One of the most controversial figures of ancient Athens, Themistocles rose from relatively modest beginnings to become a powerful statesman and strategoi (military general). More importantly, he was also the prime architect of the naval strategy that saved Athens from a Persian invasion and helped establish the Athenian Empire.
Unlike many of the more prominent Athenians, Themistocles did not have the advantage of a wealthy family and well-educated upbringing. He was born in the village of Phrearrhioi outside of Athens, and was raised in an immigrant district outside the city walls known as Cynosarges. Little is known of his father, Neocles, and even less of his mother. There is dispute as to both her name and lineage, though the most reliable accounts indicate she was Thracian. Some historians indicate she was either a slave or prostitute, while other accounts dismiss these stories as lies spread by Themistocles' political enemies, of whom he had plenty. His father may have been related to the powerful Lycomid clan, but if so, he inherited none of their money or influence. Accounts conflict on this point, as some suggest Neocles was disowned by wealthy parents due to unruly and temperamental behavior, others because of his relationship with Themistocles' mother, and still others claim he was never of aristocratic background at all.
Whatever the case, Themistocles, who could never have aspired to more than becoming a merchant in most early civilizations, proved to have the right temperament to advance himself in Athens' nascent democracy. He educated himself enough to become a legal orator and speechwriter, then moved into a lower income district, where he won the affection of the people by devoting his services to those who could pay little. As always with Themistocles, there was a contrary version to this story, wherein an able strategist saw the lower classes as his means to power, which he was already grasping toward at an early age.
In 493 BC, the Assembly elected Themistocles Eponymous Archon, the highest administrative position in Athens. At Themistocles behest, Athens began building a new port at the city of Piraeus, a location strategically well-placed for both military and commercial purposes. There is no question that the rise of Athens naval power and merchant fleets begun under Themistocles proved vital both to its future trade empire and to its survival during the Greco-Persian Wars. There is also no question that this increased employment opportunities for the common citizens as builders and rowers, and that these same citizens proved to be a loyal base of power for Themistocles. Whether his actions were motivated by a fanatic will to power or a far-sighted patriotism and desire to improve the lives of his fellow Athenians, it seems clear that without Themistocles, the entire course of Greek civilization would have been very different, and Athens might soon have become part of the Persian empire.
Themistocles also distinguished himself in military service, and according to some accounts was the strategos of his tribe at the battle of Marathon. While other accounts dispute this point, there is no question he fought at Marathon, and distinguished himself with his military service there.
The Second Persian Invasion
During the aftermath of Marathon, Themistocles became the most powerful statesman in Athens, primarily through the support of the lower classes. At the same time, he incurred the enmity of the nobility, and would have certainly been ostracized (exiled for 10 years) if he had been a man of lesser political instincts. In 483 BC, foreseeing another Persian invasion, this time led by a massive Persian naval build-up that was already underway, Themistocles defeated his rivals in an intense political dispute and persuaded the Assembly to authorize the building of 200 new warships, which were fewer than he wanted but enough to incense his opposition. Indeed, there was an ostracism vote that essentially came down to a contest between Themistocles and Aristides, called "the Just," which resulted in Aristides, also a great statesman, being exiled.
In 481 BC, with a Persian invasion of Greece imminent, Themistocles recalled all the Athenian exiles, including Aristides, and joined in a congress of all the Greek city states at Corinth. Greece initially appeared to be losing the naval and ground battles to the Persians, and Athens itself had to be evacuated before it was overrun by the advancing Persian army. But the tide began to turn once Themistocles took command of the Greek navy during the key battles of Artemisium and Salamis. Using a series of false messages to deceive the Persians, he lured them into a straight where their numerical superiority was useless and routed their ships.
Afterwards, the Greeks under Themistocles used their command of the waterways to choke off supplies to the Persian troops. Ultimately, this led to the Greeks gradually retaking all the ground they had lost, and the last remnant of invaders were forced to retreat following their defeat at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The final mop-up land and sea battles were led by Aristides and Xanthippus, both of whom had been recalled from exile by Themistocles.
Ostracism and Exile
Following the defeat of the Persians, Greece entered a period of long prosperity. The time of plenty was not so good for Themistocles, however, as he was still hated by most of the nobility, and they steadily worked to undercut his position among the citizenry at large. He apparently also alienated necessary allies with his arrogance, and had long ago made enemies of the Spartans by not only increasing the military power of Athens, but deceiving the Spartans until it was too late for them to put a stop to the rise of their new rival. Persia was no longer a threat, the naval empire was already established, and without a crisis to prove his talents, he became vulnerable to the constant political infighting. In 472 BC, the Assembly voted to ostracize him, and he moved to Argos.
Alas for Themistocles, the Spartans seized this opportunity to destroy an old enemy, and accused him of plotting treason with the Persians and a disgruntled Spartan general. While historians view the charges as most likely false, the government of Athens tried Themistocles in his absence and sentenced him to death, subject to extradition.
Too canny for his enemies 'till the end, Themistocles escaped capture and successfully evaded pursuit, settling in Mollossia until the Spartans issued an ultimatum, that Mollossia give up Themistocles or be invaded. Instead, he yet again escaped. Finally, hoping the Persian king would accept the services of a former enemy or believe the rumors of his treason, he arrived in Persia and arranged for a face-to-face meeting with the king, though the exact year of his arrival there remains in question. As with so much else about Themistocles' life, it is even unclear which Persian king offered asylum, with some sources naming his old enemy Xerxes and others suggesting that king's son and successor, Artaxerxes, who ascended the throne in 465 BC.
He was allowed to serve as an advisor to one or both Persian kings for several years, during which his counsel was sufficiently useful that Artaxerxes granted him the governorship of Magnesia in Asia Minor, where he lived uneventfully, with his wife and children joining him in exile, until the time of his death in 459 BC. Most historians attribute his death to natural causes, yet even in death, at least one account had to be contrary, suggesting he chose to drink poison rather than join Artaxerxes in a new effort to conquer the Greeks.
While Themistocles died branded a traitor, and was labelled vain, arrogant, and "the most ambitious of all men" by his detractors, there can be no doubt that he shaped the history of Athens for the better. The Athenian ruler Pericles issued a pardon in 450 BC, and the majority of Greek historians who met with his contemporaries regarded Themistocles in entirely positive terms. It seems his earlier appellation as the "savior of Greece" is his most fitting epitaph.