Born: 524 BC
Died At Age: 65
Born Country: Greece
Born in: Frearrioi (modern Feriza close to Anavyssos)
Famous as: Military Leader
children: Archeptolis, Asia, Cleophantus, Diocles, Italia, Mnesiptolema, Neocles, Nicomache, Polyeuctus, Sybaris
Died on: 459 BC
place of death: Magnesia on the Maeander, Greek
Themistocles was an Athenian politician and military general. He was a commoner and garnered widespread support from his people. He championed democracy and was often at odds with the nobility. He rose to prominence when he was made the archon and got the chance to lead the entire Greek naval forces. He played an essential role in dismissing the Persian troops and thwarting their attempted conquest of Greece. He was an insightful man and had gauged the impending threat that Greece faced from Persia. He insisted on building a massive naval fleet that would be a match against the Persian armada. By the time the war was over, Themistocles had become an influential persona in Athens. However, with time, his strategies began to fail. He was then perceived as proud and arrogant by the Athenians, and his popular support declined. However, his status as an Athenian hero was redeemed after his death. Thucydides has described Themistocles as "a man who exhibited the most indubitable signs of genius; indeed, in this particular, he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled."
Childhood & Early Life
Themistocles was born circa 524 BC in the Attic district of Phrearrhioi, situated about 20 miles southeast of Athens.
His father was Neocles, who hailed from the Lycomid family. The origins of his mother are not recorded; however, Plutarch claims that she was either a Thracian woman called Abrotonon, or Euterpe, a Carian from Halicarnassus.
Available details of his early life are limited, but some scholars report that he was unmanageable as a child, and his father had disowned him. However, Plutarch disagrees and states that Themistocles was regarded as an outsider, like his mother.
According to Plutarch, Themistocles' family was from Cynosarges, a district outside the city gates.
Plutarch also reveals that as a child he was always engrossed in his endeavors preparing for public life.
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Themistocles’ career as a politician began when he was appointed as 'Archon Eponymous' in 493 BC. He was also a member of 'Areopagus,' a council of magistrates.
It was a tumultuous time for Athens and the city was involved in two significant foreign conflicts, the first being the war with Aegina, and the second being the hostility with the Persian Empire in the east.
When Themistocles was serving as archon, the Persians were gathering forces. They were preparing to invade Europe. Herodotus states Darius I the Great sought retribution for the Athenians' support to the rebels.
In 483 BC, the Athenians discovered a lode of silver near Laurion, in Athens. Themistocles suggested that they use it to build warships and a naval fleet. The 'ekklesia' or the “Athenian People's Assembly” accepted the proposal, and they began constructing their fleet.
Xerxes, son of Darius, who was the ruler in Persia, had ordered an extensive expedition against the Greeks. His men were engaged in digging large canals, and it was evident that he wanted to use a vast armada to invade Greece.
Themistocles also had another reason to build a naval fleet. The wealthy nobles mostly controlled the Greek infantry, but warships would require the employment of poor people as rowers, thus instilling the spirit of democracy in the city-state of Athens.
The Persian Wars
In 481 BC, the Greek politicians realized that they would have to strategize for the upcoming battle and provide a united front against the Persians. A congress was held to form an alliance between the states.
Themistocles had to convince the entire city of Athens to evacuate, as every able-bodied man was required to fight, and it was suggested that Athenians leave their homes and settle in Troezen.
He also suggested that the ostracized (Aristides and Xanthippus) should be recalled to participate in the battle against one common enemy.
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Themistocles ordered that the fleet be sent to Artemisium and Salamis as he knew the Greek forces would not be able to hold off the Persian invaders who could be defeated only at sea.
Xerxes and his troops had arrived at Thermopylae and had beaten the Spartans stationed there. Simultaneously, the Persians saw that the Greek armies were headed to Artemisium led by admiral Eurybiades. However, the real power was held by Themistocles as he was commanding 127 Athenian ships. Eurybiades wanted to fall back, but Themistocles bribed him to stay.
The Greeks and the Persians fought for two days, and on the third, the Persians took over Thermopylae.
Battle of Salamis
After the Persians seized Thermopylae and the Greeks’ loss in Artemisium, facing the Persians in another battle in Boeotia would have ended poorly for the Greeks, as the enemy forces outnumbered them.
The only way to get back at Xerxes was to torpedo their transport fleet and food supplies. However, the Persians had already breached into Athens.
The Greek navy remained roughly intact and stationed themselves in the island of Salamis which was strategically opposite the port Phalerum. According to Herodotus, Themistocles knew that his allies would only defend themselves and not launch an attack on the Persians in the narrow bay.
Thus, he used his shrewdness and cunning to deceive Xerxes. He sent an envoy to Xerxes, stating that there was infighting among the leaders, and if he wanted victory, he should attack promptly, as the Greek forces would retreat at dawn. However, the Persian armada came under attack instead and had to retreat.
The authenticity of this legend has been a debated topic among historians. Nonetheless, the victory in Salamis meant that the invaders were defeated as their armies were depleted and their fleet was too wrecked to continue fighting.
Themistocles reached the peak of his glory and fame, but all this limelight eventually caused his downfall. The Athenians perceived him as “too mighty” and exiled him. He then settled in Argos.
He continued his anti-Spartan polices until the Spartans revealed to the Athenians that Themistocles was colluding with Xerxes, which turned his exile into a death sentence.
The people in Argos helped him escape, and he eventually sought asylum in Persia. King Artaxerxes, the son of Xerxes, received him.
Themistocles made an impression on Artaxerxes, and he was appointed as governor of Magnesia in Asia Minor and collected revenues from three cities: Magnesia, Myus, and Lampsacus.
Family & Personal Life
Themistocles married Archippe, Lysander of Alopece's daughter, and together they had three sons, namely Archeptolis, Polyeuctus, and Cleophantus.
He also had two older sons, Neocles, who died young, and Diocles, who was adopted by his grandfather, Lysander.
He fathered several daughters of whom Mnesiptolema was from his second wife. His other daughters were named Italia, Sybaris, Nicomache, and Asia.
According to Thucydides, Themistocles died from natural causes at 65 in Magnesia in 459 BC. However, there are disagreements related to his death. Rumor has it that he committed suicide by ingesting poison or bull's blood because he could not imagine joining Artaxerxes in his new conquest to Greece. It was also believed that his bones were buried in Attica in secret.
Plutarch mentions that the Magnesians built a remarkable tomb in his honor situated in their market.