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Searching for the Persian Fleets of the 5th century B.C.

The naval actions of the Persian War rank among the greatest maritime ventures of the ancient world,
both in terms of the large scale of the operations and the historical significance of the outcome to
Greece in particular, and Western Civilization in general. Under the Achaemenian kings Darius and
Xerxes, the Persians sent armadas of warships into the northern and western Aegean in the confident expectation of adding mainland Greece to the ever-growing Persian Empire.

On three occasions, however, the Persian fleets suffered major losses during storms.

      In about the year 492 BC, a northerly gale 
      destroyed the invasion fleet sent by Darius
      while it was trying to round the Mt. Athos
      peninsula. Herodotus writes that the number
      of ships destroyed was reported to be three
      hundred, while those who perished more
      than twenty thousand (The Histories, VI.44). :

      Although all Herodotus’ numbers may be
      exaggerated or otherwise distorted, the
      loss of ships was so devastating that
      Darius’ son, Xerxes, had a canal dug
      though the narrow neck of the Mt. Athos
      peninsula so that such a disaster would
      not happen again.


The fleet Xerxes assembled in 480 BC is said to have comprised of 1207 triremes from Phoenicia,
Egypt, Cyprus and Asia Minor, including Ionian and other East Greek ships. Support ships, troop
transports and smaller galleys (pentekonters) accompanied the fleet of triremes. Facing this host
of ships was a Greek fleet more than 300 strong, including contingents from Athens, Aegina, Corinth,
and other Greek islands and cities. The diversity of these fleets is as striking as their size

During the even larger-scale invasion mounted by Xerxes in 480 BC, another late summer storm
destroyed part of a Persian fleet on the Magnesian coast near Cape Sepias. In making its way south,
Xerxes’ fleet passed one night on a constricted beach, with the ships moored eight-deep near the
shore. At dawn a northwest gale began to blow, and over the next three days many warships —
Herodotus gives the number of 400—were caught out at sea or wrecked along the coast. Grain ships
and transports also sank.

At about the same time, a squadron of warships from the main Persian fleet— 200 ships—attempted to
circumnavigate Euboea in order to outflank the Greek fleet stationed at Artemision. This squadron was
struck by a storm near a location termed the “Hollows” of Euboea. Herodotus states that all ships were
lost.

It is the goal of the Persian Wars Shipwreck Survey to locate evidence of these catastrophes
and in doing so bring to light the biggest reported naval fleet in antiquity. The Greek Ephorate
of Underwater Antiquities, the Hellenic Centre of Marine Reseach and the Canadian Institute in Greece are cooperating with scholars from various universtities
and institutions and using the latest technology available to accomplish this goal. Join us on
our adventure...

 
                                         
         

         

MAIN INSTITUTIONS INVOLVED

Greek Department of Underwater Antiquities
Hellenic Centre for Marine Research
Canadian Institute in Greece
Institute of Nautical Archaeology

 

 


All text and images are property of the Persian Wars Shipwreck Survey Project Team. Please contact Dr. Shelley Wachsmann (swachsmann@tamu.edu) and gain permission prior to use.

© 2006