Themistocles (ca. 528-462 B.C.), an Athenian political leader, was a brilliant commander and statesman who defeated Persia at sea and made Athens a great power.
Themistocles was the son of a middle-class Athenian father and a non-Athenian mother. Ability alone made him influential. He advocated resistance to Persia when some wanted appeasement, and he urged the development of Athens's navy when most trusted in its army. When elected chief magistrate in 493 B.C., he developed Piraeus for the first time as a naval base, and 10 years later, when his rivals had been eliminated by a series of ostracisms, he persuaded Athens to build a hundred warships from the profits of state-owned mines. When Persia invaded in 480 B.C., Athens had the largest navy in Greece. Themistocles insisted on using it fully at Artemisium and at Salamis, although his naval policy meant evacuating Athens and trusting in the "wooden walls" of its ships. He saw correctly that the liberty of Greece and the future of Athens depended on first defeating Persia at sea.
As representative of Athens on the Staff Council, Themistocles urged the Spartan commander of the Greek fleet to keep his advanced position in narrow waters at Salamis. When some captains wished to withdraw, Themistocles secretly informed Xerxes, the Persian king, of this dissension and advised him to attack, promising the aid of the Athenian fleet if he did attack. Xerxes attacked, thereby preventing the dispersal of the Greek fleet, and his much larger fleet was decisively defeated in the narrow waters by the ramming tactics of the Greek squadrons. Themistocles proposed that the Greeks sail to the Dardanelles, destroy the Persian pontoon bridge there, and cut the army's lines of supply and cause it to withdraw. The proposal was defeated, but he sent information of it to Xerxes, adding that he himself was responsible for its defeat.
Themistocles worked next for the rise of Athens at the expense of Sparta. He used his popularity as victor of Salamis to lull Sparta's suspicions as Athens rebuilt its fortifications in 479-478 B.C. against Sparta's wishes, and he openly opposed Sparta's ambitions in northern Greece. His plans for making Athens supreme at sea were implemented when Athens displaced Sparta in the command of the allied fleet, and his faith in democracy was put into effect by the rule of Pericles. But Themistocles himself fell out of favor. He was ostracized, probably in 472 B.C., and then exiled and condemned to death on a charge of being in Persia's pay. He made a dramatic escape to Persia, where he was appointed governor of Magnesia in Asia Minor. The Greek historian Thucydides said that Themistocles died a natural death, though some reported suicide. Later a tomb was built at Piraeus in honor of Themistocles's achievements. The salvation of Greece and the stature of Athens give the true measure of his greatness.
Ancient sources on Themistocles are Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch. A modern source is Charles Hignett's Xerxes' Invasion of Greece (1963), which contains a useful bibliography.
Lenardon, Robert J., The saga of Themistocles, London: Thames & Hudson, 1978. □
Circa 524-460 b.c.e.
Athenian statesman and naval commander
Hero or Villain? The most controversial figure in the Greeks’ struggle against the Persians was Themistocles. One historian, Herodotus, accused him of corruption; another, Thucydides, admired him for his far-sightedness and thought him one of the greatest men of his generation. Whatever the historical verdict, Themistocles is one of several Athenian leaders whose great accomplishments only seem to have foreshadowed their downfall at the hands of the people.
Early Life. Historians believe that the family origins of Themistocles made him have strong democratic sympathies. While his father, Neocles, belonged to the aristocratic Lycomid family, his mother was a concubine and possibly not even Greek. As a result, Themistocles did not receive citizenship until 508, when Cleisthenes made it possible for all free men in Athens to become citizens.
Naval Program. In 493 he was elected archon and soon thereafter initiated a series of naval reforms. He ordered the development of the harbor at Piraeus and in 482 requisitioned a large surplus of silver for the enlargement of the fleet to two hundred triremes. In 480 he interpreted a saying of the oracles of Apollo that predicted Greek victory over the Persians so long as the Greeks put faith in Athens’ “wooden wall,” its fleet of ships. He commanded the combined Greek navy at the Battle of Artemisium, and although it had to retreat, the fleet inflicted heavy losses upon the Persians. Later that same year at Salamis, Themistocles won a stunning victory when he lured the Persians into narrow straits where their superior numbers only caused confusion. He gained tremendous honors around the Greek world for these accomplishments.
Ostracism. Despite this glory, within ten years Themistocles lost favor with the people. His plans to move the capital to Piraeus and to reduce the powers of the Areopagus met with resistance, and he was ostracized from Athens. He lived in Argos for some time, but when evidence appeared that he might be conspiring with the Persians, he was condemned to death by the Spartans. He fled first to the west and then to the east. In a strange twist of events, he finally found refuge with the king of Persia, his former enemy, who made him a provincial governor of several Greek cities in Asia Minor.
A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, c. 546-478 b.c.e. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962).
Peter Green, The Year of Salamis, 480-479 B.C.E. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970).
Herodotus, The Histories, translated by W. Blanco and J. Roberts (New York: Norton, 1992).
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (Harmonds-worth, U.K.: Penguin, 1954; revised, 1972).