All you need to know about… Themistocles

Ah – a Greek. But who was he?

Themistocles was an ancient Athenian politician and general. He was one of a new breed of elected officials, and went on to become one of the city’s most successful military leaders.

Although his family had aristocratic roots, his ancestors are not known to have been politically inclined, and he gained office as a result of the democratic structure of Athenian politics.

According to his biographer Plutarch, Themistocles was proud of the fact that, while he could play neither lyre nor harp, he had the talent required to build a great city.

Born: c.524 BC

Nationality: Greek

Occupation: politician and general

Key qualities: strategy, diplomacy, arbitration

Greatest achievement: creation of the Athenian navy

Died: 459 BC

And was his pomposity justified?

I suppose it was – he was a very insightful man, who worked hard to defend the city of Athens.

Themistocles fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC against the Persians. Although the Greeks were outnumbered, they won an unexpected victory, but Themistocles, unlike his fellow Athenians, was not inclined to celebrate. Instead, he set about preparing for a second Persian attack, convinced that even with the battle won, the war with King Darius I was not over.

Party pooper… Was he right?

Pretty much. In fact, Darius died in 486 BC, so it was his son Xerxes I who rejuvenated Persian plans to subjugate Greece in 480 BC.

In the meantime, a wily Themistocles had convinced the sceptical Athenians to fund the construction of a naval fleet of 200 triremes, using the revenue from the recently discovered silver mines at Laurium.

Knowing that talk of another Persian invasion would not be taken seriously by his fellow Athenians so soon after their victory, Themistocles justified and found support for the construction of the fleet by arguing that it would bring them success in a war against Aegina, a rival city-state.

So were these triremes any good?

Yes. They were light, powerful, fast, and manoeuvrable.

Herodotus reports that when the Persians returned in 480 BC, the terror-stricken Greeks turned to the Delphic oracle, which pronounced that they would be defeated.

Themistocles, however, sent for a second prophecy, which stated: ‘Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail.’

Interpreting this ‘wooden wall’ as the ships he had constructed in anticipation of another Persian invasion, Themistocles announced that the Athenians should fight the Persians at sea, and that the triremes would be crucial to their victory.

What a chancer!

Indeed he was. After a setback at the Battle of Artemesium, Themistocles concocted a cunning plan to corner the Persians by the island of Salamis.

Leading the Athenians and their allies, Themistocles positioned his ships in the narrow strait of water that separated Salamis from the mainland. He lured the Persian fleet there by sending a messenger to Xerxes. Feigning support for the Persian cause, Themistocles informed the King that the Athenians and their allies were bewildered and set to flee.

Believing this, Xerxes sent his ships to catch the Greeks, falling into Themistocles’ trap. The Greeks were ready for battle, and the Persians, having passed through the straits, found themselves under attack on three sides. The result was chaos. So Themistocles secured a decisive Greek victory.

How cunning. He must have Been popular.

He was. For a while. But Themistocles’ self-confidence quickly turned to arrogance. He was ostracised, around ten years after his victory at Salamis, by his rivals and those who thought his scheming and self-aggrandisement were at odds with the spirit of democracy.

Exiled from his homeland, he eventually submitted to the Persian King Artaxerxes I, who was delighted to rule over such a worthy former opponent. He was made governor of Magnesia, where he died, aged 65.