Themistocles, son of Neocles, emerged as a new figure in the history of Greece during the initial stage of the Persian war; he belonged to the mercantile class of Athens, not a noble masquerading as popular champion, but a commoner drawn from the ranks.
Son of obscure parents, he did not receive the education of well-bred gentlemen, for he lacked the accomplishment of playing the harp which was norms in all well-bred gentlemen in Athens.
But he practised the study of rhetoric and associated with professional teachers of Political Science since his boyhood. He belonged to a new age and new type and his appearance in the forefront of Politics, hitherto the monopoly of the nobles, was a striking symptom of the swift democratic evolution in Athens.
To the problems of state, he brought not merely fresh outlook, but also singularly fertile initiative and resourcefulness. Holm calls him ‘one of Greece’s greatest men’. He did good service to his country and did never injure it. He was a statesman of the first order and Athens owed a new direction of policy to his imaginative foresight.
Thucydides speaks with enthusiasm of his acuteness and foresight, his power of persuading others, his ability to guide others through the intricacies of diplomacy, his never failing resourcefulness in every political emergency. He paved the path of the future ascendancy of Athens and devised the means of the salvation of Greece in her struggle with Persia. It was Themistocles who made Athens a sea power.
The pre-eminent importance of his statesmanship was due, in the first place, to his insight in discerning the potentialities of Athens as a state, and in the second place to his grasping her situation before anyone else had grasped it, and in the third place, to his energy in initiating, his adroitness and perseverance in following a policy which alone could raise the city of Athens to the position she attained.
Before Themistocles Athens was a considerable naval power, but the navy was considered subordinate to the land-forces. But it was the foresight of Themistocles that made Athens sacrifice army to the navy and make Athens the greatest sea-state in Greece. This bold policy had to be carried out by Themistocles in the face of opposition.
Already in 493 B.C. he had begun a scheme whereby a new rock-guarded harbour, which was infinitely safer than the broad sandy bay of Phaleron then in use, should be developed at Piraeus. It was due to the Persian War that the work was delayed. In 487 when Athens went to war against Aegina, the strongest naval power of the time, she had to appeal to Corinth for help. But despite Corinthian help, Athens was worsted in battle and suffered much from raids on their coasts.
This made Themistocles’ think of expanding the Athenian navy. In 482 when a rich deposit of silver ore was discovered at Laurium and the Athenian government decided to distribute the proceeds to all citizens, Themistocles proposed that the newly discovered wealth should be used for the construction of ships and in a couple of years two hundred galleys had been put into commission.
This gave the Athenian navy the strength that it displayed in the war with Persia. When the Athenians returned home after the battle of Plataea, Athens was a heap of ruins. Themistocles suggested the building up of a new city by the sea, using the old city as a quarry for materials. But was not to be. His first care was then to fortify Athens on a scale hitherto unknown in Greece.
The new wall was to have a circuit of six miles. It was probably the scale of rebuilding that roused the jealousy and fears of the Peloponnesians. The fortifications, the ships and the terrible activity of the Athenians might well seem evidence of a dangerous ambition. Sparta therefore sent envoys to dissuade Athens from raising the fortifications. It was Themistocles who dismissed the envoys with the reply that Athens would send an embassy to Sparta to discuss the issue.
Next, he went to Sparta as an advance party and the delay in the arrival of the other members of the embassy, which was a contrivance of Themistocles himself, was used in completing the wall to a defensive height. When Aristides came to Sparta and secretly gave out to Themistocles this intelligence, Themistocles confessed this to the Spartans. Safe return of Themistocles and others was also accomplished by another stratagem. Themistocles had earlier induced the Spartans to send envoys to Athens to see for themselves that the Athenians were not building the wall. These envoys were used as hostages for the return of Themistocles and his company.
Earlier, Themistocles had taken part in the battle of Marathon, and although he held no post of command, was destined to hold a higher place in the Athenian history than any of his fellow warriors.
Before the battle of Artemisium the Greek commanders cowed by the numerical superiority of the Persian ships, wanted to retreat but were restrained by Themistocles. Likewise after the capture of Athens by the Persians the Greek generals held a council of war and majority decided to withdraw to the Isthmus of Corinth and there to await the Persian attack.
This would mean leaving Athens, Megara and Aegina to their fate. At this crucial moment it was Themistocles who by a stratagem forced the Greeks to fight against the Persian fleet at Salamis and won a signal victory. Themistocles who was a believer in Pan-Hellenism would not fall a victim to the lure of gold offered by Mardonius when he occupied Athens for a second time.
“Tell Mardonius that the Athenians say so long as the sun moves in his present course, we will never come to terms with Xerxes” expressed essentially the view point of Themistocles. It was due to the opposition of Themistocles again that the Spartan attempt at converting the Amphictyonic league into a Spartan empire was thwarted.
But this man of genius was not without weaknesses. Although his cupidity did not go to the extent of betraying the interest of his country, yet like most Greek statesmen, he was accessible to bribes and he could not show any ostensible source of his wealth. He was also to some extent vain, and it was his vanity that betrayed him into committing Public indiscretions.
His building of a shrine near his house for “Artemis wisest in Council was a memorial to the wise counsels he had given to his country.” Such little this made him unpopular and gave a handle to his opponents against him. Appeal was made to ostracism and the popular verdict was against Themistocles and he was exiled. In Argos where he took his abode in exile he unleashed a severe anti-Athenian propaganda in Peloponnesus.
The Athenians linked the name of Themistocles with Pausanias when the latter’s Persian intrigues were revealed. Although it was least likely that Themistocles was a party to the intrigue, he was accused of high treason and escorts were- sent to arrest him and bring him to trial. Themistocles fled to Corcyra but the Corcyraeans would not give him asylum. He crossed over to Epirus but there also he was pursued by Spartan and Athenian officials. Ultimately he found protection under Admetus, king of the Molossians.
The latter refused to hand him over to his pursuers. The Athenians disappointed in getting him, condemned him as a traitor and confiscated his property and impounded the citizenship of his successors. Later on Themistocles went to the court of Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes, where he intrigued like Pausanias to undo the services he rendered to Greece. By a strange irony of fate the hero of Salamis like Pausanias, the hero of Plataea was driven to follow similar course.
But Prof. Bury remarks; “It may well have been, however, that Themistocles, who was an able and far-sighted statesman, merely intended to compass his own advantage at the expense of the Great King and had no serious thought of carrying out any designs against Greece.” He won honour at Persia and was appointed governor of Magnesia where he died and buried out the wall of the city. Many years afterwards there was a false story current in Athens according to which Themistocles committed suicide at Magnesia.