Themistocles is often credited as being the predominant hero of the Greco-Persian Wars, having commanded troops at Marathon and leading the Greek navy at Cape Artemisium and Salamis. These exploits would earn him great renown and would pave the way for the rise of the Delian League - the Athenian Empire. However, his deeds may have proven to be too great; a mere one general fending off the largest empire in history up to that point would get to his head, and would lead to his downfall. This is how Themistocles restored Athens, became a hostage in Sparta, got ostracised from his own nation and eventually entered the service of the kings of Persia themselves.
Check out my previous blog on the Battle of Mycale, 479 BC
A commander at the Battle of Marathon and head of the Athenian-led defences during the Second Persian Invasion, and of course as the hero of the Battle of Salamis, Themistocles had walked out of the Persian Wars by 479 BC as a beloved-by-all hero. On top of that, he was as competent in wartime as he was in peace; possibly interpreting the Delphic oracle he had received a couple of years ago, which told him that “Only Wooden Walls can save Athens”, but likely (also) because the old, small harbour of Phalerum was deemed inadequate at the time, a new triple port at Piraeus was ordered constructed by Themistocles.
[ABOVE: "Athenians rebuilding their city under the direction of Themistocles", from Hutchinson's "History of the Nations, Volume I", 1914]
This new port would also give the new-found powerful Athenian navy a chance at hegemony in all the Aegean Sea. The port would become the largest in all of Greece, and would be home to the biggest navy in Greece too. These benefits would also be bolstered by the Ionians, keen allies and brothers of the Athenians. Themistocles would muster much of the city’s populace to join in on the construction efforts. Such was the haste in building the walls that materials were taken from any and all types of buildings - including religious - to use in the walls, hence why it is said that the walls were constructed out of “shrines and tombs”.
[ABOVE: Columns of the older Parthenon, Athens, which were used in rebuilding the Northern Acropolis wall under Themistocles]
Port Piraeus was huge. Its wall gates were far apart enough to comfortably fit two wagons travelling in opposite directions. Its interior wall wasn’t made of clay or rubble, rather its blocks - taken from the city - were squared, solid and large in scale, with clamps of lead and iron coating the exterior. While the height was only roughly about half of what Themistocles had intended for, his original plan to frustrate the enemy with a quick but effective design was met due to the wall’s circumference and thickness.
Themistocles would in fact come to see Piraeus as more vital than Athens itself, given his view that Persia had an easier time attacking Greece by sea than by land, thus making the necessity for a port to harbour a large fleet to combat said-threat a great necessity. Piraeus’s fortifications were said to have matched the great walls of Athens themselves in their splendour alone - which Themistocles also ordered to be rebuilt - while outmatching them in their versatility.
Today, Port Piraeus is still very much in use - albeit with a more modern design to it of course - and it stands as Greece's largest port, and one of the largest ports in all of Europe.
[ABOVE: Port Piraeus's ferry and passenger section today]
SPARTA GROWS WARY
This was, however, a somewhat risky move to make; the Spartans were keen on making sure that no Greek city state outside of the Peloponnese should be heavily fortified, in case an invading force - like the Persians - should capture it and gain a strong foothold in Greece for further campaigns. Were it not for successful last minute battles like Salamis and Plataea, this might have ended up happening, so their perspective does make some sense. However it was also undoubtedly because the Spartans didn’t want other Greek nations from becoming too unstoppable. Given the growing Athenian prestige after the Battles of Marathon and Salamis, this was seeming more and more likely - Sparta now set their sights on competing for Greek hegemony.
As soon as they learnt of the wall works in Athens and Piraeus, Sparta sent envoys straight to Athens in an attempt to halt the construction work. At their meeting, the Athenians stated that they would send their own envoys over to Sparta to discuss the matter. Themistocles eventually travelled to Sparta. At first, he refused to appear before their magistrates, pretending instead to wait for his colleagues to buy himself some time; he was keen on letting the construction efforts continue while the Spartans protested.
Eventually, Themistocles’s envoys arrived, telling him that the construction of Piraeus was near completion. This prompted Themistocles to go before the Spartan Ephors, the five royal overseers of the Spartan kings. He told them that they had simply been misinformed, that the previous Spartans who visited Athens had over-exaggerated the truth about Athens’s walls, and that more reliable envoys should be sent instead, in exchange for Themistocles being kept in Sparta as a temporary hostage, which was more a position akin to being a guest rather than a prisoner.
The Ephors accepted, and sent three esteemed Spartans to Athens while Themistocles told his colleagues to go with them, ordering them not to allow the Spartan envoys to return until he’d been sent back. It was only then that Themistocles, protected under Greek law as a hostage, told the Spartans that he had indeed ordered for Athens to be heavily fortified, in order to better defend against their shared enemy. Themistocles accused the Spartans of acting in their own best interests instead of in the best interests of all of Greece, and declared that the new, trusted envoys sent to Athens would not return unless he himself was released.
APPOINTING ARISTIDES TO FUND THE DELIAN LEAGUE
Themistocles also privately conjured up a plan. He thus said to the Athenian Assembly that he needed a select couple of esteemed men for a task not currently in the needs for the people to know of just yet. Eventually, the Assembly chose Aristides and Xanthippus; these two men opposed Themistocles, suspicious of the power and love he had recently gained - a mutual feeling with the Assembly.
[ABOVE: An ostrakon (pot shard used for ostracism votes) displaying Aristides's name, now held in the Ancient Agora Museum, Athens]
Aristides was a political rival of the similarly-aged Themistocles. Prior to the Persian invasions, the two men became political rivals over the position of Athens' first citizen. However, despite his well-known honesty earning the epithet of “The Just”, his influenced was undermined by Themistocles’s, and he was ostracised from Athens for ten years. He would only serve six years of his exile, for in 480 BC Xerxes invaded Greece, prompting Aristides to be recalled. This was just as well, since Aristides would distinguish himself at both of the decisive victories at Salamis and Plataea. His great military deeds aside, his “Justness” would come more into play while he was aboard Pausanias’s navy that was pursuing the Persians out of Greece after Plataea, in a time when supremacy of the Aegean would pass from the Spartans to the Athenians, as the Delian League begun to form.
The Assembly thus asked Themistocles to publicly disclose his plans, and he did; Themistocles appointed Aristides with the task of diplomatically joining forces with the Greek city states to determine how much money each state should put aside to military efforts against a future potential Persian invasion. Eventually, 560 talents of silver would be gathered on the island of Delos, which became the League’s treasury and giving it its “Delian” name. Despite being in charge of all the money from all these Greek states, Aristides “The Just” would never secretly save any of this money for himself; he is said to have not even had enough money for his own funeral expenses when he died.. His daughters would thus be heavily supported by the state, and were given dowries straight from the public’s treasury.
SPARTA ATTEMPTS TO LINK THEMISTOCLES TO PAUSANIAS
Humbled by the shifting popularity from themselves to Athens after the Persian Wars, Sparta was keen to balance the scales and discredit Athens. They thus accused Themistocles of being an ally of Sparta’s recent king-turned-traitor, Pausanias, saying that the two planned to ally with Xerxes to bring down Greek civilisation for good. Bribes were paid to Themistocles’s enemies, and soon even those in power at Athens believed the rumours. When the motion was put to the Assembly however, Themistocles was acquitted of these charges.
Themistocles once attended a meeting at Delphi with the Amphictyonic League, a group of Greek tribes that protected and oversaw the temples of Apollo and Demeter at Delphi. At this meeting, the Spartans tried to pass a motion, stating that any Greek state which did not fight for the Greeks during the Persian Wars should now be ousted from the Greek alliance. This worried Themistocles, since only 31 out of about 600 mainland Greek states actually fought against Persia, and only a handful of those held great power and influence, meaning only a handful of city states would hold most of the power under this Spartan proposition. And since this vote would exclude large groups like the Thessalians, Argives and Thebans, Sparta would dominate the voting.
Themistocles spoke his mind, and it was this event which would first divide the Athenians and Spartans, paving the way for Sparta to attempt to advance one of their own favoured men in Athenian politics: Cimon. Matters weren’t helped for Themistocles when he attempted to extort taxes form several Aegean islands, shortly after the Battle of Salamis. His favour was lost after he used this extorted money to construct an expensive sanctuary of Artemis nearby to his own home, which bore the epithet “Of good council,” a reference to his own conduct in the Persian Wars - Themistocles was becoming arrogant and greedy.
The lyric poet Timocreon of Rhodes would write several passages mocking Themistocles for his wishes to exile and extort several city-states while taking bribes to keep them off his back. When Themistocles felt backed into a corner by the meeting openly mocking his position, Themistocles begun openly boasting of his achievements in the past. Annoying the others attending the meeting further, Themistocles was voted to be ostracised to Argos.
[ABOVE: An ostrakon bearing the name "Themistocles, son of Neocles"]
It should be noted that ostracism, introduced under Cleisthenes's democratic reforms in 508/7 BC, wasn’t really seen as a punishment; as Plutarch puts it:
Ostracism was not a means of punishing a crime, but a way of relieving and assuaging envy - an emotion which finds its pleasure in humbling outstanding men and vents its resentment by imposing this loss of status.
FROM ARGOS TO EPHESUS
Themistocles would live in relatively good comfort while in Argos, given his renown and prestige, until Sparta sent envoys to Athens, where they accused Themistocles behind his back of conspiring with Xerxes, with the goal of enslaving all of Greece. He was charged with high treason without even as much as a hearing.
Learning of this, Themistocles fled from Argos to Corcyra, fearing for his safety, but soon even fled Corcyra too, fearing that both Athens and Sparta would declare war on Corcyra due to his presence there. So, Themistocles fled to the court of his friend, the Molossian king Admetus. When Athens and Sparta made a demand to Admetus for Themistocles, Admetus did not budge, advising Themistocles instead that he should look for ways to defend himself instead. Admetus thus sent Themistocles to Pydna in central Greece.
[ABOVE: "Themistocles finds Refuge with King Admetus", by Franc Kavčič, 1801]
At Pydna, Themistocles secretly boarded a ship, without even letting its captain know. However, the ship met some violent storms, and was eventually on course for the isle of Naxos, where the Athenian army was stationed. Themistocles knew that if he were to end up there, he would be arrested, and made himself known to the ship’s captain. Feeling pity for such a once-beloved hero, the captain secretly took Themistocles to Ephesus, which was at the time under Persian rule.
The Greek historian Thucydides states that Themistocles went to Persia during the reign of Xerxes, whereas others like Plutarch state it was during the reign of Xerxes’s successor, Artaxerxes. Either way, all writers agree that Themistocles sought to aid the then-Persian Shah.
THEMISTOCLES IN PERSIA
[ABOVE: Themistocles standing before the Persian King Artaxerxes I, by Walter Crane, c.19th / 20th century]
Arriving in Ephesus, it so happened that Themistocles had a friend named Lysitheides, who also happened to be a friend of Xerxes himself. From Ephesus, Themistocles sent a letter to the Persian king:
I, Themistocles, have come to you, the man of all the Greeks who brought the most ills upon your house, so long as it was necessary for em to war against your father, and defend my native land. But I also did him many more favours, so soon as I began to find myself in safety and he was in danger. For when he wished to return to Asia after having fought the battle of Salamis, I informed him by letter of the enemy’s plot destroy the bridge which he had made over the Hellespont and to cut off his retreat, and it was that message which saved him from danger. But now I have sought refuge with you, hounded as I am by all Greece, seeking your friendship; if I obtain it, you will have in me as good a friend as as I was a courageous foeman of Xerxes. But with regard to the matters about which I wish to confer with you, I ask you to allow me a year’s delay, and let me come to you at the end of that time.
The Persian king was in admiration of Themistocles, and accepted his plea. In Persia, Themistocles dedicated himself heavily to Persian ways, and is said to have spoken better Persian than even many well-spoken natives, a skill gained after he was put on trial, to no lethal end, for his involvement in the Battle of Salamis. Themistocles even promised the king that, should he follow his military advice, Greece could be his. Themistocles would be given great riches in return by the king, including the city of Magnesia, and his own Persian wife.
[ABOVE: Coin depicting Themistocles as governor of Persian-held city of Magnesia, with the head of Zeus on one side and "ΘΕ" ("The") on the other - initials of "Themistocles", c.465 - 459 BC]
[ABOVE: Coin of Themistocles as governor of the Persian-held city of Magnesia, with barley grain and "ΘΕ" ("The") on one side and (possibly) a portrait of Themistocles on the other, c.465 - 459 BC]
Themistocles would die in his gifted city of Magnesia, either of old age or self-poisoning. According to one source, his bones were later taken back to Attica for burial in secret by his closest friends, since he was still wanted for treason and thus his body needed to eventually go to Athens by law, dead or alive.
A memorial at Magnesia’s city forum would later be dedicated to him, and rightly so: he had commanded and fought at the Battle of Marathon, warned and prepared Athens against Persia, funded their new navy, defended the straits of Artemisium, secured superior command over the allied fleet over a Spartan commander, and won the Battle of Salamis. While he met an unfair end, Themistocles has rightly gone down in history as one of Greece’s greatest and most successful heroes, paving the way for the Athenian Golden Age.
[ABOVE: A 1926 photograph of a side-view bust of Themistocles]
- Thucydides, "The Peloponnesian War", Book I
- Cornelius Nepos, "The Book on the Great Generals of Foreign Nations", Themistocles and Aristides
- Diodorus Siculus, "Library of History", Book XI
- Plutarch, "Greek Lives", Themistocles
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"Let's Visit Port Piraeus, Home of the Athenian Navy - History Tour in AC: Odyssey Discovery Mode" by "Invicta"
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