Why is Themistocles Important to Greek History?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Greece has a long history, filled with notable people. On the list of important Greeks, however, we can't ignore the name of Themistocles. In this lesson, we are going to find out exactly why he matters to the history of Greece.

Themistocles and the Persians

Why is Greece not Persia? The obvious answer is because it's Greece…not Persia, but there was actually a time when Greece could have been Persia or at least part of it. In the 5th century BCE, the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia expanded their empire's borders further than ever before, and eventually set their eyes on Greece. The Persians were amongst the greatest threats that the Greeks had ever faced, and the first motivator to really bring the disparate Greek city-states together in a mutual alliance. So, how did the Greeks survive the Persian threat? To understand that, we have to look at the legacy of Themistocles. Who was Themosticles? In the words of the 1st century CE Greek/Roman historian Plutarch, he was ''the man most instrumental in achieving the salvation of Greece''.


After the First Persian Invasion

Our study of Themistocles begins around 493 BCE when Themistocles was named archon of Athens. This made him one of the most powerful magistrates of the Athenian democracy, but his rise to power seems to have been somewhat controversial. Rather than representing the entrenched elite, Themistocles came from humble beginnings and built power using the working class of Athens.

So, what was happening in the world at this time? A few years earlier, the Persians invaded Greece to punish Athens for supporting rebellions against the Persian Empire in Asia Minor. The Persians were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Marathon by Greek infantry, but there were rumors that the new Persian ruler, Xerxes, was planning a second invasion.

Xerxes seemed to have realized that the Greek hoplite soldiers were strong and formidable and that his best bet was to simply overwhelm them with numbers. As the Greeks heard rumors of Xerxes preparing a massive fleet, Themistocles started making plans of his own. Athens discovered a new silver mine east of the city, which would have been traditionally leased out to the citizens. However, Themistocles proposed using the money to start an ambitious shipbuilding program.

Themistocles introduced a massive shipbuilding program to Athens

This idea was more radical than we may immediately realize. Up until this point, most Greek warfare was fought with hoplites. Since only the wealthy could afford armor, serving in these highly trained units was generally seen as a privilege. Greeks with enough money to fight often used military service as a pathway to political power. What Themistocles proposed wasn't a simple matter of building ships, it was an entirely new system of war. Rather than elite units fighting on land, the Greek military would become naval, employing small units of hoplites on ships crewed by dozens. This opened up military service to the working classes, who eagerly looked to serving on a naval ship as a pathway to greater political or social power in the democracy.

The Persians Return

It seems that many of Athens' elites had their concerns about Themistocles' changes to their military, but the threat of the Persians was too great. The People's Assembly approved, and the shipbuilding program began. Then, around 481 BCE the Second Persian Invasion began. The Athenians consulted the Oracle of Delphi (the earthly conduit of Zeus' wisdom), which gave them a disheartening message: ''Why sit, you doomed one? Fly to the ends of the earth.'' The Oracle was asked a second time how they should handle the invasion, and this time said, ''Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail.''

Why can't prophecies ever be straightforward? The Athenians anxiously debated what this meant, with many believing the wooden wall to represent the thorn bushes around the city's acropolis. Themistocles, however, had his own interpretation. The wooden wall was the massive fleet of ships he has helped to rapidly assemble. Themistocles claimed that the people of Athens had to abandon their city to the Persians and use the navy to fight. He convinced the rest of the government, and Athens was evacuated.

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