On occupying the throne of Persia Xerxes unlike his father, did not rule with a velvet glove. His advisors Artabanus, (Darius's brother), and Mardonius, a young headstrong general, much hated by the Greeks for his cruelty towards them who at the time also believed in the impossibility of his defeat.
Athens was the major sea power among the Greeks thanks to Themistocles who going against the assembly persuaded them to use the newly found silver mines to build a strong navy rather than increase the size of the army.
Persia was not a naval power relying on hired foreign fleets manned by Egyptians, Phoenicians, Cypriotes and Ionian Greeks. The Egyptians had recently rebelled against Persia, the Phoenicians helping Persia to crush that rebellion.
Greece too did have its problems as the various city states were ever quarrelling. Next to Athens in naval power was Sparta, not a seafaring nation putting its trust in the hoplites. Then there were the many small Greek cities of both Attica and the Peloponnese who placed themselves under Themistocles. Not all were competent seamen, why even among the Athenians there were crews from Plataea who were more soldiers than sailors. It must be pointed out that there was at that time no specialized staff core for naval officers, the C/C had to be skilled in both land and sea warfare.
Reluctantly Sparta fell in with the Athenian strategy of of defending the coastal route from the plains of Thessaly to the pass at Thermoplae rathert than send troops to the easily defended Corinth isthmus.This decision has come down through history as one responsible for one of the worlds most decisive naval batttles comparaable in imprortance with: Lepanto,Quiberon bay ,Trafalgar,Jutland,Tsushima and Leyte Gulf in deciding the the position of the major parts of the world jigsaw. Lepanto in the seventeenth century for the first time guaranteeing western control of the Mediterrian ,Quiberon Bay breaking the back of French seapower thus leaving Britains Royal Navy dominant in eastward and westward sea routes,Copenhagen giving it mastery of north European waters, Trafalgar for ever ending the fear of French invasions of England ,Virginia Capes guranteeing the American colonists victory for good,Jutland for ever ending German threat of breaking out into the Atlantic with its High Seas fleet,Tushima establishing Japan as a major Asian power,Leyte making America seapower supreme in the Pacific.
At the time it may seem to some as being the wrong decision as the moving of the centre of power to the Aegean rather than the Corinthian isthmus resulted in the destruction of Athens it did allow the Athenians to use the power with which they were familiar ,the navy ,the Persians having to fight through proxies in the form of the Phonecian admirals as Persia was not a sea power.
The Persia empire covered many civilizations and tirbal groups resulting in the delegation of power to the local rulers in order ot avoid rebellion.Just to speak to the king one had to go through scores of dignataries and when eventually succesful the rules were that one had kiss the hem of the kings coat, to look the king in the eye considered a grave offence leaving one wonderting how exactly one would offer a contrary opinon.
The action opened with the Persian invasion of Thessaly and then Thrace decending upon Attica and the burning the city of Athens, the population evacuated to the island of Salamis as the Spartans made their last stand at Thermopylae.
The first naval contact was at the bay of Actinium situated on the eastern Pellopenessian coast. The Greeks ensconced themselves within the bay while the Persians attempted to outflank them in what was known as the periplous manouver,the attacking line of ships extending its frontage until it was possible to move to the rear of the defending fleet. An act of a god blew up a storm destroying the Persian right flank. The Persian then made a frontal attack which although it did break through was of no avail as their left flank was destroyed by the Greek second line. The storm again blew up making the Persians desist in order to ride out the storm. The next day with the dying down of the storm the Persians now faced a reinforced Greek fleet which held them but then, with the news of the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae, broke of the action as they knew the Persian army would soon be upon them.
Themistocles now proposed that they make at stand at Salamis using the confined space of one of its bays to negate the Persian advantage in numbers. Adeimantus of Corinth had rejected this plan. Themistocles countered by informing him that they, the Athenians, would take themselves and their families to Siri’s, an Athenian colony in Italy, leaving the Corinthians to defend their homeland single handed. Adeimantus succumbed; knowing that without the Athenians Corinth would be destroyed.
Adeimantus now prepared to engage the Persians within a small bay south of the island of Euboea in the Straits of Salamis while Themistocles sent a messenger to Xerxes, feigning betrayal, informing him that the Greeks intended to flee and that unless he acted now he would lose the opportunity to defeat them. Themistocles feigning to go over to the Persian side had advised the King via messanger that if he sould put his fleet in the bay of Actinium so as to destroy the smaller Athenian fleet before the arrival of reinforcements.
Dawn broke to find Xerxes sitting upon his portable throne overlooking the sea prepared to relish his victory over the defiant Greeks. His vast armada sailed into the narrow straits between Salamis and the coast. A well-ordered line of Greek triremes met his fleet. Themistocles drew his line of ships across the channel off the south slope of mount Aegaleas situated in a narrow portion of the bay close to shore. This forced the Persians to limit the length of their line. The Corinthian squadron, hidden from view in the early morning mist moved to the west channel in order to prevent a surprise attack coming from the west as the Persian ships sailed serenely by in three lines. As they approached the channel the Persian force broke in to two columns, their Egyptians allies sent to block the western channel which had been left unguarded but for the small force, too late as the Corinthians were already on their way there.
The Phoenicians main force now approached from the south east, their line forming a slight outwards arch, their Greek Ionian allies on the left separated from the main force by the island of Psytaleia. The loyal Greek ships made first contact, their weight proving deadly in the ensuing ramming attacks, the Persian advantage in speed and manoeuvrability now negated due to the south east wind direction which pushed them into the line of compact Athenian triremes.
Persian oars were sheered, marines landed on their decks fighting hand to hand with the opposing soldiers and rowers who now had abandoned their oars. The Greek triremes were fitted with bow rams while the Persians put their faith in the War Galley, a large bulky ponderous vessel designed especially for the carrying of troops or horses. Slowly over an eight hour period the right flank of the Phoenicians was turned, their centre burned and sunk. The Ionian Greeks on the left recognizing the warning signs deserted their Phoenician allies. According to Herodotus Xerxes left behind 300,000 of his best Persian soldiers as he and the fleet departed for Asia Minor. The remaining Persian army were allowed to make their way back to Asia overland as it was realized that to fight such a vast horde would have caused untold havoc upon Attic and even upon Peloponnesian Greece.
A Persian victory at Salamis would have put Athens in the position of having to surrender to Xerxes as once his army had a landing litoral it would have been imposible for the smaller Greek forces composed of many nations to hold back the power of the mighty Persian Empire, an empire still in existence now refered to as Iran.Would we have inherited a world where the rulers of Europe would have had to kiss the Iranian leaders hem, would there have been a Phonecian expedition to the new world where it was placed under the domain of the sucessor of Darius ,Xerxes etcetera?
Bibliography A history of warfare.John Keegan . Western Civilization .Jackson V. Spielvogel