Themistocles (c.524-460 BC)

Themistocles (c.524-460 BC) was a great Athenian naval leader who played a vital role in the defeat of Xerxes I's invasion of Greece in 480, but who like so many Athenian leaders ended his life in exile (Greco-Persian Wars). Themistocles was the son of Neocles, a member of the aristocratic Lycomid family, and a non-Athenian concubine. Before 508 he wouldn't have qualified as an Athenian citizen, but in that year Cleisthenes passed a law making all free men in Athens into citizens.

He entered the historical record in 493 when he was elected as Archon, the chief judicial and civilian position in Athens. During his time as Archon he began to move Athen's harbour from the indefensible beaches at Phaleron to the more easily defended Piraeus. This would later prove to be of great value to Athens, especially after the city was linked to the port by the Long Walls.

Battles of the Persian Invasions of Greece
Battles of the
Persian Invasions
of Greece

In 490 the Athenian army defeated the Persians at Marathon. This greatly increased the prestige of the army, but Themistocles believed that Athens needed a powerful fleet if she was to be truly safe from attack. His first attempts to get the size of the fleet increased from 70 triremes failed, but he did at least manage to survive the period of political turmoil after Marathon that saw Miltiades, the commanding general in the battle, die in disgrace in 489 and the period of ostracisms of 487-483.

In 483 he had another chance to increase the fleet, when a rich seam of silver was found at Laurium near Sunium. He was able to convince the Athenian Assembly not to divide the profits between the citizens, but instead to increase the size of the fleet up to 200 triremes.

In 480 the Persian king Xerxes I began his massive invasion of Greece. Fortunately the Persians moved very slowly, allowing the Greeks to organise their resistance. Themistocles was able to win the Spartans over to a policy of forward defence, partly by agreeing to put the Athenian ships under Spartan command. The Greek forces then moved north, looking for a suitable defensive position. They eventually settled on Thermopylae for the army, while the fleet took up a position nearby at Artemisium off the north coast of the island of Euboea. The resulting battle of Artemisium saw the Greeks defeat a Persian attempt to outflank them. On the following night the Persian outflanking force was destroyed in a storm. When battle was renewed both sides suffered losses, but the key fighting came at Thermopylae, where after three days the Persians were eventually able to get past the Greek blockade.

The Greek fleet had to withdraw before it was cut off, and pulled back around Attica to the island of Salamis, west of Athens. As the Persians marched on Athens, the Athenians evacuated the city, and so when it fell to the Persians it was unoccupied. The Persians sacked the city, but this didn’t get them any nearer to victory.

Themistocles was aware that the Persian ships were lighter and more manoeuvrable than the triremes, and also more numerous. He realised that the best hope of victory was to fight the Persians in the narrow straits between Salamis and the mainland, where the heavier Greek ships and armoured soldiers would have the advantage. His biggest problem was that many of his fellow Greeks wanted to pull back further, perhaps to Argos. In order to trigger a battle before this could happen Themistocles sent a message to Xerxes suggesting that he was interested in changing sides and that the Greek fleet might be about to retreat. Xerxes was tricked into ordered a full-scale attack on the Greek position, and in the resulting battle of Salamis lost a key part of his fleet. With control of the sea lost, Xerxes realised that his army was now dangerously exposed and decided to retreat north. He left a force in Thessaly under his brother-in-law Mardonius, and then returned to his court.

Although Themistocles had played a crucial part in the victory at Salamis, he still wasn't in favour with the Areopagus, the council of nobles that controlled the war effort, and he wasn't given a command in 479. He did manage to get the demolished walls of Athens rebuilt, despite Spartan opposition, but his other political efforts all failed.

Soon afterwards he was ostracized and forced into exile in Argos. He was then forced to flee from there after the Spartans accused him of being involved with Pausanias in a plot with the Persians. With Athens and the Peloponnese now closed to him, Themistocles fled to Persia, where he was welcomed by Xerxes's son and heir Artaxerxes I and appointed as governor of some of the Greek cities still ruled by the Persians.

Themistocles's reputation suffered after the war, probably because he was a prominent support of the democracy while the historian Herodotus and the philosopher Plato, both of whom wrote on him, were aristocrats and supporters of a more aristocratic form of government. Away from Athens his role in the Greek victory was more fully appreciated, and he was given a formal ovation in Sparta.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (24 April 2017), Themistocles (c.524-460 BC) ,

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