Themistocles

Themistocles
Themistocles

Themistocles was a great Athenian statesman and general who played an important role in the Second Persian War by leading the Greeks to victory. Born to an Athenian father, Neocles, and what seems to have been a foreign mother, Themistocles demonstrated great potential from an early age.

He is said to have spent his leisure time in youth composing and performing mock speeches, unlike other children who remained idle or engaged in play. An early teacher of Themistocles told him the following: "there is going to be nothing insignificant about you; somehow or other you will become a great man, either for good or for evil".

With much determination Themistocles strove for greatness in action and longed to distinguish himself from others, both politically and militarily. Themistocles also fought the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, and while most Athenians were convinced that the victory at Marathon would keep the Persians at bay, he believed otherwise.


He sought to ensure that his city and its inhabitants would be ready for the enemy’s return. Themistocles successfully persuaded the Athenians to increase their naval fleet by building more than 100 ships with the silver that was mined at Laurium, despite the many arguments against the idea and the desired alternative of distributing the wealth.

His effectiveness was due to the fact that he played on popular Athenian fears of Aegina, a traditional enemy; however, Themistocles himself was undoubtedly preparing for the next encounter with Persia. Additionally, Themistocles persuaded his fellow citizens to believe in his interpretation of a prophecy given by the priestess at the Delphic oracle. It spoke of a wooden wall and great destruction at Salamis.

While others felt that the allusion to a wooden wall meant the Athenians should hide behind the wall of the Acropolis, Themistocles convinced them that the wooden walls represented the naval fleet and that the Athenians were destined to win the battle at Salamis against Xerxes. Sure enough, in 480 b.c.e. the enlarged Athenian fleet met the Persians to wage the naval battle of Salamis with the courageous Themistocles at the helm.

Themistocles managed to bring many of the Greek city-states together to fight on behalf of a common goal and against a common enemy, despite their recurring internal animosities. Largely due to the Athenian general’s wisdom the Greeks managed to fight in the narrow strait of Salamis, which was crucial for the Athenian advantage. Despite being outnumbered by nearly twice as many Persian ships, the Greeks fought valiantly and came out victorious in the end.

The judgment and timing of Themistocles was instrumental as he crowded the large Persian fleet in the strait and used the winds as well as the maneuverability of the smaller Greek triremes to ram and sink more than 200 enemy ships while only losing roughly 40 of his own. The Persians eventually retreated, and not only was Greece saved, but so too was Western civilization.

Themistocles was generously honored for his leadership, and the historian Herodotus wrote, "Themistocles was acclaimed throughout the whole of Hellas and deemed to be the wisest man by far of the Hellenes". As a political leader Themistocles rebuilt and fortified Athens, which had suffered prior to the successful naval battle.

The initial respect and praise that Themistocles was showered with quickly came to an end. Such was the nature of a fickle citizenry and manipulative rulers who used the city-state’s democratic structure to their advantage. By 471 b.c.e. Themistocles was ostracized by his political opponents and forced to live in Argos for a number of years.

He was later summoned back to his native city due to criminal charges of treason, which were likely fabricated by his rivals in Athens. Convinced of certain failure against such powerful adversaries and trumped-up charges, he went into self-imposed exile.

Ironically, he eventually ended up in Persia. Themistocles managed to convince the Persian king that he arrived voluntarily as an ally and that it was because of his decision making that the Hellenes had not pursued and destroyed more retreating Persian ships at Salamis.

Having successfully convinced and wooed the king, the bounty that was formerly on Themistocles’ head was removed and instead the reward was given to him. After learning the Persian language Themistocles became a consultant on Greek matters in the Persian king’s court. He took up residence in Magnesia, one city of three in Asia Minor that he was additionally rewarded with.

However, around 459 b.c.e. the Persian king called upon Themistocles not simply for the purposes of consultation but to fight directly against the Greeks. Instead of tarnishing and undermining his earlier reputation and the deeds done on behalf of his homeland, he is said to have called a banquet with friends at his home in Magnesia whereupon he poisoned himself. Disagreement persists surrounding the factual manner of Themistocles’ death, and it is not certain whether it was truly his loyalty to Athens that drove him to suicide.

In any case the life and story of Themistocles remains a legendary and heroic one that continues to serve as an example of how a single man as both statesman and general can have a significant impact on a political community and important historical events.