Themistocles (524 – 460 BC) was the creator of Athens’ sea power, and the naval strategist who saved Greece from Persian subjugation with a victory at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Born to an aristocratic father and a non-Greek concubine, he was not eligible for Athenian citizenship until Cleisthenes’ reforms made citizens of all free men in Athens. That made him a lifelong champion of democracy.
After the victory at Marathon, most Athenians thought the danger had passed, but not Themistocles. In the 480s BC, Athens’ state-owned silver mines struck a rich vein, and many Athenians called for dividing the windfall among the citizens. Themistocles, convinced that the Persians would return, called for investing the new riches on warships.
There was strong opposition: a strong navy would entail higher taxes borne by the rich, even as it enhanced the political clout of the poor classes who would row those ships. A land strategy based on hoplites, such as those who had won at Marathon, would cost less, without eroding the monopoly of the middle and upper classes – the ones who could afford to equip themselves as hoplites – on the prestige of being the city’s sole protectors and bearers of arms.
Themistocles engineered the ostracism of his opponents, then won the Assembly’s approval for his ship-building program. By 480 BC, when the Persians returned, Athens had over 200 triremes – as many as the rest of Greece, combined – and booming shipyards that were kept busy, churning out new warships. After overcoming a Spartan force at Thermopylae, the Persians advanced on and seized a nearly deserted Athens, whose citizens had been evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis, razed the city’s walls, and burned the place the ground.
Off Salamis, the decisive battle of the war was fought. Athens’ Greek allies wavered and were on the verge of taking their ships and going home, when Themistocles forced a battle by tricking the Persian king into believing he had changed sides, and convinced him to attack the Greek ships in restricted waters with tricky tide and wind patterns of which the Greeks were aware, but the Persians were not. The Persians came to grief and the Greeks won a decisive victory. Afterward, Themistocles led a naval expedition that toured the Greek islands, demanding contributions to pay for the war effort.
When the Athenians returned to their destroyed city, their Spartan allies asked them not to rebuild the city’s walls as a sign of good faith. Themistocles led a delegation to Sparta to negotiate and dragged out the negotiations while the Athenians feverishly rebuilt the city walls. By the time the Spartans caught on, the walls had already been erected.
In subsequent years, Themistocles’ political fortunes declined. Not given to gratitude for long, the Athenians ostracized and exiled him some years after Salamis. Nimble, he went to Persia and ended his days governing some Greek cities in Asia minor on behalf of the Persian king.