General, Statesman, Strategist (c. 524 – 459 BC)
Themistocles was an Athenian statesman and the leading commander of the victorious Battle of Salamis against the Persians in 480 BC.Born into an Athenian family, Themistocles was a skilled strategist and stood out from a young age; Greek historian Thucydides describes him as a man who had figurative prudence as a young man and being able to predict and solve forthcoming problems. In 490 BC. Themistocles fought against the Persian army in the decisive Battle of Marathon alongside the general Miltiades.
Following the fall of the aristocratic power in Athenian politics, Themistocles entered politics and became ruling archon of Athens in 493 BC. He managed to convince politicians and citizens that the war against the Persian Empire was not over but a second invasion was on its way. As archon he built, organized an fortified the harbor of Piraeus after transferring it from Phaleron, and organized the naval forces of Athens, building up to 200 triremes. Therefore, when Xerxes’ army was to invade Athens, they would be ready to face it.
Learning that Xerxes’ army was marching towards Athens, the Athenians sought the help of the Oracle of Delphi to request for a prediction. After a pessimistic and discouraging first prediction, the Athenians were given a prediction that said that the ”wooden wall” was impenetrable. Themistocles not only deciphered the first discouraging prediction into a victory for the Greeks but also the second one, convincing most Athenians that ”wooden walls” referred to the wooden triremes and not the wooden fortress of the Acropolis (as it was back then). His decision that a naval battle would lead the Greeks to victory verified Thucydides’ description of Themistocles. Themistocles also managed to evacuate the city of Athens and lead the people to Peloponnese in time while ensuring their well-being.
In 480 BC. Themistocles, along with Adeimandos and Eurybiades led a series of naval battles against the Persian army: The Battle of Artemisium and the Battle of Salamis. The Battle of Artemisium took place simultaneously with the Battle of Thermopylae. King Leonidas and the Spartans would lead an army to block the Persians from descending to Athens and Peloponnese from land, while Themistocles would block their naval forces. Following the defeat of Leonidas at Thermopylae, the Greek naval army decided to retreat to Salamis. Using his persuasion skills and his strategic knowledge, Themistocles came up with the ideal strategy to defeat the Persian army in Salamis, persuaded the Peloponnese army to join the battle, and subsequently lured the Persians into believing that the Greeks had surrendered and awaited in Salamis with the help of his Persian slave Sicinnus. Xerxes bought into it and the Battle of Samalis began.Themistocles had organized the battle in such a way so as the massive Persian naval army would become trapped between the narrow gulf and the Greeks, with their smaller triremes, would penetrate the Persian ships. The Persian naval forces were aligned in rows, so each time the front row would be attacked by the Greek ships, the following ones would be unable to flee as land was behind them. Themistocles’ genius plan defeated the outnumbering Persian army with very few casualties: The Greek army constituted of 378 or 310 triremes with 70.000-80.000 men. The Persian army constituted of 1207 triremes with 250.000-300.00 men. The Greeks lost 40 or 60 triremes and the Persians 200-300.
The Greek victory shook the Persian army to its core. Xerxes, who was watching the entire battle from mount Aegaleon was so frightened that ordered the retreat of his entire army from Phaleron and Athens. Themistocles’ outstanding work and bravery was hailed by the Greeks; the Spartans awarded him with the award of bravery and skill. They also awarded him with the most beautiful chariot of Sparta. During the Olympic games of 476 BC. when people saw Themistocles entering the stadium they cheered and hailed him as a national hero. Following the battle, Themistocles returned to politics, building a giant wall to protect the city of Athens. After the acclaim came his downfall which resulted to a sad and awful fate.
Historians regard Themistocles as a master strategist and tactician and the Battle of Salamis as one of the most important battle in human history; it is estimated that had the Greeks lost the battle, the Persians would have not only conquered Greece but move and expand throughout Europe. The Greek civilization would have ceased to flourish and therefore Europe and the rest of the western world would have never existed as science, art, philosophy, technology and politics would have never reached them. Consequently, the Battle of Salamis marks the turning-point in Greek, European and world history and the man behind the victory is undoubtedly a timeless figure of heroism.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. ”Themistocles” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. 11 August. 2016.
- ”Themistocles”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens, 1946. Print.
- Volonakis, Ioannis. The Great Leaders of Ancient Greece. Georgiades: Athens, 1997.