Themistocles: Biography, Quotes & Death

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the life and the major events surrounding the life of Themistocles. You'll also get to read a few quotes purported to be his own or about him.


Perhaps the most famous man in the ancient battles between the Greek city-states and ancient Persia is King Leonidas, who led hundreds of heroic warriors in a last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae. But if there is any equal to King Leonidas' achievement on land, it's Themistocles and his achievement at sea at almost the same time.

Let's find out why as we learn more about this man in this lesson.

Early Life

Themistocles was born around 524 BCE in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens. He was born to a man called Neokles and a mother who may not have been Athenian or even Greek. This meant that Themistocles was, at first, not even a citizen of Athens. However, in 508 BCE, legislation was passed such that all free men were made citizens of Athens. This, of course, allowed Themistocles to rise through the ranks of society. Good thing, too, for Athens would come to greatly need Themistocles.


In 493 BCE, Themistocles was made archon, a very important public official. In fact, this is the first record we even have of his existence. In this role, Themistocles made sure Athens' port became the largest and most fortified in ancient Greece at the time. Themistocles was also convinced that if the Persians were to attack again, after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE where king Darius was defeated, then the Greeks would need to have a large navy to help defeat another attack.

Not everyone agreed, but not necessarily because they didn't think the Persians wouldn't come back. Building a navy required taxing the powerful and wealthy elites who didn't really like that. Building a powerful navy also gave power to the poorer classes, who would have to serve on these ships. Again, this isn't something the elites wanted.

Themistocles was undeterred, however. He knew the survival of Athens depended on a very strong navy. He eventually caught a break when surplus revenue from silver mines fell into his hands in 483 BCE. This allowed him to nearly triple the Athenian fleet from an estimated 70 to 200 ships.


The Battle of Salamis

This couldn't have come at a better time as not three years later, the Persians were back in 480 BCE! This time, it was Xerxes who led a massive Persian land army and a fleet of hundreds of ships.

In August of the same year, King Leonidas stalled the Persian army at a mountain pass in the Battle of Thermopylae for as long he could while Themistocles fought off the Persian Navy at the Battle of Artemisium. The battle was largely indecisive and both sides had heavy losses. Right around the time that King Leonidas was defeated, Themistocles withdrew the remaining ships, numbering about 300, to re-group at Salamis to fight off approximately 500 Persian ships.

The Battle of Salamis.
The Battle of Salamis

The largest contingent of the Greek ships was the Athenian one. However, after the defeat at Thermopylae and the bruising Battle of Artemisium, some of the Greek states wanted to abandon Athens and the whole idea of a naval conflict.

Themistocles knew this kind of fragmentation would spell doom against the superior numbers of Xerxes. So Themistocles played psychological warfare and tricked Xerxes into believing he might change sides or that the Greek alliance was faltering. Smelling blood, Xerxes moved to block the Greek ships into their position.

This played into Themistocles' hands, however, as it forced all the Greeks who thought of abandoning him to fight to the death, as they now had no choice. Owing to some luck, as well as the fact that the Persians were limited in their maneuverability by their sheer size in such a tight space, they were defeated by the Greeks. This meant that Xerxes had no control over the sea.

After Salamis

While Sparta, Athens' traditional enemy, honored Themistocles for his incredible and very important victory, Athens did no such thing. In fact, after Xerxes' land forces were defeated as well, Athens accused Themistocles of everything from bribery to sacrilege. Some believe that he was a great military leader but a poor politician caught up in a thirst for power and wealth while others believe he was wrongly accused.

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