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Historian breathes life into an ancient battle

The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization, By Barry Strauss Simon & Schuster, 294 pp., illustrated, $25

In Athens, late in the summer of 480 BC, an invading Persian army burned the wooden temple that crowned the Acropolis -- where now stands the Parthenon, its successor temple and an icon of this summer's Olympics.

Fortunately, the city's 100,000 residents had already been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis and were prepared, if necessary, to flee westward to Italy. That they did not have to do so lay in the outcome of the naval battle that they watched from the cliffs of Salamis on Sept. 25.

In the hands of Cornell University historian Barry Strauss, the story of the battle is a military epic of the first order. It also explains the battle's role in determining the fate of Western civilization.

Strauss does not just detail the grand strategies and bold tactics as two civilizations clashed in the narrow waters of a mile-wide strait. What captures the reader's imagination is how vividly Strauss brings forward the events of 2,500 years ago, breathing life into the men -- and one warrior queen -- involved in them.

There are heroic figures, as would be expected. On the Greek side there is Themistocles, a master of tactics -- and of disinformation -- who, Strauss writes, "arranged the perfect battle." And on the Persian side, there is the overreaching emperor Xerxes and his warrior-queen ally, Artemesia.

Strauss is also a good storyteller, portraying the 170 anonymous rowers in each of the triremes, fighting machines about 130 feet long -- 660 on the Persian side and probably just short of 370 on the Greek side. There were perhaps 200,000 men involved in the battle. The crews sweated so much in such confined quarters that they were "the dead giveaway of the approach of a trireme fleet. The odor could be detected a mile or more away if the wind was blowing."

What brought the two fleets to Salamis was the advance of Xerxes's army out of Asia and across the Hellespont, the modern Dardanelles, in May. Then, in late August, the Persians broke through a valiant Spartan force at Thermopylae, opening the way to Athens, 90 miles to the southeast.

After sacking Athens, the Persian army was poised to move toward Corinth and Sparta, fellow members of the Hellenic League. And while, as Strauss writes, it would have been an "obvious move" for the Greek navy to join the defenders near Corinth, Themistocles saw a chance for a victory at Salamis.

Fighting in the narrow waters between the island and the Persian-occupied Attica coast would give tactical advantage to the slower, heavier Greek triremes against the faster Persians in a "deadly dance," the dangerous maneuver of diekplous, or "rowing through and out," in which a trireme or a line of triremes would row through the enemy line, then turn and ram enemy ships in their vulnerable stern quarters.

To arrange this perfect battle, Themistocles employed a clever piece of misinformation to keep the non-Athenian elements of the Greek fleet from leaving before the battle -- and to lure the Persians into a trap. He secretly sent a trusted aide to tell Xerxes that the Greek council of war on Salamis was in disarray, that triremes from Sparta and Corinth were on the point of slipping out for their home waters, so that the Persians' chance of a complete victory depended on them attacking at once.

Strauss marvels that Xerxes fell for this ruse -- there may have been intimations that Themistocles was ready to turn traitor -- but the Persian leader ordered his fleet to move before dawn. When word reached the Greek captains that the Persian fleet was approaching, they, too, prepared for battle rather than for flight.

The battle raged for most of the day and ended with the Persians routed. As Themistocles had thought, the fighting conditions worked remarkably well on the Greeks' behalf. After some rear-guard actions, the Persians withdrew to Asia.

Strauss's narrative is helped in two ways. The book contains 17 excellent maps, which are so vital in a military history but are often so lacking. Then, there are the prime sources. Herodotus, the first great historian, wrote his account 50 years after the battle, able to speak, Strauss writes, with veterans of both sides. And there was a witness, the dramatist Aeschylus, who probably fought at Salamis and describes the events in his play "The Persians."

It detracts nothing from Strauss to give the last word to Aeschylus, describing the fate of the Persian rowers as their ships were destroyed: "And then they struck them with broken oars/

And the fragments of shipwrecks and/ They boned them, like tuna or some catch of fish."

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