Western civilisation has been put to the test many times but this may have been the most critical, and it happened exactly two and a half millennia ago. Here is a memorial to that day: Freedom, Barbarism, and Triremes. It begins.
Twenty-five hundred years ago this month, a Greek naval armada, composed largely of Athenian ships led by the brilliant statesman Themistocles, won a decisive victory over the massive navy of the Persian king Xerxes in the straits of Salamis. This victory effectively ended a decade of Persian efforts to subjugate the autonomous cities of ancient Greece to barbarian rule.
Commemorating this event is not antiquarianism. By preserving the freedom of the Greeks, the victory at Salamis made possible a period of human flourishing in the arts, sciences, philosophy, and politics that the world has rarely seen, one that would prove foundational to Western civilization and whose rival for significance might only be found in the Italian Renaissance. In remembering it, we remind ourselves of what makes the West both so distinct and so fragile.
When I, as a professor of political science, teach my students about an event so critical to our shared history, I try to show them how the texts of the ancient world convey both the dramatic urgency of political life and the human wisdom inherent in learning about its affairs. In reading accounts of the battle by Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, and Plutarch, I’ve often wondered about that morning two and half millennia ago—about what Themistocles was thinking in the hours and minutes leading up to a battle that he had engineered. After all, the placement and timing of this battle were largely his own doing; through subterfuge practiced on both the Persian king and his own allies he manufactured a battle on which the liberty of Greece rested.