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Who's Who Ancient Greece: Civic Affairs

Themistokles (525-461 BC)

Political and military leader

ThemistoklesThe genius of this able politician and general was a major factor in the ousting of the Persians from Greece, and the building of Athens into a major maritime and mercantile power.

He was born in Athens and died in Magnesia in Asia Minor. Most of what is known of him comes from the writings of Plutarch, who described him as impetuous, brash, ambitious and daring, though Thucidydes, who also wrote about him, describes him in positive terms, praising his good judgement and instinct, his ability to think and act swiftly, his insight and natural genius.

click to see largerHis dream of ending the Persian threat to Greece led him to build up the navy, moving it from Phaleron to Piraeus, which was a much better harbor, and increasing its number of triremes to a total 200.

The decision made by Greek cities in the council at Corinth in 480 BC to reject the demands for surrender by the Persian king, Xerxes, was in large part due to the vision and insight of Themistokles.

The naval battle that took place in the straits of Salamis in 480 BC, with the Greeks trouncing the Persian fleet that outnumbered them three to one, was due to Themistokles' genius as a strategist.

He began rebuilding Athens in 478 BC, seeing to the construction of new walls around the city, and fortified Piraeus as well, with Athnes rising to the status of foremost mercantile and maritime power of Greece. In 470 BC, his opponents in the conservative party, the party of Aristidis (who had been ostracized and exiled by Themistokles' party some twelve years earlier) and Kimon, had him ostracized. He had gained enemies through his arrogance, and his taking of bribes. He fled to Argos and then to Kerkyra (Corfu), and then to the court of Admetus, King of the Molossi in Ipiros (Epiros).

His enemies continued to persecute him, however, and Admetus sent him to Macedonia from which he travelled to Persia (country of the powers he had played such a major role in defeating), where King Artaxerxes honored him and provided him with the revenues of three Asia Minor cities to live on.

Not surprisingly, the Persian king had ulterior motives in bestowing such gifts on Themistokles, and in 461 BC requested that he lead the Persian navy against Greece. Themistokles chose death instead. At least this is one version, according to which he took poison. Another version has it that he died of illness. In any case, his remains were spirited away by friends and buried at the entrance to the port of Piraeus, and his descendants honored.