Themistocles: Naval Hero of Ancient Greece

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One of the most famous naval heroes in Greek history was Themistocles, whose forward thinking and strategic mind saved Athens from destruction during the Greco-Persian Wars.

Themistocles

He was born in 524 B.C. into a family that was not known to wealthy or influential; he was very much in favor of the popular will, and this would put him at odds with a few powerful nobles. He spent his youth learning to write and to speak. He proved an adept politician, being elected archon in 493 B.C. He was a top political figure for the next 15 years, so much so that he succeeded in ostracizing his top two rivals, Aristides and Xanthippus.

Athens and the Long Walls

He saw a need for Athens in particular and the Greeks in general to built up their navy, to counter the threat of Persian aggression. In particular, Themistocles threw his support behind the expansion of the Piraeus, the port of Athens, in order to accommodate a larger fleet, and of the construction of the Long Walls, connecting the port to Athens.

The Greek victory at Marathon did not stop Persia entirely, and the Greeks maintained their vigilance. Themistocles, in 483 B.C., convinced Athens to spend big on expanding the Athenian fleet, from 70 ships to 200 ships. In a famous visit to the Oracle at Delphi, a representative from Athens was told that "a wooden wall" would keep them same from Persian invasion. Themistocles interpreted that prophecy as a call not for more walls to be built around the city but as a reason to build more (wooden) ships.

SalamisWhen the Persians, led by Xerxes, returned in 480, Themistocles' faith in naval power was rewarded. While the Persian army advanced overland and overcame a spirited Spartan resistance at Thermopylae, the Persian navy fought the Greeks to a standstill at Artemisium. The beleagured Greek fleet retreated to the Bay of Salamis, where Themistocles proposed that the Greeks make a stand. Through a combination of diplomatic sleight-of-hand and an iron-clad determination for the Greeks to hold the line, Themistocles made his strategy work: The Greeks, though outnumbered by heavier ships, found their smaller ships more maneuverable and were able to wreak havoc on the Persian ships.

The Athenians showed a strong faith in Themistocles in his navy-first strategy, supporting not only his desire to expand the fleet but also his suggestion that Athens itself be abandoned because it was indefensible. The Persian army did occupy Athens but did not sack it.

The Persian army was still ravaging the Greek countryside, however, and it took a determined effort by armies of all of the city-states to defeat the Persians at the Battle of Plataea. Themistocles was not present at the battle; two men who there, however, were his previous political rivals, Aristides and Xanthippus, recalled from exile by a Greece sorely in need of every available soldier.

Themistocles attempted to carry out more reforms after the victory over the Persians, but he ran afoul again of powerful members of the nobility and he himself was ostracized and forced into exile from Athens. He lived in Argos for a time and, after a further plot by Sparta ruined his reputation, was governor of a handful of former Greek cities in Asia Minor, now ruled by Persia. He died in 460 B.C.

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