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Themistocles: The Fall of a Great Ancient Greek General and Statesman

Themistocles orders a sacrifice prior to the Battle of Salamis. Artist unknown. Public Domain

Themistocles will always be lauded as the great general who literally pushed the Persians out of ancient Greece with his admirable strategy in the Battle of Salamis.

Several historians argue that if the 480 BC historic naval battle had not been won by the Greeks, the course of history and Western civilization would have been entirely different.

The astute general knew the Salamis straits very well. His plan was to draw the Persian fleet in there, as he knew that at a certain time every day, a breeze and a heavy swell would come that would catch the Persians by surprise.

Indeed, the Persian fleet was drawn into the Salamis straits, which did not allow much maneuverability. The enemy ships were trapped, and the outnumbered Greek ships took  them down one by one.

It was a glorious victory contributed to a clever general who loved his city-state of Athens and did his best to protect it from the mighty army of Xerxes. For that, he was treated as a hero by the Athenians and won the respect of Athens’ arch rival, the Spartans. In fact, Sparta honored Themistocles for his victory.

After the Persian threat disappeared, Athens went through a period of rebuilding and regeneration. It was a time when the arts thrived, following a boost in the economy. Themistocles further fortified Athens and Piraeus, and the city-state was at its high again.

However, even though the Spartans lauded Themistocles for his victory at Salamis and honored him, they did not want him to fortify Athens following its destruction by the Persians.

Decline and ostracism

Themistocles was glorified after the victory at Salamis and his popularity among Athenians was at its peak. However, his political rivals did not stop trying to undermine him, and Themistocles’ arrogance was fuel to their fire.

There is a saying that “the higher you climb, the harder you fall.” This is exactly what was in store for the Athenian statesman following his victory against the Persian invaders.

The conservative Aristides the Just was Themistocles’ main political rival. A politician and general himself, in 482 BC, he was opposed to Themistocles’ decision to use the silver from the Laurium mines so as to build a strong fleet. For this reason, he was ostracized.

However, Aristides was recalled in 480 BC and fought bravely both at Salamis and the Battle of Plataea. The conservative Aristides began gaining popularity, unlike Themistocles who became all the more arrogant following his achievements. While Themistocles proposed a stronger naval force and more aggressive foreign policy, Aristides supported a well-trained infantry and domestic stability.

Themistocles’ opponents were mainly aristocrats who did not seem to forgive him for the political and social reforms against them. They accused him of authoritarianism, contempt for democratic institutions, and for his money-loving and arrogant egotism.

There was some basis in these accusations because Themistocles was a man who aimed to succeed in his endeavors by all means necessary. His enemies disregarded the fact that his endeavors were for the benefit of Athens and its citizens. Instead, they focused on his weaknesses and waged political war against him.

The pro-Spartan Athenian aristocracy finally won and managed to ostracize him.

The Fall of Themistocles

By 471 BC, the once glorified Themistocles was ostracized, despite his substantial contribution in kicking out the invading Persians and the fact that he hadn’t actually committed any wrongdoing as a statesman. As Plutarch described it, however, ostracism was not exactly punishment:

“Now the sentence of ostracism was not a chastisement of base practices, nay, it was speciously called a humbling and docking of oppressive prestige and power; but it was really a merciful exorcism of the spirit of jealous hate, which thus vented its malignant desire to injure, not in some irreparable evil, but in a mere change of residence for ten years.” (Plutarch, Aristides, Chapter 7)

Ostracon with Themistocles' name
“Ostracon” with “Themistocles of Neocleus” written on it, meant to ostracize the Athenian statesman and general. Public Domain

Nevertheless, Themistocles did not merely fall from grace. He was exiled, persecuted, and not permitted to stay anywhere too long.

He first lived in exile in Argos. While he was there, he was targeted by the Spartans. It was either out of jealousy because he was the hero of Salamis or because he tricked them and built walls in Athens against their will.

Themistocles lefts Argos secretly. He went to Corcyra (modern day Corfu), where the islanders in fear of Athens’ wrath, hesitated to offer him sanctuary. From there, he ventured to the kingdom of Admetus in Molossia, where he was welcomed. However, he didn’t end up staying there for very long either.

Bust of Themistocles
Bust of Themistocles . Credit: Saliko, Wikimedia Commons

With few options left, Themistocles moved east to Macedonia, and from there, he ended up seeking asylum at the Court of the Persian king Artaxerxes, who ascended the throne in 465 BC following the assassination of his father, Xerxes.

The Persian king, intrigued by the prospect of having a former Athenian general and statesman at his court, welcomed Themistocles and offered him estates in Magnesia, Lampsacus, and Myus.

For his part, Themistocles learned the Persian language and customs and integrated himself into the Persian royal court. He also provided Artaxerxes with information about Greek politics and military tactics.

Themistocles died in 459 BC, but the circumstances of his death are unclear. According to some accounts, he poisoned himself because Artaxerxes asked him to give him insights on how to suppress a revolution in Egypt. However, Themistocles did not want to act against the interests of Greece. Other accounts claim he was poisoned by enemies. Of course, he could have also died of natural causes.

When Themistocles was ungratefully ostracized from Athens, Thucydides is said to have indignantly remarked that the Athenians tend to get tired of being benefitted by the same man for too long.

Artaxerxes, on the other hand, was very happy when the great hero of Salamis was in his palace and welcomed him with courtesy, saying: “I wish the Greeks would always drive away their best people like this.”

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