Themistocles Leader of the Greeks During Persian Wars

Leader of the Greeks During the Persian Wars

The Battle of Salamis engraving 1894
THEPALMER / Getty Images

Themistocles' father was called Neocles. Some say he was a rich man who disinherited Themistocles because of Themistocles' loose living and neglect of the family property, other sources say he was a poor man. Themistocles' mother was not an Athenian but our sources do not agree where she was from; some say Acarnania in Western Greece, others say she came from what is now the west coast of Turkey.

In the 480s (or possibly the late 490s) BC Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to use the income from the state silver mines at Laurion to move the port of Athens from Phalerum to the Piraeus, a much better site, and to build a fleet which was used in a war against Aegina (484-3), and then against pirates.

Xerxes Invades Greece

When Xerxes invaded Greece (480 BC), the Athenians sent to Delphi to ask the oracle what they should do. The oracle told them to defend themselves with wooden walls. There were some who thought this referred to literal wooden walls and argued for building a palisade, but Themistocles insisted that the wooden walls in question were the ships of the navy.

While the Spartans attempted to hold the pass of Thermopylae, a Greek fleet of 300 ships, 200 of which were Athenian, attempted to stem the advance of the Persian navy at Artemisium, between the large island of Euboea and the mainland. Eurybiades, the commander of the Spartan naval contingent who had been appointed the commander of the whole Greek fleet, wanted to abandon this position, much to the dismay of the Euboeans. They sent money to Themistocles to bribe Eurybiades to stay where he was.

Although the Greeks were heavily outnumbered the narrow straits worked to their advantage, and the result was a draw. Worried that if the Persians rounded Euboea the Greeks would be surrounded, the Greeks withdrew to Salamis. When he left Artemisium, Themistocles had an inscription carved on the beach where he thought the Persians might land to take on fresh water, urging the Greeks from Ionia (the west coast of Turkey), who constituted a large part of the Persian navy, to change sides. Even if none of them did so, Themistocles calculated, the Persians would still be suspicious that some of the Greeks might defect, and not deploy them as effectively as they might otherwise do.

With nothing now to prevent him, Xerxes swept down through Greece. As Athens was assumed to be Xerxes' main target (to avenge his father Darius' defeat at Marathon ten years earlier), the whole population abandoned the city and took refuge on the islands of Salamis and Troezene, except for a few old men who were left behind to make sure religious rites were carried out.

[As Athens was assumed to be Xerxes' main target (to avenge his father Darius' defeat at Marathon ten years earlier), the whole population abandoned the city and took refuge on the islands of Salamis and Troezene, except for a few old men who were left behind to make sure religious rites were carried out.]

Xerxes razed Athens to the ground, killing all those left behind. Some of the Greek states were all for retreating to the Peloponnese and fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth. Worried that they might disperse, Themistocles sent a trusted slave to Xerxes and warned him that this might happen, pointing out that if the Greeks did disperse, the Persians would get bogged down in a long drawn-out war. Xerxes believed Themistocles' advice was sincere and attacked the next day. Again, the Persian fleet outnumbered the Greeks, but the Persians were unable to take advantage of that fact because of the narrow straits they were fighting in.

Although the Greeks won, the Persians still had a huge army in Greece. Themistocles tricked Xerxes again, by sending the same slave with a message that the Greeks were planning to destroy the bridge the Persians had built over the Hellespont, trapping the Persian army in Greece. Xerxes hurried home.

After the Persian Wars

It was generally agreed that Themistocles was the savior of Greece. Each commander from the different cities put himself first as the bravest, but they all agreed that Themistocles was the second bravest. The Spartans gave their own commander the prize for bravery but awarded the prize for intelligence to Themistocles.

Themistocles continued with his policy of making the Piraeus the main harbor of Athens. He was also responsible for the Long Walls, walls 4 miles long which joined Athens, the Piraeus, and Phalerum in a single system of defenses. The Spartans had insisted that no fortifications be built outside the Peloponnese for fear that if the Persians ever came back control of fortified cities would give them an advantage. When the Spartans protested about the refortification of Athens, Themistocles was sent to Sparta to discuss the matter. He told the Athenians not to send any other envoys until the walls were at a reasonable height. Once he got to Sparta he refused to open discussions until his fellow -- envoys arrived. When they did, he suggested a delegation of the most eminent Spartans trusted by both sides accompanied by Themistocles' colleagues be sent to investigate the matter. The Athenians then refused to let the Spartan delegation leave until Themistocles was safely home.

At some point in the late 470s, Themistocles was ostracized (sent into exile for 10 years by popular vote) and went to live in Argos. While he was in exile the Spartans sent a delegation to Athens accusing Themistocles of being involved in a conspiracy to bring Greece under Persian domination. The Athenians believed the Spartans and he was found guilty in absentia. Themistocles did not feel safe in Argos and took refuge with Admetus, king of Molossia. Admetus refused to give up Themistocles when Athens and Sparta demanded his surrender but also pointed out to Themistocles that he could not guarantee Themistocles' safety against a joint Athenian-Spartan attack. He did, however, give Themistocles an armed escort to Pydnus.

From there, Themistocles took ship for Ephesus. He had a narrow escape at Naxus, where the Athenian navy was stationed at the time, but the captain refused to let anyone leave the ship and so Themistocles arrived safely in Ephesus. From there Themistocles took refuge with Artaxerxes, the son of Xerxes, claiming that Artaxerxes owed him a favor since he, Themistocles, had been responsible for his father getting home safely from Greece. Themistocles asked for a year to learn Persian, after which period he appeared at Artaxerxes' court and promised to help him conquer Greece. Artaxerxes assigned the revenues from Magnesia for Themistocles' bread, those from Lampsacus for his wine, and those from Myus for his other food.

Themistocles did not live much longer, however, and died aged 65 at Magnesia. It was most probably a natural death, although Thucydides (1.138.4) reports a rumor that he poisoned himself because he was unable to fulfill his promise to Artaxerxes of helping him conquer Greece.

Primary Sources

Cornelius Nepos' Life of Themistocles:

Plutarch's Life of Themistocles
The Livius website has a translation of what may or may not be the decree of the Athenian assembly for Athens to be abandoned.

Herodotus' Histories Sources

In Book VII, paragraphs 142-144 tell the story of the oracle about the wooden walls, and how Themistocles founded the Athenian navy.
Book VIII describes the battles of Artemisium and Salamis and other events of the Persian invasion.

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War Sources

In Book I, paragraphs 90 and 91 have the story of the fortification of Athens, and paragraphs 135-138 tell how Themistocles ended up in Persia at the court of Artaxerxes.

Themistocles is on the list of Most Important People to Know in Ancient History.