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Posted on Jun 16, 2005 in Front Page Features, War College

Ancient Generals: Themistocles: Master of Deception

By Barry Strauss

Themistocles’ ancient victory at Salamis can teach modern commanders how to use deception to win.

"All war is deception," said Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage. He was correct, but deception comes in various forms. Deception at its boldest and most dynamic is carried out directly under the enemy’s eyes. One might say that the United States pulled off such a deception against Iraq in March 2003. Saddam Hussein knew that the Americans were coming, but he did not know how or when.

About 2,500 years ago, a Greek commander executed what might be the most perfect case of deception in the history of warfare. He was cunning and cocky, but above all, he was successful because he knew how to use human intelligence. This brilliant Greek commander was Themistocles of Athens, and the date was 480 B.C.


Greek oarsmen may have rowed naked and were usually poor citizens or foreigners who could not afford hoplite armor. Only infrequently were slaves used. During campaign, triremes hugged the shoreline and crews disembarked to prepare meals. Since most Greeks could swim, the hoplites who served on board as marines often chose to dispense with their armor to better their chances in the water if their ship went down. Image Credit: Warrior 27, Greek Hoplite, 480-323 BC, by Adam Hook © Osprey Publishing, 

At Salamis, the Greeks’ backs were against the wall. Their Persian enemy possessed an armada about twice the size of their own fleet – 700 Persian ships versus 368 Greek ships. Adding to the drama, a battle was shaping up within sight of the Athenian Acropolis and in full view of the Persian King Xerxes.

A month previously, the Persians had shattered Greek resistance in central Greece at the battle of Thermopylae. There, Xerxes’ hordes destroyed the tiny Greek force that was led by King Leonidas of Sparta. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fought to the last man rather than surrender.

Most of the Persians in Xerxes’ navy could not swim well. Therefore, the Persians recruited other peoples to serve as marines. One such group, the Saka, lived in the middle reaches of the Oxus River. Aethopian marines, enlisted from among the Nubians who traded up and down the Nile River, were also frequent members of the Persian navy. Image Credit: DM/ACG

After this victory, the Persians headed for Athens. Knowing they could not stop the enemy, the Athenians evacuated the entire civilian population. The Athenian navy, joined by its Greek allies, rallied at Salamis, an island just over a mile away from the Athenian coast. Although outnumbered, the Greeks at Salamis somehow had to defeat the Persians; otherwise, nothing could stop the enemy from conquering all of Greece.

The Greeks needed a force multiplier, and Themistocles gave them just that. He devised a plan to use intelligence to trick the enemy. Looking back at Thermopylae, Themistocles might have reasoned that the secret to Persia’s victory had been finding a Greek traitor to guide them over rough terrain. Would they try this again at Salamis? Themistocles thought they would, and for good reason.

The Greeks had scored an intelligence coup a month before Salamis when they captured several of Persia’s top naval officers. Before being shipped off to prison in chains, the men were interrogated. Although no one knows what the prisoners actually said, one can speculate that it was enough to reveal Persia’s plan to find another Greek turncoat – at least it was enough for the shrewd Themistocles. Instead of underestimating his opponent or being overwhelmed by his enemy’s numbers, Themistocles took the trouble to understand what made the Persians tick.

Triremes were the finest warships of their era. In addition to employment as fighting galleys, triremes also transported horses and men. As a horse transport, about 60 oarsmen occupied the upper bench while the rest of the vessel was filled with as many as 30 horses. As a troop transport, a trireme could carry a total of about 200, including the crewmen. Image Credit: GP/ACG

Relying on the principle that it takes a thief to catch one, Themistocles gave the Persians what they wanted: a traitor. On the night before the battle of Salamis, he sent a trusted family slave across the channel to the Persian camp. The slave reported to the Persians that the Greek allies at Salamis were on the verge of splitting up and fleeing southward. This tale had the advantage of being true. In fact, Themistocles had failed to persuade the other Greeks to stay and fight at Salamis, and they planned to flee the very next day.

The slave urged the Persians to launch their ships and surround the Greeks before they could escape. Then to make the proposal even more enticing, he told the enemy that Themistocles was ready to lead the entire Athenian squadron over to the Persian side, if only the Persian fleet headed their way. This was almost certainly false, although the slave’s goal was clear: Lure the Persians into sailing that night and surrounding the Greeks under the cover of darkness.

If the Persians took the bait, the result would be a triple score for Themistocles. First, it would leave the Persian rowers tired after a night at the oars. Second, it would place them in a vulnerable position since the Salamis strait was too narrow for Persia to deploy its numbers effectively. And third, the Greek defeatists would be forced to fight when they found themselves surrounded – and their fresh Greek troops would face off against the exhausted Persians.

Greek naval tactics. The classic outflanking maneuver of the periplous sought to turn an enemy line by exposing the sides of the enemy’s ships, making them vulnerable to ramming. The diekplous depended upon superior mobility and maneuver skills to break apart an enemy fleet and defeat the ships in individual contests. Image Credit: DW/ACG

The Persians fell into Themistocles’ trap and launched their fleet that very night. Once surrounded, the Greeks were compelled to fight. The result was the battle of Salamis, and just as Themistocles had hoped, it was a smashing Greek victory. While there is no proof of precise numbers, one ancient writer claimed that Persia lost 200 ships while the Greeks lost only 40. Those numbers seem plausible. Persian casualties would have been heavy because their marines and officers, unlike the Greeks, did not know how to swim.

This defeat could never have occurred without Themistocles’ ploy. But why did the Persians fall for it? Were they gullible, naïve or just plain foolish? No, rather they were simply outfoxed by an opponent who knew his enemy.

Themistocles deceived the Persians by offering them what they wanted to hear. But he could not have pulled off the scheme without first learning the Persian way of war – and that required gathering and analyzing human intelligence. It was essential that Themistocles neither scorn nor fear his enemy; instead, he had to understand Persian doctrine and turn it to his advantage.

The narrow waters at Salamis were all that stood between victory and defeat for Greece. Image Credit: Barry Strauss, author of "The Battle of Salamis, the Naval Encounter That Saved Greece and Western Civilization".

Today, our troops are fighting a guerrilla war in Iraq that involves the pacification of that country. We are also fighting a larger war against terrorists intent on destroying America and killing its people. Victory in these wars will require deception. Perhaps American commanders can find wisdom by taking a leaf from the book that Themistocles wrote so long ago.

Barry Strauss is the author of "The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization" (Simon & Schuster, 2004).