I am just about ready to submit my Bird\'s-Eye View (BEV) and Battlescene efforts to Marcus, the Series Editor I will be working with. We have worked closely before when we were co-editors of Osprey Military Journal. I\'m not sure if that makes his power of life or death over my enterprise more or less comfortable, but he\'s a nice guy and really knows what he\'s about (and I know saying this will not influence his judgment in any way)!
For the BEVs, getting landscape and shoreline details right, has, of course, been important and that\'s where I started. But it is the questions of time and space that have become increasingly absorbing, and it has struck me how wrong it would have been to try and write the narrative of the battle before working out how to represent it graphically. The limited, fragmentary and sometimes contradictory source material has been repeatedly drawn upon over the past 130 years to produce distinctly different interpretations. They place the main action in the westernmost or easternmost areas of this 7km stretch of water, or in spaces in between, and offer almost as large a range of accounts of the manoeuvring leading up to the action. I have looked closely at most of these now and also reread the Herodotus, Aeschylus and Plutarch accounts and the important bits in Thucydides (Diodorus Siculus is still a treat in store). They provide us with fragments, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, of the full picture. Some of these fragments are richly detailed and some can even be made to interlock quite convincingly, but there is still an awful lot that has to be filled in.
As Themistocles, the Athenian leader commanding the biggest and best of the several navies that made up the Greek fleet, knew, and Eurybiades, the Spartan who was Greek admiral-in-chief and no sailor, understood, this war was going to be won or lost at sea. Barry Strauss\'s The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece - and Western Civilization (title says it all!), a thrilling, scholarly docudrama, zooms in on this fact and vividly illuminates it. Although, with all respect, I think Strauss takes Herodotus too literally, or trusts him too much, when he has the Persians cruising westward to line up on the northern side of the straits under cover of the night before the battle, his realisation is so convincing otherwise. Also, the book's annotated bibliography has been an excellent resource. On the technical side, my core text is The Athenian Trireme: The History and Construction of an Ancient Greek Warship, but our own Ancient Greek Warship 500-322BC is useful as a compact introduction.
To construct my core narrative of the battle, Campaign-style, I am now trying to coherently combine the historical sources with all the information I can gather on early 5th century naval tactics and the seagoing and combat performance of the trireme. To develop a plausible timescale for each side\'s preliminary manoeuvres and the main action, I have to mash together the dimensions of the straits at key points with the data on the ships\' performance, and best assumptions about their requirement for sea-room in action. I want to be confident enough to show graphically how the hundreds of triremes would have been spread out over the straits at different stages of the battle. This information will also be important in my briefing of the Battlescene artist, because I want one of the plates to depict what Xerxes was seeing from his golden throne as his massive fleet bore down on the Greeks.
Here is some trireme data - Length approx. 40m, beam (width) 5m with oars adding another 6m. Comfortable cruising speed under oars, 6kph. Ramming speed in short bursts 15-20kph with 170 oars at 50 strokes a minute. Sea trials of the modern reconstruction Olympias demonstrated a surprisingly high degree of manoeuvrability, turning, acceleration and deceleration. It has been calculated that an impact speed significantly below top ramming speed was sufficient to punch a hole and spring planking, rapidly disabling the target. The preferred line of attack appears to have been from astern onto the stern quarter, or at 90 degrees into the side.
An orderly initial phase, similar to the opening of a hoplite battle, would generally have been followed by a short period of fencing for openings (like a boxer\'s “duckin' & weavin'”) with attempts at larger penetration or envelopment movements, and finally a general melee. This is likened by one of Olympias\'s scholar-rowers to a WWI dogfight, in which agility and pilot reflexes were at more of a premium than sheer speed, and the fighting was mostly one- or two-on-one. Battle lines were drawn up with the dual objective of preventing the enemy bursting through or round into a favourable attacking position, and providing the best opportunities to do the same to the enemy. Battles were usually fought close to land, and islands or coasts would have been used wherever possible to secure flanks; and it was desirable to fight close to a friendly shore.
I have seen suggestions that triremes went into battle with just 3m of clear water between them, but I think that could only have worked without disaster in a naval review on a calm day. Custance (see previous post) thought 80m, two ship-lengths, but that seems too open to me, even with a line behind, staggered to cover the middle of the gaps. I believe, for now anyway, that Xerxes would have been looking at lines of 30 or so abreast as they passed in front of his position on the north shore and the tip of Cynosura promontory, but “shock and awe” considerations may have overridden best tactical practice. One central pieces of information, coming down from the very earliest source, the description of the battle in Aeschylus\'s tragedy, The Persians, is that their navy\'s numerical and qualitative advantage was cancelled out by being confined in too tight a space, which was, of course Themistocles\'s master plan…
You must be logged in to comment on this post. Click here to log in.
Submit your comment