1902 Encyclopedia > Themistocles

Athenian soldier and statesman
(c. 523 - c. 458 BC)

THEMISTOCLES was born in the latter part of the 6th century B.C., some time during the rule of the Pisistratidae at Athens, the son of an Athenian father, Neocles, by a foreign woman from Thrace or Caria. A wayward, ambitious, aspiring boy, out of sympathy alike with ordinary boyish amusements and with the learning and culture of the age, he was told, it is said, by his schoolmaster "that he would certainly be something great, whether good or bad." The victory of Marathon in 490 stirred the young man's soul, and he seems to have foreseen that it was but the beginning of a yet greater conflict. He resolved from that time to make his country great, that he might be great and famous himself. As he was rising to political distinction, he had for his rival the Greek " Cato," the incorruptible Aristides, a purer patriot, a better citizen, but a less sagacious and far-seeing statesman. The two men were in sharp antagonism as to what their country's policy should be, and it ended in a vote of ostracism which sent Aristides into temporary banishment in 483. The main question between them probably was whether Athens should seek greatness by sea or by land (see vol. xi. p. 99), and the victory of the policy of Themistocles led on to the most brilliant era in Greek history, the maritime supremacy of Athens. Persia, he felt sure, was meditating a great revenge, and Athens must make herself a naval power to avert the blow. Already a small war with the Aeginetan islanders, close to her own shores, had roused her energies, and at the prompting of Themistocles she had built 200 ships and trained a number of seamen. In 480 the storm which Themistocles had clearly foreseen burst; the great king, as he was called, was covering the land with his troops and the sea with his ships. Greece was divided and panic-stricken ; Thessaly and all to the north of Bceotia had joined the enemy, and the despair of the remainder of the Greek world was echoed by the oracle of Delphi. There was, however, a word of hope in the memorable phrase of the " wooden wall," which, it was generally felt, must point to the fleet, more, however, with a view to flight than to resistance. Salamis, too, was named in the oracle, coupled with the epithet " divine," which Themistocles cleverly argued portended disaster to the enemies of the Greeks rather than to the Greeks themselves. It was a great achievement when he finally prevailed on his fellow-citizens to quit their city and their homes—it seemed for ever—and to trust themselves to their ships. There had been some sea-fights off the northern shores of Eubcea; the Spartans had fallen at Thermopylae, and Xerxes and his host were now laying waste Attica, not, however, before its inhabitants had conveyed their families to the adjacent island of Salamis, where also the Greek fleet had taken up its station, the Persian armada of 1200 vessels being in harbour at Phalerum. The Athenians from their ships saw the flames in which their city, its acropolis and its temples, were perishing, but their spirits rose with calamity, and with one heart, at the bidding of Themistocles, they called back all of their brethren who were in temporary banishment, Aristides among them. Nearly two-thirds of the entire fleet was theirs, but for the sake of unity among the allies, who would follow only the lead of Sparta, they acquiesced in its being under the command of a Spartan admiral. It was clear, however, that the fate of Greece now depended on the action of the Athenians and on the prudence and ability of Themistocles, by whom they were guided. The Greeks of the Peloponnese, more particularly the Corinthians, were for moving the fleet from Salamis to the isthmus, as the enemy's land forces were already in possession of the neighbouring shores of Attica. Seeing the danger of yet further disunion, with the probable result of the breaking up and dispersion of the fleet, and having in vain protested against quitting their present station, Themistocles went straight to the Spartan admiral, Eurybiades, and induced him to call another council. There was much angry debating, till at last the Spartan felt he must yield to the threat of Themistocles that the Athenians would either fight at Salamis or sail away as they were to Italy. But the Peloponnesian Greeks were still dissatisfied, and insisted that they ought to be at the isthmus for the defence of what yet remained of Greece; a third council was held, and Themistocles felt that its decision would be against him, when, by a sudden happy thought, he contrived to have a secret message conveyed to the commanders of the Persian fleet through his slave, an Ionian Greek from Asia, a man of intelligence and education, and well acquainted with the Persian language. The communication came in the name of Themistocles, who professed that ho wished well to the king, and that now was a good opportunity for attacking and crushing the Greeks, as they were divided among themselves and were bent on flight. The stratagem was successful, and the enemy's great armada advanced along the coast of Attica that same night, and took up a position which effectually confined the Greek fleet within the narrow strait between Salamis and the southern shore of Attica. The Greek captains, not knowing the state of the case, were still wrangling through the night, when just before daybreak the banished Aristides came from Aegina with the news that the Persian fleet was close at hand and that retreat was impossible. " Let us still be rivals," he said to Themistocles, " but let our strife be which can best save our country."

The great victory of Salamis (see vol. xi. p. 100) left Greece mistress of the sea, and was followed by the retreat of Xerxes. Themistocles, it is said, frightened the king back to Asia by another secret message, to the effect that the victorious Greeks were bent on following him up to the Hellespont and burning his bridge of boats, but that he was doing his best to check their ardour, though in reality he had himself advised immediate pursuit of the enemy. We cannot but admire the man's sagacity and far-sightedness in thus laying the king under an obligation which he might some day turn to his own profit, though we cannot but feel that he had some of the worst as well as some of the most splendid characteristics of the Greek. After the victory Themistocles sailed with the Athenian squadron through the^Egean, and from some of the islanders who had sided with the enemy he exacted heavy fines, out of which, it appears, he filled his own purse. When the Greeks met at the isthmus to decide according to custom the prizes of merit for the glorious day of Salamis, he received only the second prize, the first being awarded to the Spartan admiral, but by way of compensation he was soon afterwards heartily welcomed at Sparta, and loaded with honours so extraordinary as to imply that even the Spartans themselves recognized him as the first man in Greece. It was not long, however, before he gave them deadly offence. After the victories of Plataea and Mycale in 479 the Athenians went back to their desolate city and began to rebuild and fortify it. Jealous fears of the growing power of Athens were awakened, and the Spartans, as representatives of the Greeks generally, formally protested against the fortification of a Greek city outside the Peloponnese, on the ground that some future Persian invader might make it a base of operations. Themistocles saw the dangers of Spartan opposition, and got the Athenians to commission him to arrange matters along with two other envoys, who, however, were purposely not allowed to arrive at Sparta at the same time as himself. He told the Spartan magistrates that before he could transact business with them he must wait for his colleagues; meanwhile Athens was being fortified, every man, woman, and child putting a hand to the work, and as soon as Themistocles understood that it was sufficiently advanced he declared openly that Athens would brook no sort of interference. The Spartans felt they had been tricked, but they could do nothing. And now Themistocles proceeded to fortify Piraeus, and to enlarge the harbour, thus providing Athens with an excellent naval dockyard, and holding out an inducement to foreigners to settle in the city for the purposes of trade. Twenty war ships, too, were at his suggestion to be built every year, and nothing left undone to make Athens prosperous and powerful.

A few years afterwards (in 471 probably) we find his political career terminated by a vote of ostracism, due. perhaps in part to Spartan influence at Athens, and also to an offensive boastfulness and ostentation which disgusted the sensitive Athenian democracy. He was even charged with corrupt practices and with receiving bribes from Persia. From Argos, whither he had retired as an exile, he was forced to flee by a threat of the Spartans, who alleged that they had proofs of his treasonable complicity in the schemes of their countryman Pausanias, and to take refuge in the island of Corcyra; but here again he was pursued by Spartan and Athenian commissioners, and driven to seek the protection of Admetus, king of the Molossians, the chief people of Epirus. In the court of this half-Greek half-barbarian prince he found a hospitable reception, and he was furnished with the means of crossing the Aegean to Ephesus. Shortly after his arrival in Asia, the son of Xerxes, Artaxerxes, succeeded to the throne of Persia, and to him Themistocles contrived to make himself known as a fugitive from ungrateful Greece, which he had saved, and now ready and willing to advise and assist the king in avenging his father's defeat. He was treated, it is said, with marked respect, and was liberally pensioned with the revenues of three wealthy towns—Magnesia, Myus, and Lampsacus. It was at the first of these, which was near the coast, and whence he might be supposed to have opportunities for watching the affairs of Greece, that he passed the last year of his life, dying a natural death at the age of 65. The year of his death is not accurately ascertainable ; opinions vary between 460 and 447.

Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch are our chief original sources for the life of Themistocles. The subject is fully treated in the histories of Grote and Thirlwall. (W. J. B.)

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