Once a naval battle was under way, for the men involved, there were numerous ways for them to meet their end. Drowning was perhaps the most common way for a crew member to perish. Once a trireme had been rammed, the ensuing panic that engulfed the men trapped below deck no doubt extended the amount of time it took the men to escape. Inclement weather would greatly decrease the crew’s odds of survival, leading to a situation like that off Cape Athos in 411 (12 of 10,000 men were saved). An estimated 40,000 Persians died in the Battle of Salamis. In the Peloponnesian War, after the Battle of Arginusae, six Athenian generals were executed for failing to rescue several hundred of their men clinging to wreckage in the water.
If the men did not drown, they might be taken prisoner by the enemy. In the Peloponnesian War, “Sometimes captured crews were brought ashore and either cut down or maimed – often grotesquely, by cutting off the right hand or thumb to guarantee that they could never row again.” The image found on an early-5th-century black-figure, depicting prisoners bound and thrown into the sea being pushed and prodded under water with poles and spears, shows that enemy treatment of captured sailors in the Peloponnesian War was often brutal. Being speared amid the wreckage of destroyed ships was likely a common cause of death for sailors in the Peloponnesian War.
Naval battles were far more of a spectacle than the hoplite battles on land. Sometimes the battles raging at sea were watched by thousands of spectators on shore. Along with this greater spectacle, came greater consequences for the outcome of any given battle. Whereas the average percentage of fatalities from a land battle were between 10 and 15%, in a sea battle, the forces engaged ran the risk of losing their entire fleet. The number of ships and men in battles was sometimes very high. At the Battle of Arginusae for example, 263 ships were involved, making for a total of 55,000 men, and at the Battle of Aegospotami more than 300 ships and 60,000 seamen were involved. In Battle of Aegospotami, the city-state of Athens lost what was left of its navy: the once ‘invincible’ thalassocracy lost 170 ships (costing some 400 talents), and the majority of the crews were either killed, captured or lost.