On this date, August 27th*, nearly 2500 years ago, the straits of Artemisium came alive with the creak of oar-locks and the bellow of horns. Countless voices raised the paean, the battle-hymn of Athena, to the heavens. As the song reached its crescendo bronze-sheathed rams found their marks, splintering hulls and snapping oars. And so began the Greeks’ three-day clash against the numerically superior armada of Great King Xerxes of Persia, for control of the waters off the northern shore of Euboea—and ultimately, for control of Hellas, itself.
By any measure, the Persian fleet was monolithic: twelve-hundred triremes drawn from across eleven maritime provinces. Rival Greeks of Ionia and Caria, dusky Egyptians, and bloody-handed Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon fought alongside marines drafted from inner Asia, native Persians, Medians, and the vicious axmen of the Sacae. Against this, the three hundred triremes mustered by the allied Hellenes must have seemed inadequate to the point of hilarity. But the wily Athenian politician and strategist, Themistokles, architect of the defenses at Artemisium and nearby Thermopylae, had chosen his position well.
“Artemisium,” writes classicist Barry Strauss, “was usually a sleepy place: a scene of blue water, a sandy beach, and dark green and silver-gray groves of pine and olive.” It takes its name from a small temple sacred to Artemis-of-the-Dawn, perched like an expectant lover on a hilltop overlooking the six-mile wide strait dividing Euboea from the monster-haunted wilderness of Magnesia. It was well-watered and provided shelter from frequent storms; what’s more, should any enemy try to sail into either the Malian Gulf on Thermopylae’s seaward flank or the Euripos Sound, that channel of calm seas dividing Euboea from the mainland, they would leave themselves exposed to attack.
“Pray to the winds,” the oracle of Apollo at Delphi told the allied Greeks. And pray they did. Nor, it seems, did the gods ignore them. Five days before the battle a savage storm arose, a “Hellespontian”; for three days the winds howled and raised the seas “like a pot on the boil” (Herodotus, VII. 188). Exposed against the rocky Magnesian coast, the Persian fleet suffered grievous losses—as many as four hundred ships ripped from their moorings and shattered against the shore. The gods leveled the field somewhat, but the Persian fleet still outnumbered the Greeks.
Two days later, on the 27th of August, even as the pass of Thermopylae echoed with the crash and slither of bronze and the screams of the dying, Themistokles led the Greeks out into the straits of Artemisium . . .
Book VIII of The Histories of Herodotus is our chief source on both Artemisium and Thermopylae. You can read the full account, and about the aftermath, here.
If you’ll permit me a bit of self-promotion . . . since today, by one reckoning, is the anniversary of Artemisium I thought it the most fitting day to announce my newest project for Medallion Press: The Serpent of Hellas: A Tale of Artemisium. It explores the battle through the eyes of Nikomachos son of Agamedes, a young kinsman of Themistokles’. He is witness to both the savage sea-borne fighting and the no less brutal political machinations of the Greek commanders: the Spartan Eurybiades, who shares nothing of the valor displayed by the defenders of Thermopylae; Adeimantus of Corinth, who would sell his city as a pander sells flesh . . . to the highest bidder, and the most cunning politician of them all, Themistokles himself, whose arsenal includes bluff, bribery, and outright intimidation. Still, Nikomachos doesn’t quail. Young and full of rage, he has come to Artemisium to dine at the table of Vengeance, to settle the score for the deaths of his father and brother ten years earlier, on the plain of Marathon.
The Serpent of Hellas is scheduled to be released in August of 2011.
*Like any ancient date, there is some debate over whether it was the last of August or September. In this, I’m following the lead of Barry Strauss.