While I was at university in the late 1970s, I was told by a faculty advisor that the Greek rowers at the Battle of Salamis were given cushions that greatly increased their comfort and efficiency (and the Persians were not). This, in turn, would have derived from the fact that the Greek rowers were "free" men, while the Persian rowers were galley slaves.

Much has been made in history books about how the Greeks outmanoeuvred the Persians in the narrow straits around Salamis. Could the truth be more prosaic, that the Greeks simply out-rowed the Persians? And would this have stemmed from the fact that the Greek rowers were free, were generally treated better than their Persian counterparts, and were basically more motivated to win?

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    "How much did the rowers affect the outcome of the Battle of Salamis?"
    – MCW
    May 28, 2013 at 16:48
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    Although the status of the rowers may have played its part, I don't think it was the more significant factor. The Greeks were fighting for their homes, in a very familiar terrain, while the Persians were fighting thousands of miles away from their homes, in seas they were seeing for the first time. We don't really have a lot of details for the actual battle, but we do know that the Greeks were backing away and only attacked when they had lured the Persians in the more strategically advantageous point of the straits. Thus, familiarity with the terrain would be the more important factor.
    – yannis
    May 28, 2013 at 17:13
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    @MarkC.Wallace: Thanks for the edit. The Greeks were outnumbered something like 2 to 1. That didn't matter as much as it might have in the open ocean, because the in the Straits around Salamis, you could only have combat of X on X ships at a time. The Greek ships outmaneuevered the Persians at every step of the way and won. But I could attirbute "outmaneuever" to "outrow." Probably only someoen with a naval or maritime background could answer this definitively, perhaps a rowing hobbyist; my faculty adviser couldn't, some 35 years ago.
    – Tom Au
    May 28, 2013 at 17:15
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    US Naval textbooks attribute the victory to strategy, not to the motivations of the ... ship's motivators.... Ultimately I don't think this question can be answered. I can't imagine a source we could consult, and there are probably legal problems with a full re-enactment.
    – MCW
    May 28, 2013 at 17:39
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    +1. Geee, I've imagined Greeks fighting against Persians on bicycles (rower is a bicycle in Polish). May 30, 2013 at 4:44

3 Answers 3


No, because much if not all of the Persian Fleet consisted of contributions from Greek cities and thus had "free" rowers as well. Slave rowers are really a creation of the medieval period, not ancient times, despite what Ben Hur says.

Persia was a landlocked nation and had no naval tradition. However, its conquest of Asia Minor and the shores of the Mediterranean gave it access to many nations such as Tyre in Phoenicia, perhaps Rhodes, and the Greek city states in Asia Minor. These made up its fleet, but there is no reason to think that they enslaved the rowers for kicks. They were also reinforced just before the battles by the fleets of new subject cities in Thrace. Again, there's no time for changing the status of the rowers.

Also, the story of the battle of Salamis is one of the Greeks winning by restricting the battlefield rather than winning by bold maneuvers. If the Greeks had an edge in mobility, this strategy would negate it, not enhance it.

  • The Greeks restricted the battlefield so that the Persians could not mass forces. Their edge in mobility was still vitally important to allow them to defeat Persian ships one on one.
    – Joshua
    Dec 10, 2016 at 18:05

Only about 100 of the heavier Persian triremes could fit into the gulf at a time, and each successive wave was disabled or destroyed by the lighter Greek triremes. At least 200 Persian ships were sunk

The Persians could not go all out because only 100 ships could fit in the gulf at one time so 1st wave = defeated 2nd = defeated because greeks had like 500 and persians were 100 at a time

  • Welcome to the site. Maybe slow down with the new answers and take the time to read the FAQ, read some other answers around the site. There's a culture around here, and answers like this might get deleted even if there is some historical content behind them.
    – two sheds
    Feb 15, 2015 at 3:24
  • i actually had a whole source although i wanted to keep it short
    – theo2k2
    Feb 15, 2015 at 3:26
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    Sources are smiled upon. Caps lock, less so.
    – two sheds
    Feb 15, 2015 at 3:28
  • This is a "decent" answer that just about meets the site's minimum standards. Two of your answers are better (the upvoted ones), the others are worse, and have been deleted.If you have too many deleted posts, you will be blocked from the site, so be careful.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 16, 2015 at 6:13
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    When you copypaste wholesale from a source, you need to make it clear that it isn't your own words.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 16, 2015 at 6:24

Check out Victor Davis Hanson's excellent book "Carnage and Culture - Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power" for some interesting insight on the value of slaves vs non-slaves as they relate to the Salamis battle

  • 10
    And that insight is ... ?
    – andy256
    Mar 19, 2014 at 6:05

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