(c. 524-459 B.C.)
Heroic patriot, or double-dealing scoundrel? The debate continues about Themistocles (thehm-is-TOE-cleez), a native of Athens. He rose to become a champion of the lower classes in Athens, the Greek city that came close to developing a true democra¬ cy in the sixth century B.C. Themistocles became an archon (magistrate) in 493 B.C.
He set about at once fortifying Piraeus, a naval port that was two miles away from the main city of Athens. He was one of 10 generals who led the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), where the first major threat from Persia was defeated on a rocky beach.
After the death of Miltiades, who had been first in command at Marathon, Themistocles became the dominant leader in Athens. He used the process of ostracism — political ban¬ ishment — to rid the city of many of his political rivals. In 483 B.C., he persuaded the Athenians to build between 100 and 200 war¬ ships. Believing that Persia would strike again, Themistocles convinced the Athenians to cooperate with other Greek city-states in preparation for another war.
In 480 B.C., Xerxes I (ZERKS-eez), the Persian “King of Kings,” led an enormous army and fleet to Greece. After win¬ ning the Battle of Thermopylae, Xerxes’ troops entered Athens and found to their surprise that no one was there: the pop¬ ulation had fled. Trusting in Themistocles (who had trusted in the Oracle at Delphi), the Athenians fled to nearby towns, while their sailors stood ready with their fleet at the Bay of Salamis.
Themistocles convinced his fellow Athenians to fight in the narrow bay, where the larger number of Persian ships would pose less of a threat. Following the lead of Themistocles, the Greeks fought and won an all-day naval battle that ended with the ruin of the Persian fleet. Lacking supplies that could only be brought in by water, Xerxes soon led his army in retreat, leaving the Greek city-states in freedom.
For some time, Themistocles was the great¬ est hero in Greece, but in 476 B.C., he was tried for cooperating with the Persians. Acquitted, he was nonetheless ostracized in 473 B.C. and had no choice but to flee Athens. Themistocles crossed the Aegean Sea to Ephesus in Asia Minor and presented him¬ self to Artaxerxes, the new Persian king, and became a trusted advisor. The Persian leader gave him the town of Magnesia-on-the- Meadows to rule.
Themistocles, the Athenian politician and general who had changed sides in the last years of his life, had always covered his bases. It was later discovered he sent information to the Persians, even while he led the Athenian forces against them.