Created by John Mohacey & Kollin Strey
Themistocles was an Athenian general who was an excellent tactician as well as a renowned statesman. Born in 524 B.C.E. Themistocles had good claim to being the man who saved Greece during the Second Persian War.
Despite this, Themistocles would be surrounded by controversy for most of his life and would die in exile in 459 B.C.E..
Themistocles’ early life
Themistocles began life as part of the family of a minor Athenian noble, named Neocles. His mother was non-Athenian, either a Thracian woman named Abrotonum or a Carian named Euterpe, which is Greek for ‘well-pleasing.’ This, combined with the possibility of his mother being a prostitute, denied Themistocles’ status as an Athenian citizen.2
According to Plutarch, Themistocles spent a good deal of his youth leading members of other social classes in their exercises in an effort to overcome class restrictions. He also spent a large amount of time practicing oration, prompting the comment from one of his teachers that he was destined for greatness.1
Themistocles’ early political career
In 508 B.C.E., Themistocles gained Athenian citizenship thanks to Cleisthenes, who granted citizenship to all free, property holding men in Athens.2 He very quickly aspired to greater political office, attaining the position of Archon in 493 B.C.E. at around the age of 30.
Themistocles was one of the advocates for the construction of the harbor near Piraeus and further enhancing the power of the Athenian navy. He also advocated for increasing the rights of those Athenians who served as rowers for Athens’ ships, increasing his popularity amongst the common citizens.2
Along the way, Themistocles gained a number of enemies during his rise to power. Thanking all of his achievements to the power of democracy, Themistocles advocated for bringing more rights and power to common citizens, making him enemies with the established aristocratic families. Furthermore, by styling himself as an ally of the common man, Themistocles gained a great deal of popularity and power in the democracy, which caused others seeking political power to be wary of him.1
Themistocles during the Persian Wars
During the First Persian War, Themistocles spoke in favor of Miltiades, a former tyrant of Athens who is often credited with the strategy that defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in the First Persian War.1
After the defeat of the first Persian invasion, Themistocles advocated for the strengthening of the Athenian navy to combat future Persian invasions. Though he initially faced heavy opposition to his plan, he was able to convince his fellow Athenians in the Ecclesia by implying that the ships would be used to fight against another Greek city-state.1
During the Second Persian War, Themistocles’ ships proved instrumental in turning the tide of the war and the saving of the population of Athens. When the Persians marched upon Athens, Themistocles used an old prophecy about the ‘wooden walls’ of Athens saving it, reinterpreting the ‘wooden walls’ as being it’s navy, thus convincing the leadership to evacuate the people. Later, at the island of Salamis, Themistocles tricked the Persian and Greek forces into a full fledged conflict. Despite the larger size of the Persian navy, the Greeks were able to defeat the Persians thanks to the cramped area in which they were fighting, rendering the numerical advantage of the Persians useless.1 Without this naval victory, Greece wouldn’t have been able to win the Persian War shortly afterwards at the land battle at Platea.
Themistocles’ exile and death
After the Second Persian War, Themistocles’ actions finally caught up with him. He was exiled from Athens after building a temple to Artemis in his hometown and naming it Aristoboule, or good counsel. To make matters worse, his constant boasting about his achievements made him a number of enemies both inside and outside of Athens, most notably the Spartans, who accused him of colluding with a known traitor. As a result, Themistocles fled Greece.1
After his exile from Greece, Themistocles would end up serving as an aide to the Persian king. He was held in high regard by the Persian king, Artaxerxes, and served as a consul on matters involving Greece. He was given governorship of the province of Magnesia, where he served until his death in 459 B.C.E.. There are several depictions of his death, as, while some claim he died of natural causes, others, such as Plutarch, made the claim he poisoned himself to avoid failing a task assigned by Artaxerxes, which Plutarch claimed was an assault upon a Greek city-state.1
Controversies surrounding Themistocles
Themistocles was a man of many ambitions, which in turn led him to be accused by his peers of power mongering. His critics often cited Themistocles’ as being boastful of his many accomplishments, such as his status and rank. Many of the Athenian aristocrats didn’t like Themistocles because he gained a large amount of power so quickly and was not from an affluent family.
While he was the main catalyst in defeating the Persian Empire in the Second Persian War, Themistocles did so by a number of underhanded methods. During the evacuation of Athens, Themistocles looted the city and used some of the money he found to pay the wages of the rowers of the boats evacuating Athenian citizens. Later, at the island of Salamis, Themistocles accepted a large bribe to protect the island from the Persian navy. In order to ensure the battle happened, Themistocles bribed many of the other Greek forces to stay and fight, and when some refused, he forced them to fight by telling the Persians the location of the Greek navy. As insurance in case the Greeks lost, Themistocles mentioned in his letter that he was willing to betray Greece and join the Persians.