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Leader of the Greeks During the Persian Wars


Ancient Greece Timeline > Classical Age > Themistocles

Themistocles' father was called Neocles. Some say he was a rich man who disinherited Themistocles because of Themistocles' loose living and neglect of the family property, other sources say he was a poor man. Themistocles' mother was not an Athenian but our sources do not agree where she was from; some say Acarnania in Western Greece, others say she came from what is now the west coast of Turkey.

In the 480s (or possibly the late 490s) BC Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to use the income from the state silver mines at Laurion to move the port of Athens from Phalerum to the Piraeus, a much better site, and to build a fleet which was used in a war against Aegina (484-3), and then against pirates.

When Xerxes invaded Greece (480 BC), the Athenians sent to Delphi to ask the oracle what they should do. The oracle told them to defend themselves with wooden walls. There were some who thought this referred to literal wooden walls and argued for building a palisade, but Themistocles insisted that the wooden walls in question were the ships of the navy.

While the Spartans attempted to hold the pass of Thermopylae, a Greek fleet of 300 ships, 200 of which were Athenian, attempted to stem the advance of the Persian navy at Artemisium, between the large island of Euboea and the mainland. Eurybiades, the commander of the Spartan naval contingent who had been appointed commander of the whole Greek fleet, wanted to abandon this position, much to the dismay of the Euboeans. They sent money to Themistocles to bribe Eurybiades to stay where he was.

Although the Greeks were heavily outnumbered the narrow straits worked to their advantage, and the result was a draw. Worried that if the Persians rounded Euboea the Greeks would be surrounded, the Greeks withdrew to Salamis. When he left Artemisium, Themistocles had an inscription carved on the beach where he thought the Persians might land to take on fresh water, urging the Greeks from Ionia (the west coast of Turkey), who constituted a large part of the Persian navy, to change sides. Even if none of them did so, Themistocles calculated, the Persians would still be suspicious that some of the Greeks might defect, and not deploy them as effectively as they might otherwise do.

With nothing now to prevent him, Xerxes swept down through Greece. As Athens was assumed to be Xerxes' main target (to avenge his father Darius' defeat at Marathon ten years earlier), the whole population abandoned the city and took refuge on the islands of Salamis and Troezene, except for a few old men who were left behind to make sure religious rites were carried out.

Next Page: Find out what happened when Xerxes landed....

Themistocles Secondary Sources

Secondary Sources
Map of the Wars between Persia and Greece

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