About the same time the Persian fleet arrived in the bay of Phalerum. Its strength is not accurately known, but it must have exceeded 1000 vessels. The combined Grecian fleet at Salamis consisted of 366 ships, of which 200 were Athenian.
At this critical juncture dissension reigned in the Grecian fleet. In the council of war which had been summoned by Eurybiades the Spartan commander, Themistocles urged the assembled chiefs to remain at Salamis, and give battle to the Persians in the narrow straits, where the superior numbers of the Persians would be of less consequence. The Peloponnesian commanders, on the other hand, were anxious that the fleet should be removed to the isthmus of Corinth, and thus be put in communication with their land-forces. The council came to a vote in favour of retreat; but Themistocles prevailed upon Eurybiades to convene another assembly upon the following day. When the council met, the Peloponnesian commanders loudly expressed their dissatisfaction at seeing a debate re-opened which they had deemed concluded. Adimantus, the Corinthian admiral broke out into open rebukes and menaces. "Themistocles," he exclaimed, "those who rise at the public games before the signal are whipped." "True," replied Themistocles; "but they who lag behind it never win a crown." Another incident in this discussion has been immortalized by Plutarch. Eurybiades, incensed by the language of Themistocles, lifted up his stick to strike him, whereupon the Athenian exclaimed, "Strike, but hear me!" Themistocles repeated his arguments and entreaties; and at length threatened that he and the Athenians would sail away to Italy and there found a new city, if the Peloponnesians still determined to retreat. Eurybiades now gave way and issued orders for the fleet to remain and fight at Salamis; but the Peloponnesians obeyed the order with reluctance. A third council was summoned and Themistocles, perceiving that the decision of the assembly would be against him, determined to effect his object by stratagem. He secretly despatched a trusty slave with a message to Xerxes, representing the dissensions which prevailed in the Grecian fleet, and how easy a matter it would be to surround and vanquish an armament both small and disunited. Xerxes readily adopted the suggestion, and ordered his captains to close up the straits of Salamis at both ends during the night. On the council assembling in the morning, Aristides arrived with the news that the Grecian fleet was completely surrounded by that of the Persians, and that retreat was no longer possible. As the veil of night rolled gradually away, the Persian fleet was discovered stretching as far as the eye could reach along the coast of Attica. The Grecian fleet, being concentrated in the harbour of Salamis, was thus surrounded by the Persians. Xerxes had caused a lofty throne to be erected upon one of the projecting declivities of Mount AEgaleos, opposite the harbour of Salamis, whence be could survey the combat, and stimulate by his presence the courage of his men.
As a battle was now inevitable the Grecian commanders lost no time in making preparations for the encounter. The Greek seamen embarked with alacrity, encouraging one another to deliver their country, their wives, and children, and the temples of their gods, from the grasp of the barbarians. History has preserved to us but few details of the engagement. The Persian fleet, with the exception of some of the Ionic contingents, fought with courage. But the very numbers on which they so confidently relied, proved one of the chief causes of their defeat. Too crowded either to advance or to retreat, their oars broken or impeded by collision with one another, their fleet lay like an inert and lifeless mass upon the water, and fell an easy prey to the Greeks. A single incident will illustrate the terror and confusion which reigned among the Persians. Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus in Caria, distinguished herself in it by deeds of daring bravery. At length she turned and fled, pursued by an Athenian galley. Full in her course lay the vessel of a Carian prince. Instead of avoiding, she struck and sunk it, sending her countryman and all his crew to the bottom. The captain of the Athenian galley, believing from this act that she was a deserter from the Persian cause, suffered her to escape. Xerxes, who from his lofty throne beheld the feat of the Halicarnassian queen, but who imagined that the sunken ship belonged to the Greeks, was filled with admiration at her courage, and exclaimed --"My men are become women, my women men!"
Two hundred of the Persian ships were destroyed and sunk when night put an end to the engagement. But notwithstanding this loss the fleet was still formidable by its numbers. The Greeks themselves did not regard the victory as decisive, and prepared to renew the combat. But the pusillanimity of Xerxes relieved them from all further anxiety. He became alarmed for his own personal safety; and his whole care was now centred on securing his retreat by land. The best troops were disembarked from the ships, and marched towards the Hellespont, in order to secure the bridge, whilst the fleet itself was ordered to make for Asia. These dispositions of Xerxes were prompted by Mardonius. He represented to his master that the defeat, after all, was but slight; that having attained one of the great objects of the expedition by the capture of Athens, he might now retire with honour, and even with glory; and that for the rest he (Mardonius) would undertake to complete the conquest of Greece with 300,000 men. While the Persian fleet sailed towards Asia, Xerxes set out on his homeward march. In Thessaly Mardonius selected the 300,000 men with whom he proposed to conclude the war; but as autumn was now approaching, he resolved to postpone all further operations till the spring.
After forty-five days' march from Attica, Xerxes again reached the shores of the Hellespont, with a force greatly diminished by famine and pestilence. On the Hellespont he found his fleet, but the bridge had been washed away by storms. Landed on the shores of Asia, the Persian army at length obtained abundance of provisions, and contracted new maladies by the sudden change from privation to excess. Thus terminated this mighty but unsuccessful expedition.
Greece owed its salvation to one man--Themistocles, This was virtually admitted by the leaders of the other Grecian states, when they assembled to assign the prizes of wisdom and conduct. Upon the altar of Poseidon, at the isthmus of Corinth, each chief deposited a ticket inscribed with two names, of those whom he considered entitled to the first and second prizes. But in this adjudication vanity and self-love defeated their own objects. Each commander had put down his own name for the first prize; for the second, a great majority preponderated in favour of Themistocles. From the Spartans, also, Themistocles received the honours due to his merit. A crown of olive was conferred upon him, together with one of the most splendid chariots which the city could produce.
On the very same day on which the Persians were defeated at Salamis the Sicilian Greeks also obtained a victory over the Carthaginians. There is reason to believe that the invasion of Sicily by the Carthaginians was concerted with Xerxes, and that the simultaneous attach on two distinct Grecian peoples, by two immense armaments, was not merely the result of chance. Gelon, the powerful ruler of Syracuse, defeated Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general, with the loss it is said of 150,000 men.
In the spring of B.C. 479 Mardonius prepared to open the campaign. He was not without hopes of inducing the Athenians to join the Persian alliance, and he despatched Alexander, king of Macedon, to conciliate the Athenians, now partially re-established in their dilapidated city. His offers on the part of the Persians were of the most seductive kind; but the Athenians dismissed him with a positive refusal, whilst to the Lacedaemonians they protested that no temptations, however great, should ever induce them to desert the common cause of Greece and freedom. In return for this disinterested conduct all they asked was that a Peloponnesian army should be sent into Boeotia for the defence of the Attic frontier: a request which the Spartan envoys promised to fulfil. No sooner, however, had they returned into their own country than this promise was completely forgotten.