The moment when the sea breeze blows
The month of Boedromion is ending, I reflect. This waning of the moon has brought us so much suffering, so many ashes. Endless bloodletting and pain. On the third night after today, the new moon will rise, a new cycle of life. It will rise over the ruins of Athens and Eleusis, over the ruins of the unfortunate cities that came to know the savagery of the enemy’s advance. A new moon, I reflect, that will illuminate the solitude of the dead, centuries from now.
We are all at our stations. No one goes about in small boats now, no one moves, the gangways were left on shore. Our triremes are drawn up in battle formation. Face to face with the triremes of the enemy along the entire front. From the peninsula of Cynosura to the islet that is joined to the shore near Amphiale.
Face to face. Along a front line over fifteen stades long.
Soon they will clash, bow against bow, breast against breast.
Bronze will strike bronze and the ships will fall on one another with unrestrained hatred.
As far as my eye can see, I look at the deep rows of enemy triremes that have taken a position before our ships. They appear huge, most of them with high-roofed decks, powerful. They are not moving yet. They wait. I look at our ships, lower, with a thin keel. “But more maneuverable in a narrow space, Menoitos whispers to me, as he divines my thoughts, and in more experienced naval hands…”
We are standing at our stations. The four archers at the prow, on the front side of the cabin. Directly behind us, on the cabin, are the look-out man, facing the oarsmen. The boatswain and the flute-player are positioned amidships. We the archers are the most exposed to the arrows and spears of the enemy. Menoitos, Lysippos, Pylades, and I. Nearby are three hoplites: Rhexibios, Damon, and Damaratos. The remaining hoplites are along the two sides of the deck, the entire length of the trireme. They are wearing breastplates of double-layered ox hide, fastened on both sides, and helmets also made of ox or buffalo hide. No bronze except for the shield and weapons.
We await the trumpet-call. At any moment we will hear the trumpet. The waiting seems eternal. Menoitos feels the need to speak. He, whose speech was always laconic. From the anguish, I think, or the tension. “That is why Themistocles insisted that the naval battle be fought here, he says, inside the strait of Salamis, so that we could fight with an equal number of vessels, as he explained, since their fleet cannot all fit here, and so that their ships, being heavy and slow-moving, would strike and damage one another…”
We see Xerxes’ golden throne, which flashes in the morning light. It is on the side of the mountain called Aigaleos, behind his triremes, on the side that comes down to the narrowest part of the strait, near Amphiale. “He has his son Rhiodonis with him, Menoitos whispers, I hear that he is positioned on Psyttaleia with the infantry landing-party; many of his royal relatives went there…” I do not respond; I do not care about Rhiodonis, but Menoitos continues: “He wanted to be stationed near his ships, he whispers, so that they will see him and be afraid, so that they will fight better than they did at Artemision. Can you make out the crowd that is beside him?” I turn to look. Yes, I can see them. They have something like a lectern in front of them, and a little further away, some strange-looking huge piles. “What are they doing?” He smiles through his blond beard. “Those are his chroniclers, who are making notes to write their history… and those are piles of papyrus sheets.”
I try to make him out. Distance blurs the view. Over his throne I see a huge parasol. And I try to imagine him, as Dexileos described him to me. Tall and unapproachable, a golden idol of worship, with trousers and the long robe the color of saffron and purple, a tall tiara on his head.
And behind him, facing the entire length of his deployed fleet, the countless tribes of his infantry, his army, ready, armed, to support the fleet as necessary.
Everything is ready, I reflect. Even the chroniclers with pens in hand. While we are focusing entirely on the coming battle. To prevail so that we can live as free men.
The moments are dense, unmoving. Drawn out like a thin rope. Time has become an unmoving mass; nothing stirs. And our souls are drawn as well, like a bow. I see the bodies of our hoplites that shudder, ready to face death and blood. What can each of them be thinking, secretly, at this hour, I wonder. And how many of us are living through our last morning…Perhaps I will not see the sun again, I say, and my thought goes to my son and to Hippolyte. I want to live, to know my son, I tell myself, I want to live for him…
I turn to look at the shores of Salamis. Filled with Athenian hoplites. They are there, in formation, ready to support us, if necessary.
Menoitos sees my glance. “Themistocles has organized everything to the last detail,” he whispers.
The moments are still unmoving. Nor does the enemy attack us. His triremes do not move. They are waiting perhaps for us to surrender without a fight. Or perhaps they are expecting to see us flee in disorder.
I look at our battle line. We, the sixteen Spartan triremes of Eurybiades, are on the edge of the right wing, on the Piraeus side, and we are facing the Ionian and Carian triremes. “Will the messages that Themistocles carved on the cliffs, not to fight well, have any effect on them?” I whisper to Menoitos.
“Don’t expect it, he says to me, most of them are extremely devoted to Xerxes, because, as I have learned, he rewarded them with enticing riches…they don’t want to give up their easy life…”
My heart sinks and I try not to think about the Ionians. “Let them remember that they are the cause of our being here this morning…” I say. “Yes, when they asked for assistance at the time of the revolt, they called us blood brothers…Now they will fight with the enemy against us…”
I look at our triremes that are motionless, at the calm sea. A smooth surface whose waves lap voluptuously on the lace-like beaches of Salamis. And the day is bright now. But there is no movement. None yet.
On the left wing, to the west, facing the Phoenician vessels of Tyre and Sidon, are about one hundred eighty Athenian triremes under the command of the “wily” Themistocles, as I hear him called. And in the middle, opposite the triremes of Egypt and Cilicia, Cyprus, Lycia, Paphlagonia, and other small nations, are our triremes from Aegina, Corinth, the islands, Megara, and Chalcis; they are the small fleets of our allied cities. Here, somewhere here, a few stades further on must be the Anemoessa, I tell myself. And I am sad that whenever I took a little time to look for her, I did not find her.
Next to Eurybiades are the thirty Aeginetan triremes, which together with the Spartan triremes constitute the right wing. Next to them are the Corinthian triremes, and then all of the small fleets.
“Themistocles wanted to reinforce the wings, Menoitos continues, as Miltiades did at Marathon. He is envisaging encirclement…”
Still no wind. Not even the slightest breeze breaks the calm surface of the sea. Even the countless triremes do not cause the water to ripple. And the sun rises slowly. The blue becomes bluer and the white becomes more deathly. The light is blinding. Yet their triremes are still motionless—those that had the time to deploy. We see the rear guard of Caria, whose triremes are still approaching to take their position beside the Ionian fleet.
They wait. Surrender, yes, that is what they are waiting for, just as Datis and Artaphernes waited at Marathon. And when they saw the Greeks charging at a run, singing, they thought that they had lost their minds and were running to surrender. That is the revenge that Xerxes is seeking. He wants to expunge the humiliation suffered by his father Darius. Or they are waiting for us to flee in disorder, as Themistocles had told them. I know about that, I thought, Dexileos and I know. “Was he so naive as to believe it?” “The goddess of delusion, Ate, blinds the man that she wishes to destroy…”
Suddenly a whisper from mouth to mouth.
“The charge begins…,” we hear Phrygias’ deep voice.
All eyes turn to the front, we see them; they advance slowly and steadily, straight toward the front line.
They sail together.
Their oars now rhythmically strike the calm water. And each one of us tightens his grip on the weapon he is holding. You can sense the excitement, the impatience. We cannot wait to join battle. Each one of us hides seven lions inside himself; such is our passion.
And, suddenly, we hear the sound of our oars.
Without further orders, our triremes, too, begin to advance. They knew at what moment they should move. And they advance with the same slow and steady rhythm. We reach somewhat more open water, and we wonder; we are almost upon them. We look at each other, to understand what is happening; Themistocles had said that we would engage them in the narrowest point of the strait, near the shore. What has happened? The open water is to their advantage.
The flute-player and the boatswain of the Spartan are calm, as is the look-out man.
Their faces show that they know very well what they are doing.
And suddenly something else happens.
Again without an order, or the order was given in such a way that no one perceived it; our triremes now are now slowly backing water. And from mouth to mouth we again hear “backing water…”
They are still sailing forward, wanting to approach us, while we are continuously moving away from them. Our triremes are backing water almost motionlessly on the calm sea—without the enemy sensing our imperceptible movement backward.
We feel like shouting with excitement. But a curious silence falls on us. Awe. We only look at the oars that are rowing backward with infinite skill, backing water.
“We are bringing them close to the shore, Menoitos whispers, to the strait, outside the gulf, see?” My heart is bursting. “That, too, is undoubtedly part of Themistocles’ strategy…” we are talking in whispers, as if the enemy might overhear, so close do we feel him to be. Or perhaps so as not to break the utter silence. And the tension is unbearable.
With bated breath we wait for the morning wind to come up. As it does each day. But today it is late—or it seems to us that it is late. And our hearts are bursting.
You would think that time had stopped.
And suddenly we feel the first gentle breeze on our faces.
A moment longer…
Half a moment…
The sea breeze begins to rise. It arrives with vigor from the Saronic Gulf and raises sudden waves.
The sea breeze is on our side, I tell myself, and I recall the words of Aeschylos at Cynosura, “this land is our ally…”
We see their ships beginning to toss and we wait for the trumpet call. With the tension invigorating our souls, we wait…
Half, half a moment…
They are storm-tossed. Just as Themistocles said. They are turning sideways.
And we hold our breath.
The trumpet-call, the trumpet-call… why is it not sounding… something is wrong.
Something unheard of…
In that half breath, that slight fragment of time, the moment when our trumpeters are raising the trumpet to their lips to sound the war-cry, in the absolute silence, the absolute anticipation, a trireme moves forward from the Athenian fleet, and immediately a thunderous voice is heard from her, a stentorian voice, which may have been many voices together, like a tragic chorus:
Descendants of the Greeks, advance,
Free your homeland, free
Your children, wives, the abode of your ancestral gods,
And the tombs of your ancestors; everything is at stake in this struggle.
We look on in silence. Each of us standing at his station.
And the voice echoes quickly over the water and from the hills of Salamis, circles over our startled triremes, spreads threateningly over the enemy’s ships and now our entire force pulses with the words moving from mouth to mouth, “everything is at stake in this struggle…”
Everything is at stake in this struggle.
And we all know that this divine voice, arising from a thousand lips, is that of Aeschylos, the poet of the battle, because some men recognized the trireme of his brother, Ameinias. That was the vessel that led the charge, with Aeschylos on board.
We all know that it was he who gave the signal for battle, with soul and poetry.
He was the first to charge, with soul and poetry.
And his thundering, divine voice, echoes still, to carry beyond the morning, to be heard in the meadows of the gods, to carry to the other side of time, to the end of history.
There is excitement from trireme to trireme.
And the trumpets sound now.
The place is ablaze with their triumphant sound.
The sound, the sound of the war-cry inundates the sea.
And our souls rise up, take flight, unrestrained.
We see Ameinias’ trireme which has already rammed a Phoenician trireme. With such force that she has pierced the enemy ship with her bronze beak; all eyes turn toward her.
She fell on the enemy ship like a lightning bolt, quickly ceased her forward motion, smashed all the bronze ornaments at the stern and rammed the enemy ship below the water-line with unbelievable force.
Suddenly, the oars all move in rhythm, churn the water, and a shout emerges from all breasts, a coarse, stentorian shout.
The battle has begun.