8.97

[15] Herodotus The Histories, 7.35

[16] Aeschylus deservedly ridicules the idea of a bridge in The Persians, 472 BCE: “Atossa: By a clever device he yoked the Hellespont so as to gain a passage. Ghost of Darius: What! Did he succeed in closing the mighty Bosporus? Atossa: Yes indeed. One of the divine powers must have assisted him in his purpose. [Aeschylus, The Persians 722–724]

[17] The peninsula of Athos was on the invasion route of Xerxes, who spent three years excavating the Xerxes Canal across the isthmus to allow the passage of his invasion fleet (Warry, J. 1998 Warfare in the Classical World page 35. Salamander Book Ltd., London )

[18] The city of Therma derived her name from the Greek thérmē/thérma, “(malarial) fever”. Therma was later renamed Thessalonica by Cassander.

[19] Mount Pelion took its name from the mythical king Peleus, father of Achilles. Furthermore, it is said that Jason built the Argo at the foot of Mount Pelion.

[20] Herodotus, The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley), 7.188.

[21] Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.19.1.

[22] The Persian Fleet numbered 1,207 warships, of which 207 were “fast ships. [Aeschylus, The Persians, Herodotus The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley) 7.89]

[23] The kýklos is a naval tactic in which a fleet would defend itself by forming a circular formation with their rams out and sterns inward. The formation carried the potential for a concentrated counter-attack against a fleet of enemies. A variant was the half-circle, or moon shaped formation, mēnoeidēs kýklos

[24] Herodotus, The Histories, ed. A. D. Godley, 8.11–8.12.

[25] The defector was one Skyllias, a man of Scione; “he was the best diver of the time, and in the shipwreck at Pelion he had saved for the Persians much of their possessions and gotten much for himself in addition; this Scyllias had before now, it would seem, intended to desert to the Greeks, but he never had had so fair an occasion as now. By what means he did at last make his way to the Greeks, I cannot with exactness say. If the story is true, it is marvelous indeed, for it is said that he dove into the sea at Aphetae and never rose to the surface till he came to Artemision”. Herodotus, The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley), 8.8

[26] A variant of the kýklos, a naval tactic in which a fleet would defend itself by forming a circular formation, with their rams out and stern inwards, was the half-circle, or moon-shaped formation, mēnoeidēs kýklos.

[27] Boreas was also significant due to Athenian interest in Thrace’s strategical importance on the trade route to the Black Sea and its impact on Athenian grain, lumber, and mineral supplies.


Aeschylus, Persians. Smyth, Herbert Weir Ph. D. 1926. Aeschylus, with an English translation by Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph. D. in two volumes. 1. Persians. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. Available online at Perseus.

Butera, C.J. 2010. “The Land of the Fine Triremes:” Naval Identity and Polis imaginary in 5th Century Athens. Department of Classical Studies, Duke University. Available online.

Casson, Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. Available online at Project MUSE, Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore

Coates, John F. 1990. “Research and Engineering Aspects of Reconstructing the Ancient Greek Trireme Warship”. SNAME Transactions, Vol 98, 1990, pages 239–262. Available online.

The Histories. Selections from Volume 5. translated by Godley, A.D. 1920. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. Available online at Perseus.

The Histories. Selections from Volume 7. translated by Godley, A. D.  1920. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. Available online at Perseus.

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Pausanias, Description of Greece Scroll 10. Translation based on the original rendering by W.H.S. Jones, 1913 (Scroll 2 with H.A. Ormerod), edited, with revisions, by Gregory Nagy. Available online at CHS.

Stuart-Jones, H and Powell, J.E. 1942. Thucydides Historiae in two volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Warry, John. 1998 Warfare in the Classical World. London, Salamander Book Ltd..

Image credits

Figure 1: Battle of Thermopylae and movements to Salamis, 480 BC. The Department of History, United States Military Academy public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 2: Cut of a Greek trireme, an antic combat galley, following the last archaeological discoveries about this type of ship. Own work of Eric Gaba (2005); based upon a drawing of Jean Taillardat in La Trière athénienne et la guerre sur mer aux Ve et IVe siècles, 1968. Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Figure 3: An artist’s illustration depicting Xerxes’ alleged “punishment” of the Hellespont. Photograph taken from a 1909 print. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Figure 4: Depiction of a Greek trireme: Ancient and Medieval Warfare: The History of the Strategies, Tactics, and Leadership of Classical Warfare, New Jersey, United States: Avery Publishing Group, 1984. Mitchell, Department of History, United States Military Academy. Wikimedia Commons, public domain


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