Themistocles – Statesman, General and Naval Strategist of Ancient Greece
Themistocles (c. 524 – c. 459 B.C.) was a great and visionary Athenian statesman, general and naval strategist.
In 493-492 he became a magistrate (archon).
Themistocles served as an Athenian general in the Battle of Marathon (490) against Persia. After successfully beating off the Persians at Marathon, most Athenians believed they were out of danger from the Persian Empire, but Themistocles believed that the Persians remained a growing threat and would eventually send another stronger force against the Athenians.
Themistocles therefore persuaded the Athenians to
- fortify Piraeus, the fort of Athens (493);
- use the profits from the rich silver deposits from the mines near Sunium to increase military preparedness, and to treble the size of the naval fleet of just 100-200 warships in preparation for an anticipated naval invasion by the Persians; and
- to form an anti-Persian alliance with other anti-Persian Greeks and even give the command of the fleet to a Spartan (to persuade them to join the alliance), this latter move adding another 150 Spartan warships to the Greek allied force.
Themistocles, a democrat, faced great opposition from the wealthy aristocratic ruling class. His plan for a greater fleet effectively gave more political power to the men who rowed the galleys – that is, men from the poorer classes of society. His emphasis on naval power meant that the wealthy would have to pay more taxes to achieve this.
In 480, the Persians, under the command of Xerxes I, invaded Greece. Seeing that it was impossible to defend Athens against the Persians, Themistocles ordered the city to be evacuated.
Though the Greek fleet was under the command of a Spartan, it was Themistocles who actually planned the strategy. This strategy was in fact a carefully planned trap: to lure the sailing ships of the Persians and their allies into a narrow strait on the island fortress of Salamis, where they could be attacked by the Greek armored marines and heavy ships.
This strategy led to a decisive Greek naval victory over the Persians at Salamis and saw the retreat of Xerxes I and the end of the Persian control of the sea.
Despite his brilliant success, the ruling council of nobles (the Areopagus) gave the ruling commands in 479 to Themistocles’ two rivals, the recalled exiles, Artistides and Xanthippus.
Under the guidance of Themistocles, the Athenians rebuilt their walls, destroyed during the Persian invasion, but to a greater height.
The Spartans were jealous and afraid of Themistocles and, as a way to rid themselves of him, demanded that Themistocles be put on trial for complicity in a treasonous with their own general Pausanias. Themistocles, realizing that there was little chance of escaping from this determined accusation by the Spartans, decided to go into permanent exile. He traveled to Asia Minor where he was kindly received and spent the rest of his life in the service of the Persian king Artaxerxes I.
Themistocles is often described by ancient sources as perhaps a master strategist but deep down just an ambitious and greedy politician. These ancient sources were mostly written by Themistocles’ upper class, aristocratic enemies. The great historian, Thucydides, praised Themistocles’ judgment and vision.
In fact, Themistocles laid was a genius whose brilliant naval strategies laid the foundations of Athenian military power during the golden age of the Athenian Empire and, as Plutarch wrote, he was “the man most instrumental in achieving the salvation of Greece” from invasion by the Persian Empire.