The most famous fleet of Ancient Greece (probably of all of Antiquity) was the Athenian fleet. The reason why the Athenian fleet is so famous until today is the role that it played in winning the Greco-Persian Wars by winning the naval Battle of Salamis on 29 September 480 BC against the Persian fleet.
But how big was the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis and throughout the Persian Wars?
The Greek writer Herodotus claims that the Persian fleet consisted of 1207 Triremes, a number he probably took from the tragedy „The Persians“ (written by Aeschylus). A more realistic number is 600-700 Triremes plus a large number of supply ships. Most of the Persian fleet was not really Persian but was contributed by Persia’s allies. So most ships in the Persian navy were Egyptian, Cypriot, Phoenician, and Greek.
Now that last point, the claim that Greek ships fought in the Persian fleet, might sound surprising. But we have to remember that only a small minority of the Greek city-states joined the fight against the Persians, a much greater number stayed either neutral or fought on the Persian side!
But let`s now take a closer look at the size of the Persian navy and where the individual ships and crews came from!
How big was the Persian navy in the Persian Wars?
The main source for the Persian Wars is the Greek historian and writer Herodotus (480/490 – 430/420 BC) and his book „The Histories“. And while his book „The Histories“* is definitely one of the books I can recommend, the numbers that Herodotus claims must be taken with a big grain of salt.
I actually wrote an entire article on the size of the Persian army where the problem of impossibly high numbers also occurs. There I also explained why Herodotus overexaggerates the Persian numbers so much.
Herodotus claims that the Persian fleet consisted of 1207 Triremes, a number that he most likely took from the tragedy „The Persians“. That tragedy was written by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus who actually fought in the Greco-Persian Was himself (for example at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC). But the number of Triremes is too high, a more realistic number would be between 600 and 700 Triremes.
Now make no make no mistake, even „only“ a fleet of 600 to 700 Triremes posed a big threat since the Greek fleet, which mostly consisted of ships from the Athenian fleet, was still much smaller!
However, the Hellenic alliance (the alliance of 31 Greek city-states who wanted to fight the Persian invasion) still decided that fighting the Persian navy had a better chance of success than fighting the Persian army… these high hopes in the Greek navy were the reason why the Greeks decided to fight in the Battle of Thermopylae!
Ok, so the Persian fleet in the Persian Wars consisted of 600 – 700 Triremes and a large number of supply ships. These supply ships were not just important to supply the Persian warships, but they also supplied the Persian army. The supply of the Persian army by the Persian navy as well as the fact that the Persian army and the Persian navy covered each other against Greek attacks were the reasons why the Persian fleet sailed so close to the shoreline!
Cutting off the naval supply to the Persian army was the Greek plan for defeating the Persian army! So destroying the Persian fleet was a priority!
But the Persian fleet was not only important for supplying the Persian army during the invasion of Greece in 480 BC! It was also crucial for getting to Greece in the first place.
Ancient Greece and the Persian Empire were separated by the Hellespont (today the narrow strait is known as the Dardanelles or the Strait of Gallipoli). In 480 BC the Persian navy formed two ship bridges (one consisted of 360 ships, the other of 340 ships) so that the Persian army could cross from Asia into Europe and start the invasion of Greece.
By the way. Contrary to what is often claimed the Persian attack of 480 BC was the first Persian invasion of Ancient Greece since the attack that started in 492 BC was not an invasion of all of Greece, but retaliation against only two Greek city-states. But that is a story for another time.
Now I have always written about the „Persian“ fleet. But in reality, the so-called Persian fleet wasn`t really that Persian after all.
The Persian Navy – a multi-ethnic fleet
When we talk about the „Persian“ fleet, then one might assume that the ships, crews, and officers that made up that fleet were Persians. But that is not true!
Just like Sparta the Persian Empire put the responsibility of providing a fleet onto its allies/ the Persian subjects with a strong naval heritage. So the bulk of the Persian fleet consisted of Egyptian, Cypriot, and Phoenician crews and ships as well as of the crews and ships of the Greek city-states that were situated in Persian Asia Minor.
Now that might sound odd. Why were there Greek city-states in Persian territory? Well, that goes back to the Greek Colonization between the 8th and 6th century BC. You can find out more about that in my article here.
So it shows once again that – contrary to the idea that is often portrayed in movies and video games – not all of Greece united to fight the Persian invasion of 480 BC. Quite the opposite. Many Greeks fought in the Persian navy but also in the Persian army.
That is even acknowledged by Herodotus when he lists the origins of the soldiers who invade Greece as part of the Persian army. But that is a story for another time.
For now, I would also like to briefly talk about the ships that were used by the Persian navy.
What kind of ships did the Persian fleet use?
As mentioned, the ships that made up the Persian navy were not really of Persian origin but from Persian subjects (like Egypt, Cyprus, Phoenicia, or the Greek city-states of Asia Minor). As such it should not come as a surprise that the Persian fleet, just like the Greek fleet, mostly consisted of Triremes
The Trireme was a fast and agile ship with a top speed of 11 mph (18 kmh / 9,7 knots) and a total crew of up to 200 men (170 oarsmen, 10 Hoplites, 4.6 archers, plus sailors). The Trireme was 38 – 40 yd (35-37 m) long, 5,4 – 6,5 yd (5-6 m) wide, and had oars as well as a sail. Before a battle, the sail was taken down and the mast was lowered.
Do you want to find out more about how Triremes were used and why the sail was taken down before battle (even though movies usually don`t depict that)? Then I would like to recommend you my article here. There you can also find a video of how a replica is rowed and how much coordination between the oarsmen is needed to move the ship.
Ok, there we have it. The size and composition of the Persian fleet. But despite its numerical superiority that fleet was still defeated by the Greek fleet (that mostly consisted of Athenian ships) in the Battle of Salamis. The naval Battle of Salamis was not only a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars but also one of the 4 major battles of the Persian Wars.
But that is a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
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