Themistocles the Architect of Athenian Power

themistoclesThemistocles was the son of Neocles, who belonged to the Lycomidae family, one of the oldest in Athens from which many priests originated. His mother, Abrotonon, was a foreigner, possibly from Thrace or Caria, and likely a slave. Thus, Themistocles combined aristocratic and humble, Athenian-Greek and foreign lineage. According to the stricter laws enacted before Cleisthenes (or later Pericles), he had no political rights.

The fact that he acquired them was due to the reforms of Cleisthenes (510-507 BC), which extended the right of the Athenian citizen to all Greeks living and working in Greece. It is possible that in his youth, Themistocles was an ardent supporter, perhaps even a collaborator of Cleisthenes.

The political reformer’s policy defended the interests of people like Themistocles: those who did not have political rights and found it unfair, and struggled to obtain them because they were conscious of being Athenians, contributing to the city with their work, and not being inferior to others who just happened to be born to two Athenian parents.

The awareness of his origins and his early struggles marked Themistocles, making him the greatest radical democratic leader in Athens. This alone would have secured him a proud place in ancient Greek history. However, Themistocles went further, surpassing narrow political boundaries and disputes, managed to identify with Athens, and unite the city’s people at the most critical moment in its history. Thus, he deserves the title of the greatest politician of Athens.

Themistocles Political Carier

In 493 BC, Themistocles was elected archon eponymos at a time when this position was far from being merely ceremonial, as it would become in later periods. He initiated the construction of a grand project, which he himself would complete after the Persian Wars: the fortification of Piraeus and the proposal to build the Long Walls, making Athens impregnable as long as it remained a thalassocracy.

Another significant event marked the year Themistocles served as archon: the trial of Miltiades. His accusers were political opponents, followers of the Peisistratids and the Alcmaeonids. There is no evidence, but it is likely that Themistocles supported Miltiades and achieved his acquittal. He knew that in the long term, Miltiades and his followers would oppose his domestic policies, as their interests were contrary.

However, at the time of the trial, the imminent Persian threat was foremost in the minds of both men (the Ionian Revolt had been suppressed, and Mardonius’ army had subjugated Macedonia and Thrace, with only the storm that sank the Persian fleet at Athos saving Athens from Persian invasion that year). For Themistocles, every enemy of the Persians was an ally. Thus, he set aside the political differences between him and Miltiades and supported him in the trial.

In 490 BC, Themistocles participated in the Battle of Marathon as a general of his tribe, Leontis. Leontis, along with Antiochis (led by Aristides), formed the weak center of the Athenian line, tasked with a critical mission in the battle. They were to orderly retreat under the pressure of the Persian center, allowing the reinforced Athenian flanks to crush the Persians and then encircle the enemy center. This retreat had to be conducted without turning into a rout. Themistocles and Aristides managed to execute this difficult maneuver, significantly contributing to the victory.

After Marathon, years of fierce political struggles followed between rival factions for control of power. Themistocles fought by every means, as did his opponents, to succeed. However, what set him apart was the presence of a long-term plan, a vision with both an external and internal aspect. Internally, it involved promoting the interests of the large mass of poorer Athenians. Themistocles became their spokesman and leader, a populist leader, and the man who made the people realize their power.

He pushed, almost forced them to become more actively involved in politics. He sought rights for the majority of poor Athenians but only after burdening them with responsibility. He asked much for the people of Athens but demanded equally from the people for the city. Themistocles made the Athenians accept heavy sacrifices as the price for the power he promised they would later gain. Remarkably, he persuaded them, and the majority of Athenians followed him with blind trust in decisions that, at least in the short term, seemed against their interests.

The Persian threat

Themistocles was among the few who believed that this threat had not vanished; that the victory at Marathon was not definitive but merely a respite that should be used for preparation. The proper preparation involved building the strongest fleet ever seen by a Greek city. Here, at sea, with the fleet, the two aspects of his policy converge.

For the fleet he envisaged, thousands of rowers were needed (for 200 triremes, approximately 34,000 if we assume 170 for each trireme). The naval crews could only come from the lower social class, the thetes, who were not wealthy enough to own their own armor to fight as hoplites. When they became rowers, the fleet relied on them.

Naval Athens needed them as never before, unlike the primarily land-focused Athens of the past. The thetes realized this, understood their power, and, being aware of their contribution to the city’s salvation, would demand and acquire political rights they previously did not have, such as election to higher offices.

Political Strife

After the Battle of Marathon, Themistocles sought to implement his plan for the construction of the fleet. However, he encountered obstacles from his political opponents: Hipparchus and Megacles, leaders of the oligarchic factions—followers of Peisistratus—and Aristides, leader of the conservatives, who, although a supporter of Cleisthenes, found Themistocles’s proposals too extreme.

Themistocles’s opponents did not believe in the Persian threat, while supporters of Hippias desired Persian intervention to restore the old regime. They all saw the empowerment of the thetes, should Themistocles’s naval program be realized, as a threat to their interests. Thus, they opposed his proposals under various pretenses, such as the high cost and wasteful spending of public money on unnecessary expenses. His proposals were rejected by the Assembly of the Demos.

Themistocles refused to admit defeat. Realizing he would not have the support of other parties and political leaders, he changed tactics: if he could not cooperate with them, he would succeed despite them. He understood that he needed to eliminate his opponents, dominate Athens, and become the master of the Demos.

He would dedicate the following years to this purpose. Both he and his opponents used every means available to prevail and win the favor of the Demos. Themistocles utilized (for the first time) the mass “media” of the era to strengthen his position. To make Athenians aware of the Persian threat, he became the sponsor (chorēgos) of a theatrical play written by Phrynichos, “The Fall of Miletus.” It served as a warning to the Athenians about their fate if they found themselves unprepared when the Persians arrived in Greece: destruction and subjugation, as happened to Miletus in 494 BC.

Attempts to ostracize Themistocles

In the following years, despite attempts by the oligarchs to exile Themistocles (many ostraka bearing his name have been found), his influence on the people remained unshaken. Following Hipparchus into exile were Megacles, a nephew of Cleisthenes from the Alcmaeonid family, who unlike Cleisthenes represented the aristocrats; Hippocrates, another politician from the Alcmaeonid family; Xanthippus (father of Pericles) and finally, Themistocles’s most formidable opponent, the leader of the conservatives, Aristides.

Themistocles’s victory was complete. All his opponents had been exiled, making him the undisputed leader of Athens. His victory was due to his influence over the “third class,” the thetes. The numerous thetes always voted en masse, following Themistocles’s guidance, whereas his political opponents were divided. They managed to unite against him only when it was too late.

With the ostracism of Aristides, there remained no politician in Athens capable of opposing Themistocles’s naval program. However, the Athenians themselves still needed to be convinced. Events aided Themistocles, who exploited them with genius, largely steering them in the direction he wanted.

The creation of the mighty Athenian Fleet

During that time, King Cleomenes of Sparta died. His death temporarily loosened the cohesion of the Peloponnesian League and Spartan authority over it. The oligarchic Spartans always regarded anything democratic with suspicion, and naturally, they viewed Athens, the most democratic city of Greece, in the same light.

As long as Cleomenes, who had recognized the Persian threat, was alive, the Spartans tolerated Athens. After his death, Spartan policy reversed. They now supported Athens’s old enemy, Aegina. Cleomenes had put an end to the Athenian-Aeginetan war before Marathon by forcing Aegina to surrender hostages to Athens. Now, King Leotychidas of Sparta came to Athens with an Aeginetan delegation, requesting the release of the hostages.

The Athenians refused. In this case too, we can discern the guidance of Themistocles. Themistocles sought a confrontation with Aegina because Aegina was a naval power. To successfully wage war against it, Athens needed to transform into a naval power as well. The war paved the way for the implementation of the naval program. Themistocles used the immediate and visible threat, Aegina, as a pretext to build the fleet that would face the distant but incomparably greater threat, the Persians.

The confrontation was balanced, and the Athenians, despite Corinthian assistance, lost a naval battle. The Aeginetan navy was more experienced, with a long-standing tradition.

Themistocles capitalized on the Athenian defeat, which at that moment was more useful to him than a victory. The Aeginetans were more battle-hardened, superior ship to ship. Since they had qualitative superiority, Athens could only defeat them with numerical superiority. Being the most populous city in mainland Greece, Athens had the potential to create a strong fleet. A fleet of 200 or more new triremes, a fleet three to four times larger than the Aeginetan one, the likes of which the Greek world had never seen. The cost for building it was significant and impossible to cover with the usual state revenues. However, Themistocles had a proposal ready for this as well. Speaking in the Assembly of the Demos, in the most crucial speech of ancient Greek history, he convinced the Athenians, especially the large majority of poor, ordinary Athenians, to make a significant personal financial sacrifice. He called upon them to donate the revenues from the silver mines of Maroneia, in Laurion.

As if fortune was Themistocles’s most faithful ally: At that time, in the mines which had been operational for centuries, a new, very rich vein was discovered. The revenues reached 100 talents or 600,000 drachmas, when the daily wage of an average Athenian was about 1 drachma. The revenues were to be distributed among the Athenians: About 10 drachmas each!

In his speech, Themistocles must have talked about the imminent danger, Aegina, the distant threat, the Persians, the benefits for the thetes, who would gain decisive political power, and the glorious future of the thalassocratic Athens, as he envisioned it. And the people were persuaded, they followed him, voting for the naval program and offering the funds from Laurium. It was a moving gesture. Themistocles had stirred the patriotism and pride of all. The new fleet was every Athenian’s fleet because every Athenian had contributed money for its construction.

Thus, thanks to Themistocles’s genius and the Athenians’ self-sacrifice, who agreed to forgo the financial benefits of the present for the promised future, Greece acquired, almost at the last moment, the fleet that would save it. Had Themistocles’s speech not convinced the Athenians, had the fleet not been built in time, the naval battles at Artemisium and Salamis might not have happened, and Greece would likely have been subjugated to the Persians. The course of Greek and European history would have been different.

In 483-482 BC, during the archonship of Nicomedes, Athens was transformed into a vast shipyard. Ships were being built at every harbor and beach, most city workshops were working to prepare the orders for the fleet supplies, ropes, sails, nails, rams, oars, paints, and so much more.

The new Athenian triremes were specially designed to fight effectively in the type of conflict for which Themistocles intended them. Since the Greek fleet was sure to be numerically inferior to the Persian, it had to choose closed, restricted waters for the naval battle because these waters would not allow the Persians to use their larger fleet to outmaneuver and encircle the Greek fleet, as they could in the open sea. In narrows, such as at Artemisium and Salamis, there was no room for many maneuvers.

The clash would be head-on, where the heavier ship would have the advantage. The battle would be fought hand-to-hand by the marines on the ships, and in such a conflict, the Greek hoplites excelled. In closed waters, the maneuverability advantage of Phoenician ships would also be nullified.

Themistocles’s strategy reveals the type of ship Athens constructed. Herodotus explicitly mentions this in two places, which some historians did not pay enough attention to: In History 8.60, Themistocles tells the Greeks, “since we have heavier ships and fewer in number, it is not to our advantage to fight a naval battle in the open sea.” And in History 8.10, where he writes that the Persian ships “sailed better” (were more maneuverable). Thus, at the last moment, Athens acquired the fleet that would make a naval confrontation possible. It was time because the Persian army and fleet were already heading towards Greece.

The battles of Marathon and Salamis

The councils of the Greeks decided to hold off the Persian invasion as far north as possible. The first line of defense was Olympus and the passes leading to Thessaly.

Indeed, the Greek army headed to the passes and remained there for a while to guard them. However, they were forced to retreat long before the Persian army appeared. Themistocles commanded the Athenian army that had gone to Tempe. The reasons for the retreat were that most Thessalians had already given “earth and water” to the Persian envoys, making them dubious allies. They preferred to submit, like the Macedonians, rather than face Persian wrath if the rest of the Greeks were forced to retreat. The mountain tribes, mainly the Perrhaebi and Magnesians, had shown favor towards the Persians and could lead parts of the Persian army through the mountain paths, which they knew better than anyone, to outflank the Greek force at Tempe. If the Greeks had stayed at Tempe, it’s very possible the story of Thermopylae would have been written there.

However, the most significant reason for the retreat was the lack of a suitable place for a naval battle. The sea was open; there were no straits that offered the tactical advantage on which Themistocles’s strategy primarily relied. If the Greek fleet engaged in battle in the open sea off Thessaly, it risked being surrounded and defeated. If it fought and left the army unprotected, then the Persian fleet could land troops behind the Greek position at Tempe, encircle them, and cut off their retreat and communications with their bases. The decision to abandon Tempe must have been supported by Themistocles.

The next defensive position was at Thermopylae and Artemisium, in the narrow waters between Euboea and the tip of the Pagasetic Gulf. Here, Themistocles’s strategy proved correct, as the Greek fleet held its positions in the ensuing naval battles, causing significant losses to the Persians while suffering fewer losses themselves. The fleet only retreated when Thermopylae fell; it remained undefeated.

The Greek fleet withdrew to Salamis. Everything seemed lost. However, thanks to Themistocles’s advice and guidance, the Athenians had prepared even for the worst-case scenario, if the Persians reached Athens. The defense of the unwalled city was impossible. Its capture was inevitable. However, the Persians would capture an empty city: the Athenians had accepted “Themistocles’s decree” and had moved women, children, the elderly, and whatever personal belongings and animals they could to Troezen and Salamis.

The spirit of Athens beat not in the empty city but in the wooden walls, the fleet, which was its shield and spear, and even the final escape route if the defense failed. Themistocles’s threat, that the Athenians would board their ships and seek a new homeland in Italy, was real: thus, the other Greek leaders accepted it. The existence of such a large fleet gave Themistocles a position of power unmatched by any other Greek city, as no other fleet was numerous enough to transport their entire population away from the Persian threat. At the critical moment of the council at Salamis, he used the Athenian fleet again as his ultimate argument. His statement, as reported by Herodotus, was an ultimatum for the other leaders.

They would either stay and fight all at Salamis, or they would fight without the Athenian fleet. The Athenians would seek a homeland elsewhere. They were the only ones who could. For the other Greeks, the choice was either to fight at Salamis or to choose subjugation by the Persians for a large part of their population, which they couldn’t take on ships if they left following the Athenians in search of a new homeland. Victory, however, without the Athenian fleet, was impossible.

Themistocles had foreseen that Salamis might become the last line of defense for the Greeks if Thermopylae fell. Conversely, he had ruled out the Isthmus for the same reason he ruled out Tempe. The location was strong on land but not at sea. And the battle would be decided at sea.

The Delphic Oracle and the wooden walls of Athens

The speculation that Themistocles had calculated Salamis as the last refuge for the Greek fleet is reinforced by the oracle of the Delphic Oracle. The Athenians had sought an oracle from Delphi before Themistocles’s decree. The Oracle, which had pro-Median tendencies, anticipating that the Greeks had little chance of winning, gave a first oracle predicting disaster for the Athenians.

However, the envoys, evidently following Themistocles’s instructions, refused to return with this oracle. Instead, they used diplomatic means to bring back to Athens an oracle acceptable to Themistocles, one that would make the devout and somewhat superstitious Athenians accept the interpretation he intended to give. The envoys found Timon of Androboulus, one of the significant figures of Delphi, who mediated with the priesthood and the Pythia Aristonice, who was persuaded to give a second, more favorable oracle for the Athenians. This is the well-known oracle containing the words, “the all-seeing Zeus gives permission to the Tritogeneia to keep only the wooden wall unbreached, which will protect you and your children” and concludes with: “O divine Salamis, you will feed many a youth, whether sowing occurs or harvesting.”

The oracle contained the elements Themistocles wanted. He had essentially asked the delegation to achieve this. The wooden wall, meaning the ships, and divine Salamis, which would only be divine to the Greeks if it foretold a Greek victory, if the youths lost would not be Greeks but their enemies.

According to this version, Themistocles is presented as not hesitating to construct the oracle according to his strategic estimation and to exploit the Athenians’ superstition to convince them to accept what he believed was right. It’s one of the first instances where religion and the priesthood are used, even against their will, in the service of politics and the state.

Thus, Themistocles had two arguments to fight the Greek fleet at Salamis: the oracle, the divine counsel, and the threat that if this did not happen, the Athenian fleet would leave for Italy.

The defeat of the Persians in Salamis

Themistocles didn’t want to leave anything to chance, as much as humanly possible. Therefore, he turned Xerxes himself into an unwitting ally by devising a scheme to send his servant with a message that the Greek fleet was ready to sail away.

The Persians fell for the trap, not only because they believed the message but also because they likely had similar information from other sources, suggesting that the Greeks were divided over whether to stay at Salamis or not. Themistocles’s message confirmed their previous information and had two other positive outcomes.

The Persians sent a part of their fleet, the Egyptian squadron, which had distinguished itself at Artemisium, to block both entrances formed by the Gulf of Eleusis towards Megara. Thus, this squadron did not participate at all in the decisive conflict. Furthermore, the Persians, thinking that the Greeks were retreating, entered the strait in disorder, giving an additional advantage to the Greek fleet.

The Battle of Salamis became the decisive confrontation, the decisive victory that vindicated the Greeks and foremost Themistocles. Salamis was the last trench protecting Greek freedom, the trench the Persians did not cross. It was a triumph for free Greece and a triumph of Themistocles’s efforts and struggles.

He was the first to discern the danger, he correctly calculated the element that needed to be primarily confronted—the sea. He understood what was needed to do it, and he fought with determination, patience, and persistence, without any hesitation, to construct the weapon Athens needed, the fleet. At the critical moment, almost the last moment, Athens would not be found unprepared.

Athens had been utterly destroyed by the Persians. However, it had won, it had gained freedom, it had protected democracy. The Athenian thalassocracy, which would lead to the unprecedented flourishing of the next fifty years, was born at Salamis. From the ashes of Athens and the triumph of Salamis would spring the golden Athens of Pericles.

Legacy of Themistocles

The legacy of Themistocles is profound and multi-faceted, influencing both the ancient world and the way modern societies understand leadership, strategy, and democracy. As a pivotal figure in the history of Athens and Greece, Themistocles’s contributions span political innovation, military strategy, and urban development, leaving a lasting impact that transcended his own time.

Strategic Military Leadership

Themistocles’s foresight and strategic planning were instrumental in securing Greek freedom during the Persian Wars. His role in the Battle of Marathon as a general and his leadership as an admiral at the Battle of Salamis highlight his military acumen. By convincing the Athenians to build a formidable navy and by employing cunning strategies against the Persians, Themistocles ensured not just the survival but the triumph of the Greek city-states over a formidable enemy. The victory at Salamis, in particular, is often seen as a turning point in Greek history, significantly weakening the Persian threat and safeguarding the nascent democratic institutions of Athens.

Political Acumen and Advocacy for Democracy

Themistocles was also a master politician, using his skills to navigate the complex political landscape of Athens. His promotion of democracy, through the empowerment of the lower classes, particularly the thetes, helped to stabilize and strengthen Athenian democracy. By integrating a broader segment of society into the military and political life of the city, he fostered a sense of unity and purpose.

Urban and Naval Development

The legacy of Themistocles also includes his vision for Athens as a naval power. His initiatives to fortify the Piraeus and to build the Long Walls securing the connection between Athens and its port were crucial in transforming Athens into a dominant maritime power. This shift not only provided Athens with military superiority but also laid the foundation for its economic prosperity and cultural golden age.

Influence on Western Civilization

The strategies and policies of Themistocles have been studied and admired throughout history. His ability to combine military strategy with political insight, and his role in defending and promoting democracy, have made him a symbol of civic virtue and military intelligence. The narrative of his life and achievements contributes to the foundational myths of Western civilization, emphasizing the value of individual leadership, strategic thinking, and the defense of freedom against tyranny.

Controversial and Complex Character

Despite his accomplishments, Themistocles’s legacy is not without controversy. His eventual ostracism and subsequent defection to Persia complicate his character, presenting him as a figure of both brilliance and opportunism. His life story serves as a cautionary tale about the volatility of political life in ancient democracies and the fine line between heroism and hubris.

In conclusion, Themistocles’s legacy is enduring and complex. As a strategist, politician, and visionary, he played a crucial role in shaping the destiny of Athens and the course of Western history. His contributions to military strategy, democratic governance, and urban development are emblematic of the dynamic interplay between individual leadership and collective action in the pursuit of freedom and prosperity.