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Harvard Classics

Themistocles

Themistocles

the first step towards victory undoubtedly is to gain courage

Plutarch

Themistocles was an Ancient Greek politician and general. He was the leader of the democratic party in Athens and participated in the Battle of Marathon and the Naval Battle of Artemision.

It is believed that he was born around 527 BC. Little is known about his childhood years; he may have been disobedient, which led to him being disavowed by his father. However, Plutarch mentions that he does not believe it to be true. On the year he was born, the tyrant of Athens Peisistratus died and was succeeded by his sons, Ipparchus and Ippias. The former was murdered a few years later, so Ippias became paranoid and increased his dependence on non – Athenians to remain in power. Kleisthenes eventually overthrew Ippias and established democracy.

Themistocles’ reputation among common people was vital in his election as an archon in 493 BC. During this time, he aimed at making Athens a naval power, so he asked that a new port be created in Piraeus that would replace the one in Faliron. His political opponent was Aristeides, who managed to gain the support of the Athenian aristocracy. When a new source of silver was found in 483 BC, Aristeides was of the opinion of giving one tenth of the revenue to the gods and distributing the rest to the citizens; this was the usual practice in similar cases. However, Themistocles managed to convince the people to use the money in order to build 200 triremes, an extremely high number for the time, and ostracize Aristeides.

In 481 BC, thirty city states of Greece formed an alliance against the imminent Persian attack, including Sparta and Athens. The Spartans took the command of the army; the Athenians wanted to take the command of the fleet, but were opposed by the Corinthians and the Aegineans. In the end, Evryviades became the typical commander of the fleet, but it was evident that the true leader would be Themistocles. In 480 BC, the Spartan army marched to Thermopylae and the fleet sailed to Artemision. Although Evryviades tried to avoid the naval battle, it eventually took place and the Greeks won, having suffered significant losses. Combined with the loss of the battle in Thermopylae, the only choice for the fleet was to retreat.

After Thermopylae, many Greek states started surrendering to the Persians, but Themistocles was not disheartened. He convinced the Athenians to sail to Salamina, where the famous naval battle occurred. The Greek triremes crushed the Persian fleet, with strategic and tactical choices by Themistocles, and repelled the Persians.

Battle of Salamis by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Battle of Salamis
In the aftermath of Thermopylae, Boeotia fell to the Persians, who then began to advance on Athens. The Peloponnesian Allies prepared to now defend the Isthmus of Corinth, thus abandoning Athens to the Persians. From Artemisium, the Allied fleet sailed to the island of Salamis, where the Athenian ships helped with the final evacuation of Athens. The Peloponnesian contingents wanted to sail to the coast of the Isthmus to concentrate forces with the army. However, Themistocles tried to convince them to remain in the Straits of Salamis, invoking the lessons of Artemisium; “battle in close conditions works to our advantage”. After threatening to sail with the whole Athenian people into exile in Sicily, he eventually persuaded the other Allies, whose security after all relied on the Athenian navy, to accept his plan. Therefore, even after Athens had fallen to the Persians, and the Persian navy had arrived off the coast of Salamis, the Allied navy remained in the Straits. Themistocles appears to have been aiming to fight a battle that would cripple the Persian navy, and thus guarantee the security of the Peloponnesus.

To bring about this battle, Themistocles used a cunning mix of subterfuge and misinformation, psychologically exploiting Xerxes’s desire to finish the invasion. Xerxes’s actions indicate that he was keen to finish the conquest of Greece in 480 BC, and to do this, he needed a decisive victory over the Allied fleet. Themistocles sent a servant, Sicinnus, to Xerxes, with a message proclaiming that Themistocles was “on king’s side and prefers that your affairs prevail, not the Hellenes”. Themistocles claimed that the Allied commanders were infighting, that the Peloponnesians were planning to evacuate that very night, and that to gain victory all the Persians needed to do was to block the straits.[52] In performing this subterfuge, Themistocles seems to have been trying to lure the Persian fleet into the Straits. The message also had a secondary purpose, namely that in the event of an Allied defeat, the Athenians would probably receive some degree of mercy from Xerxes (having indicated their readiness to submit). At any rate, this was exactly the kind of news that Xerxes wanted to hear. Xerxes evidently took the bait, and the Persian fleet was sent out to effect the block. Perhaps overconfident and expecting no resistance, the Persian navy sailed into the Straits, only to find that, far from disintegrating, the Allied navy was ready for battle.

According to Herodotus, after the Persian navy began its maneuvers, Aristides arrived at the Allied camp from Aegina. Aristides had been recalled from exile along with the other ostracized Athenians on the order of Themistocles, so that Athens might be united against the Persians. Aristides told Themistocles that the Persian fleet had encircled the Allies, which greatly pleased Themistocles, as he now knew that the Persians had walked into his trap. The Allied commanders seem to have taken this news rather uncomplainingly, and Holland therefore suggests that they were party to Themistocles’s ruse all along. Either way, the Allies prepared for battle, and Themistocles delivered a speech to the marines before they embarked on the ships. In the ensuing battle, the cramped conditions in the Straits hindered the much larger Persian navy, which became disarrayed, and the Allies took advantage to win a famous victory.

Salamis was the turning point in the second Persian invasion, and indeed the Greco-Persian Wars in general. While the battle did not end the Persian invasion, it effectively ensured that all Greece would not be conquered, and allowed the Allies to go on the offensive in 479 BC. A number of historians believe that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history. Since Themistocles’ long-standing advocacy of Athenian naval power enabled the Allied fleet to fight, and his stratagem brought about the Battle of Salamis, it is probably not an exaggeration to say, as Plutarch does, that Themistocles, “…is thought to have been the man most instrumental in achieving the salvation of Hellas.”

Returning to Athens, he continued increasing the naval power of Athens and his policies eventually led to the Delos Alliance, with the aim to liberate the Ionic cities from the Persians. Nevertheless, the aristocracy started gaining more political power and Themistocles was set aside. He was accused of a series of mistakes and was finally ostracized in 471 BC to Argos. After a series of events, he found himself at the court of the Persian King, Artaxerxes, who accepted him with joy. A few years later, when the king asked him to provide advice for the Egyptian revolution, Themistocles chose to commit suicide rather than undermine the Greek interests or be ungrateful to the Persian king.

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