Themistocles (c. 525 – 460 BC) was an Athenian politician and general. A member of the new generation of politicians who gained prominence during the early days of Athenian democracy, alongside his great rival Aristides. As a great politician, Themistocles was close to the people, and enjoyed the support of the Athenian lower classes, which, in general, confronted him with the nobility. Elected archon in 493 BC, he took a series of measures to increase the naval power of Athens, something that would become a recurring theme throughout his political career. He fought at Marathon during the First Medical War, being one of the ten Athenian strategoi mentioned by Herodotus.

In the years after Marathon, and prior to the Second Medical War, he became the most prominent politician in Athens. He advocated the creation of a powerful navy, and in 483 BC persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet of 200 triremes, which would prove crucial in the coming conflict. During the second Persian invasion, he held effective command of the allied Greek navy, during the battles of Artemisium and Salamis. Thanks to a subterfuge by Themistocles, the allies found themselves in an advantageous position at Salamis, and won the decisive victory that would represent the turning point of the war, which would end the following year with the Persian defeat at Platea.

When the conflict ended, Themistocles still enjoyed preeminence over the rest of Athenian politicians. However, he earned Spartan hostility by ordering the rebuilding of the Long Walls of Athens. His growing arrogance began to make him feel alienated from the rest of his fellow citizens. In 472 or 471 BC he was ostracized, and marched into exile in Argos. The Spartans saw an opportunity to destroy him, and implicated him in the plot of the Spartiate general Pausanias. As a result, Themistocles left Greece and traveled to Asia Minor, where he entered the service of the Persian Great King Artaxerxes I. He was appointed governor of Magnesia, where he lived until the end of his days.

Themistocles died in 459 B.C., probably of natural causes, although Plutarch points to the possibility of suicide, since the King of Persia had called him to fight against the Athenians in Egypt during some revolts that his countrymen were favoring. His reputation was posthumously rehabilitated, and he was recognized as a hero of the Athenian and, by extension, Greek cause. Themistocles can be considered “the chief architect of Greece”s salvation” from the Persian threat, as Plutarch describes him. The effects on Athens of his policies lasted over time, since maritime power became the cornerstone on which the Athenian Empire and its golden age were based. In Thucydides” judgment, Themistocles was “a man who exhibited undoubted signs of talent. Undoubtedly, in this particular he has won our admiration in an extraordinary and unparalleled manner”.

The life of Themistocles is reasonably well attested in the ancient sources, especially by comparing him with some of his contemporaries, such as Clichthenes of Athens or Leonidas I. He is one of the fifty or so figures of antiquity whose biography is extensively recorded by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives. In this work, Themistocles is compared to the Roman statesman Marcus Furius Camillus. Plutarch wrote this biography six hundred years after the death of Themistocles, and can therefore be treated as a secondary source. But he often explicitly cites his sources, which allows to some degree verification of his claims. There is also a biography, probably abridged, of Themistocles, narrated by Cornelius Nepos, who wrote in the first century. This biography is much shorter than Plutarch”s, however, and adds little detail to the Greek”s work.

The role of Themistocles in the Medical Wars and in Athenian politics is described by both Herodotus in his Histories and Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. These historians were contemporaries or near contemporaries of the events described, and were certainly working with the living memory of these events. Herodotus” work was probably published in 425 B.C. when the historian was in his sixties. This made him a contemporary of much of Thucydides” career. Herodotus visited Athens at some point, where he may have dealt with people who knew Themistocles personally. The Athenian statesman and historian Thucydides was born around 460 B.C., the year Themistocles was still alive, and no doubt knew extensive details of his compatriot”s life during his own political career. Themistocles” role in these conflicts is described in acceptable detail by Diodorus Siculus in his Historical Library. Diodorus was writing in the first century, so he is also considered a secondary source, though often useful for corroborating details found in other writings.

Themistocles was born around 524 B.C. in Athens, the son of the perichaean Neocles, who was, in Plutarch”s words, “a not too bright man. The identity of his mother is more obscure. According to Plutarch, she was either a Thracian woman named Abrotonon (quoting a verse of the poet Amphicrates) or a Carian from Halicarnassus, named Euterpe. As with many of his contemporaries, little is known of his early life. Some authors claim that he was a rebellious child, and was therefore abandoned by his father. Plutarch, however, denies this claim, and indicates that, due to the nationality of his mother, Themistocles was considered a kind of intruder. In fact his family lived in Cinosargo, the immigrant district of Athens, which was outside the city walls. Nevertheless, as an early sign of his cunning, Themistocles persuaded children “of good family” to exercise alongside him in Cinosargo, thus ending the distinction between “foreigner and legitimate”. Plutarch records that Themistocles was concerned, even from his childhood, to prepare himself for public life. It seems that his teacher told him:

“My young man, you will not be someone insignificant, that I assure you, but someone great, for better or for worse.”


Themistocles grew up during a period of turmoil in Athens. The tyrant Pisistratus had died in 527 B.C., passing power to his sons Hipparchus and Hippias. Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 B.C., in response to which Hippias became paranoid, and began to rely increasingly on foreign mercenaries to keep him in power. Clisthenes, the head of the powerful, though exiled, Alcmeonid family, began to intrigue to oust Hippias from power and return to Athens. In 510 B.C., he persuaded King Cleomenes I of Sparta to launch an attack on Athens, he persuaded King Cleomenes I of Sparta to launch an attack on Athens, an attack that succeeded in ousting Hippias from government. However, as a consequence, the rest of the eupatrid – noble – families of Athens turned their backs on Cleisthenes, electing Isagoras as archon, with the support of Cleomenes. On a personal level, Cleisthenes wished to return to Athens; however, he probably also wished to prevent Athens from becoming a puppet of Sparta. Anticipating the other nobles, he proposed to the people of Athens a radical program in which political power would reside in themselves: a “democracy. The citizens of Athens expelled Isagoras, repelled a Spartan attack led by Cleomenes, and invited Cleisthenes to return to Athens to carry out his reform. The establishment of democracy was to radically change Athens:

And so it was that the Athenians suddenly felt themselves to be a great power…. They were living proof of what equality and freedom of expression could achieve.

First years of democracy

The new system of Athenian government offered great possibilities for men like Themistocles, who previously had no access to power. The new democratic institutions required a series of abilities that were previously unimportant in the government. Themistocles was to prove himself a master of the new system: “he knew how to navigate the infighting, he knew how to make contacts, he knew how to manipulate… and, above all, he knew how to make himself seen.” Themistocles moved to the Ceramicum, a commercial suburb of Athens. This move highlighted him as a ”man of the people,” allowing him to interact more easily with ordinary citizens. He began to build the foundations of his support among these new poor:

He courted the poor, who, unaccustomed to this, duly returned his affection. Frequenting the taverns, the markets, the docks, letting himself be seen where no politician would have thought to do so, making sure not to forget the name of a single one of his voters, Themistocles set his sights on a radically new electorate.

Despite this, he made sure that he did not distance himself from the Athenian nobility. He began to practice law, thus becoming the first person in Athens to prepare himself for public life in this way. His skill as a lawyer and arbitrator, used in the service of ordinary citizens, earned him even greater popularity.


Themistocles probably turned 30 years old in 494 B.C., a prerequisite for becoming an archon, the highest magistracy in Athens. With the support of his popularity, he decided to run for the post. The following year (493 B.C.) he was elected eponymous archon, that is, the visible head of the Athenian government. Themistocles” archonate marked the beginning of a crucial stage in his career: the rise of Athenian naval power. Under his guidance, the Athenians began to build a new port at Piraeus, to replace the existing facilities at Phalero. Although further away from the metropolis, Piraeus offered three natural harbors, and could be easily fortified. As Athens would become an eminently naval power during the 5th century B.C., Themistocles” policies must have had profound implications for the future of Athens, and of Greece as a whole. By fostering naval power, Themistocles was probably advocating a course of action that he considered essential to Athens” long-term interests. However, as Plutarch suggests, a powerful navy depended on the mass mobilization of ordinary citizens (thetes) to serve as oarsmen: such a policy provided more power to the average citizen, and by extension, to Themistocles himself.

First Persian invasion

The young Athenian democracy, together with the Euboean city of Eretria, had supported the Ionian cities during their revolt against the Persian yoke.After putting down the revolt, the Great King Darius I of Persia decided that, to ensure the security of his empire, he should become overlord of Greece.Many Greek cities offered ”land and water” to the Persian ambassadors, sent by Darius to Greece in 491 B.C., as a symbol of submission to the Persian king.The Athenians and Spartans refused, however, and killed the ambassadors.As a result, the following year Darius sent an expedition across the Aegean Sea across the Persian Sea, The Athenians and Spartans refused, however, and killed the ambassadors. As a consequence, the following year Darius sent an expedition across the Aegean Sea, with the aim of punishing Athens and Eretria. It does not seem that Sparta was then a target.

The expedition traveled from island to island through the Cyclades, before besieging and destroying Eretria. The expeditionary force then traveled to Attica, landing in the bay of Marathon. For their part, the Athenians assembled a force of 10,000 hoplites, with which they marched to the landing site, and blocked the roads leading to Athens. Nominal command rested with the Polemarch Callimachus, although actual control seemed to be in the hands of Miltiades the Younger, who had some experience in fighting the Persians. Themistocles was probably the elected general of his tribe (phile, each of the ten divisions that made up the Athenian citizenry) at Marathon.

After several days in stalemate, the Persians embarked their cavalry to attack the defenseless Athens. The Athenians, aware of this maneuver, seized their opportunity to pounce on the Persians and won a famous victory. The tribe of Themistocles, along with that of his rival Aristides, was in the center of the Athenian battle line, holding the brunt of the fighting against the powerful Persian center. However, the Persian wings were quickly defeated, allowing the Athenians to turn against the Persian main body and defeat it completely.

With that, the immediate threat to Athens vanished. The Persian expeditionary force returned to Asia, but the Achaemenid interest in Greece was far from over. Darius immediately began planning a full-scale invasion, but died before preparations were completed. After the victory at Marathon, Themistocles, jealous of Miltiades” victory, is said to have repeated to himself:

The Miltiades trophy does not allow me to sleep or remain idle.

Rivalry with Aristides

A year later Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, was wounded in the course of a minor battle, and taking advantage of his incapacity, the powerful Alcmeonid family induced his trial. Taking advantage of his incapacity, the powerful Alcmeonid family induced his trial. The Athenian aristocracy, indeed Greek aristocrats in general, were reluctant to let one person accumulate too much influence, so such maneuvers were commonplace. Miltiades was fined copiously for the crime of “disappointing the Athenian people”, but died a few weeks later of his wounds. At the dawn of his trial, the Athenians chose to use a new institution of democracy, part of the reforms of Clichthenes, but long out of use: ”ostracism”. Each Athenian citizen had to write on a fragment of pottery (ostrakon) the name of a politician he would like to see exiled for a period of ten years. This may have been provoked by the trial of Miltiades, and used by the Athenians to try to curb these power games between the noble families. Certainly, in the years following 487 BC, The career of a politician in Athens became much more arduous, since displeasing the population could lead to exile.

Themistocles, with his power base firmly established among the poor, filled the natural vacuum left by the death of Miltiades, becoming the most influential Athenian politician of the decade. However, the support of the aristocracy began to structure itself around the man who would become Themistocles” greatest rival: Aristides. Aristides described himself as the opposite of Themistocles: virtuous, honest and incorruptible, and his followers nicknamed him “the Just”. Plutarch suggests that the rivalry between the two had much more sordid beginnings, when both competed for the love of a young man:

… vied for the affection of the young Stesilaeus of Ceos, and in that rivalry they were passionate beyond all restraint.

During that decade, Themistocles continued to encourage the expansion of Athenian naval power. The Athenians were still aware that the Persian eye was still fixed on Greece: Darius” son and successor, Xerxes I, continued preparations for the invasion. Themistocles seems to have discovered that, if the Greeks were to survive the invasion, a navy capable of dealing with the Persian fleet was indispensable, so he tried to persuade the Athenians of this necessity. Aristides, as champion of the Zeugites (the elite hoplite class) strongly opposed such a policy.

In 483 B.C. a new vein of silver was discovered in the Athenian mines of Lavrio, A new vein of silver was discovered in the Athenian mines of Lavrio. Themistocles proposed that the silver be used in the construction of a new fleet of 200 triremes, while Aristides in turn suggested that it be distributed among the citizens of Athens. Themistocles avoided mentioning Persia, considering it too distant a threat to the Athenians to move them to act, and instead focused attention on Aegina. At the time, Athens was waging a long conflict with the Aeginets, and the construction of a fleet would enable the Athenians to defeat them definitively at sea. Themistocles” motion, therefore, passed comfortably, although only 100 triremes would eventually be built, due to Aristides” refusal to approve the motion. Tension between the two sides grew in winter, so that the ostracism of 482 B.C. became a direct duel between the two. In what Holland calls essentially the first referendum in history, Aristides was ostracized and the policies of Themistocles were carried out. Indeed, as the Athenians perceived the Persian threat to be closer, they opted to build more ships than Themistocles had requested. Thus, in the run-up to the Persian invasion, Themistocles had risen as the most influential politician in Athens.

Second Persian Invasion

In 481 B.C. a congress of Greek city states took place, during which approximately thirty states agreed to ally in the face of the impending invasion.The Spartans and Athenians took the lead in the alliance, being as they were bitter enemies of the Persians.The Spartans claimed command of the land forces, and since the bulk of the Greek fleet would be provided by Athens, Themistocles attempted to take command of the naval forces.However, the other naval powers, including Corinth and Aegina, refused to give command to Athens. However, the other naval powers, including Corinth and Aegina, refused to give command to Athens, to which Themistocles pragmatically backed down. Instead, as a compromise, the Spartans (whose naval power was negligible) would also command the naval forces, under the baton of Eurybiades. It is clear from Herodotus” chronicles, however, that Themistocles would be the “de facto” commander of the Greek fleet.

The ”congress” met again in the spring of 480 B.C. A Thessalian delegation suggested that the Greeks could concentrate in the narrow Tempe Valley, on the borders of Thessaly, and block the Persian advance there. A force of 10,000 hoplites was sent to the valley, through which they assumed the Persian army would pass, under the command of the polemarchs Eueneto and Themistocles. Once there, however, they were warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the valley could be overtaken at other points, and that Xerxes” army was immense, so the Greeks withdrew. Shortly afterwards, they received news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont.

Themistocles then devised a second strategy. The route to southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnese) would require Xerxes” army to cross the very narrow pass of Thermopylae. This gorge could be easily defended by the Greek hoplites, regardless of the number of Persians. Moreover, to prevent the Persians from overcoming Thermopylae by sea, the Greek navy would blockade the Straits of Artemisius. After the debacle at Tempe, however, it was not clear that the Spartans would decide to march out of the Peloponnese again. If he wished to persuade the Spartans to defend Attica, Themistocles had to show that Athens was willing to do whatever was necessary for the success of the alliance. In short order, the entire Athenian fleet was sent to Artemisius. For this to be possible, every able Athenian man was to crew aboard a ship, which in turn meant that the Athenians were to prepare to abandon the city. Persuading the Athenians to follow this course of action undoubtedly represented one of the most brilliant actions of Themistocles” career.As Holland collects:

The sublime degree of oratory he must have acquired, the intense and memorable phrases he must have uttered, we have no way of knowing…only by the effect they had on the assembly can we deduce their electric and life-giving quality, for the bold proposals of Themistocles, after being put to a vote, were ratified. The Athenian people, facing the gravest danger in their history, unhesitatingly surrendered themselves to the outer sea, placing their faith in a man whose ambitions many had long feared.

Once his proposals were accepted, Themistocles sent the order to the women and children of Athens to be moved to the city of Troezen, a safe haven in the interior of the Peloponnese. Only then did he travel to meet with his allies, where he proposed his strategy. With the Athenian fleet fully engaged in the defense of Greece, the allies accepted his proposals.

Thus, in August 480 B.C. as the Persian armada approached Thessaly, the Greek fleet marched to Artemisium, and the army to Thermopylae. Themistocles himself assumed command of the Athenian contingent of the fleet, and sailed for Artemisium. When the Persian fleet finally reached Artemisium, after considerable delay, Eurybiades, whom Herodotus and Plutarch suggest was not the brightest of leaders, wished to withdraw without fighting. At this point, Themistocles accepted a copious bribe from the local inhabitants for the fleet to remain at Artemisium, and used part of it to convince Eurybiades that they should remain, while keeping the rest. From here on, Themistocles seems to have been more or less in charge of the allied effort in the battle. Throughout three days of battle, the Greeks held out against the much larger Persian fleet, suffering significant casualties in the process. However, the simultaneous defeat at Thermopylae by the Persians rendered their heroic defense irrelevant, so the Greeks withdrew. According to Herodotus, Themistocles left messages at every port where the Persian fleet might stop for water, calling for the defection of the Ionians who were part of the Persian fleet, or at least a mediocre performance in the battle. Even if this did not work, Themistocles hoped to arouse Xerxes” suspicions of the Ionians, thus creating dissension in the Persian ranks.

After the defeat at Thermopylae, Boeotia fell to the Persians, who began their advance on Athens. The Peloponnesian allies then set out to defend the isthmus of Corinth, abandoning Athens to its fate. From Artemisius, the Greek fleet sailed to the island of Salamis, where the Athenian ships collaborated in the final evacuation of the city. The Peloponnesian contingents wanted to sail to the coast of the isthmus, so as to concentrate their forces with the land army. However, Themistocles tried to convince them to stay in the straits of Salamis, remembering the lessons of Artemisius: “a battle on equal terms plays in our favor”. He threatened to sail together with all the Athenians into exile in Sicily, thus succeeding in convincing the rest of the allies – whose safety after all depended on the Athenian navy – to accept his plan. Thus, even when Athens had fallen into the hands of the Persians, and the Persian navy was approaching the coast of Salamis, the allied fleet remained in the straits. Themistocles intended to fight a battle that would blockade the Persian fleet, thus ensuring the safety of the Peloponnese.

Themistocles used a sharp mix of subterfuge and disinformation to force the fight, psychologically exploiting Xerxes” desire to end the invasion. Xerxes” actions indicated that the Persian king wished to complete the conquest of Greece in 480 B.C. and, to achieve this, he needed a decisive victory over the Greek fleet. Themistocles sent a servant, named Sicinius, to meet Xerxes with a message proclaiming that Themistocles was “on the king”s side and preferred that his interests, not the Hellenic ones, prevail.” Themistocles claimed that the Greek commanders were fighting among themselves, that the Peloponnesians planned to evacuate Salamis that very night, and that to achieve victory all the Persians had to do was to blockade the straits. With this subterfuge, Themistocles seemed to tempt the Persian fleet into the straits. The message was double-edged, for in the event of a Greek defeat, the Athenians might expect some degree of clemency from Xerxes (by indicating their willingness to submit). In any case, this was exactly the kind of news the Persian king wanted to hear. Xerxes took the bait, and the Persian fleet was sent to effect the blockade. Perhaps erring on the side of self-confidence and not expecting resistance, the Persian navy entered the straits, only to find that, far from disintegrating, the Greek navy was ready for battle.

According to Herodotus, when the Persian fleet began its maneuvers, Aristides arrived at the Greek camp from Aegina. Aristides had returned from exile, along with the rest of the ostracized Athenians, by order of Themistocles, thus Athens would stand united against the Persians. Athens would thus stand united against the Persians. Aristides revealed to Themistocles that the Persian army was surrounding the Greeks, which pleased the latter greatly, for he knew that the Persians were walking straight into his trap. The Greek commanders took this news stoically, to which Holland suggests that they had been aware of Themistocles” ruse from the beginning. In any case, the Greeks prepared for battle, and Themistocles harangued the sailors before embarking, and in the ensuing battle, the narrowness of the strait made it difficult for the large Persian fleet to maneuver, which the Greeks took advantage of to win a famous victory.

Salamis represented the turning point in the second Persian invasion, and in the medical wars in general. Although the battle did not end the Persian invasion, it ensured that all of Greece would not be conquered, and allowed the Greeks to go on the offensive in 479 B.C. A large number of historians rank Salamis as one of the most important battles in human history. Bearing in mind that it was his permanent support for the increase of Athenian naval power that allowed the Greek navy to fight, and that it was his stratagem that brought about the victory at Salamis, it is not an exaggeration to state, as Plutarch does, that Themistocles “is considered to be chiefly responsible for the salvation of Hellas”.

The Greek victory ended the immediate threat hanging over Greece, and Xerxes returned to Asia with part of his army, leaving his general Mardonius in charge to finish the conquest. Mardonius spent the winter in Boeotia and Thessaly, thus allowing the Athenians to return to their city, which had been burned and razed by the Persians. For the Athenians in general, and Themistocles in particular, the winter proved a difficult challenge. The Peloponnesians refused to cross the isthmus to fight the Persian army, so the Athenians tried on their own, to embarrass them, but without success.

During the winter, the allies gathered at Corinth to celebrate the victory, and hand out the decorations. However, perhaps tired of the Athenians remembering their role at Salamis, and their demands that they march north, the Greeks awarded the civic achievement award to Aegina. Moreover, although the admirals all voted Themistocles second, they voted themselves first, so none got the personal achievement award. In response, understanding the importance of the Athenian fleet to their security, and probably seeking to please Themistocles” ego, the Lacedaemonians invited him to Sparta. There, he was given a special award for his “wisdom and intelligence,” and great honors were paid to him. Plutarch further records that, at the following Olympic Games:

(When) Themistocles entered the state, the audience ignored the competitors for the rest of the day, to rest their eyes upon him, and they singled him out for resounding applause before the foreign visitors, so that he too was delighted, and confessed to his friends that it was now that he was beginning to reap, in all its magnitude, the harvest of his labors for the benefit of Hellas.

However, as with so many other prominent individuals in Athenian democracy, Themistocles” fellow citizens became jealous of his success, and probably jaded by his boasting. It is likely that soon in 479 B.C. Themistocles was relieved of command, Jannippe assuming command of the fleet, and Aristides that of the land army. Although Themistocles undoubtedly remained politically and militarily active during the remainder of the campaign, there is no mention of his activities in 479 B.C. in classical sources. In the summer of that same year, after receiving an Athenian ultimatum, the Peloponnesians finally agreed to raise an army and march to the confrontation with Mardonius, who had reoccupied Athens in June. During the decisive battle of Platea, the Greeks destroyed the Persian army. Apparently on the same day, the Greek fleet destroyed the remnants of the Persian fleet at Mycale. These twin victories completed the Greek triumph, finally ending the Persian threat to Greece.

Aftermath of the Persian invasion

Whatever the cause of Themistocles” unpopularity in 479 B.C. it did not last long. Both Diodorus and Plutarch suggest that he quickly returned to favor with the Athenians. Indeed, after 479 B.C. he seems to have enjoyed a relatively long period of popularity.

In the aftermath of the invasion, the Athenians began to rebuild their city, under the guidance of Themistocles. They wished to restore the fortifications of Athens, but the Spartans objected, arguing that no place north of the isthmus should be left that could be used as a fortress by the Persians. Themistocles urged the citizens to complete the fortifications as soon as possible, and then traveled to Sparta to answer the accusations. There, he assured them that no work was being carried out, and proposed to send emissaries to Athens to see for themselves. By the time the Spartan ambassadors arrived, the Athenians had completed the construction work, and delayed the Spartan ambassadors when they complained about the presence of fortifications. In this way, Themistocles gave the Athenians enough time to fortify the city, forestalling a possible Spartan attack to prevent the rebuilding of the walls of Athens. Moreover, the Spartans were forced to repatriate Themistocles to free their own ambassadors. This episode can be seen as the beginning of the Spartan mistrust of Themistocles, which would haunt him from now on.

Themistocles then returned to his naval policy, and to “other more ambitious projects that would serve to increase the dominant position of his home state”. He enlarged and fortified the port of Piraeus, and “connected the city (Athens) with Piraeus, and the land with the sea”. Themistocles probably sought to make Athens the most important naval power in the Aegean. Indeed, Athens would create the league of Delos in 478 B.C. thus unifying the naval power of the Aegean and Ionian islands under Athenian leadership. Themistocles introduced tax exemptions on merchants and craftsmen, to attract population and trade to the city, and thus make Athens a major commercial center. He further instructed the Athenians to build 20 new triremes a year, to ensure that they maintained a dominant position at sea. Plutarch reports that Themistocles also secretly proposed to destroy the stranded ships of his naval allies, to ensure complete naval supremacy, but his plans were vetoed by Aristides and the Council of Athens.

Fall and exile

It is clear that, towards the end of the decade, Themistocles had begun to accumulate enemies, and had become arrogant, just as his citizens became more jealous of his prestige and power. The Spartans actively worked against him, supporting Cimon (son of Miltiades) as his rival. Moreover, after the betrayal and disgrace of the Spartan general Pausanias, the Lacedaemonians tried to implicate Themistocles in the plot. The Athenian, however, was acquitted of the charges. In Athens itself, he lost followers with the construction of the sanctuary of Artemis, with the epithet Aristoboulë (“of good counsel”) near his home, as a patent reference to his own role in liberating Greece from the Persian invasion. In the end, in 472 or 471 B.C. he was ostracized. This fact alone did not imply that Themistocles had done anything wrong: ostracism, in Plutarch”s words:

It was not a punishment, but a way to pacify and relieve jealousy, which seeks the humility of the eminent, so that they purge their malice during this period.

Themistocles marched first into exile in Argos. Perceiving that they had a unique opportunity to sink Themistocles, the Spartans resurrected the accusations against him of complicity in the treason of Pausanias, and demanded that he be tried by the ”Congress of the Greeks”, and not by the Athenian. They demanded that he be tried by the ”Congress of the Greeks”, and not by the Athenian, although it seems that he was eventually called back to Athens to defend himself against the charges. Perhaps suspecting that he had little hope of surviving this trial, Themistocles fled, first to Corsica and then to Admetus of Epirus, king of Mollusia. Themistocles” flight only served to convince the accusers of his guilt, and he was declared a traitor in Athens, and his property confiscated. It is noteworthy that both Diodorus and Plutarch considered the charges false, created solely for the purpose of destroying Themistocles. The Spartans sent ambassadors to Admetus, threatening him with war with the rest of Greece unless he turned Themistocles over to them. Nevertheless, Admetus allowed Themistocles to escape, giving him a large sum of gold to help him on his way. Themistocles fled Greece, never to return, thus ending his political career.

Apparently, Themistocles fled from Mollosia to Pidna, from where he took a ship bound for Asia Minor. His ship was blown off course by a storm, and ended up at Naxos, besieged by an Athenian fleet. Desperate to avoid being identified, Themistocles cajoled the ship”s captain to continue his voyage without delay. According to Thucydides, contemporary to the events, the ship managed to land at Ephesus, where Themistocles disembarked. Plutarch states that the ship arrived at Cime, in Aeolia, and Diodorus tells that Themistocles traveled to Asia without adding further details. Diodorus and Plutarch then tell similar stories, that Themistocles stayed with an acquaintance (Lysitheides or Nicogenes) who in turn knew the Persian king, Artaxerxes I. Since there was a reward for whoever brought Themistocles” head, his acquaintance devised a plan to take Themistocles to the Persian king in a covered caravan like the one with which the king”s concubines traveled. All three chroniclers agree that Themistocles eventually contacted Artaxerxes. Thucydides argues that by a letter, while Plutarch and Diodorus relate a face-to-face meeting with the king. The content is essentially similar in all three accounts: Themistocles presents himself to the king and requests to enter his service.

I, Themistocles, come to you, whose house I damaged more than any other Hellene, when I was obliged to defend myself against the invasion of your father. A harm, however, by far outweighed by the good I did him in his retreat, which to me involved little danger, but which involved much to him.

Thucydides and Plutarch relate that Themistocles asked for a year”s grace to study the Persian language and customs, after which he would serve the king, which was granted by Artaxerxes. Plutarch reports that, as might well be imagined, Artaxerxes rejoiced that such a dangerous and illustrious enemy had entered his service.

At some point in his travels, a friend of his managed to get Themistocles” wife and children out of Athens, who joined him in exile. His friends also managed to send him many of their possessions, although goods worth a hundred talents were confiscated by the Athenians. When, a year later, Themistocles returned before the royal court, he seems to have made an immediate impact, and “obtained there…a very high consideration, which no Hellenist had ever before come to enjoy, nor has he ever since.” Plutarch relates that “the honors he enjoyed were beyond those afforded to any other foreigner. He took part in the royal hunts and his court entertainments.” Themistocles advised the king in his dealings with the Greeks, although it seems that for some time, the king was distracted by events in other parts of his empire, so that Themistocles “lived for much longer without worry.” He was appointed governor of the district of Magnesia, on the river Meander, in Asia Minor, and was assigned the collection of three cities: Magnesia (about fifty talents a year – “for bread”), Miunte (“for meat”) and Lampsacus (“for wine”).

Different historians give different dates for his death. For example Diodorus of Sicily (XI 58,3) says that his death occurred “when Praxiergo was archon of Athens” (Greek and Roman Chronology by Alan E. Samuel, Munich 1972, p.206), which can be dated between 471-470 B.C. Although according to others, he died in 459 B.C. in Magnesia, when he was 65 years old, according to Thucydides, he died of natural causes. According to Thucydides, he died of natural causes. However, inevitably, there are also rumors surrounding his death, which say that, finding himself unable to fulfill the promises made to the king, he committed suicide by poisoning himself or drinking bull”s blood. Plutarch relates the most evocative version of this story:

But when Egypt rebelled with Athenian help, and the maritime dominion of Cimon forced the king to resist the efforts of the Hellenes and hinder their hostile behavior (…) messages arrived to Themistocles, saying that the king demanded that he should honor his promises, placating the Hellenic problem. Then, not so much out of bitterness against his former fellow-citizens, nor out of pride at the great honor and pride he would doubtless enjoy in the war, but perhaps thinking that this task was unfeasible, since Greece had great generals at the time – especially Cimon, brilliantly successful in his campaigns – and in memory of the reputation and achievements made in those early days, he decided that the best course of action was to put an end to his life. He made a sacrifice to the gods, called all his friends, bade them farewell with a handshake, and drank bull”s blood, or as others say, took a quick-acting poison, and so passed away in Magnesia, in his sixty-fifth year of life. They said that the king, knowing the cause and manner of his death, admired that man even more, and continued to treat his friends and relations with kindness.

After his death, Themistocles” bones were transported to Attica as he requested, and buried in his homeland in secret, as it was illegal to bury a traitor to Athens in Attica. The Magnesians built a “splendid tomb” in their market place for Themistocles, which was still standing in Plutarch”s time, and continued to devote a portion of their income to support Themistocles” family. Plutarch indicates that he met with a direct descendant of Themistocles – also named Themistocles -, who was also receiving these payments, in Athens. Six hundred years had passed since the events.


It is possible to draw some conclusions about the character of Themistocles. Perhaps his most obvious trait was his inordinate ambition: “His ambition surpassed that of any man.” “He craved public office like a dying man seeking a cure.” and he pursued recognition for his achievements. His dealings with power had a markedly personal nature: although he undoubtedly desired the best for Athens, many of his actions also seem to have been self-serving. He also seems to have been corrupt (at least by modern standards) and was known for his affinity for bribery.

Despite these negative traits, he seemed to possess an innate brilliance and talent for leadership.

Themistocles was a man who exhibited signs of undoubted genius. Certainly, in this respect he is worthy of our extraordinary and unparalleled admiration. By his own innate abilities, which did not need to be trained or supported by study, he became at once the best judge of those sudden crises which required little or no deliberation, and the best prophet of the future, even in the face of the remotest possibilities. A capable theoretical expositor of all that fell within the sphere of his practices, he was not without ability to appraise adequately those problems before which he was inexperienced. He could also glimpse the good and evil lurking in the unknown future. In short, whether we consider the extent of his natural aptitudes, or the frivolity with which he applied them, this extraordinary man surpassed all others in his ability to deal intuitively with an emergency.

Themistocles was undoubtedly highly intelligent, but he also possessed a natural cunning: “the mechanisms of his mind (were) infinitely agile and serpentine”. He was evidently sociable and seems to have enjoyed the unswerving loyalty of his friends. In any case, it seems that it was this unique blend of virtues and vices that made him an effective politician.

Historical reputation

Themistocles died with his reputation in tatters as a traitor to the Athenian people. The “Savior of Greece” had become the enemy of freedom. However, his reputation in Athens was rehabilitated by Pericles in 450 B.C. and, by the time Herodotus wrote his histories, Themistocles was once again seen as a hero. Thucydides no doubt held Themistocles in some esteem, for he was especially effusive in his praise (see above). Diodorus also praises Themistocles extensively, going so far as to offer reasons for his intensive treatment of his figure: “As to the high merits of Themistocles, though we have dwelt too much on his figure in this chronicle, we deem that we ought not to let so great an ability remain unrecorded in it.” Indeed, Diodorus goes so far as to state:

But if any man, leaving envy aside, can roughly estimate not only his natural virtues but also his achievements, he will find that in both respects Themistocles ranks first among all those of whom we have spoken. For this reason, one may indeed be astonished that the Athenians were desirous to be rid of so great a man.

Given that Diodorus” history includes such prominent figures as Alexander the Great and Hannibal, this praise is truly remarkable. Plutarch offers a more balanced view of Themistocles, including more than one criticism of his character. He does not detract from Themistocles” achievements, but also highlights his failures.

Political and military legacy

Undoubtedly, the greatest achievement in Themistocles” career was his role in thwarting the Persian invasion of Xerxes. Against all odds, Greece survived, and the classical Greek culture so influential to “Western civilization” was able to continue to develop unhindered. Moreover, Themistocles” doctrine of fostering Athenian naval power, and the establishment of Athens as the predominant power in the Greek world, had enormous consequences during the 5th century B.C. In 478 B.C., the Hellenic alliance was reconstituted without the Greek alliance, and in 478 B.C. the Greek alliance was reconstituted without the Greek alliance. In 478 B.C. the Hellenic alliance was reconstituted without the Peloponnesian states, in the form of the League of Delos, in which Athens was the dominant power. It was essentially a maritime alliance between Athens and its colonies, the Aegean islands, and the Ionian cities. The League of Delos took the war to Persia, even invading Persian territory and dominating the Aegean. Under the aegis of Pericles, the League of Delos gradually evolved into the Athenian Empire, the zenith of Athenian power and influence. Themistocles seemed to make Sparta a natural rival of Athens in the aftermath of Xerxes” invasion, basing his strategy on Athenian naval power – as opposed to Spartan land power. Tension between the two cities grew throughout the century, as they vied to become the predominant power in Greece. Finally, in 431 B.C. this tension took shape in the Peloponnesian War, the first of a series of conflicts that would tear Greece apart in the century to come, an unforeseen, if indirect, legacy of Themistocles” policies.

Diodorus adds a rhetorical summary reflecting on Themistocles” achievements:

What other man, while Sparta enjoyed greater strength and the Spartan Eurybiades held the supreme command of the fleet, could by his own merits deprive Sparta of that glory? From what other man have we learned in history that by a single action he outstripped all commanders, his city the rest of the Greek states, and the Greeks the barbarians? At what other time did a general have fewer resources and greater dangers to contend with? Who, facing the combined might of all Asia, stood by his city when its inhabitants had been driven from their homes, and still won the victory?

Primary sources

Secondary sources


  1. Temístocles
  2. Themistocles
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