On the 2,500th anniversary of a historic Athenian victory, rising tensions with Turkey remind Greece of its role as Europe’s gatekeeper
It’s unusual for a modern Greek audience to punctuate an ancient tragedy with applause. But in July, a production of Aeschylus’ “The Persians” by the National Theatre of Greece, presented in the splendor of the ancient theater of Epidauros, was applauded three times on its final night, with the prime minister in attendance. The play relates the Greeks’ stunning victory at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., where 300 Greek ships defeated an invading Persian fleet four times larger. The historic triumph secured Athenian naval power in the Aegean and established Athenian-inspired democracies across Greece.
The performance was one of several celebratory events planned for the 2,500th anniversary of Salamis. Amid fears of a second wave of coronavirus, Greek authorities aren’t sure how many of them will come to fruition by Sept. 29, the presumed date of the battle. But just days before the performance at Epidauros, Greece braced for a repetition of the battle itself.
On July 21, Turkey announced that its seismic survey ship, the Oruc Reis, would cross into Greek waters to look for undersea oil and gas. For two days, the Greek and Turkish navies deployed in battle positions across the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, before a German intervention led Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to announce that the mission would be postponed. Tension over maritime territory has been building for years in the Aegean, and few, if any, Greeks believe the danger to have peaked. On Aug. 13, Greece held joint naval and air force exercises in the Aegean with France, the only EU country that seems prepared to offer military assistance in the event of war. And Greece continues to seek military assistance from Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Ever since Salamis, the Greeks have considered themselves Europe’s eastern gatekeeper. Aeschylus, himself a veteran of the battle, stressed the difference between the political systems of democratic Athens and monarchical Persia. At this summer’s performance of “The Persians,” the audience erupted with applause when the Persian queen Atossa asked of the Greeks, “Who is their master and commander of their armies?” and the chorus leader answered, “They call themselves nobody’s slaves, nor do they obey any man.”
But of course the Greeks, too, had a chain of command. The architect of the victory at Salamis was the young Athenian general Themistocles, who neutralized the Persians’ numerical superiority by forcing them to fight in the confines of the narrow strait between the island of Salamis and the port of Piraeus. Using strategic deception, Themistocles sent a messenger to inform Xerxes, the Persian king, that the Greek fleet was about to flee under cover of darkness. The ancient historian Herodotus tells us that Xerxes’ ships blockaded the strait and his men sat at oar all night. In the morning, a section of the Greek fleet feinted at escape; the bleary-eyed Persians pursued them, believing they were moving in for the kill. Once the Persian fleet was massed inside the strait, their quarry turned and attacked, while the rest of the Greek fleet moved in from the flanks.
Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed that Themistocles’ leadership in peacetime was just as great as his generalship in war. An excavation in Piraeus by the Danish Institute has unearthed the sheds that housed the Athenian attack ships, called triremes because of their three banks of oarsmen. Bjorn Lovén, who leads the excavation, found potsherds in the foundations of the sheds which, he says, date them to the two decades before or after the battle. Mr. Lovén believes it “very likely” that the sheds were part of a 200-trireme rearmament program that Themistocles instigated three years before the battle, after a particularly rich silver vein was discovered at the Athenian state mines in Laurion.
Mr. Lovén’s discoveries, which will be part of a commemorative Salamis exhibition at the Hellenic Maritime Museum in September, reinforce ancient accounts of Themistocles as not only a master strategist but a visionary politician who created the Athenian navy and cemented Athenian democracy. “All social classes rowed and fought from triremes at the Battle of Salamis. I strongly believe that this pivotal battle created an immensely strong bond among the majority of Athens’ citizens. This is how the navy would develop into the backbone of Athenian democracy,” writes Mr. Lovén in a research paper being published this autumn.
As Athens gave way to later empires—Macedon, Rome, Byzantium—the Aegean continued to mark the effective border between Europe and Asia. That geopolitical fault line has been dormant since 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne settled the borders of modern Greece and Turkey. But it is now grinding back to life, like an undersea tectonic plate, as Turkey seeks to push its maritime boundaries deep into the Mediterranean.
‘Don’t they remember Salamis? Couldn’t the Europeans cut us some slack for protecting them then?’
The movement of refugees from Asia and Africa has been another flashpoint. In March, the Turkish government reversed a longstanding policy and encouraged asylum seekers to cross the Greek border into the EU. The policy played well in Turkey, where public opinion is fed up with almost 4 million refugees, but it drove a wedge in EU-Turkish relations and generated sympathy—and some border assistance—for Greece.
When the global financial crisis bankrupted Greece in 2010, the country’s Eurozone partners extended emergency loans on the strict condition that it balance its budget. At the time, a former head of the air force, whose pension was halved thanks to budget cuts, said to me: “Don’t they remember Salamis? Don’t they remember Marathon? Aren’t those wars worth some consideration today? Couldn’t the Europeans cut us some slack for protecting them then?”
This view is widely held in Greece, especially today, when the country spends as much on repaying its Western creditors as it does on defense. Now, as in 480 B.C., the Greeks face a superior foe. Against Turkey’s new fleet of frigates, Greece fields ships that are up to 50 years old. Unlike Themistocles, the current government can’t afford a rearmament program. In July, a deal to purchase two state-of-the-art French frigates for $3.3 billion was called off as too expensive.
Today the Salamis strait is an industrial zone, lined with shipyards and freight terminals. At one end sits Greece’s main naval base, on the other, Athens’s sewage treatment plant. Only on the island of Salamis itself is there any trace of the battle: A bronze statue of two warriors, erected in 2006, stands on the mound where the dead were buried in 480 B.C. But Greece does manage to put some of its money where its glory is. In honor of the anniversary, the island of Salamis, after which the battle is named, is being relieved of a $3 million water bill that the municipality couldn’t pay.